MP for Hornsey and Wood Green
If you haven’t been studying law or politics at college and you haven’t been a nerdy nerd and been involved in student politics, then chances are – like me until last May – you will not have a profound knowledge of how legislation is constructed and/or scrutinised.
My first real encounter with ‘motions’ and ‘amendments’ – which are the pleb version of legislation – was through the Lib Dem annual conference. When I first pitched up there – Miss No-one from Nowhere – I would sit in the hall with my Conference Agenda in hand. In this documents were pages of motions, amendments to motions, topical motions, policy motions, business motions, emergency motions, motion motions – whatever. I would sit there and listen to the speakers. What they said often had only a tangential relationship to the words in the document in front of me. But I sat and I sat – for I wanted to speak in a debate but didn’t know what I was ‘allowed’ to speak on.
Of course, since those early days, I have generally got the idea. The speakers said whatever they wanted to make a point they wanted to make – and there would be some relationship to the motion – but not necessarily a direct one. So it is in Parliament. Legislation is just souped up conference motions really. Of course, they are more legalisish – and so I had to immediately get to grips with clauses, sub-clauses, parts, and much other nomenclature (see how easy it is to slip into the jargon!) Leading for the Lib Dems on two Bills through their Committee Stage in my first session grounded me pretty thoroughly. As an opposition frontbencher, my job is to forensically scrutinise the proposed legislation and then lay down amendments to alter, correct or improve the Bill. At least that’s the theory – but often the process of government/Labour response to opposition scrutiny is, “oh, you’re not from my party; so I’m opposed to what you say; now can I think of a reason to be opposed…”
So for the uninitiated – as I was not that long ago – this is the process a Bill goes through in Parliament (and if it gets passed, it them becomes an Act). There is other legislation (secondary) too, but that’s for another time! Here’s how the main stuff is made:
First Reading – isn’t really reading at all. It simply means that the Government has published the Bill and is everyone’s first look at the legislation. There is no debate.
Second Reading – is the Bill’s first outing in the Chamber (i.e. in the main House of Commons room you see on the TV at Prime Minister’s Questions etc). The Government Minister will present the Bill and then it is debated. This is where you get your first sampling of where the issues really lie in the Bill. It is my job to find the holes and to challenge and pick them up – as it is the Tory Opposition too. If you read through a Second Reading debate in Hansard after the Bill has eventually passed all its stages you will generally find that the key points of conflict and disagreement are all flagged up for the first time in the Second Reading debate.
Committee Stage – this is when the Minister for the Government and opposition frontbenchers scrutinise the legislation line by line. Only a small number of MPs (those on the committee for the Bill) take part in this stage. It is my opportunity to grill the Government on its legislation and put down literally scores (if not hundreds) of amendments which challenge any and all aspects of the legislation. This stage can take weeks or even months on a very large Bill.
Report Stage – The Bill comes back to the floor of the House (i.e. back to the main Chamber with all MPs able to take part again) and the key arguments are brought into debate again and any new amendments are also put forward (or “laid”). This is in effect so that what happened at Committee Stage is then ‘reported’ to the House and to an extent, but in much shorter form, re-enacted.
Third Reading – usually follows straight on from Report Stage and is a very truncated last throw of the dice of debate before the Bill goes off to its first outing in the Lords.
I’m not going to go into the Lords stages here – for brevity. But that’s the key stages in the Commons and they pretty much do the same again there. And then you have to-ing and fro-ing (“ping pong”) if the Lords makes further changes that the Commons does not agree with. Oh – and some Bills start in the Lords instead.
The thing that drives me mad – absolutely mad – is the refusal of Parliament to modernise. The Bill is usually pretty indigestible legalese. Partly because that is the way legislation is but also because there are so many references to previous Acts and Bills etc – so you need a stack of previous legislation to even understand one sentence. So much so that the House itself publishes explanatory notes – which are very helpful. But then when you go into Committee – for example – you have the Government Bill, the Lib Dem amendments, the Tory amendments, possible the Nationalist amendments AND the numerous references in various documents that you need to make your argument.
Now this is where it gets me. These procedures, for quite sound and obvious reasons, have been part of law-making in this country since time immemorial. And most of the people in Parliament came from a legal background. In fact it is still teeming with lawyers. So this is what they do. They love it. The more mystical and complicated they can keep it the better. In my naivety when I first discovered the horrors of balancing 48 bits of paper to which I needed to refer – I went to the Labour Whip to suggest that they use tracking changes in the Bills – so we could have the Government Bill in normal black print, say, then a LibDem amendment in orange, Tory in Blue and we could all see at a glance what amendments had been put to each bit of the Bill.
Well – you would have thought England would fall. Having challenged the Empire and failed – I have learned to manage extremely well and am now somewhat of the mind that I should have studied the law as I really am beginning to enjoy the real nerdy bits.
However, I remain of the view, there are many traditions and strange ways in Parliament that are there for a good reason – but that the refusal to modernise and use the technology available to make legislation and its scrutiny easy and accessible to more than lawyers is something that shouldn’t even need discussion. They should just get on and do it. Pigs might fly first however!