Delaying tactics in a tiny, airless room: Donald Macintyre goes behind the Speaker's Chair to see how the Lords were kept waiting

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Indy Politics
PERHAPS only Lewis Carroll could do it justice. It certainly strains credibility that there is such a thing as the 'Committee of Reasons', still less that it meets in a small, dark, airless, wood-panelled room behind the Speaker's Chair called the 'Reasons Room'.

The highly publicised scenes of disorder, sanctioned by the whips, in the Commons on Wednesday night while Labour MPs disrupted the divisions were crucial as a delaying tactic.

Betty Boothroyd, the Speaker, announced in the Commons yesterday that she was going to conduct her own inquiry into what she said was the 'disgraceful behaviour' of some MPs.

The Serjeant at Arms was despatched three times into the division lobby to extract dawdling MPs. He was delayed by some Labour MPs using bound copies of Hansard to bolt doors.

But it was in the stifling, if surreal, setting of the Reasons Room that it gradually dawned on John MacGregor, the Secretary of State for Transport, that he was losing his final chance of getting the BR privatisation Bill back to the Lords by the deadline of 11.30pm. The business on the floor was completed just after 11pm. But the Lords could still have debated the measure had it not subsequently been held up by the Reasons Committee.

Alex Carlile, the QC and Liberal Democrat MP for Montgomery, had not even heard of the 'Committee of Reasons' until he was appointed to it by the whips moments before it met. But he certainly knew what he was there for. The task agreed between the Liberal Democrats and Labour for Mr Carlile and Brian Wilson, the Labour representative on the committee, was to maximise the Government's embarrassment by ensuring that the meeting went on long enough to send the Lords home without passing the Bill.

The Reasons Committee is an ad hoc select committee whose task it is to draft the official explanation of why the House of Commons has rejected amendments by the Lords. Until Wednesday it had always been a mere formality and rarely took more than 15 minutes. And when Mr MacGregor arrived with Roger Freeman, his deputy at transport and Michael Brown, the Tory transport whip, that is exactly what he expected.

The five committee members sat at the table which dominated the room, leaving the chair at the head empty. The clerk, Frank Cranmer, began by asking the senior MP to take the chair.

It was Mr MacGregor, but Mr Carlile quickly said that the motion to propose a chairman was 'debatable'. Mr MacGregor asked the clerk if this was true. 'Yes,' the clerk replied.

Mr Carlile then proposed Mr Wilson as chairman and embarked on a long speech detailing his attributes as a parliamentarian and potential chairman, dwelling eloquently on the arguments of 'vested interest' which told against Mr MacGregor chairing a meeting to 'bludgeon' through his own Bill. As he spoke, Mr Wilson ostentatiously took off his jacket and loosened his tie. As Mr MacGregor began to realise that a filibuster was under way, he said: 'This is scandalous.' Wagging his finger at Mr Brown, he said: 'Take a note of this.' He told the opposition MPs he was ready to expose them on the Commons floor.

Mr Wilson, in an elaborate show of protocol, withdrew while the vote was taken, returning to 'congratulate' Mr MacGregor, elected by 3 to 2.

Mr Carlile now proposed an amendment to the draft 'reasons'. As the argument, devoid of the usual parliamentary niceties, raged on, Mr Carlile's pager went off. Under the table he showed Mr Wilson the message from the whips saying: 'The Lords have adjourned. You can go now.'

But should the opposition MPs delay the business still longer? In theory, they could have gone on until the weekend, provoking a fresh constitutional crisis. Mr Carlile now wrote a message on a slip of paper to Mr Wilson. 'You had better go and get instructions from your whips. I'll keep it going.' However, the Labour and Liberal Democrat whips had decided they had had done enough. Mr Wilson and Mr Carlile were called off.

By using his chairman's casting vote, Mr MacGregor got his Bill. And the Reasons Room became a footnote in history.