Page last updated at 11:38 GMT, Wednesday, 18 January 2006

Are Lords out of order on terror?

Analysis
By Nick Assinder
Political Correspondent, BBC News website

House of Lords during the  Queen's speech
What powers should Lords have?
Once again the government is set on collision course with the House of Lords - this time over its anti-terror laws.

Ministers complain that the upper chamber is exceeding its powers by daring to oppose what was a specific election manifesto commitment and which the government, as a result, is mandated to introduce.

But peers insist they are only exercising their constitutional rights to protect the public from bad laws - rights which have been strengthened since Tony Blair gave them greater legitimacy, they claim.

Liberal Democrat peer Lord Goodhart has gone so far as to claim that previous conventions - specifically the Salisbury Doctrine dating back to 1885, and "modernised" more than half a century ago - no longer apply.

The government's reforms, it is argued, have given the upper house greater legitimacy and more clearly underlined its role as a revising and protecting chamber.

That convention states, broadly, that peers should not attempt to kill off legislation that was promised in the government's election manifesto.

But the opposition parties have suggested it no longer applies since the government introduced reforms in 1999, which sharply reduced the number of peers who had their seat in the Lords because of something their parents or ancestors had done.

They also say their position is strengthened by falling voter turnout and the low share of the poll received by the government at the last election.

"In modern circumstances, it is far from certain the Salisbury Convention applies, and we say it does not," Lord Goodhart claimed.

Former terrorist

In other words, he and others believe the Lords now have enhanced rights to challenge any government legislation they believe is going to make bad law, irrespective of whether it was a manifesto commitment.

In the case of the glorification of terrorism, it is claimed the proposal is "unworkable, confusing and unnecessary". And, in any case, the Lords' changes would not destroy the entire bill, so would not necessarily contravene the convention.

Tony Blair with Labour's election manifesto
The policy was in Labour's manifesto

Lord Goodhart claimed the proposal would mean that someone praising the American war of independence, for example, could be open to prosecution.

It is something Home Secretary Charles Clarke has come under pressure over before, when a committee of MPs said his plans would mean anyone in future praising an individual like Nelson Mandela, when he was labelled by his country's government as a terrorist, would be open to prosecution.

His reassurances that such a situation would simply not happen again, failed to convince many of the MPs.

So, is this a case of unelected Lords attempting to destroy laws proposed by a democratically elected government?

Or is it the peers doing what they believe they are there for, to amend dodgy legislation and force ministers to think again before they do something the country may live to regret?

More combative

There have been plenty of cases of peers challenging government legislation over the years - although it had previously been argued, with some force, that the inbuilt and overwhelming Tory majority in the upper chamber ensured it was usually Labour laws that were opposed.

Some argued equally forcefully, however, that it was precisely that unbalanced nature of the place, and the fact it had no democratic basis that stopped the Lords from pushing their powers too far or using them too often.

When it comes back we will have to consider whether this is an important enough matter to force a showdown on.
Lord Goodhart

However, since the abolition of hereditary peers and other, still to be completed, reforms, relations between the Lords and Commons appear to have become far more combative.

The government's reforms, it is argued, have given the upper house greater legitimacy and more clearly underlined its role as a revising and protecting chamber.

Ministers, understandably, are having none of it, claiming the Lords are attempting to stop them carrying out their election promises.

So there is another clash looming. The government will get MPs to overturn the Lord's changes and the proposal will almost certainly go back to the Lords. And that is when peers will have to decide just how far to push it.

As Lord Goodhart stated: "When it comes back we will have to consider whether this is an important enough matter to force a showdown on."

Nick.Assinder-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk



SEE ALSO
Terror plans suffer Lords defeats
17 Jan 06 |  UK Politics
Terror laws clear hurdle in Lords
21 Nov 05 |  UK Politics
MPs probe police 'politicisation'
11 Nov 05 |  UK Politics

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