Andy McSmith's Diary: Defenders of the vulnerable - salute the Commons’ dullest committee


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Indy Politics

In an obscure corner of the parliamentary process sits a committee called the Statutory Instruments Joint Committee.

I salute the MPs on it, because the job of reading through obscure regulations to check that they are procedurally correct might be about as exciting as a wet afternoon in Hitchin. There is no political or personal reward in this work, and yet these unsung heroes meet, deliberate and issue reports of resounding dullness, listing the statutory instruments they have examined and to which, in most cases, they have given the okay – most, but not all.

Buried near the bottom of their most recent report there is an excoriating assessment of a statutory instrument from the Justice Department, amending the regulations that allow debt collectors to enter homes and seize property. It concerns the question of whether vulnerable people should be protected from having their belongings seized.

The Ministry of Justice agrees that they should, but since there is no official definition of “vulnerable”, it proposed to rewrite its National Standards for Enforcement Agencies to make it obligatory for debt collectors to be trained to recognise vulnerability and to decide on the spot whether someone is vulnerable or not. In other words, someone mentally ill could have debt collectors turn up, decide they look okay and strip their home of movable belongings.

That will not do, says the Statutory Instruments Committee. To quote its exquisitely worded conclusion: “The committee accordingly reports the use of the undefined expression ‘vulnerable person’ as calling for elucidation incompletely provided in the department’s memorandum.”

Showing a little respect

Yesterday’s Commons session, which deliberated on whether to hold a referendum on membership of the European Union, was unlike any other Friday sitting in living memory. There was the impressive turnout, with 294 MPs plus the Speaker in their places at 9.30am.

And there was the strange silence of James Wharton, the Conservative MP for Stockton South, who tabled the private members’ Bill. The 29-year-old was at one point spotted having a whispered conversation with advisers, and had to be told that only ministers are allowed to do that.

The Labour MP Mike Gapes frivolously suggested that David Cameron could solve that problem by giving the youngster a job. Apart from that, there was not a squeak out of Mr Wharton all morning. He listened while the grown-ups talked.

Wizard of Westminster

Tories in Westminster are holding a £100 “touch of the Orient” dinner, to which guests have to turn up either in evening dress or in fancy dress with an eastern theme. The party chairman, Grant Shapps, will be their special guest. He could go as a Buddhist. He has, after all, been through at least one reincarnation, as the internet wizard Michael Green.

Labour’s air of civility

In the 1995 memoirs of John Cole, the former BBC political editor, there is a passage in which he notes that Gordon Brown had stood aside for his “friend” Tony Blair in 1994. “The leadership election which followed was conducted with a civility that has not always attended such events in the past,” it said. How good they were at keeping up appearances back then.