THE THREAT of a constitutional crisis was stepped up last night after the Government warned it would use the Parliament Act to force through legislation to reform the House of Lords if Conservative peers used their majority to block it.
The warning of a constitutional battle with Tory peers came after Viscount Cranborne, the Conservative leader of the House of Lords reinforced the Tories' threat to block the reforms in the Lords, unless the aristocrats are replaced by peers who were "as least as independent".
His remarks, reinforcing the warning given at the weekend by William Hague, the Conservative leader, were condemned by the Government and the Liberal Democrat leader, Paddy Ashdown.
Mr Ashdown said: "It appears that Hague has decided that the Tories will defend the past and simply tear up the Salisbury convention [that the Lords will not block a measure that was a manifesto commitment of the elected Government]. That I regard as exceedingly dangerous."
The Liberal Democrat leader backed the Government's proposed reforms to the Lords in a party report calling for radical changes to the constitution with proportional representation for the next general election. The main points are:
to cut the Commons by 250 MPs to 500 seats;
fixed-term parliaments of four years;
cut the number of ministers by 35; t make Cabinet papers public after 10 years;
rename the House of Lords the "Senate" with two-stage reform on the lines proposed by the Government.
Lord Cranborne warned that if proposals for the wider reform of the House were not introduced at the same time as scrapping the voting rights of hereditary peers, it would be blocked in the Lords by the Tories. "Unless stage one and the further reform of stage two happen together, stage two will not happen at all. In private, I have heard ministers accept that," he told a conference in London.
The Leader of the House of Lords, Lord Richard, said it would be a "constitutional outrage" if they tried to use their "army of hereditary peers" to block government reform of the House of Lords.
He said they still hoped to reach agreement with the Conservatives on arrangements for a reformed upper chamber, taking away the right of hereditary peers to sit and vote in the Lords. But Lord Richard confirmed that if a deal was not possible the Government would bring in a Bill to scrap the voting rights of hereditary peers and create an "interim" House while the future composition of the new chamber was decided.
Lord Richard made clear that the Government would use the Parliament Act to force through the legislation after a delay of a year if the Conservatives used their majority in the House of Lords to block the reforms. "Like the Grand Old Duke of York, they are marching their men to the top of the hill. I can only hope that they have the good sense to march them down as he did," Lord Richard said.
Review, page 4
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