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White Paper:
Completing the task of reform

"A solution that suits no-one" was how the Tories described the White Paper on Lords reform.

From all sides, the government's been criticised for not going far enough.

Will the Lords become "a day centre for spent volcanoes"?

The government's long awaited proposals for reforming the House of Lords emerged on November 7 2001 - to less than rapturous acclaim.

"Complementing and enhancing, not usurping the House of Commons," was the White Paper's stated aim.

"A solution which suits absolutely nobody" was how the Conservative Peers' Leader Lord Strathclyde saw it.

Quote Mark Two wholly directly elected second chambers within the Westminster system would be a recipe for gridlock Quote Mark

White Paper on Lords Reform
The final plan emerged after a fierce battle between the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine and the new Leader of the Commons, Robin Cook. Despite coming into the process of reform at a relatively late stage - he was moved from the Foreign Office in the summer of 2001 - Cook is credited with raising the number of elected peers substantially from the Lord Chancellor's original plans.

Audio Clip AUDIO
BBC R4's Today Programme, November 7 2001
Back to the fourteenth century? Hear what Tony Benn thinks of the White Paper.
Under the plans, one in five members of the new upper chamber will be directly elected - to increase the number, the White Paper says, might lead to legislative deadlock.

Observers are predicting the proposals will not get an easy ride. By the time they were published, 149 MPs - mainly Labour - had already signed a Commons Early Day Motion calling for a "wholly or substantially elected" Second Chamber.

These motions are not formally debated on the floor of the House of Commons but are used as a way of expressing discontent among MPs. A member tables a motion asking for debate "on an early day" on a matter of concern. In practise, the debate never materialises, but the motion - and the names of its signatories - are printed at the start of each day's Commons order paper.

The Liberal Democrats, too, want a wholly elected upper house, and the Conservatives are saying the plans greatly increase the Prime Minister's powers of patronage.

Quote Mark This is not reform, it is certainly not democracy and it is not even what Lord Wakeham suggested in his Royal Commission Quote Mark

Lord Strathclyde, Tory leader in the Lords
The government has set a deadline of the end of January 2001 for comments on its plans - but many observers have already given it the thumbs down.

"The new house will have almost no power of restraint over the executive," wrote Simon Jenkins in The Times. "The new Lords will be impotent in every sense of the word, a day centre for spent volcanoes."

White Paper, November 7 2001: The House of Lords - main proposals

A White Paper is a discussion document produced by the government, outlining its proposals for legislation. There is no obligation to go ahead with White Paper proposals, and, while many become law, some are simply shelved.

  • Remaining 92 hereditary peers to go.
  • No seats in the Lords for new Life Peers.
  • Reduce the size of the Lords from just over 700 to 600.
  • Twenty per cent of peers (120 in total) to be directly elected.
  • One hundred and twenty peers to be appointed by independent commission as cross-benchers (see the People's Peers section).
  • Reduce the number of Church of England bishops from 26 to 16.
  • At least 12 Law Lords.
  • Fifty five per cent of peers - 332 in total - to be nominated by each political party, according to its share of the General Election vote.
  • Minimum of 30 per cent women.


  • Remove the Lords' power to block delegated legislation. They will only be allowed to delay for three months.
  • No other change in the balance of power between the Lords and the Commons.

    The Conservatives' Proposals

    In mid-January 2002, the Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith finally produced his own party's proposals on reforming the Lords.

    They were substantially more radical than anything to be found in the Royal Commission or the White Paper - a "bolt from the blue, " according to one unnamed MP.

    The Conservatives now propose:
    - a new name: the Senate
    - to halve the number of members to 300
    - 60 members to be appointed independently
    - 240 members to be directly elected, for 15-year terms

    The party leader, Iain Duncan Smith, took personal charge of publicising the new policy. "Despite its often immense contribution to our national life," he wrote in the Sunday Telegraph "I am convinced that we now need a new upper chamber, a smaller and, overwhelmingly, an elected one."

    Quote Mark [New upper house will] complement the Commons but not compete with it. Quote Mark

    Robin Cook MP, Leader of the House of Commons
    Quote Mark Whenever I look for a philosophy behind this reform, I find just opportunism. Whenever I look for a set of principles I find only expedience. The government should be ashamed of this document. It demeans this House, demeans parliament and worst of all it demeans the government. Quote Mark

    Lord Strathclyde, Conservative Leader in the Lords
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