Why peers find it easier to debate their amendments

Compare and contrast. In the Lords this week individual peers were putting down major amendments to a very important bill, the Health and Social Care Bill, and having them voted on by the whole House. Over in the Commons on Monday, the Conservative Edward Leigh (see previous post) had tried to amend the Protection of Freedoms Bill to change the law on "insulting behaviour" so that it was no longer a public order offence - but failed to get to the wicket, despite support from a galaxy of influential MPs.

The difference in the way the two Houses treat ordinary members is stark.

The Lords is more egalitarian, allowing any member a chance to amend legislation; in the Commons non-ministers have far less chance, because the business in controlled by the "usual channels", which is to say negotiated by government and opposition.

And while the government deserves some credit for organising two-day report-stage debates for major bills - very rare in the previous Parliament - the limitations of the current arrangements are obvious when a wily and experienced MP like Mr Leigh is checkmated as he was on Monday.

He managed an irate complaint in opposing the programme motion which carved him out, remarking that the government was prepared to deal seriously with individual peers who wanted to change legislation, while batting individual MPs aside with contemptuous ease (my paraphrase).

The whole incident was a salutary reminder of why the allocation of debating time is such a key factor in lawmaking.

Theoretically, all this should change fairly soon. The backbench business committee, which has done so much to open up the work of the Commons, was supposed to be the caterpillar from which a wondrous House business committee would one day emerge.

This new body would not be limited to the task of parcelling out a designated chunk of Commons time, but would bring the voice of ordinary members into the detailed scheduling of debates - accommodating the likes of Mr Leigh in the process. Theoretically.

The danger is that having pupated, the House business committee might be less of a butterfly and more of a praying mantis, a formalisation of the usual channels, which locks its jaws on backbench business - perhaps parcelling the time out to senior MPs and select committees, to the detriment of the more junior folk who have flourished since the backbench business committee started its work. We shall see.

Meanwhile, time allocation for the Health and Social Care Bill could determine whether the camp beds and thermos flasks will be needed again in the Lords. Things could get rather nasty of the opposition don't get the committee days they've been asking for.

It's raining amendments since the bill passed second reading - and the opposition, individual peers and pressure groups are all feverishly producing more.

Behind-the-scenes negotiations between ministers and key peers (and their respective legal eagles) are planned to try and resolve the main points of contention - which will result in yet more amendments. All these will have to be debated, and the whole process will be pretty time-consuming.

Committee debates will start on October 25. In the Lords, the committee stage of bills is taken on the floor of the House, and all peers can muck in.

The government is rumoured to be offering 10 committee days. Suppose they compromise on 14. That takes them into January on committee stage alone - and it's a fair bet that extra days will be needed.

By convention there are then two weeks between committee and report - and report stage is half the number of days devoted to committee. That's around 20 days debating time between now and the end of April - a huge chunk of the available time taken by a single measure.

So Labour Peers (who insist they will not descend to filibustering tactics) won't have to resort to anything like the kind of deliberate time-wasting we saw over the Parliamentary Voting etc Bill, to drag out proceedings until Prorogation looms in April; they simply don't have to be very expeditious.

The end of April is the key moment, because that is when the current session of Parliament ends.

And once the clock is ticking, the opposition has massive leverage to extract more concessions from ministers. They know that if the bill is not passed by then, it would be hard to carry it forward to the next session - the existing procedures are not intended for these circumstances.

So the whole thing would be lost if it is not passed and agreed by both Houses by the end of the parliamentary year - a horrible humiliation for the government.

It is a fair bet that there will be an attempt to negotiate a compromise on the key issue of the accountability of the Health Secretary. And it may well be that the government will offer sweeteners in other areas outside the core purpose of the bill to reshape the NHS in England. On public health powers, for example.

Labour's fear is that with enough spoonfuls of sugar on peripheral issues, Andrew Lansley's medicine will mostly go down. And be swallowed before that April deadline.