Parliamentary wash-up

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.

About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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11 Responses to Parliamentary wash-up

  1. Jonathan says:

    Presumably things would be different if we moved to fixed-term parliaments as everyone would know how long was left, so things could be timetabled better?

    • Lord Norton says:

      Jonathan: I’m not sure it would necessarily make that much difference. After all, this past Parliament was close to the equivalent of a fixed-term Parliament. It was basically known from the start of the session when the election would be called and that the latest an election could be called was 3 June. The timetable was essentially constructed on the basis of an election on 6 May. The problem is the existence of the wash-up per se: it encourages or at least does not discourage sloppy timetabling.

  2. Carl.H says:

    As my Noble Lord Norton has previously stated the CRaG Bill was sat on by the Government for almost a year, it seem`s they purposefully left it for the wash-up process. I am still quite annoyed that such an undemocratic process exists that lets Bills avoid close scrutiny by ALL legitimate Parliamentarians.

    This wash-up contained Bills that we, the public, made clear we were concerned with. It is not our place, I realise, to state what should or shouldn`t go through but we have a Parliament and a system that does this on our behalf. Unfortunately in the case of wash-ups this is not allowed. I feel this makes a mockery of various parties calls for referendums because when we are comcerned it appears Parliament doesn`t want our views. It gives the appearance they only want our view when it may be the same as theirs.

    I thank Lord Norton for all his efforts and amendments and his late nights. I am rather less pleased with others who did not make the effort not only on the Country`s behalf but their own concerning this matter.

    I hope this is the last wash-up ever, it is an abhorrent practice that is manipulative and cunning at best or shoddy practice at worst. If normal Parliamentary scrutiny of Bills does not fit within the normal timeframe then the Bills should be binned until the next Parliament. A familiar cry not only from the public but from Parliamentarians is there is too much legislation. Why is it therefore necessary for shortcuts ? Why should the system allow these shortcuts ? If a Government cannot manage it`s timetable surely that shows it`s inability to do the job.

    A good Government would be re-elected therefore no need to rush Bills through. A Government whose Policies are not liked or wanted by the electorate should not be able to shortcut what the electorate don`t want. The only reason for this shortcut process is a lack of faith in the democratic process.

  3. Lord Norton says:

    Carl.H: You are quite right in that the process does not allow time for public input or for considered parliamentary input. Even if we were able to raise issues in the committee stage, there was no opportunity to reflect on what was said in response to the Government and allow people outside an opportunity to comment. I’ll do a post shortly on one example in relation to the Bill. The Goverment resisted one of my amendments for reasons that were quite valid. Reflecting on the response, and in the light of other comments, I realised that there was a better way of getting at the issue. Had we not been in the wash-up, I would have been able to come back to it, with a revised amendment, at report stage. As we were in the wash-up, that was not possible so the issue had to be dropped.

    The value of maintaining a gap between the stages of Bills is that it gives us an opportunity to consider the measure and those outside the House with an interest in the Bill an opportunity to contact us. That input is extremely important and one reason why I have been keen to press for every Bill at some stage during its passage to go before an evidence-taking committee. All this is lost in the process of wash-up. The wash-up fundamentally undermines the integrity of Parliament and that to my mind is not acceptable. Rushed decision-making (or rather rushed law-approval) is not good for the political system and you and others are quite right to find it offensive.

  4. ladytizzy says:

    Lord Ferrers was on good form for the time of day.

    And on the subject of long hours, was only the government surprised that chopping back the HoC hours of business would lead to less time – in both Houses – for barrow loads of legislation?

  5. Lord Norton says:

    ladytizzy: Lord Ferrers was indeed on good form and, like seventy to eighty members of the House, stayed until proceedings concluded at 2.50 a.m. I have moved amendments before in the early hours, though not quite in the presence of so many members.

    I suspect the Government’s business managers well not unaware of the likely effects of shortening the hours in the Commons. Making changes for the convenience of members is not necessarily to the benefit of the House in subjecting the Government to effective scrutiny. In the Lords, we now have a target rising time of 10.00 p.m., but it is only a target. It cannot be enforced.

    • ladytizzy says:

      Business managers? They have business managers and still couldn’t connect the dots? Did they get their MBAs from Rymans?

      “I would see the state as the ‘servant state’. I would see government as serving people. I would see the service emphasis of government as being incredibly important.”

      Gordon Brown, Jan 2007, author of The Servant State: Towards a New Constitutional Settlement, 1992

      The significant decrease in HoC hours was, in the main, sold as the best way to recruit women MPs. Did MPs seriously believe that women were incapable of working long hours, or or was it more to do with the habit of male colleagues calling out ‘melons’ whenver a female MP spoke? Still, how did this work out for the Labour party in the 2005 election ? A net gain of three women, though two have since died.

      Another reason cited was the extraordinary amount of alcohol consumed within the Palace yet in 2005 this gvt enabled 24 hour drinking.

      They claim to be working for us so there must be a case for public consultations on the conditions of employment for MPs.

      • Lord Norton says:

        ladytizzy: Business managers are longstanding features (or creatures) of Westminster but, as you imply, they may be having difficulty living up to their nomenclature. I think the existence of a parliamentary wash-up has tended to encourage laziness and perhaps even a certain contempt for the two Houses. I think the sooner it is restricted or ended the better.

        The change in hours of the Commos certainly does not appear to have improved the capacity of the House to scrutinise government nor to create a more attractive enviroment for women. I suspect the problem is not so much the hours but the culture. The House of Lords seems far better at providing a congenial working environment for women. Not only do we have a greater proportion than the Commons but they appear far more active participants in the chamber and the work of the House.

      • The Duke of Waltham says:

        “I suspect the problem is not so much the hours but the culture.” That is hardly surprising, My Lord; I am aware of studies suggesting that the adversarial nature of debates in Westminster-system legislatures (notably in the British House of Commons) encourages “masculine styles of politics”. In the very interesting debate on the reconstruction of the Commons Chamber in 1943, Lady Astor (the first woman to sit in the Commons) was very disapproving of the way in which the layout of the old Chamber encouraged fights between the two sides. I do wonder how much has changed since then.

  6. The Duke of Waltham says:

    Hmmm… Does the Government try often, to the extent that this can be done deliberately, to wear out the opposition by making sure sittings run late?

  7. Lord Norton says:

    The Duke of Waltham: Not usually, though in the Lords they may try and delay an issue coming to a vote, knowing that after a certain hour it is difficult for opposition parties to keep members in the House. In the Commons, it is usually the Opposition, in a Parliament where the Government has a narrow or non-existent majority, that may try and keep proceedings going as long as possible to wear the Government down.

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