HL Deb 25 January 1971 vol 314 cc707-11

2.54 p.m.


My Lords, I wonder whether I may ask the noble Earl the Leader of the House a question about the arrangement of business to-day. When the House last met, on Thursday of last week, the order of business for to-day showed the Shops (Sunday Trading) Bill as coming before the Wild Creatures and Forest Laws Bill. Apparently some time on Thursday afternoon a decision was taken by the Government, or the Government Chief Whip, to reverse the order, and we now find the Wild Creatures and Forest Laws Bill coming before the Shops (Sunday Trading) Bill. It is in my experience quite unprecedented to make a change in the order of business not merely without informing the people most concerned but, in fact, without getting their agreement.

I can understand that it may suit certain Lords—whether it is the Lord Chancellor or other noble Lords who are involved—to take the Second Reading first. But I should have thought it would have been reasonable to inform noble Lords, such as the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, interested in the Wild Creatures and Forest Laws Bill of the change. Knowing that the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, had a point of interest arising on the Bill, and having been told that he did not plan to be here until later in the afternoon, I spent quite a lot of time getting a message to him. I am not sure, either, whether the noble Lord, Lord Derwent, was consulted about the change. I do not wish to press the Leader of the House too far on this, but my noble friend Lord Shepherd, I am sure, can confirm that when we were in Government we did not change the order of business without getting the agreement of the noble Lords concerned. The position has been made more difficult because on this occasion the Whip went out showing the wrong order of business, and the fact that it was corrected in the Notices and Orders of the Day on Friday was of no help to most people because there was no post to ensure that the Minute was delivered.


My Lords, I confess that I should like to join with the noble Lord in making a protest. For those of us who live in the country and who have virtually been incommunicado, owing to the postal strike, this sort of thing is exceedingly inconvenient. It was only by pure luck that I happened to come up by an earlier train than I had intended and when I got up to London found the messages which the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, passed round to me.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition for giving me notice that he intended to raise this point. I would make it perfectly clear at the outset that although, as I shall mention, there was, I think, a regrettable failure of consultations through the usual channels here, there was no contravention of our Standing Orders. The position, as I understand it, is that my noble friend Lord Derwent was asked by the Government on Thursday afternoon, purely as a matter of convenience, whether he would be prepared to put off the Committee stage of his Bill until after the Second Reading of the Wild Creatures and Forest Laws Bill, and the noble Lord kindly agreed to do this. The change of business was of course duly recorded in the Notices and Orders of the Day which were printed last Thursday night, but as the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, says, as a result of the postal strike it may very well be that certain noble Lords—indeed, the majority of noble Lords—became aware of the change of business only when they collected to-day's Order Paper.

The noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition has suggested that there did not appear to be the usual consultations through the usual channels about this alteration of business. My Lords, I have not been able to consult my noble friend the Chief Whip about this matter, as I heard of it only during the lunch-time interval, but it is my impression that where Private Members' business is concerned it is always rather hard to draw any sharp line as to the amount of consultation that should take place. On this occasion, however, I have no doubt at all that there should have been full consultation, and if there was not I regret that it was so. I particularly regret the inconvenience which has been caused to those noble Lords chiefly concerned—my noble friend Lord Cranbrook, and there may well be others who are interested in these two Bills. If they have suffered inconvenience I can only regret that that was the case.


My Lords, I very much appreciate the noble Earl's apology, but judging from his remarks I do not think he fully appreciates the seriousness of the action that has been taken in this matter. First of all, the fact that there is no Standing Order has absolutely nothing to do with it. Most of our activities are not carried out under Standing Orders, and it may well be that if this sort of thing is likely to happen we shall have to have a Standing Order to require an order of the House to alter business. I appreciate that the noble Earl is in a difficulty because the Government Chief Whip, who presumably is responsible for these arrangements, is not available, but I must tell the noble Earl that I think he has been misadvised if he assumes that there is a difference between one kind of public business and another. A Private Member's Bill is equally public business. I should like to know the position, because my information is that the noble Lord, Lord Derwent, was just told that he had to accept the situation. The noble Earl is in a difficult position and I do not wish to press him further, but it is a very unsatisfactory situation and I hope it will not occur again.


My Lords, perhaps I had better explain what happened so that there is no misunderstanding. When I was told that the business would be altered, I then asked how long the inserted business would be likely to take. I was told that it could not take more than half an hour; that there were only a couple of speakers. I said that in those circumstances I would not protest too strongly; although I had been "messed about" before. I was consulted to that extent. Now I find that there are many more speakers, and I am sorry to say that noble Lords taking part in my Bill may have to sit rather late.


My Lords, may I put another point to the noble Earl? Any noble Lord seeing the Order Paper on Thursday would have assumed that the proceedings on the Shops Bill would have gone on for at least two and a half hours. There may be noble Lords who may wish to speak on the Wild Creatures and Forest Laws Bill who have not put down their names. Now, because of the change of business, they are put in the position of perhaps not being able to take part in the debate at all. I hope that the noble Earl will give this matter very careful consideration, because so far as I know it has not happened before. In the past when there was a change of business, there were consultations not only with noble Lords responsible for the Bills, but so far as possible with all noble Lords who had an interest in the legislation. The noble Earl is aware that a great number of Amendments have been put down to the Shops Bill by noble Lords on all sides of the House.


My Lords, far be it from me to intervene between the Front Benches, but may we have given to us any reason for this change? And is there any reason why we should not return to the order as it was originally?


My Lords, the reason for the change was that it was a great deal more convenient for one of the main participants in this legislation, the Wild Creatures and Forest Laws Bill—namely, my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor. When this matter was raised, it was my understanding that the change would take place only if it was agreeable to those concerned—not only through the usual channels; but agreeable to all noble Lords concerned. I have made it clear that I very much regret that this was not the case.

In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Platt, I think that it would be technically possible to revert to the previous situation; but I think that it would be a mistake now to do so. I am very much in the hands of the House here, but I think it probably better to stick to the order of business as it is now on the Order Paper. Again I express my regret for the inconvenience suffered by my noble friends and by the other Members of your Lordships' House involved.


My Lords, unless the noble Lord, Lord Derwent, himself wishes to press this matter further, I agree with the noble Earl the Leader of the House that we should keep to the order of business that we now have. May I make one further remark to the noble Earl? In matters of this kind, my recollection is that the Government Chief Whip or some Member of the House has usually personally consulted those concerned. It is not enough, if I may say so—and perhaps the noble Earl will put this to his noble friend—just to assume that things are going to happen; especially when they happen as late in the day as has happened on this occasion. I accept that the noble Earl has expressed very complete apologies and I do not wish to press the matter further.