There were over forty speakers in yesterday’s Second Reading debate on the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill. The various delays to the Bill – introduced a year after the Joint Committee on the Bill had reported and taking seven months before being brought from the Commons – was roundly criticised from all parts of the House, not least by cross-benchers such as Baroness Boothroyd and Lord Pannick, by Conservatives such as Lord Onslow, and by Labour peers such as Lord Grenfell, Lord Gordon of Strathblane (“I am worried about wash-ups becoming stitch-ups”), and Lord Hart.
Lord Hart was short and to the point. He served as a member of the Joint Committee that examined the draft Bill: ” we reported on the Bill in July 2008″, he said, “but it took the Government almost exactly a year to produce a response and publish the Bill. That is not the mark of a vigorous Government responding to a report, almost all of whose recommendations they have in fact adopted; it is characteristic of a comatose rabbit.”
In replying to the debate, the minister, Lord Bach, spoke for nearly thirty minutes without acknowledging the elephant in the room: namely, that the Bill was getting its Second Reading only days before a likely dissolution of Parliament. When I challenged him to explain why it took a year to respond to the Joint Committee and to introduce the Bill, he said that it sometimes took time to reach agreement about what went in a Bill. I pointed out that the Government had published a draft Bill, so clearly knew what it wanted in the Bill! His defence was that a draft Bill is not always the Bill that is introduced (not a particularly persuasive argument given the content of the Bill) and that it was strange for me to get ‘high and mighty’ about it given my knowledge of the workings of government. Given that he still hadn’t justified the delay, I reminded him that it took a year and, as a result, “this House is being denied the opportunity to subject the Bill to proper scrutiny.” At this point he gave in: “I think I have got the noble Lord’s point.”
It now remains to be seen what, if anything, is agreed between the parties in the wash-up. However, it will have been clear from yesterday’s debate that whatever is agreed may not necessarily be acceptable to the House.