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Electile dysfunction

The election! At last, it’s here! Be still, my beating head.

Now that Gordon has nipped over to the palace to have a word in her nibs’s shell-like and the country has been consumed by election fever—or if not fever exactly, at least something unpleasantly gastric—Parliament has slipped into top gear and is now busily engaged in the stitch-up “wash-up”. Colleagues of mine who have been in the building for years tell me they’ve never heard that term before and that the process used to be known as “clearing the decks”. Presumably the name-change is due to the fact that at this election, for the first time in quite a while, the decks are disappearing below the waterline at some speed.

I’d say that it’s eye-opening to watch the process at close quarters but in practice the response is more of a narrow-eyed scowl. Some bills the government are determined will get on to the statute books. The Digital Economy Bill is one; the lobbying for it has been prolonged and insistent from industries keen to rewind the past 15 years and act like the internet had never happened, and most of the people tasked with drawing it up don’t seem entirely to know what a computer actually is, so are pleased to be told what to do. The result is that the government have managed to come up with internet-controlling measures that mirror fucking China’s.

It seems unusual that a bill the government actually cares about has been left till the wash-up, but in most other respects its progress has been pretty typical. Scrutiny in the Commons is carefully time-limited by the government, which has way too much control over the way that business is conducted there, so some difficult details fail to get ironed out. “Don’t worry,” the saying all too often goes, “we’ll sort it out in the Lords”. The bill duly arrives in the Lords and, yes, there’s more time to debate it and yes, the peers are more independent and able to wrestle with its contradictions or inequities—but the government constantly reminds them that they are unelected and they’re constitutionally unable to oppose Commons legislation. “This House must not oppose the will of the elected House,” it points out. “It is only a revising chamber. The elected House must have its way.” The bill leaves the Lords with perhaps a few suggested improvements or modifications, which end up being briefly debated—again, time-limited and sometimes outright stage-managed behind the scenes—before ending up as law. This lack of meaningful scrutiny is one of the main reasons that so much recent legislation has had to be immediately revised, or has just never been implemented in the first place.

On the other hand, the Personal Care At Home Bill, which offered free personal home care for the elderly despite independent and government advisers saying that this was unaffordable and impossible, was kamikaze legislation. Opposed by anyone with a calculator, the bill was designed to explode on impact in the Lords. “Look!” this would allow the government to shriek in the coming few weeks. “The Tories don’t want you to have free care at home when you’re frail! The Lib Dems want to turf your granny out of her own bed!” This plan was rather scuppered when the amendment that killed the bill[1] was put forward by one of the government’s own, ex-health minister Lord Warner, whose many commercial interests in the health sector (in the pursuit of which I am sure he has never exploited his ministerial tenure) meant that he understood the car-crash funding implications of the proposals better than some. Nonetheless, keep an eye out for accusations of bed-turfing.

Similarly, the Constitutional Reform Bill suddenly appeared out of the blue a couple of weeks ago, containing proposals for the upper chamber to be fully elected. This would be a seismic upheaval and the implications for the way Parliament worked would be enormous. However, those implications would involve the government giving up its in-built advantage of being able to say “The Lords must not oppose the will of the elected House”—so, realistically, how enthusiastic was it about the proposals really? The fact that many of them still hadn’t been worked out properly and the bill was shoved in front of the House just before the election showed that it hadn’t been seriously prepared, so no-one was prepared to give it serious consideration and the bill will almost certainly fall. “Look!” the government can then cry. “The opposition parties don’t want to reform the Lords! They want to control Parliament!”

Sometimes the government will bring forward a massive, cumbersome bill that covers so many different topics that it’s as if they covered a baby cheetah in sellotape, let it bomb around the Home Office for half an hour and then collated all the random documents that got stuck to it. Often in this way they’ll hope to get something contentious through. “It’s vital that we pass the Puppies and Orphans Bill as soon as possible,” says the Minister. “Just think of all those puppies and orphans.” “Ye-es,” says a frowning law lord, poring over the bill, “but I’m a little concerned about Clause 12 concerning the mandatory rape of anyone in full-time employment.” “We admit that part is controversial,” replies the Minister, “but did I mention the puppies and the orphans? Oh my God! Do you know what will happen to them if we don’t pass this now? Do you really want that on your conscience?” And so on.

The wash-up should allow for no such shenanigans. If the government wants its Puppies and Orphans Bill to go through at this point, Clause 12 is almost certainly coming out—unless it does some serious dealing with the opposition parties. It will be intriguing, if unedifying and depressing, to see what deals end up being struck over the Digital Economy Act to allow it to start criminalising libraries, universities and coffee shops. Well done, everyone.

So, time to sharpen those ballot pencils. Which particular set of vested interests would you like to see given free rein at Westminster, fumbling the deficit while trampling over your rights and interests in your name? Choose now!

[1] The amendment suggested that the bill not be brought in until the government had gone back to everyone who told it this was a terrible idea and talked to them all over again. That would put the date of the bill’s implementation back until long after the election, meaning that it would not happen in the lifetime of this Parliament. Enough Lords voted to accept this amendment that the government had to accept it. The government then mysteriously couldn’t find enough parliamentary time in the Commons to take it back there and get them to reverse this Lords decision. Voilà—bill killed. Back


( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
Apr. 7th, 2010 11:01 am (UTC)
Linking. Thank you.
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