HL Deb 06 July 1972 vol 332 cc1512-9

3.26 p.m.


My Lords, may I ask the Deputy Chief Whip a Question regarding the business of the House? Will he comment on the accuracy of an item in The Times newspaper of Saturday, July 1, in which it was stated that your Lordships' House will be rising for the Summer Recess on August 17? Would he agree that it is customary, courteous and generally to the advantage of us all if announcements about sitting dates are in the first place made in your Lordships' House and not to the Press? Would he also agree that, despite what was said in The Times, the sitting dates for the rest of the Session should now be discussed through the usual channels to see whether we cannot get something that is agreeable to us all?


My Lords, perhaps if the Deputy Chief Whip would allow me, it would be appropriate for me to answer this Question. I should like to say right away that I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, for giving us notice that he was proposing to ask this Question. Let me agree with him straight away that it is customary, courteous and, indeed, to the general advantage of your Lordships' House that information affecting the general convenience of your Lordships and the ordering of business in your Lordships' House should be communicated first to your Lordships. Without donning too much sackcloth and piling too many ashes on my head, I want to apologise to your Lordships for any discourtesy which may have been felt; I can assure noble Lords that no discourtesy was intended.

At the same time I feel that I should emphasise that it is a matter of speculation as to when exactly your Lordships' House will be able to rise for the Summer Recess and whether it will be necessary to return during September and, if so, for how long. It may be, as the news item to which the noble Lord referred suggested, that we shall need to sit until August 17 and again during the weeks beginning September 11 and September 18, but at this moment I cannot tell how business will develop. I can only say that these very speculative dates are what the noble Lord, Lord Conesford, would term "the worst case". I hope that with August holiday fervour it will be possible for us to get through the important business ahead of us without as many extra sittings as were implied in the Press reports. But, even though we may succeed in getting through our business in August before the 17th, it looks as if we shall almost inevitably require to sit for a period—possibly of less than two weeks—in September.

The noble Lord, Lord Beswick, would have been perfectly justified if he had twitted us about the state of Government business, but he refrained from doing so. I do not entirely blame him for so refraining because I can remember that when his Party were in office we often twitted them. If I remember aright, my noble friend Lord Carrington was something of a dab hand at that exercise. But I think the business is more difficult now than certainly I can remember it: I agree with the noble Lord on that. The difficulty is that a number of important Bills—for example, the National Insurance Bill and the Industry Bill—have still to reach us from another place. There is another problem, and that is that Parliament is being further burdened by the necessity to legislate for Northern Ireland—a contingency which I think few of us could have foreseen at the start of the Session.

But, that said, our real problems of course revolve round two very major Bills, the European Communities Bill and the Local Government Bill. The first is a cornerstone of the Government's policy, and while I recognise and fully agree with those of your Lordships who feel that this great issue must receive the close attention of this House, your Lordships will not be surprised to learn that the Government wish to secure its earliest possible passage, but subject to that full consideration. As for the Local Government Bill, we have come to the conclusion that this must be enacted by the end of October, at the latest, so that the necessary arrangements to bring in the local government structure by April 1, 1974, in an orderly way can be made, and in order to arrange for the elections of these authorities.

My Lords, I am only too well aware of the great burden that is likely to be placed upon your Lordships this summer—and not only upon your Lordships, but also, indeed, upon the staff of the House. I realise that we are going to ask a great deal of noble Lords and a great deal of the staff who serve us so very faithfully. I also realise that the admittedly tentative nature of our programme at present does not make it at all easy for people to plan their summer holidays. We must all recognise that the position for our House at this time of the year is always pretty unsatisfactory, but I would agree that at this time it is more unsatisfactory than usual, and no one appreciates more acutely than I do the fact that we are in for a very rough time this summer—although, if we are to be fair, we must admit that another place is also under acute pressure.

The conclusion I wish to draw from this unsatisfactory state of affairs is that this House deserves in future to have a fairer crack of the whip, a larger share of the legislative programme at the beginning of each new Session. I am convinced that this would help the House. It is really ludicrous that we should be under-employed, as we so often are, up till Christmas, or even until Easter, and then grossly over-employed at this time of the year. Likewise, I am perfectly certain that a better balance in the legislative programme between the two Houses would work to the advantage of Parliament as a whole. I know that Leaders of the House before me have expressed this view; and in fact this was a matter on which the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, the noble Lord, Lord Byers, and I myself laid a great deal of emphasis when we gave evidence to the Select Committee on Procedure of another place last July. Indeed, the note which we then struck with the Select Committee has produced a very sympathetic echo in their Report.

Fortunately, I am in a position to say that things look better for the future. In the first place (although I hope noble Lords will not press me unduly on the details of the Government's legislative programme for the coming Session), it is within my knowledge that some of the major Bills in contemplation could well be started in this House. Moreover—and this is equally important—I can assure your Lordships that it is the wish of the Government that in future (and this applies to the coming Session) there should be a more balanced loading between the two Houses of Parliament. I also know that my right honourable friend the Lord President feels that Parliament as a whole should not be asked to carry quite so large a programme as it has been asked to carry this year.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, for giving me this opportunity to make this statement. I apologise to your Lordships for the fact that it is still of a tentative nature, but I would say that I think it is highly desirable that we should follow up and try to finalise the arrangements until the start of the next Session through the usual channels, to the greater convenience of your Lordships.

3.35 p.m.


My Lords, I am not sure whether my noble friend the Leader of the Opposition wishes to add anything but, for my part, may I thank the noble Earl for the generous way in which he has responded to the Question that I put? The details of the sitting dates are, I think, better discussed outside the House and not across the Floor, but may I say to him, as a general point, that I think it would be to the advantage of most people if we sat no more than two weeks in August and if any business not completed then was taken in September. I think that would be a better arrangement than going on further into the month of August. As to the balance between the two Houses, I follow precisely what the noble Earl has said. I listened with great interest. I have no wish to start prematurely a debate upon matters which we shall be considering in a fortnight's time, but I wonder whether he has also taken into account that part of our legislative programme which will be initiated not in the Commons but in Brussels.


My Lords, I should like to acquit the noble Earl the Leader of the House of any discourtesy. Nevertheless, I think noble Lords feel that the present arrangements, which are worse than they were last year, are really an intolerable strain on the Parliamentary machine and, as the noble Earl has said, on the staff. Having said that, I would endorse warmly what the noble Earl has said about the balance of business in both Houses; and I know he has done a great deal to see that the point of view expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, by myself and by others last year and before that has been accepted by the Government. But may I ask him whether he has considered the possibility of extending this Session a little, if necessary close to Christmas? That may be a better way than by straining the Parliamentary system. I believe that suggestion ought to be considered. Finally, may I ask the noble Earl what the purpose is of coming back in the second week and possibly the third week of September? Is it really necessary? Because if we sit until August 17, we are going to get only about three weeks' holiday for the staff and the administration of this House. Could we not look at this matter in more detail, as he suggests, through the usual channels?


My Lords, when these matters are taken into consideration, especially where the staff are concerned, may I make a plea for family holiday arrangements to be honoured wherever possible? It is one thing for us who are Members of the House; we are more or less masters of our own time. But if Parliament mismanages its business I do not think we ought to ask sacrifices of the children of the staff. After all, school holidays now start a great deal earlier than was previously commonly the case, and if families are not able to go away during the last two weeks in August and the first part of September they will not be able to have family holidays at all. I hope that this matter will be taken very much to heart.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Earl the Leader of the House whether, if it should happen that through the usual channels there is an amicable and friendly arrangement in order to facilitate Government business and the Opposition assist in this fashion, he will take an early opportunity to repudiate the extraordinary allegation which came from the lips of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor in the course of the debate last night, that the Opposition conduct themselves like a public nuisance?


My Lords, may I ask my noble friend whether representations were made to the Government at the beginning of this Session to start the Criminal Justice Bill in this House, in view of the fact that the wisdom and knowledge of that part of the law which is available in your Lordships' House is outstanding? Would it not have been a great advantage to start that Bill here, rather than in the House of Commons? If representations were made that it should start here and they were refused by the Government, what hope is there of other Bills, perhaps less appropriate to be started in this House, being introduced here in future Sessions? Shall we not go on, as we have to my knowledge done for the last ten years, listening to the Leader of the House apologising to your Lordships at this time of the year for the inconvenience caused by the congestion of business due to the continuing lack of balance between the legislative programmes in this House and in the House of Commons?


My Lords, can the noble Earl the Leader of the House say whether the Dining Room is going to be closed for alterations from July 27? If so, will there be an catering facilities at all?


My Lords, I wonder whether I could assist my noble friend Lord Selkirk by saying now what will be said to the Refreshment Committee this afternoon: that the Dining Room will be closed from the end of that week but the Cholmondley Room will be available to provide noble Lords with their meals. It will not, however, be possible for noble Lords to have guests. I hope very much that my noble friend the Leader of the House will find it possible to rise by the end of the second week in August, as I have already told him that if we have to go into the third week, although I do not doubt that the refreshment staff will do their best, it will not be possible to provide more than lunches and teas.


My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lords, Lord Beswick and Lord Byers, for their generous reception of what I said. I have taken careful note of the point that the noble Lord, Lord Byers, put to me. But I think that the difficulty about the suggestion that we should not come back in September (and I noticed that the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, was rather pressing that we should come back in September, instead of sitting later into August, which was slightly contrary to the view of the noble Lord, Lord Byers) is the Local Government Bill. I can go into details and I will do so, both on the Floor of the House and through the usual channels about the timing here, but I can assure noble Lords that it is highly desirable that this very important Bill—and there is no Party political point here—should be enacted not later than the end of October. If we are to have a number of days in Committee on that Bill, I find it difficult to see how we can possibly secure this timetable without coming back in September. I shall be glad to go into details through the usual channels. As I have said, I do not think there are any Party politics in this particular Bill, and I am sure it will be to the interest of local government in the country as a whole.

I am sympathetic to the point put to me by the noble Baroness, Lady White. I did not expand on the hardship which is caused by these arrangements to the staff of the House. I am only too conscious of that myself. The point she made about family holiday arrangements is not lost on the Leader of the House and is very much in my mind. As for my comment about the extreme desirability of getting a better balance between the two Houses so far as the legislative programme is concerned, I would only say to my noble friend Lord Alport that I think, with the wisdom of hindsight, that I should tend to agree that there was a very strong case for having the Criminal Justice Bill introduced in this House. I think there is an even more powerful case for starting future legislation of this kind in this House, given the fact that the legal eminence and expertise which we find on the Woolsack at the present time has received some reinforcement in this House from the fact that we have in the Minister of State for the Home Office another eminent lawyer. To my noble friend Lord Alport I would say that although I may fail to "deliver the goods"—and we can all fail in our time—if he will read the remarks I made in reply to Lord Beswick he will see that they cantained a very explicit assurance. The assurance I was giving about a better balance was more than personal and more than platonic: it was a considered Government decision.