The heavy work of the new Parliament has begun with a vengeance. Most ordinary Bills go through a fairly standard procedure. First Reading is a pure formality on the day the draft Bill is printed. Second Reading is a full day’s debate on the principle behind the Bill - followed by a substantive vote. The Bill then goes into Committee for a process than can last many weeks, every word being trawled over to make sure that, whether or not one likes the principle, the detail is at least good law. Committee Stage takes place in any one of the thirty or so Committee Rooms ‘upstairs’, (which is why people often complain that the main chamber looks empty - we are elsewhere in the Palace on Parliamentary business.) Report Stage and Third Reading follow on the floor of the House.
The Bill then goes off to the Lords (carried there wrapped in pink ribbons and carried by a bewigged clerk), where the whole process starts again. If their Lordships come to a different view to the Commons, a process of “ping-pong” then commences, the Bill bouncing backwards and forwards until we reach some kind of agreement. And after all of that, the Bill goes off to Her Majesty for signature, and it becomes law.
Bills affecting the Constitution are traditionally considered by a Committee of the Whole House sitting in the main Chamber - which is what we have been up to this week with two such Bills - the Scotland Bill and the EU In/Out Referendum Bill. I was tempted to rebel on the former to support rather a naughty amendment which would have had the effect of giving Scotland full fiscal autonomy. It was tempting to want to ‘wave goodbye’ to the Scots, but would of course have been very damaging to the Union.
The EU Bill may well cause more waves. We all want a fair and free referendum, enabling the people to have their say over our (renegotiated) membership of the EU. I hope that the PM is successful in his negotiations, and comes back with a fundamentally reformed architecture of the entire organisation. If he does so, I will vote to stay in; if not I will be campaigning to leave. But the process of the Referendum must itself be fair. That’s why I and a large group of my Conservative colleagues have been pressing for a number of amendments - with regard to the date of the Referendum, and constraining what Ministers and Civil Servants can say publicly during the campaign itself. We also believe that all MPs, including Cabinet Members, should be absolutely free to campaign and vote however they like, irrespective of the views of the Government.
These and other debates like them will run and run. We should be glad that we have such a Constitution and Parliamentary procedure which allows it. The EU, as currently constituted, would of course allow no such debate.