The Easter recess dates have been announced and we now seem to be working to the following timetable. The House rises for the Easter recess on Tuesday 30 March. It returns on Tuesday 6 April, when it is assumed the election will be announced, with ‘wash-up’ taking place from then until Thursday 8 April. Parliament will then rise, with dissolution taking place on Monday 12 April.
Given this timetable, it makes it all the more remarkable that the House is debating Second Reading of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill on Wednesday. This a major Bill. It has 95 clauses and 15 schedules, many added at late stages in the Commons. It had 56 clauses and 9 schedules when it was introduced. Many provisions were not debated or not fully debated in the Commons. Indeed, the Public Administration Committee in the Commons sent the Constitution Committee in the Lords copies of amendments it would have liked to have seen debated in the Commons, but which there was no opportunity to debate “thanks to guillotines imposed by the Government at both Committee and Report stages”.
The problem is that we are not going to have the opportunity to debate them either. Second Reading looks like being the only stage reached before the ‘wash-up’. This puts the Lords between a rock and a hard place. Not having the opportunity to consider in detail the provisions of a constitutional measure denies the House the opportunity to fulfil its essential role of scrutinising legislation. At the same time, there may be provisions of the Bill that deserve enactment as soon as possible. I shall be adddressing this dilemma on Wednesday.
The Constitution Committee has reported on the Bill and in discussing process it has not pulled its punches. It has made clear that the Bill has been delayed by Government at different points. The Joint Committee on the Constitutional Renewal Bill reported on the draft Bill in July 2008. It was a full year before the Government introduced the Bill to Parliament. No satisfactory explanation has been offered by Government for the delay.
The concluding paragraphs of the Constitution Committee report are worth recording:
’46. In any event, we consider it to be extraordinary that it could be contemplated that matters of such fundamental constitutional importance as, for example, placing the civil service on a statutory footing should be agreed in the “wash-up” and be denied the full parliamentary deliberation which they deserve.
47. This is no way to undertake the task of constitutional reform.’