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NATIONAL NEWS: Door opening to an elected House
By Jean Eaglesham
Financial Times; Jan 05, 2004

The prospect of an elected House of Lords, which appeared to have vanished from the government's agenda last year, is now actively under consideration in Downing Street, according to insiders.

Tony Blair could be persuaded to include further Lords reform in Labour's manifesto for the next general election, officials say. They highlight the inclusion of questions on the issue in the "Big Conversation" prospectus issued by the prime minister in November.

"What should be the role and function of a second chamber in today's House of Lords? How should it be constituted?" the document asks. The questions may be open-ended but their inclusion points to a change in the government's earlier decision to kick Lords reform into the long grass - a position that would have meant the document was simply silent on the issue.

The change in stance is also reflected in comments by Lord Falconer. The lord chancellor insisted last month that the Lords reform bill expelling the remaining 92 hereditary peers was not intended to "entrench" an all-appointed upper house. "I am conveying the message as strongly as I can that the door is open and I'm keen for people to go through it."

This open-door policy seemed almost unthinkable a few months ago when Mr Blair spoke out against a "hybrid" - part elected, part appointed - Lords ahead of a crucial Commons debate.

His intervention was blamed for MPs' failure to agree how many peers should be elected. The government has cited that Commons stalemate in defending its decision to expel the remaining hereditaries without offering further reform - a decision the Tories and Liberal Democrats claim breaks promises made when the first tranche of hereditaries were ejected in 1999.

Lords reform is not a vote winner but insiders say ministers have accepted that the issue cannot simply be left to rest after the hereditaries bill has passed. This tactical switch is partly a reflection of the strength of opposition that the government is set to run into in the Lords, where a broad alliance of Tory, Lib Dem and cross-bench peers is threatening to inflict damage on a range of bills.

The government is also keen to appease its backbenchers, many of whom strongly support a more democratic Lords. A big rebellion could result in the bill being amended to include a provision for elected peers. A perceived willingness by ministers to re-examine the issue - even if it ends in no concrete action - could head off any revolt by Labour MPs.

The question of what substance any further reforms would take is still very open. The government will charge a joint committee of MPs and peers to re-examine the issues. But a clue to one possible approach, which has gained some currency within Westminster, lies in the "Big Conversation". Immediately after the Lords questions, it asks: "What would be the best way to provide a route into politics for people and groups who might otherwise not be elected?"

One such route could be to use the votes cast in a general election as the basis for selecting people to sit in the Lords. This would allow individuals to be drawn from bodies such as the new regional assemblies, without carrying the "non-democratic" stigma of a chamber where the appointments have no direct relation to a public vote.

Such indirect elections would address Mr Blair's primary concern about further Lords reform - the risk that peers could challenge the supremacy of the Commons by appearing to have an equally valid direct mandate from the electorate.

There are many political hurdles to be cleared before such a radical change could become reality. Officials point out there is still strong opposition from a significant minority of MPs, as well as many peers, to any elections. The Labour election manifesto is the obvious mechanism if Mr Blair is persuaded of the need for change.

 

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