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Tuesday, 14 May, 2002, 07:48 GMT 08:48 UK
Lords rethink 'not delaying tactic'
House of Lords
Lords reform is a highly controversial issue
Plans for a new way of breaking the deadlock on House of Lords reform are not a delaying tactic, insists Leader of the House of Commons Robin Cook.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that they could mean voters choosing peers by the time of the next general election.

New proposal
Phase 1: Set up joint committee to examine broad issues
Phase 2: Detailed proposals and a free vote for MPs and peers

The government is setting up a joint committee of MPs and peers in an effort to break the deadlock over who should sit in the upper chamber and how much power they should have.

The move effectively means the government is abandoning five years of work on reform, including a royal commission and its own proposals.

Conservative and Liberal Democrats have welcomed what they say is a government climbdown but the Tories warn it could indefinitely postpone the reform process.

'No delaying tactic'

But Robin Cook told BBC Radio 4's Today programme on Tuesday the plans were instead a way to "clear the roadblock" for reform.

The Leader of the Commons said he hoped peers would be elected by the time of the next general election.

But that would depend on how decisive the free votes on the issue were in both Houses of Parliament and on how fast the new joint committee made progress.

Dr Tony Wright
Tony Wright says Parliament overall must be strengthened
"It's not a delaying tactic," said Mr Cook. "This is a way of making progress in a parliamentary way.

"It's making a democratic decision - in the hands of people who represent the public."

Delay on Lords reform has been blamed on divisions between cabinet ministers like Mr Cook who want more peers elected, and figures like the Lord Chancellor, Derry Irvine.

Mr Cook seemed to acknowledge those differences.

'A fine mess'

He said Lord Irvine had been "magnanimous" in accepting there was no consensus for the government's initial plans of having only 20% of peers elected.

Shadow leader of the House Eric Forth said Mr Cook and Lord Irvine, who announced the move to both Houses of Parliament, were like "Laurel and Hardy".

"A fine mess you have got us into now," he said.

Mr Forth said the Tories welcomed the establishment of the new committee, but he wanted to know why it had taken so long.

Some Labour MPs, including Bob Marshall-Andrews, also fear the government's latest move is only a delay to "perpetuate the use of patronage".

'Serious watchdog'

The Liberal Democrats welcomed Mr Cook's proposals as a "victory against the odds in cabinet".

Lib Dem Lords leader Shirley Williams told BBC News there was now a chance that in future a majority of the peers would be elected.

They could become a "serious watchdog" of what the government did, added Baroness Williams.

Labour's Tony Wright, chairman of the influential public administration committee, said the proposals would "clear away the blockages to the reform process continuing".

Hereditary peers

The new committee will look initially at the role and composition of the House of Lords and examine how much power it should have.

It will then draw up detailed proposals for reform, with MPs and peers being given a free vote on the options.

Speaking earlier in the House of Lords, Lord Irvine said Labour remained committed to getting rid of the hereditary peers left behind after more than 600 were removed during the first stage of reform in 1999.

'Historic' opportunity

Lord Irvine said he wanted a reformed second chamber which was "broadly representative of the Britain of today".

But the government believed the Lords should remain a revising chamber and should not be allowed to rival the authority of the Commons.

The new committee would be set up "as soon as possible", he said.

The Public Administration Committee last month warned ministers that they risked missing "an opportunity of historic proportions" if they did not press ahead with real change.

It wants 60% of peers to be elected, putting it at odds with the government's initial plans to have only a fifth voted into the second chamber.

The BBC's Carol Walker
"The government is in a bit of a pickle about this"
Robin Cook, Leader of the Commons.
"We will respect Parliament's decision"
Liberal Democrat party's Baroness Williams
"We've got to reform parliament to make it modern and relevant"
Conservative party's Lord Strathclyde
"I very much welcome this"
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