The parliamentary ‘wash-up’ is the period between the announcement of a general election and the end of the Parliament. It occupies from two to four days and is used to try to get through the legislation that has not completed its passage. The number of Bills rushed through usually runs into double figures. In the five Parliaments of 1983-87 to 2001-05, a total of 82 Government Bills were agreed in the wash-up, along with 29 Private Members’ Bills.
The process has benefits for Government and Opposition. The Government gets much of its legislation, though not necessarily in the form that it wants. The Opposition has the unusual opportunity to serve as a veto player. The Government needs its co-operation to rush the Bills through; without that co-operation it cannot get its legislation. The loser has been Parliament. It is denied the opportunity to subject the legislation to the thorough examination it normally accords Bills. A Bill may only have completed passage in one House before going into the wash-up.
This time round, though, there was a significant change. A major constitutional bill, the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill, had been through the Commons but had its Second Reading in the Lords shortly before the parliamentary wash-up. This attracted widespread criticism in the debate. It led the House to assert its power on Wednesday of last week, the principal day of the wash-up. When the Leader of the House sought to move the business motion to allow more than one stage of a Bill to be taken on the same day, the House made it clear that the Government had a choice between losing the Bill or getting only those few parts on which there was general agreement they deserved to be retained. Faced with an assertive House, the Leader promised to do what she could: the rest of the day was taken up with the Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, and other ministers seeing other parties and individual members who had given notice of their intention to oppose clauses or who had tabled substantive amendments. This was ensure that the Government came up with a Bill that was generally acceptable. Given that I had tabled the largest number of substantive amendments, I was part of the process. Jack Straw had seen me for about half-an-hour on the Tuesday evening and then for over an hour on the Wednesday evening prior to the Bill being taken.
When the Bill came before the House late on Wednesday evening, most of the time was occupied removing clauses – most were taken out. The opening discussion was of amendments I had tabled. (Several others didn’t need to be debated as they were to clauses that were removed.) Of those debated, two were accepted – the only backbench amendments to be agreed. The first was, as far as I was concerned, the most important of those I had tabled, affecting the civil service. I’ll do a separate post on it shortly. I would have pursued some of the others at report stage, but part of the problem of wash-up is that there is no time for a substantive report stage.
The House concluded debate on the Bill at 2.50 a.m. It was a long evening, but not a bad one for the Lords. The House asserted its power, but nonetheless there remain obvious problems with the wash-up. It came in for criticism throughout the day. Shortly before the House rose, I suggested that at the start of the new Parliament, the Constitution Committee should take as the first topic for an inquiry the wash-up and come up with proposals as to how it should be dealt with in future. All being well, the wash-up of last week will be the last wash-up in its present format. There is little case for retaining it in the way it has operated now for some decades, essentially at the expense of Parliament.