'Awkward squad' MPs strike again

Wendy Morton, Alistair Burt
Image caption Wendy Morton watches Alistair Burt at the despatch box

Another Friday, another Private Members Bill smothered by procedural means.

Last week it was Julie Cooper's bill to provide cheap hospital parking for carers; this week the victim was Nick Thomas Symonds' Off Patent Drugs Bill.

In both cases new MPs found themselves flummoxed by the the arcane rules which govern private members bills.

And they're discovering the hard way that it is not enough to have a worthy cause - they need tactical streetsmarts and committed support from a good number of colleagues to get even mildly contentious legislation through.

The key point about Friday sittings is that there is no time limit on MPs speeches.

Once an Hon Member has the floor they can drone on forever, unless they run foul of the chair for deviation or repetition.

It was this that allowed a group of hardline Tory backbenchers plus the Health Minister Alistair Burt to block Julie Cooper.

Tactical mistake

They talked and talked and talked till the end of business arrived at 2.30pm - and because she did not have 100 MPs behind her, to force through a closure motion, end the debate and trigger a vote on the Second Reading of her Bill, it ran out of time, and (as we say on Today in Parliament) "now has little chance of becoming law".

Today the game was played a little differently.

Mr Thomas Symonds had mobilised considerable support, and might have been able to force a closure….. But his opponents were clever.

They padded out the debate on Wendy Morton's utterly uncontentious NHS Charities Bill with rambling speeches inspired by the clauses about Great Ormond St Hospital's right to the royalties to Peter Pan.

Image caption Nick Thomas Symonds marshalled some support

They droned on till about 1.10, and the tactical mistake was not to cut them off earlier.

Mr Thomas Symonds had tried to take his Second Reading debate at a canter, but ran into an insurmountable obstacle in the form of Health Minister Alistair Burt, who provoked cries of anger when he indicated his intention to keep talking until the 2.30pm cut-off time.

Then supporters tried to end his speech with a closure motion, which requires the support of 100 MPs.

Peter Pan

They might have had the numbers - the Chamber certainly became a little more full at that point - but it was never tested because the Chair (Deputy Speaker Natascha Engel) refused to allow the motion to be put.

The Chair never explains its rulings, but the reason was that surely that there had just not been enough debate.

The Second Reading of a full dress Bill needs a decent amount of debate, if it's contentious, as this one clearly was. So debate had to have run on for a couple of hours, at the very least.

Image caption The chamber is rarely packed on a Friday

To have had enough debate, to make a closure possible, Mr Thomas Symonds supporters should have sought to end the previous debate well before Noon - and given the borderline relevance of much of the stuff about Peter Pan, Tinkerbell, etc, they might have found the Chair sympathetic.

But that didn't happen and so it was always improbable that they would get their way…. Both Natascha Engel and more particularly Alistair Burt had a very rough final half hour as angry MPs vented their fury - but both acted within the rules.

All this looks like, and indeed is, very arcane game-playing.

But there are two points here.

Emotional spasm

First, law-making, creating rules which everyone has to obey, should not be easy.

There has to be a robust scrutiny mechanism between MPs' pet schemes for the progress of mankind and the Statute Book - and the elite cadre of Tory MPs who spend their Fridays in the Chamber talking out bills they don't like see themselves as protecting the public from bad law made in an emotional spasm.

Others, of course, see the bills rather differently, but the awkward squad know the game very well.

Some MPs talk to them in advance to convince them or reach a compromise, and a few can mobilise colleagues to try and over-ride them.

But the second point is that the current rules must look very strange to people outside.

And maybe a better system would be one which brought every bill to a vote - so that those who wanted to kill them had to do so in the sunlight.

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