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07 August 2012

House of Lords reform blocked

House of Lords reform blocked

Nick Clegg announced that the House of Lords will not be reformed before the 2015 election in a statement on Monday. In return for his retreat he pledged to block Conservative ambitions to reform the boundary system and cut by 50 the number of MPs, plans which are already well underway.

The government's plans to reform the House of Lords were dealt a fatal blow as David Cameron told Mr Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader and deputy prime minister, that he could not get his party to support the changes. Tensions between coalition partners, already strained by competing priorities, stretched further as recriminations flew between those MPs relieved at retaining their seats and others frustrated that parliamentary reform had screeched to a halt.

The government had proposed to replace the mostly appointed chamber with a new senate where most seats would be allocated through elections for a single 15-year term. The number of seats would be cut and a small number of appointed places would remain including space for 12 bishops as opposed to the current 26.

The plans had been brought forward as part of the coalition agreement to propose changes. All parties had placed some form of commitment to reform in their manifestos but alongside changing the voting system it has long been a passionate cause of the Liberal Democrats. The parliamentary committee examining the reforms and many Conservative MPs called for a referendum to decide if the country backed the changes. Apparently Mr Clegg offered a compromise deal where the plans were voted on by the public in 2015 and enacted for the first elections in 2020, but this too was rejected.

Mr Clegg's reluctant retreat from the battle to continue the century-long process of reform came after a shot was delivered across the government's bows before the summer recess when many Conservative MPs rebelled on a procedural motion preventing swift action and signalled the long tussle that loomed. The retreat was matched with a declaration of war against the reduction of seats in the House of Commons which has already been passed in principle but requires a further parliamentary vote to confirm the redrawn boundaries.

Although Mr Cameron pledged to push ahead with the changes which unless enacted leave the Conservative Party needing a 10 per cent lead to win a majority of seats, it is hard to see how without his coalition partners this reform can go through.

The Bishop of Leicester, Tim Stevens, convenor of the Bishops in the House of Lords, responded to the announcement saying: "The House of Lords still needs a measure of reform, not least to formalise its disciplinary procedures and to resolve the problem of its ever increasing size.

"I know that some of the more complex and important questions about the implications of the reform plans had not been resolved and I understand, therefore, the lack of consensus. Reforms that would have seen a simple substitution of the existing House for a largely or wholly elected chamber risked both removing what is best about the present Lords – the independence and expertise that its membership brings to bear – and undermining the current conventions between the Houses that prevent damaging gridlock between the Commons and Lords."

In their submission to the Joint Committee on the draft proposals the Archbishops of Canterbury and York said: "If, as we believe, the second chamber should remain essentially a revising chamber and if, as we also believe, the primacy of the House of Commons is to be maintained, the argument that such a chamber can only be effective and have proper legitimacy if it is wholly or mainly elected is no more than an assertion."

Giving evidence to the Committee last year alongside the Archbishop of Canterbury, director of the think tank Theos, Elizabeth Hunter, said: "Religious institutions make a significant, positive contribution to society, having religious voices within any second chamber is well within the logic of the draft bill and a good thing per se."