§ 3.7 p.m.
§ The Chairman of Committees (Lord Boston of Faversham)
My Lords, I beg to move the: Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.
As your Lordships will see, the Procedure Committee report has two main items. The first consists of comments and recommendations of the Procedure Committee on the report of the working group appointed by the Leader of the House on conduct in the Chamber.
The committee is extremely grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton of Eggardon, and her five colleagues. Indeed, I am sure the whole House will be grateful for the thorough and speedy way in which the working group carried out its task. Your Lordships will have noted that the Procedure Committee did not feel able to endorse all the working group's recommendations, but that in no way detracts from the valuable work it has done.
The House may find it helpful if I emphasise that this afternoon we are debating the Procedure Committee's report and not the report of the working group. The House is being asked to endorse the comments and 961 recommendations of the Procedure Committee on the report of the working group and not the report of the working group itself.
I do not propose to go through all the recommendations for change proposed by the Procedure Committee in the light of the working group's report. The changes are set out in the Procedure Committee's report. I shall try to deal with any questions your Lordships may have. However, I remind your Lordships of the importance of the courtesies of the House. Those govern the way in which noble Lords have traditionally behaved towards each other and are usefully set out in the working group's report.
I mention in particular the need to observe our courtesies on business immediately after Starred Questions. The Procedure Committee is concerned about the noise made when noble Lords leave the Chamber after Starred Questions and the difficulty caused for the noble Lord dealing with the next business. That difficulty is especially acute for a noble Lord on the Liberal Democrat Front Bench because departing noble Lords often pass directly in front of him. It is very much hoped that the recommendations of the Procedure Committee, and of the group of the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton of Eggardon, aimed at maintaining the good order and dignity of our proceedings, will be taken to heart.
The second main item in the report of the Procedure Committee is the proposal of the noble Lord the Government Chief Whip that, as an experiment beginning immediately after the Easter Recess, the general debate day should be moved from Wednesday to Thursday. The experiment would last until such time as government business fills the debate day, probably mid-June.
The experiment might require certain consequential changes, such as starting business on Wednesdays at 3 p.m. and on Thursdays at 2.30 p.m. The House will understand that there was strong opposition to the proposal in the Procedure Committee. The committee was divided on the merits of the proposal and, in the end, did not feel able to make any recommendation to the House. There was a strong feeling that the House should decide the matter without any proposal from the committee. That is the purpose of the amendment on the Order Paper in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Young. There is also the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton.
In the circumstances, I do not believe I would be helping the House if I were to try to summarise the arguments for and against the proposal. It is better that I leave that to other noble Lords once the noble Baroness has spoken to her amendment.
There is also the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris. Again, I leave it to the House to decide. So far as the mechanics are concerned, it is perfectly possible to provide whatever is necessary. Strictly speaking, if the noble Lord moves his amendment, debate will take place on it. However, I hope that noble Lords will feel free to range over any of the matters in the report and so avoid the need for 962 several debates. After the noble Lord, Lord Morris, has spoken, no doubt your Lordships will wish to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Young, and the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton.
Moved, That the First Report from the Select Committee (HL Paper 33) be agreed to. — (The Chairman of Committees.) Following is the report referred to:
1. REPORT OF THE GROUP ON PROCEDURE IN THE CHAMBER
At its last meeting the Procedure Committee agreed to a recommendation by the Leader of the House that a Working Group should be established "to consider how the procedures of the House can be improved within the existing framework of self-regulation; and to make proposals for ensuring that Lords are better informed of procedure so that self-regulation can work". 1The Committee has considered the Group's report2 and recommends the House to accept the following proposals for change in the House's present procedures:
A second topical question each week should be created by reserving the fourth question on Wednesdays, for tabling no earlier than the previous Monday. The second topical question should be subject to the same rules as the existing topical question, in particular the rule that no Lord may ask more than two topical questions in one session. 3
Lords should be limited to one Starred Question (instead of the present two) on the order paper at any one time, unless they are successful in the ballot for topical questions.
The Committee endorses the following additional guidance recommended by the Working Group:
The Committee reminds the House that the Lord who tabled the question has no automatic right to ask a final supplementary question. 4
- (a) Ministers' answers should be shorter. Their initial answer should not generally exceed 75 words. Supplementary questions and answers should also be shorter and confined to not more than two points.
- (b) The problem of how supplementary questions should circulate around the different parts of the House cannot be resolved by a rigid rule. The Government side should not expect to have every alternate supplementary. In giving guidance, the Leader should be mindful of the interests of all backbenchers, including the Liberal Democrats and the Crossbenchers.
- (c) If two or more Lords rise at once, they should be more ready to give way immediately, rather than provoke a shouting-match, which is undignified and wastes time. If the Leader rises, other Lords should sit down at once.
Business immediately after Starred Questions
The Committee is concerned at how much noise is created when Lords leave the Chamber after Starred Questions. Lords should do so silently; those remaining in the Chamber should avoid conversations at this point. It is in order for the Lord moving the next business to pause for a short period until the House is quiet again. The Clerk should not start the clock until he begins to speak..
Drafting of amendments
In appropriate cases amendments should take the form: Page x, line y, leave out paragraph (b), and not: Page x, leave out lines 1 to 3.
Grouping of amendments
For an experimental period until the summer recess, government departments should produce draft groupings of amendments for consultation by 2.30 p.m. on the working day before debate (rather than at lunchtime on the day, as at present). To enable departments to do this, marshalled lists of amendments should be published on the working day before the debate (rather than on the day of debate, as is normal at present). Lords should be encouraged to facilitate this by tabling amendments no later than 5 p.m. two days before the 963 debate, whenever possible. Amendments handed in later than this will be published in a revised marshalled list or in a supplementary list. The experiment should be confined to committee stage.
Tabling of amendments
Outside recesses, the deadline for handing in amendments for printing the next day should be 5 p.m. (4 p.m. on Fridays) instead of 6.30 p.m. (5.30 p.m. for a marshalled list, 4 p.m. on Fridays) as at present. During recesses the deadlines will remain unchanged (10 a. m. to 5 p.m.).
An amendment identical (or of identical effect) to one pushed to a vote by the mover and defeated in committee should not be retabled for report stage. The amendment should be changed more than cosmetically if it is to be retabled. However, it would not be desirable to restrict the reopening at report stage of an issue debated and voted on in committee.
An amendment agreed to on division in committee should not be reversed at report stage except with the unanimous agreement of the House.
The time for divisions should be extended from six to eight minutes; the time for appointing Tellers would in consequence be extended from three to four minutes.
"Bill do now pass"
The motion "That this bill do now pass" should be moved formally and should not normally be debated. Ministers should if necessary respond to points raised on the motion by other Lords. The motion should not be an occasion for thanking those involved in the passage of the bill.
The Committee does not accept that the number of statements repeated in this House is unreasonable. They are important policy announcements. While there will be exceptions, the time for the two Opposition front benches and the reply to them should be limited to 20 minutes, as for the backbenches. 5 Backbenchers too should exercise restraint, restricting themselves to brief comments and questions rather than speeches, so as to allow more Lords to intervene within the 20 minutes available.
The time when a statement is to be taken (for example, "after amendment 20" or "after the first debate"), once agreed between the whips, should be put on the annunciator. A Lord who was not present to hear a statement should not speak on it. The practice of noting unrepealed statements on the cover of Hansard should be revived.
The Committee endorses the following reminders of the courtesies of the House:
The Committee reminds the House that private conversations in the Chamber are not desirable.
- (a) Lords should bow to the Cloth of Estate on entering the Chamber, though not on leaving. 6 Lords should also bow when the Mace passes.
- (b) A Lord who is taking part in a debate is expected to attend the greater part of that debate. It is considered discourteous for him not to be present for the opening speeches, for at least the speech before and that following his own, and for the winding-up speeches. Ministers cannot be expected to answer, orally or in writing, points made by a speaker who does not stay to hear the Minister's closing speech. A Lord who becomes aware in advance that he is unlikely to be able to stay until the end of a debate should normally remove his name from the list of speakers.
- (c) Reading of speeches is alien to the custom of the House. In practice, some speakers may wish to have "extended notes" from which to speak, but it is not in the interests of good debate that they should follow them too closely.
- (d) Lords should never address one another in debate as "you".
- (e) Lords should refer to "the noble Lord, the Minister", or simply "the Minister", but not "the noble Minister".
- (f) The Lord who follows a maiden speaker (and only that Lord) should congratulate him on behalf of the whole House. Other Lords should not leave the Chamber while this takes place.
- (g) Lords should not pass between the Lord who is speaking and the Lord on the Woolsack or in the Chair. 7
- (h) Lords should not move about the Chamber while a Question is being put from the Woolsack or the Chair. This does not apply when the Lord Chancellor is speaking as a Minister from beside the Woolsack.
- (i) Lords should not bring books or newspapers into the Chamber, except for reference in debate. 8
The Committee agreed that the Working Group's proposals for training (paragraphs 71–78) should be considered further. The Clerk of the Parliaments informed the Committee that he proposed to begin a revision of the Companion to the Standing Orders for issue by the beginning of the next session.
The Committee expressed its gratitude to Lady Hilton of Eggardon and the members of the Working Group for their work on procedure in the Chamber.
2. THE GENERAL DEBATE DAY
The Committee considered a proposal from the Government Chief Whip that, as an experiment from the return of the House after the Easter recess, the general debate day should be moved from Wednesdays to Thursdays. The experiment would last until such time as government business filled the debate day, probably mid-June 1999. The Committee noted that there was strong opposition to the proposal. If such a change were to be made on an experimental basis, the Committee recommends that the House should meet at 3 p.m. on Wednesdays and 2.30 p.m. on Thursdays" However, in the absence of agreement on the Chief Whip's proposal, the Committee makes no recommendation on the proposal or on sitting times. The issue should be left to the House to decide.
- 1 4th Report (1997–98), HL Paper 144.
- 2 The report is printed as HL Paper (1998–99) 34.
- 3 See Companion to the Standing Orders, p 86.
- 4 Companion, p 85.
- 5 As recommended in the Procedure Committee's first report 1994–95, agreed to by the House on 10 January 1995.
- 6 Standing order 17(2).
- 7 Standing Order 17(1).
- 8 Companion, p 64.
- 9 The committee was led to understand that this would be because party meetings would be held on Wednesdays.
§ 3.15 p.m.
§ Lord Morris of Castle Morris rose to move, as an amendment to the Chairman of Committees' Motion, at end insert ("save that, in paragraph 1 ("Report of the Group on Procedure in the Chamber"), on page 4, in the sub-paragraph headed "Divisions", leave out ("in consequence be extended from three to four minutes") and insert ("remain at three minutes")").
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, the proximate cause for the amendment standing in my name lies in the alarm I felt recently when I encountered a noble Lord whose age can best be described as "mature" and whose build invites the label of "sturdy" who was exhibiting a remarkable turn of speed at imminent peril to his cardiovascular system and who nearly ran me down in the precincts of the Palace in his determination not to miss a Division. His assiduity put me upon reflection. I recalled that the Hilton group had recommended that Division time be extended from six to eight minutes which pleased many noble Lords because it made things easier for those getting in from workplaces outside the 965 Palace or from distant spots within it and because of the weight of numbers now taking part in at least some Divisions.
The group also recommended an extension of the time allowed for the appointment of tellers from three minutes to four. This was accepted by the Select Committee with one subtle change, the phrase,
in consequence be extended from three to four minutes".
I submit that the cases are not parallel. The Clerks, acting as tellers, are, as I have observed them—and there are only four at any given time—young persons, fit, agile, nimble, and very quick off the mark. They can go far in three minutes. In 10 years in your Lordships' House I have never found them absent from their posts or breathless from exertion.
§ Noble Lords, on the other hand, tend to be less lissom, to move more slowly, stumble a bit and occasionally get in each other's way. They need all the time they can get to reach the Lobbies and process through them; often there is quite a considerable crush. The phrase, "in consequence", implies the unquestioned assumption that the two periods in a Division must be of equal length. I submit that that assumption is unsupported by any evidence and has no basis in fact. It has all the virtues of symmetry but no other virtues.
§ I have been given to understand that Division time is measured by the action of what is described as "an hourglass" which runs for three minutes and must then be inverted to measure the second period of time. I do not wish to be pedantic but an hourglass, by definition, measures an hour and a three-minute glass is more accurately described as an egg-timer. An egg-timer is a useful and often artistically pleasing example of the glassmaker's art. But it has one manifest drawback. It can only measure its allotted span of three minutes and then has to be turned over. It is excellent for its purpose, producing a boiled egg. However, given that a new hourglass or egg-timer would be required if the period were extended to four minutes plus four—a sort of hard-boiled egg-timer—this cannot be an argument against three-plus-five. In any case, technology has developed and new and exciting possibilities have been opened up by the invention of the stop-watch. It is an accurate, flexible and readily available machine, very much fitted for its purpose and now quite cheap in price.
§ The purpose of the proposed amendment on page 4, line 25, of the report is to allow a little extra time for noble Lords to reach the Division Lobbies and pass through them in comfort and in a settled frame of mind. I beg to move.
§ Moved, as an amendment to the Chairman of Committees' Motion, at end insert ("save that, in paragraph 1 ("Report of the Group on Procedure in the Chamber"), on page 4, in the sub-paragraph headed "Divisions", leave out ("in consequence be extended from three to four minutes") and insert ("remain at three minutes")"). —(Lord Morris of Castle Morris.)
§ Baroness Hilton of Eggardon
My Lords, I have been invited to take part in the debate at this point because the report of my group applies only to the first 966 part of the Procedure Committee's report. It therefore seemed sensible that I should speak now rather than after the two amendments to the second part of the Procedure Committee's report.
I support the amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Morris of Castle Morris. I suggest that the mechanical problems could be overcome by having two egg-timers or hourglasses, one timing three minutes and one timing five minutes.
I turn briefly to the report of the cross-party committee I chaired. I begin by stating that it was an enjoyable experience. I express thanks particularly to the other members of the rather disparate group that we were and to the many noble Lords who wrote to us. I thank especially our Clerk, Andrew Makower, who managed to make sense of our sometimes rather disjointed discussions.
The main thrust of our report is to underpin the existing procedures, courtesies and practices of this House which give us our unique style and authority. I hope your Lordships find our report a useful summary of the most important procedures and courtesies and consider that it makes sensible recommendations about administrative procedures.
I am delighted that the Procedure Committee has felt able to accept about two-thirds of our recommendations, especially those on the timing and grouping of amendments which I am sure will be of assistance to us all. I am, however, personally disappointed that the recommendation with regard to a Victorian tradition, much practised in the other place—I refer to the habit of Front Benchers placing their feet on the Clerks' Table—was not accepted and that that practice is to be allowed to continue.
Finally, we made a number of recommendations about introductory courses for new Peers which the Select Committee did not really have the time to discuss in detail. I hope that they will be taken forward at future meetings of that committee. I refer in particular to our suggestion that there should be an introductory day on the history, geography and culture of the House, which would only later be followed by a second day on the technicalities of legislation and Bills. An introductory day which enabled new Peers to understand the way in which we behave and provided them with a formal guided tour of the House and some talk of its history and traditions would enable new Peers to feel comfortable in the House and would assist them with those aspects of our behaviour which we all prize and cherish.
I hope that the work of our group will reinforce the self-regulation of the House and that the recommendations of the Select Committee on Procedure will be accepted.
My Lords, in commending my amendment on item 2 ("The General Debate Day") on page 5 of the report of the Select Committee on Procedure, I should like to start by saying that when the matter was discussed by the Select Committee concern was expressed about the proposed change by Members in all parts of the House. I believe that that concern will be expressed again today in your Lordships' House.
967 If I may put this in shorthand, the issue at point is to change Wednesday into Thursday. I should like to make three points about that. The first is a point of principle. I believe that the House of Lords has two main functions. The first is to amend legislation and the second is to hold general debates. In fact, the Select Committee was reminded that during the discussions at the time of the 1968 reform of your Lordships' House the function of holding general debates was placed first. We are all well aware of the interest that those debates hold. They provide an opportunity to have a wide-ranging discussion of topical subjects. They are an excellent opportunity for Back-Bench Members of the House to take part. I am thinking particularly of the two debates initiated by noble Lords on the Labour Benches on the BBC and on the British Council. I think also of the interesting debate on AIDS in Africa, which was initiated by the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, and of the debate introduced last week on democracy by my noble friend Lord Waddington.
That leads me to my second point. If we were to agree to the change, the first three days of the week would be taken up entirely with legislation. That function would therefore be assumed to be by far the most important. There would therefore be a real danger that Thursdays would be seen as a kind of afterthought, or a dead day, when it was not necessary for most of your Lordships to be present and most Peers could go home on Wednesday evening. We would then be in great danger of becoming a three-day-a-week House. I regret to say that we would also be in great danger of becoming like the House of Commons where, as far as I can see, a great many Members leave at lunchtime on Thursday.
Many Members of your Lordships' House are already very worried about any weakening of this House. I believe that the proposed change would signal such a weakening. Even if, as is proposed, it was for a trial period, all of us in public life know that such "trials" usually turn out to last a long time. If accepted, this proposal would signal that the fourth day of the week would be for general debates and only those taking part in them would feel it necessary to attend. Thursday would be in danger of becoming rather like Friday, which is usually used at the end of a Session for private Bills and for orders. At first glance, this looks like a small proposal; in fact, I believe that it is of fundamental importance to the working of this House.
That brings me to my final point. Next week we are to debate the Second Reading of the Bill to reform the House of Lords. Whatever the outcome of that, the House is very unlikely to be the same at the end of it. What is the point of altering tried and trusted procedures which matter a great deal to noble Lords in all parts of the House, procedures which have worked well for many years, at this stage in the lifetime of your Lordships' House? I believe that we should stand with those arrangements which we believe are right, which we believe are in the best interests of the House and which we believe reflect what the House of Lords ought to be doing as the second House of Parliament. I suggest that we are not here simply to serve our own convenience; we are here to serve the House and I hope that, in serving the House, we will all feel that we are 968 serving the nation. It is in that respect that I think we should stand by our procedures. I commend my amendment to the House.
§ Lord Graham of Edmonton
My Lords, as the procedure has been outlined, it is my pleasure to speak to the Motion which stands in my name on the Order Paper. At the end of this debate, I hope to have the opportunity to move my amendment.
I am bound to say that the case made by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, is fair and reasonable. It is a case for the status quo and for no change. It is a case made on behalf of those who have benefited from, and enjoyed, the existing system and who want to continue to do so. However, it means that those who have been disadvantaged will continue to be disadvantaged.
Colleagues are doubtless aware that for many years, and certainly since I have been a Member of this House—that is, for some 15 years—there has been a general grumble about the fact that business on a Thursday can sometimes extend to 10 o'clock, 11 o'clock, or even later, irrespective of whether it is government or other business. I am not making a party political point because this has been said from all Benches. A point that I picked up quickly on becoming a Member of this House, and subsequently as Chief Whip, was that, although our present arrangements are fair and reasonable, they deny a great many Members— I cannot quantify this—the ability to do that which a great many others can do. That is simply because they seek to serve both the House and their party.
I happen to live in Loughton in Essex and, if required, I can catch an underground train at 11 p.m. and be home not much after midnight. However, many Members of this House who want to be similarly assiduous face a human dilemma. The noble Baroness, Lady Young, has told us what this House is and what we are here for, but I have to tell her that many noble Lords, on both the Opposition and the Government Benches, face a dilemma on a Thursday. Having been here on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday because they are good party members, they then look at the Whip and reflect that, in order to get home on Thursday—not at a decent time, but before midnight—they will have to leave here at, say, three o'clock, four o'clock or five o'clock. It is not for me to comment on how that dilemma is resolved by individuals, but that dilemma nevertheless exists. I do not have to face that; nor do many other Members of this House; but I am simply saying that if one wants to plead "no action" because of the imminence of a possible change, we must nevertheless recognise that that dilemma exists—and that means not accepting the amendment from the noble Baroness.
Perhaps I may illustrate this from my experience in the other place. Exactly 25 years ago this month I made my maiden speech—on a Friday. The Member I followed is now the noble Baroness, Lady Chalker, and I was followed by Dr. Rhodes Boyson. Fridays then ended at four o'clock. Later, Friday sittings ended at 2.30 p.m. I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, is in his place. One of the recommendations was that the House shall not sit more than 10 Fridays. Then, for the convenience of Members, for the conduct 969 of legislation and for good order and discipline, Thursday sittings were considered and changes were made. They were enormous changes compared with the modest one that I am suggesting; that the general debate day should be changed from Wednesday to Thursday.
The noble Baroness, Lady Young, may be right. It may well be that fewer people will wish to participate in a general debate on a Thursday. However, I tell her from my experience that when one comes into the Chamber at six, seven or eight o'clock on a Wednesday, the only persons present are those who are waiting to speak, or to hear the wind-up speech, in order to carry out their duties. The general debates are an essential part of the operation of this House. But my plea is that for a short period of about six weeks, from the middle of June to the end of July, we see whether these proposed changes meet the wishes of Members. Unless my amendment is carried, there will not be an opportunity for them to express their views. I believe that in 1999 the House, which has proved to be flexible, should be flexible on this occasion. Without diminishing the amount of legislative time or the quality of the debates, my colleagues should be given the opportunity of considering these new proposals. I believe that we shall then have a happier, more satisfactory and beneficial House.
§ 3.30 p.m.
§ Lord Denham
My Lords, perhaps I may comment on the proposal before the House. Before I do so, may I ask the noble Lord the Lord Chairman of Committees whether he will tell your Lordships, when he comes to reply, what provision he has made for the next meeting of the Procedure Committee which, he will remember, was originally scheduled for the same afternoon on which the second day of the Second Reading debate of the House of Lords Bill is now to be held? As we are discussing the last Procedure Committee report, it will be useful to know on what day that particular meeting of the Procedure Committee will now be held.
At the time of the 1968 proposals, as my noble friend Lady Young has mentioned, the first of the five functions of the House were described as the provision of a forum for full and free debate on matters of public interest. This is the all-important function which she and I believe will be downgraded by the switch of days. It will also, as she has said, turn the House into a three-day-week Chamber.
It will vastly inconvenience Peers who, for a long time, have had the practice of fixing up important meetings on Wednesdays because it is then that no Divisions are likely to take place. Peers whom I know, if they are to take part in the debating day on a Wednesday, will find it very inconvenient indeed. The most important point from my point of view is that the experiment will be distracting for this House at a time when it is considering the most important Bill, as far as it is concerned, probably since the year 1911. To have this particular six weeks as an experiment seems to be rather unkind in distracting the House at such a time.
970 The final point is that it may all be for nothing and, in effect, no trial at all because what works well for the existing House will not necessarily work well for the interim House, let alone the definitive one, after full reform has taken place. So why are we bothering to have this experiment now? If it is to be made, it is far better to let the new House make it and then judge for itself whether that is what it wants.
When this matter came before the Procedure Committee, as the Chairman of Committees has said, it ran into so much opposition that the committee felt unable to make a recommendation to the House. Therefore, I am very sorry indeed that the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, has seen fit to table such an amendment today. As a former Chief Whip, he of all people knows that this House works by consultation and consent. I cannot remember a previous government of either colour trying to force through a purely procedural matter such as this with such tactics as these. I hope that, if possible, the noble Lord, Lord Graham, will undertake not to move his amendment today, but that if he does so your Lordships will reject it overwhelmingly.
§ Lord Graham of Edmonton
My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, perhaps I may remind him that the words we are considering in the report say that the matter should be left to the House and that is exactly what I have done.
§ Lord Gordon of Strathblane
My Lords, perhaps a declaration of interest is unnecessary, as from my accent noble Lords may divine that I am not from the Home Counties. I often face a journey to Scotland—not the far north, but the central belt—and I ask your Lordships to take into account the proportionate inconvenience which is suffered under the existing system and under the proposed amendment. So far as I am aware, this is unwhipped business today and there is no question of the Government trying to force through anything. My understanding is that Members are free to form whatever view they like. I imagine that views may well be split according to the place of main abode rather than the party viewpoint.
Perhaps I may put a very simple point. In terms of what one might call the law of proportionate inconvenience, noble Lords who find it convenient to attend on all four days and who live in and around London will experience no inconvenience whichever day is held to be the general debate day. However, noble Lords who have public interests which they should discharge elsewhere will experience considerable inconvenience if in order to fulfil those obligations they have to travel north and then return.
The attraction of general debates is their intrinsic merit and not the fact that one is forced to attend them because one is sandwiched between a Tuesday and a Thursday when one is down here anyway and cannot be bothered to go home. For example, on Wednesday 21st, despite the fact that I have to be in Lochinver in the very far north of Scotland on Thursday morning, I shall certainly try to attend the debate to be introduced by the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, on digital broadcasting. I believe that most of us prefer general debates to the 971 nitty-gritty of procedural amendments and the scrutiny of legislation in Committee when frequently one cannot see the wood for the trees. Frankly, general debates are much better fun, but we must place them in the proper context. At the top of page 2, the report states:They make the House uniquely well-equipped to carry out what is currently regarded as its major role, namely the revision of legislation".In all honesty, however much we enjoy general debates and however much I agree that they are extremely important, they are subsidiary to legislation. I cannot see how it is in anyone's interest to divide the block of legislation into two parts, Monday and Tuesday and then Thursday, when it would be equally convenient to have Monday to Wednesday. Then, it is to be hoped that those who can stay on for the Thursday debates will do so, particularly if they have an interest in the subject. Those who have urgent business elsewhere are not faced with the problem of leaving at four o'clock.
Several times last year I was faced with the problem of Divisions taking place after midnight on a Thursday. I tried to reach British Rail in the late hours of the evening to cancel the sleeper I had booked. I contacted British Airways, via its New York office, to book a flight for first thing Friday morning in the hope that I would get it.
I ask noble Lords to consider this point. The House is justly renowned for its courtesy. Members who find it convenient to attend four days a week will not be upset if Wednesday's business is moved to Thursday. However, those of us who have to travel very long distances will considerably benefit from the change and I urge noble Lords to make it.
There is one final point that should be borne in mind. The public purse is to be considered. People who have to attend each side of the break are claiming two amounts of travelling expenses, which I do not believe is justified in the public interest. It would be much better if we dealt with legislation in one block.
§ Baroness Carnegy of Lour
My Lords, I live even further away than the noble Lord, Lord Gordon. But on the face of it I agree with him. Since I first came here I have longed for the business to be turned around.
However, that was when I did not understand the role of the Opposition. I am just beginning to understand that role. The noble Lord said that he does not much enjoy the nitty-gritty of legislation, although he admitted that it is the most important function of this House. Since this Government came to power, most of the organisations which want Bills changed have been funnelling their amendments through the Opposition and not through Government Back-Benchers—not all, but most of them.
I should like to cite the example of the Health Bill, which is still before your Lordships' House. That Bill is one reason for my considerable change of mind. It would have been impossible to do it as much justice as we have if we had taken the Committee and Report stages on two days running; for example, Tuesday and Wednesday. It has been a terrible rush to get the amendments through. Because of the way in which the 972 Bill is drafted, doctors and nurses have come to understand quite late the implications of this Bill for them. Last Thursday's debate would not have been possible on the Wednesday.
The earlier part of the report contains the findings of the working party, which suggests that amendments should be brought forward earlier. That will help, but it still will not help this issue. My noble friend Lady Young was absolutely right on this and I shall back her.
In relation to the working party on the procedure of the House, I should like to pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton of Eggardon, for the way in which she chaired that working party. I had not worked with her before but greatly admired the way she did that job. She was even-handed; she was patient; and she was fully on the side of the Back-Benchers, which was an important role for that working group. We came to consensual decisions on our recommendations, and when it turned out that our report was to go before the Procedure Committee on a certain day we were all invited to attend. However, I was horrified when I discovered that the noble Baroness. Lady Hilton, had not even been sent the agenda of the Procedure Committee; she had no idea how the report would be handled and how the Leader of the House would deal with it. I have said personally to the Leader of the House that next time a working party is set up, it would be nice if it knew how its business would be handled by whichever committee to which it reported.
I support the Procedure Committee's response. I am happy that it turned down some of our recommendations and accepted others. I slightly regret that we talked about "training" of noble Lords. One does not train people to be parliamentarians. I would have preferred to call it "providing information". However, I am sure noble Lords understood what we meant. We made some: good proposals and those are clearly still on the table.
§ Lord Orme
My Lords, I support my noble friend's amendment, which relates to a change of day for debates from Wednesday to Thursday.
I speak as a provincial Member, along with many of my noble friends. In many parts of the House people have a long way to travel home at weekends. The change proposed will not reduce the hours in the House; it will underwrite the fact that the debate can take place on a Thursday just as it presently does on a Wednesday.
There was a contradiction in what was said by the noble Lord who referred to the fact that he made appointments on a Wednesday and was not in the House because his arrangements had, in that sense, become regularised. The noble Baroness, Lady Young, referred to the fact that people want to keep Wednesdays for normal debates as such. However, the changes proposed are moderate and very much in line with modern thinking. For instance, the British Parliament sits longer than any other democratic parliament in the world— both this Chamber and the other place. To alter the procedure, as my noble friend from Scotland suggests, illustrates the great problem of travelling home after the House rises.
973 I speak as a Member who arrives on a Monday, and who is here Tuesday, Wednesday and a large part of Thursday. Therefore I am not trying to say that people should be away from the House. They should be here whenever possible. When we get a reformed House of Lords we will see a great difference. A lot of provincial Members will come in from Scotland, Wales and other outlying areas, and it will make a radical difference to them. Perhaps I can suggest, therefore, that we should allow the experiment. I hope the House will support it. Many people need and demand that the change takes place and I hope that your Lordships will vote for it.
§ 3.45 p.m.
§ Lord Jopling
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Graham, was good enough to refer to me in his speech, perhaps because of some reforms in another place with which I was closely involved. But speaking—like him and my noble friend Lord Denham—as a former Chief Whip, I profoundly disagree with him. I am much more concerned about the democratic rights of opposition than about the individual convenience of Members of your Lordships' House.
I strongly support the comments of my noble friend Lady Young. She is perfectly right. The classic way in which governments get their foot in the door and start changes is under the guise of "experiment"; many of us have done it.
I was struck by paragraph 7 of the report from the group on procedure which said:Procedure in [this] Chamber has traditionally been marked by a degree of courtesy, good manners and good will across the various political divides".I just want to refer to the "good will" element. The Government have serious duties with regard to good will towards both individual Back-Benchers and also Opposition parties and groups. In your Lordships' House individual Back-Benchers have little about which to complain over the opportunities to let off steam or to examine legislation; indeed paragraph 4 refers to that when it says,back-bench members of the House enjoy very extensive procedural freedoms",many more than in another place, if I might say so.
However, I am concerned about the proposals in paragraph 2 of the report of the Procedure Committee to change the general debate day from Wednesday to Thursday. It most seriously erodes the duty of good will owed by government to Opposition parties and groups. After all, the Wednesday general debates are the prime time in the week for opposition parties to try to chivvy the Government and to do their constitutional duty of opposing. Of course I understand the reason for Government Back-Benchers wanting the change but I hope they understand that the Opposition are entitled to prime time during the week. I calculate that over the years since World War II my party has been in power 37 years, while Labour has been in power 22 years; so in the long run what I am saying will probably be to the disadvantage of Conservative Back-Benchers. However, I believe that the proposition is wrong constitutionally.
974 Votes rarely follow general debate days. A Written Answer that I received last week stated that there have been only eight Divisions on general debate days over the past 20 years, so everybody knows that such days are unlikely to end in a vote. We used to have a procedure like that in another place called Private Members' Motions. The noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, will remember that the committee of which I had the honour to be chairman did away with them in favour of even better prime time. On Fridays when we had Private Members' Motions in another place, they rarely ended in a vote and the Chamber was virtually empty. The only persons present were those taking part. The noble Lord, Lord Graham, said that one could come here on a Wednesday evening and find few people in attendance. If we change Wednesday for Thursday, even fewer people will be here on Thursday nights. It would often mean the Opposition talking to virtually an empty Chamber. As a former Government Chief Whip, I know the effect on an Opposition of putting their bull points to empty Benches. It is a most effective way of dealing with an Opposition who are trying to put over critical points. If the place is empty, the media take little interest.
I do not believe that the Opposition should be sidelined in that way. In the days when I was the Government Chief Whip and my friend—if I may call him that—the noble Lord, Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe, was my opposite number, he would have gone into orbit if I had tried to move Opposition days to Friday or the end of the week. I am glad to see the noble Lord nodding his head. He would have made my life totally impossible.
The Government have a duty to keep the great occasions for Oppositions, be they the Liberal Party, Cross-Benchers or the Conservative Party. All Opposition groups deserve prime time and should continue to have it.
§ Lord Richard
My Lords, I did not intend to say anything until I heard the noble Lord, Lord Jopling. I did not follow his argument at all. He said that moving general debates, which on his own admission rarely have a vote attached to them and are not well attended, from Wednesday to Thursday erodes the duty of good will owed by government to Opposition parties and groups and somehow interferes with the democratic rights of the Opposition. I do not see that for an instant. What democratic rights are infringed? The only difference is that the House will be empty on Thursday instead of Wednesday and that votes will not take place on Thursday instead of not taking place on Wednesday. If the Opposition have a topic that they wish to air, they can air it on Thursday with just as much fervour, skill and determination as on a Wednesday.
There may be other arguments for keeping Wednesday, but the idea that a change would erode the democratic rights of the Opposition is, with great respect to my noble friend—as I would call him—Lord Jopling, somewhat fanciful and a little over the top.
§ Lord Harris of Greenwich
My Lords, I wish to indicate—I suspect on behalf of all of us—our warm support for the broad recommendations made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton. Her committee produced its report 975 with considerable dispatch and the overwhelming majority of it was endorsed by the Procedure Committee. We owe a debt to the noble Baroness and all other members of the committee.
When the committee began to debate the Wednesday/Thursday issue, I did not hold a strong view on its merits and thought the argument was evenly balanced. However, I have reached the conclusion— speaking entirely for myself, and with a free vote as far as we are concerned—that I shall vote for the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Young. I will do so because I do not believe that major procedural change should be supported unless there is a broad consensus of support. There is no broad consensus of support for the proposal, as was made clear in our debate in the Procedure Committee.
If the change is made in the way that is explicit in the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Graham, I fear the consequence will be a three-day week. It was put that way by the noble Lord, Lord Denham, and he is entirely right. One of the things that we prize dearly in this House is the quality of our Wednesday debates. I believe that there would be a significant deterioration if we were to find ourselves on a three-day week. In a thinly attended House on Thursday, there would be less of a disposition to hold the Executive to account in a satisfactory fashion.
We are being invited to decide not simply a narrow and insignificant procedural question but an issue of fundamental importance. I hope that the House will recognise that when it votes.
§ Lord Howie of Troon
My Lords, I follow three old friends of mine—my noble friend Lord Richard, my former noble friend Lord Harris and the antagonist, the noble Lord, Lord Jopling. From my accent, people might think that I would want to get away from this place on Thursday and go elsewhere in order to enjoy life there. But I live in NW11 and would be perfectly happy to come in on Fridays.
What is odd about this debate is the idea that because few noble Lords attend on a Wednesday, few would come on a Friday.
§ Lord Howie of Troon
Or a Thursday, my Lords. I beg your pardon. My colleagues would obviously attend on Thursday to deal with the important matters that the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, said nobody votes on. If they do not vote on Wednesday, they probably would not do so on Friday.
§ Lord Howie of Troon
My Lords, it would not make much of a difference. The debate would still remain terribly important. The sort of persons who are interested in debates on Wednesday and had something to contribute would come on Friday.
§ Lord Howie of Troon
Whatever day of the week it is, my Lords. I would come myself. I would not actually 976 contribute but I would like to look handsome on the Back Benches. We are talking about something slightly weird—the notion that the Opposition would be deprived of some kind of strength that they would have otherwise. Of course they would not. They would still have all the parliamentary time needed to deal with the issues they think important and requiring to be dealt with. That would be more convenient to most people. I shall not go into the matter of Thursday and Friday. There seems to be a problem—a little difference—here between myself and the House. I believe that my noble friend Lord Graham of Edmonton has the argument right and that he should be supported.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Howie of Troon, made a fascinating intervention. I am not quite sure what he wants. I think that he wants not to be here on Thursdays but on Fridays, which is a curious combination. I have the privilege of being a member of the Procedure Committee, although I regret that I was not present at the one meeting. I was also a member of the group on procedure of the noble: Baroness, Lady Hilton of Eggardon. I reiterate what my noble friend Lady Carnegy said; namely, that the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton, conducted the group with extraordinary flair and understanding, and with Back-Benchers' views in mind.
If your Lordships were to read the report of the group—I have no doubt your Lordships will not do so, although it makes good reading, which I can say because I did not draft it myself—your Lordships would see that paragraph 6 states:It is not always appreciated that the freedoms of individual members of this House are wider than in any other legislative assembly".That is a pretty big statement. It is worth reminding ourselves of that. The report continues at paragraph 8,Courtesy should not be seen as an optional extra. Without a high degree of courtesy and self-restraint, self-regulation will become unworkable".The courtesies which go with the House are important. We do not have a Speaker, other than the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor who, of course, does not operate in the manner of the Speaker in another place. I hope that we shall not have a Speaker. However, that requires us to exercise the elementary courtesies. Those are referred to on page 5 of the report of the Procedure Committee. It says:It is considered discourteous for [a Lord] not to be present for the opening speeches, for at least the speech before and that following his own, and for the winding-up speeches".That may seem fairly elementary. But it is astonishing how often the convention is broken. I recall my noble and learned friend Lord Hailsham when he was Leader of the House rebuking the late Lord Arran. He said that you cannot blow in, blow off and blow out! That is something we might well remember.
The report continues:Reading of speeches is alien to the custom of the House".That might prove an inconvenience to many noble Lords. However, the report states that extended notes are permitted. If noble Lords were not to read, debates 977 might become more interesting to other noble Lords but not to the noble Lord concerned who was inconvenienced.
The report also states that noble Lords should not address one another as "you". That seems fairly obvious, but one hears it day after day. With great respect, I must say one even hears it from government Ministers. I hope that we shall keep to the third person and not to the second person. The report reminds us that,Lords should refer to 'the noble Lord, the Minister"',not to the noble Lord, the Minister, but either the Minister or—I apologise. I have that wrong. This is what happens when one does not read. The report states,Lords should refer to 'the noble Lord, the Minister', or simply 'the Minister', but not 'the noble Minister'".That important convention is frequently broken.
The report states:Lords should not pass between the Lord who is speaking and the Lord on the Woolsack or in the Chair".The idea is that one ought to pass behind. Periodically people used to duck when in the line of fire. Now it seems the practice is to go ahead like a ship in full sail, straight across the line of fire. That is discourteous to the House.
The report further states:Lords should not move about the Chamber while a Question is being put from the Woolsack or the Chair".Of course when that happens it gives all of us an opportunity to shout, "Order, order", which we think exciting, but it does not actually help the running of the business of the House.
I hope we shall try to remember these courtesies. Some people say it is difficult for new Peers because they have not become attuned to them. However, we have all been new Peers at one time or another and we had to adjust. I do not think it a good idea to alter the procedures just because it is difficult to familiarise ourselves with them.
The biggest problem arises, of course, at Question Time which is also the most exciting time and the most important time. The report suggests that questions and answers should be shorter. I say with the greatest of respect to the Government Front Bench that it would be a good thing if ministerial answers were shorter. That would make matters much more fun and much more interesting. I also believe matters would be far more interesting if questions were shorter. Nothing is more likely to flummox a Minister and not give him time to think of an answer than to ask "Why?" or "Why not?" If three questions are asked, the person concerned has time to think up an erroneous answer which probably lasts twice as long as the time taken by the questioner. It would be of great convenience if we could keep questions and answers short.
In the good old days—as a schoolboy would say—if two Peers got up to speak, one would graciously give way to the other. That does not happen now. People stand like two bulls pawing at the ground, each trying to outstare the other in the hope of winning the right to speak. Or there is the other schoolboy attitude of saying, 978 "It is my turn". If noble Lords were to sit down immediately when someone else has risen to speak, it would stop all the awful rowing and eliminate the need for the noble Baroness the Leader of the House to make a choice. No Leader of the House likes doing that, and it is quite unnecessary. It is also pretty discourteous of noble Lords to stand their ground. When noble Lords give way, some do so without too much grace and sit down slowly. A speaker can be half-way through his question and the noble Lord who has been put out is still descending. It is rather like letting the air out of a balloon with your hand over the nozzle so that it escapes slowly. It would add greatly to the courtesies of the House if noble Lords sat down quickly. If we did that and all the questions and answers were shorter, everything would be far simpler. I hope that that will happen.
I hope that your Lordships will not change the general debate day. Wednesday has always been a general debate day. It splits up the government business. It is all very fine for some noble Lord—I forget who it was—to say that we can have government business on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. However, that would impose quite a strain on Ministers and civil servants, as it would sometimes on people in opposition who might be involved on all three days. I hope that that proposal will not be adopted and that we keep Wednesday as a general debate day. There is no doubt that if the general debate day were moved to a Thursday, people would stay for that debate only if they are interested in it. Some say that everyone would disappear on a Wednesday evening. I fancy that we could see that. One noble Lord said that he would like to return to Scotland on Wednesday evenings and I dare say he would. But one would see a massive exodus on Thursdays after Questions. People will find it convenient to be present for Question Time (if I may be vulgar, because they wish to claim their expenses) and then clear off home, leaving an important debate to just those who are interested in it. That would be a retrograde step and I hope that it will not happen.
§ Lord Wigoder
My Lords, as regards the Thursday issue—assuming I have the days of the week correct— I would be sad to think that your Lordships decided this issue on the basis of individual, personal convenience. With respect, it seems to me that the issue we ought to consider is whether or not the proposal will promote the efficiency of the conduct of our business. I want therefore to echo in a way what the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy, said. If we were to conduct legislative business on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, it would open up the possibility—the probability will perhaps be disputed by the Government Chief Whip—of sitting three consecutive days in Committee in order to deal with an urgent Bill. Even if the Government Chief Whip says that he would have no intention of doing that, it still opens up, as the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy, 979 pointed out, the increased mathematical probability in any week of spending two consecutive days in Committee on the same Bill. I regard that as undesirable from the point of view of the conduct of business in your Lordships' House.
As all of us who have taken part in a debate in Committee know, at the end of the first day many matters arise which require a little thought and reflection before one proceeds with the second day. Those matters may require further research; an outside body may require to be consulted; an amendment already tabled for a subsequent stage may have to be altered; and, on occasions when there is an extremely co-operative Minister, there may be the possibility of discussing an issue in order to find an agreed solution before proceeding to the second stage.
It is in the interests not only of the Opposition but of the Government Ministers who are conducting business, if they will allow me to be so presumptuous as to make an observation on their behalf. It is highly beneficial to the conduct of the business of this House that during the Committee stage of a complicated Bill there are intervals for consideration. It is important that we do not proceed from one day to the next, as is almost bound to happen unless the amendment proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, is agreed to by your Lordships.
§ Lord Weatherill
My Lords, I will not detain your Lordships for long. I cannot speak for all Cross-Benchers—nor would I presume to do so—but perhaps I may remind your Lordships of an old parliamentary adage: "Only the temporary is permanent". I have a suspicion that if we proceed to this experiment we shall be stuck with it.
I disagree with the noble Lord who spoke earlier about Wednesday debates being subsidiary to the legislative work of your Lordships' House. An important debate was initiated last Wednesday by the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, and a Cross-Bench debate is to take place this Wednesday, "to call attention to the economic and social role of marriage", a subject that would never be discussed in the other place. One needs only to attend such debates to realise that it is extremely important that matters of this kind are discussed in your Lordships' House.
Although I fully understand that it would be for the convenience of many Cross-Benchers—certainly those who live in the north of England and Scotland—to get away earlier on a Thursday, I strongly feel that, on balance, and bearing in mind the old adage, we should stay where we are, at least until we know the complexion of the new House when all kinds of changes may have to be made.
§ Lord Burnham
My Lords, I wish to speak briefly to the amendment standing in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris. I make no comment about the extension of the time for a vote from six minutes to eight minutes—although I have an opinion— but the question of changing from three minutes to four the moment at which noble Lords may vote is another matter. As a frequent Teller, on every occasion I see noble Lords straining in the slips at three minutes to get 980 back to their work or to their tea. If the period went from three minutes to four, they would be almost uncontrollable. I have also seen the Government Chief Whip having to restrain physically with his wand noble Lords of either party who wish to get back. In my mind there can be no argument in favour of changing from three minutes to four, leaving aside the problem of the egg-timer. I do not consider that an adequate matter of inconvenience to your Lordships. I therefore fully support the amendment of the noble Lord.
§ 4.15 p.m.
§ Lord Clinton-Davis
My Lords, perhaps I may, for a moment, turn to the speech made by the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, with which I agree in very large measure. However, when talking about courtesies, he did not refer to a very considerable lack of courtesy shown in this place only the other day during the passage of the Access to Justice Bill. One noble Lord—I shall not mention who it was—made a quite considerable personal attack on a Government Minister and then, having made that attack, saw fit to leave the Chamber soon afterwards before the end of the debate on the amendment. I think that is an extreme act of discourtesy which should not happen. I hope that it will be noted by the House.
In the proposition advanced by the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, I found an uncharacteristic lack of consistency. No argument has been put forward as to why debates on Thursday—not Friday, or even Good Friday for that matter—would be any less effective. People who are interested in the topics will attend, just as on Wednesdays. There are many noble Lords who are interested in the topics which are constantly raised. Of course, there are exceptions. If the draconian consequences spelt out by a number of noble Lords during the debate were to occur, would they not be revealed in the course of the experiment suggested by my noble friend Lord Graham of Edmonton? If such consequences occurred, I would have thought that the House would have little difficulty in deciding that the experiment was a bad one and should not be proceeded with. However, simply to assume that all these consequences would arise is a dangerous way of proceeding. It would be within the capacity of your Lordships' House to say very clearly, "We do not like what has happened; we have given it a chance and it should be rejected". But to say that we should give it no trial period at all seems to me to be extraordinarily inconsistent.
It has been suggested that somehow or other the media will cease to have much interest in this House if we undertake this experiment. Quite frankly, it does not seem to have much interest in this House anyway. I do not think that is a very powerful argument. The media does of course report proceedings inadequately. "Today in Parliament" used to devote rather more time to the affairs of this place and it now interjects other issues during discussions occurring in another place.
Like my noble friend Lord Richard, I do not see that there will be any weakening of the position of the Opposition if we proceed with this trial period. They will have every opportunity, particularly if they are an 981 effective Opposition, to ensure that people will come and listen to important debates. It is incumbent on Members of this House to table matters of interest for the Wednesday debate. Sometimes the subjects are a little esoteric, but there is nothing much wrong with that because one makes an assumption that not too many people will attend anyway.
I think the best way to proceed would be to accept the proposition put forward by my noble friend of a trial period for just a matter of weeks. In my view, it is a very sensible proposition.
§ Lord Elton
My Lords, following on from what the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, said earlier, I think that your Lordships should give the matter a little more thought. I have been both a Minister and a spokesman in opposition. The strain of two consecutive nights in Committee on a major Bill is considerable. The strain of three consecutive nights on a major Bill would be verging on the intolerable.
Whether in government or in opposition, when one has a Monday and a Tuesday consecutively on a Bill one is desperate for Wednesday so that one can catch up on one's briefs for the Thursday. One has no opportunity on Monday and Tuesday to talk to one's advisers or to ring them up because one is actually in the Chamber. By the third day one has moved into a new part of the Bill which requires new briefing. I therefore think that to preserve an interlude in which there is a possibility for Ministers and opposition spokesmen on Bills to do the work out of the Chamber that enables them to do their work in the Chamber properly and effectively is very important. That happens to chime in with what other noble Lords have said, which was summarised by the noble Lord the Convenor of the Cross-Benches, about preserving Wednesdays, with which I heartily agree. But I would not wish your Lordships to think only of that point because I believe that the legislative efficiency of this House could suffer if we lost that interval.
§ Baroness Lockwood
My Lords, I wish to support the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Graham. I do so as a northern Member of the House and one who usually leaves on a Thursday evening. I occasionally stay over when there is business on Friday in which I am involved but usually I leave on a Thursday evening. I leave not because it is a matter of convenience to me as an individual. I leave because I have commitments in the north which it is important for me as a Member of the House to fulfil.
I remind your Lordships that this House meets, for half the Session at any rate, for five days a week and not four days a week. There is business on Friday as well as on Thursday. I also remind your Lordships that we are not a full-time, professional, paid House of Lords. We are a part-time House. Very few Members spend the whole of the four or five days on the business of the House. Indeed, we are made Members of the House because of the experience we can bring to the House. We like to refresh that experience by being involved in matters other than debates and legislation. 982 I will not go into the detail of what I do on a Friday. However, it is much easier for Members who live in London and the south to fulfil their obligations to the House and at the same time to extend their experience so that they can contribute that experience to the work of the House. Therefore, I should like Members to consider that point carefully.
I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Young, and other noble Lords on the importance of the general debates on Wednesday but I disagree profoundly that the importance and status of those debates would be downgraded if they were held on a Thursday rather than on a Wednesday. Those debates are initiated by noble Lords who are fundamentally interested in the subject they are raising. The speakers who support them come forward for the same reasons. That would continue. Some of us attend the Wednesday debates out of interest in the subject being debated. That would continue if the debates were held on a Thursday rather than on a Wednesday.
A number of noble Lords have asked whether it is convenient to have three consecutive days on legislative work. We rarely have three consecutive days on one Bill. In fact, one could count on the fingers of one hand the occasions when we have had three consecutive days on a Bill. But there may be some substance in what has been said about the difficulty of getting up to date for the next day of the Bill and that it may therefore be important to have a break between the days. We do not know about that. It may be a valid point and we would find out if we had an experiment.
The experiment would be linked to one of the changes that is being made as a result of the excellent report of my noble friend Lady Hilton and her committee; namely, that amendments will have to be submitted earlier than has previously been the case and that the grouping of the amendments will be available by 2.30 p.m. on the last working day before the debate on the amendments. Those changes will have an effect not only on us but also on the outside bodies which brief Members of the House of Lords on these subjects.
I suggest to the House that it would be valuable to have the experiment of changing to Thursday the day of the general debates along with those changes that are being initiated as a result of the Hilton Report. I hope that we shall give an opportunity to the House to change the day of general debates from Wednesday to Thursday.
§ The Countess of Mar
My Lords, I support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris. It may be of interest to noble Lords to know that our egg-timer is not always perfectly accurate. Sometimes it is jinxed and therefore we may not get three minutes. Therefore, in view of all the modernisation that is going on at the moment, perhaps a modern timepiece would be more appropriate for your Lordships' House.
One point that the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, did not bring to your Lordships' attention was the reminder that conversations should be carried out in the Prince's Chamber rather than on the Benches of your Lordships' 983 House. Not all of us are professional public speakers and it can be disconcerting to have to speak against a conversation that is taking place on the Benches either in front of or behind you. In addition, not all of us have perfect hearing. It can sometimes be difficult to hear what a speaker is saying when conversations are going on. In my role as someone who occasionally sits on the Woolsack, in a debate last week initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, I was struck by the fact that, during the speech of a noble Lord which was not perhaps as interesting as other speeches had been, conversations were being held on all three Front Benches, and not sotto voce. It was extremely difficult for the individual who was speaking to make himself heard to other noble Lords. I would be grateful, and I am sure other noble Lords would be grateful, if conversations could be carried out in the Prince's Chamber rather than in this Chamber.
I have listened to all the speeches that have been made on the subject of the Wednesday debates. I have yet to make up my mind. I have served for nearly 25 years in your Lordships' House. I cannot believe I am the only one who recalls the time when we sat only on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. We used to have a three-day week. Therefore, that argument is spurious. However, as I said, I have yet to make up my mind which way I shall vote when we come to a Division.
§ Lord Hacking
My Lords, I wish to make a brief intervention. This is not a Whipped matter on my side of the House. It is a free vote. I rise to say, first, that, regrettably, I will be unable to support my noble friend Lord Graham if he puts his amendment to the House in a Division. I very much hope that my noble friend will not put his amendment to a vote. It seems to me that the proposal is premature and that it would be better considered in the new House which will form after the end of this Session.
Secondly, it is important that there should be a real consensus on this issue. Clearly, from this afternoon's debate there has not been. Thirdly, as far as concerns the carrying out of experiments, it does not seem to be a very good time to carry out an experiment in April and May when the Government's business is welling up and when the House is under unusual pressure. If the experiment is to be carried out, the appropriate time will be when there is a reconstituted House and at an earlier time in our proceedings.
§ 4.30 p.m.
§ Lord Strathclyde
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton of Eggardon, and congratulate her on the quality of her report. I was initially rather suspicious about the setting up of this group. I shared those suspicions with the noble Baroness. However, she and her team have done a very good job. This resulting debate has demonstrated that there is, on the whole, little disagreement with the proposals of the Procedure Committee.
Turning to specific points, I entirely agree that ministerial Answers should be shorter. On many occasions during the past few months ministerial 984 Answers, and questions to Ministers at Question Time, have been far too long. Any proposal designed to shorten them should be carried out forthwith. I hope that the Government will have found a mechanism whereby they can reduce the desire of their Front Bench for long Answers.
On the matter of Divisions, I initially did not feel strongly about the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, on changing the Division time from six to eight minutes; and therefore, if we were to keep the egg timer idea, it would also mean that the first stage would be four minutes. But having heard the debate, and in particular the persuasive words of my noble friend Lord Burnham, I wonder whether it might not be better either to have two egg timers or to use a stopwatch for the first three minutes.
My final point on the noble Baroness's report relates to the working group's proposals for training. Like my noble friend Lady Carnegy, I prefer the term "information", or at least "advice", on the procedures of the House. Since the general election an enormous number of new Peers have entered this House. The overwhelming majority have taken to its customs and traditions extremely well. They have made a tremendous effort to understand exactly how we operate. There are normally very good reasons why the House operates as it does. But I think that there has also been recognition that we need to find better ways of giving that advice to new Peers. I hope that we shall not allow this proposal to be dropped entirely, and that the Procedure Committee will be advised as to how it will be advanced.
The noble Baroness's report is very much in contrast to Part 2, dealing with the general debate day. The noble Baroness dealt with some extremely controversial issues. She carried out wide consultation with various parts of the House and asked for evidence from the Front Benches. That information was turned into a report which was debated through the usual channels before being presented to the Procedure Committee. I suspect that that is one of the reasons why there has been so little debate over that part of the report.
The issue of the general debate day has been dealt with in a different way. This proposal was put forward to the Procedure Committee by the Government Chief Whip. Not a great deal of consultation took place. During the course of the Procedure Committee's work, it became increasingly obvious that there was no consensus whatever. That is why the committee made no recommendation.
The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, was absolutely right. The point is that the House should proceed on agreement. It is one of the great traditions of this House, where there is no Speaker, that on procedural matters every effort is taken to reach a broad consensus on these kinds of matters. That is why I rather regret the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, has tabled his amendment. I hope that the noble Lord will not press it to a Division—first, because I believe that he will lose, but also, this debate having taken place, it may be better for the proposal to be put back into the usual channels for wider consultation.
985 I am in a slightly difficult position. When I was Government Chief Whip I recommended this change to my own Front Bench. At that time my Front Bench said that they did not want to undertake such change for some of the reasons that have been given. They saw no advantage in it, as well as the principled argument. I withdrew my recommendation—in fact I do not think I even discussed it with the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, who was then my opposite number as Opposition Chief Whip.
If the noble Lord, Lord Graham, presses his amendment to a Division and wins, then we should agree certain principles in relation to this House. The first is that a Bill should not be taken on three consecutive days in the same week. Secondly, there should be an understanding that it will make business on Fridays—especially controversial business— considerably more difficult than has been the case up until now. Thirdly, if Thursday is to become the general debate day, secondary legislation on Thursday evening following those debates will also be much more difficult. I should like a recognition from the Government that they will not seek to do that. That is not for the convenience of Front-Benchers; it is because of the great interest that Back-Benchers have in secondary legislation. Therefore we should not be obliged to do that.
One of the reasons that this has gone wrong is that Peers did not have enough warning that this experimental stage might take place. I was approached last week by one of my noble friends who is on the boards of various charities and other organisations. He said that he had made appointments for every Wednesday purely because that fitted in with the way the House arranged its business, and that if this proposal were to be accepted he would have to change them all.
The most important point of principle and practice is that this is an experiment at a time when the whole House is about to undergo a massive experiment if and when the reform Bill that is before this House goes through. For that reason, if there is a Division, I shall support my noble friend Lady Young.
This has been a useful debate. I conclude from it that, if we are to make these procedural changes in the future, it would be far better for it to be done in the way suggested by the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton, rather than as presently suggested.
§ Lord Carter
My Lords, I had not intended to take part in this debate because it is a matter for the House. However, the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition asked about specific matters. I shall certainly agree that, if the debate day is switched from Wednesday to Thursday, we shall do exactly the same on Thursdays as we now do on Wednesdays in relation to debates and Unstarred Questions. I will undertake that, for the six weeks of the experiment—we are only talking about six weeks—from the beginning of May until the middle of June, there will be no week in which we take three days 986 on the same Bill. I would remind your Lordships that, from mid-June until the end of the Session, we deal with whipped business on four days a week.
§ Lord Brightman
My Lords, perhaps I may put a short question to the Lord Chairman of Committees. It arises out of paragraph 79 of the working group's report. The second part of the paragraph reads:It might be useful to the House to have an arrangement for back-benchers to meet semi-formally, with a Clerk, to exchange ideas and concerns, whether about procedure or about other aspects of membership of the House. Lords might feel easier raising minor matters in such a forum rather than going straight to the Procedure or Offices Committee".I do not know whether the noble Lord might feel that that suggestion should be considered by whatever may be the appropriate quarters.
I have in mind that a semi-formal group of that kind might be a useful receptacle for ideas which could be tested and, if considered suitable, passed on to the Procedure Committee. I do not envisage that such a small, informal group need sit more than once during a Session. Perhaps the Lord Chairman of Committees may care to comment on that matter.
§ 4.39 p.m.
§ The Chairman of Committees
My Lords, I begin by clarifying two points. First, the change in the Division time will take effect after the Easter Recess. As far as concerns Starred Questions, in particular the proposal for the second topical Question each week, the changes will be introduced gradually, as soon as there is a Wednesday with fewer than four Starred Questions tabled. At the moment, that is 21st April. Perhaps I may reassure noble Lords that no noble Lord with two Starred Questions tabled now will be required to remove one of them.
As I indicated at the outset of the debate, I put forward no view about the proposed change in the debate day. Therefore, if your Lordships will forgive me, I do not propose to reply to that part of the debate, which was the substantial part.
Perhaps I could attempt to reply to some of the other specific points. The noble Baronesses, Lady Hilton of Eggardon and Lady Carnegy of Lour, referred to training matters. That will come up for further consideration. The Procedure Committee thought that the usual channels would be asked to give further consideration to the matter. I do not anticipate that there will be anything to put forward on the matters before your Lordships at least until the autumn, if then. However, I sound one warning note to your Lordships. If those matters are pursued—and some seem to be desirable—then there will be not inconsiderable resource implications for them.
On the amendment by the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, my reference at the outset of the debate to being able to cope with the mechanics of any change which your Lordships might make was intended to refer to the means of timing the two parts of the Division. So there is no difficulty about being able, if it is agreed, to implement what I hope will be acceptable mechanical means.
987 I do not believe that the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, or any other noble Lord needs to become too worked up about the nomenclature as concerns the historic timing device that we have used so far. We can avoid using the inappropriate hour-glass or even the egg-timer. Anyway, I have nearly always heard it referred to as a "sand-glass".
The noble Lord, Lord Denham, asked me about the proposed next meeting of the Procedure Committee. I am conscious of the difficulties. As he indicated, it is timed for one of the days on which your Lordships will be considering the House of Lords reform Bill. As your Lordships will know, the Procedure Committee is very large. I can see that a number of noble Lords who would wish to be present in the Chamber are likely to be incommoded, whether or not they are speaking on such an occasion. For the moment, perhaps I may try to satisfy the noble Lord by saying that consideration is being given to the matter, and leave it at that.
The noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, dealt with some of the courtesies of the House. With respect, he is one of the most qualified of your Lordships to talk about them because he is one of our most courteous Members. I wholeheartedly support his endorsement of the proposal that we should continue to observe the correct form of nomenclature for Ministers. As he and the committee said, they should not be referred to as the "noble Minister", but as, for example, the "noble Lord the Minister". As your Lordships all know and acknowledge, that is simply because their nobility does not stem from their ministerial position; it stems from their personal capacity. Of course, all Ministers, from whatever side of your Lordships' House they have ever come, act in a noble way, but, as the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, rightly said, they are not noble Ministers.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman, raised a point about the possible need for an informal standing group. I am grateful to him for characteristically letting me know beforehand that he proposed to raise the point. Your Lordships will appreciate that no view was taken about the matter in paragraph 79 of the report by the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton. If there were to be such a proposal, it would need to go before the Procedure Committee. It has already been possible for informal discussions to take place before matters have been referred to the Procedure Committee. Very often, Chief Whips of the various parties and the Convenor of the Cross-Bench Peers are consulted about them. It was as a result of a suggestion originally referred informally to the noble Baroness the Leader of the House that the working group of the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton of Eggardon, was set up in the first place. So there are mechanisms and procedures in which this kind of informal consultation can be carried out. However, I shall consider further what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman, said to ascertain whether any additional way of proceeding might be necessary. I am grateful to him for his suggestions.
988 Those were the general points which arose: out of your Lordships' debate. As indicated, I leave the other matters to your Lordships.
§ Lord Morris of Castle Morris
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Hilton of Eggardon for her support for my minute amendment. No one in your Lordships' House has thought more deeply or more recently on these matters than she has. I am grateful to the noble Countess, Lady Mar, for her support and also for the eloquent support of the noble Lord, Lord Burnham. On the matter of the egg-timer, he and I are clearly "yolked" indivisibly together. As I feel a general sense of acceptance for the three-minutes plus five-minutes amendment, I hope it may be possible for your Lordships to agree to it without a Division.
§ On Question, amendment agreed to.
I beg to move, as an amendment to the Chairman of Committees' Motion, at end insert ("save that, notwithstanding paragraph 2 ("The General Debate Day"), Wednesday shall remain the general debate day").
Moved, as an amendment to the Chairman of Committees' Motion, at end insert ("save that, notwithstanding paragraph 2 ("The General Debate Day"), Wednesday shall remain the general debate day". —. (Baroness Young.)
§ 4.47 p.m.
§ On Question, Whether the said amendment shall be agreed to?
§ Their Lordships divided: Contents, 225; Not-Contents, 87.990
|Division No. 1|
|Aberdare, L.||Brightman, L.|
|Ailsa, M.||Broadbridge, L.|
|Aldington, L.||Brougham and Vaux, L.|
|Alexander of Tunis, E.||Bruntisfield, L.|
|Allenby of Megiddo, V.||Burnham, L.|
|Alton of Liverpool, L.||Burns, L.|
|Ampthill, L.||Buscombe, B.|
|Anelay of St. Johns, B.||Butterworth, L.|
|Annaly, L.||Byford, B.|
|Annan, L.||Cadman, L.|
|Astor of Hever, L.||Caithness, E.|
|Attlee, E.||Calverley, L.|
|Avebury, L.||Campbell of Alloway, L.|
|Baldwin of Bewdley, E.||Carlisle, E.|
|Beaumont of Whitley, L.||Carlisle of Bucklow, L.|
|Belhaven and Stenton, L.||Carnegy of Lour, B.|
|Beloff, L.||Carnock, L.|
|Belstead, L.||Carrick, E.|
|Berners, B.||Carrington, L.|
|Biffen, L.||Chalfont, L.|
|Birdwood, L.||Charteris of Amisfield. L.|
|Blaker, L.||Chesham, L.|
|Blatch, B.||Chilver, L.|
|Blyth, L.||Clancarty. E.|
|Boardman, L.||Clanwilliam. E.|
|Brabazon of Tara, L.||Clement-Jones., L.|
|Bramall, L.||Conglelon, L.|
|Bridgeman. V.||Cowdrey of Tollbridge, L.|
|Bridges, L.||Cox, B.|
|Craig of Radley, L.||Maddock, B.|
|Craigavon, V.||Mar, C.|
|Craigmyle, L.||Marlesford, L.|
|Cranborne, V.||Marsh, L.|
|Cross, V.||Masham of Ilton, B.|
|Cuckney. L.||May, L.|
|Cullen of Ashbourne, L.||Mayhew of Twysden, L.|
|Dahrendorf, L||Mersey, V.|
|Davidson, V.||Miller of Hendon, B.|
|Dean of Harptree, L.||Molyneaux of Killead, L.|
|Denbigh, E.||Monro of Langholm, L.|
|Denham, L. [Teller.]||Monson, L.|
|Desai, L.||Montgomery of Alamein, V.|
|Devonport, V.||Morris, L.|
|Dholakia, L.||Mountevans, L.|
|Dixon-Smith, L.||Munster, E.|
|Eden of Winton, L.||Mutton of Lindisfarne, L.|
|Ellenborough, L.||Napier and Etrrick, L.|
|Elliott of Morpeth, L.||Naseby, L.|
|Elton, L.||Nelson of Stafford, L.|
|Exmouth, V.||Newall, L.|
|Ezra, L.||Newby, L.|
|Falkland, V.||Newton of Braintree, L.|
|Ferrers, E.||Nickson, L.|
|Flowers, L.||Noel-Buxton, L.|
|Foley, L.||Norrie, L.|
|Gilmour of Craigmillar, L.||Northesk, E.|
|Gladwyn, L||Norton of Louth, L.|
|Glanusk, L.||Nunburnholme, L.|
|Glenarthur, L.||O'Cathain, B.|
|Glentoran, L.||Ogmore, L.|
|Goodhart, L.||Oppenheim-Bames, B.|
|Gormanston, V.||Palmer, L.|
|Gray of Contin, L.||Perry of Walton, L.|
|Haddington, E.||Pilkington of Oxenford, L.|
|Halsbury, E.||Platt of Writtle, B.|
|Hamwee, B.||Plummer of St. Marylebone, L.|
|Harlech, L.||Poole, L.|
|Harris of Greenwich, L.||Rankeillour, L.|
|Harris of High Cross. L.||Rawlings, B.|
|Hayhoe, L.||Razzall, L.|
|Hayter, L.||Reay, L.|
|Hemphill, L.||Redesdale, L.|
|Henley, L.||Renton, L.|
|Holderness, L||Renton of Mount Harry, L|
|HolmPatrick, L.||Rodgers of Quarry Bank, L.|
|Home, E.||Rotherwick, L.|
|Hooper, B.||Rowallan, L.|
|Hooson, L.||Russell, E.|
|Hothfield, L.||St Davids, V.|
|Howe, E.||St John of Bletso, L.|
|Howe of Aberavon, L.||Sandberg, L.|
|Howell of Guildford, L.||Seccombe, B.|
|Hussey of North Bradley, L.||Sharp of Guildford, B.|
|Hylton-Foster, B.||Shaughnessy, L.|
|Iveagh, E.||Shaw of Noithstead, L.|
|Jacobs, L.||Simon of Glaisdale, L.|
|Jenkins of Hillhead, L.||Skidelsky, L.|
|Jopling. L.||Slim, V.|
|Kelvedon, L.||Stair, E.|
|Kinloss, Ly.||Steel of Aikwood, L.|
|Laming, L.||Stewartby, L.|
|Lane of Horsell, L.||Strange, B.|
|Lauderdale, E.||Strathclyde, L.|
|Lincoln, Bp.||Swansea, L.|
|Lindsey and Abingdon, E.||Swinfen, L.|
|Listowel, E.||Taverne, L.|
|Lloyd-George of Dwyfor, E.||Temple of Stowe, E.|
|Long, V.||Tenby, V.|
|Ludford, B.||Teviot, L.|
|Lyell, L.||Thomas of Gresford, L.|
|McFarlane of Llandaff. B.||Thomas of Swynnerton, L.|
|Mackay of Ardbrecknish, L.||Thomas of Walliswood, B.|
|Macleod of Bone, B.||Thurlow, L.|
|McNair, L.||Tope, L.|
|McNally, L.||Trefgarne, L.|
|Trenchard, V.||Westbury, L.|
|Tryon, L.||Wigoder, L.|
|Vivian, L.||Wilcox, B.|
|Waddington, L||Williams of Crosby, B.|
|Wade of Chorlton, L.||Williamson of Horton, L.|
|Warnock, B.||Winchilsea and Nottingham, E.|
|Weatherill, L||Wise, L.|
|Young, B. [Teller.]|
|Alli, L.||Jeger, B.|
|Amos, B.||Jenkins of Putney, L.|
|Balfour of Incteye, L.||Judd, L.|
|Barnett, L.||Kennedy of The Shaws, B.|
|Bassam of Brighton, L.||Kennet, L.|
|Blackstone, B.||Lockwood, B.|
|Blease, L.||Lofthouse of Pontefract, L.|
|Bragg, L.||Macdonald of Tradeston, L.|
|Brookman, L.||McIntosh of Haringey, L.|
|Brooks of Tremorfa, L.||Mallalieu, B.|
|Burlison, L.||Mason of Barnsley, L.|
|Carmichael of Kelvingrove, L.||Molloy, L.|
|Carter, L.||Monkswell, L.|
|Christopher, L.||Morris of Castle Morris, L. [Teller.]|
|Clarke of Hampstead, L.|
|Clinton-Davis, L.||Orme. L.|
|Currie of Marylebone, L.||Murray of Epping Forest, L|
|Davies of Oldham, L.||Peston, L.|
|Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde, B.||Pitkeathley, B.|
|Dixon, L.||Plant of Highfield, L.|
|Dormand of Easington, L.||Puttnam, L.|
|Dubs, L.||Ramsay of Cartvale, B.|
|Elis-Thomas, L.||Randall of St Budeaux, L.|
|Evans of Parkside, L.||Richard, L.|
|Farrington of Ribbleton, B.||Sainsbury of Turville, L.|
|Gilbert, L.||Scotland of Asthal, B.|
|Gladwin of Clee. L.||Sefton of Garston, L.|
|Gordon of Strathblane, L.||Shepherd, L.|
|Goudie, B.||Sheppard of Liverpool, L.|
|Gould of Potternewton, B.||Simon, V.|
|Graham of Edmonton, L. [Teller.]||Smith of Gilmorehill, B.|
|Grenfell, L.||Stoddart of Swindon, L.|
|Hardy of Wath, L.||Strabolgi, L.|
|Harris of Haringey, L.||Symons of Vemham Dean, B.|
|Haskel, L.||Taylor of Blackburn, L.|
|Hollis of Heigham, B.||Thomas of Macclesfield, L.|
|Howie of Troon, L.||Thornton, B.|
|Hoyle, L.||Tomlinson, L.|
|Hughes, L.||Turner of Camden, B.|
|Hunt of Kings Heath, L.||Uddin, B.|
|Islwyn, L.||Varley, L.|
|Janner of Braunstone, L.||Walker of Doncaster, L.|
|Jay of Paddington, B. [Lord Privy Seal.]||Whitty, L.|
|Williams of Elvel, L.|
|Williams of Mostyn, L.|
§ Resolved in the affirmative, and amendment agreed to accordingly.
§ On Question, Motion, as amended, agreed to.