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Oct. 4th, 2011

Today the Lords begin the committee stage—that is, actual scrutiny instead of generally debating the principles—of the welfare reform bill. This marks the point where one of the coalition government's most contentious pieces of legislation reaches the parliamentary stage that will probably have the least effect on its final outcome. Not by coincidence, this is also the parliamentary stage that will have the largest public audience in the room. (You really don't want them there later on, when the government uses its control of the Commons to reverse any important mitigating changes the Lords might have made.)

Normally this stage would take place in the Moses Room[1]. Until about a decade ago this was a small courtroom[2] but then it was adapted for use as an inconveniently small subsidiary debating chamber, which it has been ever since.

Not pictured: Enough room to swing an ermine

Usually its size is adequate for the small number of people occupying it[3] but because of interest among the public, lobbying groups and Members themselves, particularly those who may have extravagant mobility issues of precisely the sort that the coalition are no longer willing to subsidise, it was decided that the Moses Room would be inappropriate and a larger venue would have to be found—in the event, Committee Room 4A, normally reserved for select committees (where Members of Parliament meet members of the public, often to the confusion of both). This is a very considerate move by the government. In fact it's tremendously British to be so polite, smiling and magnanimous to the face of the very people you're about to disenfranchise. There's a reason why the rest of the world never uses the English phrase “fair play” without raised eyebrows and finger quotes.

Proceedings should be interesting, as the first hour of the committee will actually be the tail end of business that should have been concluded months ago. Several times a “final day” has been scheduled for the Education Bill committee stage, and several times the Lords on that heavily populated committee have sailed blithely past their deadline. This would be less galling if they weren't prone to interrupting proceedings, and often their own trains of thought, to share with everyone the exciting news that “I am sure that all of us in this room wish to ensure that all the children in this country get the best possible educational experience and chance in life that it is possible to provide them with, and we must work hard to make sure that that is exactly what they get” and similar pleasing noises, none of which gets parsnips buttered or indeed bills scrutinised. In the Commons, committee chairs actually have some clout and are able to interrupt such soliloquies with the parliamentary equivalent of “get to the fucking point”, but no such luck in the self-regulating Lords. In fact, a meek attempt on day seven by the Lib Dem whip on duty, Lady Garden, to get them to rein it in a bit and at least finish on schedule was met with fury by Labour's Lord Touhig, who castigated the government for intervening and trying to “control the timetable of this Committee”. She retreated and the platitudes continued to swarm. Today the government whips have optimistically scheduled for the remainder of the bill to be wrapped up in one hour, which on past form is just about how long it takes the committee membership to remind everyone how much they care about children.

Assume for now, though, that at some point the Education Bill committee does actually stop; it's then on to the main course, welfare reform, with a brief interval in proceedings to allow the first committee to leave and the next to settle in. As I mentioned, special provision has been made for the number of wheelchair users and other mobility-impaired people who are going to want in on these sessions, but if there are just too many people to fit in the room then some public and lobbyists will find themselves located in a nearby “overflow room”. The intention is for this room to contain live coverage of the committee session going on next door, and I have absolutely no reason to doubt that this will be set up in time. Although if, say, it isn't, you have to allow that everyone sitting in there will still have had an exciting day out to the Palace of Westminster and seen a lovely room.

I look forward to Lord Freud trying out his material in front of a less polite audience than noble Lords have generally been. It will be particularly interesting to see if he repeats some old favourites in front of disabled and critically ill people whose quality of life he is in the process of dispassionately shredding. (No apologies for reminding us all of this impressive exchange. I'm sure the Minister himself is very proud of it.)
Lord Low of Dalston [Cross-Bench]: [Does the Minister agree] that reduction of benefit for those who have adapted to their disability may, in fact, be self-defeating and undermine the integration into the community of the very people the benefit was designed to help?

Lord Freud [Conservative; Minister, DWP]: My Lords, this is clearly a quite nuanced issue. There are people who are climbing Mount Kenya on prosthetic limbs who are, I suspect, less challenged than many of us would be in doing that. It does not make sense to go on treating them as disabled in any way, although they may need ongoing support to keep that particular disability support going. [Hansard]
Click for legible version

So today might be quite interesting, one way or another.

[1] So called because of the sizeable fresco at the end of the room depicting Moses shlepping the stone tablets down the mountain (almost discernible in the photo above). Here's a tip for those who are thinking of painting magnificent colourful frescoes: don't paint frescoes. There are a few around Parliament and they all look pretty rubbish, as the paint instantly sinks into the stone and almost before you've even finished painting you're left with a pallid, sickly image that looks as if it has sat bleached, unloved and undusted in a bookseller's front window for 20 years.  Back

[2] It had all but fallen into disuse. When the House of Lords was the highest court of appeal in the land, the Lords in question would give their judgments in the main chamber. In order to retain court status for the Moses Room at all, though, it had to be used at least once a year. I have been told that the final case to be heard there involved Kate Moss (although I'm having trouble verifying this). It has been suggested that for this reason the Moses Room should be renamed the Moss Room in her honour; it would, after all, require only the most minor act of vandalism.  Back

[3] Exception: the one-hour debate on Lord Joffe's private Assisted Dying Bill. Lest you think insufficient attention was being paid to such a controversial subject, I should point out that this was the 406th debate (oh all right, not quite that, but it felt like it) on the topic in the space of only a few years. They had recently spent a whole Friday debating the bill where, in order to accommodate all the 80-odd who wanted to speak, a strict limit was enforced on their speaking time of two minutes. This time, most of the Lords who had spoken before wanted to shove their oar in again, but in the Moses Room they only had an hour so this time they were forced to speak for one minute each. It was intriguing to note that those debates saw some of their Lordships' best contributions. Forced to jettison absolutely anything that wasn't relevant, useful or interesting, they stood up, said what they thought, gave a good idea of why they thought it, and sat the hell down. Many observers were startled by how good some of the peers could be under pressure, and several of their debates since would have benefited strongly from this hawkish approach.  Back


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 4th, 2011 10:26 am (UTC)

"Lady Garden"?

*carries on reading*
Oct. 4th, 2011 10:30 am (UTC)
*finishes reading*

No, but Lady Garden?

Oct. 4th, 2011 10:36 am (UTC)
Oct. 4th, 2011 10:47 am (UTC)
Strange. I recalled it slightly differently.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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