HL Deb 28 April 1960 vol 223 cc182-94

3.7 p.m.

Order of the Day read for the consideration of the First Report from the Select Committee.

The Committee reported as follows:


The Committee record their opinion that it is undesirable for a Peer to bring forward, promote or advocate in the House any proceeding or measure in which he is or may have been acting or concerned in a professional capacity. The Committee do not, however, feel that it would be necessary to frame a Standing Order or pass a Resolution in this connection.


The Committee recommend that—

  1. (a) Peers who give Her Majesty's Government private notice of their intention to ask a Question on a matter of urgency, should submit their Question in writing to the Leader of the House by Twelve noon on the day on which they propose to ask their Question:
  2. (b) The decision as to whether the Question is of sufficient urgency to justify an immediate reply should rest in the first place with the Leader of the House and ultimately with the general sense of the House.


The Committee recommend that proceedings on Public Bills and Measures should in future have precedence over other Notices on Mondays, as well as on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and that Standing Order No. 35 (Arrangement of the Order Paper) be amended accordingly.


The Committee recommend that the two benches at the lower end of the Barons' Bench (beside Black Rod's box), together with the Cross Benches, should be considered to be the place in the House for Peers who have not aligned themselves to any political Party.


The Committee recommend that, where a Public Bill has been referred to a Joint or Select Committee, the practice of agreeing formally to the amendments made by the Select Committee at the outset of the Committee of the Whole House stage should be discontinued. They consider that in future the Bill before the Committee of the Whole House should be the Bill as amended and reported by the Select Committee. The House would then be able to hold an unrestricted Committee stage on the Bill without prejudicing the powers of the House to review and, if necessary, vary the amendments made by the Select Committee (including the amendments, if any, made in an Unopposed Bill Committee).

The adoption of this procedure would bring the practice of the two Houses into line.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Report be now considered.

Moved, That the Report be now considered.—(Lord Merthyr.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Report be now agreed to. I think that it is drafted in fairly full terms and may possibly speak for itself. But, needless to say, if any of your Lordships wishes to ask any questions about any one of the five parts in the Report I will do my utmost to answer them, and any other points that may be raised.

Moved, That the Report be agreed to.—(Lord Merthyr.)


My Lords, I am sorry that I was unable to be present at the Select Committee, but I understand that the feeling behind this Report is fairly unanimous. I should like to ask a question on Item No. 1, "Peers acting in a professional capacity". Reading this, it looks as if it is intended to confine that to a professional class of Peers. Is that right?




Nevertheless, it is so worded that it might even be extended on occasion. Is it to be understood that all that is being covered by this paragraph is where a Peer is acting in a professional manner for a fee in regard to the particular item to be brought before your Lordships?


My Lords, I think the noble Viscount is quite correct. It is thought by the Committee that if it were to go beyond that it would be too wide. It is intended to be limited to cases where a Member of the House who has acted, or is acting, in a professional capacity, and is therefore a member of one of the professions, is dealing in the House with a matter which is the subject of his professional conduct.


My Lords, I am a member of the Select Committee, but unfortunately I was unable to be present when this matter was discussed. This paragraph strikes me as going far too wide. There seems to be no limit to the matters about which a person acting in a professional capacity is debarred from speaking. For instance, if I may quote a personal case, I act in a professional capacity in town planning matters. Am I therefore debarred from speaking in the House on the kind of town planning problem with which I might be dealing professionally? It may be that that is not the intention of the recommendation, but that is how it reads. It says: The Committee record their opinion that it is undesirable for a Peer to bring forward"— well, one would not bring forward— promote or advocate in the House any proceeding or measure in which he is or may have been acting or concerned in a professional capacity. It might even go to the length of my being precluded from discussing, say, the Town and Country Planning Act, 1959. As it stands, does not this paragraph go too far? I should have thought that if it were limited to bringing forward or promoting, but left out advocating, then, subject to the person advocating doing what is normal in this House—that is, declaring an interest—that would be all right. It is the advocating of something in which the Member has a professional interest that I think makes the thing too wide.


My Lords, perhaps I may reply to the noble Lord before dealing with any other points. If the noble Lord was acting as a town planning consultant or adviser for a fee, then, in my view, this would, in the opinion of the Committee, render it undesirable that he should raise in your Lordships' House a particular matter which was the concern of his client paying him the fee. If, on the other hand, the noble Lord was a town planning consultant and took part in a debate in the House on a Town Planning Bill, there would be no objection whatsoever. I hope that I have made some sort of distinction between what is and what is not intended to be covered. I would underline the words "in a professional capacity". Yesterday we had a debate in which a number of professional men took part who are also Members of your Lordships' House. But I am quite certain that no one, whether this recommendation is agreed to or not, would take any exception to that. As I understand it, it is only if a professional man seeks to promote or further the interests of his client who has paid, or will be paying, him, than objection could possibly be taken.


My Lords, I fully accept the explanation of the noble Lord. But I am afraid that the explanation is not entirely consistent with the wording of this paragraph. If it said that he ought not to further the interests of a particular client, I would absolutely agree with that. But this goes much further than that; that is my difficulty. There is no urgency about this. Would it not be as well to look at the wording again?


My Lords, I should like to add my support to what the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, has said. The words here are: … any proceeding or measure in which he is … acting … It is not any particular case. A proceeding may be a very lengthy affair, in which the particular Peer who is giving his advice to the House may be one of the best people we could have to give that advice. It is obviously wrong for a Peer to promote or bring forward such a proposal; but to advocate it, provided that he makes his position quite clear and declares his interest, would seem to me to be in the best interests of this House.

Why should professional men be singled out? Here in your Lordships' House we have Peers who are farmers or landowners, or interested in the steel trade, in shipbuilding, aircraft supplies or aircraft use. They come along and they advocate that large sums of public money should be paid to them or to their industries from which they take a direct benefit. Apparently that is quite permissible, and is often done. We make no objection, because we know that they have a point of view and are expressing the point of view of an industry; and it is right, provided we know their interest, that we should hear it. I fail to see why a professional man should be singled out for this treatment whereas industrialists, farmers and others who are Peers are free to express any point of view, whether or not it is to their own advantage.


My Lords, I must apologise for not having been here at the commencement of the debate. I did not know that this matter was coming on to-day, and I have only just seen the Report. I do not think it came to us with our Papers this morning. If I may say so, one ought to know what is in the Vote Office. I do not rememher seeing this on the Pink List. I think it would be convenient if Reports coming up in the House could be sent to us automatically, without our having to go and search for them. Perhaps the Whips could see to that.

I think it would be well to look at this matter again. There is no great hurry about it. I was concerned very closely with my noble friend the late Lord Addison, when he was Leader of the House, on the question of what was to happen about members of the National Boards. We arrived, with, I think, complete agreement, on what the formula should be. I think there is a clear distinction between the professional man and a Peer who has an interest simply because he is a landowner, a farmer or a steel-maker. We should be completely limited in the field of discussion in this House if we said that nobody was to talk about anything in which he had an interest. Discussion would be confined to those noble Lords who knew very little about the subject on which they were speaking, and it would be a great pity if landowners, farmers, doctors—and even lawyers—were not able to express an opinion. The form is quite clear—a noble Lord declares his personal interest when he speaks. As I see it, what is aimed at is this. A professional man is somebody who is briefed by another person to represent his interest. That is quite proper: that is what he is there for. A lawyer, whether he be a solicitor or a barrister, or some other form of consultant, is retained by a particular client in order to represent his interest. The commonest example, of course, with which we are acquainted here is the Parliamentary Agent who is promoting a Bill.

I should have thought there was a clear distinction: it is clearly undesirable that a professional man who has been, quite properly, retained to represent a client's interest should, in his other capacity as a Member of this House—although of course he declares his interest—advocate his client's interest by speaking in this House. I say that for this reason. It is difficult to draw hard and fast lines (for example, of the difference between day and night) but we know a distinction pretty clearly when we see it, and for a Peer to act in this way would be, I think, going much too far. Moreover, it might lead to a man outside (though I am sure Peers would be wrongly so regarded) saying, "I think I had better retain so-and-so"—somebody who is either a Member of the House of Lords or another place—"as my professional adviser". That, I think, would be wholly undesirable. I think, for those reasons, that there is a perfectly clear distinction between a professional man and the ordinary case of someone who has an interest. If that be, as I conceive it is, what was in the minds of the Committee when they drew up this Report, if the wording as it stands does not clearly express it, then by all means have another look at it. But if this matter is to go back or be adjourned I hope that it would be the sense of the House that in what I have said I have expressed the common view of all noble Lords and that all we want now are the appropriate words.


My Lords, I want to apologise to the House, the Lord Chairman and the Committee for being absent from the last meeting of the Procedure Committee. I was not very well, but I could have been there and ought to have been there, and I am sorry. With regard to the point under immediate discussion I should like to say that I have been ransacking my memory of the last 25 years and I do not remember any single case in this House which would have necessitated paragraph 1 of this Report before your Lordships. I do not remember any single case of a Peer doing anything such as the noble Earl has just mentioned.

There is, however, one other point upon this subject which I do not think should pass without your Lordships' notice, Whether you refer paragraph 1 back to the Committee or not, I am quite sure the Government will wish to pass paragraph 3 at this particular Sitting. We do not know how many Mondays they have in store for us. As we sit on Mondays only when there is great pressure of Government business and it is important to get Government business transacted, I acquiesce in the findings of the Committee about paragraph 3.

There is one point I would make which often passes without your Lordships' notice, and that is this: that your Lordships' House is perhaps the last place where a private person can get a wrong from which he has suffered, or thinks he has suffered, thoroughly threshed out, brought before the Government and ventilated, and the Government can have an opportunity of answering it and answering it fully. As things are, we know and we acquiesce in the fact that the Opposition really have first call on Wednesdays and take them up very much with their own Business. There is considerable pressure from the Opposition for Notices of Motion on Wednesdays. While we must naturally acquiesce in the Motion before your Lordships, it ought to be noted by your Lordships that this precedence of Motions on Mondays which has hitherto existed, which has given the private citizen an opportunity which he would not otherwise have of getting a wrong thoroughly ventilated, may on some future occasion have to be reversed.


My Lords, I do not think we want unduly to prolong the discussion, but I should like to say that I am in complete agreement with what the noble Earl, Lord Swinton, has said as to what he understands to be the intention of the Committee in putting forward this recommendation. What I have contended is that I do not think that these words carry out the intention of the Committee. I think they go very much further. I think they go so far beyond the intention of the Committee as to inflict possibly a hardship, and certainly great inconvenience on the House itself. So I should be content if paragraph 1 were referred back. I have no comment on the other paragraphs at all.


My Lords, in the absence of my noble friend the Leader of the House, may I say that it would, of course, be perfectly in order to refer back the first paragraph and pass the Report with that deleted. I think I should say that the Committee undoubtedly had in mind exactly what Amy noble friend Lord Swinton has outlined. But they felt that it was not necessary to go so far as what I might call the "Addison declaration" of some years ago on nationalised industries. If the House would prefer something as definite as that, I am quite sure the Committee could produce it; but in the circumstances think that the right thing would be to refer this first paragraph back to the Committee for further consideration.


I have nothing to say about the matter immediately under discussion, but I have one or two words to offer about the Report in general. Speaking as one who was for many years, 37 I think, in the House of Commons, and 19 years in your Lordships' House, I find very noticeable the immense difference between the procedure here and there. Whereas there the procedure is always a contest for advantage, here there is a spirit of accommodation which is aimed at giving the fullest use to this House to the great amount of ability and experience contained in it. There is one thing I notice which gives me considerable gratification, and that is in paragraph 4. The Cross-Benches are reserved for people who do not desire to associate themselves with a political Party, particularly with the Government.




I notice paragraph 4 points out that the Cross-Benches are becoming overcrowded and it is therefore necessary to allot another part of the House for those who wish to sit and mark their disapproval in this silent way. There are a great many practical difficulties. I do not know who orders the seating, but who is going, for example, to evict the noble Lord, Lord Amwell, under paragraph 4 if he sits there. Suppose he will not go.


The noble Viscount cannot count. The noble Lord, Lord Amwell, is sitting on the third Bench.


How many Benches are you going to give for the overflow of dissidents?


According to the Report, two.


Then so long as Lord Amwell does not come down one it is all right. But if not, who would evict him? I do not know whether there is any power, a tipstaff or anyone who comes along and tells you where you may or may not sit.

To my mind, the most interesting and practical part of the Report is that it deals with Questions. There is the greatest difference in the world between questioning in the House of Commons and questioning in your Lordships' House. Questioning in the House of Commons has two purposes. One is to express the opinion of a representative. A man who is a Member of Parliament speaks and brings up a point because he is representative of somebody. Nobody here is representative of anybody and therefore that part of the status of the questioner has disappeared. The other point about the Question is that it really is an extension of the Commons principle of grievance before Supply. A Member asks his Question and pushes his point because he knows that the Commons as a whole have a right to control the Government by means of Supply. Here we have nothing at all to do with Supply. Therefore, a Question in the House of Lords is something much more like a debate and much less like a House of Commons Question.

There has been an idea that in regard to Questions, we should expand on the basis of the House of Commons. I do not agree. In Standing Orders and the Companion Questions are hardly mentioned—I do not know whether they are mentioned at all. How should we foster this development of debate? We can make a speech on the Motion for the Adjournment; we have the Private Notice Question; we have ordinary Questions and we have Written Questions. How can they best be used for bringing into full play the ability that exists in this House? I do not suggest any restrictions or rules. If one looks at Erskine May one will find a compact body of restrictions about putting Questions: you must not be vituperative; you must not make an insinuation, and you must not even be artistic. But everybody knows that the Table here receives many Questions which are meant in fun, or at any rate have an element of fun in them, which is strictly forbidden in the House of Commons. I do not think that we should restrict Questions. The noble Earl, Lord Arran, the other day put down for debate a Motion to call attention to the Press. That is about as wide a subject as anything could be. I thought about putting down a Question to ask the Government whether it would be fine for Bank Holiday. I do not think the Table would have the least power to restrict me in putting such a Question.

That is the great difference between the House of Commons and the House of Lords. In the House of Commons there is, first of all, a Speaker with definite and undisputed authority, who is surrounded by a bastion at the Table. I tried to put down many Questions in my time in the House of Commons, and it was not easy to get by the Table. Once the Table has said "No", it is "No". But here there is no such power exercised by the Table. I think that that is a good thing. I shall be delighted to hear what Lord Arran has to say in calling attention to the Press, or to the weather or anything else. We had not long ago Lord Ailwyn's Question about the habits of animals and lamp-posts. That was a most stimulating, although brief, debate. I think all this makes for interest, and is one of the reasons for the increase in attendance which has been most noticeable in this House in the last six to eight months.


My Lords, may I interrupt the noble Viscount for one moment? I think he will find that the Table has a great influence and power in this House, but that it is silently exercised.


My Lords, I am sure that the Clerks at the Table, and the Clerk of the Parliaments, who I am sorry is unable to be present, will be most gratified at that unsolicited testimonial. I think myself that the freedom of Questions should be permitted. That brings me in particular to a recommendation which I greatly welcome—namely, the recommendation touching Private Notice Questions. One or two things are made quite clear in this definition of a Private Notice Question. One is that the rights of all Members of the House are equal: that is to say, that there is no Member designated with a special right to ask a Private Notice Question. We all have the right, subject to the matter being one of urgency. In the first place, the decision in that matter is in the hands of the Leader of the House. Speaking for myself, and I believe for others, with that I think we are entirely satisfied. Whereas if the Speaker in the Commons says that it is not urgent, it is not urgent, here if the Leader of the House says, "I do not think this is urgent", then the Member, if he considers it is urgent, has the right to make representations, and the Leader is enabled to fortify his judgment, as he can easily do, by a general appeal to the House.

But on the matter of Private Notice Questions there are certain special elements worth noticing. What is urgency? A thing may not be urgent on Thursday but it may be most urgent on Tuesday. To give an example, a conference is going on touching the powers of the Rhodesian Government. We read about that in the papers. Sir Edgar Whitehead is to leave for South Africa on Saturday. If I wish to ask a Question about that (though I may be perfectly satisfied with the efforts being made by the Government) I must put it to-day, because if I do not put it to-day the Question has no relevance at all. Therefore, relevance in regard to urgency is rather a different thing in this House from urgency in the other House.

As regards general debates I have a number of ideas, but I do not know whether they would commend themselves to your Lordships: for instance, a fixed hour for the rising of the House. Perhaps that might be convenient. I do not know. However, there are plenty of opportunities, if they are used with discretion, for private Members to express their views before your Lordships. I entirely agree with Lord Saltoun that we have something which is beyond price—namely, the right to say what we like if we think it is right that we should say it. One can truly say, in Shakespeare's famous words, that this House wears yet a precious jewel in its head.

3.37 p.m.


My Lords, before the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr answers, may I say that I should like to support the general sense of the House which has been expressed to-day in respect of paragraph 1. I think it is quite obvious that the general meaning of the Committee is fully understood and appreciated, but that the wording needs some alteration. I have no doubt that the Lord Chairman will take the necessary action. With regard to paragraph 2, about which we have just been addressed by the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, who I think regards himself as not representative of anybody. I would point out that the members of both his Party and mine feel that the present electoral system is rather out-dated, and there is no reason to think that Members of this House are not any more representative than are Members of the other House.


My Lords, I am an older member of the Liberal Party than the noble Lord; but just because they are pulling down the premises opposite, which were the great fortress of Liberalism in the old days, one should not abandon Liberal principles. Our case has always been that this is not a representative House.


I take that view from the noble Viscount; but, if I may say so, I rather think that his views are a little behind the times, especially as he seems to support the newspaper to which he referred the other day. With regard to paragraph 3, which deals with the precedence of Public Bills over Notices on Mondays, I should like to agree with Lord Saltoun that while Government Business should be given precedence on Mondays, we should not make this the prerogative of the Government, but should restore to individual Members the use of Mondays for Private Business.


My Lords, may I just say that if the Chief Whip thinks it is essential to get this Report through as a document to-day, I do not mind so long as there is to be a reconsideration of paragraph 1, perhaps with the exclusion of the word "advocate" in this particular sense; and having looked at the debate that we have had and the views that have been expressed, the points that were put by the noble Earl, Lord Swinton, will be met.


My Lords, I have inquired and it is perfectly in order for us to pass the Report of this Committee with the deletion of paragraph 1, which would then be referred back and brought forward again in due course.

3.40 p.m.


My Lords, if I may say just a few words in conclusion, I should like to assure the House that, whether this wording is good or faulty, the intention of the Committee was to make a sharp distinction against the professional man who has accepted or will accept a fee in his professional capacity from promoting the cause of a client in the House. Your Lordships may think it would be undesirable that a person outside the House, by seeking the services of a Member of this House, should therefore gain an advantage over another person who did not do so. I should like, therefore, to give the assurance that that is the intention. Whether or not the wording carries out that intention is another matter, and I am perfectly prepared, if your Lordships wish it, to take this matter back and look at it again, and to ask the Committee to do so—because it is the Committee's Resolution.

As I understood him, the noble Lord, Lord Ogmore, did not like the distinction between the professional man acting in that capacity, on the one hand, and the businessman advocating the general interests of his business on the other. It is a matter of opinion for the House as to whether there should or should not be this distinction; but I just wanted to make clear that the intention of the Committee was that they should make the distinction, as has been put so clearly by the noble Earl, Lord Swinton.

I am very glad that it has now been made perfectly plain that the noble Lord, Lord Amwell, will not be unseated and that he will be able to continue to sit in his accustomed place, which we all know so well, without any embarrassment whatsoever. I hope that the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, will forgive me if I do not comment on his very interesting speech, because in the course of his remarks he did not, I think, ask any questions or raise any point calling for a reply from me. After what has been said I should like, if I have the permission of the House to do so, to amend my Motion and to move now that the last four paragraphs of this Report be agreed to.

On Question, Motion, as amended, agreed to.