MPs in trouble for backing party policy

Labour MPs calling for a Commons-based Secretary of State for Justice to replace the Lord Chancellor were under pressure from the whips last night - even though their demand upholds existing party policy.

The policy was included in Labour's 1992 election manifesto, but it was dropped by Tony Blair in time for last year's election. By that stage, Mr Blair had already decided Lord Irvine of Lairg, head of his legal chambers when he was a barrister, would become Lord Chancellor and an influential player in behind-the-scenes Cabinet committees.

Government whips were yesterday piling the pressure on Labour MPs to pull their names off the Commons motion calling for the creation of a new Department of Justice, with a Secretary of State answerable to the Commons. The motion, tabled by Labour backbencher Robert Marshall-Andrews QC, has upset the party hierarchy because it coincides with Tory attacks on Lord Irvine.

The Commons motion, which had been signed by 87 MPs within 24 hours, was officially regarded as an "unhelpful" criticism of the current Lord Chancellor's lack of accountability, as a minister in the Lords. Up to yesterday morning, three Labour MPs had withdrawn their support.

But Lord Irvine last night appeared to make light of his difficulties in a speech to Oxford University Labour Club, when he suggested he was still learning about the rough and tumble of politics. Delivering the John Smith Memorial Lecture, Lord Irvine said the Government had set out to promote life-long learning among those beyond school-age, "because we, who have got a little more living time in than you, can also benefit from a touch of education now and again".

Lord Irvine said John Smith, the late Labour leader, had also been disturbed by the declining strength of Parliament as a means of holding the executive to account. "He argued for the modernisation of its procedures so that ordinary people could better understand how Parliament worked and why it was important that it worked well. He described the hereditary principle in the House of Lords as `bizarre' and supported its abolition."

But the Commons motion, and the 1992 manifesto, went one step further, urging the executive role of the Lord Chancellor to be taken on by an elected member of the Commons.

Brian Sedgemore, one of the Labour signatories of the motion, said last night that he had received an invitation to meet Lord Irvine on Monday - something he welcomed as a "charm offensive,"

The MP said that he had always supported the creation of a separate Department of Justice, "as a countervailing power to the Home Office, which acts as a Ministry of the Interior, with responsibility for immigration, the police, prisons, and security in general."