Letter: Maastricht: innovative debate, multi-speed Europe and rebels' power

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Sir: Notwithstanding the politics of the so-called 'paving debate' on the Maastricht treaty legislation on 4 November, it must surely be welcomed as a useful, if unintended, innovation in our antiquated parliamentary legislative process. It is, to all intents and purposes, a second Second Reading of the Bill, and as such it is an almost unique opportunity for MPs to debate the principles of a major Bill at length twice in the same parliamentary session.

Normal procedures mean that, after Second Reading, there is virtually no opportunity in practice for our legislators to return to the principles of government legislation, even where its justification may have become altered or even removed by external events in the real world. Parliament's legislative procedures appear to be driven by the macho desire of government business managers to get their business through whatever. It is relatively rare for a major Bill to be withdrawn. More likely, if changes are to be made, amendments will be introduced at some late stage or in the Lords and driven through en bloc, without any substantial opportunity for a debate in principle. Committee stages (even those taken in the Chamber), Report stages and consideration of Lords' Amendments operate under restrictive rules of procedure, which seldom permit or encourage wide-ranging debate on a Bill as a whole.

Even Third Readings, which are supposed to be a final opportunity for a general debate, tend to be tacked on to the end of Report stage, and to last for little more than an hour or so, often less. How often do potential rebels warn that they will vote against a Bill at Third Reading, if amendments they desire are not made by then, and how rarely do such threatened revolts materialise]

Is it too optimistic to hope that the Maastricht debate may be the prototype for a more formal 'further consideration in principle' stage in Parliament's legislative process?

Yours sincerely,


Department of Public Law

Aberdeen University


27 October