Storm brewing over constitutional reform

The government is gearing up for a clash of wills with the House of Lords over plans outlined in the Supreme Court Bill.

The proposals for constitutional reform include the abolition of the post of lord chancellor, the establishment of a new commission to appoint judges, and the creation of a supreme court.

The leader of the commons, Peter Hain, has indicated that he would use the Parliament Act to force the constitutional reform bill onto the statute books if peers reject the legislation.

Home secretary David Blunkett, accused Britain’s senior judges of wanting to overrule the will of parliament during an interview with Sky News yesterday. He also claimed that judicial review of government decisions in the past 20 years had got out of hand.

“What we are trying to cut out is the repetitive constant rights of appeal using the judicial review process,” he said. “It is not incidentally built into our constitution. It is, in its present form, actually about 20 years old. It has been built up by the judiciary over those 20 years beyond anything anybody ever envisaged.”

Conservative peers and some former law lords hope to block the Constitutional Reform Bill tonight, by voting to send it to a special committee. The government says this unprecedented move is a wrecking amendment which would effectively kill the Bill.

The Tories claim the proposals are poorly conceived and could threaten judicial independence. The government insists that the changes will protect the independence of the judiciary.

Tory constitutional affairs spokesman Alan Duncan defended calls for the Bill to be scrutinised by a committee and told BBC Breakfast: “This was not in their manifesto, there’s been no public debate calling for it beforehand, there has been no draft bill for such a massive constitutional change. So the one thing it definitely does need is more scrutiny before the government tries to ram it through.”

The committee of law lords in the House of Lords currently acts as the court for final appeals in the UK. However, under the proposed reforms, a new supreme court operating independently of Parliament would take over the role.

Last week the most senior judge in England and Wales, Lord Woolf, said the plans for a supreme court to replace the House of Lords would create a “second class” institution.

A close vote is expected tonight, as Tories and many cross-benchers vote against the government and the Liberal Democrats.