Procedure of the House: Select Committee Report

– in the House of Lords at 3:25 pm on 17th December 2003.

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Photo of Lord Brabazon of Tara Lord Brabazon of Tara Chairman of Committees, House of Lords 3:25 pm, 17th December 2003

My Lords, I beg to move the third Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I should say a word or two of clarification, particularly with regard to the proposals for Thursday sittings. The Procedure Committee sent a short questionnaire to all Members of the House to determine the preferred pattern for Thursday sittings. The clear majority of those who returned the form wished the House to sit at 11 a.m., with Starred Questions at the start, and the House to rise at about 7 p.m. Accordingly, the committee makes that recommendation.

The committee made a further tentative recommendation that, when the main business of the day is the Committee or later stages of a Bill, the House should break for one hour at 1.30 p.m. in order to give those involved in the Bill a break. Other business, such as an Unstarred Question, would be taken in the lunch break. No break would be taken where the main business was a Second Reading, a debate or a series of different items. As at present, it is not the intention that the House should simply adjourn during pleasure without business of any kind.

The committee was divided on that issue. Therefore, the report was written with the option of omitting three paragraphs so that the House itself could decide. If the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Carter, is agreed to, the House will normally consider the main business of the day from 11.30 a.m. until about 5.30 p.m., when an Unstarred Question or other business could follow. If the amendment is disagreed to, the House will break for an Unstarred Question or other business at 1.30 p.m., but only if the main business is the Committee or later stages of a Bill. That will mean that the main business of the day will conclude at about 6.30 or 7 p.m.

The report also makes proposals regarding the rotation rule and written ministerial Statements. I hope that those items are self-explanatory. However, if any noble Lord so wishes, I am happy to provide further explanations.

Moved, That the First Report from the Select Committee be agreed to (HL Paper 6).—(The Chairman of Committees.)

Following is the report referred to:

1. THURSDAY SITTINGS

In our Fourth Report of last session we recorded that we were circulating a short questionnaire to all members of the House, to be returned by Friday 10 October, seeking views on the timing of Thursday sittings.

By the closing date we had received 368 responses, expressing views as follows:

Option 1 (Thursday sittings to continue as at present): 63 (17.1 per cent)
Option 2 (House sits at 3.00 p.m., rises by about 10.00 p.m.): 100 (27.2 per cent)
Option 3 (House sits at 11.00 a.m. with Starred Questions at the start, rises by about 7.00 p.m.): 200 (54.3 per cent)
Other: 5 (1.4 per cent)

In view of the clear majority for option 3, we accordingly recommend that, from the start of 2004, the House should sit from 11.00 a.m. to about 7.00 p.m. on Thursdays. Starred Questions should be taken at the beginning of business.

We recognise that, when the main business is a committee or later stage of a bill, it may be unreasonable to expect those involved to continue all day without a break. One suggestion made to the Committee was that the business concerned should end at 5.30 p.m., and be followed by an Unstarred Question or other business until 7.00 p.m. Other suggestions were that there should be a one-hour break for other business at 4.30 p.m., or that there should be a break of 1½ hours from 1.30 to 3.00 p.m.

Our recommendation, however, is that where business is of this nature there should be a lunch break of about one hour for other business from about 1.30 p.m. We recommend that, as in relation to dinner breaks, it should be possible to take an Unstarred Question, limited to one hour, during this break. No break would be taken when the main business was a Second Reading, a general debate, or a number of short items of business.

Note: If the House wishes there to be no lunch break on Thursdays then an amendment to the motion to approve this Report to leave out this paragraph and the two preceding paragraphs would produce that result.

The proposed change would require judicial sittings to be moved from their usual time of 2.00 p.m. on a Thursday. The Senior Lord of Appeal in Ordinary has indicated that he sees no difficulty in this.

We recognise that taking Starred Questions at 11.00 a.m. on Thursdays could cause difficulties for those asking and answering topical questions. Accordingly we recommend that the topical question now taken on Thursday should be moved to Monday, with the ballot drawn at 2.00 p.m. the previous Thursday.

2. THE ROTATION RULE

The Committee recommends that the Chairmen of the Constitution and Economic Affairs Committees should be exempt from the application of the rotation rule for up to three sessions. This would bring these committees into line with the Science and Technology Committee and the sub-committees of the European Union Committee.

3. WRITTEN MINISTERIAL STATEMENTS

The Committee recommends that the House should adopt, from the start of 2004, the practice of the House of Commons, introduced at the start of the last session, permitting the publication in the Official Report of Written Ministerial Statements. These would replace "planted" questions for written answer, removing the need for a Lord to be asked to table a question. They would be printed separately from written answers in the Official Report, thus eliminating any possible confusion between "planted" and other written answers.

In the Commons notice has to be given on the Order Paper of such Statements. We see no need for such a provision in this House.

We propose that Written Ministerial Statements should be placed in the Library as soon as they are received, so that they are available to Members before they appear in the Official Report.

Photo of Lord Carter Lord Carter Labour

rose to move, as an amendment to the above Motion, after "That" to insert ", with the omission of paragraphs 4, 5 and 6,".

Photo of Lord Carter Lord Carter Labour

My Lords, I tabled this amendment in order to enable the House to make a clear decision regarding the arrangements for Thursday sittings. Perhaps I may briefly remind the House how we have reached the present position. In April last year, the Leader's Group on working practices recommended:

"On Thursdays, the House should sit at 11 a.m. and adjourn not later than about 7 p.m.".

On that committee were the noble Lords, Lord Strathclyde and Lord Roper, and the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, and it was chaired by my late friend Lord Williams of Mostyn. The report was referred to the Procedure Committee

Photo of Lord Strathclyde Lord Strathclyde Conservative

My Lords, the recommendation was that the House should sit for government legislation until 7 o'clock but the House would not adjourn until 9 o'clock so that an Unstarred Question could be taken.

Photo of Lord Carter Lord Carter Labour

My Lords, I quoted directly from the report. That is all that it said. I believe that the noble Lord is mixing up the point that I am about to make. The report of the Leader's Group was referred to the Procedure Committee for implementation. The committee interpreted the recommendation of the working group to sit from 11 a.m. until 7 p.m., with the arrangements that we have had for the past year whereby the House sits from 11 a.m. until 1.30 p.m., there is a break from 1.30 to 3 p.m., Starred Questions take place at 3 p.m. and whipped business finishes at 7.30 p.m., followed by an Unstarred Question and the House rising at 9 p.m.

That arrangement was clearly unsatisfactory. In June this year, I tabled a Starred Question on the subject and suggested that the views of the House should be sought through a questionnaire. The noble Lord the Chairman of Committees may remember that, in the exchanges at Question Time, he said that a majority of the Deputy Speakers preferred:

"the pre-Recess Thursday arrangements whereby the House meets at 11 o'clock for Questions and goes straight through".—[Official Report, 4/6/03; col. 1322.]

I mention that because of the clear understanding at the time that something resembling the pre-Recess Thursday arrangement would apply if option three in the questionnaire were accepted. As we have heard, the response to the questionnaire was quite clear: 368 Peers voted and there was a majority of 54.3 per cent for starting at 11 a.m. with Questions and for going through until 7 p.m. I have spoken to a number of Peers from all parties who have supported that option. They clearly thought that their vote was for something similar to the pre-Recess Thursday arrangements with no lunch break.

Once again the Procedure Committee has decided to interpret that result with, in my view, the very confusing recommendation, which is now before the House, that the House should sit on Thursdays without a break when there is a Second Reading, a general debate or a number of short items of business, which are undefined, but that there should be a break if the House is in Committee or is considering a Bill in its later stages. As we have heard, Unstarred Questions will be taken in the lunch break on those occasions.

Clearly the Procedure Committee was uneasy about its own recommendation as it helpfully indicated how to amend its report if the House did not want a lunch break on certain Thursdays. Equally helpfully, I have tabled the amendment that the Procedure Committee suggested to enable the House to reach a clear decision. I cannot help wondering why the Procedure Committee suggested such an amendment if it were confident that it was properly reflecting the wishes of the clear majority in response to the questionnaire.

My amendment enables the House, if it wishes, to approve an arrangement that on every Thursday the House will start at 11 a.m. with Questions, go straight through until 5.30 p.m. when whipped business will finish, conclude with an Unstarred Question and rise at 7 p.m. That was the original recommendation of the Leader's Group on working practices. From the questionnaire it was found that that group strongly supported an early start and finish on Thursdays.

I feel that the proposal of the Procedure Committee is something of a muddle. In my view it goes against the clear wishes of the majority of Peers who responded to the questionnaire. What happens on a Thursday if there is a Statement? The House will have to take the Statement and have a lunch break; it will have to do so because an Unstarred Question will have been tabled for the lunch break. So we shall have a Statement and a lunch break.

The proposal is illogical. If the House has a Second Reading debate or a general debate on a Thursday, the Front-Benchers are expected to be present for the whole debate. We all know—no one objects—that Front-Benchers must have some refreshment on those occasions. Equally, the same could apply if a later stage of a Bill were being considered. If there are a number of items of business—say, two Third Readings or the completion of one stage of a Bill and progress on another stage, which happens—will there still be a lunch break even though different Front-Benchers will be involved? We have a pre-Recess Thursday tomorrow. The House will sit at 11 a.m., it will start with Questions and will go straight through without a break. If we were to be in Committee or on Report or if we had a Third Reading tomorrow the House would still go through without a break.

If the Procedure Committee's proposals are accepted on some Thursdays the House will break and on others it will not; on some Thursdays when government business is tabled the House will break and on other Thursdays when government business is tabled the House will not break. If it is a pre-Recess Thursday, the House will go straight through anyway, whatever the business. What a muddle.

If my amendment is accepted, the Government gain nothing. They will lose half an hour of government business compared with our present arrangements. We have to consider the clear advantage to the House of the whole arrangement that will apply to all Thursdays, with whipped business always finishing at 5.30 p.m. I have spoken to a number of colleagues who have to travel from the north or from Scotland, and such an arrangement would be to their advantage. It would give them a chance to get home on Thursday evenings. However, it is an arrangement which, in my view, a clear majority of the House supported when opinions were sought. I beg to move.

Moved, as an amendment to the Motion, after "That" to insert ", with the omission of paragraphs 4, 5 and 6,".—(Lord Carter.)

Photo of Lord Strathclyde Lord Strathclyde Conservative

My Lords, I thank the Chairman of Committees for introducing his Motion. I hope that we shall not have a long debate on it. There is a great deal of serious business to do, including an important Statement. I regret the amendment that has been moved by the noble Lord, Lord Carter. I hope that he withdraws it. If he puts it to a vote I hope that the House will support the conclusions of the Procedure Committee which has made its recommendation, as outlined by the Chairman of Committees.

The committee report accepts a very substantial change to the way in which we have always carried out business; namely, that Questions should be taken every Thursday at 11 a.m. Many noble Lords are not retired and still work. They have devised their working schedule to ensure that every single morning is free: free of Questions and free of their obligations to the House of Lords. That will now change and as a result a topical question that was kept for a Thursday will now be taken on a Monday.

The issue before the House is whether there should be a break on Thursdays as there is on every other day when we deal with government legislation. In itself it is not an issue of earth-shattering importance, except to those who are most affected by it; in other words, those on the Front and the Back Benches who actively consider legislation, which is not the majority of the House.

My view is that that is precisely the kind of matter that should be left to the usual channels to decide, as appropriate. As a former member of the usual channels, I would have hoped that the noble Lord, Lord Carter, would have agreed with that. Of course, there should be no break when there are Second Readings. There is no dinner break for Second Readings on any other day and there is no muddle and no confusion, so there is absolutely no reason for there to be any confusion on Thursdays. There is nothing complex about it. Likewise Statements will be taken in due course as they are on any other day of the week. But legislation is difficult, it is hard, and those on the Front Bench dealing with amendment after amendment need and deserve some time off, as do Back-Benchers who play a part.

The questionnaire that was sent out was originally drafted to pose questions about an hour off during the course of the day, but it was deemed by the Procedure Committee to involve far too many options and to be too complicated. Therefore, it was brought down to a minimal and simple level that we could all understand and detailed consideration was left to the Procedure Committee. That is what was done.

I do not quite understand the motivation of the noble Lord, Lord Carter. Does his amendment just concern finishing at 5.30 in the afternoon rather than 7 p.m. or 6.30 p.m.? I cannot believe that it does. As the noble Lord has just said, accepting his amendment reduces the amount of time available for scrutiny of government legislation by half an hour every Thursday. We sit roughly 30 Thursdays a year so we are talking about 15 hours and that is about two-and-a-half days. Will the Government find a way of making up that time or are they embarrassed about the House scrutinising their legislation on the Floor of the House in the way that we do?

I have long championed the obvious solution to this whole problem of Thursdays, which is to swap Wednesdays and Thursdays. Thursdays could be a general debating day, so we would not have to worry about whether there is a break or not, but in the past that has not found favour. I believe it is a solution to which we should return. I think the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, thinks it is a good idea as well. Surely that would be an infinitely more sensible way of going forward, rather than dealing with the situation in this manner. If that is the view of the House, I hope that the Procedure Committee can return to the matter extremely quickly. In the light of that, I hope that the House will support the recommendation of the Procedure Committee and reject the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Carter.

Photo of Lord Roper Lord Roper Liberal Democrat

My Lords, while I do not accept the views of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, about Wednesdays and Thursdays—and fortunately that issue is not before the House on this occasion—his remarks show the great advantages gained when leaders of political parties have previously served in the "usual channels", and therefore understand the concerns of opposition Front Benches having to deal with legislation on Thursdays.

The noble Lord, Lord Carter, was perhaps overstating the matter when he said that the current arrangements for Thursdays are clearly unsatisfactory. There are some who feel they are unsatisfactory. They are complicated and not totally satisfactory; there are problems, but inevitably they are a compromise.

However, as the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, said, we have a difficult problem. We have a conflict of interests—a perfectly open one. First, we have the interests of those on opposition Front Benches who deal with legislation in Committee, on Report or at Third Reading, and who would be expected to be on the Bench continuously—unlike the situation, with great respect to the noble Lord, Lord Carter, in a Second Reading or a general debate—from the time consideration of the legislation commences until it ends. Secondly, we have the interests of government Back-Benchers, who are obviously not terribly keen to be whipped here for longer than is necessary. That is a perfectly understandable difference of interests.

However, I think that the interests of those who have to carry out the task of scrutiny of legislation in detail, of holding the Government to account on their legislative programme, should also be taken into account. Like the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, and the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, I served on the working practice committee of the former Leader of the House, Lord Williams of Mostyn.

In that committee, one of the things on which I worked very hard in terms of moving more legislation into Grand Committees was to stop the situation of government Back-Benchers being kept in the House until absurd hours in the evenings because there was a risk that a Division might be taken later. That is why we have the target time of 10 o'clock. But that was part of a package. Now we are seeing—long before we have a chance to review the package as a whole—the process being interrupted and the legitimate position of opposition Front Benches being addressed in this way.

I have to say that there is no difference of opinion between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives on this issue. I therefore hope that the noble Lord, Lord Carter, having taken into account the points that have been made, will withdraw his amendment and accept the recommendation of the Procedure Committee.

Photo of Lord Monson Lord Monson Crossbench

My Lords, last Thursday we had a very full day and sat for seven hours exactly. We had an important Second Reading debate on the Energy Bill, an important Statement on the Defence White Paper and an Unstarred Question on hepatitis. Despite that, we still rose at the very civilised hour of 7.32 p.m., which I think is perfectly acceptable, and of course we had time for party and Cross-Bench meetings—and dinner as well. Under the proposal, we would have risen at two minutes past six, whether or not the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Carter, were accepted, since the Unstarred Question on hepatitis would have been taken in the lunch hour.

However, we would still be faced with the problem of when to hold the weekly party and Cross-Bench meetings, since I understand that the next week's business is not known until late on Wednesday. Moreover, if the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Carter, were accepted the Government and opposition Front-Bench teams would have no opportunity for lunch, as the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, has pointed out. Unfortunately the status quo is not an option, but if change there must be, the Procedure Committee's recommendation, as it stands, is the lesser of two evils.

Photo of Lord Brabazon of Tara Lord Brabazon of Tara Chairman of Committees, House of Lords

My Lords, I do not think that there is much that I can add to the report. Noble Lords have not asked any specific questions regarding my role. I think that it should be left to the noble Lord, Lord Carter, to decide what he wishes to do with his amendment.

Photo of Lord Carter Lord Carter Labour

My Lords, I shall be extremely brief as there are some important debates to follow. Perhaps I may respond to the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. As he correctly says, the debate that has continued for many years about Thursday mornings is over. In fact, we have all agreed that we should start at 11 a.m. with Question Time.

The noble Lord referred to the "usual channels". Of course they were strongly represented on the Procedure Committee which produced the report. Modesty forbids me saying that the usual channels are not what they used to be.

The point about Statements is very simple. If we have a lunch break with an Unstarred Question tabled and there is a Statement, we will have a Statement and a lunch break, so the Front Benches will get two breaks and not none. After 10 years on the Front Bench in opposition and five years on the Front Bench in government, I know how it is possible for Ministers and other Front-Benchers to slip out to get some refreshment.

The noble Lord, Lord Roper, said that the package should be considered as a whole. I can only quote what the noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley, said when I asked my Starred Question about this matter in June. He said:

"is the Chairman of Committees aware that I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Carter, that this matter is separate from the other aspect of the changes introduced last year and could be considered separately by the Procedure Committee".—[Official Report, 4/6/03; col. 1323.]

The only thing to do is to seek the opinion of the House. We need to make a clear decision on this matter once and for all.

On Question, Whether the said amendment shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 122; Not-Contents, 152.

Division number 1 Private Parking: Ports and Trading Estates — Procedure of the House: Select Committee Report

Aye: 120 Members of the House of Lords

No: 150 Members of the House of Lords

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.

On Question, Motion agreed to.