HL Deb 13 July 1965 vol 268 cc128-48

4.0 p.m.

Debate resumed.


My Lords, it may seem a long way back from Sir Winston Churchill to a debate on shorter speeches, but I remember the advice which that great man once gave to a certain junior Minister in his Government who had expressed himself at some length. "Come to the point, my boy", he said, "Come to the point by all means, but do not camp on it". My Lords, this, I think, is the theme which the noble Lord, Lord Egremont, has given us to-clay. The longest speech I ever heard in your Lordships' House was delivered by Maynard Keynes, the late Lord Keynes, on his return from America, when we were debating the American loan. He spoke in your Lordships' House for nearly an hour and a quarter, but it was not one minute too long. Equally, I remember the late Lord Halifax turning your Lordships' House completely round—and your Lordships' House takes some turning round—on the subject of Indian reform. He did it in only nine minutes.

The lesson to be drawn from this surely is that there is no hard and fast rule, and I hope your Lordships will make no hard and fast rule about the length of speeches in this House. As the noble Lord, Lord Egremont, and other speakers have pointed out, it is an easy thing to make a long speech but a very difficult thing to make a short speech. In some respects, a speech is like a love affair: any fool can start one, but to end it requires considerable skill.

May I offer one or two practical suggestions? I do not agree with those of your Lordships who have suggested that a member of the Government developing the Second Reading of a Bill should be granted unlimited licence. I suggest that when a Bill has been through another place, has been debated in detail and has been threshed out in the councils of the nation, it does not require quite such a full development from the Front Bench as would a Bill introduced into your Lordships' House for the first time. I would also suggest that although courtesy demands that points raised by your Lordships in a long debate upon a Motion should be answered from the Front Bench, there are certain occasions when time has marched on and when a courteous letter on individual points might save your Lordships much discomfiture.

But, my Lords, the verdict rests with us: the remedy is in our own hands. We have no Speaker in this House. The Lord Chancellor cannot take his revenge on lengthy speakers by calling them late in the day or calling them not at all. This, however, is something which I think the Whips might fix between themselves much more effectively, and much more vigorously, than they do. We can, of course, as the noble Baroness, Lady Gaitskell, suggests, march out to tea noisily in the middle of a speech by the noble Lord, Lord X—who, as we know, always makes a speech which sounds as if it is going to last a fortnight but actually goes on for only ten days.

My Lords, may we not take a few lessons from the late Lord Exeter, who always maintained that your Lordships were far too polite. Well do I remember him sitting over there in his corner, with his stick between his knees—and a very considerable piece of timber it was, too. When one of your Lordships (who is incidentally in his place to-day) persisted in addressing the House at uncomfortable fulness, the noble Marquess, Lord Exeter, banged the ground with his stick and, in an ear-splitting sotto voce remarked, "Thundering ass this fellow: always was—and no improvement, damn it, no improvement!" The noble Lord sat down at once and never again made a speech while Lord Exeter was there. My Lords, would that we had more Lord Exeters in this House!

I have one more suggestion to make. We have one drastic Motion in this House—that a certain noble Lord be no longer heard. It has, I think, been moved only two or three times in the 23 years I have had the honour to be a Member of your Lordships' House, and that is quite enough. May I suggest a gentler Motion, which might be moved by some attentive noble Lord at the end of a speech which had lasted a fortnight? Could we not move that the noble Lord be not heard again until next October? I say that with the comfortable assurance that I do not think, as matters now stand, I shall myself be addressing your Lordships again before next October.

4.4 p.m.


My Lords, after the absolutely terrifying speech of the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, I hope your Lordships will forgive me if I take one extra half minute to sympathise with the noble Lord, Lord Raglan, in the most unpleasant experience he had when coming to make his maiden speech—to have his car break down and then to lose his notes. But I must say that what he said was said with the utmost charm, and I hope we shall hear him many times again.

Although it is probably true that we should be able to deal with our business just as well, and enjoy it more, if all speeches were shorter, I suspect that what we really want is dull speeches to be shorter and entertaining ones longer. But which of us can be relied upon to oblige in either of those two categories? However, I cordially support the Motion as it stands, in all its laconic splendour.

As a child, I used to get much of my information about the imbecilities of grown-up life from the drawings of a great but now forgotten social cartoonist named W. K. Haselden. One feature that he liked to make fun of was our elders' morbid addiction to public speeches, their distress at the length of them and their inability to control them; and he suggested a contrivance for terminating the interminable in a picture of a whitebearded preacher in his pulpit. The venerable bore was in the act of saying, "And 66thly …", when down came a domed lid and totally extinguished him.

When I grew up, I discovered it to be a fact of oratorical life that a member of an audience will often say afterwards, "Jolly good!, but the speeches were far too long"; whereas he will very seldom say, "The speeches were far too short". But in this House, of course, "How long is too long?" is the great question. We all know that one of the most famous speeches in history, Lincoln's at Gettysburg, lasted just about two minutes and made very little impression at the time. In fact, The Times reporter there wrote this: The inauguration of the cemetery of Gettysburg was an imposing ceremony, only rendered somewhat flat by the nature of Mr. Everett's lecture, and ludicrous by some of the luckless sallies of that poor President Lincoln, who seems determined to play in this great American Union the part of the famous Governor of the Isle of Barataria. That was all he had to say about Lincoln on that memorable day.

Lord Chandos, in his memoirs, said, on the subject of speeches, that Gladstone and Lloyd George both believed that the larger the audience the greater must be the dilution". and that the author himself had put that successfully to the test. This may explain why Lincoln's undiluted words failed to move the vast American crowd. Most of us in this House are quite used to addressing a couple of dozen, or fewer, of our fellow Peers, as the evening wears on. I myself have never spoken to more than a fraction of the number that I am speaking to at this moment. But I should suppose that the converse of Lord Chandos's maxim applies here: that the smaller the audience the greater must be the concentration of language.

My Lords, a man can say some astonishing things in five minutes, even in two, and he will not make them any more astonishing—even less so—by saying them, like the unwise thrush, twice over. For repetition, as has been said already, is a speaker's commonest fault—a case, if I may invert the old Latin tag, of parvum in multo. I think we get so much of this in Parliament because speakers, especially Ministers, simply have not the time to review and compress their arguments. Like Mark Antony, they just speak right on. A telling example of this occurred not long ago in your Lordships' House, when a speaker—and I name no names—by no means the least intelligent occupant of one of the Front Benches, was talking about a piteous case of hardship. In his fifteen-minute speech, he mentioned that it was a "tragic case" or a "tragedy" seven times. We all do this kind of thing, my Lords. It is too easily done; and I cannot suggest any remedy for it. Speaking from scripts, except when obviously necessary, is discouraged, I know, but if they are good scripts they can help to keep matters within bounds.

The noble Lord, Lord Carrington, mentioned that one's own speeches tend to interest oneself excessively, if not exclusively. And of course, that keeps one going on and on. But I can remember a signal exception to this, perpetrated years ago by one of my fellow Peers on the Cross-Benches—now, alas! no longer here. After he had spoken, he was asked, according to the custom, to lend his notes for the OFFICIAL REPORT. I shall never forget the disgusted relief with which he parted from them, nor his words, which endeared him to me from that moment. "Here you are", he muttered, "I never want to see them again." Normally, I suppose, we Back-Benchers and Cross-Benchers rise to speak when there is a subject on which we feel strongly. Then, as the blood warms, the words multiply. Certain topics, such as trade unionism, the United Nations, bombs, racialism, injustices and all kinds and breeds of "under-doggery" can be counted on to lead to verbal inflation.

Although I am glad to say that I speak very seldom, and always as briefly as I can, there was an occasion, last December, in a debate on disarmament, when I seemed to find it impossible, even after hours of diligent cerebration, to expound my case against the declared policies of all three Parties in under twenty-two minutes: which was twice as long as I had intended. Had I spoken for thrice, or even half, as long, it would not have made any difference, because I convinced no one, and I broke my own semi-elastic ten-minute rule.

This Motion appeals to me because it bears upon one of my strong beliefs which I have expressed before in your Lordships' House: that there is, broadly speaking, everywhere too much of so much, and most of it very much of a muchness, too. In this howling waste of words, mere statements of intent will afford no refuge. The only thing one can exercise is self-discipline. That again has been said before; so you see, my Lords, how one has to repeat. If Parliament were merely, as its name implies, a place for talking, it might not matter how lavishly words were spent; but it is primarily a place of business, and since it is largely true that time is money, we ought to look to the economy of our sessions. If speeches were shorter, the House could hear more speakers, more points of view, and the variety would serve to hold one's attention. I myself have never actually fallen asleep when listening, although, I am, of course, familiar with the fable of the noble Lord who dreamt that he was making a speech and awoke to find that he was. But I should suppose that if there were more and briefer speakers, there would be fewer and briefer sleepers.

I am not hopeful that this debate will have a stunning effect upon the length of speeches; but I think that those of us who can spare the time to collect and sift our thoughts beforehand might make an attempt to be less prolix. And if the public persist in holding the comic-opera view that the House of Peers does "nothing in particular", would it not be a noble gesture to demonstrate that it does it not only—as W. S. Gilbert admitted—"very well", but quite briskly, too.

4.14 p.m.


My Lords, I should like in the first place to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Egremont, on bringing this Motion before the House. It looks to me, from the satisfactory way in which the debate has been proceeding, as if this Motion may indeed be carried. In this event, as most noble Lords seem to think it will be forgotten in the course of time, I have one possible suggestion to hold out. I am not suggesting that the right reverend Prelate who reads the Prayers should be responsible for carrying out this suggestion, but perhaps the noble and learned Lord who sits on the Woolsack might remind the House before the opening speeches each day that this Motion was passed by this House on July 13, 1965. It would not delay Business for very long in view of its brevity: That speeches in this House should be shorter. It could not be much briefer.

I agree, however, that we do not want rules and regulations passed to regulate these matters. I hope that this House will so conduct its affairs as to be able to continue to enjoy its unfettered freedom. That, in my opinion, is one of the great beauties of this House. Having spent a good many years in another place, I sometimes think to myself that since 1923 I must have listened to more speeches than almost anybody else alive. I certainly had to listen to a great many during my twelve years as a Whip, and it was difficult to listen to the whole of all of them. At any rate, it was a long haul.

Although I am very much against rules, there is one rule which crosses my mind which might be of value, and that is a rule to enable constant repetition to be got rid of, because it is very boring and tedious for the listener. But there is always the other side of any question One must bear in mind, that in The Hunting of the Snark Lewis Carroll wrote: When I say it three times, it is true. That is in favour of repetition, but I do not think that Lewis Carroll was necessarily thinking of Parliament when he wrote those words.

I should have thought that ten or twelve minutes would be ample for the ordinary Back Bench speaker and, say, twenty or twenty-five minutes for the Government spokesman or the main Opposition speaker dealing with a Second Reading or an important debate. But I agree with my noble friend Lord Baldwin of Bewdley that you cannot lay down any hard and fast rules—at any rate, I do not think so. One does not want lights of red or green flashing on and off in this Chamber like traffic lights. I hope we shall not come to that. But, as we know, in another place rules and closures and such things as the guillotine had to be resorted to in order to get the business through. I very much hope it will not be necessary in your Lordships' House.

I trust that the noble Baroness, Lady Spencer-Churchill, will forgive my mentioning this, but I remember that the late Sir Winston Churchill once said to me after I had sat down in another place, having been winding-up for the Government on a housing debate, "Why do you let them interrupt you so often?" I replied, "I can answer that at once. It is because when the Labour Party opposite interrupt me I can sit down and have a little rest while I listen to them. Then I have to get up and go on again until 10 o'clock when we have the Division." I think he saw the point. I added, "You may notice that I did not sit down during the last two or three minutes. I had to get off my last two or three sentences. That was important."

The noble Earl, Lord Attlee, mentioned after-dinner speakers. Some years ago I read in a book of a man who went to deliver his first important after-dinner speech. He had rehearsed it. When he came home afterwards his wife said to him, "Well, dear, how did you make out?". He replied, "I think I can truthfully say that my speech was moving, soothing and satisfying." His wife asked, "What do you mean by that?". He replied, "I know that it was moving because after ten minutes half of the audience moved out; I know it was soothing because after another ten minutes the other half were asleep; and I am quite sure it was satisfying because when I sat down the man opposite woke up and said, "Well, we have had enough of that something fool, anyway!".

4.19 p.m.


My Lords, I share the doubts of the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, about the wisdom of limiting the length of speeches in your Lordships' House. One of the attractions of this House is its intimate nature and I venture to think that this would be spoilt by regimentation.

I am only "a new boy" here; this is only my third Session. I am still fascinated by the atmosphere of this House—its informality, its spontaneity, its expertise, the extreme courtesy and the occasional flashes of wit. Of course, there are difficulties with so many competent speakers, such a wealth of information and so much involvement in public affairs outside the House, international, national and local. With the increase in the number of active Peers the pressure is likely to get worse. The continual accession of new Life Peers in your Lordships House adds strength to it and is much to be welcomed. Hence, as we do not impose the discipline of a Speaker, as in another place, each must ask himself whether he has anything really valuable to contribute, as the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, said.

Disraeli was once asked by a young member whether he should intervene in a debate, and Disraeli said, "Better that people should ask why you did not than why you did." We do not have to speak in order to show our electors that we are active in their interests. It is really a question of self-discipline which is the basis of good taste. We should speak on a subject only if we have expert knowledge, or a considerable interest, or strongly felt individual points of view or if we wish to indicate our support for or feeling against a particular proposal—which should not take more than a few minutes—or Front Bench exposition of Party policy, or the views of the Church.

There are, of course, drastic methods of limitation. A Professor of Byzantine Art told me that in the Agora Museum, in Athens, there is a water-clock, used in ancient days, which was set for twenty minutes. If the clock ran out, a speaker was exiled. That, I venture to say, is too drastic. There are other methods of limitation. We could have fiscal control, a tax based on the length of the speech, steeply progressive, with a double tariff after 7 p.m. But that would not be fair because some speak slowly and others speak quickly. I would venture to say that quickness of speech is not to be encouraged. Some speak a lot and say very little, but they say it so elegantly, so disarmingly and with so much wit that we are always glad to hear them.

If I may be permitted to make a suggestion, it would be that some members seem to try to cover too wide a field at too great a length, and they speak too rapidly or too superficially. I am an old broadcaster and a trainer of broadcasters. In broadcasting, where you cannot be seen, you have to make a point three times; with visible audiences you make it twice, and when you write you make it only once because people can re-read it if they have not understood it the first time. So in this House we must for clarity sometimes repeat major points, which reduces even more the time available. Hence, in a fifteen to twenty minute speech, speaking not too fast, and with adequate development and clarity, it is impossible to make more than four to six points, devoting three or four minutes to each.

I hope, therefore, that my suggestions may be accepted—no artificial limitations; only intervene when you have a real contribution to make; only make four to six points. This should not exhaust the patience of the House. I was once blamed by the Whips for speaking short, but I venture to suggest that that is not an insult to your Lordships and should be welcomed. Some of the best contributions which I have heard in this place have been short and succinct, and I hope that no lower limit is suggested.

4.25 p.m.


My Lords, as we all know, this is a debate on shorter speeches, and I certainly do not intend to trouble your Lordships for more than a few minutes any more than those other speakers who have preceded me. But I should like to say this. This, I can assure your Lordships, is no new problem. I imagine that it dates back to the days of Simon de Montfort. Certainly it has been in existence ever since I have been a Member of this House. To quote a single instance, I remember very well, during the war, when we were sitting in what is now the Queen's Robing Room, an occasion when a distinguished member of the Government had been expounding a very technical Bill with, perhaps, unnecessary detail. The noble Lord, Lord FitzAlan, who was an old Parliamentary hand, was sitting just behind the speaker, and when the speaker sat down the noble Lord was heard to remark in a stentorian aside which echoed through the House, "Could have been said in ten minutes". Since then I have often said to myself, as I have heard speakers ambling rather discursively through their speeches, "Could have been said in ten minutes".

My Lords, I suppose we should all agree—or perhaps it is a normal human feeling—that there is a tendency for some speeches to occupy more time in this House than perhaps could be justified. But, frankly, I do not believe it possible—and here I agree with what was said by my noble friend Lord Stuart of Findhorn—in a Chamber of this kind, for us to do what I suspect that in their hearts of hearts some noble Lords would like to do: that is, pass rules and regulations to limit the length of speeches to such-and-such a time. We simply cannot do it.

This my Lords, is not a school debating society. This is a great deliberative Assembly, I suppose one of the greatest in the world, and we cannot treat the Members as if they were irresponsible children. There are, of course, some speeches the length of which clearly should not be shortened; on the contrary, every word in them tends to enrich the debate. There are some subjects which cannot be dealt with in five or ten minutes. In these circumstances, I should have thought—and probably everyone else would take the same view—that limitation of speeches must clearly come not from imposing rules on the House but from the voluntary action of noble Lords themselves. It is surely not too much to ask of them that they should consider whether all the points they wish to make are really of equal importance or whether they have not already been made by someone else.

I remember a story told of the late Lord Balfour, who was for some time Leader of the House of Commons. He once said that he had never heard a speech there that had not in it one really good point. And then he added, after a pause, that he had "very seldom heard a speech which had more than one good point". My Lords, that is a sobering reflection for us all, and we ought to bear it in mind when preparing speeches.

Indeed, I myself should be inclined, with great diffidence, to echo what has been said already by the Leader of the Opposition, that what might sometimes be a fault in this House, even more than the length of speeches, is the number of speeches. The situation in your Lordships' House is, in some ways, rather different from that in another place. There the Members represent constituencies and constituents may well expect their Member to raise some special point, or intervene on some issue of special importance to them. We have no constituents, so that aspect, perhaps fortunately, does not arise.

Moreover, I think we may fairly claim to be called a body of experts. I do not believe there is any subject—I have never known one—that could be raised here on which we should not be able to find, among the Members of this House, some of the greatest experts in the country. I recall a debate in this House not so long ago, and the subject, if I remember aright, was the situation in the Northern Province of Kenya. We had contributions from several noble Lords who had spent a considerable part of their lives there and could speak with personal knowledge. I am quite certain that the same would be true of debates on, say, atomic energy, poliomyelitis, or the care of paintings by Old Masters. There is no subject, I believe, on which we cannot produce a great authority, and to such people, who speak with real authority, this House will always listen with deep interest, even if they speak for quite a long time. But with people who speak merely because they wish to air their views, though it may be a subject on which they have no special knowledge—and I am afraid we have all been guilty of this at one time or another—the House quickly gets bored.

Therefore, I feel that we should ask ourselves, especially on technical subjects, rather in the manner of impending travellers during the last war, "Is my speech really necessary?". If we did that, I am sure, rather than by any rules and regulations, we should both shorten the duration and lengthen the value of your Lordships' debates.

4.30 p.m.


My Lords, if you are agreed that repetition is wrong, it would be wrong to be repetitious, even about repetition; and as most of the points I was going to make have now been made, I shall touch briefly on two things, then I shall sit down. I think that the real achievement of this debate is in recognising the problem and in the very broad degree of agreement about how it should be tackled. My father used to say, when in the House of Commons, that apart from speeches from Government speakers on the Budget and on other great questions, you can get any subject into 20 minutes, if you know what you are talking about, but that if you do not, then you are likely to talk much longer. I think that that will be broadly agreed.

Many noble Lords, I think, have in mind that Peerage is a duty and not a privilege, and they feel that they are fulfilling their duty the more fully the longer and the more often they speak—an honest but, to my mind, mistaken view. I think that there must always be long speeches. There was the famous speech of the noble Lord, Lord Keynes, which I well remember. I am glad to see the noble Baroness, Lady Gaitskell, here. It was the enviable reputation of the late Hugh Gaitskell that he could make a 40-minute speech sound like a 20-minute speech. But your Lordships have heard in this House a great many 30-minute speeches in the last few years which have sounded exactly like 30-minute speeches.

It was said of Pascal, the French philosopher and writer, that he once met one of his friends and said, "I wrote you a very long letter to-day. Time did not allow me to compose a short one." I think that when, as a Back-Bencher in your Lordships' House, one comes down with a long speech, it is because it is not properly prepared, and thereby one confers no very great compliment on the House. Last of all, I think that if too many speeches and too long speeches are made, a kind of oratorical Gresham's Law takes hold, by which bad speeches tend to drive good speeches out of circulation. And on that note, I express my support for the mover of this Motion. I believe that it is said in philosophy that it is not the duty of the philosopher to find an answer, but to state the problem accurately. We find ourselves with a broad measure of agreement on the statement to-day.


My Lords, everything that I could have said has been better said before me, so, having just said that I wholeheartedly support my noble friend's Motion, I will resume my seat.

4.33 p.m.


My Lords, as we have heard, brevity of speech is a great quality. Since I have come into Parliament I have been in no doubt as to which sex has the greater quality of brevity. This was driven home to me by my Professor of Logic at New College, Professor Joseph. I remember that one day he threw my essay back at me and said, "This is slovenly work. Take it home; cut out every unnecessary sentence and every unnecessary word, and bring it back next week." I conscientiously carried out his instructions and my essay dwindled from four pages to one. "That," said Professor Joseph, "is quite good and worth listening to." I wonder whether, if we took Hansard home the day after we had made speeches and went through this exercise ourselves, it might not be a salutary lesson. Of course, one can err on the side of brevity, like the short-story writer who was told by his publisher to condense his stories a little more. The next story he sent in read as follows: Three girls set out on a tramp. The tramp died. The proposer of a Motion and whoever has to wind up for the Government must have a little more latitude than ordinary Back Benchers, but it is sad to think of all the wise words we have not heard because some noble Lords have (to use an un-Parliamentary term) "hogged" all the time. When we think of what a successful tyrant a baby is, getting everything he or she wants without uttering an intelligible word, and that the dog is a man's best friend—presumably because he cannot answer back—while I do not suggest that the noble Earl the Leader of the House should emulate the baby or the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition, the dog, we might remember these qualities that get their way without long speeches.

The Lord Privy Seal has assured me that your Lordships like your medicine diluted. From his point of view, if he has to administer bitter pills, he must use gentle words to dilute their bitterness. I am certain that we have some sympathy for the noble Earl, because he shared Professor Joseph with me in our younger days, though perhaps he may not have taken his lessons so assiduously to heart as I did. I do not want to diminish his pleasure in seeing me get up by taking too long in sitting down, after, I hope, having spoken for not too long.

4.36 p.m.


My Lords, I find this a terrifying experience, as brevity is the essence of what we are aiming at and most of the points which I have put together have been made. But there are two points which have only just been touched on, and which I would mention to your Lordships. The first is the question of read speeches, which has been mentioned, but I should like to emphasise it. It seems to me that we could do more to limit the use of read speeches. A read speech, which must in any case savour of the midnight oil, cannot hut be repetitive, because it is impossible for the reader to pick and choose matters which have already been referred to in the debate.

The second point which I would emphasise is one which the noble Lord, Lord Silkin mentioned, the necessity for speeches of a longer length from the Front Benches on both sides. In that respect I go all the way with the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft. It is necessary that they should be of adequate length to cover the ground. I remember one instance, some years ago, when the House was involved in lengthy exchanges because a Front Bench speech had been curtailed. But I make this point, which has not been made before: that whereas lengthy speech-making from the Front Benches early in a debate knocks the stuffing out of it and renders further deliberations in your Lordships' House largely repetitive—and I should like to see less of that, in order that there could be more expression of varied opinions—I have no objection to long speeches at the end.

I am thinking particularly of the speech from the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, at the end of the Highlands and Islands Development Bill. The speech was not a minute too long, although the noble Lord apologised for its length. I believe that an alteration of the balance in these respects would go a long way to improve the whole tenor of the debates. In brief, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Egremont, on his Motion, and although I do not go all the way with him, in that I think that there must be a measure of lengthy speeches on complex matters, I feel that Front-Bench speakers early in the debate should be as brief as they can but that it does not matter if they are fairly long at the end of the debate. And let us be excessively careful about permitting read speeches. Then (and I think that this point has been touched on) I believe it is as important for speakers to be present at the beginning of a debate as it is customary and proper for them to be present at the end, otherwise they cannot have the feel of it when they come to take part.

4.40 p.m.


My Lords, I did not intend to speak in this debate, but there is an obvious suggestion which has not been made. I attempted to persuade two other speakers to make it, but since it has not been made, I should like to make it myself. I do not want to discipline anybody else in this House, but I should like to see a clock opposite me which starts when I get to my feet, so that I may be aware of how long I am talking, Many speeches go on simply for the reason that the speaker does not know how long he has been speaking. I see some Members pointing to the clock that is here; but it is not easy to keep looking right if you are also looking at your notes in front of you. Although many experienced speakers may be able to speak and also look at the clock, personally, I cannot. I should like to see it propped up in front of me, and I think that that might help others.


My Lords, would not the noble Lord agree that it is because he cannot look Right that he is unable to see the clock?


It connotes the possibility that the noble Lord cannot look Left.


My Lords, 21 speeches in 86 minutes: it must, I think, be a record.

4.42 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure my noble friend Lord Hughes and all of us appreciate the kind remarks that fell from the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, about that magnificent effort he made the other day. In the same breath, may I, on behalf of the House, once again offer congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Raglan, who battled on, against every kind of misfortune, in the spirit which we associate with all those who bear his honoured name? We shall certainly very much look forward to hearing him again.

The Lord Chancellor has brought out the essential point of this debate: 21 speeches in 86 minutes. That is undoubtedly a salutary thought. I do not consider that this is an occasion for some pronouncement from the Leader of the House, if only because everything that is said ought to be considered, and also because, following the debate on procedure initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Alport, the Procedure Committee is considering this issue, among others. I hope, therefore, that I may be allowed to offer a little information, so to speak, not all of it perhaps statistically watertight, in the sense that it is based on some rather rapid investigations which might need qualification later.

I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, that one cannot lay down some ideal rule for the perfect speech. He pointed out that there was that great and memorable speech by Lord Keynes, which he said took an hour and a quarter. My investigations suggest that it took rather under the hour; but still, it was a long speech by any standards. Then, the noble Earl, Lord Baldwin of Bewdley, who I thought was particularly interesting, reminded us that the Gettysburg Speech took two or three minutes. He also reminded us, and I think informed some of us for the first time, that it received this withering reception. I was aware that it was over so quickly that the cameraman had not time to take photographs before the President had sat down; but I had not realised, until the noble Earl told us, that the general impression was so poor. No doubt what the noble Earl said has great force: that if you are too precise, people do not take in anything you are saying, even if you are saying something that matters.

Everybody who has been in your Lordships' House for some time—the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition, for example—has his own memory of glorious orations in this post-war period. I think that those of us who were present would place the speech of Lord Keynes among the highest. But I remember that great speech of the noble and learned Lord, Lord McNair, at the time of the controversies relating to Suez. I looked up his speech, which to many of us defined the whole position in International Law as he saw it with his tremendous authority. That was a speech which took 26 minutes. I thought of it as lasting longer merely because it seemed so consequential and weighty. I see the noble Lord here to-day, and, as I say, he managed to say all that in 26 minutes. Also, at the time of Suez, my noble friend Lord Attlee, who spoke so vividly to-day, spoke for eight minutes, and in that eight minutes I think he said as much as I should have said in 80. It was a very pertinent speech.

If we come a little nearer to the present time, and take note of a debate which appeared to influence the last Government when they were in power, that on the Robbins Report, the noble Lord, Lord Robbins, sneaking on his own Report, spoke for 56 minutes; the noble Lord, Lord James of Rusholme, spoke for 25 minutes, and the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles for 36 minutes. Those were all three significant and, I think, in their different ways, influential speeches. So I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, that we cannot come along and say that there is a perfect length of speech. Nevertheless, think we all feel that speeches now would be better if they were shorter; and whether they would be better or not taken individually, at the moment, with the number of speakers now taking part, they add up to too long a period of debate.

I speak somewhat subject to correction, because my investigations cannot be said to be complete, but I would venture to challenge the impression given by the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition that speeches have been getting longer. I have not investigated them over the last year or two, but what I think has really happened in the House of Lords, whether one compares it now with the 'nineties, the 'twenties or the 'thirties, is that far more people are attending and taking part in debates. If you go back to the 'thirties, which was before I came to this House—though the noble Lord, Lord Saltoun, must have been here, and one or two other noble Lords, like the noble Earl, Lord Listowel—you find, for example, that in two debates on the League of Nations, there were seven and ten speakers. They were major debates which to-day would attract far more speakers.

When we study any question of the procedure of the House of Lords to-day, we are confronted with the fact that far more noble Lords are coming and are taking part in debates. Even compared to ten years ago, there are twice as many people attending the House to-day as then. Naturally, there is a disposition for a goodly proportion of them to speak in debates. When we are trying to maintain the conditions of this House, we have to adapt them to the circumstances which I believe now obtain. I do not think this can necessarily be put down to Life Peers. Taking a check on the last few months—and I think this is fairly typical of the main debates—about 60 per cent. of the speeches have been made by those who have received Peerages, whether Hereditary or Life Peerages, and 40 per cent. by Peers who have inherited Peerages. Therefore, the Hereditary Peers are still doing a good portion of the talking. The House is changing, and in deciding what our practice should be, and the atmosphere we desire here, we have to bear those facts in mind.

If we make a comparison between to-day and the 'forties, when some of us first took an active part in this House, we can take as an example the annual summer debate on the economic situation which the late Lord Cherwell used to initiate after the war and to which I used to reply. Lord Cherwell averaged 56 minutes for his speeches—and I do not think they were thought long, though they were certainly described as witty—and I am sorry to find that I, in replying for the Government, averaged 44 minutes.

That I spoke too long was perhaps implied particularly in the remarks of the noble Baroness. Lady Emmet of Amberley. I would yield to any criticism that the noble Baroness might make of me, but not necessarily to a criticism on a matter of this kind by the late Professor Joseph, wonderful though he was. I think very few Members of this House, with the possible exception of the noble Lady would have ever understood a speech from Professor Joseph. I cannot consider the standards of his stringent and intelligent philosophy as those which should be adopted in this Chamber. So I am not entirely rebuked by the reprimand of Professor Joseph, although I stand open to correction by the noble Lady. Others have, perhaps, suffered under that great philosopher also.

Therefore, may I tell the noble Lady that I have not increased my average, because 44 minutes was the time I took in the Economics debate the other day to which she referred. But, by and large, I think one can say that the Economics debates have always been slightly lengthy affairs and, generally speaking, I would think that the average length of speech has come down in the last twenty years, and come down quite a lot.

To-day, in taking a very quick check over the Wednesday debates, I find that the average for all speeches since October is 19 minutes: that is, 29 minutes average for the Front Bench, and 16 minutes average for the Back Benches. I offer those figures for the moment without comment, but simply for the consideration of the House. Checking that against the House of Commons, I find there does not appear to be much difference. Their Front Bench speakers are apparently much longer than ours—if that is any consolation to the Front Bench speakers here—and their Back Bench speakers are shorter. I think one would want a closer comparison before one said that firmly, but we are roughly on the same footing. That is broadly the position—that speeches here average 19 minutes. The experts at the Table and elsewhere over the years will know that if there are eighteen speakers in a debate they will reckon on the debate taking six hours. Twenty minutes is usually reckoned by the officials as the average here on Wednesdays—I am not talking about a lot of bits of small Business. This is about how it works out. It is for the House to say whether they think that is too long.

My own average is 33 minutes. The House must not necessarily conclude that I hold the record, either on my own side or the other. I would concede to the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition a great advantage here, because his average is only 22 minutes, and the Lord Chancellor's only 17. I can point to at least one noble Lord opposite who speaks for longer than I do, and possibly to one of my own colleagues who does, but that is neither here nor there. I will say to the noble Lord opposite that he is only two-thirds my figure, and the Lord Chancellor half. Those are the sort of figures involved and I thought the House might be interested to know how it all worked out. We shall consider that in the Procedure Committee and elsewhere where we are trying to reflect the opinion of the House, and we shall be expected to bring back a Report to the House. The number of speeches is at least as important and I think this was in the mind of the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, and others.

I shrink back a little from the thought that Peers should be expected, so to speak, to scrutinise themselves on every occasion as to whether they think they have something valuable to say. I think the more self-critical, diffident and, it may be, the more valuable Peers, would succumb to this scrutiny, and would refrain from speaking, while the bolder and brasher Peers—if such exist in this House—would speak without interruption, happy in the thought that there were not many speakers on that day and they could speak twice as long as they would otherwise have done. I think if we leave it to individual Peers we may be in trouble. But that can all be looked at by the Procedure Committee.

I consider that this has been a very valuable debate and we are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Egremont. There is a great deal to be said for the view that we should keep returning to this theme. I do not think it is up to me, in advance of the discussions of the Procedure Committee, to make any pronouncement, but I should like to assure everybody that to us in the Government—and I am sure this is true of leading people in the House elsewhere—this is a matter of first-class importance and certainly will not be neglected.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord whether the Government are accepting this Motion? He has left us in the dark.


Yes, I should like to accept it.


My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Earl the Leader of the House for what he has just said, as I am to all other noble Lords who have taken part in such a large but rapid survey of this subject. Having said that, in view of the terms of my Motion and the tenor which this debate has taken, I do not propose to exercise my right of reply.

On Question, Motion agreed to.