Government legislative timetable in a mess – who is to blame?

Last Thursday, the sweetly formidable Government Chief Whip in the Lords, Baroness Anelay of St Johns announced last Thursday that the House of Lords would be returning to work on 3rd October rather than 10th October this year after the Summer recess (ignoring the two week September sitting that will interrupt the recess).  This will mean that Conservative Peers will have to make the choice between attending Parliament or the Tory Party Conference.  She blamed this on the slow scrutiny of legislation by the House and, in particular, the particularly thorough process (led by many Labour Peers) of consideration given to the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill or as she put it:

“This is a self-regulating House, with the implication that scrutiny of legislation cannot be curtailed except by the House itself. That is only right; it is one of the aspects of our work of which we have every reason to be proud. The corollary is that when the House chooses to dwell on a particular Bill, as it did on the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill-on which we spent 17 days in Committee, which is more than double the usual maximum for the largest Bills-more time must then be found elsewhere if the scrutiny of the other Bills in a Government’s legislative programme is not to suffer as a consequence.”

But it is not just the extra days.  The House is sitting longer – often way beyond the normal 10pm cut off on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays.  Indeed, she also announced that the House would sit four hours earlier than normal on one of the days this week to accommodate the number of Peers who wish to speak on the Government’s draft Bill on House of Lords abolition (106 at last count).  And as it turned out the House sat from 11am until 10pm (three hours later than normal on a Thursday) on the day she made her announcement, so as to complete its sixth day of Committee Stage consideration of the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill.

Labour’s Chief Whip, Lord Steve Bassam, pointed out that, in fact, there was a “chaotic logjam” of Government Bills:

“The truth is-in saying this I apportion no blame to the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay-that the Government are trying to force through a programme that is overlong, overprogrammed and overblown. In short, it is too long and they know it, and the House and the process of scrutiny are the sufferers. This is a crisis of timetabling, caused not by your Lordships’ rightful desire to scrutinise Bills but by political mismanagement, emanating from No. 10. This House has already had the farce of badly drafted Bills, such as the Public Bodies Bill, and still to come are the Armed Forces Bill, the Scotland Bill and the Office for Budget Responsibility Bill. We have been waiting for a health Bill that was promised to the House in May but will not be here until October or November at the earliest. We also have such complex Bills as the Welfare Reform Bill and the Protection of Freedoms Bill to come.

What assurances can the House have that, even with this extra week, we will complete our work without further incursions into Recess dates, longer nights and earlier starts? I also ask the noble Baroness to reconfirm all existing Recess dates, including those in February, and to do so with certainty. Will she also tell the House when it is intended that we shall have another Queen’s Speech, and when this Session-the longest any of us can remember-will end? How many more Bills do the Government expect to force through this House before the Session concludes? At my last count, we still had 16 in progress and another 12 or 13 to come, and had done only 16 so far. Just how many more Bills do the Government expect to bring?

May I perhaps give the Government a little advice before they embark on their next political programme? Will they ensure that, next time around, they have coherent, well worked-out Bills, and do not have more Bills in their programme than both Houses of Parliament can realistically manage and effectively scrutinise?

This a programme of legislation that has been poorly thought through, badly managed from the centre and forced on an increasingly reluctant Parliament in a timeframe that is wholly unrealistic. I urge the Government to think again about their programme, and to consult the House properly about their timetable and what they put in for the rest of the Session.”

Today, it emerged that the Government’s own coalition partners, the LibDems, are also keen on thorough scrutiny of legislation with the first day of the Committee Stage of the Localism Bill: the first six groups of amendments have all been put down by LibDem peers – the first of which being debated for an hour and a half trying to pin down what the Government’s definition of “localism” actually amounts to.

The reality is that the House of Lords is doing its job.  The Government is trying to push through too much legislation and what is worse the Bills that are being put forward or are emerging from the House of Commons are badly-drafted, full of unintended consequences and frequently fail to do what it says on the tin.

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