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Friday, November 20, 1998 Published at 16:13 GMT

Where next for the Lords?

After Tony Blair's recent bitter fight with peers, no-one will be surprised when the government unveils phase one of its plan to reform the House of Lords and gives 750 hereditary peers their marching orders.

It is, after all, a Labour manifesto commitment.

At a stroke the government plans to wipe out centuries of and tradition but who or what will replace the hereditary peers on the red leather benches of the Lords' chamber?

With stage one of its reform unveiled the government plans to set up a Royal Commission to look into the shape and functions of the re-vamped upper house.

The options are many. At present the upper house acts only as a revising chamber, changing or delaying legislation.

But in the future the upper chamber could be made up of both nominated and elected members. It could have representatives from the regions and may even act as a court able to settle disputes arising between Westminster and the new Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, as well as making judgements on human rights issues.

More power?

Lord St John of Bletso talks to BBC News Online
Lord St John of Bletso, a crossbench hereditary peer, told BBC News Online: "I would hope it would be a mixture of nominated and elected members, certainly if you have elected members you have to give the House of Lords a lot more power.

"I don't necessarily think it is in the interests of the House of Commons to have a very strong upper house as in the Senate and the Congress in the United States."

But Lord Bletso, who is a member of the crossbench working party on Lords reform and a member of the pressure group Common Sense for Lords Reform, cautioned: "You don't want have your upper house merely being a nodding donkey for the lower house."

But in the wake of recent battle between the two houses what government would want to see a more formidable upper house?

At present the government has a cabinet committee chaired by the Lord Chancellor Lord Irvine looking into the subject.

And the government is said to consider the current powers of the upper house are about right, but is unclear on whether the new chamber will be fully or just partially elected.

Elected upper house

[ image: Tony Benn wants an elected upper house]
Tony Benn wants an elected upper house
Although a former hereditary peer himself, former Labour cabinet minister Tony Benn told BBC News Online that he "would like to see a fully elected second chamber".

He added that most countries, including the USA, have elected second chambers and to replace hereditary peers with political nominees would be no more democratic that the current system.

The Liberal Democrats too favour an entirely elected upper house but for their part the Conservatives have only recently accepted the idea that the House of Lords is ripe for change.

But they fear that the government may simply remove hereditary peers and never proceed properly with the second stage of reform leaving, as they see it, the largest unelected quango in the country.

[ image: Viscount Cranborne, concerned where reform might lead]
Viscount Cranborne, concerned where reform might lead
Speaking during a recent debate on Lords reform the Tory leader in the upper house, Viscount Cranborne said: "As a hereditary peer, I will go quietly if a properly independent chamber is to take our place." But he said he could not promise such co-operation without seeing the governments plans in full.

The Conservatives seem to have some public support for their stance. A survey published this week by the cross-party group Commons Sense for Lords Reform, carried out by ICM suggests that 68% of the public believe stage one of Lords reform should not be carried out before stage two is made clear.

A spokesman for Common Sense for Lords Reform assesses the results of the ICM survey
As recent events have shown having Conservative support in the Lords for government proposals can be crucial in ensuring their smooth passage.

And although there is a long-standing gentleman's agreement between the Lords and Commons not to block manifesto commitments the Tories may have trouble convincing their own peers to vote themselves into history until they are happy with the body set up to replace them.

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