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9th March 2004

Constitutional Reform Bill.

The Conservative and cross-bench peers in the House of Lords have voted 216 to 83 in favour of sending the Constitutional Reform Bill to a special Lords select committee for extra scrutiny.

Late on Monday night an eight hour debate in the Lords resulted in a vote which defeated government hopes of pushing through plans to abolish the post of Lord Chancellor and set up a supreme court.

The result infuriated Lords Leader Baroness Amos who accused opponents of  “political opportunism.”

However, the Tories have urged ministers not to ignore “the voice of Parliament” by using powers to force the bill through. The Bill is now in danger of not making it through until after the next general election.

Currently, the committee of law lords in the House of Lords currently acts as the court for final appeals in the UK. The Bill seeks to establish a new independent commission to appoint judges and set up a supreme court.

The reform would mean any new operation would work completely independently from Parliament.

One of the main critics of this overhaul has been the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, saying it would be a "second class" institution and a "poor relation" to others around the world.

Unlike the U.S. Supreme Court, it would not have power to strike down legislation, making it "subordinate to the will of Parliament".

The government says that change will protect the independence of the judiciary and set clear boundaries between politicians and judges.

The Tories deny claims they simply tried to kill the Bill, arguing they just want more time to get the details right.

Clive Solely, a Labour backbencher, described the situation as “a very deliberate attempt” by a large proportion of the Tories in the Lords to wreck the government’s moves for changes. He continued by saying,

“We cannot go on with this system where the law lords sit in the same body that makes the laws and, at the same time, that body is still largely unrepresentative of the UK as a whole."

The government must now decide whether to withdraw the Bill and reintroduce it in the Commons so it can use the Parliament Act to force through the changes.

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