A very good reason to reform the House of Lords

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There is still time, but the Government's reaction to its defeat in the House of Lords on the repeal of Section 28, surely one of the most needlessly offensive and futile pieces of legislation ever to appear on the statute book, displays distressing signs of weakness. Of course Tony Blair has let it be known, through his official spokesman, that he regards Section 28 as "a piece of prejudice". He didn't really have to tell us that, but it is nice to know that the Prime Minister can at least still remember precisely why he and his government embarked on this exercise in the first place.

There is still time, but the Government's reaction to its defeat in the House of Lords on the repeal of Section 28, surely one of the most needlessly offensive and futile pieces of legislation ever to appear on the statute book, displays distressing signs of weakness. Of course Tony Blair has let it be known, through his official spokesman, that he regards Section 28 as "a piece of prejudice". He didn't really have to tell us that, but it is nice to know that the Prime Minister can at least still remember precisely why he and his government embarked on this exercise in the first place.

Far more worrying is ministers' failure to show any determination to abolish this loathsome "piece of prejudice" as soon as possible. Hilary Armstrong, the local government minister, tells us that "we are considering the options for achieving the repeal at a later date". That sounds rather too much like surrender in the face of the forces of conservatism. It need not be so.

Even if the current attempt to repeal Section 28 has to be abandoned for the sake of the rest of the Local Government Bill, the Government could make it clear now that it intends to introduce a simple, one-clause measure to abolish Section 28 when Parliament reconvenes in November. Such a move would do much to enhance its liberal credentials and remove the suspicion that it rules only to serve the prejudices of the worst elements of the tabloid press.

However, it must be conceded that it is perfectly possible that the Government will be defeated once again by the unholy alliance of bishops and bigots presently assembled in the upper chamber. Indeed, even if the Government left matters until after the election, it might still be unable to change the law for as long as it fails to complete its reform of the House of Lords. When Mr Blair abolished the voting rights of the hereditary peerage without simultaneously putting in place a substantial democratic element, he created a chamber that has all the powers of the old Lords, but which now feels itself legitimised and sufficiently emboldened to reject the overwhelming wish of the democratically elected House of Commons.

Without further reform of the Lords, any progressive or liberal measures will always be vulnerable. So the next Labour manifesto should be clear - reform of the Lords followed by legislation to outlaw all discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and protect the rights of gay people on issues such as fostering, adoption and marriage. The right moves and, we hope, this time pursued in the right order.

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