Nocturnal goings-on

 

If you went up to the Public Bill Conference room, on Wednesday night, you were sure of a big surprise, in the form of a recumbent Philip Hollobone MP, snoozing fitfully on a camp bed.

Perched above the Chamber of the Commons, the conference room is where MPs perform an annual vigil to ensure they're first in the queue for the right to bring in Presentation Bills - with several cooperating to minimise the ordeal. Mr Hollobone was spearheading the guerrilla group of Tory MPs - Peter Bone, David Nuttall and Chris Chope - who like to bring in an alternative Queen's Speech, loaded with the measures which they hope their party would have enacted, if they were unencumbered by their Lib Dem coalition partners.

The list is a combination of hard policy, political wish-fulfilment fantasy and tee-hee jibes at the Liberal Democrats. Number One is a proposal to rename the August Bank Holiday as Margaret Thatcher Day. Then there's the abolition of DECC - the Department of Energy and Climate Change - and of the office of Deputy Prime Minister (Nick Clegg, says a jovial Mr Bone, could take up a more suitable post like "parliamentary secretary in the Department for Culture Media and Sport").

Other bills would reinstate capital punishment, national service and the married couples' tax allowance, allow smoking in private clubs and require a referendum on gay marriage. There is one requiring head teachers to keep schools open when it snows and another restricting claims by employees alleging sexual harassment to cases where the conduct alleged was contrary to criminal law and had been reported to the police. And there is a bill to privatise the BBC…..

These days, this tends to be mostly a Tory exercise, although Labour's Thomas Docherty has also got in on the act - as he did last year - and did a deal with the Conservatives to allow one of the Fridays to be a "Docherty Day", when his bills would be on the agenda. He'll cover international aid, a register of lobbyists, extending the Gangmaster's Licensing Authority to other employment areas a cap on pension charges, the reform of OFGEM, a ban on discrimination against members of the armed forces and a jobs guarantee for the long term unemployed.

MPs like the chance of a moment in the Commons limelight, so about half a dozen of them turned up at 10am on Thursday when the Public Bill Office opened. The Serjeant-at-Arms, thoughtfully, sent along a badged and uniformed doorkeeper to ensure the jostling for position didn't turn nasty, although I'm told a number hadn't anticipated that a cabal of determined members would seize pole position, and faces fell as it dawned on them that they were far too late.

But the chance of most of these being debated is fairly slim. It's the legislative equivalent of the fabled German tourist placing towels on a sun-lounger, or the hard core bargain hunter camping outside the doors of Harrods a week before the start of the sale.

But the twist is that the prize is not that great.

What Mr Hollobone and allies have done is to reserve a place close to the back of the parliamentary queue. They win priority - of a sort - for whatever bill an MP wants to bring in but they're still behind the latest set of private members' bills, which means that they're left with the fag ends of the Friday sittings, when the Commons debates PMBs.

If they really strike it lucky, they might be in the right place when a balloted private member's bill gets stuck in committee, or even dropped. This allows bills placed lower on the agenda to move up a slot, thus opening up the opportunity for an actual debate. It's all a bit arcane, but it offers the determined MP the chance to make a speech and get a response. Last year, for example Thomas Docherty got about a day and a half of debate on his bill to register lobbyists - which has resurfaced again this year.

So when, about next March, Commons Fridays are dominated by the likes of Phillip Hollobone, Peter Bone and Thomas Docherty, their late night vigils this week are the reason why.

 
Mark D'Arcy, Parliamentary correspondent Article written by Mark D'Arcy Mark D'Arcy Parliamentary correspondent

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