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Wednesday, 23 January, 2002, 14:11 GMT
Lords debate goes public
Andrew Stunnell, Lord Falconer, Graham Allen and Andrew Houlden line up alongside the chairwoman of the Nottingham meeting
Charter88 are holding public meetings nationwide
By BBC News Online's Ollie Stone-Lee

"Even if the turnout gets no bigger than this, it will be gigantic for a wet evening in Nottingham," says Planning Minister Lord Falconer of Thoroton as he arrives at the latest public meeting on House of Lords reform.

The audience at the Charter88 organised event does indeed swell - if only to 34, on top of the panel of Lord Falconer, local Labour MP Graham Allen, Liberal Democrat MP Andrew Stunnell and Charter88 policy officer Andrew Holden.

If I have a burst pipe, I get a plumber but I do not want him to sleep with my wife and I

Graham Allen
Labour MP
The low turnout perhaps indicates the public interest in an issue which may excite the political anoraks but is not the burning talking point for most Friday nights.

Nottingham, it is true, has a bad recent record of political engagement - turnout reached 50% in only one of the city's seats at the general election.

But halls have hardly been bursting with people itching to get in on the great reform debate at other venues (55 showed in Sheffield, 75 in Bristol and 200 in Westminster).

'Turn off'

Yet with the government sent back to the drawing board by its own backbenchers last week, the events do give the public at least their chance to have a say.

Andrew Stunnell stresses the Lords reform is very important for the UK, but concedes: "Unfortunately it's very boring and a lot of people will switch off and not get engaged."

His Labour counterpart Graham Allen, until recently a government whip, agrees but says real constitutional debate is in fact going on in the pubs and clubs of his North Nottingham constituency, albeit in a less subtle form.

Part of the audience at the Nottingham meeting
Public consultation on the Lords debate continues until January
"They are saying Parliament is a bunch of clowns shouting at each other, they're saying 'I've got my transport problem but I don't know who to go to about it.'"

Mr Allen is one of the Labour MPs leading the charge for a wholly elected second chamber and brands the 20% of elected peers proposed by the government a "dead duck".

Voting power

The MP uses a singularly graphic metaphor to argue that experts can be paid for their advice but only those elected at the ballot box should be invited into the House of Lords to vote.

"If I have a burst pipe, I get a plumber but I do not want him to sleep with my wife and I," he says to laughter from the bemused audience.

Both Mr Stunnell and Mr Holden back this case for a far more radical reform package than proposed by the government.

Graham Allen
Graham Allen says reform is a core democratic socialist issue
So, while the government has said it is rethinking its specific proposals, it is left to the minister at least to defend the principles behind the government's plans.

That is a task to which Lord Falconer takes with vigour, arguing that wholesale elections just do not suit the central revising role of the Lords.

"Gridlock" between MPs and peers would be the result, he predicts.

"What is the good of a government elected by a landslide to reform things and it has to say, 'I'm sorry, we can't reform these things until the cycle in the second chamber catches up with the mood of the nation."

Public's priorities

With Mr Allen insisting elected peers would "improve" rather than block legislation, the gridlock dispute itself gets stuck in traffic but the audience make up for their small numbers by raising a whole raft of other dilemmas.

On the audience's agenda is the idea of representing careers by quotas in the Lords; extending the lottery of jury service to making laws instead of merely deciding who has broken them; and whether the reform plans are part of the "skulduggery" of trying to turn Britain into a province of a European superstate.

Lord Falconer
Falconer defended the appointment of unelected peers
Only after two hours of lively debate does the final question draw on why it is perhaps appropriate Lord Falconer should be defending the government plans.

Political opponents brand the Labour lawyer, who once shared a flat with Tony Blair, as an archetypal "Tony's crony".

Peer approval

There seems an obvious target when a woman asks the panel: "What right has anyone to say 'I will be appointed, I will take the title and the silly garments that go with it'?

"Surely you should want to put yourself to your peers, want that legitimacy?"

It is a question with which he is no doubt familiar and he agrees the vast majority of people would want to be elected to power.

He continues: "But does the electorate benefit or not from the government being able to supplement its numbers by people who aren't elected people, who have spent the rest of their lives pursuing another profession?"

Lord Falconer puts his case with the skill one would expect from one who has pursued his own career as a barrister with notable success.

He tells BBC News Online the government is listening to more than just the "usual suspects" on Lords reform and the public can have an impact.

But with most of the public listening, or singing karaoke, elsewhere on this wet evening in Nottingham, the voices that really count are likely to come from inside the Westminster village and Labour's own ranks.

See also:

23 Jan 02 | UK Politics
New bottom line on Lords reform
10 Jan 02 | UK Politics
We'll listen to Lords complaints - Cook
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