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Monday, 28 October, 2002, 10:36 GMT
The Lords reformer

Jack Cunningham MP is chairman of the all-party Joint Committee on Lords Reform and a former cabinet minister.
Jack Cunningham has bad news for constitutional reformers impatient for reform of the House of Lords to move significantly closer in the coming new session of parliament.

The Lords reform committee that he chairs is due to present proposals on the broad composition of the upper house for a vote by MP and peers.

But the committee will not produce its much anticipated "options paper" before the end of the current session.

I wasn't given any secret instructions. Nor would I have accepted the job if I had been

This means there is no chance of a bill on Lords reform in next month's Queen's Speech.

Though some of its members insist the committee has made swift progress, the news is a blow to supporters of a larger elected element than the 20% the government favoured in a white paper last year.

Some reformers suspect Tony Blair would like nothing more than to consign the issue to the back burner.

Mr Cunnningham, however, is unapologetic over his committee's timing.

"I'm pretty clear in my own mind there never was a slot available in the upcoming Queen's Speech," says Mr Cunningham. "That's one of the myths that have grown up around this whole issue."

Disappointment for Robin Cook

When the joint committee was set up in June, reformers - including Labour's Tony Wright MP and allies of Leader of the House Robin Cook - had hoped the momentum for radical reform would be kept up.

Leader of the House Robin Cook
Robin Cook may be disappointed by the committee's pace
A vote on reform proposals before the Queen's Speech would have cleared the path for legislation to be introduced in the new session.

Mr Cunningham points out that the committee has been hard at work over the long summer recess, "but these are very complicated matters".

"So the idea we could meet, make some rushed judgements and produce an options paper that would lead us into legislation before the end of this session was not, in my judgement nor the overwhelming judgement of members of the committee, a realistic proposal.

"Never was. I'm sorry if that disappoints people, whether it's Tony Wright or Robin Cook."

'No secret instructions'

The timetable Mr Cunningham's committee is now working to is to have the options paper out by "the winter solstice - 21 December". He is hopeful of the chances of getting it out by the end of next month.

The prime minister did ask me if I'd return to government but I decided not to

The former cabinet "enforcer" rejects suggestions that the prime minister appointed him to the committee in order to kick further Lords reform into the long grass.

"I wasn't given any secret instructions by anybody," he says. "Nor would I have accepted the job if I had been."

He also reveals that before last year's general election, the prime minister sought to persuade him to return to the cabinet.

"The prime minister did ask me before the last election if I'd return to government. We discussed it at length but I decided not to," says Mr Cunningham.

"I think in some respects he might have been a little more disappointed about the outcome than I was."

After turning down "a couple of other jobs", the Copeland MP accepted the chairmanship of the joint committee for the "great challenge to find a solution to this problem which has dogged parliament for over a century".

No culling of peers

One element of the problem to which he believes insufficient attention has been paid are the transitional arrangements that would bridge the gap between the present, half-way reformed upper house and the fully reformed version.

In any change, particularly towards electing significant numbers of members, the overall numbers might actually rise

The government has set out two conditions for a fully reformed Lords: proportionality (between parties) and a smaller second chamber. The logic of these conditions would appear and has been taken to unmistakably imply the culling of life peers.

But "that's unlikely to be the case", according to Mr Cunningham. He warns that his committee's work is likely to result in a swollen Lords, in the short term at least.

"Although we've reached no conclusion yet, I don't think there's much enthusiasm within the committee for simply at the stroke of a pen kicking out hundreds of life peers - who after all were appointed, as the name suggests, for life and have built their lives around being members of the House of Lords," he says.

"People have to face up to the fact that in any change, particularly towards electing significant numbers of members, the overall numbers might actually rise in the short to medium term until the transitional arrangements have fully worked through."

Lords conventions safe

As well as the reprieve for life peers, there do not appear to be any proposals on the horizon that could amount to neutering the upper house. Mr Cunningham strongly hints that the Parliament Act will not be amended to prevent the Lords from blocking government legislation.

"The Lords has the powers to be much more confrontational than it ever is in reality," he stresses.

"I envisage the Lords will always operate on the basis of its conventions, assuring that at the end of the day the government gets its business, is entitled to have its manifesto commitments legislated upon and generally to get its programme through.

"Not without revision, alteration or amendment, or there sometimes being a stand-off between the Commons and the Lords because of strenuous objections.

"But generally those conventions have worked pretty well."

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