The Government Chief Whip in the House of Lords is the Baroness Anelay of St Johns and she was wearing her best Steel Magnolia visage this afternoon when she moved that the Welfare Reform Bill should be committed to a Grand Committee.
I should explain that committal to a Grand Committee means that the Committee Stage of a Bill is not taken in the Chamber on the floor of the House and that the detailed line by line consideration of the Bill takes place in a Lords’ Committee Room (usually the Moses Room – so named after the rather magnificent picture in it of Moses handing down the tablets of the law). Procedurally, it also means that there can be no votes on amendments during the Committee Stage and the Grand Committee procedure is usually only used for comparatively non-controversial or highly technical Bills.
However, the Welfare Reform Bill is hardly uncontroversial.
And Grand Committee proceedings are less high profile than sessions in the Chamber of the Lords.
But there is an equally important access point as Baroness Campbell of Surbiton, herself a wheelchair user, pointed out:
“My Lords, normally I would not come in on the next day after participating in a very lengthy and big debate the night before. I generally need 24 hours at home to recover. However, this morning I was woken by several phone calls from disabled people who told me of this proposal and urged me to come in to speak to you. I feel compelled to be here. I am deeply concerned at the noble Lord’s proposal. I had understood that the technical parts of the Bill would happen outside the Chamber—and we can live with that. However, the new proposal that takes us completely away from the Chamber unfortunately makes it tremendously difficult to have access, not just for disabled Peers to participate effectively—it is much easier in here—but for disabled people who are following this debate online or on the TV and who come here to brief us. It will be almost impossible for them to do this. Yes, a few can come into the room, but it will be more difficult.
Perhaps more importantly, not to be able to test the opinion of the House—I know it is not often done in Committee—on one of the most significant pieces of legislation for disabled people in my adult life is deeply disturbing. I ask the noble Baroness the Chief Whip please to reconsider.”
The problem for the Government is that they have got into a frightful mess with their legislative programme. Most of their Bills are deeply controversial and, despite having the longest Parliamentary Session since the Great Reform Act of 1832, the Government is running out of legislative days to deal with all of them before the Session ends next Spring and Bills that haven’t been through all their stages fall.
Negotiations through “the usual channels” between the Government and the Opposition on how to manage the Bill had broken down – the first time in at least a decade that it has not been possible to reach an agreement. As a result, the Chief Whip was bringing a motion to the House to refer the Bill to a Grand Committee that would have to be voted on, whereas normally such procedural questions are approved without dissent because there has been an agreement on the procedure to be followed.
During the course of the debate it transpired that there had been some serious negotiations. It had been agreed in principle that the Bill could be split into two parts with one part being considered on the floor of the House and the rest being considered in a Grand Committee – this in itself would have been pretty unusual. However, while the Government was prepared to concede four days of debate on the floor of the House before moving into Grand Committee for perhaps another twelve days of consideration there, the Opposition was seeking eight days on the floor of the House.
Most people would have thought that maybe a compromise might have been possible – like six days on the floor of the House.
However, the Government Chief Whip broke off negotiations, withdrew her offer and ploughed ahead with a proposal for the whole Bill to go into Grand Committee.
Her negotiation style is clearly based on that of a traditional mafiosi school: “If you don’t do as I say, the baby gets it”.
In this case, the baby did get it and the Government won the day with a majority of 52: 263 votes in favour (159 Conservatives, 74 LibDems and 30 Cross-benchers and others) and 211 against (167 Labour, 4 Bishops and 40 Cross-benchers and others).