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In Britain, New Era for House of Lords

The chamber discards the 1,400-year-old post of lord chancellor and elects a speaker instead.

July 05, 2006|From Reuters

LONDON — Britain's House of Lords ushered in a new era Tuesday, abolishing the 1,400-year-old post of lord chancellor and for the first time electing a speaker to preside over Parliament's upper house.

The election of Helene Hayman, a former Labor government minister, is part of a constitutional shake-up that outraged traditionalists when Prime Minister Tony Blair announced the plans in 2003.

It spells the end of the line for the venerable and influential role of lord chancellor, the oldest office in the land after the monarchy.

"Today is one of those days of change. Rarely do we have days like this when the change is so visible. These days are days of great sadness," said Charles Falconer, the lord chancellor who had been appointed by Blair. Falconer is also secretary of state for constitutional affairs.

The job of lord chancellor combined the duties of speaker in the Lords, chief justice and minister of justice. It had been held over the centuries by saints, schemers and traitors.

The lord chancellor traditionally wore a wig and stockings and sat on the woolsack -- a ceremonial cushion stuffed with English, Scottish, Irish and Welsh wool, symbolizing the source of Britain's medieval wealth.

Hayman now takes up her seat on the woolsack but, unlike the current lord chancellor, she will be neither a member of the Cabinet nor responsible for a government department. Nor will she have a judicial role.

Supporters of the change say the speaker will be independent of government and elected, instead of being appointed by the prime minister, and this will cement the independence of the judiciary.

The lord chancellor was head of the judiciary until a 2005 reform of Britain's unwritten constitution handed the role to the lord chief justice.

The changes also pave the way for a U.S.-style Supreme Court in the future.

Nine candidates ran for the post of speaker, which comes with a substantial salary, an apartment and a gold and silk robe. Hayman will not wear a wig, but will act as an ambassador for the Lords.

The post of lord chancellor had been held by some of the most famous men in British history, among them St. Thomas Becket, the archbishop of Canterbury who was killed in his own church on the orders of King Henry II in 1170.

Others included Thomas More, executed as a traitor for refusing to recognize King Henry VIII's claim to be head of the church.

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