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Monday, November 8, 1999 Published at 12:17 GMT


UK Politics

Lords' trial of strength with ministers

Lords may go out with a bang

By Political Correspondent Nick Assinder

Rebel peers are planning their last major anti-government revolt before the House of Lords is radically reformed at the end of the week.

They are hoping to reject for the second time Tony Blair's flagship welfare reform bill, which has already suffered two of the biggest rebellions by Labour MPs since the general election.

But ministers are warning that, unless the Lords back down and bow to the will of the elected chamber, they will abolish all hereditary peers' voting rights.

Mr Blair is currently offering a concession to the hereditaries which will allow 92 of them to keep their power until wider-ranging reform of the upper house takes place.

But, with the peers threatening to use their dying days to defy the government, ministers could be in for a rollercoaster few days.

It now seems certain that Tory and Liberal Democrat peers will join with the Labour rebels, led by veteran campaigner for the disabled Lord Ashley.

Ping-pong

If they defeat the government again over measures to cut incapacity benefit, then the bill could ping-pong between the two Houses of Parliament until one side backs down.

Lord Ashley is pressing the government to make further concessions on the reforms, but Social Security Secretary Alistair Darling has insisted there will be no more movement.


[ image: Lord Ashley is rallying rebel support]
Lord Ashley is rallying rebel support
And ministers are warning that the issue has now turned into a constitutional clash between the two Houses.

With just a week to go before the end of the current parliamentary session, there is a danger that the government could lose the entire bill. It would then have to reintroduce it in the new session.

It still has to push through the Immigration and Asylum Bill, the Greater London Authority Bill and the Food Standards Bill before the end of the session, leaving a desperately tight timetable.

Alternatively, the welfare bill could ping-pong between the two Houses until the last minute when, many believe, the Lords would finally cave in, not wanting to spark a serious constitutional clash.

More rebellions

In the mean time, however, the bill would have been subjected to even more rebellions in the Commons, further embarrassing the government.

The bill to abolish hereditary peers' voting rights, including the government concession, will not be dealt with until after the welfare reform bill row has come to a head.

That gives the government the opportunity to withdraw its deal for the 92 hereditaries if it fails to get its way.

Another way forward for the government would be to drop the controversial clauses in the bill to allow the substantive legislation to go forward.

But that would be seen as a significant climbdown and would still leave the problem of how the clauses could be reintroduced in the next session.

Either way it now seems certain that the last few days of the current House of Lords will be some if its most dramatic.



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