Government set for Lords reform war

LONDON Wed Jun 27, 2012 6:29pm BST

Light trails made by cars driving over Westminster Bridge, are seen in front of Britain's Houses of Parliament in London January 18, 2011. Members of the House of Lords resumed an all-night debate Tuesday, on changes to the British voting system. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

Light trails made by cars driving over Westminster Bridge, are seen in front of Britain's Houses of Parliament in London January 18, 2011. Members of the House of Lords resumed an all-night debate Tuesday, on changes to the British voting system.

Credit: Reuters/Stefan Wermuth

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LONDON (Reuters) - After 100 years of haggling, the government aims to drag parliament's unelected upper house into democracy, laying out bold plans on Wednesday that could shake the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition to its core.

The Lords, where more than 800 aristocrats, political appointees and clergy flock to pore politely over new laws, stands as a relic from an age where power came from privilege, preserved only by disagreement on how to reform it.

"The coalition stands on the brink of an historic achievement," said Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister.

"After more than 100 years of debates, cross-party talks, Green Papers, White Papers, Command Papers and a Royal Commission, we are finally introducing a bill to create a democratic and legitimate House of Lords."

By 2025, the government wants the membership of the upper house to fall to 450, with 80 percent of those elected, in stages, at the same time as members of the lower house.

An initial 120 elected members would be chosen at the next parliamentary election in 2015, the first time a member of the upper house will have been elected since it emerged in the 14th century.

WIGS AND ERMINE

The latest crack at overhauling the Lords, famous for its scarlet robes fringed with ermine fur, full-bottomed wigs and bright red leather seats, is serious business for the centre-left Lib Dems.

Britain's third party is desperate for something to brag about from a coalition partnership that has crushed its standing in opinion polls and forced it to sign up to many policies that it vehemently opposed in opposition.

However, pushing the reform through parliament may prove treacherous because many Conservatives in the fully elected Commons are deeply opposed to it. A defeat, an outside bet for now, could be fatal for the coalition.

"I'm totally against Lords reform. We think that it works fairly well as it is at the moment, and that the level of expertise in the Lords could never be replicated in an elected chamber," said Conservative lawmaker Philip Davies.

Giving a taste of the battle ahead, an aide to Conservative leader Prime Minister David Cameron warned the party to get in line, saying voting against the reform would be "an interesting career move".

The spectacle of the current Lords - who once had the power to veto budgets but now play second fiddle to the lower house - scrutinising the blueprint for their own downfall will also offer a bizarre sideshow to the tussle.

Under the proposals, the role of the upper house in reviewing bills would not change, nor would it challenge the primacy of the Commons.

Its distinctive mandate would stem from the fact that most of its members would be elected for 15-year terms under a proportional system different from the winner-takes-all system used for lower house elections, and represent larger constituencies. A fifth of members would be appointed by an independent commission on the basis of particular expertise.

LOWER HOUSE UNDERMINED?

But some argue that the new upper house could eventually threaten the power and purpose of the lower house if its members were chosen by the public.

"These proposals will completely undermine the authority of the Commons and sweep away the grounds on which that authority is based," said John Reid, a Labour peer who held ministerial posts as an elected member of parliament in Tony Blair's government.

"Anyone who believes they can introduce a new chamber of elected senators with a term three times as long as MPs', and constituencies much larger than MPs', without that becoming the superior house is deluding themselves."

Labour opposition politicians, although broadly in favour of change, are licking their lips, spying an opportunity to make mischief and put pressure on the coalition as the bill passes through parliament over the coming year.

The longer Labour can keep the proposals trapped in the parliamentary maze of revisions, votes and debates required to pass it into law, the more painful and damaging the process could prove for the coalition parties.

But a Labour source who declined to be named dismissed suggestions that the opposition's desire to extend the bill's timetable was intended to cause havoc.

"(Labour leader) Ed Miliband has made very clear that we want to see this get through the (House of) Commons, we want to see this get to the Lords. He's said quite clearly we will not kill this bill ...

"This is a piece of significant constitutional reform. We have to make sure it has the proper length of time to be debated on the floor of the houses of parliament."

(Editing by Kevin Liffey)

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