HL Deb 06 August 1940 vol 117 cc146-54

Order of the Day for the consideration of the Fifth Report by the Select Committee on House of Lords Offices read.

The Committee reported as follows:

1. The Committee considered the question of the supply of Hansard's Debates.

In the opinion of the Committee any Peer who has made a speech during a debate should be supplied with two copies of the issue in which the speech is reported.

In the opinion of the Committee a bound copy of Hansard's Debates in the House of Lords for the Session should, as heretofore, be supplied to Peers who desire it, free of charge, but the supply of bound volumes of Hansard's Debates in the House of Commons, free of charge, should be discontinued.

2. The Committee considered the question of starred questions. The Committee approved an insertion in the Companion to the Standing Orders as follows: If a Peer is not satisfied with the answer given, a supplementary question can be asked, provided such supplementary question is confined to the subject of the original question. Debates should not take place on a starred question: it is, however, open to any Peer dissatisfied with the answer given to the starred question to put on the paper for a subsequent day a Motion dealing with the subject at issue. Notice of any starred question should appear on the Order Paper not later than the day before that on which an answer is desired.

3. The Committee considered the question of the admission of women secretaries to the Secretaries' Box in the chamber. In the opinion of the Committee women secretaries should be admitted to the Secretaries' Box.

6.17 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that the Report be now considered and agreed to. Perhaps it requires a certain amount of comment or explanation, because it contains certain rather important points which I think should be brought to your Lordships' notice and made public. The first point is the supply of copies of the OFFICIAL REPORT. This, as your Lordships are well aware, is published in two forms: there is the daily blue-paper covered record of the Debates, and then later on are issued the bound volumes. The learned Clerk of the Parliaments has issued a circular to your Lordships asking you to be good enough to indicate which of the papers your Lordships individually wish to have sent to you, and I understand that nearly all your Lordships have replied indicating exactly what publications you require to be sent to you automatically. The Com mittee thought that it might be left in the hands of your Lordships to indicate what you require, but that there should be one automatic distribution, and that is two copies of every debate to each of your Lordships who has taken part in it. The object of this distribution is, of course, that should a noble Lord on reading his speech see that an error has been made, he would be able to correct that error and send back the corrected copy to the Editor of Debates at the House of Lords. Any noble Lord who speaks will obtain automatically a copy of the Report of each debate in which he has taken part, whether he has asked for the issue of the papers or not.

The next part of the Report deals with the distribution of the bound copies of the OFFICIAL REPORT. Bound copies of the Reports of the Debates of both Houses of Parliament have hitherto, as your Lordships are well aware, been issued free of charge to noble Lords who have asked for them. That is, of course, a considerable burden on the finances of your Lordships' House. It has been recognised that noble Lords are certainly entitled to receive the OFFICIAL REPORT of the Debates in this House free of charge, because obviously those of your Lordships who live at a distance may wish to keep a record of what has passed and to be able to refer to it without great difficulty. The Committee, therefore, decided that the practice of issuing to noble Lords who so desire bound copies of the Lords OFFICIAL REPORT should continue.

But the question then arose of the issue of bound copies of the Reports of Debates in another place. As this brings a heavy charge upon the finances of your Lordships' House, and as study of the debates in another place is not perhaps primarily necessary for the proceedings in your Lordships' House, the Committee recommend that these volumes should no longer be issued free of charge. It is, however, of course, quite possible for noble Lords to obtain copies of the OFFICIAL REPORT of another place on payment. I have made inquiries and I am told that about twelve volumes a year of the Debates in another place are issued. The largest of all works out at about 12s. 6d. a copy and the smaller volumes at about 6s. 6d.; I think between 8s. 6d. and 11s. is probably the average cost of the volumes. I need hardly say, of course, that in the Library of your Lordships' House copies of all the Debates in another place are always available in both bound and unbound forms, and it is merely for the purpose of economy and to save paper that it has been decided to recommend that procedure to your Lordships.

Then I come to the second item, which perhaps requires a little more explanation. There are four methods in your Lordships' House of eliciting information from His Majesty's Government. The first is by means of a written answer, the second by means of a starred question, the third by means of a question such as was asked by my noble friend Lord Denman just now, and the fourth by a Motion for Papers, which has been used to-day by my noble friend Lord Faringdon. We have also had an example of the starred question from my noble friend Lord Davies. As far as I remember, the starred question was introduced at the instance of the late Lord Curzon about twenty years ago, and the object was to enable noble Lords to put down questions which they would wish to see mentioned in the House, rather than dealt with by a written reply, but upon which no debate should take place. There is no Standing Order on the subject, and the procedure is explained in the Campanion to the Standing Orders, so that the actual procedure that is recommended is not binding upon your Lordships; but if there are going to be starred questions—personally, I do not think that they are of very great advantage—it seems desirable that the procedure to be followed should be made absolutely clear.

Although, as I say, it is not binding, but is merely explained in the Companion, yet for the convenience of your Lordships I think that the procedure should be laid down rather more clearly than it is at present. The Report states: If a Peer is not satisfied with the answer given a supplementary question can be asked, provided such supplementary question is confined to the subject of the original question. If, for instance, the question put by my noble friend Lord Davies had not been answered entirely to the satisfaction of him or of any of your Lordships, it would have been open to him or to them to ask supplementary questions, following upon the answer given. The Report goes on to say: Debates should not take place on a starred question: That, I think, is obvious, because the star is to indicate that, in order to save time, no debate should take place. But—and I think that this is important—the Report goes on: it is, however, open to any Peer dissatisfied with the answer given to the starred question to put on the Paper for a subsequent, day a Motion dealing with the subject at issue. That will provide that the saving of time obtained by starring a question is adhered to; but, if the matter is of such importance that a noble Lord thinks that it should be debated carefully in your Lordships' House, he is invited to put down a Motion for another day. The rest, I think, is simple: Notice of any starred question should appear on the Order Paper not later than the day before that on which an answer is desired. That is the ordinary rule of your Lordships' House.

Then I come to the third matter, and this is a point which has been raised by the Ministry of Labour. Your Lordships may have observed to-day that in the box reserved for members of public Departments, ladies were in attendance. The Ministry of Labour, who raised the question, explained that a number of members of their staff were of the opposite sex to those who have hitherto had the monopoly of the box, and the Minister in replying to a question might wish to consult all his advisers together. The Committee would therefore recommend to your Lordships that lady secretaries who are members of the Departments should be admitted to the box in the same way as men. I beg to move that the Report be adopted.

Moved, That the Report be now considered and agreed to—(The Earl of Onslow.)

6.25 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure that your Lordships would wish to express gratitude to the noble Earl for the very clear exposition which he has given of the Report of the Select Committee. If I may be allowed to say so, I find myself in entire agreement with the procedure which it is suggested should be followed in regard to starred and other questions. The only suggestion which I would venture to make is this, that it might be possible to give priority to starred questions on the Order Paper so that they would be the first business to be dealt with by the House. I suggest this not on any ground of principle, but merely because I believe that it will meet the convenience of Ministers who reply and also of those of your Lordships who ask such questions. It may enable Ministers who have a great deal of work to do to get away at once. This afternoon, for instance, a Minister was detained for a considerable period in order to reply to such a question, and then lie had to leave to fulfil a previous engagement, which meant that the question had to be postponed until a more convenient time.

6.26 p.m.


My Lords, I have very considerable sympathy with my noble friend. I am not speaking now after careful research, but I believe that the difficulty in giving effect to his suggestion would be that a starred question is really only unofficially starred. There is no Standing Order describing a starred question. If it were desired to take a starred question before any other business, when it would normally be dealt with after it, a Standing Order would be required, and so there would also have to be a Standing Order defining the starred question. If a noble Lord wished to have his starred question answered before other business was taken, I think it might possibly be done by a Motion that the question be considered, which I think would have to be put down by the Government. I speak entirely unofficially, but I think that I am right in saying that. A Motion would have to be put down that such-and-such a question be taken first—not because it was a starred question—and then that could be done. It would be impossible without a Standing Order to carry out my noble friend's suggestion, useful though I imagine your Lordships will think it to be. On the other hand, if the starred question is dealt with by a Standing Order, we should be rather curtailing that freedom of discussion which your Lordships are so careful to guard.

6.28 p.m.


My Lords, I would ask my noble friend to consider his suggestion again. He might have a Motion which the Government of the day might wish to blanket and postpone as long as possible. It would be perfectly easy for my noble friend opposite, Lord Templemore, with his great influence over the members of your Lordships' House, to get a hundred starred questions put down, which would take precedence. Moreover, he could prevail on a number of his friends to ask supplementary questions, and so the important matter which my noble friend Lord Davies wanted to discuss would be put off for many hours and its usefulness lost.

6.29 p.m.


My Lords, I think that the noble Lord opposite is rather libellously attributing to my noble friend Lord Templemore a wish to introduce into your Lordships' House the methods of another place. On this matter of starred questions, however, I do not see on the face of it why there should not be a Standing Order whereby the business which will take only a very short time should come first. I am very chary of suggesting the adoption of a Standing Order from another place, but if the time allotted to questions can be limited, as it is in practice in another place, to about fifty minutes, I cannot believe myself that there would be any such abuse of your Lordships' time as has been suggested; if there were, it could easily be stopped. At any rate, surely it would be better to get an answer which would not involve debate, and get that over first, and then the House could get on to debatable matter. I really hope the Lord Chairman will consider that further.

6.31 p.m.


My Lords, I speak on this matter with much diffidence as a comparatively junior member of this House, but it appears to me that the system of starred questions is one which ought to be welcomed and encouraged. It would, I think, add to the usefulness of this House and to the interest of its proceedings if we had a fairly large number of questions each week of this character. It would not take very long. The proceedings on each particular question would be limited to one or two supplementaries, and I really think that the objection taken by my noble friend Lord Strabolgi is rather farfetched. I think the notion that these questions would tend to an obstruction of business is extremely improbable, especially in an assembly so demure as your Lordships' House. In these circumstances I think my noble friend Lord Davies has rendered a very useful service in putting on the Paper a certain number of questions during the last few days. I trust that other noble Lords will follow his example and that the Standing Orders of the House, if necessary, will be amended in order to give precedence to these questions for the reasons which my noble friend has put.

6.32 p.m.


My Lords, I am not in agreement with my noble friend beside me, because I think a good many of your Lordships might raise objection to the passing of a Standing Order giving starred questions definite precedence. I must remind your Lordships that, so far as I know, this is a plan for which there is no precedent. We have been considering all manner of possibilities, such as that raised by the noble Lord on the Front Opposition Bench, but there is a possibility that the terms of a reply to a starred question might be such as to make, possibly not the asker of the question but some other noble Lord, feel that objection ought to be raised at once to the terms of the reply, that is to say that you would be starting a debate. There would be nobody to stop it, except by the Motion that the noble Lord who is speaking should not be heard, and if that were carried that noble Lord might have to sit down. But then another noble Lord might proceed to make a further speech, and that, I take it, is the deep-seated reason for not including this particular question among the Standing Orders of the House.

I think on the whole it is quite possible, as the Lord Chairman indicated, to have such a thing as a gentlemen's agreement by which starred questions would as a matter of fact always be taken first. It might happen that an ordinary question put down after notice on the Paper would lead to a debate which would last three or four hours. That would be a little hard on the asker of the starred question. And therefore I should think it could quite easily be made a matter of practice that starred questions should be taken first without objection to anyone.

6.35 p.m.


My Lords, with reference to that point I will just read the Standing Order: All Notices of proceedings on Public Bills and of other matters shall be inserted in the Minutes of each day, according to the priority of every such Notice, or as the Lords giving the same may have agreed: and the House shall always proceed with the same in the order in winch they shall so stand, unless the Lord who shah have given any such Notice shall withdraw the same, or shall, with the leave of the House, consent to its postponement… But of course the usual practice, as your Lordships are aware, is for the Leader of the House to move that a certain item of the agenda should be given priority; and that, I think with the noble Marquess, Lord Crewe, with his great experience in leading your Lordships' House for so many years, is one which would find favour, rather than a Standing Order on the subject of starred questions.

With regard to the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, I confess that the obliquities which he says, to my great surprise, might be perpetrated by my noble friend behind me, had not occurred to me. Speaking for myself, and perhaps I might even say for my noble friend Lord Templemore, that is unlikely to occur. As regards the point just mentioned by the noble Viscount, Lord Samuel—the alteration of the Standing Order as suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Davies—I will bring the matter before the House of Lords Offices Committee at its next meeting. But I happen to know, as I think has been indicated by the noble Marquess, Lord Crewe, that there are many of your Lordships who feel, and some of them feel rather strongly, that we should not go further than we do at present in regard to starred questions and we should not include them in the Standing Orders. But I will certainly bring the matter before the Offices Committee, and I promise your Lordships that it shall have every possible consideration.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

The Lord Addison added to the Select Committee.