rose to move to resolve, That it is the opinion of this House that, subject to the requirements of business, the House should rise for the Summer Recess not later than Thursday 22nd July 2004, should sit during two weeks in September 2004, and should sit again no sooner than Monday 11th October 2004.
My Lords, the Group on Working Practices, chaired last year by my predecessor, noted that the other place was to start sitting in September and recommended that this House should do the same. The Procedure Committee said that it supported the group's aim of a more balanced parliamentary year and recommended that the House should decide. Accordingly, the late Lord Williams of Mostyn moved a Motion similar to this one on 25th November last year. That Motion was explicitly limited to 2003. I now invite the House to agree to experiment with this new sitting pattern for a further year.
At the end of this Session the House will have to decide which aspects of the working practices package, if any, to keep, vary or abandon, including this one. Following that decision, there should be no further need for an annual Motion.
The other place will sit next September and I invite the House to do the same. The same arguments apply as for the previous Session. The September sitting pattern is rational in its own right. It is more balanced over the year; it is more family friendly; it is less open to criticism of excessive summer holidays; and it reduces the risk of emergency recall. I cannot imagine that we would have got through this summer without a recall if we had not been due to sit in September.
In a bicameral Parliament the two Houses should march broadly in step. If the Motion is not agreed to it will be impossible to do anything on a bicameral basis between 22nd July and 11th October—no ping-pong; no Royal Assent; no approval of affirmative instruments; no creating or convening of a Joint Committee—unless one House or the other is recalled specifically.
Let me be clear. If the Motion is agreed to then, as my noble friend the Chief Whip told the House on 30th October, subject to progress of business, it is expected that the House will rise on 22nd July and resume on 7th September; rise on 16th September for the party conferences and resume on 11th October. If it is disagreed to then, subject to progress of business, it is expected that the House will rise on 28th July and resume on 4th October. It is a straight swap; seven sitting days for seven sitting days. It will mean a six-week break between July and September and a three-week conference break before the House resumes in October.
This is a House matter and I invite the House to decide. I beg to move.
Moved to resolve, That it is the opinion of this House that, subject to the requirements of business, the House should rise for the Summer Recess not later than Thursday 22nd July 2004, should sit during two weeks in September 2004, and should sit again no sooner than Monday 11th October 2004.—(Baroness Amos.)
My Lords, so far as we are concerned, this is a free vote, and I hope that that is so on all sides of the House. The noble Baroness the Leader of the House has just given us further assurance that, whether the Motion is won or lost, it will make no difference to the total number of sitting days. I accept that that is determined by the time that we take to consider the business before us. I am grateful to the noble Baroness the Leader of the House for giving the whole House the chance to vote on the issue.
I shall vote against the Motion, as I prefer the traditional pattern of sittings. So does my wife—that is an influential matter, at least for me. I wish to make clear that the proposal is not the same as the one that we had a year ago following the report on working practices by Lord Williams of Mostyn. He suggested, and noble Lords agreed, that in the previous Session we should rise in mid-July and sit for two weeks in early September. This Motion is different. Assuming the exigencies of business do not interfere, we would rise three-quarters of the way through July, as the noble Baroness made clear, and definitely not sit during the Conservative Party conference at the end of the recess.
The main argument advanced previously, and again today, is that it is desirable for this House to sit at the same time as another place. I see no logic or merit in that argument. Conventionally, the Houses have not sat on the same days, and our annual pattern of business varies from that of another place. Furthermore, I understand that sitting in September tends to increase the running costs of this House. We pride ourselves—at least, sometimes—on making a relatively modest call on public funds for the expense of running this House. I do not know how much the increase will be, or whether the noble Baroness the Leader of the House can tell us how much more it would cost to accept the Motion, but I have been unable to come across a figure yet.
I accept the argument that sometimes Parliament has been recalled during the long recess because of war or another large matter. However, although we sat earlier this year for two weeks in September while the crisis in Iraq was pressing, we had a Statement and some Questions but the Government did not find time for us to debate Iraq because of the weight, and the late introduction, of government Bills. We did not debate Iraq or any such matter in September. I question whether it would have been necessary to recall Parliament in those circumstances. Today's decision is simply whether to sit in September 2004. I would prefer not to, and I will vote against the Motion.
My Lords, we welcome the opportunity for the House to consider the matter. It is a fulfilment of the pledge given by the previous Leader of the House, Lord Williams of Mostyn. The noble Baroness the Leader of the House suggested that it was to the advantage of a bicameral House to meet at identical times and gave three reasons why that was convenient. There is not much ping-pong in September, and we do not often set up new Joint Committees at that time of year. Although I accept the point about Royal Assent, the other two points do not seem fundamental.
It can be argued—although it is not too strong a point either way—that if the Houses sit at slightly different times, there are more days in the year in which one House is in session to hold the Government to account and to ask Questions on issues of topical interest. There are arguments running both ways on the efficacy of Parliament.
On this matter there is a free vote in all parts of the House. I suspect that most noble Lords will take into account their personal interests, although it is important that we consider the other parliamentary issues raised.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Roper, has just answered my point. The arguments for not sitting in September seem largely to be based on Peers' personal convenience—the ability to take one's holiday after the school holidays, perhaps to pursue outside occupations, or the convenience of the House authorities in their work programme. I can think of no political or constitutional argument against sitting in September.
The argument for sitting when the House of Commons sits relates to the public perception of this House. We claim, quite properly, to be a serious second Chamber one of whose tasks is to hold the executive to account—we did that extremely well in the previous Session, with 89 defeats—but we then have a nine or 10-week break. That would be particularly unfortunate if an issue arose that, although not sufficiently important to require the recall of Parliament, was debated in the Commons when the Lords was not sitting. We should think very hard, particularly given the importance of the House of Lords in the coming Session—we all know the number of Bills in which we will take particular interest—about the public perception of this House if, when the Commons is sitting, we choose to take a nine or 10-week break. On balance, I cannot help feeling that it would not be of benefit to this House's reputation if we decided not to sit in September when the House of Commons did. If the House of Commons changed its mind, the argument would change.
I wish to make two tangential points. I was the chairman of the Joint Committee on the draft Mental Incapacity Bill, which was given an extremely tight timetable. The fact that the House was sitting in September meant that we had four very important evidence sessions, which enabled us to meet our timetable. My next point is even more tangential. The House sits for two weeks in September and then breaks for three weeks for the party conferences. Perhaps the day will come when the parties will see the sense of having a four-day conference over a long weekend—Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday. The two Houses could continue to sit every day except Friday and Monday on three successive weekends, and the summer break would be much easier to arrange.
My Lords, I regret that I cannot support the Motion moved by the noble Baroness the Leader of the House. I am regretful because I have great admiration and affection for her, so I hope that she will forgive me.
I shall not detain the House for long, as we have been over this course during our debate on a similar Motion last year. As touched on by the opposition Chief Whip, we have considered it desirable to sit at the same time as another place; however, it was demonstrated amply last year that that has not traditionally been the case, and it certainly has not affected the workings of Parliament.
The terms of last year's Motion included the proposal that,
"the Summer Recess should begin not later than the middle of July".
This year we rose on 18th July, which is stretching the interpretation of "the middle" a tiny bit, at least. As the opposition Chief Whip said, no such words have appeared in today's Motion. It proposes that the House rise,
"not later than Thursday 22nd July 2004".
The prospect of rising in mid-July, which was held out to us when this proposal was first mooted let alone moved last year, has slipped, which was always one of my fears. There is always the temptation for a government to fill all available space with their business, despite the desirability of having less rather than more legislation. All governments do it and one can hardly blame them because, after all, it is a fact of life. However, we do not have to live with it without taking the trouble to do something about it.
Then there was that other matter—which I introduced into our debate just over a year ago—the double disruption of the use of the House caused by interrupting the vast and essential maintenance and building work that we undertake during the Summer Recess. The floorboards come up and the rewiring starts the day after we rise for the long recess. Then, with September sittings, it all has to put back and, after 10 days or thereabouts, it all has to be taken up again and put back in time for our re-assembly in early October. Our own domestic departments in this place are not able to get a clear run, as I know from my experience from working with them as your Lordships' Chairman of Committees for several years. The contractors that we employ have to stop and then start up again, which must incur extra costs, although, as the opposition Chief Whip indicated, we have not been given any idea of what those costs amount to.
When I raised this matter last year, I understand that one or two Members either misunderstood or misinterpreted what I said. I was to blame if there was any misunderstanding, because that meant that I had not explained myself sufficiently clearly. However, I fear that I cannot accept responsibility for any misinterpretation. If somebody misdirects himself or herself, that is a matter for him or her—if they will forgive my saying so, very delicately and gently, I hasten to add.
I gather that one or two Members thought that I was worried about inconvenience to contractors and to our own departments. I was not. I was concerned about inconvenience to Parliament and to its Members. Indeed, I sought both to avoid and to anticipate any misunderstanding that might have arisen from what I said by including in my speech last year that I thought that our departments and any contractors that we employ would do what is required of them, which I still believe. I feel that it is right to place that on the record. I am concerned about the double disruption of Parliament and the inconvenience to its Members.
There is one other short matter that I should like to mention. We are a largely voluntary House, although a small number of Members—such as office holders, Ministers and other leaders—rightly occupy paid positions. Because we are voluntary, there is a reluctance to refer to our own interests; on occasion, there is even a fear to do so. However, we occasionally have a right to consider our own personal interests. After all, the nation benefits quite considerably from the time, knowledge, expertise, experience and high qualifications that so many of your Lordships bring to this place and to the service of the House. We have our own lives to live. On behalf of any who feel reluctant to raise these personal interests, I point out that some Members and their families will be adversely affected by this proposal.
I hope that your Lordships will not accept the Motion and that we will return to the previous pattern of sittings. It would be unrealistic and unreasonable to expect the noble Baroness the Leader of the House to withdraw her Motion. However, if it is passed, I have one remaining hope—that she will not seek to move a similar Motion again.
My Lords, I hope that I can be brief.
Over a great many years, I have been extremely uncomfortable with the arrangements whereby we had a long break from July until October. I remember, years ago, having some responsibility for managing another place. I was extremely conscious of and sympathetic to the thoughts of a good many Members, especially Scottish Members and those with families, who found it extremely difficult when the other place—and therefore, very often, this place—sat through until the end of July. It disrupted the families of a great many Members.
I am also uncomfortable about another matter, which I spoke about when we last debated this subject. I believe that July to October is too long a period for Parliament to be in recess. I know that my noble friend Lord Cope will not thank me for saying that—as he did not the last time that I said it—but it is why I spoke last time in favour of coming back for two weeks in September. Therefore, I can again accept that part of the Motion. However, I cannot accept the Government—having told us about a year ago that the House would rise in the middle of July—stealing another week. That is off-side and will not do. It is not at all what they said they would do. For that reason, I shall vote against the Motion.
My Lords, I share the view of my noble friend Lord Cope on this matter. I am not in favour of a September sitting. I cannot agree with the assertions of the noble Baroness the Lord President about the merits of a September sitting. I cannot see why we should have to sit at precisely the same time as the other place, as several noble Lords have already said. There is very little, if any, ping-pong at that time of year. There is also the point made so eloquently by the noble Lord, Lord Boston, about the disruption to the works programme, which is not an inconsiderable matter. The noble Lord, Lord Carter, may think otherwise, but it makes a difference. It involves a great deal of money and a great deal of difficulty for Members of this House and of the other place. Like my noble friend, Lord Cope, I shall be voting against the Motion.
My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, is he aware that, in all the Sessions that we did not sit in September and work was going on, all the contracts were let on the basis that the two Chambers had to be returned for use within two days in the case of Parliament being recalled?
My Lords, I was a member of the previous Leader's working group. The group had a long debate on this matter, and there was a long debate on it in the House. Frankly, I have not heard any new arguments advanced today for shifting from the position previously adopted other than the fact that there has been a slight movement away from mid-July towards the three-quarter point. However, that argument does not really hold up. It would hold up if we were losing a week in the year, but that is not so. An additional argument is that it inconveniences and creates problems for Members. I shall be quite open and admit that Lady Brooke shares the views expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Cope. We should stand by the decision that the House originally made. The two parties opposite made strong arguments in favour of following the changes that were made in the House of Commons. Similarly, arguments were made in this Chamber in favour of going along with the House of Commons.
The then Leader of the House, speaking on behalf of the group, said that he recognised that some of the changes would be inconvenient and burdensome. In moving the report's adoption, he pointed out that:
"Burdens and inconvenience ought to be accepted if we are to deliver the great prize of improving the quality of legislative scrutiny and therefore of legislative output".—[Official Report, 21/5/02; col. 642.]
That is what the report was about. That still stands. We have not heard today any further compelling argument for moving from the position that we adopted 12 months ago. I support the recommendation of my noble friend the Leader of the House.
My Lords, I shall follow up on only one aspect of the remarks of my successor as Chairman of Committees; namely, the works that have to be carried out. This building is 150 years old. It was never envisaged by Barry or Pugin that 7,000 people would pass through it on a heavy day. It requires vast amounts of extremely complicated work to be done on it. The only opportunity that those carrying it out have to do it is if they are given a clear run through August and September. That situation prevailed until last year and there was no interruption during those two months. As the former Chief Whip mentioned, the contracts provided that the work could always be interrupted if there was a crisis, but that would be for a couple of days. If the interruption lasts two weeks, the workers have to drop everything and the contracts are vitiated. Nobody knows what the figure is likely to be. I asked Black Rod last Thursday and he had not yet been able to obtain it. Once one signs a contract for work in August and September and then chops in for a couple of weeks in September, the contractor has the muscle to announce that the total bill will be a great deal bigger that it would otherwise have been. That is the only point that I wish to emphasise. I do so only out of my affection for this building and my desire to see it staying upright. It has nothing to do with the interests of Peers or their holidays. One should also take into account the staff in this matter. They also have been seriously disrupted by the September sitting being sprung upon them.
My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Roper, pointed out, there is never any ping-pong between the two Houses in September or early October. That does not start until the end of October or the beginning of November at the earliest, so the "ping-pong" argument is not valid. However, I shall put a question to the noble Baroness that arises from the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Jopling. Is it not the case that her proposals would mean that we shall sit for one more week between the beginning of July and the end of the Session than was the case two or three years ago? If I am right in that assumption, is the extra week designed to make up for the week's break in February, which I do not believe many people asked for, and if so, is the February break guaranteed or will it be pared down, as happened this year?
I shall vote against the Motion. It seems to have been an unpopular move among Members, staff, Hansard writers and contractors, as was pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Ampthill, who said that contractors have to wrap everything up for two weeks, put it back again for two further weeks and wrap it all up again after that. That is an absurd waste of time.
The argument that we have to come here "to hold the executive to account", as the noble Lord, Lord Carter, put it, is a specious one. We do not hold the Government to account at all. If they can get rid of the 600 year-old office of Lord Chancellor without hearing a bleat, we are not holding them to account very well. That is a specious argument. I hope that we will carry on as we carried on before, because people knew where they were. After all, staff as well as Peers are greatly inconvenienced by the September sitting, as are contractors.
My Lords, I shall make a very brief point that has not been made so far. If we sit until the end of July and resume at the beginning of October, our recess will correspond with that of the Appellate Committee, so there will be a small saving there.
My Lords, it has not been mentioned that many, if not most, noble Lords take part in public life in various ways in their own locality and across the nation when they are not in this House. Most voluntary organisations and businesses, having had a holiday in August, wake up in September. If we cannot go to the meetings of the organisations with which we are involved in September, that is a great pity, because we will bring less to this House than we otherwise would. The public's perception of this House was spoken about. They understand the difference between this House and another place. I shall vote against the Motion.
My Lords, I had not planned to speak on the issue, but I feel obliged to make a contribution from another direction. If one has school-age children, as I do, one is likely to want to break earlier in the summer, preferably in mid-July rather than, as proposed, on 22nd July. Staff may well be in the same situation. If one does not have school-age children, one will probably not want to break early. I recognise that few here have young children and I realise that it is lot to ask of my fellow Peers to experience inconvenience on our behalf. However, we have to carry out much of the same work as the House of Commons. Many of us here are working Peers and we have children to consider as well. I hope that after Christmas, when our number is, as I hear, to be expanded, we will have more working Peers. I know that our age profile is different from that of the House of Commons and that is reflected in the way in which the issue is being addressed. I hope that noble Lords will consider the situation of those of us who have school-age children.
My Lords, I came into the House with a fairly open mind until I heard some of the speeches. I appreciate that there will be some extra cost, but we should decide issues such as this on the basis of what is right, not on the comparatively slender basis of extra cost and inconvenience. My noble friend Lord Carter made an important point. The perception of people outside this House is not unimportant and it should not be to your Lordships. How will they perceive a break of some 11 weeks? That is a far longer break than that of any people outside your Lordships' House. We should recognise that the public will feel we do not care too much about what we should be debating throughout the year. Having heard the argument about perception, I shall vote with my noble friend.
My Lords, with the permission of the House and that of my noble friend Lady Fookes, whom I congratulate on taking over as Chairman of the Refreshment Committee, I shall make two points on behalf of that department. Noble Lords will be aware that we started a major programme of refurbishment this summer. Plans were made, owing to that work, to provide alternative refreshment facilities. In fact, they were not needed, because the contractors worked ahead of time and everything was in order when we came back in September. When we rise next July, phase 2 of the work will start, subject to financial agreement. It will involve extensive refurbishment of the kitchen areas.
Although the contractors plan to have the work finished by September, it may not be finished by then. It is possible that, if we came back in September, we would find that refreshment facilities were very limited. It is, however, planned that things will be back to normal in October. That point ought to be borne in mind.
In 2005, there will be no facilities at all. We will have temporary kitchens right through from July until the end of the year.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken. I shall seek to address the points that have been made. I repeat what I said in my introduction: this is a House matter, which is why I brought the Motion to the House today.
Parliament will sit in September next year, regardless of whether the House of Lords chooses to sit. The other place has already announced its dates, and it will sit. That brings me to my third point, which relates to that made by my noble friend Lord Carter. Over the past few years, we have sought to improve the perception and reputation of the House. Part of the way in which we sought to do that was to bring ourselves closer into step with the other place. I recognise that it is an issue of personal convenience for many noble Lords, but, if the other place sits for a long period during which we do not, the perception of this House will be damaged.
Several noble Lords raised the issue of cost. No figure can be given. Work contracts differ according to the time available. It is more expensive to sit in September, but, as I understand it, the difference is marginal, rather than decisive. It has been brought to my attention that, as the other place will sit in September, contractors will not, in any event, be able to do major work in the House of Lords, because of the noise. That is the advice that I have been given by the Clerk of the Parliaments and the administration of the House.
My Lords, I apologise for interrupting the noble Baroness. My understanding was that we knew that sitting last September had created identifiable costs of over £200,000, as well as considerable unidentifiable costs on top of that. Is that what the noble Baroness describes as "marginal"?
My Lords, I have been advised that no figure can be given.
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, says that that is shameful. For several reasons, I do not consider that that is shameful for the staff who work on the accounts of the House. As I said, the work contracts for different parts of the work in the House differ according to the time available.
We must consider what the cost would have been, if the House had been recalled in September. Also, we must consider what parts of any major contract could not be undertaken in the House of Lords, if the House of Commons sat in September, even if this House were not sitting. There are so many imponderables that, although it was possible for the authorities to say that it would be more expensive, they were unable to put a definitive figure on it. That is neither unreasonable nor, as the noble Baroness said from a sitting position, shameful.
My Lords, the noble Baroness says that no figure can be given. That is her judgment. However, am I correct in thinking that an estimate was made and was passed to the Government? If that is the case, can the noble Baroness at least tell us what it is?
My Lords, I have not been given a cost. If I had been, I would have given it to the House. I am giving the House the advice that I have been given by the House authorities.
I remind your Lordships that we have undertaken to review our working practices after two years. I recognise that, with respect to September sittings, we made a decision for one year only, but I feel that we should have a complete review of working practices after two years, including the issue of September sittings.
Is an additional week somehow being lost? Noble Lords will recall that, this year, we had only two weeks' break for the party conferences. The proposal for next year is to have a three-week break, which is why the date chosen is 22nd July, rather than one week earlier. I reiterate: we are not losing a week in the year. As I said, it is a straight swap of seven sitting days for seven sitting days.
I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, that it is important that we consider the needs of parents and, I would also say, grandparents. However, it is a matter for the House.
My Lords, before the noble Baroness sits down, she must address the problem that I and others raised. Why did the Government say last year that the House would rise in the middle of July? On the basis of the current proposal that we rise on 22nd July, that implies that, next year, we should rise on 15th July. It seems to me and, I think, to others, that the Government said one thing last year and, this year, have stolen a week by seeking to rise a week later.
My Lords, last year's decision was made on the basis of the proposals that were being made in another place. At that time, the proposal was that the other place should rise, I think, on 17th July. We rose, I think, on 18th July. This year, in trying to match the other place's dates, we have chosen 22nd July. As I said, we are not seeking to steal an additional week. Next year, there will be three weeks for party conferences, rather than two weeks.
My Lords, does the noble Baroness the Leader of the House accept that we have frequently risen one week later than the Commons and come back one week earlier? The noble Baroness has rested her case predominantly on the need for us to sit at the same time as the Commons, but I have no recollection—I have been here since 1987—of that arrangement causing any difficulty between the two Houses.
My Lords, I remember debates in this House in which noble Lords asked, time and time again, for our Recesses to match the Recesses of the other place, with particular reference to dates earlier in the year and a February break.
Noble Lords will recall that my noble friend the Chief Whip has been keen to enable Members of this House to have a more balanced parliamentary year, by seeking to parallel the Recesses of the other place.
My Lords, we did not have a break in February this year, but, as the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, may recall, my noble friend the Chief Whip announced a break, progress of business permitting, in February next year.