Sunday, 16 January 2011

A Stormy Week Ahead

This week could be an even stormier one in the House of Lords. The battle over the Parliamentary Voting Systems and Constituencies Bill has come close to its climax. The Government fears that unless the bill is passed quickly, the Electoral Commission will take the view that there is insufficient time to make the arrangements for a referendum on 5th May. [The bill is partly to give the legal authority for such preparations]. However progress in the House of Lords has been slow. While the government was able to rush this bill through the Commons (see the bipartisan criticism in the reports by the all party Political & Constitutional Reform Committee - 1st Report and 3rd report) - it has been unable to do so in the Lords - which of course is the strongest reason for having a second chamber. Last week the Leader of the Lords threatened to curtail debate - an action which, in my opinion was a big mistake, as it angered many Peers (already uneasy that the House of Lords is being packed by Coalition supporters - to give it an ample working majority).

This week three days will be dedicated to considering the bill - itself an almost unprecedented action - and there are likely to be late night, if not all night, sittings. The government's actions are now being described by peers as "overtly bullying tactics" which are "against both the conventions and the spirit of the House of Lords" It has even been said that "what the Government is doing with regard to this Bill threatens the fundamental role of the House of Lords as a revising chamber" which is "providing proper scrutiny of the Government of the day."

Lord Toby Harris wrote in his blog last Wednesday -

"The problem is that the Bill is enormous, running to 301 pages, with 19 clauses and 11 Schedules, and should really be two separate Bills: one dealing with the proposal to have a referendum on the alternative vote system; and the second dealing with the proposals to gerrymander/equalise the size of parliamentary constituencies.

The Bill was (as is usual) not considered fully in the Commons and so the Lords has been considering it (as is also usual) on a line-by-line basis. The House has just completed amendment 58ZZZB which relates to Clause 10 (on page 8 of the Bill) – the first clause that deals with the second part of the Bill. On Monday, which was the seventh day of Committee, the “silence of the lambs” (as I put it) was noticeable – in the debate on one amendment eighteen Labour Peers and two cross-bench peers spoke, but only one backbencher from the Conservative Coalition was prepared to defend the Bill.

Given the importance of the Bill, its complexity and the need for proper scrutiny, all this is taking time.

And the clock is ticking – the Electoral Commission have said that unless the Bill receives Royal Assent by the middle of next month it will not be possible to hold the AV referendum on 5th May as the Conservative Coalition wants.

One option is, of course, to split the Bill into two parts. Indeed, Labour peers suggested this when the Bill was first considered in the House of Lords, but the Government didn’t want to know.

The other is to soldier on through the night for each of the Committee days scheduled, but with sixty groups of amendments still to be considered, even that may not allow sufficient time to deal with the Bill adequately.

So rumours are now swirling around that Thomas Galloway Dunlop du Roy de Blicquy Galbraith, Lord Strathclyde, the Leader of the House, has started threatening that he will table a ‘guillotine’ motion to cut off consideration of the Bill.

This would be unprecedented. It has NEVER been done before.

And as the whole point of the House of Lords is that it takes the time to scrutinise legislation properly, such a motion would be a constitutional outrage.

So not content with appointing dozens of new Conservative and LibDem placepeople to pack the Government benches, the Conservative Coalition is now contemplating playing fast and loose with the Constitution itself, so as to get through their Bill to change the composition of the House of Commons.

Is Lord Strathclyde trying to win the Robert Mugabe Award for Constitutional Innovation?

This week, it will be worth following events in the House of Lords closely!