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Press Release: Eight key obstacles on the road to Lords reform

17 May 2011

Today the government publishes its proposals for Lords reform, but experts from UCL's Constitution Unit warn that their success is far from assured, pointing out eight particular obstacles where there is division within and between the parties.

Unit Deputy Director Dr Meg Russell said "Lords reform has been much discussed since 1997, and indeed for 100 years. The government proposed a largely appointed house in 2001, but has edged slowly towards a largely elected one, under pressure from MPs and the public. These proposals look like a logical culmination of that journey. But there are many dimensions to Lords reform, and many other factors over which parliamentarians can disagree. While the Liberal Democrats are fairly cohesive on this issue, there is much opposition on the Conservative benches, and Labour has long been split on Lords reform".

The eight key sticking points are likely to be:

  1. Proportion elected. The government proposes 80%, but many purists will want 100%, while others object to election.
  2. Electoral system. The proposal is for STV, a proportional system. Many Conservatives object to proportionality, while others will argue over the detail.
  3. Terms of office. 15 year non-renewable terms are proposed. Some think this is too long, while others believe re-election is essential for accountability.
  4. Bishops. A reduction from 26 to 12 is proposed: possibly a compromise that pleases no one. Many want the bishops to go.
  5. Lords powers. These would remain unchanged, but some think an elected house will need its wings clipped if it is not to become too dominant.
  6. Expertise and independence. The proposed reduction to 300 members leaves little space for part-timers, but many see the Lords' expertise as its greatest asset.
  7. Transition. The existing 800+ peers will need to be phased out, and there will be many arguments about how this should be done.
  8. Referendum. Labour in particular may claim that such a major change should be put to the people: their manifesto promised a referendum on Lords reform.

Meg Russell added "There will be much talk about how the Lords will respond to these proposals, and whether they will need to be forced through. But the bigger question is whether they will gain support in the House of Commons, given that there are so many issues on which MPs disagree. Numerous amendments are likely, and could ultimately kill a bill. Public opinion will also be important, and support for 'more elected politicians' cannot be guaranteed".

Unit Director Professor Robert Hazell added "The last time a government attempted 'wholesale' Lords reform was in 1968 under Harold Wilson. These proposals failed in the House of Commons. Many wonder whether these proposals will suffer the same fate: that is, slow destruction by a coalition of opponents on the Conservative and Labour benches".

Notes to editors:

  • The Constitution Unit is an independent and non-partisan research centre based at University College London (www.ucl.ac.uk/constitution-unit). All our research on the House of Lords can be found in the parliament section on our website  http://www.ucl.ac.uk/constitution-unit/research/parliament/house-of-lords
  • Meg Russell is available for interview and can be contacted on 0207 679 4998, meg.russell@ucl.ac.uk. Vicki Spence is the Unit’s Administrator (v.spence@ucl.ac.uk, 0207 679 4977) and Brian Walker is the Unit’s Press Officer (williambrianwalker@gmail.com, 07802 176347).

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