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Queen Speech Tuesday, 24 November, 1998, 19:23 GMT
Programme dominated by Lords reform
Queen
The Queen tells parliament of the Lords reform
By Political Correspondent Nick Assinder

Tony Blair's second session of parliament is set to be dominated by a prolonged and bitter battle over the future of the House of Lords.

The Queen's Speech
In a clear sign of the troubles to come, Labour MPs and peers broke with tradition and interrupted the Queen's speech with murmers of approval as she announced the plan to abolish the voting rights of hereditary peers.

In an unprecendented outburst, there were loud mumblings of "hear, hear" from MPs gathered in the Lords to hear the traditional speech - normally listened to in complete silence. Some peers then appeared to answer with shouts of "shame."

The surprise interruption was the clearest sign yet that the government is facing a tough time over its plans for Lords reform.

But the programme unveiled by the Queen also led to claims that the government has abandoned its radicalism in favour of a more cautious programme. And it is marked by what has been left out.

There are key bills on welfare reform, workers' rights, youth crime and health.

Lord Chancellor
The Lord Chancellor and the Queen
But measures promised in the election manifesto - including a major transport shake-up, a freedom of information bill, a ban on fox hunting and the creation of a food standards agency - will not be introduced this session.

The welfare reform bill also fell far short of the top-to-bottom reforms of the system promised by the government.

Guerrilla warfare

And the programme, whilst containing up to 20 bills, has been designed to ensure ministers have enough leeway to handle an outbreak of guerrilla warfare by the peers.

The prime minister's determination to abolish 700 hereditary Lords' rights to vote in the upper house has been strengthened by the recent row over the European Elections Bill - which saw the Lords wrecking the measure in the current session.

But he is equally eager to prove the government has not run out of steam and is continuing its radical manifesto and has told MPs he is putting through a huge programme of legislation.

David Clark's freedom of information bill won't be in the Queen's speech
But critics, even from his own benches, claim the radicalism is missing and that even relatively easy measures to introduce, such as the freedom of information bill, have been postponed.

Former minister David Clark was sacked from the cabinet after bringing the bill 90% to completion with many fearing he had been moved to ensure the measure was not completed in time for the session.

Ping-pong threat

The fairness at work legislation will also spark heated debate, as Trade Secretary Peter Mandelson has watered down the government's original proposals on union recognition and compensation for unfair dismissal.

And, despite Mr Blair's insistence that the programme is not all about reform of the Lords, the issue is certain to dominate the whole year.

There is the real prospect of the government getting bogged down in another bitter and drawn out game of ping-pong with the Lords as the hereditaries have their final fling and attempt to defeat the move to strip them of their voting rights.

The Bill to wipe away the rights of barons, viscounts, earls and dukes will be short - possibly only one paragraph.

The trouble is, that will almost certainly lead to more battles between the two houses of parliament.

Most hereditary peers are ready to accept that the move is the democratic will of the people because, unlike the introduction of the closed list system of voting in Europe, it was an explicit Labour manifesto commitment. As a result they are likely to toe the line and vote for their own extinction.

But there are enough trouble-makers left to ensure the government gets a rough ride over its legislation, and that will make it hugely difficult for ministers to get on with the other business of pushing through new laws.

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Ed Stourton discusses the speech with Robin Oakley and Niall Dickson
Links to more Queen Speech stories are at the foot of the page.


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