UK & World News
Battle For Lords Reform: Govt Sets Out Plans
Controversial plans for the reform of the House of Lords have sparked a bruising Parliamentary battle.
The legislation, proposing an 80%-elected and slimmed down House of Lords, is bitterly opposed by many Conservative MPs who are determined to block it.
All three major parties backed Lords reform at the last election, but it is Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats who are driving the changes.
Mr Clegg told Sky News on Wednesday: "There are many more important things in life than House of Lords reform, but we've been talking about it as a country for 100 years and all the political parties said at the last general election that they wanted to get this done.
"There's a very simple principle at stake which I think most people would agree with, which is that people who make the laws of the land should be elected by the people who have to obey the laws of the land.
"It's as simple as that and I think we should just now get on with it. I hope people won't tie themselves up in knots in Westminster. Just get on with this - it's something the country expects us to do, and we should do it."
Tory rebels are furious with David Cameron for allowing Mr Clegg to make Lords reform such a high priority for the Coalition, claiming there are more pressing issues such as the economy.
On Tuesday, Ed Miliband and Labour's Shadow Cabinet agreed that their party's MPs would vote for the 60-clause Bill when it has its second reading in the Commons next month.
But Labour is demanding a referendum on Lords reform and will join rebel Tory MPs - who could number as many as 100 - in voting against a Parliamentary timetable motion that is vital for the Bill to make progress in the Commons.
Defeat for the Government on this timetable motion would throw the legislation into chaos and could allow opponents of the Bill to delay its progress for months if not years.
The Government insists its MPs will be whipped to support the Bill and if ministerial aides who are threatening to rebel do vote against the Government they will have to resign or be sacked.
"It is a Government bill," said the Prime Minister's spokesman. "It will be whipped appropriately and if necessary we will use the Parliament Act."
The Government has the ultimate sanction of using the Parliament Act if legislation is blocked in the House of Lords, which could happen even if it clears the Commons.
Mr Clegg wants the Bill on the statute book by next summer if possible, by 2014 if it has to use the Parliament Act and wants the first elections to the Lords to be held in May 2015.
Asked whether ministers or parliamentary aides who voted against the Bill could expect to be sacked, the spokesman said: "If you are a member of the Government, you are expected to vote for this Bill, as you are for any Government bill."
Tory ministerial aide Conor Burns has said he is prepared to sacrifice his job to vote against the timetable that has been laid out.
"This is a major constitutional change... If we are going to have this debate, we need to have it at length and in full and we should have it in committee on the floor of the House of Commons and we should take as much time as is necessary to do that.
"If I lose my job for something that was a mainstream view within the Conservative Party in the last parliament, which serving Cabinet ministers held as their view, so be it."
On the eve of the Bill's publication, Liberal Democrat Treasury Chief Secretary Danny Alexander warned Conservatives that they had a responsibility to back the changes.
In a speech to the Electoral Reform Society conference, he said: "Both partners in this Coalition will be judged, not on the ambition of our rhetoric, but on how effectively we can continue to work together to implement the policies we jointly set out in the coalition agreement. All of them."
He added: "We all collectively should feel the pressure to deliver, because it is what all political parties put in their manifestos. And we should see that commitment through, not because it is the No 1 thing that comes up on the doorstep, but because it is the right thing to do, because in a democracy lawmakers should be elected."
At present, there are 816 members of the Lords, of whom 698 were appointed by political parties, 92 are hereditary peers and 26 are archbishops.
In the face of fierce opposition from Tory backbenchers, the Government has already made a number of concessions to opponents and potential Tory rebels.
It is expected that the Bill will propose cutting the number of peers to 450, rather than the 300 originally proposed. Peers in the new-look Lords are also likely to receive £300 for every day they attend, rather than a £60,000 salary - similar to that of MPs - as previously proposed.
One normally loyal Tory MP, Penny Mordaunt, said: "Many of my colleagues who have been in the House much longer than I have and have never voted against the Government are considering doing so. This is a very serious issue and indeed there are many people on the Government payroll who have grave concerns about this."
Calling for a referendum, which Mr Cameron has so far ruled out, Mr Miliband said: "There is little logic in a position which says we have referendums to decide whether we have city mayors, but not to decide whether to alter radically the composition and structure of our Parliament."
The Labour leader also admitted many Labour MPs and peers will oppose his support for Lords reform. "I know there are some on our own benches in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords who want to vote against this Bill for reasons of principle," he said. "I respect those who hold this view but I disagree with them."
Labour claims it is opposing the timetable motion because the Government is not allowing enough time for debate in the Commons on such a major and important piece of constitutional reform. It is thought the Government will propose a two-day debate at second reading and 10 days in committee.
"There will be some who say this is Labour's attempt to wreck the Bill and allow opponents to suffocate it through deliberate delay so the reform never even reaches the House of Lords," said Mr Miliband. "They are wrong."
He added: "I do not want the reform of the House of Lords to be stuck in the House of Commons. I want a good reform Bill to get out of the Commons and into the Lords so it can be properly discussed in both Houses."