Procedure of the House: Select Committee Report

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

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Photo of Lord Carter Lord Carter Labour 3:25 pm, 17th December 2003

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.)