In a quieter moment last week, sitting on our front bench on Wednesday, I was inspired to leaf through unexplored pages of that essential guide to whole way in which the House of Lords works, the Companion.
My eye was caught by an unfamiliar section: PROTESTS, which read as follows:
Any member has the right to record a protest against any decision of the House, and may give reasons for the protest. The protest must be entered in the Protest Book, and signed before the rising of the House on the next sitting day. Members of the House may add their names to a protest, either without remark or with reasons why they have appended their names. Every protest is entered in the Journals. Members may not enter a protest unless they were present for, and in the case of a division, voted on, the matter at issue. Any member who is considering recording a protest should contact the Table Office.
Now it happened that I had a less than happy experience in the House the preceding evening. After the Division on an amendment to my Motion seeking to annul the Government’s order to ignore the advice of the independent advice of the Electoral Commission, I had naively assumed I would get a brief opportunity to respond to the debate. Instead, I was even denied the chance to indicate whether I wanted to withdraw the Motion or “seek the opinion of the House”. The Division took place without this normal procedure, presumably because Conservative backbenchers were keen to get to their dinners.
I had raised this issue with Clerks quoting another section of the Companion: A member of the House who moves a motion, an amendment to it or any amendment to the amendment, may speak for that purpose and has a right of reply on his or her motion or amendment. I had been told that I had a legitimate point, especially since I had been given no opportunity to indicate my intentions.
So, once I had a chance to slip out of the Chamber on Wednesday, I headed for the Table Office. The ever helpful team there were intrigued by this elusive item in the Companion, and the even more elusive “Protest Book”. They started hunting through the cupboards. It was agreed that I should return later to take the matter further. It was also acknowledged that this was a very proper way to register my concern about the events of Tuesday evening.
As soon as I had completed advocacy of another amendment in the Chamber (this time, on my longstanding campaign to extend the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds – especially for the upcoming EU referendum), I hurried back to the Table Office. There I was greeted with sympathy and disappointment. Good clerks love a challenge and they had hunted high and low for the Protest Book, only to discover that – between my edition of the Companion (2013) and the current version (2015) – the Procedure Committee had successfully sought the abolition of the section headed PROTESTS.
What a shame! I had – for a hour or two – optimistically thought I had revealed a hitherto unexplored element of democracy in Their Lordships’ House!