The government agenda facing death by deadline

'The outcomes in the Lords in the next few weeks will be remembered long after the party conferences'
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The Independent Online

In three weeks' time the massed ranks of the electronic and print media will begin their three weeks at the seaside, reporting what are almost certain to be the last party conferences before the general election. The coverage will be comprehensive, at least as much as the audience can bear. Nothing odd about that, of course. Except that this time the life and death struggle will be happening somewhere else.

In three weeks' time the massed ranks of the electronic and print media will begin their three weeks at the seaside, reporting what are almost certain to be the last party conferences before the general election. The coverage will be comprehensive, at least as much as the audience can bear. Nothing odd about that, of course. Except that this time the life and death struggle will be happening somewhere else.

For the House of Lords is about to become, for several weeks, a cockpit of real importance. Its deliberations will resonate way beyond Parliament. They will cause fierce tensions, and possibly full scale rows, among Cabinet ministers. The Lords' overspill session, beginning on 27 September, will in its own way shape perceptions of the Government as decisively as its party conference.

The session is dauntingly crowded. The passage through the Lords of the bill to usher in the new Police Service of Northern Ireland, because it is integral to the peace process, is no doubt the most important. It cannot be allowed to fall. About the rest of the programme, no such predictions can be made with any confidence. In the Lords the guillotine - the standard method by which a government cuts short debate in the Commons - does not operate. Against a sudden death deadline, which requires the session to end in time for the new one to begin at the end of November, some very tough choices, indeed, may be looming.

Already, the sotto voce claims and counter claims of the bills' sponsoring departments are rustling through the Whitehall undergrowth. Wouldn't the Criminal Justice (Mode of Trial) (No2), it is muttered, be the ideal candidate for the chop?

Its innocuous name, after all, disguises a ferociously controversial measure, designed to reduce by about 18,000 a year the number of defendants allowed to opt for jury trial. It is hated by most lawyers outside the ranks of those in the Government itself.

The Liberal Democrats, and indeed liberals in every party, regard it as an offence to the ancient tradition of jury trial. The Conservative peers, many opportunistically, some genuinely, are opposed. It's true that the Treasury as well as the Home Office is very interested in the £100m a year it will save in court costs. But that's hardly conclusive. (It's a safe bet, for example, that the Home Office will soon mitigate another quite separate - and indefensible - cost-cutting demand of up to £580 for appeals by relatives of immigrants barred from coming to the UK for weddings and other family occasions.)

There is every chance that the Mode of Trial Bill will be defeated. Why not pre-empt such humiliation by simply withdrawing the Bill and making time for other, also hotly contested, measures?

Like the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill. Much of this measure - aimed at the protection of wildlife - is benignly uncontroversial. But it, too, faces grave difficulties. The Lords - packed with experts on the countryside - will want ample time to debate a long list of fresh government amendments to protect areas of outstanding natural beauty. And that's before they get to the really controversial sections - strongly opposed by Tory landowners - designed to introduce the ramblers' right to roam. The Conservative spokesman, Damian Green, has offered a seductive deal - by which the Government can have its Bill without the Right to Roam.

But life isn't that simple. I detect no willingness whatever in the Home Office to sacrifice the Mode of Trial bill, in which Jack Straw passionately believes as a means of speeding up court proceedings. the Bill's supporters argue, after all, that it is not scrapping jury trial, merely widening the existing cases in which it is already precluded as an option. Indeed, the signs are that if the bill is defeated, as officials privately accept it may be, Mr Straw plans to invoke the Parliament Act to force it through in the next session. In the brutal language of parliamentary management Mr Straw can argue that while the Bill is hated by its many critics, it has not actually been much amended. It may be defeated; but it will not take up much time.

As for the Right to Roam, Michael Meacher, the environment minister, and less visibly but at least as powerfully, Chris Smith, have staked their reputations on the introduction of an overdue measure deservedly dear to the hearts of ramblers. John Prescott has promised the Bill will go through. If the right to roam is sacrificed, blood will be spilt. Another Straw bill, to reform party funding, is unlikely to be a candidate, if only because no party is going to be blamed for its demise in the run-up to an election.

Or perhaps Freedom of Information is a candidate? After all, the Bill is a miserable shadow of the boldly innovative 1997 White Paper shaped by the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine. It is probably not a vote winner - though an effective Act might very rapidly become one. Neither Tony Blair nor Mr Straw have their hearts on the principles enshrined in that White Paper. They would hardly, deep down, mourn its passing.

But this goes to the heart of the dilemma ministers may face. To understand it you have only to imagine that the Mode of Trial bill is kept alive and that either the Right to Roam, or Freedom of Information, or both, fall. What would that say about the Government to its supporters? Maybe there is room for a few marginal concessions on Right to Roam, like a clause restricting night-time access or protecting bird life from walkers' dogs. But dropping the Bill would cause outrage through much of the party, for whom, beside the innocent enjoyment it would extend to hundreds of thousands of people by restoring their rightful access to open countryside, is a powerful symbol that the Government maintains a strain of radicalism which is distinctively of the left.

Dropping FoI - especially while retaining the the curb on jury trial - would be to abandon a measure which has been promised by the Labour Party in six consecutive manifestos and to which Mr Blair himself personally committed the party before the 1997 election; and to abandon it in favour of a measure - for which there is no such explicit manifesto commitment.

This is about more than mere statecraft; it concerns the very principles on which the Government was elected. The pressure of the timetable is crazy. The Lords will no doubt congratulate themselves on coming back a week earlier than normal. If time was the problem they could have been ordered back earlier - having enjoyed the whole of August off. And is it really so inconceivable that the Queen's Speech could be postponed for a few days to allow the business to be completed?

But that hope is now forlorn; and in any case, the issue is now one of keeping faith with the Government's promises. Mr Straw is fully entitled to use the Parliament Act to force through Mode of Trial. But if ministers can bludgeon that through, they can also secure the Right to Roam and a Freedom of Information bill at least half-worthy of the name. The outcomes in the Lords in the coming weeks will be remembered long after the excitements in Bournemouth and Brighton are forgotten.

d.macintyre@independent.co.uk

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