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Overhaul of Britain's House gains steam

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II reads the legislative program from the throne to the assembled House of Lords in London in this Wednesday, June 20, 2001 file photo. British lawmakers voted Wednesday, March 7, 2007, to radically overhaul Parliament's unelected House of Lords, approving a proposal to evict all remaining hereditary peers and to elect at least 80 percent of members. After a series of House of Commons votes, legislators came out 305 to 267 in favor of developing laws to install a mix of 20 percent appointed and 80 percent elected members in Britain's second chamber. Votes were continuing on other options; it will require legislation for the changes to take effect. Britain's Queen Elizabeth II reads the legislative program from the throne to the assembled House of Lords in London in this Wednesday, June 20, 2001 file photo. British lawmakers voted Wednesday, March 7, 2007, to radically overhaul Parliament's unelected House of Lords, approving a proposal to evict all remaining hereditary peers and to elect at least 80 percent of members. After a series of House of Commons votes, legislators came out 305 to 267 in favor of developing laws to install a mix of 20 percent appointed and 80 percent elected members in Britain's second chamber. Votes were continuing on other options; it will require legislation for the changes to take effect. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant/Pool)

LONDON --It's a tradition that dates back to the Middle Ages -- allowing Britain's non-elected elite to hold political power -- but lawmakers voted Wednesday to pursue radical reform of the House of Lords with a plan for a wholly elected second chamber stripped of dukes and earls.

House of Commons leader Jack Straw said a panel of lawmakers would draft proposed new laws to implement the change -- potentially one of the most significant constitutional reforms in British history.

"The House of Commons has broken the deadlock," Straw said. "It is a dramatic result in the history of the British Parliament."

However, a draft bill will not be tabled before October and any law authorizing the radical change would need to clear a number of significant hurdles -- including a further vote in the Commons and intense scrutiny in the Lords.

Straw downplayed expectations of swift action, saying the vote was a clear indication of the preference of lawmakers, but not a binding resolution.

Lawmakers in the Commons voted 337-224 in favor of electing all members of the upper chamber -- a move which would bring it in line with similar institutions such as the U.S. Senate and chambers in Australia, Japan and Brazil.

Campaigners lobbying for an entirely elected second chamber claim only Lesotho -- a poor African kingdom -- has a system similar to Britain's, allowing a mix of unelected and hereditary appointees to influence laws.

Menzies Campbell, leader of the opposition Liberal Democrats, said the House of Commons "has at last taken the momentous step to reform the upper house and make it fit for a modern democracy."

Opponents claim that the current Lords composition, which is split almost evenly among members aligned with the Labour and opposition parties and those not politically affiliated, allows for considered debate rather than partisan point scoring.

They say members appointed because of their excellence in a particular field are also able to draw on skills an elected Lords would not possess.

For most of the chamber's history, all those with inherited titles -- created by the monarch -- could take a place in the Lords, provided they were male, over 21 and citizens of Britain, the British Commonwealth or Ireland.

Since 1958, women and so-called life peers -- appointees mainly drawn from the ranks of retired politicians or those nominated by political parties -- have also been appointed.

About 40 percent of current members are former lawmakers, which has led advocates of reform to suggest the chamber continues to exclude those without the patronage of either political leaders or the monarch. Britain, unlike most other democracies, also appoints peers for life terms, rather than fixed periods of office. Proposals under consideration suggest future elected peers should serve five-year terms.

The House of Commons also voted in favor of changing the makeup of the Lords to 80 percent elected members and 20 percent appointed. That option would likely safeguard a small number of seats reserved for Church of England bishops -- known as the Lords Spiritual.

Prime Minister Tony Blair and his likely successor, Treasury chief Gordon Brown, both voted in favor of a 50-50 split between elected and appointed Lords. They did not take part in the other votes.

The process of appointing peers has been clouded by a police inquiry into allegations that Blair's Labour Party and the opposition Conservatives appointed Lords in exchange for financial support. Selling peerages is a criminal offense.

Blair succeeded in ejecting 600 hereditary members in 1999 -- with the remaining 92 due to be removed once new reforms are agreed -- but had been unable to muster broad support behind any new formula for selection. In 2003, lawmakers voted down five options for further change.

Straw has proposed a 540-seat house -- a reduction of around 200.

The House of Lords, which emerged as a distinct body around 700 years ago, does not make laws but has the power to amend legislation, subject to the consent of the House of Commons, or to delay the passage of legislation for a limited period.

A bitter clash between peers and Prime Minister David Lloyd George over his 1911 budget -- which the Lords had threatened to veto -- led to a limiting of their powers and brought the first modern call for reform.

Of 65 nations with a two-chamber parliament, 46 elect most or all representatives, according to James Graham, who is campaigning for members to be elected. Of the 19 that appoint most or all second-chamber lawmakers -- including Britain and Canada -- only five are established democracies, he said.

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