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Wednesday, October 14, 1998 Published at 22:28 GMT 23:28 UK

UK Politics

Hereditary peers debate their demise

Baroness Jay argued the Lords' composition is unfair

The House of Lords is gearing up for a second day of debate over the government's plan to abolish hereditary peers as part of an overhaul of the upper chamber.

On Thursday the Lords will continue discussing the government's plan to launch a Royal Commission to put forward reforms of the upper chamber.

The BBC's Tim Jones: "A long and bloody parliamentary battle lies ahead"
Labour leader in the Lords, Baroness Jay, announced plans for the commission as she opened the two-day debate on Wednesday.

Ministers will set a time limit on the commission's workings, she told members of the House.

"Establishing an effective and appropriate second chamber for the next century needs proper deliberation," she said.

'Not a tactic'

Responding to critics who had branded the idea of a commission as a ploy for more time, she said: "The Royal Commission, my Lords, is not a delaying tactic, but it is right that there should be wider debate and further analysis before the long term is settled."

Labour's manifesto promised to scrap the right of hereditary peers to sit and vote "as an initial, self-contained reform, not dependent on further reform in the future". A bill is expected in the Queen's speech.

The manifesto promised this would be the first stage towards a more democratic and representative upper chamber.

After hereditary peers went, there would be an interim chamber before full reform was agreed.

Softening the blow

Setting out a robust defence of government plans, the baroness also aimed to calm peers' worries that they would be left powerless and the chamber would become filled with prime ministerial appointees.

"We are not inviting you to step off a precipice into a dark abyss. The next steps have already been considered. Those that we need to be immediately precise about will be announced shortly," she said.

Baroness Jay assured members that no party should be able to seek a majority.

Mr Blair had already said that he would no longer have sole power of patronage, she assured peers.

Multi-cultural society, mono-cultural chamber

Answering claims that the changes were motivated by political spite, she said they were vital to democracy.

More than half the Lords had inherited their seats from their forebears.

Only 2% of peers were women, she said - against more than 50% of the population. Society was becoming more multi-ethnic and multi-cultural - which made a mockery of claims that the chamber was representative.

Tory warning

Replying for the opposition, Viscount Cranborne, Conservative leader in the Lords, predicted the government's "two-stage approach" to reform would "guarantee that we will never get beyond stage one".

[ image: Viscount Cranbourne warns of a lack of time]
Viscount Cranbourne warns of a lack of time
The government would, he predicted, plead pressure of other business and lack of time to avoid proceeding beyond removing the rights of hereditary peers.

The opposition, he said, had put forward ideas for further reform but had heard "nothing of substance whatsoever" back.

"As a hereditary peer, I will go quietly if a properly independent chamber is to take our place," he offered. But he could not promise such cooperation without full plans.

Phase-out plea

A plea for the axing of hereditary peers to be delayed came from former Commons Speaker Lord Weatherill.

He said the upper chamber had served the country well and was generally considered in high regard. Lords did a good job, relatively cheaply, he said.

Defending the 203 cross-bench peers particularly, Lord Weatherill argued they played a valuable part in committees and brought personal experience to bear, without voting with the whip.

He suggested: "Would it not be wise and sensible to delay their departure - at least until the end of this Parliament? What is two or three years in the scheme of things?"

'Outrage' row

Baroness Young, Conservative, launched a bitter attack on the proposals, branding it a "constitutional outrage" to use a manifesto to bring about major constitutional change.

She accused the government of "gerrymandering" for short-term gain.

To the argument that hereditary peers were undemocratic, she responded: "What does the government think life peers are?"

Stage one reform was dangerous without clear plans for stage two, the Baroness warned.

'An opportunity'

Labour's former leader of the Lords, who was sacked in July's cabinet re-shuffle, wanted a chamber two-thirds elected and one-third nominated.

[ image: We'll still be a nuisance, warns Lord Richard]
We'll still be a nuisance, warns Lord Richard
Lord Richard said this was the best opportunity for reform since 1910.

If it failed, the upper house would still be a nusiance, he warned.

The presence of hereditary peers was objectionable, whatever their leanings. But the Tory majority underlined the unfairness, said Lord Richard.

Tory former Foreign Secretary Lord Hurd, a member of the body which has considered reform, warned of a constitutional crisis if Scottish and Welsh assemblies helped force English legislation through - but the revising chamber could help, he said.

It was right to set up a Royal Commission, but he urged the government if it was determined to take action, to "do the job properly".

Former Home Secretary Lord Baker warned that in five or six years' time ministers would realise the interim chamber was working well and not bother to proceed to stage two of reform.

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