Friday, March 04, 2005

The teacher, the sheep and the elephant

Here is today's House Points column from Liberal Democrat News. The first sentence was dropped in the printed version for reasons of space.

Losing our liberties

This is how we lose our liberties in Britain.

At half past three on Monday the Commons settled down to debate the timetable motion on the Prevention of Terrorism Bill – the measure that will bring in house arrest. The motion allowed six hours of debate for the bill and the more than 160 amendments that had been put down.

A rushed programme? No, insisted the junior home office minister Hazel Blears, with the gratingly enthusiastic tone of a primary school teacher, merely a swift one.

It was worse than that. Earlier in the day the Charles Clarke had written to David Davis, his Conservative opposite number, saying the government would introduce amendments when the bill reached the Lords. In other words, the Commons was being asked to spend that six hours discussing clauses the government had already decide to drop.

It was even worse than that. Clarke’s letter had become vital to the day’s proceedings, but few MPs had copies. They asked for a suspension so they could get them. They asked how it could be within the rules to debate something that was not on the order paper. But the farce went on.

At first Hazel Blears was almost alone on the government front bench. Next to her sat David Lammy. This cannot have reassured her. Lammy was involved in December’s shambles over the Mental Capacity Bill, which also involved a letter being given more weight than what was printed on the order paper.

Behind her sat Kali Mountford, one of the home office bag-carriers. Perhaps it is appropriate that the MP for Colne Valley should resemble a sheep so closely. For centuries the wealth of the West Riding rested on the sort of fleece she wears around her head.

From the sheep to the elephant. Charles Clarke and his magnificent ears arrived, and together they spent an hour and a half at the dispatch box. He took dozens of interventions, maintaining throughout a wholly spurious distinction between deprivation of liberty and restriction of liberty.

Sometimes he even got in a sly whack with his trunk: “I’ve had decades of my life being patronised by lawyers and I don’t appreciate it.”

So between them a primary teacher, a sheep and an elephant took us a day nearer to house arrest in Britain.

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