Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Timetabling, a threat to parliamentary democracy

In the debate on the motion to timetable the Succession to the Crown Bill, John Redwood, Conservative member for Wokingham, spoke* thus: "One of the worst constitutional innovations of the previous Government was their decision to automatically timetable every piece of legislation they brought before this House, which I regretted and opposed at the time. When the coalition Government took office, I was very pleased with their language, because they told us that they were committed to a stronger democracy and a stronger Parliament. What better proof could there be that they not only have those beliefs, but wish to put them into action, than that they not automatically timetable every Bill brought before us?

"I rise to speak on the timetable motion because there is a feeling in the House that it is wrong and because it relates to a constitutional Bill. If there is any kind of legislation that should be hammered out and discussed in full on the Floor of the House, it is on matters relating to our constitution. We are the custodians of the constitution. That constitution either expresses the freedoms we believe in or it lets us down, depending on our point of view and the state we have reached. It would be a great day if the Deputy Prime Minister**, a former lover of freedom and of an independent Parliament, rose from the Front Bench and said, 'I hear what you say. We will give you the freedom to debate this at the length of your choosing.'

"[It is] important to allow proper consideration on something of this magnitude. We have heard today from hon. Ladies and Gentlemen who have a range of very different views on the country they belong to, the oath they wish to swear and the allegiance they wish to show. We are going to the heart of what this nation is, how it expresses itself and how it represents itself at the highest level. I think that it is quite wrong to shorten debate on that. It might be that when we get to the debate we will not need much more time than the Government have allowed, but surely they can trust a free Parliament. Surely, on this issue, they can let Parliament have its way and discuss what it wishes for a reasonable length of time.

"Before the Labour Government, previous Governments always reserved the right to introduce a guillotine motion if they felt that the Opposition were behaving unreasonably and not allowing sensible progress to be made. All democratic Oppositions ultimately agree that Governments have a right to get their legislation through if it has been properly advertised and argued for in general elections. Surely, on this issue, this is the time for the Deputy Prime Minister to strengthen his reputation, make his name with a blow for freedom and allow us to speak for as long as we wish."

In the event, the timetable motion was passed without dissent. Honourable members were no doubt concerned to remove the anti-Catholic and anti-woman aspects of royal succession without delay. There was also the potential difficulty of allowing amendments which might have to be referred back to other countries of whom HMQ is also head of state.

But I hope that the Department for Constitutional Affairs will take to heart the general principle enunciated by Mr Redwood. Even senior Labour members now regret their administration's introduction of the routine of timetabling Bills.

This government's assumption on taking office that timetabling is the norm led to the farce of a Bill on reform of the House of Lords, which had the support of the majority of the Commons, being left in limbo because the DCA felt that they could not succeed with a timetable motion.

I think that this House of Commons is the most democratic of my lifetime. However, there are still areas where the Establishment can limit the ability of our representatives to express themselves. Timetabling is one of them and I hope that the government will resort to it only when absolutely necessary.

* columns 200-201

**Nick Clegg

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