Friday, May 22, 2009

House Points: Something rotten in the House of Commons

My House Points column from today Liberal Democrat News continues my current practice of 1) being rather preachy and 2) stealing all Chris Huhne's best lines.

Rotten business

So, in a reverse of the pantomime that takes place when he is appointed, the Speaker has been dragged from his Chair. And the expense system is going to be sorted out.

That does not mean that everything at Westminster is now rosy. On Tuesday the Policing and Crime Bill came back to the Commons. This is a measure that covers – among other things – police reform, prostitution, lap dancing, gang injunctions, alcohol-related disorder, extradition and the proceeds of crime and aviation security.

Yet, as Chris Huhne complained, the government had allocated only one day to the Report stage of the bill. With the result that there were only 30 minutes to debate another matter covered by the bill – the future of the DNA database.

This is typical of the way that the Commons operates. The volume of legislation shovelled through is absolutely immense: some 3600 new criminal offences have been created under Labour and, almost incredibly, the Policing and Crime Bill is the 66th criminal justice Bill since 1997.

As Chris said, “It is becoming abundantly clear that quantity does not make up for a lack of quality.” And because the government refuses to allow sufficient time for debate in the Commons, “We rely on the unelected House of Lords to do our job for us - for which, frankly, we should be embarrassed and ashamed.”

At the heart of this problem lies the way in which the government has sole responsibility for setting Commons business. We saw this in the way that the Speaker had to be driven out by public humiliation because it is so hard for backbenchers to get a debate.

Chris said that this arrangement was introduced during the First World War as an emergency measure. Few other legislatures allow the Executive to decide business in this way and no other Western democracy forbids private members’ motions.

Or as the Labour MP Lynne Jones put it: “If there is something rotten with the body politic in this country as far as expenses are concerned ... it is right that there should be media and public attention on the work that we do. Equally, attention should be paid to the rotten way in which we conduct our business. Today is a supreme example of that.”

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