HL Deb 17 February 1972 vol 328 cc311-6

3.27 p.m.


My Lords, with the permission of the House I should like to make a Statement about the procedure to be followed for the short Wednesday debates which are to be tried on an experimental basis, starting with the two debates that are down for next Wednesday. As your Lordships will be aware, the Fifth Report of the Procedure Committee, which is down on the Order Paper for consideration next Tuesday, contains in Item 3 certain recommendations on the subject of these debates; but as there is not much time left before we begin this experiment, I thought it would be for the convenience of the House if I were to make a Statement to-day to explain, in rather greater detail than is entered into in the Procedure Committee Report, the produres which have been worked out to cover this new kind of debate. This will give these noble Lords who are not in the House to-day but who nevertheless receive Hansard by post adequate opportunity to read this Statement before next Wednesday.

My Lords, we are now embarking on an experiment in short debates, limited in time to two and a half hours each, on one Wednesday a month, to be reserved for Back-Benchers, the principle of which the House has already approved. It did so on December 16 last. The experiment involves some procedural features of which the House has had no previous experience, such as the imposition of a time limit, and I think it would be agreed that in these circumstances we should make as few rules as possible and leave it to the good sense of the House to make the experiment work. The Procedure Committee considered this matter in some detail, but found themselves unable to cover the whole ground, and left the completion of their work to the usual channels. The Statement which I am now making is the result of further consideration through those usual channels.

I will deal first with the ballot. It is proposed that the ballot for the debates should be held three weeks ahead of each day set aside for them. That is to say, for the debates on March 29, April 26 and May 24, the ballot will be held on March 8, March 29 and May 3, respectively. In each case the ballot will be for those Motions actually printed in Part II of "No Day Named" on the day on which the ballot is taken. It is assumed that unless a Lord has informed the Clerk of the Parliaments to the contrary, each Lord who has placed a Motion on the Order Paper for the next ballot will be willing to accept the next available Wednesday if he is successful in the ballot. Nevertheless, in order to provide for the unforeseen contingency such as illness or accidents, the Clerk of the Parliaments will draw, and keep in reserve, two other Motions in addition to the two successful ones.

So far as the text of Motions is concerned, the proposal is that a Lord should have reasonable discretion to alter its terms, once it is on the Order Paper, but not to make fundamental changes in its subject matter. Here I would add a word about the nature of the Motions which are suitable to be debated under the conditions that we are proposing. It is hoped that these Motions will not take the form of Resolutions on which the House is called upon to come to a conclusion if necessary by a Division. It seems to me most undesirable and contrary to all the traditions of the House that the House should be asked to divide in a limited-time debate in which not necessarily all those who wish to speak may have had the chance of doing so. I hope, therefore, that these short Wednesday debates will be regarded as vehicles for discussing subjects in a fairly impartial way and not as a means of reaching a conclusion on a question.

As for the proceedings in the House, the intention is that two and a half hours exactly shall be allowed for each debate, and if there are interruptions, for example for a Government Statement, the time taken up by such interruptions should be regarded as "injury time" and added on at the end. As this may leave the House in some doubt as to when precisely a particular debate is due to end, in such circumstances it is intended to announce from the Government Front Bench immediately after such an interruption has taken place the revised time at which the debate will end.

I hope the House will be willing to establish a convention whereby about twenty minutes before the end of each debate whoever may be speaking will give way to the Minister so that the House may hear the Government reply. I must make it clear that there is no obligation upon anybody to try to fill the whole of the two and a half hours allowed, if less time would suffice. This means that the mover of the Motion which is to be the subject of the second debate, must be in the House and ready to move his Motion whenever the first debate ends. On the other hand, if there is a long list of speakers for any Motion it is most desirable that the earlier speakers do not outrun the average time available and thus deprive the later speakers of a chance of participating in the debate.

I now come to the question of how best to bring the debate to an end if this should be necessary. I hope the House will agree that at the end of the two and a half hours the Clerk at the Table should rise and that this should be the signal for the Lord on the Woolsack to bring the debate to an end, first by inquiring of the mover of the Motion whether he wishes to withdraw his Motion, and then, if he does not, or if leave is withheld, by putting the Question forthwith. Everyone will then know where he is and there will be no chance of argument as to whether a particular Lord may or may not go on speaking.

In order to comply with the provisions of Standing Order 18 (which stipulates that the Lord Chancellor is not to do anything "as Mouth of the House, without the consent of the House first had …") it will be necessary to move a Motion (for the duration of the experiment and which I will place on the Order Paper for Tuesday next) to ensure that the Lord Chancellor (or Lord on the Woolsack) is acting with the full consent and approval of the House in bringing the debate to an end automatically upon the lapse of two and a half hours from its start.

3.34 p.m.


My Lords, this is a lengthy and carefully drawn up Statement and we are all grateful to the noble Earl for having the consideration and forethought to put it on the Record before Tuesday. My own feeling is that it is a matter which instead of questioning now, we ought to consider when we see it printed and leave questioning until Tuesday. However, perhaps I may be allowed to make three comments. First, this is essentially a Back-Benchers' affair: it is to enable more time for Back-Benchers; and if there are not always spokesmen from the Front Bench of the Opposition it will not be a reflection on the importance of the subject but simply a matter of leaving more time for the Back Benchers. Secondly, the noble Earl said that a convention should be encouraged of leaving 20 minutes to the Government spokesman at the end of the discussion. I think it ought to be stressed that this is a matter for agreement between the Government and the mover of the Motion and that there are occasions when, by agreement, I0 minutes would be considered adequate.

As the noble Earl knows, my enthusiasm for the whole experiment has never "passed the bounds of moderation"—those words were first stated by, I think, the late Lord Snell; they are not my own. So my third point is that the success of the experiment will depend on the way in which the House as a whole accepts the time limitations. Therefore, in studying this proposal I would call attention particularly to the intention that 2½ hours "exactly" shall be allowed for each debate. Once we allow something more than 2½ hours, once we forget the "exactly", then I think the procedure will get out of hand. Furthermore, the Statement says: … if there is a long list of speakers for any Motion it is most desirable that the earlier speakers do not outrun the average time available and thus deprive the later speakers of a chance of participating in the debate. On that, I simply say that if these requirements are observed I can see that possibly the best thing that will come out of this experiment is a greater discipline in the timing of one's own speeches, both in these debates and on other occasions.


My Lords, I, too, should like to thank the noble Earl for the Statement. I share the views of the noble Lord, Lord Beswick. I have never regarded this proposal with any wild enthusiasm, but I think it is a very worthwhile experiment to make. Supposing your Lordships do observe these rather complicated suggestions—I am not going to call them rules—then I think we should have a series of interesting debates. There is one question on which I was not entirely clear. Has the noble Lord who moves the Motion a right to reply, supposing that there is time, after the Government spokesman has finished his speech?


My Lords, may I offer a suggestion on the conduct of this experiment: that in determining the order of speaking, some regard will be had to reputations for long-winded utterances?


My Lords, may I, as a Back-Bencher, ask a simple question? In the Order Paper under the heading "No Day Named" appear the subjects for proposed debate. Some of them have been there for a long time; and one such subject is "China". Am I entitled to poach on the preserves of my noble friend who has that subject down and put it down in my name in the ballot?




If I approach him courteously, why not? I can try it. I should like a ruling on this point.


My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords who have commented. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, for emphasising, I think rightly, that the Opposition Front Bench will not necessarily exercise their right to speak, either at the beginning or at the end of these debates. I think that that is most helpful. I am sure that the House will appreciate the forbearance shown. The noble Lord, Lord Beswick, also commented on the length of the Government reply. This will be by agreement between the Mover and the Government spokesman and, obviously, if we can get a Government reply in seven minutes, so much the better. I welcome his enthusiasm about concluding at the exact hour. I am sure that this is desirable. It probably will mean that a noble Lord may have to cut short his speech in the middle of a sentence; but, frankly, that is just too bad.

The noble Lord, Lord Amulree, raised the question of the mover having a right of reply. This again will really be by agreement with the Government spokesman. If the Government spokesman needs I5 minutes, then he will rise 20 minutes before the end of the debate to allow five minutes for the mover to reply. The list of speakers will be dealt with in the usual way; but the mover will be very much involved in this matter and I dare say he will bear in mind what the noble Lord. Lord Peddie, has said. With regard to Lord Davies of Leek's point about poaching, poaching is not a habit which we encourage in this House in any form. But the best poachers have always been known to be able to get agreement in certain circumstances.


My Lords. does not the noble Earl agree that 20 minutes for the Government to reply seems a long time?—because 20 minutes is really enough when we have a long debate.


My Lords, I have said that the length of the reply will be by agreement between the mover and the Government spokesman. It depends entirely on the subject of the debate and the amount of information which is required to be given.