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Independent July 14 2004

Peers throw out plans to abolish Lord Chancellor

By Ben Russell Political Correspondent

14 July 2004

Plans to abolish the centuries-old post of Lord Chancellor were thrown into disarray last night after they were rejected in the House of Lords.

A coalition of Tory and crossbench peers voted by 240 to 208 to reject the plans after a four-hour debate. The Department for Constitutional Affairs accused the Lords of "politicking" but peers said that it was vital to maintain the position of Lord Chancellor to make the case for the law in Cabinet.

Ministers want to replace the historic post with a new independent judicial appointments commission and a Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs. They also plan to replace the law lords with a new supreme court.

The vote came during the detailed committee stage of the Constitutional Reform Bill after a special select committee of peers failed to agree on any of the major proposals in the legislation.

Lord Kingsland, a Conservative frontbench spokesman, said: "The Government is risking our future with its uncontrollable obsession with obliterating our past." He told peers: "The Government wish to expunge the office of Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain from our constitution. This office still has a vital role in protecting the rule of law."

Lord Lloyd of Berwick, a former law lord, warned: "The task of defending judicial independence in Cabinet is a task of such critical importance that it should be given to a senior judge or lawyer who is a member of the House of Lords and not a politician on his way up the greasy pole." He added: "The necessary check would be there if the Lord Chancellor is in the Cabinet. We will get rid of that at our peril."

Lord Goodhart, a Liberal Democrat frontbencher, responded: "We do not think the retention of an outdated title will assist the protection of judicial independence and the rule of law."

Lord Falconer of Thoroton, the Lord Chancellor, said he was now responsible for a 3bn budget and that his job had grown in recent years. He said: "The time has come to accept this fundamental change and to suggestions that there would be some benefit from calling the new office-holder Lord Chancellor, the answer is no. He is not doing the same job. We should recognise that."

A Constitutional Affairs Department spokesman said after the vote: "The House of Lords have taken a very serious step. It is clear that peers are politicking. It is right that the elected House of Commons now considers the abolition of the Lord Chancellor. In order to clarify the relationship between the judiciary, the executive and the legislature, reform of the office of Lord Chancellor must go hand in glove with the proposals to create a new supreme court and a judicial appointments commission."