THE John Major government is forcing through changes in the law to clear the way for prosecution of Nazi war criminals living in Britain. Faced with strong opposition from the House of Lords, which had twice rejected a War Crimes Bill aimed at making prosecution possible, it has invoked a special act of Parliament, unused for more than 40 years, to get its way.
The clash between the House of Commons, which had already approved the bill, and the Lords, which voted it down for a second time on Wednesday, at one point threatened a constitutional crisis.
But as soon as it became clear that the Lords were unwilling to bow to the Commons' will, Mr. Major ordered that the 1911 Parliament Act should apply. This permits the government to force legislation through without further debate.
Three men are thought likely to be prosecuted under the new law. The 'emigr'es concerned came to Britain from the Baltic states and the Ukraine after 1945. Two are in their 70s, and one in his 80s. Their presence in Britain first came to light in the mid-1980s.
A special Scotland Yard investigation unit, consisting of nine detectives and support staff, is being established to prepare cases against the men. There is strong pressure, particularly from Jewish groups, for prosecutions to go ahead as soon as possible.
The leader of the campaign to pursue the alleged criminals is Greville Janner, a leading Labour Party member of Parliament (MP) and a senior figure in Britain's Jewish community. After the government decided to override the Lords, Mr. Janner said: ``It is a marvelous outcome and is proof that public outrage and an elected democracy get results.''
Major accepts Commons' will
One curiosity of the dispute is that Major is personally opposed to the War Crimes Bill but is accepting the will of the House of Commons.
The double issue of whether it is proper to prosecute people allegedly guilty of crimes committed during World War II and whether the Commons has a right to override the House of Lords has deeply divided the ruling Conservatives.
John MacGregor, leader of the Commons, said the Lords had no right to obstruct a bill that had been endorsed by the elected lower house.
But Robert Adley, a senior Conservative Party backbencher, said: ``Many of us are thoroughly ashamed to be sitting on these benches and find a Conservative government doing what it's doing.''
Sir John Stokes, another senior Conservative MP, said he was outraged by the decision. ``I can only imagine the government has taken leave of its senses. This must lead the way to further attacks on the House of Lords,'' he said.
Most members of the Labour opposition appeared more interested in arguing the supremacy of the Commons than in the issue of whether alleged war criminals should be prosecuted.
Jack Cunningham, the opposition's shadow leader of the Commons, said: ``We have no hesitation in saying that we think it is proper now for the Parliament Act procedure to be followed without further delay.''
Before the Lords voted to try to ditch the War Crimes Bill, the normally tranquil upper chamber witnessed some of the angriest debates for many years.
Opposition to the bill was led by Lord Shawcross, who was chief British prosecutor at the Nazi War Crimes Tribunal in Nuremberg, Germany, after the war. He said the bill ``offends against every principle of British justice.''
He went on: ``It is our clear duty and constitutional right to express our independent views and vote according to our consciences. This is not a house of wimps: It is the House of Lords.''
Lord Waddington, the government's leader in the Lords, who has seen official documents saying that the three alleged Nazis had committed crimes of mass murder, said the evidence ``cannot be ignored.''
Much of the anger of the debate was generated when peers clashed over the validity of evidence up to 47 years old.
Louis Blom-Cooper, a prominent barrister and defender of liberal causes, argues that such evidence is unreliable. ``There is perhaps a moral case for pursuing these old men, but the practical problems of making prosecutions stick are going to be enormous,'' he said.
But Ivan Lawrence, an equally distinguished barrister, and a Conservative MP, said: ``There is no statute of limitations for murder. The cases should go ahead. If the evidence is weak or faulty, we can test it.''