HL Deb 16 December 1971 vol 326 cc1294-306

3.55 p.m.

Debate resumed.

THE EARL OF PERTH moved, as an Amendment, to the Motion, That the Report be agreed to: after ("Report") to insert ("except, in Item 2 (Report from the Group on the Working of the House), the words "and chosen by ballot" in line 3 of sub-paragraph (v), and subparagraph (vii), which should be referred back to the Procedure Committee").

The noble Earl said: My Lords, I beg to move the Amendment which stands in my name on the Order Paper. I have hesitated to question the wisdom of the Procedure Committee, but I have been comforted by three things. One is that the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, is also questioning their wisdom; the second is that, in the Report of the Working Group, we gave two choices to your Lordships on this particular matter; and the third is that, when we had our debate on November 23, this subject was touched upon very little. Now what is the purpose of my Amendment?—because I must confess that as it is written here it is pretty complicated. Quite simply, it is that, instead of the subjects for the mini-debate being chosen by ballot, I would suggest an alternative. Before I tell your Lordships what my alternative is, let me say that I am not against chance, I am not against ballot, in its proper place—in bingo halls, for example; but when it comes to your Lordships' House, I frankly do not think that this is appropriate. I feel that so strongly that I am moving the Amendment which is before your Lordships.

Your Lordships will naturally ask me, "What is your alternative?" My alternative, my Lords, is that the subjects for mini-debate—and there maybe 20 or 30 down for possible debate—should be chosen by four Back-Benchers who will be nominated by the Leader of the House, with the usual channels assisting them. That would be a rational way to choose the subjects. It would give a role to the Back-Benchers—some small role, but a role—which I think would ensure that the Motions that they chose for debate would be, if I can put it this way, non-Establishment. As I understand the procedure, it is that if several (or, as I hope, many) of your Lordships are of my view that, rather than ballot, we should have reasoned choice, and if they get up and say so, then there is a good chance that the Chairman of Committees might say, "This is a matter which we can take back and think about again"; whereas if those who feel as I feel do not let their views be known, then I am afraid I am lost, and ballot it is. With that short introduction giving your Lordships the reasons why I move this Amendment, and remembering that we must be brief and that it is Christmas, I beg to move.


My Lords, although this is entirely contrary to what we always did in the House of Commons, I think it is a great improvement. I like it very much and I support it.


My Lords, I should like to support my noble friend Lord Perth because it seems to me that the ballot is rather a "pig in the poke" method and people are likely to be chosen who have not the faintest idea of what they are going to say. It stands to reason that if the subject is to be, say, canals, it is no good somebody who knows nothing about canals being chosen to speak on it. I should like to support my noble friend.


My Lords, I rise to support the Amendment. I say nothing against the principle of balloting in certain instances where there prevails ignorance as to the right principle of an action; but so far as the business of your Lordships' House is concerned surely the dominating consideration should be relevance. I refuse to believe that ignorance of what is relevant in the given circumstances is so dominant in the councils of those who decide the business of your Lordships' House that we need to resort to this second-rate expedient. In this connection may I take occasion to express sharp disagreement with the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Alport, on the conduct of business in this House. It was not my good fortune when I was introduced to the House to have explained to me all the terms of art which arise in the course of discussions. I do not remember receiving any detailed instructions as to the exact composition of the "usual channels". I have, in fact, often speculated privately on that problem, and it seems to me that the solution is somewhere to be found among the distinguished and eminent people who sit on the Front Benches on either side. But whatever the "usual channels" may actually be, it seems to me, speaking as a Cross-Bencher, that they usually function pretty well and that the business of your Lordships' House which they arrange seems to be conducted in a way which must be the admiration of Second Chambers throughout the rest of the world. I think that in this connection the addition of the four Back-Benchers suggested in the noble Earl's Amendment is perhaps an improvement. But even if that were not carried, I should still prefer that matters should be arranged through the usual channels rather than leaving things to the accident of the ballot.

4.3 p.m.


My Lords, I apologise for absenting myself from your Lordships' House when the debate on procedure was initiated, but I was called away to the Westminster studios of the B.B.C. to take part in a programme which is not relevant to the discussions that are taking place now. I have occasionally to appear on the B.B.C. I retired from the other place about 18 months or two years ago; now I have to make an honest living. That was the reason for my absence. But I reappeared just in time to hear the noble Earl moving his Amendment. I want to support him wholeheartedly. Mini-debates are not for the Front-Benchers but for the Back-Benchers. That is the position in the other place. It is true that for many years they have operated on the basis of the ballot. We in this House must choose 'between the ballot (which is a chance, a mere gamble and which throws up a variety of exponents of the art of debate whether they are interested or acquainted with the subject or not) and with dealing with matters deliberately and with foresight and considering what is best in the interests of this House and in the interests of the country.

I must confess that although the noble Lord, Lord Alport, was rebuked by another noble Lord (I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Nugent) for the observations in which he indulged. I support him. I should have supported him if I had been available at the time. It seems to me that the usual channels—and I hope your Lordships will forgive the expressions I am about to use; but I have been acquainted with the usual channels for almost half a century of Parliamentary life—have become a bit murky, a bit muddy, a bit silted up. It should always be realised—and I say this without any disrespect to my noble colleagues on the Front Benches—that while they have a role to fill, so have the Back-Benchers; and in the matter of mini-debates—that is to say Motions which may deal with a variety of subjects of public interest, of national interest and even of international interest which are not related to Government legislation or even to Government policy—the Back-Benchers have a fundamental part to play.

My Lords, how will we operate this mechanism? It has been suggested that there might be some sort of Back-Bench Committee. If I support the advocates of this Back-Bench Committee, I want to reassure the noble Earl the Leader of the House that I am not asking to be a member of that Committee. I have too much experience of Committees in my time. I can recall one occasion when I was at the War Office when it was suggested to me that we should form a committee. I agreed so long as there was only one member of that committee —myself. When one is on a committee one is subjected to variegated views which are often in conflict; but when one is the sole member, the exclusive member, of a committee one has one's own way; and this leads to greater progress. Therefore I am a little troubled about this Back-Bench Committee but I think it ought to be tried out. It is worth initiating; it may well work to the advantage of thins House and certainly to the advantage of the Back-Benchers.

So I would ask the House to reject the idea of a ballot or a gamble, an operation by chance which may throw up this or that or what-have-you. I would ask the House rather to depend upon the deliberations of a number of experienced Back-Benchers from all sides of the House. I should even include the members of the Liberal Party; although occasionally I am not too happy about them. I would naturally include the Cross-Benchers who are the most expert people in your Lordships' House. Of that there can be no doubt; they say so themselves and I accept it. Therefore I would accept the idea of some kind of Back-Bench Committee—a Committee of, say, eight members, two from the Government (not representing the Government but from the Government side) two from the Cross-Benches, two from the Liberals and two from this side of the House—who would consider the nature, character, quality and content of the kind of mini-Motions that should be presented to the House and debated without Government intervention, without even asking for the support of the Leader of the House at the end of the debate, as to whether the Government accept the Motion or not; but just an exercise and I think with the hope of some measure of publicity in the public Press.

Here I should like to make this observation. I have endeavoured since I joined your Lordships' House—although "endeavoured" is a mild term. Let me say that I have striven (that is less mild); or I could say I have almost struggled (and that is even less mild than what I have just said)—to get a lot of publicity for my operations in this House. But there was hardly a word! I make this gratuitous advertisement. I look at The Times. I read The Times—all the "top people" do. I am astounded sometimes when I go into the Library and see noble Lords reading The Times. I ask myself, "Do they not read it in the morning at breakfast time, after topping an egg?"—because that is what I do. Indeed I read The Times even when no egg is available.

Even in the Daily Telegraph I do not find a single word of what I have said in the House—those pungent questions that I ventured to put, those supplementary barbs. And not a word in The Times either. It is just too bad. Therefore, I hope that in the future, as a result of this Back Bench Committee and the formulation of mini-debates, one may perhaps gain a little publicity. This is the reason for my advocacy; this is the reason why I venture to offer support to the noble Earl, and it seems to me that it is a much better exercise than it would be if we left it to chance. My Lords, chance may throw up somebody with the most remarkable and phenomenal expertise. On the other hand, it may be somebody—forgive me for saying so—who is very dull indeed; who moves a Motion in terms that are meandering and so placid that hardly anyone cares to listen. On the other hand, it may throw up someone quite different, as happened yesterday when we had from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham a most scintillating speech on a very important topic. That is the sort of thing we want in the House. I notice that my noble friend the Leader of the Opposition—




My Lords, if the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell, will permit me, I hate to interrupt him, but I have a feeling that he was not present when his noble friend Lord Shepherd drew the attention of the House to the fact that we have a certain amount of business to get through, and that the Doorkeepers are having their very important annual dinner to-night. Probably the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell, did not hear those remarks, and I thought that perhaps I should draw his attention to them.


My Lords, that rebuke is more effective than the proposed clock. I prefer the interruption of the noble Earl, which brings me to my conclusion, rather than the clock which it is proposed shall be established in this Chamber.


My Lords, noble Lords will still be able to go on speaking, but I wonder whether I might make this observation as my noble friend Lord Shinwell suggested that there was a certain amount of murkiness on the Front Bench. I am bound to say that there has been a certain amount of murkiness about the proposal now before the House. The proposal is perfectly simple, and is designed to provide a better opportunity for Back Benchers. Anyone who has been concerned with the usual channels in selecting Motions for ordinary Wednesday debates knows that the number of days available for this purpose is severely limited and that therefore they will tend to choose the more important Motions which frequently are not of a Party political nature, although sometimes they are.

Going back to the original proposal, the Committee suggested that we should have two mini-debates. I do not believe that any Motions of the kind that appear on the Order Paper are ones that this House ought not to be ready to debate. If they look at those Motions on the Order Paper they will see that there are none that are not worthy. At this moment we are not debating whether or not there ought to be a Back-Bench Committee for other purposes. This was one of the proposals put forward, and in my opening remarks I said that it was for noble Lords who wanted a Back-Bench Committee for general purposes to say so. So far as I can recall, no one did say so. The noble Lord, Lord Alport, may have done, but nobody else. Now we are proposing a Back-Bench Committee for a very limited purpose.

My Lords, Back-Benchers can, of course, be approached and convinced and persuaded as much as the usual channels are. But I cannot for the life of me see why a simple ballot will not meet the case. I know of Motions—the noble Lord, Lord Somers, had one—which have stood on the Order Paper year after year. The noble Lord, Lord Somers, kept putting his Motion back on the Order Paper, but he never got it debated, for reasons which, perhaps, had something to do with the Government and the Opposition Chief Whip. In the end, I think, he put it down as an Unstarred Question. There is nothing to stop any noble Lord from putting down a Motion and having it debated, but we have conventions that produce a rather more orderly approach.

The Leader of the House equally cannot say what Motions should go on the Order Paper—I emphasise this to my noble friend Lord Shinwell—or what is to he debated. It is the House who entrusts this to the usual channels. But the rights of every noble Lord remain untouched, and it seems to me that an arrangement by which there are two lists, one for main debates and one for these Wednesday debates, with the mini-debates subject to ballot, would be a simple proposition. Furthermore, it is proposed that this should be an experiment only. Let us try it as an experiment. If the Leader of the House feels that, in the light of this debate, the matter ought to go back to the Procedure Committee to consider again and to put forward their views, I certainly would not object. But I think that the original, very carefully thought out proposition is well designed to provide a better opportunity for BackBenchers who exercise so much restraint in not forcing their Motions on to the Order Paper.


My Lords, may I take 30 seconds of your Lordships' time to ask a question? Are there not two quite distinct meanings to the word "ballot"? One is to put a lot of names in a hat and draw one out. That is merely a chance procedure and that is what I think we are discussing. But there is such a thing as a ballot for a Member of Parliament, for instance, which is not regarded entirely as a chance proceeding. There is nothing that I can see to inform me which of these methods is to be used. Are we to draw names out of a hat? Or are we to be given a list of names and be asked to vote, and then some noble Lord will get the biggest number of votes and so will be able to hold his debate?


My Lords, I would come to the opposite conclusion to the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, for this reason. I think it important that mini-debates should be a success. I believe this to be an extremely important innovation and therefore the subjects to be debated should be good subjects. I mean that they should not be simply local subjects which can more properly be dealt with by Unstarred Questions. There must be a certain element of general interest even in a mini-debate. It should not be on a purely local subject. I think that this could be dealt with perfectly well by a Back Bench Committee.

My other point is really the same point that the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, is making in his Amendment which will be discussed later; that there should, if possible, be a topical interest in the debate. One of our problems which occurs constantly is how to handle Statements. They are very important and many people are deeply interested and wish to talk. We all know that Statements drag on, and one of the reasons is that it is not easy to discuss a Statement in the immediate future. Mini-debates would provide an immediate opportunity for Statements of significance to be discussed. I think it would be a pity if the mini-debates were bad debates or of only limited interest. There are a number of smaller points, my Lords. You can "jockey for position" in a mini-debate just as well as you can with one of the Whips. You can get your friends to put their names down for debates on similar subjects and eventually one is likely to be drawn. I do not think that this is a very strong argument, but I hope that the Amendment of the noble Earl, Lord Perth, will be accepted.


My Lords, may I with the utmost seasonal brevity simply say that, in spite of the remarks that fell from the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, I should like to support the Amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Perth. The purpose of the Amendment is not to ban the ballot once and for all. The words arc that the matter should be "referred back to the Procedure Committee". I should have thought that, in view of the widespread and deep feelings that have been expressed in all parts of the House, that would be the right thing to do. I am not sure whether my view should be addressed to the noble Earl the Leader of the House or to the noble Earl the Chairman of Committees, who proposed the original Motion; but whoever it is, I hope that the Amendment will be accepted.

4.20 p.m.


My Lords, I am very conscious of the minute hand of our one existing clock, especially in view of the function to which noble Lords have been alluding. I personally have considerable sympathy with the views expressed by the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition. I have myself thought that this carefully considered recommendation of the Procedure Committee—and a great deal of attention was given to this in the Procedure Commitee—was well worth trying, on the basis that this was for a purely experimental purpose until Whitsun. We can see how this experiment goes until Whitsun, and if it does not work, we can then try out something on the lines recommended by the noble Earl, Lord Perth. I also have in mind that this recommendation only extended to the area of so-called mini-debates, and for only one Wednesday a month. So it is of an extremely limited extent.

I have in mind the words of my noble friend Lord Alport, that this was specifically designed to help the BackBenchers in your Lordships' House. If I may say so, I think there have been some misconceptions about what is intended. For example, my noble friend Lord Cromartie suggested that we might well end up with a mini-Motion moved by a noble Lord who knew nothing about the particular subject. The Motion would have to be moved by the noble Lord in whose name it stood, the subject would have to be included in the Motion, and presumably the noble Lord who put the Motion with its subject matter down for debate would do so knowing something about it. But, in view of what has been said by the noble Earl, Lord Perth, so valued a member of this Working Group; my noble friend Lord Swinton; the noble Lord, Lord Robbins; my noble friend Lord Cromartie; the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell; the noble Lord, Lord Crowther the noble Lord, Lord Platt, who had his doubt—the answer is that it would be drawn, as it were, out of a hat, but the subject matter would be attached to it—and, of the considerable concern expressed in your Lordships' House, and also in the light of the fact that my noble friend is not suggesting more than that the matter should be taken back to be looked at again in the light of this discussion, my own suggestion to your Lordships' House and to the noble Earl the Lord Chairman of Committees is that we should accede to what my noble friend is suggesting.


My Lords, it is clear from the course of this debate that a large number of noble Lords wish the Procedure Committee to reconsider this proposal, and I am glad to give the undertaking that I will ask the Committee to do so.


My Lords, in those circumstances, I thank those noble Lords who supported me, and ask leave to withdraw my Amendment.




Withdraw the withdrawal.


My Lords, the question is—


My Lords, I do not wish to be awkward, but there is no Amendment before the House. There is at this moment no Amendment on the Order Paper, because the noble Earl has withdrawn it.


My Lords, with respect, I made a mistake, and I was advised that I had done so. My Amendment is still before your Lordships.


My Lords, since we are on procedure, no Amendment is withdrawn until the House gives leave for it to be withdrawn. It is still before the House.


My Lords, I assure your Lordships that the noble Lord on the Woolsack at the moment understands what is going on.

On Question, Amendment agreed to.

4.25 p.m.

LORD SHEPHERD moved as an Amendment to the Motion, That the Report be agreed to: after ("Report") to insert ("except sub-paragraph (xiii) of Item 2 thereof, which should be referred back to the Procedure Committee").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I cannot but reflect that the recommendation of the Group that there should be a simple guide to the procedure of your Lordships' House has been amply endorsed by the proceedings this afternoon. I find myself, if I may say so, in an intolerable position. I have an important issue that I should like to put to the House on oral Questions. This relates not only to the convenience of the House—abuse that can arise, and has arisen, on oral Questions—but also to the constitutional position, in the sense of the ways and means by which an Opposition can perform its constitutional role as a check upon the Executive. We have a debate of some eight speakers on an Unstarred Question, a Bill with at least four proposed Amendments, and we wish to rise by half-past six. I wonder whether the House would agree for me to move my Amendment formally. I would do this without in any way wishing to ask the House to approve what I might say on this occasion or on others, or to disapprove of what may be in the Report, and only to give an opportunity for new submissions to be made to the Procedure Committee as to how we can get out of the difficulties with which I believe the House is confronted.

I hope that the House will accept this offer. I do not think there will be any future difficulty, because we have already agreed to consider one matter in this Report, and there will clearly be a Report of the Procedure Committee in the new year. I make this offer. If the House agrees with me, I formally move my Amendment.


My Lords, I think we are in time difficulties. I have discussed the subject matter of the noble Lord's Amendment. I do not wish to prejudge what your Lordships may decide or what the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, might have said had he taken the lime of your Lordships' House, but I feel that in the circumstances the House would be wise to follow the suggestion made by the noble Lord.


My Lords, as there is no objection to the noble Lord's proposals, and as approval has been expressed by the noble Earl the Leader of the House, I take it that it is the wish of the House that this matter should be considered by the Procedure Committee, and I gladly undertake to ask the Committee so to do.

On Question, Amendment agreed to.

On Question, Motion, as amended, agreed to.