Not all the work of an MP is glamorous, any more than is the life of a popstar. The political equivalent of endless hours in a recording studio in the East End of London is a month on a Public Bill Committee. Every Tuesday and Thursday in January is being spent by your MP examining, line by line, the Housing and Regeneration Bill – a modest piece of legislation with 280 Clauses and countless Schedules.
Readers who do not spend their time looking at Government Bills may not know that they are written in a language of their own, distantly related to the English in every day use. There is one welcome consequence of this, and one less welcome. The less welcome one is that they are difficult to follow; and this results in a lot of money going to lawyers and the courts who have to decode them (with apologies to constituents in NW Hants who make a living from the Law). The welcome consequence is that, as very few people can write in this language, this acts as a brake on the volume of government legislation.
The terms of trade at the committee stage of a Bill have not changed that much over the last decades, despite Modernisation. Our old friend, the amendment “delete the word ‘may’ and insert ‘shall’ “ is alive and well; as are amendments to bring forward the commencement dates of the bits of the Bill the Opposition like and to defer the dates of those we don’t. If the Government produces a rabbit out of a hat, we ask for an adjournment so we can inspect it. And we are keen on annual reports on sections of the legislation so we can judge its effectiveness.
I criticised one of the Clauses in the Bill in front of us, only to discover it was identical to a Clause I had commended to the House as a Minister twenty three years ago. Indeed, I have listened to the Minister – who was one when I was first elected -reading out the same speeches I once made.
But Modernisation has had some impact. Members are allowed to consult their Blackberries during the proceedings of the Committee, though not to read out speeches from them. And, with the consent of the Chairman, we are allowed to remove our jackets.
While not all speeches are gripping, including my own, there is one speech we are always pleased to hear. When the Government Whip decides that sufficient progress has been made for the day, she rises and begs to move that “further consideration of the Bill be now adjourned.” It is as if the master of the chain gang has decided that enough ballast has been hewn for the railway for the day. There is no debate, no contested vote on that motion. It is approved; and we troop out to a day’s work in the real world.