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UK House of Lords elects speaker, start of new era

Written by: Staff
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LONDON, July 5 (Reuters) Britain's House of Lords ushered in a new era, 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 Baroness Helene Hayman, a former Labour government minister, is a staging post in 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, and currently held by Charles Falconer, an old friend and appointee of Blair.

The job of Lord Chancellor combined the duties of speaker in the Lords, chief justice and minister of justice. It had been held over 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, symbolising 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 now 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 this role to the Lord Chief Justice.

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

''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,'' Falconer told the Lords.

''We change with the times, these times carry with them the seeds of our future,'' added Falconer, who is also Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs.

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 at home and abroad.

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 recognise King Henry VIII's claim to be head of the church, and the ambitious Cardinal Thomas Wolsey who built a lavish palace at Hampton Court which outshone Henry's.

REUTERS SK VV0910

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