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Last Updated: Thursday, 8 March 2007, 09:47 GMT
Q&A: House of Lords reform
The government wants to reform the House of Lords. Here is a guide to the issue and the plans.

What is the House of Lords?

It is the upper house, or second chamber, of the UK's Parliament. Its role is to scrutinise and revise laws passed by MPs in the House of Commons. It does not have the power to kill off laws, but it can delay them and effectively force the government to alter, or drop, their plans.

Who sits in the House of Lords now?

There are about 746 peers who can sit, speak and vote in the Lords. Of those, 615 have been appointed for life. As well as the 92 remaining hereditary peers, there are 26 Church of England archbishops and bishops and 12 law lords, whose main work lies not in debates but judging cases in the UK's highest appeal court. Fourteen peers are currently on leave of absence.

What are the reform plans?

A white paper on Lords reform proposes the second chamber be smaller with 540 members, some of whom would be elected and some still appointed, all for 15 year terms. There would be no link to peerages, and the chamber would be renamed. Current members would be phased out. Its role as a revising chamber would be largely the same. The white paper said the government favoured 50% of the future chamber be elected and 50% be appointed. But a series of votes were to be held to find out what split between elected members and appointed members, MPs backed.

So how did MPs vote?

MPs have given their backing to the reform plans. They were asked to vote on whether the whole reformed house should be elected, all-appointed and a range of options in-between. Only two options got a majority - for 80% elected, and, by a much larger majority, an entirely elected second chamber.

What will happen now?

As the vote was not on a bill, it will not pass into law but is expected to inform government policy. Mr Straw hailed it as a "historic step forward" and pledged to bring a cross-party group together to discuss the next stage of reform. The Lords themselves, who are thought to be less favourable towards elected members, discuss Mr Straw's plans next week.

Hasn't the Lords been reformed already?

Yes, partially. The last reforms were in 1999 when all but 92 hereditary peers - who inherited their titles, some for many generations - were removed from the Lords. In 2003, an attempt to complete the process collapsed, when MPs and peers failed to agree on any of seven different options on how members of a reformed house should be chosen.

What is the party make-up of the Lords?

In contrast to the past, Labour is now the biggest party in the Lords, but it does not have a majority, meaning it can suffer defeats if opposition and crossbench peers unite against the government.

Would the Lords gain more powers?

The White Paper says the "primacy" of the Commons over the Lords has to remain and the Lords should not become a "rival" but "complement" the other chamber. It would retain its role in revising and scrutinising legislation. Having some elected members would make the Lords more "legitimate" but not give it parity with the Commons, the reform White Paper argues.

What about peerages?

The White Paper calls for elected and appointed members to serve a single 15-year term, and no longer. It argues that it would be "odd" to give a lifelong title to people doing this job. Peerages should be kept purely as honours, rather than being attached to a seat in Parliament, it is argued.

How are life peers appointed now?

There are two sorts of life peers. The first are non-party political peers who are recommended by the House of Lords Appointments Commission. The second category are party political peers (often known as working peers), nominated by the party leaders.

How would peers be elected under the reforms?

The suggestion is that elections be held at the same time as European Parliament elections, using regional lists of candidates drawn up by the political parties.

So it will happen?

There have been many attempts at Lords reform over the years and, even if MPs could agree to back one option, it would also need the backing of the Lords as well. Even if this consensus emerges it would take a huge amount of political will and Parliamentary time to reform the Lords. The question would be whether whoever succeeds Tony Blair as PM sees it as a priority.

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