FOR all the grandstanding, hullabaloo and sound-bites, it is sometimes easy to forget that the primary role of an MP is to be a legislator. It is actually something many MPs would rather not remember and, if possible, ignore because the job of being a lawmaker is in reality an extremely tedious and thankless one.
What it actually involves is going through bills, line by line, working out what can be accepted and what needs to be changed for political or legal reasons. This can boil down to the removal or change of a single word or complete sentences and paragraphs.
This is the part of the bill process known as committee stage, which is the mid-point of five stages of a bill in the Commons. It follows the bill being placed for a first reading, general principles agreed at second reading and then followed by final detailed changes at report stage and a last vote at third reading, before the whole saga starts again in the Lords.
The task of an MP on a bill committee is arduous, often mind numbingly boring but completely necessary if laws are to be improved and the government is to be properly challenged.
This is as true for the Scotland Bill currently going through with the Smith Commission proposals as any other bill but, being constitutional, it is a committee of the whole House which means all MPs have to vote at this stage.
The committee stage of the Scotland Bill, when the main changes can be made, is then the best opportunity for the 56 SNP MPs to justify their election slogan saying they are “a strong voice for Scotland”. Yet the bold statistics this week have suggested that in reality it is Labour “standing up for Scotland” and taking on the government.
The committee stage yesterday, which dealt with financial matters, saw 51 amendments from Labour, more than twice as many as placed by the SNP who managed 24 and signed some of Labour’s on top of that. In today’s committee stage on the welfare measures, key to the bill, Labour placed 21 amendments to the SNP’s 15.
Today’s Labour amendment on allowing Holyrood to top up all benefits, which has since been signed by the SNP, is crucial for making sure the spirit of the Smith Commission is met. So the 75 amendments to 39 suggest that, despite only having one MP from north of the Border, a leaderless Labour Party appears to be making the running on the Scotland Bill, not the SNP despite the Nationalists’ claims of being the Tories’ “principle opposition”.
The SNP have made a great play of making sure their MPs are seen to be sitting in the Chamber as a large block day after day, but the truth is that they might be better employed working out ways of trying to improve important legislation for Scotland.