Bitter fight to the death

The House of Lords is determined to fight to the death to protect the constitution. Political Editor Graham Dines looks at the looming battle.FORGET hunting with hounds.

The House of Lords is determined to fight to the death to protect the constitution. Political Editor Graham Dines looks at the looming battle.

FORGET hunting with hounds. The House of Lords has identified the Government's constant tinkering with the United Kingdom's constitution as the issue which it will fight to the bitter end to protect.

The ultimate Commons versus Lords issue has surfaced - the Constitutional Reform Bill.

The upper house, which embodies centuries of tradition no longer fashionable in Tony Blair's vision of "modern" Britain, sees itself as the guardian of this nation's heritage.

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The Labour government wants to go down in history as a great reformer, not only of public services but of parliament and the legal system.

First the majority of hereditary peers were expelled from the Lords and the rest will soon follow. Then came the establishment of a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly.

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If the Government has its way, elected regional government for England will be introduced. The Crown may be replaced as the symbol of prosecuting alleged criminals on behalf of the people, by a Public Prosecution Service.

The law lords will no longer sit as the final Court of Appeal, to be replaced by a United States-style Supreme Court, which is intended to establish a proper separation of powers between politicians and the judiciary.

And finally, exit stage left will be the Lord Chancellor, with a Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs coming in from the wings.

All these changes mean that the uneasy state of armed neutrality, broken occasionally by odd vicious skirmishes, with which the Government and the House of Lords have suspiciously regarded each other since 1997, suddenly threatens to escalate into all-out war.

The bitterly controversial Constitutional Reform Bill which, according to its critics, destroys the fruits of 1,000 years of history almost at a stroke, is the single factor which is putting the Lords and the Commons on this potentially disastrous collision course.

The measure - which will enact a Supreme Court and abolish the office of Lord Chancellor - has been condemned by senior legal figures, including the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, the Conservatives in their entirety, and some influential Labour politicians.

The threat by the Lords to delay it - and kill it if they could - has provoked a furious response from Peter Hain, Leader of the Commons, who fears the reforms will not be on the statute book if a General Election is held in the Spring of next year, the Prime Minister's preferred date.

He has bluntly told them that the Government is set to withdraw the Bill from the Lords and reintroduce it in the Commons, ultimately invoking the Parliament Act so the Lords can no longer interfere with it.

Such brinkmanship will not frighten Lord Woolf or any other of the Bill's opponents who fear that an enviable and unique system of justice, built up slowly and carefully over centuries, will be brutally razed to the ground as Blair's modernising bulldozers move in.

Lord Woolf has denounced the proposed Supreme Court as "a second-class" institution and "the poor relation" of others around the world.

What the Lord Chief Justice and others protest about is that a legal system which has been the envy of the world for generations is now to be dismantled by a single Act of Parliament and that the 1,400-year-old office of Lord Chancellor is destined for scrap-heap without anyone being consulted.

And they see too what they regard as the relentless erosion of the powers and purpose of the House of Lords, with the destruction of its legal role and its remaining 92 hereditary peers soon to be heading for oblivion.

The Conservatives agree with all that and say that the proposals, the product, they claim, of a botched Cabinet reshuffle last year, are dangerous for justice and should be binned.

So far, the Government has shown no sign of backing off. Indeed, a vague warning has been issued that in future, Bills will not start in the House of Lords.

The Department for Constitutional Affairs has said: "Central to the Bill is the principle that politicians have no place in the courtroom and judges have no place in Parliament. The separation of powers is vital to maintain public confidence in political institutions."

The Department claimed also that none of the powers enjoyed by the current Law Lords will be lost. "What they will gain is demonstrable independence."

None of this will wash with the opponents of the Bill. Equally, the attitude taken so far by the Government indicates that ministers are in no mood to compromise.

So the scene is set for an almighty clash between the House of Lords which, according to the Government, is threatening to behave anti-democratically, and the House of Commons, which, constitutional purists insist, must have the last say.

A constitutional crisis is therefore looming. It's a crisis made all the more strange because the United Kingdom does not have a written constitution.

All the signs are that that the Government is prepared, in the words of the Bill's opponents, to ride roughshod over the Upper House, and win the day.

But if Tony Blair wants to be really radical, why not give this country what every other nation has - a written constitution, which the sovereign, parliament and the judiciary should be sworn to protect on behalf of we, the people.

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