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Frustrated Peers Say 4AM Sitting For Illegal Migration Bill Should Have Been Avoidable

Houses of Parliament (Alamy)

4 min read

Peers in the House of Lords have expressed frustration over an unprecedented 4am sitting to debate the Illegal Migration Bill on Wednesday night as the upper house scrambles to make its way through an unusually large agenda of meaty legislation.

Peers sat until around 4:20am discussing the government’s controversial Illegal Migration Bill, which had its third of five days at committee stage yesterday. 

Government has insisted it will get its priority business through, but one Labour source believed that government may not have made time considerations given the other big legislation Lords are also dealing with.

While it is not unheard of for peers to sit late when dealing with legislation, particularly when there is a risk of it not making it through parliament in time, such a late night sitting is unusual and had not on this occasion been expected. Lord Newby, Liberal Democrat leader in the House of Lords said this morning that he “can't remember a committee stage going so late” and felt that the House should only be in session for so long when the legislation is time pressured.  

“When the House has sat very late in recent times, it's been because of extreme and legitimate time pressures to get legislation onto the statute books," he told the Lords this morning. 

“I don't think that debating extremely important legislation in the middle of the night is sensible or acceptable in the absence of unavoidable time pressures.” 

A Labour Lords source told PoliticsHome they believed that the late sitting could have been as a result of the government’s political urgency to get this key piece of legislation through. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s has made stopping illegal Channel crossings, which the legislation sets out to achieve, one of his five pledges for government. 

They said that not enough time had been left for the bill to get through the Lords stages within the government’s desired time, considering the amount of other large pieces of legislation the House is also dealing with including the Levelling Up Bill and Retained EU Law Bill. 

Lord Newby also criticised the lack of agreement of “what late sitting meant” with other parties and “inadequate communication” with the Lord Speaker’s office about how late the session may run. 

Labour leader in the Lords Baroness Angela Smith of Basildon shared his concern over communication, and said while she recognises that “the government wants to get its legislation through” and the need for “proper debate and discussion” that there still needed to be sufficient logistical planning.

“I think if we are sitting late it is a courtesy to Parliament that the caterers, the doorkeepers, and Lord Speaker's Office and others who are involved are aware that could be the case if there’s any possibility of it happening again,” she explained.   

Government chief whip in the Lords Baroness Susan Williams of Trafford said: “One of the first things is that governments should get their business through.” 

She pointed to an occasion when the Liberal Democrats were in coalition government in 2011, when the House sat late during the committee stage of the legislation that allowed the AV referendum. 

Baroness Williams said that the “most important thing” she would take away “was about communication with the people who support the running of this House”.

Asked about the prospect of further similarly late sittings in the near future, Williams said “the government will get its priority business through.” 

The final two days of this bill at committee stage are expected next week. It is then likely that there will be a break before the bill returns at report stage, where peers are likely to vote on amendments. 

The most recent time the Lords sat later than this was in 2011 for the 9th day of Committee for the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill - the legislation which made provision for a referendum on an alternative voting system. 

This session started on 17th January 2011 and ran through to 12:52pm the next day on 18th January.

PoliticsHome reported earlier this year that an unusually high number of “hugely complex” bills was causing a backlog in the chamber. 

“There is a growing backlog, and in a sense it’s inevitable,” Lord Don Foster of Bath said.

“Everything is getting incredibly behind, and then you add the further complexity that some of the bills are hugely complex.

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