Police commissioners raise stakes in Lords battle

Their Lordships are not amused; it was announced on Thursday that the House of Lords is to sit for an extra week in October, clashing with the Conservative Conference. The reason for the decision was the Government's legislative programme lagging behind schedule.

This is never a popular move, but it seems the timetable has never recovered from the attritional and time-consuming battle over the Parliamentary Voting and Constituencies Act (see endless blogposts from January onwards). A combination of that and the "pause" to the beleaguered Health and Social Care Bill mean that a number of key measures are becalmed when they should be nearing the statute book. Paul Waugh over at Politics Home spotted this first and has been enjoying himself with the ramifications.

But I suspect there's another, non-historical factor at work here. Peers have gutted another major piece of Coalition legislation, the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill. This was supposed to create elected Police Commissioners to oversee the policy of each English or Welsh Police Force other than London's - but egged on by a formidable squad of ex-police chiefs, peers voted to remove this central provision of the Bill.

The Government is determined to reinstate the Commissioners, but here's the rub: the current plan is for them to be elected next May, alongside the local elections. Even without the current blip the timetable was pretty tight - the parties would need a couple of months to select candidates, for a start, and local authorities across sprawling forces like Thames Valley, for example, would have to thrash out arrangements for a count. (And it's interesting to note that the Bill doesn't set out the detailed electoral arrangements for all this; it merely gives powers for a minister to make the regulations….)

Given the Lords decision, the Government now has to seek to over-ride Their Lordships in the Commons - and we could be into the fabled "parliamentary ping-pong" in which the Commons throws out the Lords amendments and the Lords put them back in, and this Westminster High Noon continues until someone blinks.

But in this instance, if Peers don't back down, and the 12-vote majority against the Government on this issue holds, the elections next May won't happen. The Lords are always most powerful when a Government faces a deadline, and, lo, there is a deadline.

So unless some virtuoso whipping delivers him a majority, the Police Minister, Nick Herbert, may find he will have to offer concessions to get his elections next May. The alternative is for the Bill to be rammed through via the Parliament Act, which means the Commons has to pass the whole thing again in the same form in the next Parliamentary year - which would be too late for the May 2012 elections.

So, unless enough Lords change their mind, to allow the Bill through, the Government either does a deal - and it is difficult to see what would placate its critics who are against the very idea of elected commissioners, or it accepts that the Commissioners will have to start work a year later.

The downside of that is that the Government wants its changes in a variety of public services to be in place, bedded down and delivering improvements well before the next election in 2015. So the stakes are high - and the addition of extra sitting days to the Lords' calendar is just the first move in the next big battle in the Upper House.