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Thursday, 20 January, 2000, 13:17 GMT
Lords report fails to satisfy

Lord Wakeham's report is heading for the back burner

By BBC News Online's political correspondent Nick Assinder.

Lord Wakeham's long-awaited report into the future of the House of Lords has been met with dismay by both opponents of change and reformers demanding radical alternatives.

And, by insisting that a small part of any new upper house should be elected, the Royal Commission has virtually ensured that the government - backing a purely appointed chamber - will kick it into the political long grass.
Lords Reform

Opponents accused the commission of failing to come up with a single, simple recommendation and allowing the creation of chamber of "Tony's cronies".

And the opposition said it was a fudge that it would allow ministers to put off any change indefinitely.

As widely predicted, the report called for a new chamber of around 550 members with between 65 and 195 made up of elected members from the regions.

It rejected demands for a wholly elected chamber and said the remainder should be chosen by an independent appointments commission to reflect British society as a whole.

The new house would have few new powers over the existing chamber.

Warning to Blair

Lord Wakeham described the proposals as radical and urged the government to "move rapidly" to the next stage.

And, in a clear warning to Tony Blair, he declared: "if interested parties choose to hold out for what they would ideally like, the opportunity may pass for another generation, maybe another century."

Baroness Jay promised changes

The Labour leader in the Lords, Baroness Jay, insisted the government was determined to press ahead with reform, but few believe there is any chance of action in the near future.

Some remain convinced that the government will stick with the interim Lords, including the 92 hereditary peers, which was set up pending wider changes.

In any case, there is no way any changes can be introduced before the next general election and some may believe Mr Blair is now determined to delay things even further.

The prime minister's enthusiasm for constitutional reform has cooled dramatically over the past year or so.

His experiences of devolution, the London mayor and changes to the voting system for European and regional elections are said to have so rattled him that he has turned against further radical changes.

He has already effectively abandoned planned changes to the voting system for general elections and he is expected to steer the Wakeham report into the side street of a parliamentary committee.

Avoid battles

That committee may well come up with yet another proposal, different from those recommended by the Royal Commission, further muddying the water.

Government may keep existing chamber
The questions pro-reformers will want answering now are - will the government come to any conclusion on its favoured option before the next election?

If so, will that be included in the next election manifesto and will it be a hard-and-fast policy or just another aspiration that can be ignored.

Tony Blair has time and again signalled that it will only be during a second term in government that he will be able to fulfil some of his more radical dreams on key issues like the health service and education.

So he may well want to avoid any long battles over reform of the Lords which has generally failed to capture voters' imagination.

Ironically, the report was published on the same day the government was facing defeat in the Lords over plans to limit defendants' rights to jury trials.

And it is certain the prime minister will want to see how the interim Lords behaves before he comes to any decision about what further changes he would like to make.

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See also:
20 Jan 00 |  UK Politics
Lords reform blueprint unveiled
20 Jan 00 |  UK Politics
Tories fear 'House of cronies'
20 Jan 00 |  UK Politics
Lords reform proposals at a glance

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