Page last updated at 00:49 GMT, Wednesday, 29 July 2009 01:49 UK

Warning over constitution reforms

Labour peer Lord Sugar takes his seat in the House of Lords
The future make-up of the House of Lords is uncertain

The government's attempts to reform the UK constitution risk failure if they are carried out in too "ad hoc and piecemeal" a way, an MPs' report said.

The Commons justice committee warned rushing laws could further "undermine" public trust in the political system.

Elevating people to the Lords to serve as ministers may be damaging, it says. The government said progress had been made on constitutional reform.

The MPs also criticised the bill brought in to reform MPs' expenses.

'Bidding war'

Plans for a legally-binding code of conduct and two new criminal offences for MPs were dropped from the Parliamentary Standards Bill - which gained Royal Assent last week - in the face of stiff opposition.

Ministers said the changes made for a better bill and that it was vital it became law before the summer recess, to reassure the public amid anger about MPs' expenses claims.

But the committee said that while the main planks of the expenses reforms had cross-party support, the failure to think through their implications for Parliamentary sovereignty had been damaging.

"The Parliamentary Standards Bill, as first presented, illustrated the dangers of party leaders, in an understandable response to public anger, getting involved in a "bidding war" on constitutional change," said the committee's chairman Sir Alan Beith.

We cannot have rushed and piecemeal changes which will affect the way our country is governed for generations to come
Sir Alan Beith

In its report the committee said the government risked making the same mistakes in its handling of the Constitutional Renewal Bill, published earlier this month and due for debate when Parliament returns in October.

Measures include phasing out the remaining 92 hereditary peers from the House of Lords and a mechanism to allow peers to resign their titles.

The committee said these and other proposals must be subject to wider consultation than the expenses reforms if they were to be considered legitimate and not have "unforeseen and unintended consequences".

Lords reforms

Future constitutional reform proposals must be handled in a transparent and considered way, said committee chairman Sir Alan Beith.

"While we welcome the government's interest in constitutional reform, and its desire to restore public trust in Parliament and the political process, we cannot have rushed and piecemeal changes which will affect the way our country is governed for generations to come," he said.

The exclusion of hereditary peers would "accentuate the trend" towards a fully-appointed House of Lords, the committee said, in opposition to the stated view of all the leading parties.

Gordon Brown's decision to elevate people to the House of Lords to serve as ministers could have damaging effects, it suggests, with subsequent governments feeling they have to boost their own numbers to "redress the balance".

"The appointment of so many life peers to serve as counter to the direction of reforms which had already been widely agreed," Mr Beith said.

The committee recommends that major reforms - such as a written constitution or reform of the voting system - should be referred to a constitutional convention and be subject to a referendum.

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: "The government has made very significant progress on the constitutional reform agenda set out by the prime minister in July 2007, building on the historic changes already achieved since 1997.

"We now intend to go further and the views of the justice committee will inform our work."

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