HL Deb 11 May 1954 vol 187 cc455-65

2.44 p.m.

THE CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES (THE EARL OF DROGHEDA) rose to move, That the House do resolve itself into a Committee to consider the Report of the Select Committee on the Procedure of the House. The noble Earl said: My Lords, the last time that these Standing Orders came before you, your Lordships decided to refer the Orders to the Select Committee on the Procedure of the House for further consideration, and it is the Report of the Procedure Committee that I now have the honour to present to the House. The main changes made by the Procedure Committee are summarised in their Report. The first one is the extension of Starred Questions to all Sitting Days, instead of their being restricted to Tuesdays and Wednesdays. The number to be asked each day has not been specified, as it was thought better to leave that to be altered from time to time by the House. At present, as your Lordships will remember, by Resolution of the House passed in 1946, the number is limited to three. The second change is that the Standing Order under which a notice may not remain on the Order Paper for more than a month without a fixed date being given has now been rescinded, as being no longer necessary. Then there is also an extension of the power of the House to order an adjourned debate to be taken as first Business, so that, in future, it will be possible for a stage of a particular Bill to be taken as first Business on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The other alteration is in the Standing Order which prescribes that Peers shall bow to the Cloth of Estate. The Order now applies to Members entering the House, instead of when they cross the Floor of the House. This Amendment brings it closer to the original Standing Order on the subject. I do not think there is anything else to which I should draw your Lordships' attention, and I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee.

Moved, That the House do resolve itself into a Committee to consider the Report of the Select Committee on the Procedure of the House.—(The Earl of Drogheda.)

2.45 p.m.


My Lords I do not know what is the most convenient course to take, but some of us may want to have, as it were, a little Second Reading debate before we come to the Committee stage. Would it be convenient to have that debate now?


So far as I am concerned, that would be quite convenient.


I should first of all like to express, on behalf of noble Lords who sit on this side of the House, our extreme gratitude to the Select Committee on the Procedure of the House for the work they have done. I think it is a most admirable piece of work. I like the way they have done it. They have not destroyed for the sake of destroying. They have kept some of the old favourites which have very little effect nowadays. For instance, Standing Orders No. 28, dealing with asperity of speech, and No. 29, "For avoiding of all mistakes, unkindnesses or other differences which may grow to quarrels" are preserved intact. I have heard a noble Lord who is present to-day move that the rule about "sharp or taxing speeches" be read in the Chamber. I am glad that that old monument still remains.

I have had a little doubt in my mind about No. 40. The only rule we have got about the interval of time between, a Second Reading, Committee stage Report and Third Reading is contained in Standing Order No. 40, and it provides merely that no two stages of a Bill are to be taken on the same day. We must always be careful not to get our rules too rigid. The reason we work so well, I think, is because our rules are so completely flexible. It is a common thing for the Government to move that a Standing Order be suspended in order that a Bill may be taken through more than one stage (we are, I understand, going to do that this week in regard to an Indemnity Bill), when everyone desires to get through all stages of a Bill the same day. To do that we have to move the suspension of that particular Standing Order.

I feel that we have to be a little careful about this matter. I had at one time considered moving an Amendment providing that there should be an interval of time—say a week or something of that sort—between Committee stage and Report stage, because I think that generally there ought to be some interval, in order that we can consider where we have got to at Committee stage and look around. I think that is particularly so with regard to Private Members' Bills—and, incidentally, we have had an indication of three new ones to-day. We are taking the Report stage of a Private Member's Bill later to-day. That Bill finished its Committee stage only last Thursday—the last Sitting Day of the week. It is down to go through the Report stage to-day, and Third Reading on Thursday. I make no complaint with regard to that particular Bill, but I think that, as a general rule, it is undesirable that Bills should be rushed in that way. After considering the matter, however, I came to the conclusion that on the whole it was undesirable to move, as I originally thought of doing, that there should be a fixed interval of a week between Committee stage and Report stage. If that were fixed, it might point to the view that a week was sufficient, and we all know that in some cases an interval of a week between Committee stage and Report is wholly insufficient. Therefore, I think we had better leave it flexible. The noble Marquess the Leader of the House will probably agree with me that, whilst laying down no sort of principle which has to be abrogated by moving the suspension of a Standing Order for the time being, it is very desirable, particularly in the case of Private Members' Bills, that we should ensure that adequate time is allowed for the various stages, in order that we can do our job properly. I repeat that I am not making any complaint with regard to the Bill which is down for its Report stage to-day.

For the rest, I have gone through the Standing Orders carefully, and I wonder why No. 74 has been retained. No. 74 is the Order—it is a very old one, dating from 1699—which says that: It is a breach of the Privilege of the House for any person whatsoever to print or publish anything relating to the proceedings of the House, without the leave of the House. This is my one criticism: the Committee have not only preserved the Order but have made it more stringent. They have now made it an offence not only to publish in print but to publish at all. Strictly, this would mean that if one of us wrote a letter describing what took place in this House he would technically be guilty of a reach of Privilege. As I say, this is a very old rule: it dates back to the times of Stockdale and Hansard. There were discussions then whether anything ought to be published at all. Nowadays, of course, we all agree that publicity is the very breath of life to us, and the fuller the publicity is, the better.

I should like to ask the noble Earl, Lord Drogheda, who has done such excellent work, why this Order has been retained. I should have thought that this was one of those old rules which, on the face of it, were better omitted as being quite out of date and inappropriate to modern conditions. I should not like it even to be thought that it is a breach of Privilege of the House for any person whatsoever to print or publish anything relating to the proceedings of the House without the leave of the House. Of course, the House never grants leave, and I should have thought the rule would be better out altogether. I raise the point so that the noble Earl may tell me why it has been preserved—and, as I say, not only preserved but preserved in a more drastic form. It has never before, not even in 1699, been a breach of Privilege to publish anything even though not in print. That is a very small matter compared with the mass of work that has been done on these Orders. I think these Orders represent substantial improvements, and I end, as I began, by expressing my indebtedness to the Committee for their excellent work in providing the House with such a new set of Orders, useful and practical, which do not upset the antiquarian interest of the old Orders.


My Lords, I have had the advantage of attending meetings of the Select Committee and I do not rise in order to raise any specific points, but only to express what I am sure is the feeling of the whole House, our sense of obligation to the noble Earl, the Lord Chairman of Committees, for the initiative that he has taken in securing a thorough revision, after an interval of many years, of the ancient and modern Standing Orders of the House, with the result that we have before us recommendations which embody a number of not sensational but useful and valuable reforms in our procedure.

2.52 p.m.


My Lords, I had not intended to say anything this afternoon, as I really said all that I had to say on this subject on the last occasion when these Standing Orders were under discussion. I should, however, like to join once more with the noble and learned Earl, Lord Jowitt, and the noble Viscount, Lord Samuel, in tendering the warmest thanks of those on this side of the House to the noble Earl, the Lord Chairman of Committees, and his colleagues for the remarkable skill and devotion which they have expended on their review of the Standing Orders. As a member of the Procedure Committee, I can testify to the completeness of their work, because they left very little for us to do. We made one or two comparatively limited suggestions, but that was the only work which they left for us to perform. In particular, I would agree with what was said by the noble and learned Earl about the restraint which they have shown in their review. There is always a tendency for a body appointed for this type of purpose to be too thorough, to sweep away everything they think not absolutely essential, and, by doing so, to destroy entirely the atmosphere of what is an immensely charming and important historical document, apart from its present use. They avoided that difficulty altogether. Of course, anything that was completely dead wood they have cut out, but everything else they have left in, and we are grateful to them for it.

There is only one Standing Order on which I shall say a word, and I do that only because it was mentioned by the noble and learned Earl—I refer to Standing Order No. 40, which relates to the interval between the stages of Bills in this House. I agree entirely with what the noble and learned Earl said. We have discussed this subject often before, and agree that adequate time must be given to enable proper consideration to be afforded for legislation passing through the House. But I would agree equally with the noble and learned Earl's final conclusion, that we cannot have a fixed period. We cannot say that there must be a minimum or a maximum period, because in one case that period would be too short and in another case the period would be too long. What we have to do is to interpret the Standing Order sensibly, as the needs of the House require. I think, on the whole, that we do that pretty well.

The noble and learned Earl referred to a Private Member's Bill at present before the House—I think he would have preferred it to have a day or two longer. But even in that case I do not think it would be seriously contended that the Bill has not been given full consideration. Originally, one day was put down for Committee stage, but, because of the great interest shown by noble Lords in the Bill, another day was afforded by the Government for its discussion. Indeed, one member of the Opposition, speaking on another Bill, said he hoped that as much time would be given to the Housing Repairs and Rents Bill as had been afforded to the Protection of Birds Bill. Therefore, although it may be argued that a day or so extra before Report stage might in some cases be an advantage, I think no one who looks objectively at that Bill would be able to say that it did not have full examination and discussion. That is all I should like to say this afternoon. The Standing Orders of the House are of the utmost importance to us all. We must have Standing Orders, and in this House, at any rate, they must not be too rigid. I think that over the ages this result has been achieved, and the review which has just taken place has not in any way impaired their character.


My Lords, before the noble Marquess sits down, I should like him to say a word on Standing Order No. 74. I understand (I do not know whether it is correct) that a Standing Order similar to this, which used to be in the Standing Orders of another place, has now disappeared; they have struck it out altogether. I should like to ask the noble Marquess whether he thinks that Standing Order No. 74 would not be better out, because the last thing we contemplate is that it should be a breach of Privilege to publish our proceedings.


My Lords, I understand that the reason why this Standing Order was retained by the Committee which considered this subject was that it was thought the House might require protection in the case of reports which were flagrantly scandalous or unfair. I do not think that would mean that in every case a report of proceedings in this House printed in the Press would be regarded as a breach of privilege. Indeed, clearly it is not. But I think there is something to be said for having a Standing Order which would give protection against abuses of the kind I have described. I understand that in another place there are Standing Orders which have the same effect, and that is the purpose for which this is intended in this House. I think there is no danger of its being too rigidly interpreted.


My Lords, the noble Marquess will observe that this Standing Order makes it a breach of privilege to publish anything, not only scandalous material. In another place I understand that such a matter is brought up as an ordinary matter of Privilege and not as a breach of any Standing Order. I may be mistaken, but I cannot see in the Standing Orders of another place any reference to this question.


My Lords, I think it is hardly for me to take so prominent a part in this discussion; it ought to be left to the noble Earl the Lord Chairman of Committees. We could consider this matter further. That would mean having a Report stage on this subject, which we could have—there is no difficulty about that—if the noble and learned Earl thinks it is important enough to proceed further in this matter. The noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, was himself a member of the Committee which examined this question; therefore, I was a little surprised when he delivered such a trenchant criticism of it. But if the noble and learned Earl would like to have a Report stage, I am sure we should all be very ready to devote a few minutes another day to considering this individual point.


I think we had better look at this matter carefully. I know that we interpret everything sensibly here, and that we should never think of objecting to a reasonable report; but, on the face of it, I feel it is undesirable to have an Order which says that it is a breach of Privilege to publish anything that takes place in this House, when we all know that, so long as the report is a proper report, it is no such thing. I should like the House to have an opportunity of considering whether or not the right thing to do is to take out No. 74 altogether.


I am quite happy that we should consider this matter further. Whether the right course is to take out the Order altogether or to redraft it I do not know; but that is a matter for consideration. I suggest that the best plan would be for the noble and learned Earl, the noble Viscount who leads the Liberal Party and me to consider this point further. We could then have a Report stage which would be of a limited character and deal with this particular subject.


When the matter is being considered further, would it be possible to inquire whether it would be feasible to make it a breach of Privilege not to report the proceedings of the House?


If there were no Standing Order applying at all to Privilege, there would be something to be said for omitting Order No. 74. But here there are several Orders dealing with Privilege. It might be said that if we mentioned three or four things in our Standing Orders that were privileged, then no report however scandalous or improper we considered it, could be treated as a matter of Privilege, because there was no Standing Order about it.

On Question, Motion agreed to: House in Committee accordingly.

[The LORD O'HAGAN in the Chair]

Standing Order No. 1 [Arrangements when Her Majesty is present]:

3.2 p.m.

THE EARL OF DROGHEDA moved, in the proposed new Standing Order No. 1, in the opening paragraph to omit the word "all." The noble Earl said: The proposed new Standing Order No. 1 at present begins as follows: When Her Majesty comes publicly to the House, all the Lords shall be attired in their robes or in such other dress as may be approved by Her Majesty, and shall sit in their due places. It has been pointed out that if that Order were obeyed, and all the Lords of Parliament came, there would be a considerable amount of chaos. The object of this Amendment is to take out the word "all," so that the Order will read, "the Lords shall be attired," and so on. I beg to move.

Amendment moved— Standing Order 1, line 2, leave out ("all").—(The Earl of Drogheda.)


I remember once hearing of an order in this form: "All dogs shall enter this park on leads." If all dogs had compulsorily to go in, it would not be much of a park. I agree with the noble Earl.

On Question, Amendment agreed to.


I think it is right to give your Lordships an opportunity of saying anything you wish to say on Standing Orders between No. 1 and No. 35. If there are no comments, I will pass to Standing Order No. 35.

Standing Order No. 35 [Business of which notice is not necessary]:

THE EARL OF DROGHEDA moved, in the proposed new Standing Order No. 35, in paragraph (5) to substitute "Starred Questions" for "Private Business." The noble Earl said: The purpose of this Amendment is that matters such as Private Notice Questions may be taken after, and not before, Starred Questions. There are two reasons for this. They are, first, that often there is a larger attendance in the House after Starred Questions and, therefore, Private Notice Questions and matters of that kind, which may be important, are heard by more people; and secondly, that Starred Questions often bring to the House representatives of Government Departments, and it is desirable that they should be released from attendance in the House as early as possible. For those two reasons, I beg to move this Amendment.

Amendment moved— Standing Order 35 (5), line 3, leave out ("Private Business") and insert ("Starred Questions").—(The Earl of Drogheda.)

On Question, Amendment agreed to.


There are no other Amendments proposed. In view of the discussion that has already taken place, is it your Lordships' pleasure that I should report the Standing Orders, with Amendments, to the House?


If this is the appropriate place, I should like to say a word or two on the question raised by my noble and learned friend Lord Jowitt on Standing Order No. 74. I have just been looking up Erskine May, and it is there said, on page 118, that The principle on which both Houses act in connection with the publication of false and perverted reports of debates is sufficiently acknowledged. So long as the debates are correctly and faithfully reported, the orders which prohibit their publication are not enforced; but when they are reported malâ fide, the publishers of newspapers are liable to punishment. Does that not appear to be the position here: that we have Standing Order No. 74, and that that Order is not normally enforced so long as the reports are accurate, and not scandalous, and so on? The retention of that Standing Order would enable this House, prima facie, in any appropriate case, to treat it as a breach of Privilege if a debate was not faithfully reported. There are instances, apparently, where misconduct in connection with the publication of debates has been treated as a breach of Privilege. There was actually a case of publishing a false account of proceedings in the House of Lords—I refer to Woodfall's case in 1765. I submit that it is probably desirable to retain this particular Standing Order as it was retained by the Committee, in order to enable the House, in a proper case, without difficulty to treat some false or scandalous report as being a breach of Privilege. Therefore I hope that it will be retained.


The noble and learned Earl, Lord Jowitt, mentioned the words "without leave of the House," and added that the House never gives leave. I would suggest that there is tacit leave of the House, unless something improper is reported, as I believe the noble Lord, Lord Milner of Leeds, intended to convey. This Standing Order, which has been in force for 250 years, has worked quite well on that principle, the only difference being that at the end of the 18th century the B.B.C. was not functioning quite so efficiently as it is to-day, and, therefore, the alteration of the wording apparently takes that point into account.


Would it not meet the position to say that it shall be a breach of privilege to publish "any false or misleading account." The present Order says that it is a breach of Privilege to publish any account at all, but then, completely disregarding the Standing Order, we never take notice of it. We might keep the new Order in reserve, in case somebody misbehaves. Would it not be better to have a Standing Order more limited, and, if anybody misbehaved, by publishing an inaccurate or improper or scandalous report, there would be the machinery to deal with it. That is one of the matters that we will consider between now and the next stage. It might be better to deal with it in that way. There is no standing Order about it, be it observed, in another place.


I do not think anything more is left to be said to-day. This Standing Order No. 74 will be considered and brought before the House again.

House resumed.

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