HL Deb 10 February 1972 vol 327 cc1271-9

On 16th December, 1971, the House debated the conclusions of the Procedure Committee on the Report of the Group on the Working of the House [Second Report, dated 9th December, 1971, item 2].

In the course of this debate, the Earl of Perth moved, and the House accepted, an amendment to refer back to the Procedure Committee for further consideration the recommendation that the subjects for the short debate on Wednesdays should be chosen by ballot.

In moving his amendment Lord Perth suggested as an alternative method of choice that the subjects for debate should be "chosen by four back-benchers who will be nominated by the Leader of the House, with the usual channels assisting them. This would be a rational way to choose the subjects". (Lords Hansard of 16th December, col. 1295).

In the subsequent debate there was support for such a method of reasoned choice and opposition to the idea of the ballot. Lord Perth's amendment to refer the matter back to the Procedure Committee for further consideration was accepted by the House without challenge.

Accordingly the Committee have reviewed the recommendation that they made in their Second Report in favour of the ballot; and they have also considered Lord Perth's suggested alternative of a Committee of four back-benchers, working in consultation with the usual channels to choose the subjects. Under both plans, the choice would lie between, and would be restricted to, Motions which had been tabled by Peers and were already on the Order Paper.

In favour of Lord Perth's suggestion it is argued that chance is an irrational and undiscriminating method of choosing subjects for debate; that the ballot is not necessary in the House of Lords which, unlike the Commons, does not suffer from a severe shortage of time; and that choice by back-benchers, after consultation with the usual channels, would give back-benchers a direct but limited part in the planning of the business of the House. On this view the use of the proposed back-bench committee, after consultation with the usual channels would provide, as a ballot would not, a measure of flexibility. It would, therefore, be better to build on the present system in the way proposed rather than to resort to the ballot.

The other view is that to set up a committee of four to choose the subjects would be a cumbersome way of proceeding, no more likely to produce acceptable results than a ballot. Such a body could not claim to be representative. On the other hand the ballot is manifestly fair and independent; it gives everybody the same chance and has proved successful in the Commons. The difficulty of choosing between subjects competing for Parliamentary time is such that it may be thought preferable to leave the decision to the ballot rather than set up complicated machinery to try and assess the value to the House of debating one subject rather than another.

While both alternatives before the Committee have some disadvantages, the Committee remain of the opinion that on balance the ballot is preferable to any other method of choosing subjects for the experimental Wednesday debates. They, therefore, reaffirm their original recommendation made to the House in the Second Report.


I beg to move that this Report be agreed to. The Report which I am now moving is concerned purely with the question of how the subjects for the short Wednesday debates shall be chosen. Your Lordships will remember that this matter was debated in the House on December 16 last and referred back to the Procedure Committee on the Motion of the noble Earl, Lord Perth, who objected to the ballot as the method of choosing the subjects for the experimental Wednesday debates.

The Procedure Committee have accordingly reconsidered the arguments for and against the ballot and have also considered the alternative proposed by the noble Earl, Lord Perth; namely, that the subjects should be chosen by a small committee of Back-Benchers drawn from all sides of the House, after consultation with the usual channels. The Committee had the advantage of hearing Lord Perth in the course of their deliberations. Your Lordships will see from the last paragraph of the Report that they remain of the opinion that on balance the ballot is preferable to any other method of choosing subjects for the short Wednesday debates; and therefore they reaffirm their original recommendation to the House.

I would add only two points. The first is that the Report before your Lordships to-day is submitted in a form that gives not only the conclusion of the Committee but also the arguments in favour of the two alternative courses. The reason for this is the strong feeling of the Committee that this was essentially a matter for the House to decide, and that it might be of assistance to the House to have the arguments shortly and, as I hope noble Lords will agree, objectively set out in the Report.

The only other point is one that will be familiar to many of your Lordships. It is that there are a number of precedents for the House's declining to accept the recommendation of one of its Committees, including the Procedure Committee. I am sure I speak for the Committee when I say that, while they have registered their view in this Report, it would imply no disrespect for the Committee if the House were to reach a different conclusion. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Report be agreed to.—(The Earl of Listowel.)

3.29 p.m.

THE EARL OF PERTH moved, as an Amendment to the Motion, after "Report", to insert, "except the last paragraph thereof". The noble Earl said: I beg to move the Amendment standing in my name. I must confess to your Lordships that I have put it down with some hesitation. After all, it is something to take on the wisdom and might of the Procedure Committee. But I recall my namesake, David, who slew Goliath—not that I am wanting to slay anybody; but also, more importantly, I recall how in our debate in the middle of December all noble Lords who spoke from the Back Benches spoke in favour of this Amendment, and, quite simply, I should have been betraying their wishes and faith if I had not gone on with this Amendment. I am only sorry that my sole advocacy at the Procedure Committee failed to persuade them. However, this is the reason why I am going on now.

May I just for a moment recall the history of this Amendment? When the Leader of the House asked for a small committee of four to help him on the working of the House, one of the recommendations of that small committee, of which I happened to have the honour of being a member, was that there should be these short debates once every month. It was further left in our Report that whether these should be chosen by ballot or by the Committee of Back-Benchers was for the House to decide. Therefore, in moving this Amendment to-day I am not suggesting something new; it is something that was in our original suggestions, it is something which was supported in the debate in December, and it is something on which I feel very strongly that your Lordships should have a chance to express your views further.

I say that with more conviction when I recall who were the Back-Benchers who supported me in our last debate. One was the noble Earl, Lord Swinton, who unfortunately, I am afraid, will not be here to-day, but who has asked me to say that he continues of the view that this is the right solution. Another was the noble Earl, Lord Selkirk, who, happily, will be able to speak to-day. There was the noble Earl, Lord Cromartie. There was also the noble Lord, Lord Robbins, who wrote me again saying that I should certainly advise your Lordships that he remained in favour, but unfortunately he had to be in Basic to-day and therefore could not attend here. There was the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell, who happily is here to-day, and I hope we may hear from him that he continues to believe in what I am advocating.

Lastly, there was the late Lord Crowther. He made a short speech in favour of the Amendment at that time. If your Lordships will allow me, I should like to pay a very short tribute to Lord Crowther. He was a very close personal friend of mine. He was indeed my twin; he was born on the same day in the same year, and we were very apt to celebrate our birthdays together, and so I want to take the chance of paying this tribute. As many of your Lordships will know, his was company which was always enjoyable, always full of fun, and always penetrating and amusing. He had the extraordinary gift of making complicated subjects, particularly on economic affairs, simple, straightforward, and also was able to propose solutions and see them through. He had the ability to get to the heart of matters.

Your Lordships may remember that, apart from this one short speech, he made an intervention in the Immigration Bill of a little while ago. He found in the Bill a flaw which was one particularly close to him, because he said: As I read the Bill it means that my wife, who has been my wife for 25 years or more and is of this country, may find herself an alien, and there are others in the same category. Your Lordships will remember the wit and skill with which he introduced his Amendment. He had indeed found a flaw in the Bill as drafted, and he was successful in remedying it. That was typical of how he got to the heart of things. His service to his country is well know to all of you. I would only recall that he has been Chairman of three Government Commissions. One was on consumer credit, one on education, and the last was to be on the Constitution. Alas! we do not know what the final recommendation would have been under his chairmanship. One can only hope that what he had done already will prove, as I am sure it will, of great value and importance in what may be the final recommendation of that Commission. I am sure you will join with me in voicing our sorrow for his wife and his family, and in the loss that all of us have suffered.

As I have said, because of the support I had I felt I must press on with this Amendment. As the Chairman of Committees has said, the four Back-Benchers, if they are to operate, will, with the Leader, look at Part II of the "No Day Named" Motions, which are on the green Order Paper. There you will find, for example, that to-day there are no fewer than eight items listed. The question is whether out of those eight items the choice of two of them should be by ballot or should be by the Back-Benchers' Committee.

In the Report of the Procedure Committee will be seen the reasons why it is argued that we should go for a Select Committee. In case some of your Lordships have not got that Report before you, may I touch very briefly on those reasons? The first is that chance is an irrational and undiscriminating method of choosing subjects for debate. I strongly believe that. I do not believe that chance is appropriate here, although it may be in bingo halls. Secondly, it is said that a ballot is not necessary in the House of Lords which, unlike the Commons, does not suffer from a severe shortage of time. That is a polite way of saying that the House of Lords does not have 600 constituencies, and therefore the difficulty which would obviously arise if one had to select from a choice of debates which was really dictated by constituency reasons. Thirdly, it points out that if you have a Back-Benchers' Select Committee it would give the Back-Benchers a direct but limited part in the planning of the business of the House. I think that this is important. Perhaps a fourth reason, which is not put down here, is that if you have a rational choice then you can see that some of the debates listed may be topical and timely. Those would be the ones to go for at once. That situation could not arise, or would not necessarily arise, if we were to proceed by ballot.

Therefore, I hope that others who feel as I do will express their views in two ways: first, by speaking, and then by vote, should I find sufficient support to go to a Division, which I certainly have it in mind to do. I am comforted in taking this bold course against the Procedure Committee for the reasons that the Chairman of Committees has mentioned to your Lordships; namely, that it is not something which is not done. Indeed, he has almost encouraged us to do it. My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved, as an Amendment to the Motion, after ("Report"), to insert (",except the last paragraph thereof.")—(The Earl of Perth.)

3.39 p.m.


My Lords, I do not think that this is the most earthshaking issue which will come before your Lordships' House, and I should like to make clear that whatever decision the House comes to I shall be perfectly content. I should indeed have been perfectly content with what was undoubtedly the overwhelming view of the Procedure Committee, whichever way it had gone. The fact that I do not support this Amendment—though I wish the noble Earl the best of luck, and if the House agrees with him then well and good—is essentially due to reasons of simplicity.

I should like to make one or two points. I should deplore—I do not think the noble Earl sought to make this point, but there was a slight implication—any suggestion that in some way he is a David battling against the powers of darkness contained in the noble Earl, Lord St. Aldwyn, my noble friend Lord Beswick and others. It is a well-established custom in this House that the Leader of the House, and indeed in this respect the Government and the Chief Whip, owe responsibilities to the House which they try to discharge perfectly fairly to everyone. I, for one, was never conscious of having deprived anybody when I was Leader of the House; indeed, under our Standing Orders one could not deprive anybody of the right to move anything. But it is a fact that there are some subjects which some people regard as more important than others—they press very hard and they chase the usual channels—and there are certain matters of Party political importance which the Parties themselves may press. I was also very conscious that there are a number of less obviously important subjects which are never debated at all; and I have in mind, in particular, the interest of the noble Lord, Lord Somers.

Under a process of selection, however it may be operated, these Motions will still remain unselected, whereas a ballot, which, after all, is a respectable and early form of democratic decision—because in adopting this we shall be following the Athenean democracy in this matter—is a good way to proceed in a House where we seek for as much fairness as is possible in this unfair world.

I should like to echo the noble Earl's very warmly expressed tributes to Lord Crowther. I shall not myself dwell further on that subject, beyond saying that we all share the noble Earl's views. My objection to a Committee of Back-Benchers is simply that somebody must take decisions in this House. It is difficult enough to get people together. It is difficult enough for the usual channels. It is sometimes even difficult for the Leader of the House to speak to his own Chief Whip, especially during Ascot Week. I may say that I have had complaints on the subject from this side. But to create a Committee of Back-Benchers seems to me to be taking a pretty large sledge-hammer, and I do not really think it is worth while appointing a Committee solely for this purpose. If the House had been in favour of a Committee of Back-Benchers for other purposes, then this is a duty which it might have discharged. But the House decided against it. I was not in favour, but I said that I was perfectly content to accept it.

I should be very sorry if it were thought that the usual channels were somehow unfair. I believe there are ample opportunities for making views known direct to leaders, for raising them in the House, for taking them to the Committees—in fact, for generally making views known. Therefore, although I see that there are arguments—and I do not deny this—for the noble Earl's point of view, and for the view that, for instance, we might select better Motions. I doubt whether it is worth while adopting this suggestion for this purpose. What we are considering is an experiment. It is going to be fairly difficult to operate, and I can see that Government Leaders will he involved. So let us run the experiment along the lines the Procedure Committee has suggested.

There is the interesting suggestion to be made later by my noble friend Lady White about dividing up, and choosing one debate by selection and one by ballot. If this goes very well, it may be that we shall find further time for this sort of experiment. But in terms of simplicity, I should have thought that the easiest course now was to adopt the recommendation of the Procedure Committee. Let everybody, whatever his interest, have an equal chance; let the ballot start in a fortnight's time as arranged, and in another two or three months' time we can look again to see whether there are better ways of following this experiment. So my view, though no doubt the House will take its own decision, is that we should stick to what has been proposed by the Select Committee.


My Lords, I beg to move that the House resume.

Moved, That the House do now resume.—(Earl St. Aldwyn.)

On Question, Motion agreed to, and House resumed accordingly.