Inside the Commons: Episode 2

This episode focused on two of the areas I outlined in previous posts on the structure of the UK politcal system and how laws are made in the UK.

1. The State Opening of Parliament

This was an interesting way of showing the workings of Britain’s constitutional monarchy. In short: the government write bills, which are debated and voted upon in Parliament; after passing all stages in the Houses of Commons and Lords, the Queen gives her royal assent and the bill becomes law.

But although policy issues from the government, as the Queen is the Head of State, it falls to her to read out what the intended laws over the following year will be in this highly ceremonious affair. It is known as the State Opening of Parliament because the Queen, representing the State, is reading out the speech, and it happens at the very start of the Parliamentary year, bringing to an end the summer recess.

The most bizarre thing was seeing the contrast between the formality of the service itself in the House of Lords, with the Queen in full royal garb and crown, and the informality of the opening speaker in the House of Commons: the first MP to speak gives a general, humorous speech before the debate on the government’s proposals begins. So in 2014, Her Majesty’s setting out of the parliamentary timetable was followed by Penny Mordant’s innuendo-laden jokes about her time in the Royal Navy Reserves, which was then followed by Ed Miliband’s critique of the Queen’s speech. Bizarre.

2. Private Members’ Bills

The Private Members’ ballot is a literal ballot, with numbers drawn from a box: the commentator likened it to ‘drawing the raffle at the village fête’. In this case, the prize is debating time for the MP’s chosen piece of legislation, and it is a chance for backbench MPs (those not in or close to the government) to make changes to the law. A total of 20 are drawn, with first place getting most time through to 20th place hardly any, and Andrew George MP (Lib Dem) won the raffle. But he faces a threat of filibustering from Conservative MP Robert Neil, who was third in the ballot and wants to push his in-out EU referendum bill to the front of the queue.

Andrew George’s proposal is to rescind the ‘bedroom tax’ for occupants who have lived at the same property for 3 years or more. He keeps his points short in the debate, and calls for a vote before the whole time has been used. Labour turn out in force to support him, and the motion is carried. But at the next stage, when the bill is discussed in more detail by a committee, Jacob Rees-Mogg (Conservative) filibusters, talking about irrelevant things to make sure that the time allocated to the bill runs out. The Lib Dems retaliate by making sure the EU bill is likewise blocked, and so neither piece of legislation becomes law.

For the remaining timeslots outside of the Private Members’ ballot, MPs must queue up outside Kate Emms’ office in the Public and Private Bills department, and so coveted is debating time that queuing often starts 2 days in advance. Labour MP Thomas Docherty strikes a deal with two Conservative backbench MPs: they will set up a rota to guarantee being first in line, and divide the timeslots between them. Docherty takes the overnight shifts, lining up six chairs and laying a sleeping bag over them. His reward is 9 Labour bills on the agenda and a whole day of debating time.

The programme also showed a third way of backbench MPs proposing legislation: lobbying the committees. Robert Halforn (Conservative) has long been advocating an end to car parking charges in NHS hospitals. He continually lobbies the Backbench Business Committee and has signatures from over 100 MPs supporting the cause. He is eventually granted debating time, but before the debate takes place, Halforn gets a phone call from the Chancellor, George Osborne. Osborne offers Halforn the position of Parliamentary Private Secretary, which he accepts, but this brings him closer to the government and less able to criticize it. The narrator seems to think this is a poor trade, saying: ‘A Parliamentary Private Secretary is the lowest form of ministerial life.’ But Halforn’s hope is that by working more closely with those directly in power, he will be able to exert more influence on the agenda.

Not quite at the nefarious levels of In the Thick of It, but this episode clearly showed the trade-offs and manoeuvrings that happen as part of everyday life in the House of Commons.

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