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Thursday, 20 January, 2000, 13:57 GMT
Wakeham is not the answer

By Tom McNally, Liberal Democrat life peer and home affairs spokesman in the Lords, and member of the Cook-Maclennan commission on constitutional reform established by Labour and the Lib Dems before the 1997 general election.

Lord Wakeham has a deserved reputation as a political Mr Fixit. To produce a report on the next stage of reform of the House of Lords he has needed all his legendary skills.

What is more, he has done his work quickly. Harold Wilson was fond of quoting the old jibe that Royal Commissions take minutes to set up, and sit for years. The Wakeham Commission has sat for less than a year and has produced a working document for consideration by the joint committee of both Houses of Parliament promised as the next stage of reform.

Lords Reform
It is clear that the Wakeham Commission has not achieved, nor has it really tried for, the impossible - namely, a formula which will win instant approval from all parts of the political spectrum.

Those who fear that a House of Lords with increased authority will challenge the status of the Commons and cause constitutional conflict - or "gridlock" as the Americans call it when the Senate and the Congress disagree - will worry that the Wakeham proposals set us on just that course.

On the other hand, those who believe that the second chamber must have the full democratic mandate which only the ballot box can bestow will be disappointed.

Time for a 'popular' chamber

As heirs of the Liberal government which as long ago as 1911 promised "a second chamber constituted on a popular instead of a hereditary basis", the Liberal Democrats approach this matter with a certain impatience.

After all, it took the best part of a century to bring about the reform which has reduced the hereditary element in the Lords to a transitional rump.

We will continue to press for an early implementation of a second stage of Lords reform.
That is why as a party we will continue to press for an early implementation of a second stage of Lords reform based on directly-elected members who would be more efficient and effective in exercising its powers.

A second chamber which can revise and advise, but with sufficient teeth to make the Commons think again is a genuine safeguard of our liberties.

If such a chamber can do such work with a broader base of experience than is available in the Commons, it can be a real contribution to good governance.

Kicked into the long grass?

What would be unacceptable is to allow the Wakeham report to be kicked into the long grass and then for us to stagger on into the new century with a makeshift House of increasing number and diminishing legitimacy.

The Liberal Democrats have always recognized reform of the Lords as part of a wider constitutional package. That is why we are equally insistent that the House of Commons should reform itself to be a better check on an over powerful executive. That is why we want fair voting systems for all levels of our democracy.

Wakeham is not the answer, nor is it the excuse for indefinite delay.
Wakeham is not the answer, nor is it the excuse for indefinite delay. We now have a situation where more people are better paid than ever in our history to carry out the representative functions of our democracy.

That development is paralleled by a diminishing public respect for politicians and the political process. Such a situation is not healthy in a democracy.

The trough of patronage

The case for constitutional reform is that it enables government and Parliament to link more closely with those they claim to serve. A House of Lords which looks like just another excuse for the political elite to gain access to the trough of patronage will further increase public disenchantment.

By all means let us be incremental in the pace and progress of reform. Let us make sure, also, that we retain the authority and dignity which gives the House of Lords its strength.

Wakeham leaves much to play for in terms of the direction and pace of change. The Liberal Democrats intend to keep faith with the traditions of radicalism and democracy which were the basis of the 1911 Act and which, in the end, are the only hope for genuine reform.

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See also:
20 Jan 00 |  UK Politics
Lords reform blueprint unveiled
20 Jan 00 |  UK Politics
Lords reform proposals at a glance
20 Jan 00 |  UK Politics
Lords report fails to satisfy
19 Jan 00 |  UK Politics
Straw prepares for jury trial defeat

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