How to delay a bill

As a former parliamentary staffer one thing I follow closely are what ones call house tactics to delay a bill. Now before everyone yells at me that they hate delaying tactics, let me explain that there is a place for them as long as you don’t do it too often. If the Opposition do not have the numbers to defeat a bill, then the only way they can show how strongly they oppose a bad law is by fighting it tooth and nail and delaying it.

The first second and third reading debates are all set by standing orders as two hours each. So it is the committee of the house stage which considers it clause by clause which allows delaying tactics.

Now it is rare for a bill to actually be considered clause by clause. Normally there are too many clauses so the Government will move that it be taken part by part. The Chairman has discretion as to how long to allow for each clause or part but the rule of thumb is an hour each.

So Bradford’s bill having six clauses, might take six hours. A large bill with several hundred clauses in ten parts could take ten hours.

Now one trick the Government can do to reduce debating time is to have less parts and use sub-parts. It’s sort of cheating on the spirit but means instead of say 12 one hour debates, you only have four because you have Parts 1A, 1B, 1C, 1D, 2A, 2B etc instead of Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 … 12.

A very smart Opposition can try and do the opposite and add a new Part to a bill. But that is very difficult because to be accepted by the Chairman it has to cover issues that are not within the scope of any other Part of the Bill, yet is within the objects of the Bill.

Next you can move individual amendments. Now these do not actually increase the time for debate. They just get considered along with the Bill. But each has to be voted on and voting takes around a minute. So you see Taito Philllip Field tabling 50 amendments to the Bradford Bill would delay it by around 50 minutes.

If you start voting in Maori, which requires translation, that means each vote takes two minutes instead of one. This happens rarely.

One can also keep a debate going just by having lots of MPs jumping up to take the call. The one hour per clause/part is a very rough guideline. If the Chairman sees lots of MPs still wanting to debate, especially ones who have not yet spoken, he or she is more likely to keep debate going. So sometimes one may even get two hours per part. Normally the Whips work out in advance a speaking order. But when people are trying to keep the debate going you actually see MPs genuinely competing for the call, and the Speaker choosing between them.

Another tactic is points of order. Experienced MPs can raise valid points or order which can take a couple of score of minutes to deal with. Sometimes up to two hours with the Speaker recalled if a critical issue.

Now the Government has ways to speed things up also. Any amendment which involves incurring expenditure can be vetoed by the Minister of Finance without vote or debate. And it cn be hard to word amendments with no fiscal consequences.

And with the Bradford Bill debate the Government did something quite cunning. Rather than vote against all 50 of Field’s amendments changing the implementation date by 1 to 50 months, they voted for the first one. This then meant that the other amendments could not be put as they were contrary to an amendment already accepted. I am impressed they thought of that tactic.

Despite this the Bill did not get to a final vote in committee stage, so expect that to happen in two weeks time, and then the third reading three weeks after that,

And again before people say how much they hate silly delaying tactics and the like, they do have a valid place to show opposition, and they are done fairly rarely – most of the time debate moves along swiftly.