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Friday, November 12, 1999 Published at 16:36 GMT

UK: Scotland

Lords-a-leaving means new political era

By BBC Scotland Westminster Correspondent David Porter

Westminster has a strange feel about it at the moment.

The real work is NOT being done by our parliamentarians but by those whose task it is to prepare things for the Queen's arrival next week.

Much of the labour and toil at Westminster is going on in the repainting of railings and hanging of awnings prior to the State Opening of Parliament.

We are in that limbo period where one session of parliament has ended and another has yet to begin.

800 years of history

The official term is that parliament has been prorogued.

It does, of course, happen this time every year, but this time it is different.

On Thursday evening, the House of Lords agreed to the final stage of the legislation which involves throwing out more than 600 hereditary peers.

It brings to an end 800 years of history.

Some have likened it to turkeys voting for Christmas, with peers allowing the government's Lords reforms to become law on the last day of the parliamentary session.

[ image: Peers vote likened to turkeys voting for Christmas]
Peers vote likened to turkeys voting for Christmas
When the new session opens on Wednesday, only 92 hereditary peers will be present when the Queen outlines the government's legislative programme.

The remaining hereditaries will stay on until the final reforms for the Lords are worked out.

That may not be for a few years.

Although most of the headlines have concentrated on the Lords, the House of Commons has also been busy this week.

It inevitably had a ''clearing of the decks'' air about it, as legislation on welfare reform, asylum seekers and setting up the new London authority all became law.

There was also the minor matter of the Chancellor's predictions for the economy in his pre-budget report.

Fuel escalator abolished

As expected, Gordon Brown outlined to MPs plans for higher economic growth and incentives for us to become a nation of shareholders.

He also announced proposals to abolish the controversial fuel duty escalator which has ensured petrol and diesel prices rise by 6% above inflation each year.

In future, any rises in fuel duty will be decided at each budget and any increases above the rate of inflation will be earmarked to improving transport.

This example of hypothecation, as economists call it, or earmarking of taxes to you and me, has been generally welcomed.

Free TV licences

The Chancellor was, however, careful not to put any figures on how much fuel duties will increase in future.

To many of his backbenchers, Gordon Brown's masterpiece was his announcement on free TV licences for all pensioners aged over 75.

Most MPs were not sure of the economics of it, but they recognised it was, as a piece of popular politics, a master stroke.

Mr Brown stood up in the Commons on Tuesday, just a few minutes after the monthly Scottish Questions.

MPs are slowly getting to grips with what devolution is all about.

Scottish Questions

This time the questions had been framed to concentrate on matters reserved to London, such as defence, foreign affairs and social security.

Labour has encouraged its Scottish backbenchers to develop an expertise in these fields when they get up and ask questions.

It has not been formalised as acting as ''shadow ministers'' on these subjects but the expectation is that they will develop an expertise in their respective fields.

With the slimmed down Scotland Office, Scottish Questions is rapidly becoming a double act between the two ministers - Secretary of State John Reid and Minister of State Brian Wilson.

[ image: Brian Wilson: Took the fight to opponents]
Brian Wilson: Took the fight to opponents
Both are formidable performers at the dispatch box.

Both Dr Reid and Mr Wilson believe in taking the fight and initiative to political opponents.

Brian Wilson probably had the better of things. He clearly enjoyed himself.

He managed to take the rise out of those on the opposition benches, and even offered to give some of the Conservatives tutorials in devolution and its consequences.

If Brian Wilson enjoyed himself, the Advocate General Linda Clark would probably prefer to forget her appearance.

New session

As one of the UK government's law officers, she was making her debut at the dispatch box, to answer questions about the Lockerbie bombing.

She was clearly ill-at-ease and her nerves showed.

At one point the Speaker interrupted proceedings to ask her to speak into the microphone as the house could not hear what she was saying.

But as they say, a week is a long time in politics and memories are short.

This week, a new parliamentary term gets under way.

'End of peer show'

The Queen will outline the government's legislative programme for the coming year.

Scottish Questions will continue on a monthly basis, but the time allocated to them will be cut from 45 minutes to half an hour.

For most of the hereditaries in the House of Lords, though, this really is the ''end of the peer show''.

They will be watching the state opening of parliament, not from the splendour of the Lords, but like the rest of us on television.

How the times they are a-changing. . .

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