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31 May 2011

Where now for Lords reform?

81 per cent of peers oppose an elected chamber – the turkeys won’t vote for Christmas.

By George Eaton

The news that the House of Lords is opposed to the creation of an elected second chamber is the sort of the story that prompts the question: do the turkeys vote for Christmas? But the scale of opposition is still impressive.

The Times surveyed (£) all 789 peers, of whom 310 responded “in almost precise proportion to how their parties are represented on the red benches”. The poll found found that 80 per cent of peers oppose a mainly or wholly elected upper chamber, a figure that comprises 90 per cent of Conservative peers, 73 per cent of Labour peers, 46 per cent of Lib Dem peers and 84 per cent of crossbenchers.

What this means in practice is that the coalition will be forced to use the Parliament Act – last used in 2004 to push through the ban on hunting with dogs – if it wants to secure Lords reform. But 74 per cent of peers, including 54 per cent of Lib Dem peers, believe it would be “unconstitutional” for the government to do so.

Baroness D’Souza, convenor of the crossbench peers, argues that, since the introduction of a mainly or wholly elected chamber would in effect abolish the Lords, “the use of the Parliament Act legally would be impossible”.

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Under Nick Clegg’s proposal, the Lords would be replaced with an 80 per cent-elected chamber of 300 members. Senators would be elected by thirds every five years – using the single transferable vote – and serve single 15-year terms. Church of England bishops would continue to sit in the chamber but their numbers would be reduced from 26 to 12.

David Cameron, who once described Lords reform as a “third-term issue”, is unlikely to risk enraging his party’s peers by deploying the Parliament Act. Even Clegg, who longs to complete the reform started by David Lloyd George, acknowledges that the matter is not a priority for the public.

Labour, partly for principled reasons and partly for tactical ones, supports a fully elected chamber and has denounced Clegg’s proposal as another “miserable little compromise”.

But amid the parliamentary wrangling, a note of sanity is provided by Lord Lucas, a Conservative hereditary peer, who quips:

How can I, as a hereditary peer, oppose being replaced by someone who’s elected? I’m eminently replaceable.