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MPs get ready to grubby hands in 'wash-up'

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If you thought that the guillotine coming down on government business effectively halfway through the parliamentary session meant that much of the controversial legislation now before Parliament will just go away, think again.

As those looking for a flutter on the date of the general election narrow their options to just three dates – March 25, April 8 or the favourite, May 6 – the backroom fixers are rubbing their hands in gleeful anticipation of one of those infrequent and arcane rituals of British democracy: the parliamentary "wash-up".

While legislation may now be "carried forward" from one parliamentary session to the next, it cannot be carried forward between parliaments. All bills not passed on the date when the House rises for the last time this year will be lost.

Since some of the legislation is non-controversial, and some financial legislation is essential to keep the country running, this is not an altogether brilliant outcome. Therefore, Parliament has evolved a mechanism for getting round this.

It is called the "wash-up", although according to parliamentary old hands, "stitch-up" might be more appropriate, as it invokes the time-honoured tradition of the Party Whips going into a huddle and carrying out horse-trading over any legislation that has not yet made it all the way through both Houses of Parliament.

As of this moment, that is a very large amount of legislation. Around two dozen Bills were tabled in the immediate aftermath of the Queen’s Speech last autumn. Three – the Child Poverty Bill, the Equality Bill and the Constitutional Reform Bill – were carried over from the last session. A few more Bills have been added on in the months since.

However, in terms of progress through Parliament, just one – the Equality Bill – is looking good to get through in the ordinary course of things: a few more – the Financial Responsibility Bill, the Child Poverty Bill and the Financial Services Bill are in a position to push ahead to a satisfactory “normal” passage through parliament.

In each and every case, however, the outcome will depend in large part on how much opposition these Bills run into in their final stages: in the case of the Equality Bill, the chances are that there will be a lot of amendments brought forward in the Lords, which will effectively scupper its passing this Parliament.

For time is very definitely running out. Established procedure requires a minimum 17 working days (excluding weekends and public holidays) between the moving of a writ for a general election and its actual date. For March 25, the latest date on which the writ can be moved is 2 March: allowing a couple of days for wash-up leaves little more than four days of parliamentary time not already allocated to legislation.

For May 6, expect a writ by 13 April latest – leaving around 20 days left for our legislators to do their worst.

So how does the wash-up work? According to the House of Commons Library, it is "not a procedural matter for the House": talk to the Whips. According to the various Whips Offices with whom we have spoken, it is much as above – only the rules change every time.

So we spoke with David Davis, Tory MP for Haltemprice and Howden, who was a Tory Front Bench spokesman at the time of the last wash-up. Then, he remembers there being some horse-trading over the number of supercasinos the government would permit and other legislation.

He confirmed what we had already figured, which is that Opposition spokespeople become veto players, going through what is left of legislation on a line-by-line basis, striking out anything that they dislike.

The general principle, according to Mr Davis, is "would you be embarrassed if it was known you stopped - or you had not stopped – something likely to prove popular in the run-up to the election". For that reason, he felt that much of the Crime and Security Bill would get through – and other commentators expect legislation such as the Child Poverty Bill to get through.

This is, however, a dangerous approach. At the end of the last parliament, it led to the passing of much that was controversial with very little scrutiny. This is in large part why the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005, with its clauses relating to "behaviour in the vicinity of Parliament", were squeaked through to deal with protestor Brian Haw – and then proved inadequate to the task.

Thankfully, the wash-up process only applies to Government Bills: so we will be spared one last rush of Private Members legislation on Sunbeds (regulation of), Pedicabs and School Transport. ®

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