UK Politics

Straw urges more Commons action as bills 'run dry'

Jack Straw
Image caption Mr Straw said the government needed to look at how it scheduled business

Jack Straw has said there is so little government legislation for MPs to consider at the moment that ministers are having to "manufacture activity".

The senior Labour MP said "poor management" by the government meant the House of Lords was "overloaded" with bills while MPs had little to do.

Backbenchers needed "some meat to deal with", he told the Times.

Ministers have said the Commons has a "balanced diet" of business, including time to debate coalition bills.

The House of Lords is currently considering two flagship coalition bills on welfare and the NHS in detail.

In contrast, much of the time in the Commons has been filled up with debates called by opposition parties and backbenchers.

'Running dry'

Writing in the Times, Mr Straw said the shortage of government business was highlighted by the fact all stages of the Local Government Finance Bill - which he described as "technical and second order" - were being held on the Commons floor.

"The government is running dry of legislation from its programme to put before MPs.

"So desperate have they been to manufacture activity that ordinary bills that could and should go into a public bill committee where they can properly be examined line-by-line are now to have all their stages on the floor - a procedure normally reserved for bills of great constitutional importance.

"I can rarely recall a time when the business of the Commons has been so light while poor management has led to an overloading of business in the Lords."

Mr Straw, who was Commons leader - the person responsible for scheduling government business - under Labour said ministers should "relax" timetabling of government bills to allow more days of debate.

The government's Welfare Reform Bill returns to the Commons next week when MPs will consider whether to overturn amendments passed in the Lords while there will also be imminent debates on bills on aviation and financial regulation.

'Not twiddling thumbs'

Labour have suggested these will be the first full-day debates on government business in the Commons since October and MPs were being treated "like factory workers on half-pay".

Commons Leader Sir George told MPs on Thursday the government believed that the Commons should have a "balanced diet" of matters to discuss.

And he said, for Labour to suggest MPs were "twiddling our thumbs", did "a genuine discourtesy to the House" when it was discussing a range of important matters.

Peter Riddell, director of the Institute for Government, said the current situation had arisen because the coalition's two most complex pieces of legislation had passed through the Commons first and were now being considered in detail by the Lords.

"This has meant that the Commons has had to wait for the Lords to complete its consideration of legislation and MPs have therefore spent most of the last three or so months on non-legislative business," he told the BBC.

"However, backbench MPs have not been idle," he added.

"Select committees monitoring the government have been very active. The problem is not about whether MPs are busy or not. The problem is more about the planning and timing of the government's business."

The government decided to put back the Queen's Speech - in which ministers unveil what laws they want to pass in the year ahead - from its traditional date in the autumn until this Spring.

Ministers said the switch reflected the fact that it had a full legislative programme in 2010-11 and Parliament needed time to debate major changes to the benefits system and the health service.