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Wednesday, 23 January, 2002, 14:04 GMT
New bottom line on Lords reform
House of Lords at the state opening of Parliament
Labour's reformed Lords would be largely appointed
By BBC News Online's Ollie Stone-Lee

The new bottom line for House of Lords reform is that half of peers must be elected, says a leading democracy campaigner.

In an interview with BBC News Online, Chris Lawrence-Pietroni, acting director of campaign group Charter88, argues there has been a real shift in the debate during the last week.

With the Conservatives now pushing for an 80% elected second chamber, the government last week said it would rethink its plans, which only proposed elections for a fifth of peers.

Ministers have an opportunity to demonstrate they are genuinely interested in democracy and are not control freaks

Chris Lawrence-Pietroni
Despite that change, Mr Lawrence-Pietroni says Labour MPs must keep up the pressure on the government and maintain the momentum.

"I do not think the government can proceed with proposals based on its white paper but quite clearly there is not support for that in Parliament or on the Labour back benches," he says.

"I think the minimum the government could get through is 50% elected. I think that is the new bottom line."

Long grass risks

The campaign chief says it is now "absolutely vital" Labour MPs continue to argue their case in the wake of last week's climbdown by the government, which had stressed its plans were up for consultation.

"I think the danger now is not so much that we will get the white paper plans but that we won't get anything at all."

Mr Lawrence-Pietroni believes the intellectual argument for a more democratic second chamber has been won.

Chris Lawrence-Pietroni
Lawrence-Pietroni wants a bold gesture from the government
He is still mindful of the words of Robin Cook, Leader of the Commons, who has called for a "period of reflection".

The chief of Charter88, which is currently holding nationwide public meetings on the issue, acknowledges there is a danger of reform being kicked into the long grass.

But he sees the reform agenda as a key chance for Labour to display democratic credentials.

Pointing particularly to devolution, Mr Lawrence-Pietroni argues the government has made real progress on constitutional reform.

"What they have never done is made a real case for that and tried to engage people," he continues.

"They now have an opportunity to demonstrate that they are genuinely interested in democracy, in engaging people, and that they are not control freaks."

Outflanking manoeuvre

Some reform campaigners fear that the Conservative plans, seen by some as an attempt to outflank the government, could have in fact make it harder for those pushing for a 100% elected peers.

Mr Lawrence-Pietroni disagrees: "The Labour MPs who have been arguing the cause for reform genuinely believe it."

Charter88 plans
100% elected
Fewer peers
No ministers in Lords
PR elections
"I do not think the Conservatives coming late to this is actually going to push them off course."

He accepts that 50% would be a "significant change" from the government's original plans, but Charter88 continues to push for a House of Lords entirely elected through proportional representation.

Under the group's plans, which have yet to be unveiled in full, the House of Lords would have the same powers to delay legislation that it holds now.

Lord Wakeham
Lord Wakeham argued only the 4th XI would sit in a fully elected chamber
No ministers would be able to sit in the Lords, introducing the beginning of separation of the powers for the UK.

And experts could be co-opted onto committees to help with specific inquiries, following the group's belief that appointing peers is by no means the best way to get knowledge and experience into the Lords.

Lord Wakeham, the Mr Fixit who headed the Royal Commission on Lords reform has argued there is simply not the calibre of candidates on offer to have a chamber of all-elected, full time peers.

The Tory peer argues that the reformed chamber would instead be filled with "fourth eleven" standard politicians - the first three elevens plumping for places in the Commons, regional and national parliaments and the European Parliament respectively.

This is just too pessimistic a view for Mr Lawrence-Pietroni.

"There are people out there that do have a level of expertise, who value public service and can bring that to bear in the second chamber," he counters.

It is hardly surprising if there is gloom about the prospects of democratic involvement when only 60% of voters bothered to turn out at the general election.

Winning the PR battle

The campaign director agrees that this is a key issue for democracy campaigners and argues part of the solution is introducing proportional representation (PR) - one of highlights of Charter88's policy wish list.

As well as giving people faith that their votes count, PR can help break the "ossified nature" of Parliament dominated by white middle-class men, he says.

"I think there is still a large battle to be won and the real barrier to PR is from Labour MPs."

Low turnouts hit safe Labour seats particularly and Mr Lawrence-Pietroni argues that growing recognition among those Labour MPs that their legitimacy was being "fundamentally undermined" could benefit the PR campaigners.

Central to boosting turnout, however, is the need to recognise that the public need to be involved in the decisions affecting their lives between elections, he suggests.

By its very efforts to encourage the public to debate constitutional issues with politicians, Charter88 is seeking to do its bit to open up those opportunities.

Lord Trefgame, Tory Peers Association
"I cannot say there was unanimous agreement"
See also:

23 Jan 02 | UK Politics
Lords debate goes public
10 Jan 02 | UK Politics
We'll listen to Lords complaints - Cook
18 Jan 02 | UK
Lords not a leaping topic
18 Jan 02 | UK Politics
Lords plans to be shelved
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