Page last updated at 12:20 GMT, Monday, 23 April 2012 13:20 UK
The tricky job of Lords reform

By Peter Ball
BBC Parliament

Renovations in the House of Lords chamber
Tidying up the House of Lords is trickier than it might seem

It is 101 years since a liberal politician tried to reform Parliament's Upper House - and Nick Clegg will be hoping the report from the Joint Committee on Lords Reform will give him the ammunition he needs to finish off the job.

The Liberal Democrat leader has a lot riding on Lords reform after the failure of the AV referendum, but he had better beware. The past hundred years is littered with failures and botched compromises.

Herbert Asquith, the Liberal prime minister, did manage to remove peers' powers to block government legislation in the 1911 Parliament Act, but it took two general elections in 1910 and the agreement of the monarch to ram through the bill.

Now Mr Clegg will try to introduce what the preamble of the 1911 act promised would follow: an elected second chamber.

The unholy alliance

It would be more than half a century later before a government would bring in another bill to try to curb peers' powers.

Harold Wilson's Labour government introduced proposals in 1968 to limit the Lords' ability to vote on and block legislation.

Enoch Powell
Enoch Powell was a staunch opponent of Lords reform

There had been a few changes to the House in the 1940s and 1950s. Alongside the hereditary peers, law lords and bishops there were now life peers, who could not pass their titles on to their heirs; and there was a gentleman's agreement that the Lords would not vote down government manifesto commitments.

They had even let women sit on the red benches, but Wilson was the first PM since Asquith to try to restrain the Upper House with legislation.

Things didn't go well.

The government managed the difficult part and got the turkeys to vote for Christmas - peers agreed to the changes - but the bill became bogged down in the Commons by an unholy alliance of left and right.

Michael Foot, the future Labour leader, wanted nothing short of abolition, and Enoch Powell, infamous for his rivers of blood speech, opposed any reform at all.

Unfortunately for Wilson the one thing the two men shared was brilliant oratory skills. They spoke against the bill night after night, dragging the bill's passage through the Commons out for months until it was eventually dropped.

The ill-trained spaniel

Thirty years later, Labour decided to try again.

Tony Blair still had the problem all Labour prime ministers had faced with the Lords: it was dominated by a huge number of overwhelmingly Tory peers.

Lord Cranborne
Lord Cranborne admits his secret deal to the media

New Labour had been elected on a manifesto promising two stages of reform; first the abolition of hereditary peers, then the introduction of an elected second chamber.

The Conservatives in the Lords were not pleased but in the age of Brit Pop, Cool Britannia and Sporty Spice the party couldn't openly defend the hereditary principle.

Instead, the Tory's leader in the House, Lord Cranborne, privately told the government his backbenchers would use trench warfare tactics to drag out the passage of the bill through the Lords and so secret negotiations began.

Lord Cranborne brokered an agreement which would allow the bill to go through if hereditary peers could elect around 10% of their number to remain in the Lords.

There was one problem. The first time the Conservative party leader, William Hague, heard about the plot was when Tony Blair announced it during a session of prime minister's questions.

In conducting the secret deal Lord Cranborne confessed to having behaved like an "ill-trained spaniel" and offered to resign.

Hague turned him down, just so he could have the pleasure of sacking him instead.

Stopped by gout

But even when the politicians agree, fate can still throw a spanner in the works.

In 1856, Prime Minister Lord Palmerston tried to introduce Sir James Parke as the first life peer, but on the day he was meant to take his seat he was struck down by a severe attack of gout and he couldn't make it to Parliament.

The delay gave the opponents of the move a chance to call for an inquiry and the first life peers didn't take their seats until for over a century.

So as well as battling peers and MPs maybe Nick Clegg should stay away from wine and strong cheese if he wants to get his reforms through.




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