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Last Updated: Wednesday, 15 November 2006, 19:35 GMT
Familiar call of Lords reform
By James Landale
BBC News 24 chief political correspondent

The 2006 Queen's Speech promised that the government "will work to build a consensus on reform of the House of Lords and will bring forward proposals".

Reform has been promised in the House of Lords

Sounds familiar? Well, you might remember what Her Majesty said in her speech to Parliament last year: "My Government will bring forward proposals to continue the reform of the House of Lords."

And before that? "Legislation will be brought forward to reform the House of Lords."

If this government has been consistent in anything, it has been in promising Lords reform.

It has been less consistent in delivering on these promises.

Since Labour came to power, it has made some progress. It has set up a new commission to vet the appointment of life peers and it has removed most, but not all, hereditary peers - 92 remain and remind Labour daily of their unfinished business.

So, what of this latest attempt at reform?

Well, the government has now promised it will work to reform the Lords "on a cross-party consensus while maintaining the primacy of the House of Commons".

Does the government really want to spend the next six months clogging Parliament up with legislation on Lords reform?
James Landale
BBC News 24 chief political correspondent

That's a reference to the work currently being carried out by Jack Straw, the leader of the House of Commons.

He's trying to get a consensus around a White Paper he's promising to publish soon.

He wants the House of Lords to be cut down to about 450 members, half of whom would be elected, half appointed.

He's holding talks with other political parties but one participant described them to me as "desultory".

Certainly, there's no clear evidence of any substantial progress.

Free voting

Mr Straw has two problems.

First, there is no consensus. Some MPs and Lords oppose having any elected members at all, others want even more, some suggesting as many as 80% of the Lords to be elected.

Second, the government again committed itself today to "holding a free vote on the composition of the House of Lords".

That is a free vote in both houses of Parliament. When MPs and peers last voted on Lords reform, they ended up agreeing absolutely nothing. They voted so freely they voted every proposal down.

So, the questions that are being asked in Westminster now all begin with "when".

When is Mr Straw going to publish his White Paper on Lords reform? We were promised it first by the middle of this month. Well, we're already there.

When will there be a free vote? Mr Straw has promised "by the turn of the year". His ministerial colleagues wrinkle their noses at that and hint it will take a little bit longer.

I have been told that although Lords reform has been discussed once by a Cabinet committee, it has not got anywhere near the stage of being discussed in full Cabinet.

In other words, the government does not yet have an agreed line.

Ready for a fight?

The moment the government does get an agreed line, it will face a torrent of opposition, above all from its own peers in the Lords who are among the most vociferous critics of Mr Straw's plans.

They are organising, readying themselves for the fight.

The real question is this: for all Jack Straw's efforts, does the government really want to spend the next six months to a year clogging Parliament up with legislation on Lords reform?

Is there enough political will for all that that will involve?

Does Tony Blair really want to spend the dying days of his premiership tying himself up in constitutional knots rather than focusing on reforming the public services?

These are all questions being asked by MPs and peers. And most of them think the answer is no.




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