The saying ‘the House of Commons at its best’ is normally a pompous description of parliamentarians agreeing with one another on something it is impossible to disagree on. However, when MPs come together to scrutinise legislation involving the security services, they do come rather close to being at their best, as they grow rather anxious about whether the legislation will actually work. So far the debate on the Investigatory Powers Bill has largely been detailed and thoughtful and without much silly knockabout. But the closest the second reading session has come to knockabout was when Andy Burnham was offering Labour’s response.
The Shadow Home Secretary had the difficult job of trying to argue that while Labour was in broad agreement with the objectives of the government for the Bill, it would abstain at this stage because it was not acceptable at this point. He was faced with a well-organised Tory backbench operation in which MPs on the other side teased him about why on earth the Opposition was abstaining on an issue of national security, with a lecture from Steve Brine about what the purpose of second reading actually is. Burnham responded rather testily that it is his job to decide on the parliamentary tactics, but again listed a number of issues that Labour wants clarification on before even committing to supporting the government on the timetabling of the legislation.
What was striking about Burnham’s response — and the limited interventions from Labour backbenchers during his speech — was the number of times he mentioned trade unions and various cases in which trade unionists have been wrongly pursued or mistreated by the authorities, including the Shrewsbury pickets and Orgreave. It’s almost as though the Shadow Home Secretary felt that in some way he needed to address the Left of his party, which has championed the causes of those involved in these incidents, as much as he needed to fit in with the grave and serious discussion of the legislation before the House today. As I said earlier, a number of his colleagues are uncomfortable that the party is abstaining on this matter, but the closest they’ll get to causing trouble at this stage is to give a forceful speech or two in the Chamber this afternoon.