Tory-Lab pact on crime Bill scuppered

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Indy Politics
The Government and Labour were last night forced into headlong retreat over the controversial Crime (Sentences) Bill by a combined force of irate peers.

A deal agreed on Monday between Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, and Jack Straw, his Labour shadow, threatened to allow the legislation through to the statute book in time for Friday's pre-election prorogation of Parliament - with the Government getting a chance to reverse a key Lords amendment.

The agreement was part of detailed negotiations between the three main parties on the future of the Government's remaining legislation, which saw John Major's plans to put a grammar school in every town ditched. Nineteen clauses were dropped from the Education Bill, after Labour and Liberal Democrats refused to co- operate to get them through.

But the Government had reckoned without the strength of feeling in the Lords about the Crime (Sentencing) Bill amendment to give judges discretion in applying mandatory sentences for people convicted of offences of burglary and drug trafficking, which the Home Secretary had hoped to reverse.

His agreement with Labour was yesterday dubbed "satanic" by Lord Bridge of Harwich, a former Law Lord, during protracted Lords proceedings which threatened to drag on through the night, and jeopardise the Government plans for Friday's prorogation.

Lord Ackner, another former Law Lord, led a series of revolts - backed by Liberal Democrats, crossbenchers and a number of Labour and Tory rebels - against plans to rush the legislation through the Upper House.

Among Lord Ackner's allies was Lord Bingham, the Lord Chief Justice, who told peers of his "dismay" at the proposed timetable to speed the passage of the Bill. "It's difficult to imagine measures more obviously calling for searching and thoughtful scrutiny in this House," he said. "I have a deep fear that if we legislate in haste we shall repent at leisure."

Although the revolts were defeated, it became evident that the opponents were determined enough to upset the Government timetable for the rest of its legislation.

Following a stock-taking adjournment, Lord Strathclyde, the Tory Chief Whip, announced that the Government had agreed to accept the amendment, and make no attempt to reverse it when the Bill goes back to the Commons.

Alan Beith, the Liberal Democrats' home affairs spokesman, had been involved in behind-the-scenes negotiations, and he said later: "It was vital that the judges retained some discretion in sentencing, and the Lords would not have been prepared to allow the Bill to pass into law if we had not obtained this agreement."

All the Government's legislation will now reach the statute book before Parliament rises on Friday. As soon as MPs return on 8 April the House will be dissolved for the general election.

On the Education Bill, Labour has agreed to accept the extension of the assisted places scheme, which it opposes, to preparatory schools. But ministers said "the heart had been torn from the Bill".