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Parliament: HOUSE OF LORDS - Rearguard action against chamber of `Tony's cronies'

TONY BLAIR was attacked last night for creating a chamber of "Tony's cronies" as the Commons passed the historic Bill to end the rights of 600 hereditary peers to sit in the House of Lords.

There were tearful scenes in the Lords as hereditary peers bade farewell to close friends, before the Bill goes through its last Lords' stages today .

In the Commons last night, there was a rearguard action by an unusual alliance of Tories and Labour MPs who criticised the Government for replacing the hereditary peers with life peers who owed their patronage to the Prime Minister. The veteran Labour MP Tony Benn, who renounced an hereditary peerage, called on the Government to move swiftly to bring in a wholly elected second chamber.

He said patronage was "corrupting" for those who received it and those who awarded it. "I do not believe there will be a second stage [of reform] in my lifetime, although I aim to live to be 100," he told MPs.

"There is no desire in the British Establishment whatsoever to have an elected second chamber.

"The British Establishment has never liked democracy in this House and it has no intention of seeing the virus spread to a second House.

"Until we make that clear, we will be muddling on with little compromises which contribute nothing to the advancement of the people's right to determine how they are governed."

Mr Benn, the MP for Chesterfield, opposed the Weatherill amendment which will allow 92 hereditary peers to remain in the Lords, after the first stage of the reforms. He said it was a "total breach" of Labour's election manifesto commitment to remove the hereditaries from the Lords. "The thing about hereditary and life peers which is equally objectionable is that neither of them have been elected," he said.

The former Tory cabinet minister Sir Norman Fowler said he accepted Labour had a mandate to remove hereditary peers from the Lords but he claimed the party did not have a mandate to establish this first stage of reform. The Weatherill compromise had only been agreed to because the Government wanted to get its legislation through the Upper House without trouble, he said. "As a temporary measure it borders on the ridiculous and as a permanent measure it is utterly indefensible."

Another former Tory cabinet minister, John Gummer (Suffolk Coastal), said that Mr Blair would pack the Stage Two Lords with "placemen" and "clones even more clonic" than those that now sat on the Labour back benches in the Commons.

Andrew Mackinlay (Lab, Thurrock) warned, if the drive towards further Lords reform faltered, the 92 peers could continue to be replaced in perpetuity by other hereditaries - including some who failed to get elected in last week's ballot of hereditary peers.

The Leader of the House, Margaret Beckett, denied the Weatherill compromise was a breach of Labour's manifesto pledge to remove the hereditary peers from the Lords.

She said reform of the Upper House had been a consistent theme within the Labour Party but this time they intended to succeed where previous administrations had failed.