Lords warned on reform

Colin Brown,Sarah Schaefer
Thursday 15 October 1998 23:02

TONY BLAIR ordered a cabinet offensive yesterday over Lords reform, as Tory hereditary peers mounted a fightback at the end of a marathon two-day debate.

The Tory peers were warned late last night by Lord Williams of Mostyn, the minister winding up the debate, that "the Government is not going to blink" in the showdown with the hereditary Lords.

Government sources claimed the Tories were in "disarray" after Lord Kingsland, a Conservative front bench spokesman, appeared to contradict his own side by warning that the Tories could throw out the forthcoming Lords Reform Bill. Lord Kingsland claimed that the Salisbury Convention, which normally prevents peers from throwing out legislation mooted in Labour's manifesto and backed by voters in a general election, might not apply because the proposal "reduced the independence of the House without adding to its legitimacy".

After discussion with Lord Cranborne, the Opposition Leader in the Lords, Lord Kingsland later appeared to backtrack when he added: "As far as the Opposition is concerned, there's no doubt that the Salisbury Convention will be observed in relation to this Bill."

A government source said: "We are winning the political argument about reform. The Tories are in disarray."

Mr Blair's instruction to cabinet colleagues to join in the counter-attack was seen by Tory leaders in the Lords as an admission that the Government fears it could lose the public relations battle with the hereditary peers who are fighting to preserve their historic voting and speaking rights.

The Prime Minister told cabinet ministers they should go on the attack and expose the "utterly undemocratic nature" of the Lords.

He called it a "scandal" that hereditary peers were able to sit in Parliament.

Jack Cunningham, the minister for the Cabinet Office, will today accuse hereditary peers of being "preserved, petrified, politically prehistoric".

The Government is clearly concerned that the hereditary peers could win sympathy by arguing that when they go, the House of Lords will be dominated by the Prime Minister's patronage.

The Independent has learnt that Mr Blair is ready to create more than 30 new Labour life peers next year to overcome the Tories' majority in the Lords after the abolition of the right of hereditary peers to sit and vote in the upper chamber. The Prime Minister will submit the names of the new life peers to a vetting commission to answer the Tory charge that he is creating "Tony's Cronies" with his powers of patronage.

Baroness Jay, the Leader of the Lords, said the Tory life peers would have a majority of 23 over Labour life peers when the hereditary peers were removed. The aim was to ensure that no party had a majority.

A White Paper will be published around the time of the Queen's Speech, setting out the Government's plans for a Royal Commission, the detailed proposals for a "transitional'' House, and new checks on the Prime Minister's powers of patronage.

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