In a withering attack in the Lords on the Police and Magistrates' Courts Bill, they warned the Prime Minister that he would face defeat if he refused to change the measure.
Last night Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, resisted amending the Bill, but he will almost certainly be forced to compromise.
The ferocious Lords attack came as a further serious blow to Mr Major's authority as he tried to rally support in the Commons. He now faces a damaging retreat on a Bill that he has made a centrepiece of his 'back to basics' campaign.
The peers warned the Government that the Bill, implementing some changes to police operations recommended in the Sheehy report, placed too much power over the police and the magistrates' courts in the hands of the Home Secretary, threatened the independence of the judicial system and undermined trust in the police. Condemning the arrogance of power by the Cabinet, Lord Callaghan accused Mr Howard of being 'a wilful and ambitious Home Secretary'.
The key areas of contention are: direct appointment of the chairmen of police authorities; imposition of contracts and performance-related pay on magistrates' clerks; and appointment of justices' clerks to oversee the operation of magistrates' courts.
Mr Howard sat on the throne steps to hear Lord Mackay of Clashfern, the Lord Chancellor, defend the Bill at the opening of its second reading. But he left before the Lord Chief Justice led the attack on Mr Howard's plan to impose new checks on magistrates' clerks, in the face of fierce opposition from court staff.
The Lord Chief Justice told the House he found some of the responsibilities for chief magistrates' clerks were 'chilling . . . we shall fail in our duty if we allow this Bill to pass in a way which allows the impression to be given that the advice magistrates receive or the judicial decisions taken by their clerks are no longer a matter of their own discretion but are instead liable to influence by the executive'.
Lord Whitelaw, a former Leader of the Lords, who is still seen as a steadying influence on the Government, told Mr Howard his plan to appoint paid chairmen for every police authority was 'a major change in the whole history of policing in this country'. It would make the chairmen appear to be the 'Home Secretary's men' and risked involving the Home Secretary in police operations.
'That is very dangerous indeed,' said Lord Whitelaw. 'Far be it from me to be difficult and tiresome over something the party I support is doing, but when I find I am anxious and worried, it is my duty to speak out.'
Lord Callaghan said peers had a right to force changes during the Bill's committee stage. 'The Bill has been thoroughly torn apart. We have had so much second-rate legislation in this Parliament which has had to be corrected in such a remarkable way that I think what we are suffering from is a wilful and ambitious group of young ministers who flit across the political scene, from department to department, supping the honey as they go before their misdeeds find them out. This is particularly true of the Home Secretary in this Bill.'
Mr Howard told the BBC last night: 'The chairman doesn't run the authority; the members run the authority; there will be 16 of them and 11 will be locally-elected councillors. I see no basis for suggesting that the Chief Constable will be the Home Secretary's creature.'
MAIN POINTS OF THE POLICE AND MAGISTRATES' COURTS BILL
New police authorities, with paid chairmen, appointed directly by Home Secretary
Home Secretary empowered to merge police authorities and set objectives
Lord Chancellor to set standards for magistrates' courts committees
Fixed contracts with performance-related pay for magistrates' clerks, and justices' clerks to oversee them
Major attacks smears, page 6
Inside Parliament, page 7
Letters, page 15
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