WELFARE: Peers told: revolt and you'll lose your reprieve

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The Independent Online
THE GOVERNMENT last night was holding a sword of Damocles over the House of Lords in an attempt to force peers to back down over a threatened rebellion on the Welfare Reform Bill.

Ministers issued a thinly veiled warning to the Tories that the reprieve for 92 hereditary peers ahead of full Lords reform is at risk if they continue to defy ministers over disability benefit cuts.

Margaret Beckett, the Commons Leader, disclosed that the House of Lords Bill is due to clear the Commons next Wednesday, a day before the end of the parliamentary session, in a clear signal to the Opposition not to obstruct the Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill.

Hereditary peers will hear today whether they have been successful in an unprecedented election to allow 75 of them to retain their seats in the transitional Lords, together with 17 who have already been named.

But they could be denied the chance to keep their seats, if the Government next week retaliates by withdrawing the concession, known as the Weatherill amendment, to allow the hereditaries to remain in the Lords.

Alistair Darling, the Secretary of State for Social Security, said there would be no more concessions on the Welfare Reform Bill in the wake of the rebellion by 54 MPs in the Commons on Wednesday. Mr Darling told peers: "The time has now come for them to accept that this important piece of legislation ought to be passed into law."

A senior Whitehall source said: "Alistair would prefer to see the Weatherill amendment dropped than to see the whole bill lost."

The veteran Labour peer, Lord Ashley, who is leading the attack on the Welfare Reform Bill said yesterday that the Lords would not be the first "to blink" in the stand-off with the Government.

The showdown threatens to force both Houses of Parliament into late night sessions next week as the welfare legislation is knocked backwards and forwards between the two chambers.

To reinforce that message, Margaret Beckett, the Leader of the Commons, told MPs that the Government is holding back until the last moment Commons approval for the Bill to reform the House of Lords.

The Bill was changed during its passage through the Lords to include the amendment tabled by Lord Weatherill.

Mrs Beckett said the Government preferred to see the Bill to reform the Lords to be enacted with the Weatherill amendment. But there was an implied threat that if the Lords throw out the cuts in benefits for the disabled, the Government would withdraw support for the concession to the hereditary peers on Lords reform.

Mrs Beckett told MPs that peers should respect the "supremacy" of the elected House.

Labour's Dr George Turner (Norfolk NW) asked her what contingency plans the Government had made if it suffered another defeat in the Lords. Mrs Beckett relied: "As for contingency plans, well I suppose that is how one could describe taking the Lords Reform Bill on Wednesday."

If the Government scrapped the seats for the hereditary peers who will be elected today, that could provoke an angry backlash from Tory peers, blocking the reform of the Lords Bill for at least 12 months.