Business of the House: Standing Order 40

– in the House of Lords at 3:18 pm on 27th March 2001.

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Photo of Lord Carter Lord Carter Chief Whip (House of Lords), HM Household, Lords Chief Whip (HM Household) 3:18 pm, 27th March 2001

My Lords, I beg to move the Motion on the Order Paper standing in the name of my noble friend the Leader of the House. I should perhaps explain that my noble friend is unable to be here early today as she is celebrating the 89th birthday lunch of her father, my noble friend Lord Callaghan of Cardiff.

It may be helpful if I explain the reason for this Motion being tabled. Your Lordships will be aware that it is the usual practice of this House to divide up all the Wednesdays in the first portion of the Session among the various parties and the Cross-Bench Peers. At the start of this Session it was agreed that Wednesday 28th March should be allocated to Labour Peers. It is therefore a matter for Labour Peers, and only Labour Peers, to decide what they wish to debate on that day.

At their weekly party meeting on 15th March, Labour Peers unanimously endorsed the recommendation of their own co-ordinating committee that Wednesday 28th March should be used to debate the important issues raised in the Homes Bill and the tobacco Bill. Given all the speculation in the press about an early election, Labour Peers felt it appropriate to ensure that this House should be assured of the opportunity to put on record its views on those two important Bills, each of which fulfils manifesto commitments.

As your Lordships know, the last Labour debate of every Session of this Parliament has been handed back to the Government by Labour Peers to deal with legislation, without complaint and to the benefit of the whole House. Indeed, it has long been the practice to ensure that the last Wednesday debate of each Session is allocated to the party of government.

The noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, is well known for his courtesy and commitment to the traditions of the House. He well knows that it is his right, as it is the right of any Peer, to table a Motion at any time he pleases. However, he also knows that this House works only by a system of self-regulation and self-restraint. Clearly, if even a small number of Peers table Motions for debate without consultation or regard for other business, this House would quickly grind to a halt.

I was therefore amazed to discover that the noble Viscount had tabled this Motion without any consultation whatsoever. In the first place he made no effort to consult the Labour Peers group to discover if it wished to use its debate day to discuss the countryside and foot and mouth disease before homes and tobacco.

I shudder to think what would be the reaction from the Benches opposite if a Labour Back-Bencher were to table a Motion on a topic of his or her choosing for Wednesday 4th April, which is the next Conservative debate day. Noble Lords opposite would rightly be outraged. Wednesday 4th April belongs to Conservative Peers, and it would be monstrous for another party to try to hijack it. By the same argument, Wednesday 28th March belongs to the Labour Peers, who are indeed outraged that a Conservative Peer has unilaterally decided that Labour Peers would rather debate his Motion before the topics that they have chosen. As Chairman of the Labour Peers group, my noble friend Lord Dubs has written to the noble Viscount asking him to withdraw his Motion for debate.

The noble Viscount made no attempt to consult my noble friend Lady Hayman before tabling his Motion. I am sure that the House would agree that my noble friend has been most diligent in reporting to the House and answering Questions and debates since the foot and mouth outbreak began. Indeed, she will repeat another Statement on the subject immediately after this Motion. Noble Lords will not be surprised to learn that the current outbreak means that my noble friend is exceptionally busy outside the House. I must choose my words with care. I understand that it is particularly inconvenient to my noble friend to have to leave that important task to be here tomorrow afternoon.

I am astonished that the noble Viscount did not have the courtesy to discuss his Motion with my noble friend before he tabled it. I hope that the noble Viscount will agree to withdraw his Motion for debate. If he does not do so, even under the terms of the business Motion, my noble friend Lady Hayman will still have to be here until late tomorrow evening to reply to the debate.

The noble Viscount made no attempt to discuss his Motion with the usual channels. To this moment he has not spoken to me about it, despite the fact that he and I had at least two conversations on other matters last Thursday evening after he had tabled his Motion. Noble Lords will know that for this House to function, business must be agreed through the usual channels. If your Lordships decide that it is in order for Peers to table Motions without consultation or consideration for other business, we would swiftly find ourselves having to tighten our rules and having to spell out more clearly what Members can and cannot do. Such a process would only result in an erosion of the rights of Back-Bench Peers, and is not one which I should like to see commence.

To table business without consultation through the usual channels is impractical, discourteous and short-sighted. I am extremely surprised that the noble Viscount, with his long experience in the House, has done so. Also, I understand that if Labour Peers had tabled a Motion or Motions for debate on any subject tomorrow afternoon, the noble Viscount would not have tabled his Motion on foot and mouth for debate. That has the clear implication to me that the Motion tabled by the noble Viscount is more a matter of parliamentary tactics than an overriding desire to debate the countryside and foot and mouth.

Finally, I draw attention to the subject matter of the debate tabled by the noble Viscount. The current outbreak of foot and mouth is extremely serious. It is appropriate that parliamentary time should be made available to discuss it. Over the past three weeks we have discussed the issue on six occasions. The noble Viscount took the opportunity to participate on only one such occasion. In addition, we shall discuss foot and mouth in the Statement which will be taken after this Motion.

I do not underestimate the importance or the gravity of the subject. However, I do not believe that the way in which the noble Viscount has tried to ensure a debate is the right way to proceed. He has made his point, although not in the most appropriate way. I hope that he will now agree to the request from my noble friend Lord Dubs, Chairman of the Labour Peers group, to withdraw his Motion for debate tomorrow. I hope that he will accept my noble friend's request so that the House will not have to decide the matter on a vote. Whatever the outcome of such a vote, that would not be a seemly way for this House to conduct its business.

Moved, That Standing Order 40 (Arrangement of the Order Paper) be dispensed with tomorrow to allow the public Bills to be taken before the Motion standing in the name of the Viscount Cranborne.--(Lord Carter.)

Photo of Viscount Cranborne Viscount Cranborne Conservative

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord the Captain of the Gentlemen-at-Arms for the restrained way in which he administered his rebuke. The last thing in the world I want to do is to offend the noble Lord, for whom, as he knows, I have the greatest possible respect. However, I notice that it has become a habit for the Labour Party to do something which our party did not do when it was in Government; that is, to indulge in a private deal with their own Front Bench to try to get government business done, at least in part, on Wednesdays.

Despite the appeal of the noble Lord, I oppose the Motion. Perhaps I may briefly explain why to the House. My reason, which the House may find difficult to believe, is not just that I do not fancy a late night tomorrow, but may be found in the reason why I tabled the Motion in the first place. To that extent the noble Lord the Government Chief Whip is right. As he pointed out, for some time priority has been given on Wednesdays to Back-Bench business. I think that the whole House would recognise that our Wednesday debates are not only much appreciated within this House but have given a lead, particularly on long-term issues, to another place and to the nation at large. I do not think that I need to expand on that observation. It seems to me to be common ground between all Members of this place.

Equally, the House has always recognised that towards the end of the parliamentary Session, if the Government are to get their business through, as I think the noble Lord acknowledged, the Back-Benchers should gracefully surrender their Wednesday rights. That has been common practice under both Conservative and Labour Governments. I do not believe that anybody in this House would object to the principle of the Government getting their business through being maintained.

I also believe that, until recent Labour Party practice, that decision has always been arrived at in the same way. As the noble Lord said, the matter has been agreed through the usual channels and then by the whole House as a result of a Motion. Up until now, that procedure has been universally observed. As far as I am aware, on this occasion, as on previous occasions, in conjunction with their own Back Benches, the Government have formed a habit which, in view of the importance of Wednesdays, I feel is disrespectful to the House. I understand from my noble friends on the Opposition Front Bench that on this occasion as on others the Government never approached either the Opposition through the usual channels or consulted the whole House, to which Wednesdays belong whichever Back Benches' turn it is. As the Captain of the Gentlemen-at-Arms pointed out, they merely did a private deal with their own Back Benches to take over Back-Bench time.

There is a genuine difference of opinion between the noble Lord the Captain of the Gentlemen-at-Arms and myself. It is right and proper that our practice should continue and that Back Benches in all parts of the House should take their turn. However, I find it difficult to accept that Wednesdays should, by implication, be wholly at the disposal of, in this instance, the Labour Party to negotiate away Back-Bench rights for the convenience of the Government. That is the burden of the difference between the noble Lord and myself.

I wholly recognise that there could be good business management reasons for the Government to want to take government business on Wednesday this week. However, as a matter of principle, it is for the Government to negotiate with the usual channels rather than to fix the business of the House by private agreement with their own party caucus. Of course, if I have been discourteous to the noble Lord in particular, I unreservedly apologise. However, perhaps he ought to think of pots and kettles because, according to my noble friend on the Opposition Front Bench, the usual channels were not consulted before the deal was done.

If this House is not to become completely the plaything of the Government, it is important that the House should not increasingly adopt a practice which makes such a mockery of its procedures and habits. For that reason, if Labour Back-Benchers want to use Back-Bench time for a Motion of their own, I should be only too happy to withdraw my Motion for tomorrow. I wholly accept that the noble Baroness the Minister who answers for agricultural matters in this House has been extremely busy and am aware that she has been working flat out during this period of crisis. I am equally aware that in order for consent for the Government's actions not to be withheld, it is important for Ministers in both Houses to give high priority to parliamentary examination of what they are doing. I understand that during the last war--as was said in response to my noble friend Lady Trumpington, it was before my time--the government of the day gave priority to debates in the House of Commons, even though there were other calls on their time.

I believe that an important matter of principle is involved. If there has been discourtesy on my part, I unreservedly apologise. However, I do not apologise for the principle at stake because it is important. I refer to the standing of Back-Benchers in this House. It is an important principle of this place that the Back Benches are equal to the Front Benches; and our Wednesday debates are an important outward and visible sign of that.

Photo of Baroness David Baroness David Labour 3:30 pm, 27th March 2001

My Lords, as a very old Member of this House in every sense, I was surprised and shocked when I saw the noble Viscount's Motion for debate on the Order Paper for tomorrow. It seemed to me extremely discourteous as no one had been consulted and the Labour Peers had agreed to give up tomorrow to other business. He has used what seems to me a specious argument and I strongly object. I hope that the Motion moved by my noble friend the Chief Whip will be agreed to.

Photo of Lord Waddington Lord Waddington Conservative

My Lords, I have listened carefully to the debate and the history alarms me. The interests of Back-Benchers on both sides of the House are at risk if we ever see a repeat of these events.

It is disingenuous to pretend that the Bills tabled for tomorrow appear as the choice of Labour Back-Benchers for their Back-Bench day. The day is being taken over not for Back-Bench business but for government business. It is by definition no longer a Back-Bench day. A Back-Bench day has been taken away from the House as a whole without consultation with the Opposition. That is the essence of the whole matter.

We must be clear that, by custom, throughout a considerable part of the year Wednesdays are used for Back-Bench Motions. Although there are times when the Government must come to the House to ask that government business should be taken on a particular Wednesday, when they do so negotiations take place through the usual channels in order to reach agreement on all sides of the House.

Whichever way one looks at the issue, it is a straightforward case of the Government using a Back-Bench day for their own business without having any consultations through the usual channels. That will not do.

Photo of Lord Shepherd Lord Shepherd Labour

My Lords, speaking with experience, having sat on both Government and Opposition Front Benches for some 30 years, I must say to the noble Viscount that we do not need his defence and protection to ensure that the Labour Peers exercise their full and democratic rights within the Parliamentary Labour Party.

If we have made a gesture to the Chief Whip in regard to tomorrow's debates, it is because we have decided to do so. We were not forced to do so; we decided to do so. To say that Wednesdays are solely Back-Bench days is frankly a load of twaddle. They are often used particularly by Opposition Front Benches, Labour or Conservative, to promote their own party lines. We have done so without any criticism at any quarter.

The real danger faced by the House today is that we are beginning to lose the sense of respect towards each other upon which the House has always depended. The noble Viscount, if he believed that the issue he had put to the House today was so important that he should put the whole question of Wednesday debates at a degree of risk, could at least have gone to the Leader of the House and the Chief Whip to explain his anxieties. However, he decided not to do so. He decided to be a maverick--why, I do not know, but there must be a reason.

I do not believe that it is in the interests of the House that our business should be done in such a underhand way. It should be done through consultation and knowledge and the noble Viscount declined to do that. I am sorry to say that because I had great respect for him when he was Leader of the House. He knows as well as I that we depend on trust and confidence in each other. I hope that the noble Viscount will not force the House to divide on this issue.

Photo of Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords

My Lords, are we not making heavy weather of all this? I can understand the noble Viscount wanting to draw attention to a practice which, if it became common, would undermine the authority of Back-Benchers. He has registered a point which all of us have noted. But in recent times this is the only occasion on which the Labour Back Benches have chosen to give up their time for legislation, and I do not believe that we should be too fussed about it.

It is true that in another place the Labour Back Benches are tame. I find no tame Back Benches on any side of your Lordships' House. I believe that were it to become the habit of the government of the day to seek to filch from Back-Benchers time that is properly theirs they would revolt and say "no". They have not done so. This matter has been accepted by the Labour Back-Benchers, and I hope that that is sufficient. Why cannot we get on with the really important business on the Order Paper?

Photo of Lord Denham Lord Denham Conservative

My Lords, I do not pretend to have been in the high ranks of this House for as long as the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, but I have been here for a considerable time. What worries me about this matter is that this is not just one occasion but another example of Her Majesty's Government in this and another place doing away unilaterally with age-old traditions of both Houses. I believe that if the Captain of the Gentlemen-at-Arms, for whom I have as much respect as anybody in this House, had asked through the usual channels whether on this one occasion this could be done by agreement between him and his Back-Benchers, I cannot imagine that anybody would have said "no" particularly. But I think that this should have been consulted on. I really do hope that the noble Lord will withdraw his opposition to my noble friend on this occasion.

Photo of Lord Graham of Edmonton Lord Graham of Edmonton Labour

My Lords, I was struck by one of the remarks of the noble Viscount who said that Labour Back-Benchers were in danger of becoming the plaything of the Government. Nothing could be further from the truth. I know that my noble friend Lord Dubs would have vigorously defended the recommendations of his committee to Labour Back Benchers on 15th March. My noble friend is in Prague today on family business. As a former chairman I attend all of those meetings. We saw nothing exceptional in the circumstances, which included the fact that these two topics were manifesto commitments and we on this side of the House support them and the Government.

The difficulties sometimes experienced in finding the right topic to debate were put to us in a reasonable, straightforward way. Shortly after the Government came to office I remember conversations with the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, in which he reminded me of the difficulties that he and his colleagues sometimes experienced in deciding on the right topics for Conservative Back-Bench debates. It is all very well to refer to the myth that on Wednesdays we are on the ball in debating a suitable topic that is relevant to the nation. Sometimes that is so; sometimes it is not. The charge that is made is that somehow or other the Government Chief Whip has marched in and said either this is what he would like to do or this is what we should do. Noble Lords do not know Labour Back-Benchers as well as I do. I can assure the House that Labour Back- Benchers take their rights seriously.

It is not right to say that the Government are not entitled to use their goodwill with their own Back-Benchers in progressing business. If on this occasion this matter meets with the approval of Labour Back-Benchers, as it does, I see nothing wrong with it. Frankly, I am surprised that the noble Viscount acted in the way that he did. It is discourteous and unusual. I hope that, having heard the debate, the noble Viscount will withdraw his Motion.

Photo of Lord Elton Lord Elton Conservative

My Lords, there are two matters before the House which are being joined together as if they are one: one is the use of Wednesdays; the other is how that issue was brought before the House. It appears that there may have been discourtesy on both sides. I do not stand to judge between them, but certainly my noble friend has apologised in handsome terms for discourtesy on his part. Therefore, let us leave that matter and perhaps consider it privately. However, publicly we should debate the question of how Wednesdays should be used.

I accept everything that the noble Lord, Lord Graham, said in his capacity both as a former Chief Whip and leader of his party's Back-Bench group. However, nobody seems to have recognised in the debate so far that the Wednesday afternoon debate is not the sole property of the party which initiates it. The noble Lord, Lord Haskel, appears to be amazed. I draw to his attention that if he tables a Motion for his party to debate on a Wednesday I can join in. It is a Back-Bench, not a legislative, issue. There is a distinction between legislation and matters of general interest. It appears that we are being carted off to spend more and more time on legislation, which is tactical, and less and less on matters of general interest, which is strategic. In this nation there is no forum other than here where that can be done, and it should be sacrificed most unwillingly.

Photo of Lord Barnett Lord Barnett Labour

My Lords, the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, knows very well that I have the highest respect for him. We have often agreed on a variety of House matters. But on this occasion we are elevating the question of Wednesday's business to a great issue of principle when, in my brief experience, towards the end of a Session on some Wednesdays there is government business on the Order Paper, as the noble Viscount acknowledges.

I give the noble Viscount one good reason why I hope that he will, with the greatest possible respect, withdraw his Motion. He will agree that my noble friend Lady Hayman is widely respected for the amount of work that she carries out. My noble friend is here again today to make a Statement. I hope the noble Viscount agrees that to make my noble friend return again tomorrow in the middle of all that work to reply to yet another debate is not only unreasonable but wholly unfair. I hope that the noble Viscount will withdraw his Motion.

Photo of Lord Tebbit Lord Tebbit Conservative

My Lords, this is a re-run of the issue of the arrangement of business on Wednesdays and Thursdays which noble Lords debated recently. It is no good the Captain shaking his head in that way--he can shake it in a different way--because that is how it appears to some noble Lords. The noble Lord will remember that on that occasion the Back Benches voted against a Motion tabled by the Government Front Bench and supported by the Opposition Front Bench. The noble Lord should realise that there is unease on the Back Benches about the way in which business is being conducted. The rules appear to be being changed gently.

My noble friend Lord Elton is absolutely right. One Wednesday does not belong to the Conservative Back Benches, the next to the Cross Benches and the next to the Labour Back Benches; it is collectively Back-Bench time. Therefore, if legislation is put on the Order Paper instead of Back-Bench Motions, all Back-Benchers, not just some, lose out.

As for the urgency of these Bills, which we are told are manifesto commitments, what is the rush? We are not yet in the fifth year of this five-year Parliament, so there is plenty of time to come. It appears that among Ministers--of course not in this House but in the other place--recently there has been a most unfortunate outbreak of what might be called "headless chicken" disease. There is some suspicion that it comes from Brazil and has been smuggled in illicitly by someone formerly very close to government circles.

Photo of Lord Strathclyde Lord Strathclyde Conservative

My Lords, perhaps I may begin on a lighter note. On behalf of the Opposition I should like to wish the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan, a very happy birthday. I wholly understand why the Leader of the House cannot be in her place this afternoon, but the Government Chief Whip has done very well in her absence.

Perhaps I may take a few moments to clarify the position of the Official Opposition. As is widely known, the division of the Wednesday debates between the parties and the Cross-Benchers is agreed at the start of each Session. That was done last year at the end of November and the beginning of December. Wednesday 28th March was given to the Labour Party Back-Benchers to choose their debate for the day. Incidentally, "choose" is a very important word. They have the ability to initiate a debate; it does not mean that the Labour Party owns that day to do with it whatever it wants.

At one of our regular discussion meetings, on Wednesday 14th March, we were told that Labour Party debates would go ahead on 28th March. But on Thursday 15th March we were told that the Labour Party had changed its mind and that the day had been given up unilaterally to the Government. We objected on the basis that it was Back-Bench time. At no time did we agree with the Government's actions.

Last week there was no further change and the Government put down two Bills for debate at Second Reading. So, after the party meetings last Thursday, my noble friend Lord Cranborne, who has always been a defender of Back-Bench time even when he was Leader of this House, seeing that the Labour Back-Benchers had failed to take up the opportunity to have their debate, presumably on the instructions of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs--I am sorry, but I understand why he cannot be with us today--put down a Motion on foot and mouth.

As my noble friend Lord Cranborne has emphasised today, he will withdraw his Motion if Labour Back-Benchers want the time for debate. Sadly, notwithstanding what the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, says, Labour Back-Benchers have taken the Prime Minister's instructions too seriously and, like 19th-century children, would rather be seen and not heard.

Photo of Lord Haskel Lord Haskel Labour

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for giving way. Does not the noble Lord agree that as the day was allocated to the Labour Back Benches it is up to them to decide how to dispose of it?

Photo of Lord Strathclyde Lord Strathclyde Conservative

My Lords, I am so grateful to the noble Lord for making that point. That is the point: I disagree entirely with that. It is up to Labour Party Back-Benchers to initiate the debate, not to own the day.

Of course we agree that Wednesday Back-Bench debates are suspended in July to deal with the bottleneck at the end of the Session. Of course we shall suspend such Wednesday debates when a general election is announced. Next week, for example, is a Conservative Wednesday. If next week Parliament is to be dissolved, we will unreservedly give up that day.

Photo of Lord Lea of Crondall Lord Lea of Crondall Labour

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for giving way. Am I misreading the Motion on the Order Paper? The Motion on the Order Paper simply says that the noble Viscount's Motion may go ahead but after the Government's Bills. He is not being deprived of his Motion. He just has to sit a little longer in his place than he would otherwise like.

Photo of Lord Strathclyde Lord Strathclyde Conservative

My Lords, I am coming to that matter. Not only have I read the Motion that the noble Lord the Government Chief Whip is dealing with today, but I have read the original Motion in the Standing Order. I shall come to that point in a moment if the noble Lord can be patient. What the Government and what the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, have failed to answer is: first, if next week Parliament is dissolved for a 3rd May general election, the Bills that are discussed tomorrow cannot be passed without agreement; and, secondly, if there is no election, which seems increasingly possible, the point made by my noble friend Lord Tebbit stands: what on earth is the fuss all about, because, in the normal course of events, we have all the time in the world to continue with Wednesday debates?

Therefore, the issues before us are very simple: first, Standing Order No. 40 goes back to 1852 and was reaffirmed a few weeks ago in a debate in this House. If we ride roughshod over the rights of Back- Benchers for no obvious reason, other than executive convenience, what will the Government do next? Will there be more procedural Motions against other parties--the Liberal Democrats, the Cross- Benchers or even the Conservatives--for government convenience? The Motion is quite explicit. It states:

"On Wednesdays, notices of Motions shall have precedence over notices and orders relating to public Bills, measures and delegated legislation".

The reason for that is quite clear; it is to maintain the right of this House on Back-Bench Motions to debate important matters on Wednesdays in prime time.

Secondly, the debate is on foot and mouth. There is no more important matter facing the country today. Yet, the Motion of the Government Chief Whip will mean that foot and mouth is debated in the middle of the night while the Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Bill is discussed in prime time. Remember, if next week Parliament is dissolved, that Bill cannot be passed without agreement. Yesterday hunting, tomorrow tobacco--how out of touch with the worries of the people of this country does one have to be to believe that tobacco advertising and promotion is a more urgent issue than foot and mouth?

In a few moments we shall vote, unless the noble Lord, Lord Carter, withdraws his Motion or my noble friend feels so moved to do the same. However, if the Chief Whip does not withdraw the Motion, when the votes are counted I know on whose side I want to be. I want to be loudly and clearly in favour of Back-Bench time and against executive action. Above all other things, I want to put the interests of Parliament and the people of this country before what we are witnessing from the Government Benches and, I am sorry to say, the Liberal Democrat Benches, who want to put narrow party advantage before the rights of Parliament.

Photo of Lord Stoddart of Swindon Lord Stoddart of Swindon Independent Labour

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, he said that if there is an election on 3rd May, the Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Bill and the Homes Bill could not go through without the agreement of the House. Has he given any indication of such agreement?

Photo of Lord Strathclyde Lord Strathclyde Conservative

No, my Lords, we have not. We have not been asked to give that agreement because, as the noble Lord and the House knows, no general election has been announced.

Photo of Lord Carter Lord Carter Chief Whip (House of Lords), HM Household, Lords Chief Whip (HM Household)

My Lords, until I heard the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, I never thought that we were looking at parliamentary Armageddon. For a long period it has been the practice, both under the previous and this Government, for the last Wednesday debate in each Session to be given to the government party. I am told that some years ago--we do not have the exact year and are relying on the memory of a member of the Clerks' Office--when, I believe, the noble Lord, Lord Denham, was Chief Whip, the Labour Opposition gave up their Wednesday to the Conservative Government to enable them to do their business.

We have used the last Wednesday of the Session--

Photo of Lord Skelmersdale Lord Skelmersdale Conservative

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for giving way. The noble Lord keeps referring to the "last Wednesday". Why is this the "last Wednesday"?

Photo of Lord Carter Lord Carter Chief Whip (House of Lords), HM Household, Lords Chief Whip (HM Household)

My Lords, I shall come to that matter. I am just explaining the important point that in 1998, 1999 and in 2000 my Labour colleagues agreed to give up their last Wednesday debate to the Government for legislation. There were no complaints from the Official Opposition and certainly no complaints from the Liberal Democrats. I believe that there were no complaints because noble Lords were concerned about the starting date of the Summer Recess; and if the Government were able to use a day for legislation, the Session might end at a reasonable time.

The reason that the House was not consulted was that there was no need for a Business Motion until the noble Viscount tabled his Motion for debate. The two Second Readings have been in "Future Business" for about a fortnight. The only reason for the need to consult the House with a Business Motion is the use of parliamentary tactics. That is what this matter is all about. The noble Viscount knows the Standing Order. Under Standing Order No. 40, if he puts the debate down first, it must be taken first. It is a deliberate parliamentary tactic, to which I shall return.

There was no need for me to bring a Motion to the House because all that was on the Order Paper until the noble Viscount's debate was put down were the Motions for the two Second Readings. As soon as I knew--either the Tuesday or the Wednesday--that the co-ordinating committee had that in mind to recommend to our Thursday meeting, I immediately walked down the corridor to the Opposition Chief Whip. I said that I did not think that it was a matter for agreement because it was a Labour debate day, but I told him what the intention was. He made what I regard as a perfectly good and professional Chief Whip's point: "When we come to negotiate the number of Wednesdays next Session, we shall have to think about this". I also informed the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. His comment was, "I do not think that my Back-Benchers would do this". But, again, there was no official complaint, and the Motions for the Second Readings have been down on "Future Business" for some two weeks.

The noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, referred to the high priority of foot and mouth. We have discussed foot and mouth six times in the past three weeks. The noble Viscount was able to be present on only one of those occasions. He has already said that if the Labour Peers care now to put down a Motion for debate on any topic, he will withdraw his Motion on foot and mouth. So is concern about foot and mouth the overriding reason? The noble Viscount is concerned about the way in which Wednesdays are being used, but this is an exceptional situation. Let us not pretend. It arises because my Labour colleagues knew--they can read the newspapers like everyone else--there was a good chance that there could be an election on 3rd May. If so, Wednesday's debate would be the last Labour debate of the Session.

Noble Lords:

Oh!

A noble Lord:

Will the noble Lord confirm it?

Photo of Lord Carter Lord Carter Chief Whip (House of Lords), HM Household, Lords Chief Whip (HM Household)

My Lords, I am not confirming anything. My Labour colleagues can read the newspapers. I shall be the last to know. They felt that in the circumstances, with this perhaps being the last Labour debate--it was their decision--the House should have a chance--

Photo of The Countess of Mar The Countess of Mar Crossbench

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for giving way. I understood him to say earlier that this Wednesday was the last day for a Wednesday debate this Session and that that is why it had been given up. He has now said that it is the last day for a Labour debate. I am raising the matter because I have a Question down for next Wednesday--a week tomorrow--and I want to know whether I shall be able to ask it.

Photo of Lord Carter Lord Carter Chief Whip (House of Lords), HM Household, Lords Chief Whip (HM Household)

My Lords, as I understand the position, if an election is called next week, Starred Questions remain on the Order Paper for the days on which the House is sitting. Therefore, the noble Countess has no need to worry.

If the noble Viscount had a real concern--

Photo of Lord Tebbit Lord Tebbit Conservative

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. In the event that my noble friend's Motion were to be debated tomorrow in the way that he would wish, is there anything to stop the two Bills being taken after that debate? If they could be taken, are not the Government Benches making a lot of fuss? They could have their day a little later; the Government could get their business a little later; and we could all be ecstatically happy.

Photo of Lord Carter Lord Carter Chief Whip (House of Lords), HM Household, Lords Chief Whip (HM Household)

My Lords, it has just been pointed out to me by my noble friend Lady Hayman that the previous debate on the subject took nine hours.

If the noble Viscount was concerned, why did he not bring the matter to the notice of the Procedure Committee? That is what we have a Procedure Committee for.

Photo of Viscount Cranborne Viscount Cranborne Conservative

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. I had wondered whether I might raise the same point with him. As there is clearly some disagreement on all sides of the House about the procedure governing Wednesday debates and how government business takes priority on certain days, will the noble Lord consider referring the matter to the Procedure Committee for examination so what we can clarify what is desirable in time for either the next Session or the next Parliament?

Photo of Lord Carter Lord Carter Chief Whip (House of Lords), HM Household, Lords Chief Whip (HM Household)

My Lords, if the noble Viscount is prepared to withdraw his Motion, of course I shall. I shall be delighted to refer the matter to the Procedure Committee.

We heard a good deal from the party opposite about debates on Back-Bench days being initiated by Back-Benchers. Two weeks ago we had a Conservative Back-Bench day. Who opened the debate? It was the Leader of the Opposition. So much for concern about the rights of Back-Benchers! If one listens to the noble Lords, Lord Elton and Lord Tebbit, and others, one gets the impression that if we debate homes and tobacco tomorrow, they cannot take part. I have looked at the speakers' list. Conservative Peers have put down their names to speak on homes and tobacco. I really do not understand what this is about. It is a quite simple operation. I have already made the point--

Photo of The Earl of Onslow The Earl of Onslow Conservative

My Lords, does the noble Lord not understand that a general piece of niggling is going on? I do not excuse my noble friend Lord Cranborne for this either, but there is a general air of niggling between the Front Benches and between the parties which I have not seen since I took my seat in this House in 1971. People are trying the whole time to pull flankers. That is something which we must as a House not do. The Liberal Democrats think it funny that the procedure should be mucked about with. It is quintessentially important that we keep the traditions and manners of the House. To a certain extent, a plague on both houses. We are all playing it too rough. For heaven's sake, let us get back to the proper procedure, the proper manners and the proper traditions of this House.

Photo of Lord Carter Lord Carter Chief Whip (House of Lords), HM Household, Lords Chief Whip (HM Household)

My Lords, does the noble Earl think that it adds to this "niggling", as he described it, that a former Leader of the House, a former business manager, now a Back-Bencher, put down a debate last Thursday without having the courtesy even to tell me? Why did he not consult? When he saw me twice on Thursday evening, why did he not tell me?

Photo of Earl Ferrers Earl Ferrers Conservative

My Lords, I have resisted joining in the debate, but this is about the third time that the noble Lord the Captain of the Gentlemen-at-Arms has had a go at my noble friend Lord Cranborne for discourtesy. Has the noble Lord forgotten that two weeks ago he put down an amendment on the Hunting Bill without the courtesy of consultation with the Opposition and through the usual channels? The noble Lord was castigated for that and he apologised.

Photo of Lord Carter Lord Carter Chief Whip (House of Lords), HM Household, Lords Chief Whip (HM Household)

My Lords, that is not strictly correct. I did in fact write to the Opposition Chief Whip with my intentions. There was no agreement between us, and the House decided by a substantial majority that I was right.

I do not think that there is much point in continuing this debate. But perhaps I may repeat the final point made by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. If the debate on foot and mouth is as important as the noble Viscount says, why is he willing to withdraw it if we put down a Motion on any other topic? It is clearly a piece of parliamentary tactics. I am afraid that the party opposite has not entirely become used to the new House. It no longer has a veto. Things have to be done by agreement, and I do my utmost to achieve that. In this particular case, it was a Labour debate. Before it appeared on the Order Paper, I took the trouble to inform the Opposition Chief Whip and the Leader of the Opposition.

Photo of Viscount Cranborne Viscount Cranborne Conservative

My Lords, with the leave of the House, the noble Lord the Captain of the Gentlemen-at-Arms is quite right that what concerns me is the rights of Back-Benchers. But given that, rightly or wrongly, I wanted to make the point by putting down a Motion, it seemed perfectly reasonable that the Motion I should choose should be one that concerns me greatly as well as other Members of the House. The noble Lord is right to separate the two points.

During the course of my earlier remarks I did not for a moment discuss the merits or otherwise of foot and mouth except to pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman. What concerns me is that there is genuine worry about the rights of Back-Benchers in this House, as has become evident during the course of the past 50 minutes.

I notice that, with his usual courtesy, the noble Lord agreed that the matter should be referred to the Procedure Committee, which is the proper way of proceeding. I accept that undertaking with gratitude. I do not in any way regret the fact that I raised the matter because my doing so has given it the high profile that it richly deserves.

I am extremely grateful to all noble Lords who have participated in this debate, whether to be disobliging about me, or to support me. Perhaps I may say that, if this matter is referred to the Procedure Committee for consideration, a relatively minor issue which could become a rather important one will be addressed. For that reason, I am happy not to press the Motion to a vote on the clear understanding of the undertaking given by the noble Lord--who, so far as I know, has never reneged on any undertaking--that he will ensure that this is referred to the Procedure Committee, discussed and then reported to this House. In the light of that undertaking, I am equally happy to withdraw my Motion for tomorrow.

Photo of Baroness Lockwood Baroness Lockwood Labour

My Lords, the Question is that this Motion be agreed to. Does the noble Lord wish to withdraw the Motion?

Photo of Lord Carter Lord Carter Chief Whip (House of Lords), HM Household, Lords Chief Whip (HM Household)

My Lords, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion, on the clear understanding that we have just received from the noble Viscount.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.