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Change is afoot in centuries-old House of Lords

Wearing scarlet robes with ermine collars, three gray-haired men clutching cocked hats move in slow procession behind officials with the medieval titles of Black Rod and Garter King of Arms. They bow to the sovereign's empty chair, bow to a man wearing a gigantic wig and tricorn hat, and bow again.

That's just for starters in the ceremony to swear in new members of Britain's House of Lords, a custom little-changed since the 17th century.But change could be in the offing - and the swearing-in ceremony isn't the only tradition in the Labor Party's sights.

Prime Minister Tony Blair, preparing to strip aristocratic hereditary peers of the right to vote, is beefing up the unelected chamber with newly ennobled commoner supporters.

Fifty-seven new lords - mainly politicians, with a sprinkling of film producers, writers and lawyers - need swearing in, including 26 nominees from opposition parties.

Even with two or three sworn in at a time, it will be after New Year's before they are all through. And until they've been sworn in, they can't take their seats.

They will join the hereditary peers who have constituted a built-in majority for the Conservative Party in the upper chamber.

The chamber's powers are so reduced the Lords can really only irritate the elected government, not overturn legislation. But for many, taking away the hereditary peers' voting rights has a deeply symbolic significance, reflecting the changing face of a less deferential Britain.

It also means the monarchy is the last bastion of inherited title and privilege.

The perks of a peerage are some-what modest: the prestige of a title, a limited voice in the government's business, membership in the cozy club of the House of Lords, parking in the Parliament's basement and a small daily allowance for attendance.

Plus, of course, the exaggerated pomp of the swearing-in ceremony.

Labor's leader in the upper house, Lord Richard, a lawyer and former member of the House of Commons who got his title in 1990, wants to reduce the ritual, which takes about 11 minutes per lord.

Hereditary peers - dukes, marquesses, earls, viscounts and barons, some with titles going back generations - never needed swearing in. They got there by birth.