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Thursday, 30 March, 2000, 21:23 GMT 22:23 UK
Fistful of peers to break log jam

Queen's speech introduced huge number of bills
By BBC News Online's political correspondent Nick Assinder

Tony Blair's creation of a fistful of new working peers comes as the government faces an unprecedented crisis over its legislative programme.


Legislative logjam
Bills proposed: 34
Royal Assent: 3
50% completed: 14
25% completed: 12
First stages: 3
To be introduced: 1
With probably less than five months working time left to the end of the current session - once holidays are excluded - ministers still have to pilot the vast majority of their bills through Parliament.

And the backlog is now seriously threatening to undermine the government's heavy programme.

The problem has been caused partly by the fact that Tony Blair introduced a near record number of bills this session.

That is hard enough to cope with even with a compliant House of Lords.

But the newly-reformed Lords has proved more rebellious than ever and dramatically slowed progress on issues like the age of gay consent and changes to defendants' rights to a jury trial.

At the moment, peers are blocking the controversial abolition of Clause 28 amid growing speculation that the government is preparing to abandon the change if it's kicked out a second time.

Flexing muscles

The vast majority of hereditary peers have been kicked out and replaced with a group of Lords elected by and from among their own ranks.

And that has increased rebelliousness in the upper chamber as the newly-legitimised Lords flex their muscles.

Mr Blair hopes that by creating a batch of new Labour peers to reduce the in-built Tory majority he will be able to push through legislation more easily.

That may not be enough to save the abolition of Clause 28 because the new peers may not be in place in time.

But there is also no certainty that the newly-appointed Lords will be able to stop future rebellions or attempts to bog down government business.

At the end of March, only 3 out of 34 bills have received Royal assent, 14 have completed half or more of their parliamentary stages and 12 still have 75% of their stages left to complete.

This bottleneck comes at the worst possible time with the next general election pencilled in for early next summer.

That has even led to some speculation that the government may be forced to take the unprecedented step of cancelling the Queen's speech in November and instead push on through until the election.

But that would smack of panic and hand the Tories a powerful propaganda advantage as ministers tried to drive their legislation through Parliament in time.

Alternatively it has been suggested that some bills - like the Patten reform of the Royal Ulster Constabulary which has yet to be introduced - might be abandoned altogether.

That kind of move would create its own problems, both among ministers as they bicker over which bills should be ditched and in the wider political environment.

And it would be particularly difficult in the case of the Patten reforms as the Ulster Unionists have demanded the moves are abandoned as the price for their eventual return to the assembly.

It now appears highly likely that the government will keep Parliament sitting as long as possible into the summer to ensure as much legislation as possible is pushed through.

What seems certain is that, if the government is to get its programme through in one piece, MPs and peers are in for a frantic few months of work.

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See also:

29 Mar 00 | UK Politics
Blair pledges Section 28 repeal
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