Debate or dinner

"Since Adam ate the apple, much depends on dinner…"

And the old proverb is especially true in the House of Lords as it prepares to slog through the fine detail of several of the coalition's mega-bills. Let me explain. Between now and the end of this parliamentary year (late April to mid May - the government's being a little coy about the exact date), peers will be immersed in the committee and report stages of the Health and Social Care Bill, the Protection of Freedoms Bill, the Welfare Reform Bill and the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill. There are huge issues in play about everything from access to justice via legal aid, to whether hundreds of thousands of people will lose part of their Housing Benefit if they have a spare room.

Labour peers, Crossbenchers and coalition rebels will be popping out of the well-polished woodwork of the Upper House at regular intervals to press amendments to all of these bills - amendments the Government will oppose vigorously. But a key factor in the battle will be timing - around dinner. Any government defeat in the Lords requires Crossbenchers - independent, non-party peers - to line up with Labour and rebels from the Coalition benches. And as the dining hour approaches, noble tums begin to rumble. Of course, a really vital issue will inspire peers to ignore their hunger pangs, but it is a noticeable phenomenon, according to old hands in the various whips offices in the Lords, that Crossbenchers, in particular, start to drift off at around 7pm, and don't always return after consuming their rib-sticking puddings.

So the process of engineering a government defeat in the Lords depends not just on getting the politics right, but also on timing an amendment so that it is debated before that crucial hour. So the advice to party whips is that the key to victory is to synchronise their biorhythms with the wider House.

Meanwhile, it's worth noting that the Lords will start business early on several of their remaining sitting days this year, to try and keep the Health and Social Care Bill from falling further behind schedule, with a view to starting the vital report stage in late January. Report is where the most serious attempts to re-write the Bill will probably come - and if it drags on too long, the end of the session will begin to loom. This is doubtless one major reason why the government has yet to announce the date for the prorogation ceremonies which bring the parliamentary year to a close, with much doffing of cocked hats and 17th century flummery. They're giving themselves as much room for manoeuvre as they can. The limiting factor is that no-one wants to interrupt next June's Royal Jubilee celebrations with a State Opening of Parliament - so they can't delay much beyond early May. The game's afoot.

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