White Paper proposes elected peers

THE next major constitutional reform in Britain will result in direct elections to the House of Lords, if parliament approves proposals published yesterday by the Government.

By Graham Dines

THE next major constitutional reform in Britain will result in direct elections to the House of Lords, if parliament approves proposals published by the Government.

A White Paper envisages an upper house eventually of 540 peers with some being elected and Commons leader Jack Straw told MPs his favoured option is to have 50% chosen by the voters, serving terms of no more than 15 years.

Although the remaining hereditary peers will cease to have the right to an automatic seat in the Lords, there are no plans to remove Church of England bishops and archbishops from the upper chamber.

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Under the White Paper proposals, elections to the reformed Lords would be held at the same time as those to the European Parliament and would use the same constituencies but a different electoral system - the partially open list. One-third of the chamber would be elected at each ballot.

With the Government not suggesting that any existing life peer should be forced to quit, it could take until 2050 for the objective of a slimmed down upper house coming into effect

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MPs will be given the final say on what proportion of peers should be elected and a number of Labour backbenchers plus the Liberal Democrats have signalled they favour an overwhelmingly elected chamber.

The reforms would bring to an end the ability of the Prime Minister to appoint peers, with new members being screened and approved by an independent commission.

Mr Straw said the White Paper was “self evidently and unapologetically” a compromise after cross-party talks had agreed that nothing should be introduced which affected the “fundamental primacy of the Commons - and that the House of Lords should be a complement to the Commons and not a rival to it.”

But there was no agreement on the proportion of elected and appointed members and so MPs would be given the final say.

MPs will have a free vote, firstly on whether there should be a second chamber at all and on whether there should be reform. If they vote yes, they will vote on options in order of preference, rather than the individual votes on alternatives which scuppered the last attempt when no proposal received a majority.

Former Chancellor Kenneth Clarke (Tory, Rushcliffe) welcomed the plans. “In any other European democracy, it would be regarded as absurd that any substantial number of the legislators in the upper house of parliament should be there by appointment by the Prime Minister, appointment by political parties, sale by the political parties or anybody else or appointment by an establishment quango discussing secretly who would be suitable.”

However, Lord Hanningfield, a life peer and leader of Essex county council, described the package as a mixed bag and he doubted if consensus could be reached. “I am afraid the plans will ruin the House's role as a serious revising chamber.”

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