Belfast Telegraph

Our MPs have something to keep them busy (at last)

By Tom Moseley

Her Majesty will throw some meat to the hungry hordes in Parliament on Wednesday, May 9, we now know. The date of the Queen's Speech - when at least some new laws should be announced - was revealed last week by Commons Leader Sir George Young.

This comes as a great relief to those of use who would like our MPs to have something to do.

There's been precious little legislation for them to chew over in recent months, leaving honourable members occupying their time in backbench debates, with private Bills and (allegedly) brawling in the Commons bar.

The lack of pressing parliamentary business is illustrated by the fact that Labour and the Conservatives have been operating on a one-line whip for most of the last few weeks, which could be loosely translated as 'turn up if you fancy it'.

"It's like there's been tumbleweed blowing down the corridors", said Stephen Pound, Labour's spokesman for Northern Ireland.

It's worth stressing that MPs aren't to blame for the lull - one of the main reasons is that the legislative programme has been clogged by headline bills, on the NHS, welfare reform and legal aid, taking up so much time in the House of Lords.

Another reason is that there simply has not been much legislation around - we had no Queen's speech last year, because the Government changed the date to allow for five-year fixed-term Parliaments.

It is also not necessarily a bad thing. One of the criticisms of the Labour government under Blair and Brown was an endless stream of acts of parliament.

The argument that governments should be judged on outcomes, rather than pages of statutes passed, is a strong one.

We've had debates in response to public petitions, including on fuel prices, Hillsborough and the European Union, which many MPs say is an equally worthwhile use of their time.

This week is a lively one for Northern Ireland at Westminster, so I shouldn't complain.

We have questions to Secretary of State Owen Paterson and while, once again, none of the province's MPs has made it out of the ballot to ask one, they should all get their say.

The DUP has also secured an Opposition debate, while Jim Shannon plans to raise the work of the Historical Enquiries Team on the floor of the House.

But even this is unlikely to change the subdued atmosphere at Westminster, leaving our elected scrutineers kicking their heels until the Queen clears her throat in two months' time.

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