How laws get made: behind the scenes at Parliament

Melanie Kramers

20 June 2011

A trip to Parliament is probably not on everyone’s must-do list for June – or maybe third place after Glastonbury and Wimbledon. But last week I was excited to watch MPs discuss the nitty-gritty details of a new law to help cut the UK’s carbon footprint. 

I’ve been working all year to help make sure the final Energy Bill is as green as possible. So it’s fair to say I had a vested interest.

But I hadn’t realised that anyone can turn up at the House of Commons to watch a public bill debate. It’s just a matter of knowing it’s happening – and of course wanting to go. 

I’d definitely recommend it if you want to see how our laws get made. Despite my slight difficulty getting past the airport-like security, who ransacked my bag searching for a suspect object. (It turned out to be a bike light.)

I’ve visited Parliament before but am always impressed by its stunning architecture. The sense of history is palpable as you pass through grand halls flanked with marble busts of past Prime Ministers.

Inside the committee

Committee room nine, where the debate took place, is beautiful. Carved wood panels topped by elaborately patterned green wallpaper stretch up to ceilings 30-foot high. It’s arranged like a mini House of Commons – with about a dozen Government MPs facing the Opposition.

I found the mixture of formal ritual and casual behavior fascinating. The language is ultra polite – politicians ask ‘will the Minister give way’ if they want to interrupt, and bow to the Chair if they need to leave the room. But meanwhile some MPs busily check messages on smart phones, seemingly oblivious to the discussion.

Passing notes is a lot fancier than at school. Our campaigner had to leave the room to ask the clerk – fabulously clad in a white bow-tie, gold medallion and tailcoat – to hand a message to an MP.

Walk the line

Tuesday’s discussion focused on plans to insulate rented homes. We’ve been campaigning hard for these to be improved to protect tenants and the planet so I was paying close attention.

The MPs’ job of analysing the new law line by line can appear mind-numbing. For example, 20 minutes was spent on clause 42, amendment 124 – whether to leave out ‘may’ and insert ‘shall’.

But as one MP pointed out, although it may seem like ‘dancing on the head of a pin’, a measure that's required rather than optional could make all the difference to families feeling the chill at home.

I was pleased to notice another MP refer to a Friends of the Earth briefing when speaking – it shows politicians are listening to what we’re saying.

And there was an exciting moment when the clerk solemnly announced ‘the door has been locked’ and then ceremoniously asked each MP to say vote ‘aye’ or ‘no’.

What happens next

Afterwards, my colleague Dave described the Committee’s decisions as a mixed bag. There was some progress. But we still need to fight for crucial improvements to the Energy Bill.

Friends of the Earth supporters can help tip the balance. I’ve asked my MP to do her bit – you can too.

Melanie Kramers, Communications & Media team

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