At about 11.45 last night – after eight and a half hours of debate – the Government successfully fended off a move initiated by the Labour front bench to refer the Public Bodies Bill to a Select Committee. The Government won by 188 votes to 151 – a comfortable majority of 37.
The reasons behind the Labour proposal were the ‘Henry the Eighth’ powers in the Bill, which allow Ministers to abolish, merge or change the functions of public bodies (even those established by Statute) simply by publishing a Statutory Instrument and with virtually no further Parliamentary consideration. The Bill lists hundreds of organisations potentially affected, including a large number of consumer protection and regulatory bodies in virtually every area of public life – notably those that deal with health and environmental matters.
There are two key messages from the vote.
First, the Government won despite a number of LibDems voting with the Opposition or abstaining and despite Labour’s proposal getting a substantial level of support from the Cross-benches. And this is before the Government ranks are further swelled by an extra 45 to 50 new Tory or LibDem Peers expected to be announced at the beginning of next month.
The second message is that, although the proposal to refer the Bill to a Select Committee was clearly viewed by the Government as a delaying tactic, defeating the idea may perversely mean that the Bill will now take longer to pass through Parliament. This is because the Select Committee would have provided a time-limited opportunity to consider the criteria for including public bodies in the different Schedules of the Bill. Instead, what is now likely to happen is that amendments will be tabled in respect of each of the bodies, as this will be the only way of considering their inclusion in the Bill. This could take months.