I'm in Parliament today, covering Private Members' Bills. There are few aspects of Westminster which are quite so confusing as the way Friday business is conducted, but it basically goes like this...
There are meant to be 40 members present for a quorum. Often, because most members are in their constituencies on a Friday, this number isn't reached. The way of testing this - i.e. seeing how many members have turned up - is to call for a vote on the motion that 'This House do now sit in private'. Everyone votes No, although today a Tory MP voted that it should sit in private, for reasons best known to himself. The key thing is how many vote. If fewer than 35 members (plus the tellers and the Deputy Speaker in the Chair) go through the division lobbies, then the House is inquorate and the Private Members' business is lost.
This means that progress on a Bill could at any point be sabotaged by someone calling for a vote if they think the House is inquorate. However.... as ever, there is a mechanism for avoiding this.
The MP promoting the first Private Members Bill on the agenda can move 'That this House do now sit in private' before official business starts. It doesn't matter if that vote reveals that the House is inquorate, because business hasn't started. So today, Andrew Dismore, who was first on the agenda with a Bill about the restitution of cultural items misappropriated during the Holocaust, moved the motion at 9.33am after Prayers, and the vote was something like 24-1 to the Noes.
If the motion has been moved once, it can't be moved again - so although the House is technically inquorate, there's no danger of that issue cropping up again during the course of today's Business, and because it was moved before Business officially started, it doesn't matter that the quorum wasn't reached. Confused yet?
The next factor is how many Bills are dealt with before the 2.30pm end of play, which depends entirely on how long MPs and Ministers talk for. Some MPs - including Andrew Dismore on the Labour side and Christopher Chope on the Tory side - have built their reputation on their ability to talk for hours if needed. Phillip Davies is another, newer Tory who seems to have become an afficianado of the Friday art of filibustering. They do this because they don't like the Bill or because they don't want to reach something further down the agenda. Sometimes Ministers talk for rather a long time too, but that's because they have lots of interesting things to say about the subject in question and want to get it on the record.
The only way this filibustering can be stopped is if someone moves a closure motion. However.... for a closure motion to be successful, 100 MPs must vote for it. Which obviously can't happen unless there are more than 100 MPs there.
This is why when things like the Temporary Agency Workers Bill come up on a Friday, or, say, Bills which are dear to the hearts of the environmental lobby, strenuous efforts will be made to rally the troops, not just by the MP proposing the Bill but also by interested third parties such as the trade unions, green campaigners and the like. Sometimes constituents write into MPs, usually at the behest of a group they support, urging them to attend on the Friday. And if they win the vote, then the Bill goes to Committee stage, etc, etc.
Is there a better way of doing things? Probably.
P.S. I'm just getting a strange sense of deja vu. A feeling I've explained all this on here before...