LONDON – British legislators voted their support Wednesday for proposals for an entirely elected House of Lords, an unprecedented step toward ending the political power held by an unelected elite for centuries.
Legislation required to authorize the radical change would need to clear some major hurdles — including intense scrutiny and a vote in the House of Lords, from the peers the proposal seeks to remove.
House of Commons lawmakers voted 337 to 224 in favor of developing laws to elect all members of Parliament's upper chamber — which could be one of the most significant constitutional changes in British history, bringing the previously unelected upper house in line with similar institutions in many other countries.
Jack Straw, leader of the Commons, said the vote was a historic step forward and that he would meet with lawmakers to discuss how to proceed.
Lawmakers in both the Commons and Lords will hold future votes on the plan when proposed laws are tabled — which cannot happen before the next parliamentary session, beginning in October.
Prime Minister Tony Blair voted for a proposed 50 percent split between elected and appointed Lords, but did not take part in the other votes, his Downing Street office said.
Campaigners lobbying for an entirely elected second parliamentary chamber claim that only Lesotho — a poor African kingdom — has a system similar to Britain's, allowing a mix of unelected appointees and hereditary legislators to influence laws.
The process of appointing of peers has been clouded by a police inquiry into allegations that Blair's government, and the opposition Conservative Party, appointed Lords in exchange for financial support. Parties can nominate activists for political work — but 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 he had been unable to muster broad support behind any new formula for selection. In 2003, lawmakers voted down five options for further change.
The House of Lords, which emerged 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.
Britain, unlike most other democracies, appoints peers for life terms, rather than fixed periods of office.
Straw, the House of Commons Leader, proposed a 540-seat house — a reduction of around 200. Under his plans, all remaining 92 hereditary peers — members who inherit their right to be in the chamber — will be removed.
Some Church of England bishops — known as the Lords Spiritual — will remain, selected by an independent body reporting to Parliament.
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 Commonwealth or Ireland. Since 1958, women and so-called life peers — mainly drawn from the ranks of retired politicians or those nominated by political parties — have also been appointed.
Around 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.