The Scott Controversy: Anger over orchestrated wrecking coups: MPs dismayed by whips' actions in rounding up participants to suffocate a Bill, with departmental assistance

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The Independent Online
THE ORIGINALS of the amendments at the centre of the wrecking exercise said it all. There they were, according to one MP who took the trouble to look in the Public Bill Office, neatly printed in the same typescript on the same green paper, numbered from one to 69. Each had a gap left for the MP to fill in his or her name.

MPs are well used to having their Private Members' measures 'talked out' by opponents at 2.30pm on a Friday, the day backbench Bills are taken.

The tactic - not necessarily employed in line with party allegiance - is virtually certain to ensure that a Bill cannot become law through lack of parliamentary time. However, the practice of suffocation by amendment has also become fairly standard.

None of this is to say that the hosts of amendments attracted by any parliamentary Bill, public or private, are necessarily examples of sharp practice. Parliamentary lobbying of backbenchers by charitable, welfare, professional and commercial organisations sometimes proves essential, helping ensure that the legislation fed out in the end is coherent and workable - particularly if the Government of the day (such as the present one) is prone to sideline the upshot of prior consultation.

What causes outrage among some parliamentarians is the organised touting, left to Government Whips to implement, for sympathetic backbenchers who can be relied upon to help ditch a particular measure and, as has become so apparent on this occasion, heavy departmental involvement in the details of how that can be achieved.

Not all of these MPs will have had discernibly strong views beforehand. In the case of the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill Lady Olga Maitland, the MP for Sutton and Cheam, stands out in this respect.

The approaches to tame backbenchers to table wrecking amendments is an aspect, undoubtedly the worst one, of the widespread practice of inducing MPs to take on a lobby-fodder role of some sort or another - of praising the Prime Minister at question time, for instance, or of harassing the Opposition.

The courting most often takes the form of nods and winks: hasty conversations in corridors - 'a question/amendment on . . . would be useful, don't you think?' - rather than overt, or blatant, instruction.

Sometimes parliamentary private secretaries - ministerial bag-carriers - can be seen proffering planted questions in the members' lobby. New and/or ambitious members are easy prey. More hardened operators can be heard saying: 'No not now,' or something less polite.

But this week's row focuses on two yet more significant issues. One is that, as Dale Campbell-Savours, the Labour MP for Workington who made the contempt complaint to the Commons Speaker, put it: 'It had not, until now, become standard practice to mislead the House at the despatch box.'

The second is the revelation about the use of Parliamentary Counsel - expert lawyers who draft Government Bills and who are paid for by the taxpayer - to assist in the sabotaging of a Bill that ministers chose not to openly oppose.

It all ensures that MPs are ever more acutely attuned to a wrecking operation in the making. The frequent appearances on a Friday of Lady Olga were noted yesterday.

Inside Parliament, page 10