It’s an indictment of Private Members Bills really – the fact that Tory and Labour MPs mustered (although whipping is meant to be forbidden) enough support on Friday to stop MPs being subject to Freedom of Information legislation. We now have to rely on the Lords to put a spoke in this wheel.
For the uninitiated – Private Members Bills are read on a Friday when the vast majority of MPs have a constituency day for surgeries and meetings, so Parliamentarians are normally scattered all over the country on a Friday. So if you were watching Parliament on TV (I hear some do!) or the news coverage, you would have seen empty benches barring the few speakers.
(As it happens, I was off sick on doctor’s orders, though had I not been, I’d have had the dilemma to choose between important constituency engagements, such as meeting people who have casework to raise with me, or being in Parliament to vote; that’s often a difficult choice to make and it’s a daft one to be forced into making so frequently).
On the previous occasion this Bill came to the floor of the Commons for debate, Liberal Democrat MPs Simon Hughes and Norman Baker have used a tactic of ‘talking out’ the Bill – meaning filibustering until the House runs out of time and the Bill falls, though – as you see – sometimes it comes back another day. This time, unusually, some old and rarely used rules were invoked to allow a vote to be forced.
All in all – not a very satisfactory way of doing business. MPs are there to be vote on legislation and to do work in their constituencies. Using Fridays like this forces them to choose. And having the progress of a bill depending on who can talk for longest or invoke the most obscure rule … well, full credit to Simon and Norman for doing all they could to block this legislation, but wouldn’t it be more sensible if we’d all been debating the bill on its merits (or rather lack of them!)?
I would prefer to see a change in the way Private Members Bills are done. They should be accorded proper debate on a normal sitting day. And if the Government says there is not enough time during the rest of the week – then perhaps if we a) had a government that stopped producing legislation in order to look active or sound tough and b) only spoke for as long as necessary rather than because they like the sound of their own voices – there would be plenty of time.
There are several MPs who pride themselves particularly on going in on a Friday and talking out any Bill that comes forward and I don’t really think it is right to use such tactics on a regular basis as a matter of normal business. Imagine if in your place of work decisions were simply made on the basis of whether or not someone could keep speaking until the end of a meeting? I don’t think people would stand for that for very long!
So full credit to Simon, Norman and the others for doing all they could in these exceptional circumstances to block this awful piece of legislation – but next time, surely, we should have more sensible rules in place. Gordon Brown is talking about being about substance and giving more power to Parliament. Let’s see how serious he and his colleagues turn out to be about the rules under which Parliament operates…