The Commons rose yesterday for Christmas and the Lords rise today. MPs and peers are decanting Westminster as quickly as they can, a combination of a desire to get away and to get home before the weather gets any worse. My attachment to the place is such that I am never in any hurry to get away. However, I think it is probably beneficial to the House that there is a break. The House has been somewhat ill-tempered and things have not improved in recent weeks; if anything, they have got worse.
The situation is not helped by the large number of new peers that have been (and are being) introduced. It is not simply a question of numbers but also the speed of their introduction. For the purposes of socialisation, it takes time and too many new members can result in practices and procedures not being fully absorbed. Numbers also affect pressure in the House, not just for finding space but also for taking part in Question Time.
Some Bills are making remarkably slow progress, such as the Public Bodies Bill and the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. As mentioned in a recent post, the House sat late on Monday, not rising until 1.14 a.m. , in order to make progress on the latter Bill.
The Opposition has been seeking to harry the Government through challenging accepted practices and procedures: yesterday, for example, pursuing a minister over advice she may or may not have received from the Law Officers, even though the position is well established. As the draft Cabinet Office Manual states ‘The fact that the Law Officers have advised [ministers], or have not advised, and the content of their advice may not be disclosed outside government without their authority’. Whether or not the matter under consideration involved extending the interpretation of the financial privilege of the Commons was raised, even though the financial privilege is broad and encompasses the spending as well as the raising of money. Tempers were getting a little frayed.
The situation may not have been helped by the fact that not all ministers have matured in office. Some are good, but others on occasion struggle. Some are better than others at judging the mood of the House and in having a good grasp of their portfolios.
Whether or not things will have improved when the House returns in the New Year remains to be seen. We will at least be awaiting the report of the Leader’s Group set up to consider the working practices of the House. That, I trust, will have some constructive proposals.