Parliament: Lords' Reform: Peers angry as Irvine warns against delay

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PROSPECTS OF any consensus over House of Lords reform diminished last night as peers grew more hostile to the Government's plans to scrap the voting rights of hereditaries.

Their anger was fuelled after the Lord Chancellor gave the bluntest warning so far that any attempts to alter or delay the House of Lords Bill would breach the deal to retain 91 hereditaries in the interim period of reform.

Opening the last day on the Bill's second reading, Lord Irvine of Lairg said the so-called "Weatherill" compromise would allow the rest "to depart with dignity".

But he stressed ministers would not agree on a greater number of hereditaries staying, and would not hesitate to invoke the Parliament Act, allowing the Commons to override the peers, to carry out its plans.

"Changes will not be accepted either here, or in the Commons," said the Lord Chancellor. "Nor will the Government tolerate any material disruption of its legislative programme, through exchanges of messages between both Houses signifying continuing disagreement, or by any other means, when it has a manifesto commitment so clear and firm, and so strong a popular endorsement for its manifesto."

But peers made their intention to delay the Bill clear, when Lord Pearson of Rannoch, a Tory life peer, dismissed the Lord Chancellor's comments as "threatening and unpleasant".

Referring to peers' constitutional convention not to wreck legislation set out in the governing party's manifesto, he said: "I do not believe that the Salisbury Convention was designed to facilitate the destruction of this House."

Similarly, Lord Kingsland, speaking for the Tories, said they reserved the right to amend and vote against the Bill:"We will courageously vote for what we believe are the correct amendments to this Bill and, if need be, oppose it altogether."

Lord Weatherill insisted his compromise was "a genuine attempt to balance the principle and right of the Government to carry out its manifesto commitment and the rights equally of the Opposition parties".

Lord Callaghan of Cardiff, the former Labour prime minister, insisted: "I cannot see, trying to work through the programme, that we can introduce a reform measure until after the general election."

Viscount Cranborne, the former Tory leader in the Lords and one of the architects of the deal, warned the Lord Chancellor: "The Weatherill amendment is a least bad option. But I have to say to the Lord Chancellor that by his attempt to bushwhack the House this afternoon, he has not made our task any easier."

Peers were poised to defeat the Government in the early hours on a symbolic amendment by Lord Cobbold, a crossbencher, that criticises the Government for removing hereditaries before revealing its plans for a future make- up of the upper House.