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:
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.