Parliament & Politics: Blair clashes with Hague over Lords

QUESTION TIME
TONY BLAIR bitterly attacked the Tories yesterday for relying on hereditary peers' votes to overturn the will of elected MPs as the Government faced the loss of legislation for next year's European elections.

Before last night's vote in the Lords he told William Hague: "That is not democracy." But the Tory leader said the only affront to democracy was Mr Blair's plan to "deny the voters the right to vote for a candidate they prefer". The "closed-list" system, to be introduced under the European Parliamentary Elections Bill, was defeated by peers for an unprecedented fourth time on Tuesday. They say too much power would be given to the centralised party machine, because electors can vote for only a party and not individual candidates.

Mr Blair said not a single Labour MP had voted against the Bill. He told Mr Hague: "There is one central issue here: is the will of the House of Commons the will that should be upheld, or is it the will of the Tory hereditary peers? Perhaps you could get up and admit that it is only with Tory hereditary peers you come anywhere near winning this vote. That is the real issue: Conservative support of hereditary peers or our support for an elected House of Commons."

Mr Hague pointed to opposition to closed lists from several Labour backbenchers. "Why don't you admit: the crossbench peers voted against the Government ... the law lords voted against the Government and all the bishops who were present voted against the Government?" Mr Blair said the closed- list system would bring Britain into line with other European countries and it was one of Labour's manifesto commitments. "If I can give you a little bit of advice, since I know you are in need of an image consultant at the moment: the right image for you is not to wrap yourself in the ermine of hereditary peers."

Later, during a debate to overturn the Lords defeat, Jack Straw, Home Secretary, also denounced the hereditary peers' behaviour: "The more the public see of them, the stronger they make the case for abolition. On the one o'clock news on the BBC we had the risible spectacle of the fourth Baron Ampthill, a crossbencher ...claiming to speak for ... British democracy. He voted, of course, with the Conservatives.

"His case was not made any easier by the fact that his main claim to fame is that he was for four years general manager of the co-operative stores to the upper classes - Fortnum and Mason.

"His great-great grandfather got the peerage for being no more than British ambassador to the German Empire in 1881." In a challenge to Tory MPs, the Home Secretary demanded: "117 years on since the creation of this barony can any of you tell me what right he or any other hereditary peer has to sabotage the decision of this elected House?"

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