Alive, uncut - and good for a kip

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The Independent Online
Last Monday afternoon in the House of Commons, as a few stragglers made their way out after questions to the Church Commissioners, an even smaller number of our dedicated representatives was heading in for a guillotine motion on the Finance Bill. It was quiet, largely empty, a good place for a kip - listen to that bluebottle buzzing lazily above the green leather benches.

This is a normal day in the House of Commons but it very much is not what gets broadcast in the much talked about Radio 4 Yesterday in Parliament slot. In the fortnight left before Parliament rises for the summer break, drop into the chamber for half an hour (or if you are very forbearing, an hour). Stifle your yawn. Nine-tenths of what happens in here is meaningless ritual, mutual back-scratching or self-aggrandising nonsense. By trying to make proceedings seem vital and alive, Yesterday in Parliament is a deception.

The other day MPs self-interestedly worked themselves up about the BBC's putative plan to do away with the slot. There was a lot of talk about getting important messages through to the public "unfiltered" by inky journalists - as if YIP were not an elaborate confection of every remotely interesting bit.

Here is what was actually going on that day. First up, defence questions. Number one, an obvious plant, made easier to spot by the fact that the press releases have been circulated in advance.

A short debate on recruitment to the armed forces followed. Fair enough. Then Sir Teddy Taylor wanted to know about the future of some barracks in Shoeburyness which happens to be in his Southend constituency. Of course, Sir Teddy could have cornered the minister in the lobby, but then the readers of the Southend Standard Recorder would have been none the wiser.

Then Tim Collins, Tory MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale, asked a question about Trident. Linda Gilroy, from Plymouth, Sutton, got up to ask a supplementary but was stopped in her tracks by the cry "Reading!" She was roundly told off by Betty Boothroyd, the Speaker, for the arcane rules of the House deem the use of notes a great offence. (Why?) A few minutes later Sir George Young faced a similar accusation, but was ruled to be in order because he was touching the despatch box. Sometimes it seems that the people who do best here are probably those same, irritating types who once knew all the rules of playground games.

Of a total of 659 MPs there were 26 present, most of whom were waiting to speak. The newspapers, as is normal for much of the parliamentary day, were represented only by the Press Association.

Some weeks ago there was a serious suggestion that MPs who failed to get in during a debate should be allowed to have their speeches recorded in Hansard regardless. Perhaps we should go one step further and do away with the majority of debates altogether. Where there is a real need for dialogue, perhaps a quiet gathering could be arranged in a Westminster pub. Frankly, the Great British Public would be none the poorer for it.