The row over Labour tactics in the House of Lords has escalated after a Cabinet minister described opposition peers as "rough trade". Labour is being accused of trying to sabotage a bill which would cut the number of MPs by 50 and allow for a referendum on the voting system in May. Commons leader Sir George Young said debate on the bill was too partisan and peers needed to rethink their role.
Labour's Lord Falconer said ministers want to "ram through" the proposals. The legislation must become law by 16 February if the Alternative Vote referendum is to take place on 5 May but despite a number of marathon sittings in the Lords in recent days, time is running out for this to happen. Peers finished their latest discussion of the proposed legislation just after 0300 GMT on Thursday - they sat through the night on Monday.
Labour want plans for a reduction in the number of MPs from 650 to 600 and a redrawing of constituency boundaries, which they argue will disproportionately damage their electoral prospects, to be taken out of the bill and debated separately - a move rejected by ministers. Sir George Young said he was "concerned" about the behaviour of Labour peers over the issue.
"When I came into this House, some time ago, all the rough trade was down here [in the Commons]," he told MPs during the Commons' weekly session on future legislative business. Down the other end, they had non-partisan, short-focused debates in a revising Chamber. Now the rough trade seems to have gone down the other end. The Upper House runs the risk of losing the moral high tone if they continue to proceed as they are."
Crossbench peer Lord Butler said the debate had become a "war of attrition" which threatened to undermine the House of Lords while Lib Dem Justice Minister Lord McNally said Labour's approach to the bill had been a "charade". "The opposition are testing our constitution to its outer limits in a most disgraceful way," he said. But shadow justice minister Lord Falconer denied claims that Labour were deliberately drawing out debate on the bill in order to scupper it - a process known as "filibustering".
While he was keen to engage in "serious negotiations" with the government to ensure the referendum, which Labour supports, can go ahead, he said there was little chance of that happening as things stood. "It is a response to a government saying 'even though there is not time to properly scrutinise this most constitutional bill, we are just going to ram it through'. If you ram through a bill which is not properly scrutinised, then you get trouble."
The committee stage of the bill is in now in its 11th day in the Lords, with proceedings set to resume on Monday. Camp beds were set up and entertainment laid on for government peers earlier in this week as Lords sat through the night to debate the bill. Peers still have to deal with 49 groups of proposed amendments and it is likely that rules about intervals between the committee stage - when bills are looked at in detail - and its third reading in the Lords will be relaxed to allow the 16 February deadline to be reached.
Any amendments passed by the Lords must return to the Commons for approval before the bill can become law.