A tale of two houses

Last week two pieces of legislation were debated in parliament. One showed our politics at its best and the other at its worst.

In the Commons, with a media mostly distracted by a cabinet reshuffle, the government pushed through ‘emergency’ surveillance legislation. The data retention and investigatory powers bill, which allows the police and security services continued access to records of individuals’ phone and internet use, is now law after the most cursory of debates.

Many critics have already pointed to the fact that it need not have been this way. They are right. Had they wanted to, the government could have begun proceedings on the bill as far back as April. Of course, it is right that the police are given the powers they need to ensure, as far as is possible, our safety is maintained. However, even those who support the measures must surely agree that rushing through matters of such importance in little over a day is no way to legislate.

To its credit and given the difficult situation they were placed in by the government, Labour’s frontbench managed the situation well and was able to secure important concessions, including a sunset clause and the promise of a full review of surveillance policy. Hopefully these concessions ensure that a similar situation does not arise again in the future.

Despite this there can be no doubt that the process still leaves a sour taste in the mouth and members of parliament from all sides need only take glance at their inbox to know that many voters feel a grubby political deal was done.

Compare that with the scenes in the Lords where peers were debating Charles Faulkner’s assisted dying bill. No matter what your view on the substance of his proposals, it is hard to deny that the former lord chancellor has begun an important and worthwhile public debate. This is surely to be welcomed by all of those who still believe in the value of our politics.

One hundred and thirty peers, thought to be a record number, requested to speak and debate an issue of conscience, purely on its merits. Unlike in the Commons, peers were able to make up their own minds free of the guiding hand of the party whips. Watching the proceedings I was struck by how increasingly rare it is for a parliamentary debate not to have a predetermined outcome. It is to it is to our detriment and our politics as a whole that parliament so rarely allows the space for such open and free debates to occur.

Sadly it is likely that what occurred in the Lords last week will remain a rarity. All too often, and especially when elections loom large, our politics becomes increasingly transactional. While all parties must take their share of the blame for this, the coalition seems determined to plumb new depths with policy and cabinet positions alike decided by focus group. What little sense of project or purpose remained around the government has surely drifted away.

This week MPs decamp for a long summer in their constituencies. Some have suggested that there is little reason for them to return in September. With the bulk of the coalition’s legislation already in place, many commentators are confidently predicting that the remainder of the governing time will be little more than an extended election campaign.

Depressingly, they are probably right, but if politicians are willing it need not be so. Faulkner’s bill at least suggests there may yet be some use for this fag-end parliament after all. Perhaps if we see a few more scenes like those in the Lords this week and far less of what happened in the Commons we might find there is life in our flagging politics after all.

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Rich Durber is a member of Progress. He tweets @richdurber and blogs here.

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Photo: bertogg

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