The battle of the benches

8th August 1997 at 01:00
It's the statues that save me. I have no sense of direction, and the endless corridors and lofty lobbies at Westminster are baffling, despite kind efforts to direct me. There are dozens of statues and portraits of every parliamentarian you have heard of and many you have not, but they are useful landmarks. The building is enormous, but the Chamber itself is remarkably small, seating perhaps 400 of the 650 MPs. It can provide a good atmosphere for a routine debate with 10 to 50 people present or for a big occasion when packed to overflowing, but is highly confrontational and offers nothing to 200 seatless Labour MPs.

Because of doubling our strength to 46 MPs, the Liberal Democrats have claimed the frontbench below the gangway, as well as our traditional second bench. We also spill over into the third bench, partly occupied by the Scottish and Welsh Nationalists, and the fourth bench, the home of the Irish. Some Tory guerrillas disputed the places on the frontbench. This introduced me to the bizarre and demeaning procedure for reserving a seat.

The doors are opened at 8am and MPs can go in, write their name on a Prayer Card and insert it in one of the holders marking each place on the bench. You have to be present for prayers, which start the House of Commons proceedings. The place is then yours for the day. Other people can sit there if you go away, but you can reclaim it on your return.

The contest for these seats reached such absurd depths that one morning when I arrived, as instructed, to queue for a prayer card at 6am I was only 12th in line. A retaliatory raid by the Liberal Democrats on the Tories' seats led to typical negotiations between whips and the Speaker, so that only one eccentric Tory still insists on sitting among the Liberal Democrats on the frontbench and has disputed the Speaker's view. It's a strange democratic forum where you have to resort to street-gang methods to secure somewhere to sit.

One aspect of the "war of the benches" has been that we frequently attend prayers. For most of us this has been an unrewarding experience. Exactly the same words are repeated every day, by the same Church of England priest, who is the Speaker's chaplain. The only changes in the words over 20 years have been the addition and the deletion of Diana, Princess of Wales, from the list of those prayed for. The prayers have far less relevance to current problems than those in any church in the land. Connoisseurs may be interested that we speak of the Holy Ghost, when all the rest of the Church of England has, I am told, converted to the Holy Spirit.

So, after checking that I would not be sent to the Tower if I proposed a change to ecumenical prayers, I received a very nice letter from the Speaker setting out the history and saying she had no objection to my testing opinion through an early day motion. These are useful reflections of MPs' opinions. MPs sign them but they are not debated. My motion suggests that there should be a rota of prayers conducted by clergy of the various Christian denominations and other main religions on a basis reflecting the strength of the various groups in the country. A similar system, which I had some part in initiating, has worked well for 25 years with the prayers which precede each full council meeting in Edinburgh.

I think it is an instructive test of whether we are serious about creating an inclusive society or, indeed, about the UK as a Union. The Commons is still at heart a white, male, English establishment institution.For Scottish members to attend for nearly 300 years and never to be prayed over by their own official church illustrates the reality underlying the Union. These supremacist attitudes are alive and well among Tory English MPs. They are fully entitled to argue against a Scottish parliament, but their tone and attitude - arrogant, ignorant and patronising - illustrates why one is so necessary.

In general, speeches are too long. Ministers and shadow ministers often speak for between half an hour and an hour. The notional standard MP's slot seems to be 10 minutes. Many potentially good three-minute speeches become bad 10-minute ones.

The order speakers are called in favours the old two-party system. The Liberal Democrats have had some success in getting our main speaker called third in a debate, but in a three-hour debate on Labour's decision to cap Somerset, which has a Liberal Democrat majority, and Oxfordshire, where we share the administrat ion, we were the only party voting against the motion, but had just one member called for a 10-minute speech. A funny sort of Labour administration to cap two well-run and frugal councils.

The choice of amendments to be debated seems to owe more to necromancy than democracy. On the Referendum Bill, the "reasoned amendments" tabled by the Liberal Democrats and SNP, who provide the whole of the opposition MPs from Scotland, were not voted on, while the Tory one was. Obviously not every amendment tabled can be taken. The Tories, for example, put down 230 amendments in the committee stage, of which about 220 were childish, daft or nit-picking, but it seems odd for a democratic forum not to vote on serious or relevant amendments, which are not wrecking or time-wasting.

To follow a debate intelligently you need a copy of the Bill, of the day's proceedings, which includes all the amendments, and the secret crib sheet, confined to a few, which tells you which amendments are being debated and which are being voted on. The latter list can change, if opposition parties feel that they have gained some concessions and do not press for a vote.

Each party stations a whip in the entrance to direct colleagues towards the correct lobby. During my first day on duty I was erroneously sent off to act as a teller for the vote on one of our amendments. In my absence from the traffic police, two colleagues voted the wrong way. If time allowed, they could, if they wished, also vote in the correct lobby, thus cancelling out this mistaken vote. I have not met any other democratic body where you can vote both ways.

We hope that the influx of new members will produce pressure for radical changes in Westminster's procedures. Every hour spend there increases my enthusiasm for a Scottish parliament where we can start from scratch, using best practice from many other bodies.

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