§ 3.22 p.m.
§ The Chairman of Committees (Lord Brabazon of Tara)
My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.
I draw particular attention to three of the recommendations made in the report. First, know that many Deputy Chairmen, members of the Procedure Committee and other Members of the House feel strongly on the question of attendance of debates of noble Lords who take part. A substantial number of speakers in recent debates have excused themselves from the greater part of the debate and, in particular, have been absent from the opening or closing speeches.
The report sets out the guidance in the Companion, which is clear and firm. Noble Lords who are unable to be present for the opening and closing speeches are expected to withdraw from the list. An apology at the start of the speech is insufficient.
Secondly, the Procedure Committee has noted an increasing tendency for irrelevant supplementary questions to be asked and answered. The report reminds the House that supplementary questions should be confined to the subject of the original question and that Ministers should not answer irrelevant questions.
Thirdly, the Procedure Committee has noted recent instances of Back-Bench interventions on Statements which are far from brief. With a 20-minute limit on Back-Bench questions and answers, long interventions and replies are unfair to others who may wish to speak.
Moved, That the First Report from the Select Committee (HL Paper 26) be agreed to.—(The Chairman of Committees.)
§ Following is the report referred to:
1. Relevance of supplementary questions and answers
The Committee has noted an increasing tendency for irrelevant supplementary questions to he asked and answered. We remind the House of the guidance in the Companion to the Standing Orders (paragraph 4.96):
Supplementary questions should be confined to the subject of the original question, and ministers should not answer irrelevant questions.
2. Attendance by speakers in debates
The Committee has also observed since the start of this session a frequent disregard of the customs of the House in relation to attendance at debate. These are clearly set out in paragraphs 4.23 to 4.25 of the Companion to the Standing orders:
4.23 Members of the House taking part in a debate are expected to attend the greater part of that debate. It is considered discourteous for Members not to be present for the opening speeches, for at least the speech before and that following their own, and for the winding-up speeches. Members who become aware in advance that they are unlikely to be able to stay until the end of a debate should remove their names from the list of speakers. Ministers may decide not to answer, orally or in writing, points made by a speaker who does not stay to hear the minister's closing speech.
4.24 There are reasons for these customs. Members who have missed the speeches before their own will not know what has already been said and so points may be repeated or missed. Members who leave soon after speaking are lacking in courtesy to others, who may wish to question, or reply to, points they have raised. Debate may degenerate into a series of set speeches if speakers do not attend throughout.
4.25 It is, however, recognised that some Members may have commitments related to the judicial or committee work of the House which may prevent them from being able to attend as much of the debate as might otherwise be expected.
Recently, some speakers have not only failed to stay for "the greater part" of a debate but have been absent during the opening or closing speeches. We remind the House that this is contrary to well-established custom and that Lords who find themselves unable to stay until the end of a debate should normally withdraw their names from the list, and not simply apologise when beginning their speeches.
3. Length of Interventions on statements
The Companion to the Standing Orders (paragraph 4.81) States: "Ministerial statements are made for the information of the House, and although brief comments and questions from all quarters of the House are allowed, statements should not be made the occasion for an immediate debate".
The Committee has noted recent instances of interventions from backbenchers which are far from brief. We remind the House that, with a twenty-minute limit on backbench questions and answers, long interventions and long replies are unfair to others who may wish to speak.
4. Time limit for submitting Private Notice Questions
At present a Private Notice Question has to be submitted to the Leader of the House before 12 noon, but before 10 a.m. on a day when the House sits before 1 p.m. This means that the earlier time limit now applies on Thursdays when the House sits at 11 a.m. even when Starred Questions are not taken until 3 p.m.
Accordingly we recommend that the earlier time limit should apply only on days when Starred Questions (if any) are to be taken before 1 p.m.
5. Time for presentation of bills
Another consequence of the new arrangements for Thursday sittings is that, under Standing Order 42(3), bills can no longer be presented after Starred Questions in the afternoon. That paragraph is as follows:
(3) Bills may be presented either at the beginning or end of Public Business. Bills brought from the House of Commons may be read the First time at any convenient time during Public Business.
We recommend that the Standing Order should be amended by the addition of a new second sentence: "On Thursdays Bills may also be presented after Starred Questions in the afternoon.
6. The Companion to the Standing Orders
The Committee has approved the publication of a new edition of the Companion to the Standing Orders to take account of significant changes since the publication of the 18th edition in October 2000. The changes agreed by the House on 24 July 2002 on the basis of the Report of the Leader's Group on the Working Practices of the House and the 5th Report from this Committee, Session 2001–02, were for a trial period of two sessions. The changes will be incorporated in the new edition, with footnotes to show that they are for a trial period.
§ Lord Stoddart of Swindon
My Lords, I would like to apologise to the House for my previous intervention—
§ Lord Carter
My Lords, I welcome this report, particularly item 2 on the attendance by speakers in debates. Noble Lords will be aware that, early in the previous Parliament, the usual channels agreed that a note should be placed at the top of the speakers' list, which states:A Lord who becomes aware in advance that they are unlikely to be able to stay until the end of a debate should normally remove their name from the list of speakers".Unfortunately, we did not realise that noble Lords would treat the word "normally" as a term of art. I am afraid that the Procedure Committee has fallen into the same mistake, because the Companion clearly says:Members who become aware in advance that they are unlikely to be able to stay until the end of a debate should remove their names from the list of speakers".However, the report goes on to use the words,should normally withdraw their names".That allows noble Lords to misinterpret the clear guidance in the Companion, which states that if noble Lords cannot be present at the beginning and end and for a reasonable amount of the debate, they should not put their names down to speak, however important they believe their contribution might be.
§ Lord Stoddart of Swindon
My Lords, it was on the same point that I endeavoured to intervene on two occasions—one wrongly, I fear. I apologise to the House for my premature entry into the debate.
I wished to speak on the same point as was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Carter. It is most annoying to noble Lords who sit here for many hours listening to a debate to be told at the beginning of the debate, often by very senior Members of the House, that they cannot stay until the end of the debate. Nobody is so great that they should not obey the Standing Orders and rules of this House. What is more, whatever they have to say and however important it is, it can be left for another occasion when they can be present to hear the debate, or certainly the opening and closing speeches.
215 I say that advisedly, but there may be some excuse for them, because some of them may be a little shortsighted and may not read the list of speakers properly. Therefore, I suggest that the notice should be placed at the very top of the speakers' list in bold red, blue or even black type, so there can be no mistaking the Standing Order. I am sure that all Members, when they see the Standing Order boldly printed, will obey it.
§ Lord Dubs
My Lords, from time to time, Members of the House who have not been here very long ask advice. When I have been asked advice about whether they have to stay to the end of the debate, I say absolutely that if they cannot stay to the end of a debate, they should not take part in it. I only wish that we could drop the word "normally" from the extract from the Companion that is given at the top of the speakers' list. Would the Chairman of Committees agree that the word "normally" should be dropped?
I make one other comment on paragraph 3 and the length of interventions on Statements. I agree with what it says. On occasions, we have heard enormously long speeches that deny many noble Lords the chance to intervene on Statements. However—and here I look at the two Front Benches opposite—I am not sure whether 20 minutes for what are allegedly only two questions is not a bit long and out of proportion. I say that with all due respect for the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Front Benches. I wonder whether there is any way in which to balance the time better and give Back-Benchers more of the 40 minutes, if Front-Benchers would willingly take a little less time, or if they were compelled to do so.
§ Lord Geddes
My Lords, I intervene both as a member of the Procedure Committee and as a member of the panel of Deputy Chairmen to endorse wholeheartedly what the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees said. It is rare that someone from this side of the House can totally endorse the comments of the noble Lords, Lord Carter, Lord Stoddart and Lord Dubs. All I would say is that those of us on the panel of Deputy Chairmen are watching the point raised in item 2 most closely. I give advance warning to the 21 Back-Bench speakers in the two debates this afternoon that I am on the Woolsack from 5.30 to 7 p.m. and shall be marking the card.
§ Lord Trefgarne
My Lords, I have a different point for the Chairman of Committees. Am I right in thinking that just before the meeting of the Procedure Committee on this issue, the noble and learned Lord the Lord Privy Seal—or it may have been the Government Chief Whip—circulated a private memorandum to certain members of the committee seeking to suppress discussion on a certain part of the committee's agenda? I hope that that is not the reason why, on that occasion, I had a little difficulty attracting the noble Lord's attention when I wished to speak.
§ Lord McNally
My Lords, I associate these Benches with many of the remarks that have been made. Will the committee look at the possibility of some sanctions 216 being applied on those who break the rule? For example, they could be put lower down the list the next time one is drawn up for interventions. When we have discussions of this sort, everyone denies that they have ever done it and all promise best behaviour for the future, yet the practice goes on. On coming into this place, having had a short experience in another place, I found that one of the joys of this place was to take part in debates to which people listened, in which they participated and for which they stayed. I must say to the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, that I have noticed over the past few years that the main offenders are not senior people in this House, but people who were senior in another place and who still seem to think that their Privy Councillorship or their previous office give them special privileges and rights in this place, which simply do not exist.
§ Baroness Sharples
My Lords, does the Chairman of Committees agree that the problem with some supplementary questions is not just that they are wide of the mark, but that they are often too long and are read?
§ Lord Mishcon
My Lords, I should like to utter a few words in defence of the word "normally". The spirit of this is clear to the House. People who know before a debate starts that they will not be present throughout the opening and closing speeches should not participate and should withdraw their name. That is the normal situation. An abnormal situation—which makes the use of "normally" possibly apposite—is when you think that you are going to be available at the time when the closing speeches are to be made, but you get an urgent telephone call just before those speeches occur. You rush out and try awfully hard to make the person at the other end somewhat brief in their observations over the telephone, but it could be urgent. Should that person, rushing back into the Chamber, be debarred from speaking? That might be an abnormal situation, so "normally" is possibly correct.
§ Earl Ferrers
My Lords, I have two points The first point, which was also made by my noble friend Lady Sharples, is that questions and answers are almost always too long. It would be a great help if Ministers could be encouraged—I am sure that the Government Chief Whip could do this—to make their answers as short as possible. People asking supplementary questions should also be prevailed upon to make them shorter. They both go on too long and it is a bore for everyone else who is trying to get in and finds that they cannot.
Secondly, does the Chairman of Committees agree that one important aspect of item 2, which he did not emphasise so strongly, is that noble Lords should be present for the opening speeches and for at least the speech before and that following their own? Noble Lords frequently make speeches and then buzz off. A very senior noble Lord did that the other day. Within two minutes of making his speech he had gone. Admittedly, he was discovered talking in another part of the House. Noble Lords should remain in their seats to listen to the following speech.
§ Lord Tordoff
My Lords, do we not have a problem in that the major offenders in relation to paragraph 2 are not in the House today?
§ Lord Howie of Troon
My Lords, I am a little worried about the debate. I have been nearly 25 years in the House. The system seemed to work quite well 20 or so years ago, when I first came here. That is when I used to make speeches. Noble Lords will be glad to know that I seldom do so nowadays. It is quite feasible for someone to have an appropriate contribution to make to a debate, if only from that expertise that we continually claim to possess. It has also often happened that such a person has been in a position to contribute that expertise and yet, because of outside engagements and other eventualities, including phone calls, as the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, said, has been unable to wait until the end. We should not be too severe in this matter. "Normally" is quite reasonable. I have my suspicions, but I would not go so far as to say that this is an attempt to stifle debate. It is not. However, in a sense it has tinges of an attempt to stifle opinion, which is just as bad.
§ Lord Clinton-Davis
My Lords, next week we have a debate that will extend for two days. I ask this question because I do not know the answer. Is it imperative that the people who are down for the second day should be present on the first day?
§ Lord Clinton-Davis
My Lords, so the answer is that a person who has put down their name should be present on both days throughout if possible.
§ The Chairman of Committees
My Lords, I shall attempt to answer some of the questions that have been put. They fall broadly into two or three categories, one of which is attendance at debates. I am most grateful for the words of support from around the House, starting with the noble Lord, Lord Carter, who, like the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, queried the use of the word "normally". In the current revision of the Companion, "normally" will be dropped, so it will read,should remove their name from the list of speakers".On the point made by the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, the Companion clearly says that Members should be present for at least the speech before their own and that following it. That is already covered.
The noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, suggested that the notice at the top of the list of speakers should be put in bold type. I am told by the Government Chief Whip that it will be in future.
The amount of time allocated to Front Benchers and Back Benchers on Statements could be discussed at the next meeting of the Procedure Committee. I am also grateful to those who supported the proposal that interventions under the present arrangements should not be too long.
218 When I was answering Parliamentary Questions, I always thought that the best answers were generally "Yes, my Lords" or "No, my Lords". It might be good if Ministers could do that more often and if noble Lords asking supplementaries could keep them as short as possible.
The noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, asked about the two-day debate that we are having next week. Anyone who has their name down to speak in that debate, whether they are speaking on the first day or the second day, should definitely be present for the opening speeches on the first day and for as much as possible of the rest of the debate—certainly for the speeches around their own speech and for the winding up speeches on the second day. I hope that noble Lords will not put their name down to speak in that debate unless they are able to fulfil that commitment.
Lastly, I come to a completely different point made by the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne. I was not aware of anything such as a confidential memo being circulated. It is quite normal for the usual channels to circulate memos among themselves, but I am not certain what it was about and what relevance it might have.
I hope that I have answered most of the questions. I am conscious that, if we go on with this debate any more, those who put their names down to speak in the debate this afternoon may find themselves running up against dinner engagements.
§ Lord Mishcon
My Lords, I was present at both the beginning and end of the noble Lord's speech, but I did not notice a reply to my point about the abnormal situation that can occur.
§ The Chairman of Committees
My Lords, I accept that there could be an abnormal situation. I am sorry that I did not reply to the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon. He spoke about receiving a phone call. I was not quite sure when that phone call would take place—whether it would be before or after he had spoken in the debate. If he had spoken, he should obviously then wait for the winding up. If the phone call comes through, he should preferably try to put off receiving it until the debate is over.
§ Lord Trefgarne
My Lords, I am not in the least bit satisfied with what the noble Lord has said. I am told that a private memorandum was indeed circulated by the Lord Privy Seal seeking to restrict discussion on a part of the agenda of the meeting over which he presided. I am surprised that the Chairman of Committees did not receive a copy of that memorandum, but perhaps he was thought as unreliable as I am.
§ The Chairman of Committees
My Lords, if there was a memorandum, I understand that it was circulated within the usual channels. I do not myself recall having received a copy of it, so I find myself in some difficulty in replying to the noble Lord's question.
§ On Question, Motion agreed to.