Taking another step in the government's ambitious program to revamp national administration, a blue-ribbon commission today recommended that the House of Lords, the upper, largely powerless chamber of Parliament, should be retained, but with some members elected and some appointed.
The lengthy report will spark what promises to be a lengthy debate about the future of the upper house, an ancient arm of government that essentially lost half its members two months ago when the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair eliminated the right of a few hundred titled families to pass their seats on to generations of heirs.
The demise of the "hereditary peers" left open the question of whether there should be a House of Lords at all, how it should function and how its members should be chosen. The Royal Commission that reported today suggested that the house should continue to exist, but as a far more representative body than it has ever been, with a certain number of seats set aside for women, members of religious and ethnic minorities and small political parties.
The commission also proposed some minor additions to the powers of the upper house. Essentially, though, it would remain mainly a debating society, lacking the power to block legislation passed by the House of Commons, the lower house whose members are popularly elected.
The new plan was treated as the big news of the day in Britain's media, but it's not at all likely to be enacted any time soon. Blair and his Labor Party government hold an overwhelming majority of seats in the House of Commons, and as long as that continues, no one expects Blair to dilute his control by giving more power or stature to the Lords.
The House of Lords, which can trace its history back a thousand years and more, is one of the oldest governing assemblies on Earth. As Britain became a more democratic nation over the past 170 years, though, the Lords gradually lost authority to the Commons.
Today, the House of Lords is composed mainly of life peers--senior politicians chosen by the prime minister who hold their seats for life. They cannot veto legislation approved by the House of Commons, but can delay a bill for months by refusing to agree.
The Lords' lingering power was demonstrated vividly tonight, when the upper house refused to agree to a Blair proposal that would deny the right to trial by jury to people accused of relatively minor crimes, such as shoplifting. The Lords' stance, and the public debate it sparked, will probably force Blair to take his crime bill back to the lower house and start over.
Dumping the barons, viscounts, earls and dukes who sat in Parliament by right of birth was one of several major changes that Blair has brought about in Britain's unwritten constitution since he took office in May 1997. In the past year, local governing authority has been passed from Parliament to new, locally elected assemblies in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. This May, the residents of London, representing about 12 percent of Britain's population, will elect a mayor and city-wide government for the first time.
Today's report suggested that the House of Lords should have 550 members--roughly the number sitting today. A minority of them would be elected from local districts. The majority would be appointed, for 15-year terms, by an independent commission free of partisan slant.
Since titles such as "lord" and "lady" evoke traditional class distinctions, the commission said that some other title for members might be preferable. It even suggested borrowing a term from the United States and calling members senators.