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Ministers 'trying to neuter Lords with review of blocking powers'

By Andrew Grice, Political Editor

Published: 06 January 2006

The Government is to review the ability of the House of Lords to block its legislation in a move seen by critics as an attempt to neuter the second chamber.

Ministers have proposed setting up a joint committee of MPs and peers to discuss the way the Lords can amend government Bills and delay their passage into law. The move follows a string of defeats in the Lords since Labour came to power in 1997.

The Government has drawn up a formal motion to set up a review, which has been passed to The Independent. But the Tories and Liberal Democrats may decide not to join the inquiry, as they suspect that ministers want to use it to shackle the second chamber.

The motion accepts the "primacy" of the elected House of Commons over the Lords, and says that the committee would consider how to codify the long-standing conventions affecting the passage of legislation. The unwritten rules say that the Lords will not block a Bill included in the election manifesto of the governing party and will consider government measures "in reasonable time". The motion says that the committee would also consider alternative forms of oversight by peers "that complement rather than replicate those of the House of Commons and how the House of Lords might offer a better route for public engagement in scrutiny and policy making".

Government sources dismissed criticism by Tories and Liberal Democrats that there was no mention of the specific powers and composition of the Lords in the motion. They said a debate on the conventions was a necessary first step before these issues could be addressed, as the two opposition parties had hinted they were no longer fully bound by the traditions.

Tony Blair has shied away from reforming the second chamber since all the options for electing some peers were rejected by MPs in a chaotic series of votes two years ago. Under pressure from cabinet ministers keen to make the Lords more democratic, he promised MPs a free vote on reform in Labour's manifesto at the general election last May.

Ministers will appeal to the Tories and Liberal Democrats not to boycott the review, saying that they must accept the supremacy of the elected chamber before there can be a meaningful debate on the powers and make-up of the Lords.

But the opposition parties are suspicious about the Government's intentions. They have accused Mr Blair of packing the upper house by nominating "Tony's cronies". Labour is now the largest single party in the Lords, although it does not enjoy an overall majority and the Tories and Liberal Democrats regularly inflict defeats on the Government by joining forces.

The issue of Lords reform is not high on Mr Blair's agenda, and he is expected to give priority to his public service changes before he stands down beforethe next election.

But Gordon Brown, the overwhelming front-runner to succeed him as prime minister, has signalled his interest in making the Lords more democratic.

At present, there are 210 Labour peers, 207 Tories, 74 Liberal Democrats and 193 independent crossbenchers in the House.

Ministers who support reform believe that the Commons would vote for between 50 per cent and 80 per cent of peers to be directly elected by the public. A call for an 80 per cent elected House of Lords was defeated by only a handful of votes in 2003.