Blair urged to axe post of Lord Chancellor

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The Independent Online
A call for the Prime Minister to axe the post of Lord Chancellor was made by more than 50 Labour MPs last night.

In a humiliating snub to the gaffe-prone Lord Irvine of Lairg, the motion urged Tony Blair to take advantage of the proposed reform of the House of Lords with a review of the executive role of the Lord Chancellor.

Sponsored by Robert Marshall-Andrews QC, Labour MP for Medway, the motion suggested "that role being undertaken by a Secretary of State for Justice within a Department of Justice, answerable directly to the House of Commons".

That would exclude Lord Irvine, who was appointed directly to the job in the Lords by his former legal pupil, Mr Blair.

The implicit criticism of Lord Irvine's conduct as Lord Chancellor - often seen as out-of-touch, if not high-handed and arrogant - is the more damaging because the motion has been signed by a number of new MPs who are not regarded as "usual suspect" trouble-makers.

They include Rhodri Morgan, who chairs the all-party Public Administration Select Committee, which recently called Lord Irvine to give evidence; David Hinchliffe, chairman of the Health Select Committee; Rosie Winterton, who was an aide to John Prescott in Opposition; and Charlotte Atkins, a former parliamentary officer with Unison.

While many MPs are dismayed by the insensitivity of Lord Irvine's expensive taste in interior decoration - running up a pounds 650,000 bill for the redecoration of his state apartments in the Lords - last night's motion makes the more telling political point, that an unelected peer should not have so much power in a democracy.

In addition to his role as the most senior figure in the justice system, Lord Irvine also chairs a significant number of Cabinet committees, and is known to have upset a number of Cabinet colleagues by attempting to impose his views.

The Independent reported only last week that as chairman of the Future Legislation Committee, Lord Irvine had objected to a Bill to strengthen the regulatory system for the privatised public utilities, arguing that it was not a political priority.

That is known to have angered the Treasury and the Department of Trade and Industry, and the Bill will be in next autumn's Queen's Speech programme for the coming year.

However, Lord Irvine is also thought to have crossed swords with Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, over "empire-building" plans to create his own Ministry of Justice, at Home Office expense, and it is that notion that appears to have fuelled last night's backlash from the Commons.

While the attacks on Lord Irvine have been coming thick and fast over recent weeks, there is a strong suspicion among senior Government colleagues that much of the media attention was instigated by his suggestion that there would need to be some kind of privacy law.

The Prime Minister has made it clear that he will not have a privacy law of any kind, underlining the political innocence of the Lord Chancellor, but there is no question of Mr Blair sacrificing somebody he regards as a first-class minister.