My first year drew to a close amid scenes of utter chaos in the government’s legislative programme. At first glance, it’s not clear why it should be in this state, given the session is double the normal length. However, its business managers are tearing their hair out and managed to end the session, as retiring speaker Helene Hayman bid farewell to the chamber, with an unprecedented fiasco.
Despite suddenly junking plans for the second reading of the welfare bill, still only two thirds of the localism bill (on local government and planning) had been through committee by normal closing time on the last day of the session, leaving the controversial third – on housing – to be debated. It seemed obvious, therefore, that a day or so in committee at the very start of September would deal with this. But no, the government – having already started the Wednesday session less than 12 hours after the close of Tuesday’s (a breach of convention) – decided an all-night sitting into Thursday would do the trick. Macho wouldn’t allow them to draw stumps, so instead we witnessed hundreds of amendments being withdrawn and the committee stage technically finished – on the solemn promise of the government that all the amendments could be taken at report stage.
This isn’t serious timetabling or politics, but playground ‘we won the race’ games.
The reason for the chaos lies in the essence of this government’s programme. Badly thought out notions – negotiated via the coalition into fragmentary parts, aided by inexperienced ministers, with deaf ears, and a civil service (demoralised, cut to the bone) hardly able to brief – have led to large, conglomerate, incoherent bills which fall apart under Lords scrutiny. Take the bill to introduce elected police commissioners. A daft idea in itself. (Even more so now, since any of these commissioners, facing re-election will court the press as ruthlessly as did the Met with News International.) But added to that, where one such commissioner resigned, died or left, it would be a member of their staff – unelected and unaccountable – who would take over the reins.
So the Lords is doing its job to interrogate draft legislation to ensure it works (even where we don’t like its purpose). Meanwhile, the government can’t blame Labour for this detailed, time consuming work. On Thursday night, it was almost completely crossbench and Liberal Democrats who held the floor with their amendments, much as in the education bill where, at recent sessions, the amount of time taken by the government and its supporters was, respectively, 52.7 per cent, 87.5 per cent and 92 per cent.
Ultimately, of course, the PM is accountable for the mess in the Lords, which is fast approaching a road crash. He needs to decide whether he really wants the risk of badly worked out, and controversial, acts reaching the statute book, as well as what he wants the House of Lords to do. Already we are sitting longer and for more days than in any recent year (with over 60 sittings going beyond 10pm – half of these beyond 10.40), despite the government – with its effective majority – losing fewer divisions than during Labour’s time. Being unelected, the Lords won’t vote against second or third readings, its work being in committee and at report stage. Once it is elected, of course, all bets will be off, along with the gloves, and the House will face up to government with confidence and credibility. Then we shall see some very interesting times!
Dianne Hayter is a Labour peer and former chair of the NEC
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