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 Strathclyde Lord Strathclyde Conservative 3:25 pm, 17th December 2003

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.