Business of the House: Recess Dates

– in the House of Lords at 3:32 pm on 30th October 2003.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Grocott Lord Grocott Chief Whip (House of Lords), HM Household, Captain of the Honourable Corps of Gentlemen-at-Arms (HM Household) (Chief Whip, House of Lords) 3:32 pm, 30th October 2003

My Lords, with the leave of the House I should like to make a Statement about recess dates. To save time, energy and biros, I have arranged for copies of the dates to be put in the Printed Paper Office.

I wish to deal first with Prorogation. I hope that it will be possible to prorogue no later than Thursday 20th November. The House will understand that it is too soon to be certain and it depends on the progress of business in both Houses, but that looks the most likely date from where I am standing at the moment.

Looking further ahead, last Thursday my right honourable friend the Leader of the House of Commons, Peter Hain, made a Statement about Commons recess dates. I shall give those dates for reasons that will become apparent. Some noble Lords have already picked them up. The dates that my right honourable friend gave are as follows. For the Christmas Recess the House will rise on Thursday 18th December and return on Monday 5th January. In February the House will rise on Thursday 12th February and return on Monday 23rd February. At Easter the House will rise on Thursday 8th April and return on Monday 19th April. At Whitsun the House will rise on Thursday 27th May and return on Monday 7th June. For the Summer Recess the House will rise on Thursday 22nd July and return on Tuesday 7th September. For the Conference Recess, as it is called, the House will rise on Thursday 16th September and return on Monday 11th October.

As I said, those are Commons dates. However, I can tell the House that, subject as ever to the help and assistance of everyone in this House, it is my intention that this House should match those dates. That is as ever subject to the progress of business. I can say more specifically that it will be dependent this year on the number of Bills that we are able to agree should be dealt with in Grand Committee.

On the specific question of the September sitting which a number of noble Lords have raised, it will be for the House to decide, on a Motion that will be tabled early in the New Session, whether it wishes to match the Commons in the experiment that we started this year and which will have to be considered for next year. That will be a decision for the House to take.

Everyone will be aware that someone in my position is slightly nervous at announcing recess dates up to summer of next year and beyond. As in so many aspects, I have many aspirations but not always the power to deliver them. If we are able to stick to those dates, it is helpful not only to your Lordships but, perhaps in some ways more importantly, it is helpful to the many people who work for us so effectively in this House to enable them to plan their holiday dates. I hope that those dates are helpful.

Photo of Lord Cope of Berkeley Lord Cope of Berkeley Conservative

My Lords, I am sure the whole House will be grateful to the Captain of the Gentlemen-at-Arms for the early announcement of the proposed recess dates and for agreeing to a debate early in the new Session on the July to September arrangements.

It will, of course, be relevant to that debate if I point out that 22nd July is not mid-July, which was the phrase used in the original arrangements. Thursday 15th or Friday 16th July would be more like the middle of July, but that is an arithmetic point.

As regards Grand Committees, will the noble Lord the Chief Whip acknowledge that we have this Session more than delivered our part of the working practices agreement but the other half of that agreement—the 10 o'clock convention, and the seven o'clock convention on Thursdays—has been repeatedly and flagrantly breached?

In principle I see little reason for the two Houses to sit on the same days all the time any more than we sit at the same hours, which we certainly do not at the moment. Does the noble Lord the Chief Whip recognise that if the recess dates that he has announced are to be delivered it is essential that the Government introduce a lighter and better balanced legislative programme as between the two Houses?

Photo of Lord Roper Lord Roper Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I also thank the Captain of the Gentlemen-at-Arms for having given us this information. Like the noble Lord, Lord Cope, I am grateful that we shall have a very early debate in order to remove any doubt about our September sitting.

I stress that although the noble Lord the Chief Whip referred to our recess dates matching those of the House of Commons, the pattern of business between the two Houses is not the same. We tend to have a lighter programme of business at the beginning of the Session and a heavier one at the end, whereas with the Commons it is the other way round. I hope that that will also be taken into account as regards some mild variations in the programme. For example, I believe some consider that 5th January is rather early to return after Christmas.

Photo of Lord Grocott Lord Grocott Chief Whip (House of Lords), HM Household, Captain of the Honourable Corps of Gentlemen-at-Arms (HM Household) (Chief Whip, House of Lords)

My Lords, the pattern of business as between the two Houses is well known and recognised. All governments try to balance it as far as they are able, knowing that we have a heavier programme later in the Session whereas the Commons have a heavier programme at the beginning of the Session. I do not want to sound too Stalinist about this; I am not saying that there should be precise dates governing the two Houses. However, in my view a bicameral system works better when the two Houses sit broadly at the same time and it has great advantages obviously when one is trying to resolve difficulties at the end of a Session.

The noble Lord, Lord Cope, referred to the July sitting. As I said, that is a matter for the House. It will be for the House to decide whether that is the right way of doing it and what the appropriate date should be. The noble Lord has once again said that I have repeatedly breached the 10 o'clock rule. Believe me, I should love not to breach the 10 o'clock rule. I reject the suggestion that there is something unique about this Session in terms of the Government's legislative programme. I shall not bore the House by reading out the amount of legislation which the government of the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, introduced in the early 1980s, but the number of Bills introduced per year regularly amounted to 40 or 50 as opposed to about 30 in the present Session.

The noble Lord mentioned a bargain as regards Grand Committees. I do not think that it is quite right to talk about a bargain as between Grand Committees and a 10 o'clock finish. Inevitably in the first year of the introduction of the new procedures it is a case of, "suck it and see". We need to see how it works out. No one could be absolutely precise about the extent to which a 10 o'clock finish would impact on the speed of progress of legislation. The truth is that it has slowed that progress rather more than some of us might have anticipated. That is a matter for the House.

It is my fervent belief that committees are the appropriate forum to consider the Committee stage of a Bill. They enable far more time to be given to a Bill with far more effective and detailed consideration. That is a debate for another day, however.

Photo of Lord Davies of Coity Lord Davies of Coity Labour

My Lords, the dates have been given to us well in advance. We all welcome that but we also know that, if the progress of business is not such, they may be jeopardised to some extent. We know that the 10 o'clock rule is being broken. I was one of those here a week last Tuesday until five o'clock in the morning, and I do not care to do that very much. We all have a responsibility to conduct our business in the most rational way possible. I ask my noble friend, in conjunction with the usual channels, to consider very seriously putting many more Bills into Grand Committee.

Photo of Lord Grocott Lord Grocott Chief Whip (House of Lords), HM Household, Captain of the Honourable Corps of Gentlemen-at-Arms (HM Household) (Chief Whip, House of Lords)

My Lords, I wholeheartedly agree with my noble friend. Like him, I do not like sitting late at night. However, there is a myth abroad that, somehow or other, sitting late at night and indeterminate rising times and recess dates provide for more effective scrutiny of legislation. I do not think that at all. Legislation is best scrutinised in sensible hours, and that is to the advantage of both the Government and the Opposition.

Photo of Lord Renton Lord Renton Conservative

My Lords, given what the noble Lord has just said will he bear in mind that, if we are to sit sensible hours on not too many days of each year, we must be sure that the legislation is not too lengthy or detailed? I shall give him an example of what should be avoided but which we have before us this Session. We had to spend 11 days on the Criminal Justice Bill. When it reached us, it consisted of 374 pages. In Committee, the Government added nearly 30 more, and it looks as though they are adding another 20 pages on Report. Legislation should be carefully considered and prepared before it is submitted to either House of Parliament. The present method of presenting legislation to the House really cannot continue. The Government must reconsider the matter.

Photo of Lord Grocott Lord Grocott Chief Whip (House of Lords), HM Household, Captain of the Honourable Corps of Gentlemen-at-Arms (HM Household) (Chief Whip, House of Lords)

My Lords, I am obviously strongly in favour of legislation being brought to this or the other place in as complete a form as possible. However, changes are frequently made during the passage of legislation through the House. The Committee stage of the Criminal Justice Bill is yet another classic example. I sat through many of its sittings. Not being a lawyer, I will not pretend to have understood every single line of it, but frequently there was precisely the kind of exchange throughout the Chamber that would have been made more effectively in Grand Committee. Certainly, the numbers present at many of the debates suggest that they could have been properly accommodated in Grand Committee. The House needs to consider those options.

Photo of Viscount Bledisloe Viscount Bledisloe Crossbench

My Lords, when the noble Lord in future makes comparisons between the amount of legislation that we consider nowadays and that which we considered in the past, would he think it more suitable to do it by clauses, pages or tonnes rather than by number of Bills? If he counts the Criminal Justice Bill as one Bill, we could really do with one Bill per Session. If he did a weight, page or clause comparison, I suspect that the figures would be less helpful to him than those that he gave a moment ago.

Photo of Lord Grocott Lord Grocott Chief Whip (House of Lords), HM Household, Captain of the Honourable Corps of Gentlemen-at-Arms (HM Household) (Chief Whip, House of Lords)

My Lords, I did not have the pleasure of taking part in the House of Lords reform Bill, but I understand that it was a six-clause Bill. The relationship between clauses and time is not always precise.

Photo of Baroness O'Cathain Baroness O'Cathain Conservative

My Lords, will the noble Lord tell us whether there is a real move to put more and more Bills in Grand Committee? People who have taken part in sittings in Grand Committee should be consulted. Having taken part in them, there is no question that we feel—I feel, anyway—that the problem is that we go through the whole Bill in Grand Committee, but when it comes back to the Floor of the House on Report the debate is full of Second Reading speeches and everything is gone through again. Grand Committee is not actually the best way of dealing with the legislation.

Very often, people who happen to come to this place when a Bill is being dealt with on the Floor of the House suddenly realise that they have something to add to the discussion, whereas they would not normally think about going upstairs or into the Moses Room for a Grand Committee. By putting too many Bills into Grand Committee, we are probably not scrutinising them as adequately or perfectly as we did previously.

Photo of Lord Grocott Lord Grocott Chief Whip (House of Lords), HM Household, Captain of the Honourable Corps of Gentlemen-at-Arms (HM Household) (Chief Whip, House of Lords)

My Lords, with great respect, one cannot construct the procedures of half of the legislature of one of the oldest parliamentary democracies in the world on the basis of whether someone happens to pop in and is interested in the debate, or may pop out again if he is not. It is the duty of people who are here to take note of what is being debated on a particular day—a duty assiduously followed by the vast majority. Frankly, whether that debate takes place here or in Grand Committee should not be the determining factor on whether they contribute. It is the responsibility of us all to decide on which Bills we want to contribute and on which we do not.

Photo of Lord Wedderburn of Charlton Lord Wedderburn of Charlton Labour

My Lords, does my noble friend realise that, extraordinary though it is that I should agree with the noble Baroness, I totally agree with her? I recommend that he sits through the entire sittings of some Grand Committees and sees how, by sending Bills there more and more, the executive are digging their own grave. In the end, Grand Committees make Third Reading the really effective debate.

Photo of Lord Grocott Lord Grocott Chief Whip (House of Lords), HM Household, Captain of the Honourable Corps of Gentlemen-at-Arms (HM Household) (Chief Whip, House of Lords)

My Lords, it does not surprise me at all that my noble friend agrees with the Opposition because, on quite a number of occasions, he has been joining them in the Lobbies. The debates about where the Committee stage of Bills should be held will go on at some length, no doubt. However, what is unarguable and undebatable is that a Committee stage held in a committee certainly has far more capacity in terms of time, as my noble friend knows well enough, than the Floor of the House where time is precious.

Photo of Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville Conservative

My Lords, does the noble Lord accept the functional point that there might be greater enthusiasm for Grand Committee if there were, by comparison with the Chamber, better physical facilities for taking paper into them? In the Chamber, there is considerable flexibility in being able to have one's papers beside one.