Game playing in Westminster infuriates viewers

Sir Christopher Chope Image copyright HOC
Image caption Sir Christopher Chope's objection to the progress of the bill has caused a storm

I wonder if the problem is that some MPs, indeed some in positions of power, have simply not cottoned onto the fact that many more people now watch their debates?

Once upon a time the joke was that in the Commons Chamber, no-one can hear you scream.

Now people watch on TV and online in their tens, sometimes hundreds, of thousands. And they don't just watch, they comment and they question.

And very frequently they are left utterly bemused by the way events unfold there.

Conservative MP Sir Christopher Chope's objection, last Friday, which stopped Wera Hobhouse's upskirting bill, was the latest example of this phenomenon. But it is not the only piece of procedural shenanigans in play at the moment - there are at least three other examples, of varying significance, visible on the order paper.

Let's start with last week's eruption by the SNP over the non-debate on devolution amendments to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, which was the result of another piece of game playing.

The amendments in question, dealing with which EU powers will be passed to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh and Northern Ireland assemblies, were supposed to have been debated by MPs during their report stage consideration of the bill - but because no political agreement could be reached, they did not appear, and the government then put down amendments when the bill was in the Lords.

When they bounced back to the Commons, MPs were supposed to have three hours to discuss them, but that time was eaten away by a long series of votes. There were 10 in all, each taking around 15 minutes, and in the end there was just 19 minutes debating time, all of which was taken up by a speech from the government minister, David Lidington.

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Media captionSNP MPs walked out of the Commons in a row with the Speaker

This was entirely avoidable. The programme motion, which structured the debate, could have been worded in such a way as to protect the three-hour debating slot - but it was not.

Maybe it was an accident, maybe the intent was to avoid a debate which might have been awkward - but the SNP have been able to use it as an example of Westminster brushing aside the concerns of the Scottish Parliament, which had signalled its opposition to the government amendment with a formal vote withholding what's called "legislative consent".

Money resolution missing

Example 2 is today's Labour motion on what looks like a highly technical point on the committee stage discussion of the Parliamentary Constituencies (Amendment) Bill - a bill which would effectively scrap the Conservatives' plan to cut the size of the House of Commons, from 650 MPs to 600.

The bill won its second reading (its initial approval) way back in December, but its consideration in detail by a Public Bill Committee has been stymied by the lack of a "Money Resolution".

This is a vital procedural preliminary, authorising money to be spent in pursuit of the bill, it is based on a constitutional principle, the financial initiative of the Crown, which essentially means that ministers must authorise public spending.

And because the government is refusing to put forward a money resolution, the committee consideration cannot begin. To date the bill committee has met six times, for a brief whinge about the state of affairs, and then adjourned. Today, Labour are asking for the committee to be allowed to start work without the usual money resolution.

Fast forward to Thursday and there is the University of London Bill, which deals with its internal rule-making powers. It looks an utterly uncontentious measure - voted through without debate in the Lords - but in the Commons, our old friend Sir Christopher Chope has a motion down to delay consideration - on his usual argument that even uncontentious private bills should be debated, rather than waved through.

Once upon a time, all these events would have attracted little attention; now Parliament's TV and online audience can, and do, react.

In the last Parliament, for example, there was a private member's bill to cut hospital car park charges, on the argument that they amounted to an unfair burden on people visiting relatives who were hospitalised for a prolonged period.

The bill was "talked out" - that is opponents kept speaking until the day's debating time ran out. It did not have a hundred MPs present to force it to a vote, so that, in effect killed it.

Which infuriated a lot of viewers who cared about the issue and supported the bill.

Then there was the occasion, way back in the 1980s, when Dennis Skinner and allies blocked a bill from Enoch Powell to block human embryo experiments, by the novel device of debating, at vast length, the writ to hold a parliamentary by-election in Brecon and Radnor.

They burbled on for hours about previous MPs for that constituency, its wonderful scenery and anything else they could think of, and when time ran out, the bill was dead. Examples of this kind of thing litter the debates on private members' bills - and for outside viewers the most infuriating thing about what goes on in the chamber is the sense of an obscure game being played out by jocular members of a gentleman's club.

The Wera Hobhouse bill was an oddity; it started life as a presentation bill in March - any MP can put down a bill at any time; the trick is to get it debated.

Last Friday it was eighth on the agenda, and would not have discussed before the close of business at 2.30pm, so the plan was to get it a formal second reading, so that it could then go into committee. That could only happen if no MP objected, and Sir Christopher famously did.

His objections were procedural - that the government should have found time to debate the plan, and should not have tried to gerrymander the private members' bill system to get it through. Whether he was wise to make his stand on this particular measure, which commanded enormous cross-party support, is another matter.

No time?

But it is worth pointing out that since Easter the Commons has scheduled a number of general debates in the Commons - on Nato, the serious violence strategy, housing and anti-Semitism.

I am not for a moment suggesting that any of these issues are unimportant, but the proliferation of general debates hardly suggests that the legislative programme is overloaded. And given the number of modest and uncontentious bills debated in this period , the government could surely have found time to put an upskirting bill before MPs.

What I'm working round to is the general thought that the kind of procedural games which have been played for decades bewilder and infuriate voters outside the Westminster bubble.

Private members' bills may provide the most egregious example, but the game-playing crops up in plenty of other areas.

Often the idea is to kill something without the embarrassment of having to vote against it - you may be in favour of the bills blocked in these ways, or you can be against them, but maybe the time is coming when parties will do less damage to themselves and the institution of Parliament, if they dared to have the argument, and cast their votes for or against something in the cold light of day.

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