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24 April 2012

Committee backs elected House of Lords

Committee backs elected House of Lords

A joint parliamentary committee has broadly supported government proposals to reform the House of Lords and introduce a mostly elected second chamber. The report, published by the committee on 23 April, suggested reducing the membership to 450 peers, down from about 800 at present, but more than the 300 suggested in the government's draft House of Lord's Reform bill.

The committee backed the government on the proposal for members to serve a single 15-year term, with 80 per cent elected and the remaining 20 per cent appointed. The committee's official report called for a referendum on introducing elections to the second chamber. However, on many issues the committee was itself split with eight of the 26 members disagreeing with the referendum proposal and nine opposing elected peers.

The level of disagreement within the committee led to the production of an unofficial alternative report which while supporting the basic principle of reform called for much greater thought and reflection and particularly the creation of a constitution convention to develop reform proposals.

Calls from both reports emanating from the committee to give the voters a say on changes through a referendum will increase pressure on the government. Speaking on the morning of the report launch, prime minister David Cameron did not rule out a referendum, although made clear he did not support one.

While backing most of the proposals for the second chamber, including a broadly proportionate reduction in the number of Bishops to 12, the committee rejected the government's insistence that the relationship between the House of Commons and a reformed second chamber would remain unchanged. The committee said the proposal is "not capable in itself of preserving the primacy of the House of Commons". Lady Symons, one of those behind the alternative report went further, said there was "an unbridgeable gap between an elected second chamber and maintaining the primacy of the Commons".

The committee heard evidence that the 1911 Parliament Act which, along with the Salisbury Convention and other informal agreements, structure the relationship between the two Houses of Parliament would no longer apply to a reformed chamber. The report said that a concordat would have to be agreed between the two chambers and warned that any attempt to define this through legislation could be "a constitutional disaster" as it would open the entire relationship to judicial review.

The Evangelical Alliance has long engaged in discussions over the role and formulation of the House of Lords. The 2006 Faith and Nation report recognised that evangelicals held a variety of views on this issue, however it also recommended that any revised chamber should reflect the diversity and contribution of faith in the nation. It also accepted that the place of bishops might be reduced or removed in a thorough process of reform but suggested any singular effort to remove the bishops be resisted on the basis that it would constitute the diminution of religion in public life.

One hundred years after the first major changes were made to the House of Lords fundamental reform is still precariously placed on the horizon. Many Conservative MPs are unhappy with the acceptance of Liberal Democrat policy that they consider these changes to represent. Mr Cameron defended the plans and called for all parties to behave in a reasonable, responsible and sensible manner if reform was to have any chance of success.