There were just 13 human beings in the House of Commons’ Chamber on Tuesday night when, at 10.55. pm, I got up to open my debate on the Clitheroe/Blackburn/ Manchester rail services.
These were – an Assistant Serjeant-at-Arms, in eighteenth century garb, complete with sword; a Doorkeeper, in different fancy dress; a bewigged Clerk at the Table; two ‘Hansard’ reporters (who provide the complete, word-by-word record), one reporter from the Press Association (which provides a news service to all media outlets); and seven MPs – the Speaker, a government Whip, the Transport Minister Theresa Villiers, her Parliamentary Private Secretary, Darwen and Rossendale MP Jake Berry, me, and one other MP, name unknown to me, who evidently did not have a home to go.
Anyone watching the proceedings on the television might well have asked “where’s everyone else?”; maybe adding “isn’t it outrageous that the Commons’ Chamber is empty much of the time?”
For big set-piece debates how many MPs turn up, and on which side, does matter.
Who “wins” these debates can be as much as matter of psychology as of oratory; as every football fan knows, when the crowd get behind their team, it can raise their performance.
But for significant local issues like improving North East Lancashire’s rail services, it’s the fact of the debate, not the numbers in the Chamber, that’s important.
The debate I had on Tuesday is known as an “Adjournment Debate”. I had to apply for the slot before Christmas; happily my number came up. Like any sensible MP, my interest was in advancing my case, not point-scoring. I arranged for Mr Berry to share some of my time; and ensured that the Minister’s office was well briefed about what I was to say.
We’re still some way off getting the go-ahead for spending to give a reliable, half hourly service on this line through the day.
But if it does come off, this debate will have helped, by raising the issue up Ministers’ and Parliament’s agenda.