Despatches from the legislative front-line: hour 7 on day 9 of the Committee Stage of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill

It is 10.15pm and the House of Lords has been sitting since 2.15pm (fifteen minutes earlier than usual to facilitate the admission of three new Coalition Peers).

Most of the day has been devoted to the ninth day of the Committee Stage of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill.  This is the Bill that spatchcocks together two quite separate, but major, constitutional changes: the first would require a referendum on 5th May on whether the voting system for the election of members of the House of Commons should be changed to the Alternative Vote (if the referendum vote is in favour the system would then be automatically introduced – again an unusual procedure, the referenda creating the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the London Mayoralty were followed by the substantive legislation to create the bodies concerned); and the second would reduce the number of MPs in the House of Commons from 650 to 600, would change the criteria used by the Boundary Commission in setting constituency boundaries and would abolish local inquiries into recommended boundaries.

The Bill itself is massive: 301 pages, 19 clauses, and 11 schedules.  The changes proposed are major and are designed in many instances to undermine one Party and favour other Parties. 

The Government have rejected offers to consider the two parts of the Bill separately – had the offers been accepted the AV Referendum part would now have been well on the way to becoming law.

Six days were spent in Committee on the first part of the Bill – not unusual for a proposal of such complexity and importance.  And it was assumed that a similar amount of time would be spent on the second part of the Bill.  Suddenly, the Government has worked out that this would mean that the Bill might not have completed all its stages by 17th February, the date the Electoral Commission has said is the latest to allow all the preparations to be made for a referendum to take place on 5th May.

Now any rational Government would then have reverted to the Opposition’s offer to split the Bill.  Or agreed to accept the one amendment so far passed by the House of Lords which would allow the referendum to take place at any time from 5th May to 31st October.

Instead, however, they decided to accuse Opposition Peers of mounting a filibuster and to announce that the House would sit through the night to make more progress on the Bill. (What has been happening has not been a filibuster, but the proper scrutiny of the details of the Bill – the function of the House of Lords, particularly in those cases – like this one – where the Bill passed the Commons without all sections of it being considered fully.)

So what has been the response to the threat?

Opposition Peers have responded as anyone should respond to those who try to bully them into not carrying out their proper responsibilities. 

They have taken their responsibilities even more seriously. 

So the first amendment today nearly four hours to consider and, so far, the second amendment has taken two hours – with plenty more speakers to come.

Talk about a Government own goal.

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