I was critical of the Parliamentary process last week, so let me redress the balance just a shade. We’re back for a slightly dotty two week session before we break up again for the Party Conference Season. I think we should abolish (or perhaps consign to weekends) these outdated jamborees in seaside towns.
My Parliamentary life for a few weeks will be dominated by chairing the Committee Stage of the Offensive Weapons Bill. Law is made in this country in a complex series of processes. A Green paper, media comment, think tank papers produce the idea; a White Paper laying out the ideas in detail may follow; then its First Reading of the resulting Bill, which is simply a first sight of the printed draft; Second Reading is a whole day debate in the Commons, discussing the principle behind the Bill; then it’s into Committee where every line, dot, comma and word is debated to try to make it good law, whether or not one agrees with the principle; Report Stage is when the Committee reports back to the whole House on the changes they have made, and when further detailed amendments can be carried; then its Third Reading to discuss the amended Bill in full. After that the Bill goes off to the House of Lords, where a similar process is followed, and any amendments which are agreed by them, then come back and forth to the Commons (‘Parliamentary ping-pong’) until the Bill is finally agreed and goes off to Her Majesty for her signature.
As a member of Mr Speaker’s Panel of Chairmen, it is my job to chair committee stages of bills, chair debates in Westminster Hall, and very occasionally the main Chamber when we are sitting as a “Committee of the Whole House” on finance or constitutional issues. It’s quite a challenging role. You have to be even-handed, even if you have your own clear views on the Bill in question; you have to understand and implement the extremely complex procedures of the House as laid out in Erskine-May; you have to recognise even the most obscure or recent backbencher when they rise to speak; and you have to stay awake, no matter how dull the debate may be.
Without compromising that impartiality, I can say that the Offensive Weapons Bill seems like a good idea - banning acid sales to prevent these horrific attacks, controlling knife sales, and limiting certain types of weapon. Yet those who make Elderflower cordial are concerned about getting the citric acid it requires; the catering industry are worried about whether or not knives should be bought on the internet, and posted; and specialist gun clubs are fussed about large-bore weapons, which the Bill bans. These and a host of similar details will be thrashed out in Committee.
As Chairman of the Bill Committee, I take no view on it, and cannot vote at any stage in its consideration. So I apologise to the small number of constituents who have tried to lobby me on it.
There are four committee sessions a week- two each on Tuesday and Thursday, each lasting up to three hours or so, so it can be a gruelling experience for the Chairman. But the end result- the legislation - tends at least to have been carefully chewed over, amended, explained. Like the Bill or hate it, the British system at least ensures that it has been well discussed and that it is as good an Act as it possibly can be.