The procedural truce in the House of Lords looks likely to break down big time next week.
Thomas Galloway Dunlop du Roy de Blicquy Galbraith, 2nd Baron Strathclyde and Leader of the House of Lords, has tabled the Report Stage of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill for Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of next week.
Those who thought that it was all over bar the shouting when the Committee Stage consideration finally finished after seventeen days (and nights) of discussion last Wednesday are in for a rude awakening (if that is the right word).
With a cavalier disregard for the conventions of the House, Lord Strathclyde has pressed ahead with the Report Stage immediately. He has also announced that the Third Reading is scheduled to take place on Monday 14th February.
The Companion to the Standing Orders is very clear on the conventions that should have been followed:
“8.03 The following minimum intervals between stages of public bills should be observed:
(a) two weekends between the first reading (whether of a new bill or one brought from the Commons) and the debate on second reading;
(b) fourteen days between second reading and the start of the committee stage;
(c) on all bills of considerable length and complexity, fourteen days between the end of the committee stage and the start of the report stage;
(d) three sitting days between the end of the report stage and third reading.”
There is no doubt that, at 305 pages and dealing with the kind of constitutional issues which are at its heart, the PVSC Bill meets the test of ‘considerable length and complexity’.
The purpose of these rules is not to delay governments trying to get legislation through the House. The purpose of these rules is to give Members of the House, as well as all sides of the House and all Members particularly interested in a piece of legislation, time to consider the issues raised at the committee stage, and to draw up amendments to bring issues to closure at report stage.
So that is TWO breaches of the conventions and rules of the House.
In addition, it is customary not to schedule business on a particular Bill on consecutive days without the agreement of the Opposition – particularly if the sessions concerned are likely to be lengthy.
And there is still a lot to do on this Bill.
Again the normal custom is that a Bill’s Report stage takes around half the length of the Committee stage (reflecting the fact that some issues will have been resoved during the Committee stage or because the Government has agreed to take on board some of the concerns about the Bill). On that analysis, it might have been expected that at least six (and probably eight) days would have been scheduled for the Report stage – yet only three days are planned.
It has been estimated that between twenty or thirty substantive issues still need to be resolved.
These include such matters as:
- the date of the AV referendum (is it right that it should coincide with local government elections in some parts of England, but not all, and should it take place on the same day as elections to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly elections – all scheduled for 5th May this year);
- what limits should there be on spending by the “Yes” and “No” campaigns;
- should there be a threshold in the turnout required for a valid “yes” vote (as Mayor Boris Johnson is proposing for strike ballots);
- should the referendum be compulsory or advisory (previous referenda have always been advisory – allowing Parliament to legislate after a “Yes” vote on the details of Scottish and Welsh devolution, the powers of the London Mayor etc – this one would be compulsory, so a “Yes” vote will mean that the system will automatically change without further discussion on the detail);
- what flexibility (if any) should the Boundary Commission have on the strict numerical size of electoral constituencies for the House of Commons;
- what is the correct size of the House of Commons (it is currently 650, the Conservative manifesto proposed 585, the LibDem manifesto suggested 500, the Bill fixes the number at 600 without any rationale – leaving the Government open to the accusation that the number has been chosen because it inflicts more net damage on the Labour Party than any of the other options);
- should constituency boundaries cross county boundaries;
- should the same rules apply in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland as in England;
- what should be done about those areas of the country where there is clear evidence that the electoral register under records those eligible to vote;
- should there be an adjustment in the number of Ministers in the House of Commons to avoid the Executive having even greater domination there with a reduced number of back-bench MPs;
- when should the first boundary review on the new rules be completed;
- will there be a proper provision for public inquiries into contested boundary reviews (the Government has promised that there will be some changes to the Bill to allow this, but the draft amendment has not yet been tabled – this was the concession that helped produce an armistice between the Government and Opposition at the end of the Committee stage); and
- what should be the frequency of constituency boundary reviews (the Bill proposes that this should happen every five years or once each Parliament – meaning that MPs will continually be fighting each other for the right to contest particular seats).
These are all substantive and serious issues. They will all take time for debate. Even if each of the issues identified was debated for only an hour and a half (and it is unlikely to be any less) and then voted on (which takes another fifteen minutes or so), twenty to thirty substantive issues will take around 40 to 60 hours to deal with – suggesting that each of the three days business will continue till around 4am (if there are only twenty issues) or 11am (for thirty issues).
And that is without anyone trying to waste time or delay the progress of the Bill.
This is not a sensible way of carrying out the proper scrutiny that a constitutional Bill such as this deserves.
And this Bill needs such scrutiny. After all this Bill has had no green paper preceding it, no white paper preceding it, no pre-legislative scrutiny, and no public consultation – yet it is a piece of legislation which will decisively change some of the fundamental elements of our constitutional and Parliamentary arrangements.