House of Lords: Peers `safeguard the constitution'

TONY BLAIR suffered another setback to his plans for Lords reform after peers backed calls to retain their power to stop prime ministers postponing a general election. They voted 283-177 during the House of Lords Bill's report stage for an amendment which would ensure no prime minister can extend the life of Parliament beyond five years.

The Tories believe that once most hereditaries are removed, a prime minister could postpone an election by getting a Bill through the Commons and packing the Lords with his own life peers to get it past the upper chamber. Under the amendment peers would not be allowed to vote on a Bill extending the life of Parliament if they had been appointed since the previous election. It was the second time the Tories had used their inbuilt majority to defeat the Government but it said it will reverse the amendment when the Bill gets back to the Commons.

Lord Mancroft, who tabled the amendment, said the measure would safeguard the constitution and ensure the power was only used if the government of the day had a legitimate reason for extending the life of the Parliament, for example in a national emergency.

Lord Williams of Mostyn, Home Office Minister of State, said the move was "self-indulgent". He rejected the amendment, saying it would "not work; it is not needed and it is based on a false premise". Referring to the fact that the 1911 Parliament Act limits the life of Parliament to five years, he said the change to the Bill "cannot bite on any legislation to amend the Act of 1911. It is therefore wholly valueless and meaningless, except as a cosmetic and superficial device."

The Duke of Buccleuch and Queensberry, a Tory, compared the strength of the executive to Orwell's 1984. "The media is dominated by the left wing and so the drift carries on towards that situation which George Orwell described so clearly ... We want to look rather further ahead than the immediate future and therefore this could be a very worthwhile safeguard. And George Orwell's real name was not George Orwell - it was Eric Blair."

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