Or, while the Commons decides it can use iPads, nobody notices the Government blocking strengthened powers for Select Committees.
Unusually a Parliamentary debate on House of Commons procedures got a high level of interest and press coverage last week. This was of course because MPs were debating whether or not they should be allowed to use Twitter, or more accurately “hand-held electronic devices”, in the chamber. I followed the debate via BBC Parliament and it was reasonably entertaining.
There was an amendment from the old fart tendency in Parliament to place further restrictions on the use of these devices. It gained support from conservatives from all parties which sadly in the Lib Dems case included Simon Hughes. But it was heavily defeated.
One curious thing that I did notice was that my MP, Labour’s Kelvin Hopkins, voted in both lobbies. In other words he voted both for and against the amendment. This is the traditional method an MP uses to register a principled abstention on a vote. Now Kelvin occasionally has some odd views, but I find it difficult to understand how you can have a principled abstention on the use of Twitter! Perhaps he just voted the wrong way and needed to cancel it out.
Anyway I didn’t feel that the eventual result was in any doubt. Parliament can be a stuffy institution but most MPs don’t deliberately set out to isolate themselves from the real world (although it does happen), particularly when it comes to their own working habits. I am unsurprised that MPs can now keep on Tweeting from the green benches.
Now MPs using Twitter probably does strengthen their accountability, but in watching the debate I noticed that another issue which I think has more significance for the health of our parliamentary democracy was defeated. It is something that in the coverage of the more sexy subject of Twitter was overlooked, and given that it involved an unusual Lib Dem versus Lib Dem scrap, I think it is worthy of note
Select Committee Amendments
Alongside the proposal on hand-held devices the House of Commons Procedure Committee, whose reports had initiated this debate, was putting forward three other proposals. These were about including an explanatory statement with amendments on bills, placing a quota system on the number of written parliamentary questions that can be submitted electronically so as to stop MPs researchers abusing this system, and finally to give select committees the power to table amendments to bills. It was this last one that proved controversial.
At the moment amendments to legislation that is passing through the House of Commons have to be proposed by individual members of parliament. If they are Government amendments they are put forward in the name of the relevant government ministers. Opposition amendments in the name of the relevant shadow spokesperson. Other amendments will be in the name of individual backbenchers. Given the time tabling of legislation, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that, amendments in the name of ministers almost always get voted on, those from the opposition front bench are less often but frequently chosen, and backbenchers don’t get much of a look in.
What the procedure committee was proposing was that the various select committees of the Commons should be given the power to put forward amendments in their own right. The amendments would need the unanimous support of a quorate meeting of the select committee and would be tabled in the name of the Chair of that select committee. But crucially they would be clearly identified as select committee amendments
Clearly an amendment with the stamp of a select committee on it would have more authority than that of one put together by a group of individual back benchers. It would be much more likely to be chosen for debate and vote. Therefore this would be a significant move in giving parliament as a whole, rather than the two front benches, a greater say over legislation. Something that I would argue most democrats would consider a good thing, although governments might be thought likely to have a different view.
And so it proved in this case.
Beith Versus Heath
Both the Government and the Labour front bench turned out to be against this proposal. It became clear during the debate that the Government was going to use the payroll vote of government ministers to vote against it. Facing almost certain defeat the proposal was withdrawn and was not voted upon. A victory for Government business managers and a defeat for backbenchers is my reading of this. And I suspect I am not alone.
Sir Alan Beith, Liberal Democrat MP for Berwick-upon-Tweed and distinguished Chair of the Justice Select Committee, intervened several times in support of the proposal. Given the opposition from both front-benches he wondered;
“Do we have another case of the two Front-Bench teams conniving to stop Select Committees and Back Benchers having rights in this House?”
Sir Alan’s support for giving this extra power to select committees meant that he was in direct opposition to his fellow Liberal Democrat MP and Deputy Leader of the House of Commons, David Heath, who was speaking for the Government against the proposal. He said that he and the government were not convinced by the arguments in favour of the move. Further, in exchanges between the two men, Heath also said that he was “not persuaded” by Sir Alan. This was a very polite and decorous parliamentary punch up between two Liberal Democrat MPs.
As you can probably tell, in this case my sympathies are with Sir Alan. It is hard to disagree when he said;
“Is his real fear not that of the Whips Office—that on just one or two more occasions an amendment that was not moved by a Minister might be selected by the Chair and be debated in the House? Is he not simply echoing the traditional Front-Bench view that anything that allows Back Benchers to get anywhere near getting amendments selected is far too dangerous to be permitted?”
Joining the establishment?
In fairness it has to be said that the coalition government has done a lot to strengthen select committees, and of course are carrying out other democratic reforms, so I wouldn’t want to be too harsh towards David Heath. I regard him very much as “a good thing”. Here he was acting very much like a government minister, which of course is exactly what he is.
And this is the wider lesson I draw from this minor spat over parliamentary procedure.
What we had here was a member of the government jealously guarding that government’s power of initiative over legislation. Just as previous members of previous governments have done for many many years. We also had an influential backbencher standing up for the rights of parliament as a whole and the backbench members in it, just as many such influential parliamentarians have done before. A story of back bench against front bench. Of government against parliament, Whitehall against Westminster, executive against legislature. And taking place, at least in this instance, within the same party. A very familiar, even age old, story.
The only unusual aspect is that that party is the Liberal Democrats.
Some Liberal Democrats like to talk of the party as radical and anti-establishment. Something that is much easier to claim when you aren’t in government. Over two years after the coalition was formed we get, in this small example, two Liberal Democrats as the leading players in a very polite House of Commons establishment tussle. for me this is an instructive example of how a party of opposition begins to change once it becomes a party of government.
We have a Liberal Democrat government minister behaving like a government minister. Which leaves me with two uncomfortable questions. Is this inevitable? And if it is, is it such a bad thing?
This content was originally posted on my old Strange Thoughts blog.