Peers to put controversial Police Bill to its final test: Patricia Wynn Davies reviews the prospects of a much-disrupted Government measure

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Indy Politics
Peers will put the finishing touches to their substantial re- write of the controversial Police and Magistrates' Courts Bill tomorrow when they vote on the latest set of concessions tabled by the Government.

The new provisions on justices' chief clerks put down by Lord Mackay of Clashfern, the Lord Chancellor, come in the wake of half-a-dozen substantial U-turns on key provisions and a number of further changes.

Tomorrow's amendments for the last day of the Report Stage in the House of Lords have been forced by a powerful alliance of opposition and Tory peers, cross- benchers and the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Taylor, who are unhappy about a plan for government-appointed chief clerks to oversee the magistrates' courts system.

Critics have persistently argued that the measure would create a conflict of interest between the chief clerks' administrative and financial functions and their legal and judicial roles.

Lord Mackay's amendments are expected to buy off the concerns, although an additional amendment tabled with all-party support by Lord Ackner, the former law lord, could yet force further changes.

Earlier U-turns saw Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, agree to drop plans for government-appointed police authority chairmen and a limit on authority numbers, and agree to new 'co- opted' members being chosen locally, and for local council representatives to form the majority.

The Lord Chancellor quickly dropped provisions for performance-related pay and fixed-term contracts for justices' clerks, who advise JPs on the law and have power to grant legal aid and adjournments and decide on the mode of criminal trial.

Critics claim that the extent of the Government climbdowns mean that the Bill that reaches the Commons after its Third Reading, due next week, is only a shadow of its former self. Lord McIntosh of Haringey, Labour's home affairs spokesman in the Lords, said: 'We have made substantial progress on this Bill due to cross- party pressure. Police authorities will be stronger and free of Home Office control. Local democracy has been safeguarded.'

The Government is to rush through a one-clause Bill by 1 April to rectify the omission of British Transport Police powers in its rail privatisation measure.

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