My Lords, this first Motion invites the House merely to take note of the report of your Lordships’ committee on the sitting times of the House. Normally, the House would be invited to agree a report from the committee, but on this occasion our report makes no recommendation to the House. Instead, this report seeks only to provide information relating to the second Motion standing in my name, which has been tabled to enable the House to come to a decision on sitting times.
Your Lordships’ committee has not taken a formal position on the second Motion, or on the amendments to it; nor have I. Should they choose to, individual members of the committee will vote as they see fit. I shall not vote in any Divisions. I hope it will assist the House if I begin by explaining the procedure to deal with these Motions.
Today’s debate will take place on the first take-note Motion and, once that is complete, I shall respond. This is a neutral Motion to take note of the report and it does not invite the House to come to a decision. Following that debate, I shall then move the second Motion—the substantive Motion for resolution—formally, without making a further speech. Amendments will be taken in the order they have been tabled, although if the first amendment, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, is agreed to, it will pre-empt the others. Similarly, if the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, is agreed to, with or without the further amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, that will pre-empt the last amendment, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham. Finally, once the House has decided on all the amendments, the question that the substantive Motion, amended or not, be agreed to will be put to the House.
I turn to the background of today’s debate. Noble Lords will recall that on
Your Lordships’ committee therefore considered a range of options, seeking advice on their impact on Members, on Select Committees, on public access and on other services. On the basis of that advice, we identified the option set out in today’s second Motion: that the House should sit at 1 pm on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, normally rising on those days by 8.30 pm. We identified this as manageable.
Our next step, on
That is a very brief outline of the work your Lordships’ committee has undertaken, but I hope it demonstrates that a lot of time and effort has gone into the report that is on today’s Order Paper. We have received input from across the administration and from bicameral services; we have discussed options at a series of meetings over almost the last six months; and we have conducted an open consultation, providing all noble Lords with an opportunity to comment.
This consultation, in my view, was in no sense rushed. It began before the Easter Recess, when my open letter inviting views on the proposal was first circulated to noble Lords, and continued until the responses, along with feedback from discussions in party and group meetings, were considered by your Lordships’ committee on
In all this work we have been motivated by a desire to assist the House in coming to an informed decision. We have sought to gather information and evidence and to produce a workable option for the House to debate and decide on. That option is a compromise and, like all compromises, there is a risk that it will satisfy neither those who want more radical change nor those who oppose change. However, we felt it was better to put a considered option on the Order Paper so that Members could have an informed debate and table amendments.
I repeat, as I said at the outset, that neither I nor your Lordships’ committee has taken a formal position. I shall not vote in any Divisions, and my role today is purely to assist the House. It is for your Lordships, as a self-regulating House in matters of our procedures, to debate and then decide. I look forward to listening to the debate. The decision is now in the hands of the House. I beg to move.
My Lords, I will speak to the amendment in my name. I shall want to divide the House and my understanding is that that will come at a later stage.
The Senior Deputy Speaker has explained why we are faced with this very unusual precedent and these amendments. Having listened carefully to what he said, I have to say to him that I still do not really understand why we are having this debate at all. We decided this question less than a year ago and the House rejected the idea of changing our sitting times. Is the Privileges Committee going to do an annual test? Are we going to discuss this every year? Why are we ignoring the result we saw before?
My noble friend said that he has carried out a consultation. Some 49 people responded to that consultation out of 767 Peers. One of those 49 was me, writing on behalf of the unanimous view of 12 members of the executive of the Association of Conservative Peers. It is somewhat misleading to say that there has been a consultation. It is true that various groups discussed this. We discussed this in the Association of Conservative Peers and there was pretty strong and robust support for things staying as they are, partly because it would be pretty well impossible for us to hold our meetings at the time we held them in the past—
—without taking people away from the business of the House, which I would have thought all Members would think very important.
The very helpful paper my noble friend has produced helps us with
“information relevant to the House’s decision”.
The very last point before the conclusion in paragraph 22 is headed “Educational visits”. One effect of these changes would be to absolutely trash the number of children able to come and visit this House. That is really important, especially at a time—the noble Lord opposite does not think it is important—when Parliament is perhaps not fully understood in the outside world and is facing a degree of, shall we say, contempt.
For those Members suggesting that it will not have a profound effect, I talked to people in the education centre. One of the effects on Wednesdays will be that many of the children will not be able to go into either Chamber because it is Prime Minister’s Questions at the other end of the building and, for security reasons, the Chamber would have to be closed at 11 am if we were starting at 1 pm. By my calculations, some 60% of up to 21 schools with 36 students will find that they are not able come at all. Others will find when they come that they are not able to come into this Chamber. That would be a great tragedy especially if, as I was told this morning, most schools might cancel if they could not get into either Chamber. We understand that. These schools book up to a year in advance, but we are deciding on this now. If we decide to support the Motion, they will all be written to and told that they will not be able to come. That would be an absolute disgrace and a very odd thing to do for a House that spends 6% of its budget—some £9 million—on outreach to schools. It would be extraordinary for us to change our sitting hours at the expense of those children. This is very important.
Secondly, one-third of our Ministers are unpaid; they act out of public duty. They are expected to stand at the Dispatch Box and answer for the whole Government, unlike in the other place, where they answer for their departments. Your Lordships ask some pretty penetrating and well-informed questions and, if Ministers are expected to do their jobs well and give proper answers to our questions—this perhaps does not always happen—their being briefed to do so would take time out of the mornings when they are supposed to be running their departments. Is that fair or sensible? I think not.
I know that this is motivated by some people’s belief that they might finish business here at 8.30 pm and be able to get home, but that does apply to me or the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, who come down from Scotland for four days. I am happy to give way to him now.
I am grateful. Earlier, the noble Lord mentioned the Motion that was previously defeated. It was defeated because it included Monday, and those of us who live outwith London cannot get here for 1 pm on a Monday. This Motion does not include Monday, which is why it should be supported.
I am grateful to the noble Lord but, if we defeat this Motion now, he will no doubt say, “Actually, the Motion was defeated because it didn’t deal with Thursday and the need to get back early”—that is not an argument. The fact is that the House decided something less than a year ago and it is being brought back for no apparent reason.
My point was that some people think that they will be able to finish at 8.30 pm because there will be an 8.30 pm rule. We already have a 10 pm rule, but I have recently sat here until 2 am; what makes people think that an 8.30 pm rule would make any difference? How long will it be before those who wish to vote for this measure because they would like an 8.30 pm rule succumb to the Whips—whoever is in power—and the idea that we should have a guillotine, like at the other end? That is why we get vast amounts of legislation that has not been properly discussed, debated and considered. The notion that we should try to organise our affairs on the basis of a fixed finishing time is deeply damaging to the very basis of this House.
With the greatest respect, I suggest that it is very naive to think that we will be finishing at 8.30 pm when, in recent months, individual Members have tabled more than 100 amendments to one Bill. In this House, we have the right to speak to all these amendments, so how long will it be before the desire to finish at a particular hour results in the distortion of our procedures?
The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, might accuse me of being nostalgic, but I remember the other place in the days when we had a 10 pm vote. You knew that, if you were getting the runaround from the Minister’s private office, you could say, “I’ll see your Minister at 10 o’clock and I’ll tell him how unhelpful you’ve been”. I remember that we all had to be in the Lobbies together because we voted at 10 pm, which meant that you were able to talk to colleagues about constituency and other issues.
I also remember the way in which the dining rooms worked: Labour sat at one end and Tories sat at the other, and you had to sit wherever there was a vacancy. You would get hilarious occurrences where Ted Heath had to sit next to Mrs Thatcher, or something else of that kind. That camaraderie and involvement are absolutely essential to the political process.
If we finish at 8.30 pm—assuming the optimists are right—it is too late to go anywhere else for dinner, and noble Lords will either be stuck here or will go home. I suspect that what will happen here will be exactly the same as has happened in the House of Commons: the catering services will lose a huge amount of revenue, because people will disappear, and then close. The effect in the House of Commons has been absolutely disastrous. What will happen then to the staff in the catering departments?
By the way, on the issue of staff, it is extraordinary that not a single member of staff was consulted on these proposals—they are affected by this, including our doorkeepers and the catering staff. Not only that, if noble Lords agree to this Motion today, we will find that in less than three weeks of sitting time it will all have changed. The proposal is that all of this will change as of September, so everyone’s hours will change. I am very surprised, having listened to questions about the importance of consulting staff and everything else, that this Motion should be in front of us.
If this all sounds a bit negative, I have a proposal. There clearly is a problem in our House with the conduct of business, but it should not be addressed by piecemeal changes of this kind. We all know that this is ridiculous; our speaking time can be reduced to a couple of minutes on really important issues of national importance—of which this is not one. Our ability to deal with legislation sensibly involves sending amendments down to the other place that it might conceivably accept, as opposed to amendments which are part of a political platform or campaign, and our ability to ensure the proper consideration of committee reports. On that, committees often sit beyond 1 pm; what are Members meant to do if they are to be here in the Chamber for Questions? All these things need to be considered. I respectfully suggest to the Procedure and Privileges Committee that it might try to convene cross-party agreement as to how we could change our operations in a way which will enable this House to do its best and to draw on the talents within it.
This is the final point I will make. We often tell people that this is a House of great expertise—and so it is—and a polite House which considers things carefully. A move in this direction is a move to a full-time House and away from noble Lords having interests outside the House. I know some people think that it is bad that some noble Lords have interests outside the House, but how are you going to have up-to-date expertise if noble Lords do not have these outside interests? If this is the reason that we tell people that we have an unelected House of expertise, what on earth are we doing moving a Motion such as this, which takes us in the direction of being a nine-to-five, full-time House, paid, and not populated by people who give it their best out of duty to their country and to our parliamentary system of government?
My Lords, I hoped that I would not have to move an amendment to the Senior Deputy Speaker’s second Motion, but I am very unhappy, as my noble friend Lord Forsyth has clearly enunciated, with the way in which procedure is being used in this matter. The collegiate nature of this House means that the procedures are being abused by a consultation which was long in preparation—the consultation paper was available in January—but which did not come to us until just before the Easter Recess.
We do not achieve change in this House when there is no consensus. The formula of a take-note Motion and a binding decision being grouped together, as they are today, is not only unusual but, it has been said, unprecedented. I see it as an abuse of the House’s procedures. It could have been handled so differently. We could have had a proper debate and then a consultation, but that was not to be. I am sure the whole House, whichever way it feels about the Procedure and Privileges Committee report of which we are taking note, is grateful that we have this chance today, and we thank the Chief Whip and the usual channels for the extended debate we have this afternoon.
My amendment to the Senior Deputy Speaker’s second Motion is one of four. We have heard from my noble friend Lord Forsyth and we will hear two others; they are all anxious about the consequences of the changes proposed. As has been said, less than a year ago, on
I do not know whether noble Lords will remember, but we got an email—a parliamentary notice—immediately before we rose for the Easter Recess, when most of us go home and have no contact with our parliamentary email; it is actually difficult to interact with your parliamentary email if you are outside London, and a lot of people were not able to respond to the consultation. I ended up writing a letter to my noble friend the Senior Deputy Speaker—noble Lords will know that we are old colleagues and friends—so I suppose I count as one of the people who was against these proposals.
We were given options. The options were extremely complex and it was quite difficult to choose as to who would start and when and what they would do with them. I am not surprised that the consultation did not attract a lot of individual respondents; just look at the number of Peers here this afternoon, even those who applied in aggregate. I understand that the Lib Dems submitted a large number of supporters for the proposals in aggregate, and we know that the Association of Conservative Peers did so, but how many individuals in this Chamber today actually voted in this consultation? Had we done so, we might have saved the embarrassment of having to reject a proposal that was made in all good faith—we decided on
When the committee met on
But Members of the House were not involved—no one asked us. It chose to do so just as we rose for the Easter Recess, and the conclusions of the committee were published the Tuesday immediately after we returned from the Jubilee Recess. Perhaps I am paranoid about this, but I feel there was momentum for pursuing an objective which appealed to individuals in this House without any real input from its membership.
My Lords, I do not think anyone in this House would accuse the noble Lord of paranoia, because he is held in very high respect. However, frankly, whatever the consultation process—maybe only 49 people replied, although in aggregate there were many more—surely we have the information here today. We have a report and we are obviously going to have a very long debate. What is wrong with deciding on this matter today? I do not understand why the consultation is deemed to be so at fault that it negates the whole operation.
As the noble Lord will know, my amendment is based on the idea that we should have change in this House. The House can cope with change—of course it can—but it needs to be less precipitate than this process. The general view on the referendum in Scotland, for example, is that, having had one, we should not have another for 10 or 20 years —once in a generation. I am not suggesting for a moment that this House operates on that sort of principle, but I am suggesting that there has been an impatience to get to this point. Why did we not have a debate today on these proposals and then vote? Why did we not have options?
The report was sent to us after the decision had been made to mandate the chairman of the committee to propose a Motion for change here. That is the wrong way to go about these things. It is mainly because of this that I am on my feet today; I would like to think that we could do things better. We can get agreement in this House for change—we will need some, because it is not functioning particularly well at the moment, if I may say so. Therefore, we ought to have an acknowledgement that the membership of the House is here to contribute to this change and not to be ridden roughshod over.
I fear that this proposal—coming so soon after the House decided that it would like to go back to the hours it had before Covid—is a mistake. I think it will lead to bad feeling in the House and make it a less pleasant, congenial and sociable place to work. Of course it is a place of business and earnest intent, but we are earnest because we are a collegiate body in our thinking. I think of all the assets of this House; it has expertise and people of talent, but it does things together. That is why I propose a different way of going about change, in this case and in future.
In the meantime, I back my noble friend Lord Forsyth’s amendment, because I believe it is the only way in which we can bring the Procedure and Privileges Committee to realise that there is a way of going about these processes.
My Lords, I have tabled a very small amendment to the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Taylor, purely to ask that we look at having normal voting time ending at 8 pm. I realise that there are all sorts of complications about votes that can be taken on quorums and other things, and that is why I have asked for this to be looked at by this committee.
I ask noble Lords to remember that many of us do not live in London, and if we are going to get home, we need to leave this place at a reasonable hour. The House—particularly the Leader of the House—has resolutely set her face against any form of overnight allowance for those of us who do not have properties in London, so we are faced with a bit of an opportunity: either we stay or we go. We do not seem to have any official pairing system, though I look at the Benches opposite and thank various noble Lords from the Labour Party who have agreed with me when I have said, “Shall we both go now?”
If we are going to get around this body being London dominated, I feel that we have to look at the democratic pursuit of giving a vote. Far too often, I have stayed in this House until 10 pm—
It probably is, but I do not want to upset the rest of the balance of the House, and I have a lot of sympathy with what the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, has said. I often stay fairly late, but on occasions we have family matters and other things which mean that we need to leave a bit earlier. At the moment, my wife is none too well, and I need to get home by 10 pm at the latest—so there is a bit of special pleading here, I agree.
If we are going to have a committee to look at things, this is one of the things it should look at—although if we do not have a committee, there is nothing to look at—because inevitably, coming down the track, there is going to be a demand for fixed voting times. It is fairly common in most legislatures in Europe—indeed, it is not unknown for the House of Commons to have fixed voting times. So, there might be something to be said for this.
If my noble friend Lord Taylor moves his amendment, I hope that this small amendment can be carried to extend the extent of the options that are looked at. If it is carried, I also hope that whoever carries out this consultation will do it on a much wider basis than the last one. We need to have a full consultation where all Members can have an input and make their point. I am not against reform, but I am not sure that this reform, at this time and in this form, is exactly what we want.
My Lords, my amendment will not take a moment to explain and is very simple. It is relevant only if the House decides to change the sitting hours by rejecting the amendments moved by my noble friends Lord Forsyth and Lord Taylor. My proposition is that, before committing itself to the change as proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, the House should simply do what it has done on previous occasions when considering far less radical changes to its procedures. In those cases, the House has piloted the changes first and then decided whether they should be made permanent in the light of experience, rather than taking a leap in the dark.
The House trialled adding explanatory statements to amendments in 2018, and that was made permanent in 2019. In 2015 it piloted a new process for allocating Questions by ballot in the recess, and that was made permanent with minor changes a year later. Earlier, we trialled a new procedure for repeating Urgent Questions, and that was made permanent after a year. Those changes are all trivial compared with the proposition before us today, with all the implications that have been set out so clearly in the speeches we have heard and are going to hear.
When I was in the other place and voted on similar changes to the sitting hours in 2005, the changes were agreed to on an experimental basis. I do not need to tell your Lordships that changes to the sitting times have a far more dramatic effect on your Lordships’ House than on the other place, because although we are a full-time House, we have part-time Members. One of the strengths of your Lordships’ House is that expertise, and the changes could have an impact on the availability of that expertise.
Therefore, before taking the plunge—the Motion does not even call for a review—we should simply do what we have done before. I believe this to be best practice: we should pilot the changes for up to four months. We should then decide whether to make it permanent, and with a measure that is potentially as divisive as this one is, I believe that a pilot is the best way to resolve the conflicting views on the impact of change. We will then have evidence which we do not have at the moment. I am cautious about the binary approach we are presented with; I prefer a dress rehearsal before the curtain goes up.
Finally, I hope that my amendment will be supported not just by those who are fearful of change but by those in favour. If they believe the change to be beneficial, they have nothing to fear. Therefore, if the earlier amendments are defeated at the appropriate time, I will move my amendment.
My Lords, just to try for a moment to inject a sense of proportion into this debate, we are discussing in essence whether on two days of the week instead of finishing at 10 pm we should finish at 8.30 pm, with corresponding earlier starts on those two days. It is not the red revolution; it is a minor procedural change.
I would like to inject something that is rarely injected into these kinds of debates and offer to the House one or two facts—not opinions; these are facts. When I was Chief Whip, in the long reaches of the night—you never leave the building when you are Chief Whip, as I know people who have filled the post will confirm— I would occasionally get bored waiting for the place to finish. You walked round the Palace of Westminster—this was after the Commons had changed their hours—and the place was like the “Mary Celeste”. The only place where there was a sign of life between 9 pm and 10 pm was in this Chamber—I have no reason to believe that it has changed.
I took the step of carrying out an independent piece of research to record the number of people in the Chamber between 9 pm and 10 pm, not including of course the people who had to be here: that is, the staff; the person in the chair, who is a Member; usually two on the Government Front Bench; two on the Opposition Front Bench; two on the Liberal Front Bench and maybe one on the Cross Benches. Therefore, six or seven people have to be there—if you like, it is their job. However, the numbers I was interested in were of the people who were there by choice, who as Back-Benchers chose to come in. I had to give a wry smile at the comment from the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, that the current arrangement enables us to “draw on the talents” across the House. All I can say is that it draws on a very small number of talents across the House between nine o’clock and 10 o’clock at night. These are the figures—I do not mind putting them in the record. I have all the facts here: it is one of those things that you very nearly throw out of your filing cabinet time and again.
This was from 2003, but it has not really changed much. Attendance of Back-Benchers between 9 pm and 10 pm:
I think that displays one pretty obvious fact, but it is worth emphasising. The extent to which this House does its job well—and I have to assume that people being here is better than people not being here when we are scrutinising legislation—is very strongly correlated to the time of the evening when the debate takes place. That is a fact. So those of us who would like to see an earlier finish can be sure of one thing: we are enabling the House to do its job more effectively. I address that to many of the people who seem determined to keep things as they are: they will be voting for the House to do its job less effectively. By the way—I do not want to be rude or unfair to people—if you insist on this change not taking place and the House sitting on Tuesdays and Wednesdays between nine and 10 at night, please put your body where your mouth is and let us see you all here between nine and 10 at night when the opportunity next presents itself. Do not hold your breath.
I shall make a couple of other brief observations that arise from the facts I have described. One is the staff. I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, mentioned them. I should like to know how members of staff feel about sittings going on and on. This is the essence of my argument. We have the choice whether we are here or not. There are not many jobs in the world like this. I will not mention the various offices I have spoken to, because of course they are nervous about giving evidence about what they think about this, but when they come to work in the morning at nine or 10 o’clock, they do not know when they are going to go home at night. We know, if we want to. We cannot go home—certainly, I cannot—but at least we can leave the building. We can make that choice; the staff cannot.
I have the greatest respect for the noble Lord, especially as a former Chief Whip, but has he not noticed that there may be half a dozen people in the Chamber discussing a particular amendment, but a lot of us are sitting either watching our screens or doing work, and we are required to be here because there is a Whip on? I should have thought that, as a Whip, he would not be putting forward the argument that anyone can go home when they like.
The noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, knows that the number of occasions when there are votes between nine and 10 at night is very much a minority of the sitting days of the House. Of course, it is true—we all know this, in the other Chamber as well as this one—that the number of people working is considerably more than the number of people participating in a debate, but I still stand by those statistics. To keep the whole Chamber functioning for the number of people—three, four, five or six—who actually want to take part in the debate is out of all proportion.
A number of noble Lords have raised the issue of staff in the House, and I am very sensitive to the inconvenience posed to them when we are working late. If it were the case that we had this Motion put forward, that there had been a consultation of staff who worked in the House of Lords, that there was a kind of rebellion and that they were demanding this because we were inconveniencing them, I should be very sympathetic. I am rather nervous of using them as a stage army on either side of this argument, because this has been put forward around the convenience of Members of the House of Lords and not the staff. Until we ask the staff, I do not think any of us should speak on their behalf. It seems inappropriate and cheap, frankly.
I am sorry to be accused of being cheap for discussing this with members of staff. I do not pretend that it was a representative sample or represents the majority—I cannot know that; consult the trade unions, perhaps—but I do know as a matter of fact and common sense that, if you are in a job where you start work at a set time in the morning and do not know from day to day what time at night you will finish, it is generally not a popular working practice. I think we should bear that in mind.
My final point is the same as the one the noble Lord, Lord Young, made—
I am genuinely puzzled by the noble Lord focusing on the end of the day and on this point about staff. Members of staff will still start out at a certain point in the morning and still will not know when they are going home at night, unless the 8.30 pm rule is going to be enforced by some means that has not been proposed. They could still be here at 10 pm. So I am genuinely puzzled as to how the noble Lord thinks this will resolve the issue, as opposed to shifting the time.
If the noble Lord wants to put down an amendment saying that the 8.30 pm rule or the 10 pm rule should be compulsory and there must be a guillotine at that point, that would be worth considering, but I do not want to be too revolutionary.
I will try to conclude now, and I want simply to say this: all changes in this House of any procedural kind have nearly always been ferociously opposed. The one that I still bear the scars of is one we dealt with some years ago: changing Wednesdays and Thursdays. I know that most noble Lords will look blank when I mentioned this, especially if they have come here reasonably recently. Until this change took place, Wednesdays were the day on which general debates took place, along with Private Members’ Bills and non-divisible Motions. On Thursdays, we reverted to government business and— I will say this slowly—we started at 3 pm, finishing at 10 pm. It was not very friendly for people who do not live in London. That change of swapping those two days, which I suggested, was ferociously opposed. I do not think—although I will happily be intervened on if necessary—that there is a soul here now who would say, “Let’s go back to that. Let’s go back to starting at 3 pm on Thursdays and finishing at 10 pm”.
My Lords, I see that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, is about to rise. I want to remind my noble friend that, when the noble Lord was Leader of the Opposition, he thought that the end of civilisation would come if we swapped Wednesdays and Thursdays. The reality is that we are still here.
The memory of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, may well be considerably better than mine but I remember being very much in favour of swapping Wednesdays and Thursdays, because it made such good sense. I am sure that the noble Lord will check the record, but I think he will find that I am right. However, I agree that there was some opposition, for all sorts of perfectly good reasons that, I am glad to say, turned out not to be favoured by the House.
All I can say is that, if the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, backed the proposal I put forward at the time, he did it in a very opaque way. Check the record, by all means, but I fear that his memory may be serving him as badly as the Prime Minister seems to be serving him.
The other change, of course, was to the functions of the Lord Speaker. Every single stage of that was resisted as being a serious threat to our democracy.
At all stages, once a change has been tried, no one has ever suggested going back. So let us get this in proportion. At the very least, let us finish at 8.30 pm and start an hour and a half earlier, if necessary accepting the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Young, and doing it on an experimental basis. Let’s not get too worked up about it—let’s just do it.
My Lords, I rise briefly to support the amendment tabled by my noble friend Lord Forsyth and, if necessary, either of the amendments in the names of my noble friends Lord Taylor of Holbeach and Lord Young of Cookham.
I declare an interest, although I do understand that in doing so, I might induce some of your Lordships to vote for the substantive Motion. This House contains many Members for whom membership is not their sole or main occupation, and I am one such. As the register of interests will make clear, I still act as a legal assessor to regulatory panels and frequently, the class of case that I do finishes in time for me to participate in the afternoon business of the House. The substantive Motion, if agreed, would diminish the occasions when that was possible.
That brings me to my main point, which I express in general and not personal terms. One of the generally acknowledged strengths of this House, increasingly unlike the House of Commons, is that many Members of it have business, professional, commercial and other demanding activities outside their membership of this place. They bring to this House current and personal experience which is of great value to their deliberations here. The substantive Motion would inevitably diminish their ability to do so and, perhaps, the willingness of such people to join this place. In my view, that would be a very great loss.
The second point is perhaps a more speculative one, and it echoes what my noble friend Lord Forsyth was talking about. When I was first in the House of Commons, we usually voted at 10 pm. That was often very inconvenient from a social perspective, but it had two great advantages, both of them touched on by my noble friend. First, it was a very effective way for Back-Benchers to express their concerns to Front-Benchers. “I will see you in the Lobby” was a frequent and genuine response to the request by a Back-Bencher for a meeting with a Front-Bench colleague. Secondly, it reinforced the collegiate character of Parliament, which I believe to be very important. The advent of family hours in the House of Commons, for which I acknowledge there was a legitimate case, removed the first advantage and greatly diminished the second. I fear that by making the changes suggested in the substantive Motion, we would bring about very much the same result as the changes made in the House of Commons.
So I have concluded that the advantages proposed in the substantive Motion are not sufficient to compensate for the disadvantages which I hope I have briefly identified. Therefore, I will strongly support the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Forsyth.
My Lords, I am a bit nervous about contributing to this debate, which I had not intended to do. Your Lordships will think of me as a new Member. I was elected a year ago next week and took my seat on
The question of sitting hours is very difficult. I have been present at debates of great political heat, but there is no doubt that a subject such as this is something your Lordships will contest very keenly. This is a free vote; I shall demonstrate that by disagreeing with part of what my noble friend Lord Grocott just said, but if the last amendment standing is that in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Young, I will vote for it. It is a good idea to review whatever decision we make.
I commend the work of the committee and of the Senior Deputy Speaker. It is a very difficult role to perform and I welcome the way he introduced this debate. I was struck by the noble Lord’s use of the phrase “no clear consensus” in his remarks. It is very difficult for this House to reach a decision based on no clear consensus.
There are a few other points to which I will briefly allude. The noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, referred to educational visits. Funnily enough, just before I came into the Chamber, I signed up to Lords’ events with outside schools. I, like other noble Lords, welcome people who come here on educational visits. It is to be encouraged.
I slightly disagree with my noble friend Lord Grocott where he began by saying that we are talking about the time we finish. We are not; in fact, we are talking about the time we start. It is suggested that because we will start earlier, we will finish earlier. Forgive me, but I feel in my bones—one of which, incidentally, was dislocated on Saturday night—that that will not necessarily be the way it turns out.
I have been looking at the Benches opposite for nine months and I think to myself, “One day, they will be sitting here”. I am not so sure that my Chief Whip will not want to make sure that we stay longer to get our business through. I am very mindful of the experience of Members and there is a subset of this House who have great experience from another place; we have just heard from one of them. The collegiality to which the noble Viscount referred is highly prized in this House. I should spend more time sitting at the Long Table to prove it, and will try to do better in the future.
It will be very difficult if this House takes a decision that does not have widespread consensus. It is not that I am against change; for what it is worth—which is very little—I feel that starting at 1 pm is a sort of halfway house. If you are going to start earlier, start earlier, then we would perhaps have more time in the evenings.
Noble Lords have made points about when we vote. One of the most important votes I cast in my short time here was at 2 am, on access to medical services for women in Northern Ireland. That is a terrible time to vote on such an important subject. Another related to police action on the Sarah Everard case, which we reached around midnight. That is a question of scheduling for the usual channels, but there is no doubt that that time of night is not a good time to make decisions. However, we need an element of flexibility, so I will wait to see which way the vote goes. The noble Lord, Lord Young, has my vote if his amendment is the last standing.
My Lords, in following the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, I speak as a new boy. I will perhaps give an impression of what it feels like to come into the House and look at its timetable. The pattern of the week reminds me slightly of the nursery rhyme:
“Monday’s child is fair of face,
Tuesday’s child is full of grace,
Wednesday’s child is full of woe,
Thursday’s child has far to go”.
That is roughly how it goes. Of course,
“the child that is born on the Sabbath day
Is bonny and blithe, and good and gay.”
Then we go back to this House again. That sort of works.
I cannot speak with any expertise or deep experience of any of this, but I instinctively side very much with what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth. It is very important that the House is a social institution in some senses. The conversations that take place throughout the building are a very important part of it, and a very important part of those conversations is that they are with people who have seen many different aspects of life, actively, and in other ways and other places.
As a journalist, I covered this in the House of Commons. I find it very different here—and in a good way. As a new boy, I never pass half an hour without meeting someone in a corridor, a tea room, the Chamber or somewhere from whom I learn something to my advantage. I will not be invidious by mentioning other noble Lords, but I see one behind me. I have mentioned him almost by mistake: the noble Lord, Lord McDonald, is a very interesting person to talk to at this precise moment in history, and here he is.
We need to keep that spirit in mind in everything we do. There is one phrase that I do not like hearing and have heard rather a lot about both Houses recently: “We are a workplace like any other.” We are not; we are fundamentally different from most workplaces because most workplaces, quite rightly, have an executive function by which they must get through their business as quickly as they possibly can. That is not the case with legislatures: we are deliberative, discursive and ruminative. We can sometimes be bloody long-winded, but that is not wrong. If we get rid of that and start to think that we have to do everything in a way that is compatible with all sorts of rules, HR procedures, being like everybody else and “valuing everyone”, we will be going the wrong way. We will not be doing our legislative duty. In that spirit, I am inclined very strongly to support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, and to reject the proposal.
My Lords, like the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, I stand rather nervously. This is the first time in my eight years here that I have spoken on anything to do with the Procedure and Privileges Committee. To be honest, my eyes normally glaze over. I cannot be called a traditionalist in any way, shape or form. In fact, many people on many Benches tell me in the politest way to get knotted over my tie.
I am agnostic in this debate, apart from on one issue that the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, raised, which is young people and educational visits. It is really important that we look at this Parliament through the prism not just of our convenience but of what it means to those outside, particularly the spark of democracy and current affairs for young people. Bringing young people into this House and getting them to see, observe, feel and touch is very important.
I looked at some facts. I am not sure whether many noble Lords are aware of the submission that the Education and Engagement Team gave to the committee that this will affect 8,000 young people. If we move the times, 8,000 young people will not be able to see this Chamber and have a full experience of Parliament. I thought it was quite discourteous of some Members to groan when the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, mentioned this, because it is really important.
I am agnostic on this, but unless someone can explain to me how those 8,000 young people’s experiences will be allowed to take place, I feel that I cannot vote for the change in time. It is not for my own convenience that I come to that decision; it is for the convenience of those young people and the spark that brings to democracy. I am of the view that, regardless of the issues for us, unless the question of how those 8,000 young people will be able to experience this Chamber can be answered, I cannot vote for this change.
My Lords, we are all indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, for making that point very clearly and pointedly. I am grateful to him.
I want to take a different approach. Whenever a change is made, one should always ask, “Who is the ultimate beneficiary?” The ultimate beneficiary here will not be your Lordships, wherever you live and however you like to conduct your day. The ultimate beneficiary will be the Executive.
I say that very deliberately, because I was 40 years in the other place and I saw the changes that took place there. I well remember the arguments over the change of hours which followed the election of the Labour Government with a huge landslide victory in 1997. There was one roguish colleague, much beloved and long lamented, Eric Forth. He was determined to, in his own words, get his own back on Labour. What did he do? Night after night after night, without any discernment or discrimination, he kept the Government up. It so happened that, at the time, I was the constitutional affairs spokesman for the party and deputy shadow leader of the House. The then shadow leader, my noble friend Lady Shephard, and I saw Mr Forth, and we tried to persuade him to discriminate, but he would have none of it. We warned him that if he went on like that, the Labour Government, having a huge majority, would do what they wanted: curtail our hours and deprive him of the opportunity he was exercising too prodigally. That is precisely what happened. As a consequence of that, we said we would reverse it when we had a Conservative Government, but of course it proved to be so convenient to the Executive, coupled with the automatic timetabling of every Bill, that the Conservative Government decided it was one convenience that they wished to keep.
The long-term consequence of that has been that the House of Commons, the other place, no longer scrutinises legislation. We frequently lament that point in this House, and we should lament it because Bills come to us with whole chunks that have not been discussed on the Floor of the other place or even in committee. I love this House and I love Parliament, but I lament what has happened at the other end of the corridor. I do not want this House to go down that road. Many a time over the past two or three years a number of us have said that we are very concerned about the increasing power of the Executive and the increasing tendency for Henry VIII powers and Christmas tree Bills, and nobody has uttered more of a clarion call on that than the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge. I just do not want that to happen.
I shall just mention one other thing, which my noble friends Lord Forsyth and Lord Taylor referred to. The word “collegiate” has come up again more recently, with the admirable brief but forceful intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Moore. We are a collegiate body. Today, at the Long Table, we had a Labour Peer, a couple of Cross-Benchers and a Conservative, and there was a wonderful conversation in getting to know each other. One of the reasons why debate in this place is not as bitterly partisan as it is in the other place is because we know each other better. The other place does not have the Long Table, but it was so much better when Members dined in more often. I well remember in the dying days of my membership having dinner one night in the Members’ Dining Room with only one colleague present, my noble friend Lord Hailsham. We had an agreeable dinner together, but that was no substitute.
It is crucial that we maintain a collegiate atmosphere here and do not allow the Executive to take power at our gift. I urge noble Lords in all parts of the House to vote for my noble friend Lord Forsyth’s amendment, to which he spoke admirably. If we need to come back to this subject, and we probably will, let us have some real discussions involving Members in all parts of the House, over a period, and maybe three or four of the Speaker’s forum sessions devoted to this alone. Please do not make this precipitate change tonight.
My Lords, I was hoping that there may have been reference to the really radical 2002 changes. Up until then, we sat through the night; then the Leader of the House, Lord Williams of Mostyn, set up a working group, a Leader’s Group, and I think there is a lesson to be learned from that. When we have a Leader’s Group, it invariably manages to deliver on its recommendations. Since we have moved away from a Leader leading in the old way and have started giving it down to sub-committees, there is not quite the same result coming out or the same respect. It is a great pity that the Leader of the House is not present today. She may have business, but this issue has been causing difficulties for some time and I believe it is of such merit that it requires the Leader of the House to be here.
The conduct of the Chamber is now quite different from what it was when I first came in. I come from a background of rebelliousness, noisiness and the rest of it—the trade union movement—but when I came here, I learned that there was a civility that was very important indeed and ensured that we worked in a quite different way. It is certainly a different way from the Commons. When we address our issues, it is important that we are different from the Commons all the time. If the House is not to retain that difference, it needs to be either done away with or radically changed. We should continue as we are for the moment and think through any change we make.
I do not believe we have explored all the alternatives available to us. Had we had a Leader’s Group, I think it would have approached this quite differently from how the committee has. It would not just look for a range of options to present but ask people to come in with their options. There is a case for change that takes into account what we have experienced recently: remote working. I do not like the idea of changing the start time. People working outside the building are entitled to do their business, and maybe have lunch with people, and then come in at 2.30 pm.
It is increasingly difficult to see people staying late in the evening; very few participate until we come to the votes. One way in which we can hold the Government to account is to ensure that more people vote in the later votes. We could have done that by exploring whether we should have tagged on remote participation between 8.30 pm and 10 pm, two days a week, on an experimental basis. That would have been really worth looking at—a radical change, moving with the times.
I am very much inclined towards the view of the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, as noble Lords can probably gather from what I am saying, but I do not believe the issue should be totally dismissed; we should continue to look for change. That leads me to give my support to the recommendation by the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, that we take a little more time over it, get the Leader of the House involved, and perhaps extend the range of people involved in the deliberations and ensure that there is a wider range of consultation than—and a different consultation from—that which we have had under the present arrangement. That also gives us a change to perhaps build on what we have, not detract.
My Lords, as the first woman to speak in this debate, I would like to say that I support the original idea from the Procedure Committee. I thank the Senior Deputy Speaker for bringing this to a vote, which I was very concerned about. This does not go far enough for me. I think we are limiting ourselves by starting so late in the day. I also apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, for attempting to reply in his place. I am really sorry about that. I will do my best not to do it again, but that is not a promise, just a hope.
Society has changed and this House is not keeping up with society. There are people here now who actually have happy home lives. We do not want to stay for social stuff. We do not want to be collegiate. We want to do the job and then go home perhaps and have a glass of wine with our partner rather than, forgive me, other noble Lords.
For me, it is a dinosaur move. Before noble Lords take offence at the idea of dinosaurs, they were an incredibly successful life system. They lasted millions of years. But, of course, they were defeated by a climate catastrophe that they did not realise was coming—just let me throw that in there.
Yes, there was no Green Party.
I have visits at all times of the day. I would be interested in knowing the exact details of educational visits and I personally will set some up for schoolchildren, I hope when the House of Commons is actually sitting so that they are not excluded from there.
The noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, said lots of things that I disagree with. One of the things he said was that the House of Lords is held in contempt. My experience is that the House of Lords now has more credit given to it than it ever has since I joined—admittedly I am a new Member of only nine years.
I did not say that the House of Lords was held in contempt; I said that Parliament was being held in contempt. On the point about school visits, when the noble Baroness says they can look at the House of Commons, on Wednesdays the House of Commons has Prime Minister’s Questions, which means that school groups cannot go there. The only Chamber they can go to is here. If noble Lords vote for this Motion, they will not be able to go to any Chamber at all.
Then it is the House of Commons that really needs to change its procedures. I will look in Hansard and check what the noble Lord said.
I speak as an old woman here. The noble Lord, Lord Moore, used the term “old women” pejoratively. Perhaps I can urge him not to do that again.
I am so sorry; the noble Lord did not use that term? We will check Hansard, shall we? Perhaps we can meet for coffee and discuss it.
The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, talked about the ultimate beneficiaries being people such as the noble Lord the Chief Whip. He is not sitting there with a smile so I am not sure how much he supports the idea of the changes. It might be interesting to see which way he votes.
The noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham, talked about people working in the morning. Honestly, he would be a huge loss to this House if he were not here for various debates, but I doubt that he is here for most of the debates. I doubt that most of the people who work in the mornings are here for most of the debates. We would perhaps lose some expertise but we might gain other expertise of people who do not want to stay in the evening. Women, in particular—this is my experience so it is anecdotal—do not like staying late. They do not like catching buses and trains late at night. I understand that. I walk home. I do not want to walk home at 10 pm; 8.30 pm is quite late enough.
I have sympathy with the three other amendments in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Taylor, Lord Balfe and Lord Young. I might have voted for them, but quite honestly, we really have to update our procedures. This does not go far enough, but please let us vote for some common sense.
My Lords, I would like to speak about the potential loss of expertise of those who are performing public service duties apart from being in this House. There are many people here who, by virtue of their position in the House as Peers, are asked to carry out inquiries or to chair committees or hospitals. In my own case, I have been asked to chair an independent review. It is quite impossible for many of those people, certainly in my case, to conduct a review and to get people from literally all over the country, whether as witnesses or as civil servants to support the team, before about 10.30 am. It would be impossible to carry out those tasks if the House were to start at 1 pm on the two days that are mentioned.
This is important because the people carrying out those public service functions, which should complement the work of this House, will be able to contribute a great deal of expertise which they have gained from that work and thereby enhance the reputation, knowledge and expertise of this House. I am not a diehard person who will not change. I am in favour of change but very concerned about those people who, by virtue of their position here, are performing other public functions and would find it very difficult, if not impossible, to perform that task.
I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord; I think he was giving way. Can he comment on the fact that the point he is making is all the stronger because of our convention that if you are not here for the first speech in a debate, you are scratched from it, and our other convention that if you are not here for the Second Reading you are expected not to participate in Committee? That would mean that if you were not here for the start of Second Reading, which could be at 2.30 pm or 3 pm, it could have serious consequences for the passage of legislation generally.
My Lords, I want to bring before your Lordships a matter that has not yet been mentioned very much, although briefly by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, just now. That is the impact of these proposals on committee work. A great many committees meet, of course, on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings—not on Monday mornings—on Thursday, and sometimes in the afternoons.
I have either chaired or sat on committees in this House for yonks—a terribly long time of 25 or 26 years —and done my best for those committees. I confirm from experience that, quite often, they go on after 12.30 pm and until 1 pm, and sometimes even after that because after the witnesses have gone an enormous amount of work tends to be done. There is an enormous amount of work in the morning as well, before the committee sits and we get the witnesses in. There is a lot of paperwork which has to be read. What would this 1 pm start on Tuesday and Wednesday do for that? The answer is that if the committee has not finished, or finishes at 1 pm, that does not give time for anyone even to go to the washroom, let alone have a bite, before they have to be in the Chamber for the early Questions.
In this digital age which we are moving into, it seems to me that these committees are greatly valued. They produce a lot of very good reports; some, I agree, just gather dust on the shelves and are never seen again, or go straight into the wastepaper basket, but a great many of them have considerable impact and greatly increase the esteem in which your Lordships’ work is held. That is very valuable and will get more important in the digital age because on these committees you can go into scrutiny in detail, rather than just accepting the knockabout of the Chamber’s exchanges at Question Time. Their scrutiny can drill right down into what the Executive are up to. Those committees are going to be an increasingly important part of the future and the control of the Executive, as my noble friend Lord Cormack reminded us earlier.
There really is a very important aspect to be preserved. If the 1 pm rule is going to narrow, hasten, accelerate and make more difficult the whole pattern of committee work and examination, that is a minus for the present. It is an even bigger minus for the future in the digital age where people will look increasingly to these hearings, which can be, and are, televised—sometimes they make rather better television than scrutiny in the whole Chamber. They will be increasingly valuable and important in communicating our work to the public. That aspect has to be considered before your Lordships reach any point on this.
I think it was Woodrow Wilson, oddly, who said once when talking about parliaments generally—I suppose it was about the American Congress in particular—that the Chamber of parliaments was parliament on show and that the work of committees was parliament at work. That is true; in terms of scrutiny, increasingly in this complex age, it needs the committee atmosphere to penetrate what the Executive are really up to and what is really happening, rather than the enjoyable debating exchanges in the Chamber as a whole. Unless I have a satisfactory answer to the contrary, that certainly leads me to support my noble friend Lord Forsyth’s amendment and the subsequent amendments as well.
As to the propositions the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, was advancing, I am normally a great enjoyer and admirer of the noble Lord’s contributions; they are usually quite entertaining—which is more than you can say for a lot of speeches one hears in this place. However, on this occasion I could not understand where he was at. It is perfectly obvious that most Peers stay here in the evening if there is going to be a vote and their Whips have told them to vote. Those who are involved in a particular issue and who are interested stay if the debate goes on after all the Whips have been lifted. Mostly, the noble Lord will find—I am amazed he does not know this—that once the Whips are lifted, most people go home.
You also do not always know how it is going to turn out. The Whips are sometimes very nervous that there will be late voting, but later, it turns out that the last vote was at 5pm or 6pm and we could have all gone home. It is an uncertain life; it is politics; it is the way it always works and always has worked—in the other place as well as here. I am afraid it was not such an amusing speech, and it did not make sense.
I will end by reminding the House that this is not a question of being reactionary or resisting all change. It is a question of adjusting to how the giant Executive—who grow more powerful, complex and intrusive—are curbed and contained. That involves constant tensions and sometimes leads to the Whips putting on very tough voting, or to manoeuvres to avoid voting. All this goes on; this is Parliament’s life. The idea that you can control this by saying, “Let’s start at 1pm and go home at 8.30 pm” is an absurdity. It cannot possibly be done. I beg those who think about these things and want to see the future of this House strengthened, not weakened, by more powerful committees—which we should certainly have—to definitely back the amendment put by the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth.
My Lords, I support the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth. I want to clarify that it is not because—as has been implied—I want to fetishize tradition or I am frightened of change. You can always look at those things critically. I have just not been convinced by any of the arguments in this document, or that I have heard today, for this change.
It all seems to focus on personal convenience and ease. It really struck me yesterday, when listening to the Question on working from home as a general phenomenon in society, that in this new normal we are asking institutions to reorganise themselves around the convenience of a particularly privileged class of workers. Millions cannot have that privilege. That is a debate society is having.
However, I was rather bemused to see a similar approach in this document, even though we are not talking about working from home. There is a lot of talk of well-being and work/life balance, for example. We were told in this committee report that some of those supporting the change argue that sitting
“should not have to fit around the outside interests of members.”
That is a criticism of somebody like me who has outside interests. Yet we are told that the changes are necessary because we should fit around
“domestic commitments or caring responsibilities”.
That seems an extraordinary shift for this House. As far as I was aware, it was not a matter for criticism to have outside interests, or a virtue to say, “I am going home to my family and caring responsibilities”. I would like to say at this point, as an apology to my family, that I do care for them and I have got them; it is just that maybe they are not as important as some of the public work we are being asked to do.
That was not meant to be the controversial bit; I might have taken a different approach, had I been at home. My point is that I do not want to be made to feel guilty about having outside interests, because this place, which, frankly, is on shaky enough democratic grounds as it is, should not suffer from ivory tower syndrome. A lot of people here have mentioned outside interests like chairing committees and so on, and these are big jobs, but I am talking about proper jobs. I have a real job; it is not very expert, but it matters to me.
But we all should want to be in the real world outside this House as much as possible, volunteering and putting our finger on the pulse of society. We are not democratically elected, but we should at least pay some attention to the world outside, which is why I completely back the important points about school visits—but not just these. I like it when this place is a-buzz with visitors, and I have tried to invite people from all walks of life into this place to talk and lobby. They are not official lobbyists but ordinary-voter types who might have an opinion that you might want to hear. We should be doing this. So we should not be “accused” of having outside interests; and you cannot have those, or a job, or do any work, and get in by 1 pm; it just does not work like that. But I can do three days’ work before 3 pm.
The noble Lady’s argument is very London-centric, if she does not mind my saying so. You cannot have an outside interest in Newcastle, Stoke, Scotland or anywhere else and function in this House as well.
As it happens, this particular Lady no longer lives in London, so it is not that London-centric. I try to do lots of things wherever I am.
The report says:
“earlier sitting and rising times would allow a more normal working day”.
I emphasise that, as has been said very well by the noble Lord, Lord Moore, and others, this place should not be normal. It is a great privilege, but it is not normal. The report also says:
“Earlier rising times would allow members to get home at a safer and more convenient time”.
I thought a number of things about this, because a number of points were made about being a woman and so on. I hate late Sittings and having to hang around until midnight, but who cares? I am, by the way, an old woman—I say that for Hansard—but what can you do? Thinking about the public’s response to this place, I remind noble Lords that some people work nights and really long hours servicing this society, working in sewerage, rubbish collection and all the rest of it. They get night buses, late Tube trains and so on; they cope, and we can too, so I do not agree with those points.
Finally, on the 8.30 pm finish, one of the things I regretted about coming here—there have been other things at times—was that I have to turn down a lot of public speaking in the evenings because community groups and political meetings all start at 6.30 pm, 7 pm or 7.30 pm and I cannot guarantee that I will be there because of the timings. If we were arguing to change the sitting times so that we could all be part of the public square, be participatory, do community work and so on, that would be good—but 8.30 pm does not work on any level. You cannot speak at anything; all you can do is go home and put on the telly. So it seems to me that this is much too focused around our convenience, and my instinct is that working late into the night and starting later, if we have external or outside things to do on either side, is all to the good. When we say, “We’re working too hard”, just do not say it too loudly in front of the public—come on.
My Lords, I support the change. I am disappointed by some of the contributions, although I have enjoyed the mostly good-natured spirit of our debate. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, about Parliament and this House. I have been privileged to be a Member of this House for 25 years now. What I have observed and experienced is that the best changes have been made incrementally and have been piloted, which is why I would support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Young, should we reach that point.
My noble friend Lord Grocott has described some of the history of the changes to this House. When I arrived in 1997, very late sittings were commonplace—up to 2 am, 3 am or 4 am, two or three times a week. However, my noble friend Lord Grocott then became Chief Whip and introduced more civilised hours, so we moved to this position of finishing generally at 10 pm. Governments of all hues have generally abided by the spirit of that convention, which is why I do not think that the transformative decision to end at 8.30 pm two nights a week will suddenly hand huge power to the Executive. When we moved debates from Wednesday to Thursday, the House continued to operate effectively.
As for personal convenience, there is of course some personal convenience in ending at 8.30 pm rather than 10 pm. However, this House is not working after 8.30 pm at the moment; my noble friend Lord Grocott has already described the figures for noble Lords working in the Chamber after the dinner break. We have all experienced this House being almost empty except for the Front Benches of the three main parties. Do we really think that the edifying sight of a House with about seven or eight noble Lords present at 8.45 pm does us credit? Surely, now is the time to move to more social hours of working.
I heard with great interest the description by the noble Lord, Lord Howell, of Select Committees and the problems they would have. However, having observed the Select Committee schedules on page 23 of our business papers today, I note that 10 of them across this week will meet during the Chamber’s sitting hours, so the noble Lord’s argument really does not stack up. It is just pure luck whether you are on a committee that sits outside the Chamber’s working hours or not.
In the end, I think incremental change is the best way we can move. Moving by an hour and a half two days a week is not revolutionary; it is incremental. I was not going to support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Young, but he made a persuasive case that, in view of the clear disagreements among noble Lords, if we are to make a change, it is best done over a short period, which then allows for a review. I hope the noble Lord will press his amendment.
My Lords, I rise with some trepidation to speak on this issue, particularly because I think I shall be a rather lone voice on this side of the House. On the basis that I spend my time, as part of Learn with the Lords and the digital schools project, telling young ladies not to be frightened about speaking up for what they believe, I cannot just sit here this afternoon and allow the impression to be given that, on this side of the House, there is really only one view on the Motion, because I do not think that is case. I fully take the point that any change to the House’s procedure is of course an incremental process, and I realise that I am a relatively new Member of this House.
I will briefly talk about three particular areas. My first question is: why have this debate now? I thank the Senior Deputy Speaker and those on the Procedure and Privileges Committee for bringing this Motion before us this afternoon. Given the number of new Members who join this House regularly, it is right to keep testing how the House functions and to ask whether noble Lords think it is time for a change. We should not be frightened of asking those questions. As we have heard, we are talking about changes to two days. Mondays and Thursdays, and Fridays where they apply, would remain as they are now.
The second issue relates to practicalities. We have heard about educational visits. Many of us have welcomed either schools from our constituencies, if we have worked in the House of Commons, or schools we know to visit this place. For those who have not been, I recommend it. We have a fantastic education centre now and massive credit goes to those who planned and built it and everything else. I know that if a Chamber visit is not possible, and there are already times of the week when visits to the Chamber are not possible, those young people still gain a huge amount from visiting the education centre, but also from sitting in the Galleries of the House and watching the Houses as they function.
I listened with great interest to the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Scriven. I have not, unlike him, looked at the presentations given, but I did look the committee’s report and I think I am right in saying—perhaps the Senior Deputy Speaker will refer to this in his closing remarks—that what we are talking about is that, pre-pandemic, there were just over 70,000 visits a year by schoolchildren to this Chamber, and just over 4,000 that might be changed or might not happen.
The report, therefore, is factually incorrect. The submission by the education and engagement centre, which I have a copy of and have read, says that 8,000 young people would not be able to visit this Chamber in the normal way that they do now.
In that case, I hope the Senior Deputy Speaker will clarify that, either in his closing remarks or in a letter subsequent to this debate. I do not know whether that is a future projection of numbers, but the report says there will be 116 fewer school visitors per week. I think that is something to be managed.
On this point, I talked to the education centre this afternoon and the people there made two points to me. One, which I mentioned earlier, is that they thought that if school groups—they are groups of 36—were unable to see either Chamber, those schools would cancel the visit. My own arithmetic may be wrong, but on Wednesdays they have 18 scheduled school visits of 36 people—they can do 21 if the Covid regulations are modified a bit—and I worked out that 60% of them on a Wednesday would not be able to come at all to the Chamber. Of course, they would also not be able to go to the other Chamber, so it is quite wrong to minimise the impact of this.
I say to my noble friend that I am not trying to minimise the impact, I am trying to get to the bottom of what the actual figures are. The figure in the report is different from the figure used by the noble Lord, Lord Scriven. I also take issue with my noble friend over what “coming to the Chamber” means. Of course, there is nothing like standing among the leather Benches for visits, but there is also something very special about sitting in the Galleries and listening to the Houses at work as debates continue. There are other ways of achieving the same ends.
I want to move on to the work of Select Committees and other business, which we have also heard about. I have been a Select Committee chair in the House of Commons when the hours of sitting had changed. It is perfectly possible to do both and the conclusion of this debate for me has been that a lot of what we are talking about is how Members of this House prioritise the work they are doing here and the work they are doing outside and how they juggle the rest of their lives. I think we would all say that it is very much a juggling act; we know that we cannot do everything. I am also the chair of a current inquiry of this House. I see some of its members here and it is very nice to see them. We are meeting when the House is sitting. That is a decision we took, given everybody’s commitments. Again, it is question of choice and priority.
My noble friend Lord Balfe talked about travelling and train times. Should I ever be invited on to “Mastermind”, my expert subject would be the train travelling times between Leicestershire and London, single and return journeys, because I have spent many years doing that. Of course, there is an issue, as we have heard, about personal convenience, but there are also issues of safety and reliability. I just say to my noble friend Lord Wolfson, for whom I have great respect, that one of the other constraints on taking part in debates is that one is meant to be here at the end of a debate. If people cannot stay to the end of the debate, they are not to take part in those debates. I know that noble Lords are returning home because they have not just childcare responsibilities but responsibilities for older relatives who need their help and the carers need to be relieved. People are having to make decisions about which parts of business they take part in.
I fully support the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, in saying that Members should absolutely be encouraged to have outside interests, and that is why they do. We are talking about 3.5 hours of changes in bringing forward the sitting times. We would finish at 8.30 pm, after which plenty of life happens, not just travelling but engaging with other things—not just the television.
I conclude with a broader point on the workplace. I was absolutely dismayed by the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Moore. I have sat in the other House and am watching the issues around culture going on there at the moment—and the clearly much better and more collegiate culture I like to see in this House. To say that we should recognise that these are workplaces like no other and that we need special rules is at the heart of many of the cultural problems we now see in this Parliament. We should be honest about those problems and really start to tackle them. I see nothing wrong with modern HR practices; if people need to make complaints or if things have happened to them, they need to know that they will be taken seriously, and not just by the Whips’ Offices.
This debate about sitting hours is about the culture of this House. It is about the message it sends. The noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, said that Parliament is not fully understood. What is not fully understood is how we can possibly make the best decisions about legislation at 10 pm and beyond on a regular basis. He also said that camaraderie comes over dinner. Camaraderie comes because we work together, whether on committees and inquiries or in debates; it does not come because we dine together. I suggest that that has not been the case since probably the early 20th century.
Although I will support the Motion this evening, in the interests of seeking compromise, I think that my noble friend Lord Young has put forward a sensible amendment —a pilot is never a mistake in these matters where there is going to be change—and, should we reach it, I will of course support it.
My Lords, I think we have reached that stage in the debate when everything has been said but not everyone has yet said it. However, I want to make one substantive point and one comparatively minor one.
The minor point is that I want to pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Grocott. Not only did he remind us of the momentous change—I remember it vividly—that stopping going through the night quite so often brought not only to the lives of individual Members but to the quality of what we did but he managed to speak for about 10 minutes, plus interruptions, without once referring to the fact that a hereditary Peers by-election was going on while he was on his feet. That is a statement of how mature this debate has been.
My substantive point is that the Leader of the House has not been present today; the Government Chief Whip was here very briefly but has departed. A lot of noble Lords seem to believe that the Government will somehow magically be happy to stop at 8.30 pm. I recall that, under both Labour Governments and Labour Chief Whips and Conservative Governments and Conservative Chief Whips, the pressure to go on remains. We will find that it will not just be 8.30 pm. It will drift routinely; this benchmark of 10 pm, which will still exist notionally for Monday, will start to be the norm on those other two days.
As this is a House matter, we will not hear from the Government Chief Whip today. I would be grateful if we could somehow get a clear statement from the Government on how rigorously they will treat that 8.30 pm finish.
I thank the House. I accept that a lot of the arguments have been made, but I want to say a few words given my experience acting as a Chief Whip for my group in this House and working with the noble Lords, Lord Taylor and Lord Kennedy, and others during my term of office.
The essential issue is how we can do our job of scrutinising government business and legislation better. I sat through every single one of those late sittings in January and March, and I thought that they were unworkable for the future. We very nearly accepted a proposal last year to change the working hours. The reason we did not, as others have said, was that those who came from the north and Scotland were not prepared to vote for an early start on Monday. That is why the Procedure Committee decided to look at this issue again, to see whether there was wider support for having different working hours on other days of the week. Monday is not included today, and that is why I think there will be wider support than there was then.
I will make a number of points from my own experience. The fact is that it is only a minority of the House who actually do the detailed work on legislation; they are the people who stay late at night. There is not exactly a huge demand in this House for working late. I spend all my time as a Whip trying to get my people to stay, and the only time I have success with the Government Chief Whip is when the Benches behind him have had enough themselves because they have stayed late. I do not think this helps scrutiny, because we are doing it late at night, there are limited numbers of us, and there is no point having a vote after dinner. With all respect to the Cross Benches, whose expertise I value, the parties assume that they are going to be here in very limited numbers after dinner. That is the reality. The House is missing out on that expertise; in my experience, the people of expertise do not want to stay late. Those who have jobs outside the House also do not want to stay late. I have had several jobs outside the House during my 10 years here, and I welcome that expertise, knowledge and experience coming into the House, but the people who are trying to do other jobs do not want to be here at 10 o’clock, 11 o’clock or 12 o’clock at night.
I am most grateful to the noble Lord, and I am listening carefully to what he says, but does he not think that when some of his colleagues put down 103 amendments on one Bill, that is part of the reason why we are sitting into the late hours? Does he not think that the constant calling of Divisions and sending stuff down to the House of Commons which has no chance of being considered there may also add to the length of time that we sit?
No side of the House is innocent on this; everybody does it, frankly. If I might say so, the Government quite like the House staying late, because they get through the business quicker late at night. That is one of the reasons they quite like the late sittings, but it does not help scrutiny; it does not help the effectiveness of the House.
Insisting on the 8.30 pm finish is another issue that has been raised. If the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, and I know that the House is committed to 8.30 pm, just as we go along the corridor to the Government Chief Whip at five to 10 to insist that we finish at 10 pm, we will do the same at 8.30 pm. We will want a very good reason why the House should continue after then. If we do not have that commitment, we have no negotiating. The noble Lord, Lord Taylor, can smile; I have been along to his door and to the current Government Chief Whip a number of times trying to get us to finish at 10 pm, and we normally have to because they know that it is the common practice of the House. If 8.30 pm is agreed by this House, we must follow it. It will be in our negotiating satchel.
On school visits, yes, I really believe in school visits here. However, we can look at this; logistically, it should be possible to get more people through the House. They can have a slightly different type of visit—they can use the Education Centre. I have asked for a number of years why we have to have such a long time for the security search when the House is closed, before it opens again—it takes about two hours, I think. That is something we can look at.
This is a strategic issue. We are trying to take a strategic view on how the House should operate and whether we should have more acceptable working hours. It is not simply about issues of convenience—meals, flexible working outside the House, school visits. All these things need to be kept in context. We have to think about what we are here for, which is to scrutinise legislation and the Government. All these other issues are important, but if we want to have a more acceptable, more effective way of working in this House, we should accept and try this modest change. We certainly will also support the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Young, so we can give it a go.
My Lords, very briefly, the position of the Labour Peers here was that this is a decision for individual Members to make, and we will have a free vote. My only message to the group has been, “Please attend today and have your say, and when the House divides, vote. Make your mind up and then we can put this decision behind us.”
My own position is that I support a change to the sitting times. However, the speech by the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, was absolutely excellent; I did not agree with it but if you want to support the status quo, he set out very clearly the reasons why you should. The noble Baroness, Lady Morgan of Cotes, gave a fantastic speech on why you should support the change. I will certainly be with the noble Baroness, voting for that change.
I have been in this House 12 years. I did not know a lot of Tories before I came here—and I did not know any bishops, that is for sure. I have great respect for many Members opposite, and I have worked with many colleagues on the other side of the House on all sorts of issues. I have got to know them, like them and work with them, and we have made many changes. However, we did not do that over dinner. We did that in the corridors, meeting Ministers outside, talking to people, having meetings in offices and so on. You can do many good things here by doing that—but it was not over dinner, I can assure colleagues of that.
I will leave it there. I will certainly support the Motion to change the sitting times, and I will also support the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Young. To have a trial would be a very good thing: if it is wrong, we can very quickly change it back.
My Lords, I was wrestling with a description of our debate. Was it powerful? It was certainly feisty, but it was very strongly held. The point I always take from these typical House of Lords debates is how much we all care about the House, its work and our responsibilities and duties to it. As I said at the outset, my task is to assist the House in coming to a decision. We strongly hold the view that we are a self-regulating House when it comes to procedures, and we are seeing that today. We are seeing a House with differing views coming to decisions on a number of amendments to the substantive Motion, but that is what this House should be doing.
I want to clarify one or two points. On the issue of staff, which was raised with due sensitivity, as I said in my opening remarks, we received input from across the administration and from bicameral services. Views were sought from every office across the administration, as well as the bicameral teams, and were fed into the consideration. Your Lordships’ committee felt that this was ultimately a decision for Members, but we were assured by the Clerk of the Parliaments that staff would continue to deliver high-quality services whether or not sitting times were changed. However, I am mindful of the sensitivities that your Lordships have raised.
Would my noble friend explain why these changes, if the Motion as framed is passed, and even if amended by the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham, would come into effect in September? Can he explain why there has been no consultation with staff or with their trade union representatives on changes that would have significant effects on the times of operation and potentially on the number of jobs? While consultation with heads of departments is reported in paragraphs 20 and 21, which tell us very little, there has been no consultation with staff or trade unions. Is this good practice?
My Lords, as I have said, I am not responsible for members of staff— the Clerk of the Parliaments is. I have explained the assurance that I have received from the Clerk of the Parliaments, as indeed did the committee. He is confident that staff would continue to deliver high-quality services, and, although I am absolutely neutral on this matter, if the House does decide on an earlier finish, members of staff also would not have to work late. However, I do not want to have to spend too long on that because it is a sensitive subject.
No, I want to make progress. I apologise to my noble friend but I think that the House has chewed over this matter, and we ought to make progress.
On educational visits—as I say, this is what I have agreed in the report—I have a note that says that the director of participation emailed to confirm explicitly that the number of school students able to see the Lords Chamber would fall from 72,380 to 67,760 per annum—a fall of 4,620 per annum, which, as I said in the report, is equivalent to some 116 fewer school visitors each sitting visit. I will pick up what the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, said, but that is the assurance I have received this afternoon following the remarks that have been made. Obviously, I will want to go back to that, but that has been confirmed by the visits team.
The noble Lord, Lord Stoneham, raised the issue of the security search. This was raised with me—
May I ask my noble friend one question on this? I am interested in what he says on schools. However, does what he has just said not mean that visits by schools from outside London will be restricted? It would place at a disadvantage those schools that are farther away from London.
My Lords, the report is very clear as to the numbers of visitors that will be impacted by this.
I say to the noble Lord, Lord Stoneham, that I have looked into the security search—again, I have to be careful what I say—and I am assured that, as he knows, because I have spoken to him about it, the length of time needed for a thorough security search in order to look after the Members and staff of this House is the length we currently have. That matter was raised with me and I have deliberately looked into it because I wanted to be secure in my own mind about it.
A number of points were raised, but they are all contained in the report. They are all points made by noble Lords in their submissions. My task is to ask the House to come to some resolution on the amendments before it.