UK Politics

Q&A: House of Lords reform

House of Lords

The government has dropped plans to reform the House of Lords by making it mostly elected and slashing its size. But why was there so much opposition to change and what does it mean for the coalition?

What is the House of Lords?

Dating back to the 14th Century, it is the second chamber of Parliament, whose main job is to scrutinise and amend parliamentary bills proposed by the House of Commons before they pass into law.

Who are the current members?

There are 825 members, known as "peers". Most are appointed on the recommendation of the prime minister or other party leaders. This is usually along party lines, although some are non-political experts in their fields, such as eminent scientists and generals. Twenty-six peers are senior Church of England bishops. Another 92 are "hereditary" peers, the remnants of the group who once made up the entire membership.

Why did the government want to change the Lords?

It argued that the current unelected chamber was undemocratic and needed to be reformed. All three parties promised at least a partly elected House of Lords in their manifestos for the 2010 general election. Deputy Prime Minister and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg led the coalition government's push to bring in the changes.

What were the main proposals?

The government wanted four-fifths of members of a reformed House of Lords to be elected. They would have served 15-year terms of office, after which they could not run for re-election. The number of peers was to be almost halved, from 826 to 450. The chamber would have kept the title of House of Lords, after names like Senate and Reformed House were rejected.

Peers were each to represent a specific region of the United Kingdom, as happens with Members of the European Parliament. One-third of seats would have been up for grabs in elections held every five years.

Of the remaining 90 members, 12 - rather than the current 26 - would have been Church of England bishops. The remainder was to continue to be appointed and all hereditary peers were to be removed.

What did opponents say?

Many MPs feared that an elected House of Lords would gain greater legitimacy and, therefore, power, which could undermine the supremacy of the House of Commons. They also said constitutional change should not be the government's priority during a recession. Several had raised concerns that the coalition was trying to rush the bill through Parliament, arguing that more time needed to be taken to discuss such radical plans.

When was reform supposed to happen?

The government wanted the first round of House of Lords elections to happen in 2015, when the next general election is due to take place. It wanted to get the bill through Parliament by May next year.

Why has the government dropped the plans?

The government was facing considerable opposition, particularly among Conservative MPs. In July, 91 Tory MPs rebelled against the government in a vote on how to timetable the House of Lords Reform Bill - the largest such act of defiance since the coalition was formed in 2010. Following this the prime minister told his backbenchers he would have "one more try" on Lords reform but if his party could not reach a deal he would "draw a line" under the issue. Several senior Labour politicians also raised doubts and many peers were reported to be unhappy, too.

What does it mean for the coalition?

Lords reform has been a key goal for the Lib Dems, and its failure raises coalition tensions. Nick Clegg said the coalition agreement was a contract between the coalition partners and the Conservatives had broken the contract by not honouring the commitment to Lords reform.

What will the Lib Dems do now?

Mr Clegg says his party will withdraw its support for boundary changes designed to cut the number of MPs from 650 to 600 and equalise the size of constituencies- a Conservative manifesto pledge. Legislation to reduce the House of Commons has already been passed but proposals for the new constituency boundaries will have to be approved by MPs before changes can be made.

Several Conservative MPs have criticised the move saying the coalition agreement links the Conservative commitment to bring in boundary changes to the Alternative Vote referendum - something the Lib Dems wanted - which was held last year. The MPs say they have kept their part of the deal and Mr Clegg cannot now backtrack on boundary changes.

When will the boundary vote take place?

The final proposals for the new constituency boundaries are not due to come back to Parliament until October 2013. The Lib Dem leader has said he would like to see an amendment to delay the change before then, but Mr Cameron is expected to go ahead with the vote as planned.

What does Labour say?

Leader Ed Miliband had promised to support the government's plans on Lords reform but wanted the reforms to go to a UK-wide referendum. Following the announcement plans for reform would be dropped, the party said while it was not their priority they continued to support Lords reform and said the Tories were the "real obstacle".

Why hasn't the House of Lords been reformed before?

It has been proposed several times over the past century, but bids to create elected peers have failed to create enough enthusiasm to come to fruition. In 1968, Labour's Michael Foot - who wanted to scrap the Lords altogether - united with the then Tory Enoch Powell - who wanted it to stay just as it was - and led a coalition which defeated change.

However, in 1958, life peerages were created. Unlike hereditary peerages, these are discontinued when the holder dies. In 1999, Parliament voted to cut the number of hereditary peers to 92, leaving them to elect among themselves which of their number should get a seat when one of them dies.

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