HL Deb 14 March 1973 vol 340 cc306-41

3.0 p.m.

THE EARL OF LISTOWEL rose to move that the First Report from the Select Committee on Procedure of the House be now agreed to.

The Committee's Report was as follows:

1. AMENDMENTS ON THIRD READING The Committee have reviewed the guidance given on page 119 of the Companion to the effect that:— It is considered undesirable that an amendment which has been fully debated and decided upon a previous stage of a Bill should be moved again on Third Reading. The Committee recommend no change in this wording.


Unstarred Questions Following exchanges on the floor of the House on 4th August 1972, the Committee have again reviewed the procedure on Unstarred Questions and in particular the desirability (or otherwise) of the practice, which has sometimes been resorted to, of a Lord who has not previously spoken continuing the debate after the Minister has replied. The Standing Orders on this Question are silent and it has for some time remained undecided. In section 2 of its First Report of Session 1969–70. dated 25th March, 1970, the Committee recommended as follows:—

  1. "(a) procedure on Unstarred Questions should be regulated by a decision of the House that it is undesirable for Lords to continue the debate after the Government reply has been given, save for questions to the Minister before he sits down;
  2. 307
  3. (b) that Standing Order No. 28 [now 29] ("No Lord to speak twice on one matter") should be amended so as to apply explicitly to Unstarred Questions as well as Motions."
At the same time the Committee recommended that further consideration should be given "to the possibility of devising, as an alternative to the Unstarred Question, some other form of short debate on a motion at the end of a day's business". The section containing these recommendations was, however, not agreed to by the House, pending consideration of other possible forms of short debate. In the light of that decision, the House has been experimenting in the early part of the Session with a form of short debate, limited in time to 2½ hours and reserved, as regards choice of subject, for Back Benchers and Cross Benchers. The Committee recommend that this form of short debate be now made permanent. As regards Unstarred Questions, the Committee reaffirm their previous recommendations of March 1970. These will involve amendments both to Standing Orders (in order to extend the appropriate provisions of Standing Order 29 to Unstarred Questions) and to the passage in the Companion (page 70) which deals with Unstarred Questions.

Short Wednesday Debates As indicated above, the Committee consider that short Wednesday debates have proved a success, and recommend that they should be continued on a permanent basis. Accordingly the Committee propose that the procedure governing these debates should be that set out in the Appendix to the Sixth Report of the Procedure Committee for last session, and that the present Sessional Order agreed to on November 7th to permit the Lord on the Woolsack to put the question and so bring the debate to an end after two and a half hours should be translated into a Standing Order.

3. COMMITTEE OF SELECTION The Committee have considered the terms of a new Standing Order to give effect to the recommendations contained in the Eighth Report of last Session (1970–l71). They recommend a Standing Order in the following terms:— 61.—(1) At the commencement of each Session the House shall appoint a Committee of Selection consisting of the Chairman of Committees and such other Lords as the House shall name. (2) The Committee of Selection shall select and propose to the House the names of the Lords to form each Select Committee of the House (excpet the Committee of Selection itself and any Committee otherwise provided for by statute or by order of the House) and may propose also the name of the Lord who will be the Chairman of such Committee. (3) Notice shall be given in the Order Paper of any Motion for the naming of Lords proposed by the Committee of Selection to serve on any Clmmittee other than a Select Committee on a Private Bill. The Committee consider however, that the Joint Select Committee on Consolidation Bills should be excluded from the scope of the Committee of Selection. Because of the Joint Committee's special character and the particular interest of the Lord Chancellor, its Lords Members should continue to be selected and proposed to the House by the Lord Chancellor. This can be achieved by a small amendment of S.O. 49 which will except the Committee from the provisions of paragraph 2 of the new S.O. 61. The Committee accordingly recommend the following amendment to Standing Order 49:— Line 2, at end, insert ("on the recommendation of the Lord Chancellor").

The noble Earl said: My Lords, I think it would be for the convenience of the House if at this stage I were to say something about the purpose and the background of the Committee's recommendations about Unstarred Questions, and about the effects of the Amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, to my Motion. It is almost exactly three years ago, on March 25, 1970, that the Procedure Committee first reported to the House its recommendations on Unstarred Questions, and those recommendations were identical to those which your Lordships have been asked to consider this afternoon, as noble Lords will observe in Section 2 of this Report. The 1970 Report followed the acceptance by the Procedure Committee of recommendations made by its Sub-Committee on Observances and Customary Behaviour of the House, which had given the whole matter of procedure on Unstarred Questions lengthy and careful consideration. The reason why this matter was referred to the Sub-Committee in the first instance, was the evident confusion of the House in debates on Unstarred Questions when noble Lords had tried to speak on an Unstarred Question after the Minister had replied.

When the Committee's 1970 Report was published, opposition to the section on Unstarred Questions was expressed by a number of Back Benchers, on the ground that a decision that it was undesirable for noble Lords to speak after the Government had replied would curtail their right to speak on Unstarred Questions. The noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, then tabled an Amendment to the Motion to agree to the Report, which was similar to that which is on the Order Paper for this afternoon. As a result of that Amendment and all the representations which were made before the debate took place, I eventually moved the agreement to that Report without the section containing the Committee's recommendations about Unstarred Questions. It was the general view at that time that the House ought not to be asked to decide about the regulation of Unstarred Questions without having before it an alternative form of short debate to compensate for any possible curtailment of the rights of Back-Benchers. Since then, a new form of short debate has been devised which gives the choice of subjects for debate to Back-Benchers. The House has recently been experimenting with these short Wednesday debates—indeed, this afternoon is an example of such a debate—and, as noble Lords will see in the Report, the Procedure Committee consider that these debates have proved a success. This I believe to be the general sense of the House. The Committee accordingly recommend that the short debates should be continued on a permanent basis. In the light of this recommendation, the House will, I hope, agree that the right moment has now come to reconsider the matter of Unstarred Questions.

The Procedure Committee have given further consideration to Unstarred Questions at two meetings—one in December last year, and one in January this year. They have decided to re-affirm their con-conclusions reached three years ago, to recommend that the procedure on Unstarred Questions should be regulated by a decision of the House that it is undesirable for Lords to continue the debate after the Government reply has been given, save for questions to the Minister before he "— or she— sits down". I think that the word "undesirable" is important. It means that the House is being asked to discourage noble Lords from continuing the debate, not to forbid them from doing so by an Amendment to Standing Orders. The Committee also recommend that Standing Orders should be amended, but only to provide that the rule against speaking more than once to a Motion should be extended to Unstarred Questions. As I said when I began, I think it might also be convenient if I said something about the consequences which would follow if the Amendment standing in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, were accepted. I hope noble Lords will note that I am referring to procedural consequences, and not to the merits of the Amendment. I am expressing no opinion about the merits of the noble Lord's Amendment, which the House will be able to judge in the light of his speech.

The Amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, seeks to remove from the Report the paragraph which contains the Procedure Committee's recommendations on Unstarred Questions. To leave this paragraph out would mean, in the first place, that the procedure of the House on Unstarred Questions would remain exactly as it is now; that is, in a state of some confusion caused by uncertainty about what is and what is not the accepted practice of the House. Indeed, it is not at present clear whether or not a noble Lord who attempts to speak after the Minister is in order. I would quote as a very recent example of this uncertainty the events which took place in the House on August 4 last year, when the noble Lord, Lord Barnby, tried to speak at the end of an Unstarred Question on Rhodesia. In that debate, I think it was the noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner, who intervened to suggest that the noble Lord, Lord Barnby, might not be in order. There is nothing at the moment in Standing Orders, or indeed in the Companion to Standing Orders, to say that a noble Lord may not speak after the Minister in a debate on an Unstarred Question. But the conduct of debates on Unstarred Questions in recent years shows that the usual practice of the House is for the Minister to speak at the end of the debate.

The second effect of the Amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, would be to leave Standing Order 29 in its present form. Although, under current practice, noble Lords do not in fact attempt to speak more than once on an Unstarred Question, there is no formal restriction on the number of times they may speak, and any noble Lord who spoke twice or, indeed, more often would not be out of order. The Procedure Committee took the view that the rules of debate on Motions—which, of course, forbid noble Lords to speak more than once unless they are speaking in reply to a Motion which they have moved themselves—and on Unstarred Questions should be the same, and that Standing Order 29 should be amended accordingly.

So sum up, the matter of procedure on Unstarred Questions has remained undecided and uncertain for a very considerable time, and both the House and the Procedure Committee have given careful and prolonged consideration to it. The House may feel that the time has now come to settle this question finally. I therefore beg to move that this Report be now agreed to.

Moved, That the First Report from the Select Committee on Procedure of the House be agreed to.—(The Earl of Listowel.)

3.7 p.m.

LORD FERRIER rose to move, As an Amendment to the Motion that the Report be agreed to, to insert at the end ("with the exception of the penultimate paragraph of item 2"). The noble Lord said: My Lords, I intend to be as brief as I can in my speech, but I regard the recommendations which I seek to reject as of such importance that there is a good deal of ground to be covered. It may well be a pity that the Report is being discussed on a mini-debate day, because my Amendment is largely, but not wholly, the concern of Back-Benchers and, consequently, there is some measure of rough justice in taking time over procedure to-day. I am particularly regretful that this procedure debate delays the start of the main Business, and I apologise to the noble Lords, Lord Somers and Lord Henley, for being in a small measure responsible for this delay.

I think your Lordships will agree that the short debate experiment has been a success—indeed, I agree with every word that the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, has said in that respect—and the recommendation in the third paragraph on page 3 of the Report, that this form of short debate be now made permanent, is a sound one. However, I contend that experience with the ballot, in addition to a fixed day only once a month, has shown in one important respect that mini-debates do not take the place of Unstarred Questions, which concern matters of immediate topical interest. The success of the experiment is indeed a most welcome and reassuring indication of the labour of the group under my noble friend Lord Aberdare, whose excellent Report of August. 1971, was debated in November of that year.

Incidentally, it contains a paragraph with reference to Back-Benchers and Independents which, with your Lordships' permission, I will read. On page 8 it says: On the other hand, it is a fair criticism that the Party Managers may not always give as much attention to the interests of the Back-Benchers and the Independents as they should, and it is necessary not only that those members of the House should have their interests safeguarded but also that Back-Bench opinion should be reassured. However, in my thinking these mini-debates have,as a corollary,drained off,as it were, some of the matters which would otherwise have been raised as Unstarred Questions and have thereby reduced the number of the latter. What is the result? As I see it, the result has been to enhance the importance of the Unstarred Question and to render it all the more important that debate upon it should not be unnecessarily circumscribed. Is there any need to alter the rules at all? I quote again from Lord Aberdare's Report where, in the introduction, it says: There are few Standing Orders, and the House runs its affairs according to good sense rather than by the rule book. In passing, I would mention that, of course, there is an accepted rule that no second Unstarred Question should be taken after 8 o'clock.

Before I return to the Report, I should like to acknowledge the courtesy extended to me by the noble Earl the Chairman of Committees in sending me the agenda of the last two meetings of the Procedure Committee and in suggesting that I attend, which in fact I did. This is a suitable opportunity, perhaps, to refer to his speech. As soon as he made quite clear that the intention of the Procedure Committee was not to forbid a Lord to speak after the Minister had replied, I did some quick thinking, and the result of that thinking is that I feel I should stick to my Amendment, because I do not like the word "undesirable". I propose to show to your Lordships that in fact it is sometimes desirable that a Lord should speak after the Minister has replied, and I believe some other Peers may agree with me in that view. Had the wording been "though desirable it is not to be encouraged", then I should not have put down the Amendment which is before your Lordships; but I think that is an important distinction which should be made. As for the effect of my Amendment on the situation as it now stands, I will return later to sub-paragraph (b) of the two recommendations; namely, the question that Standing Order No. 29 should be varied.

To return to the Report, on the first page, is the first paragraph of item 2 altogether correct when it refers to the practice, which has sometimes been resorted to.…"? I take issue with the noble Earl the Chairman of Committees when he says that there is some confusion. In my mind there is absolutely no confusion at all, because, so far as I remember—and I took much advice; I am thinking particularly of my old friend Sir Charles Hendricks, when I came to your Lordships' House some 15 years ago—there has always been a specific option open to any Lord other than the questioner (this is made clear on page 70 of the Companion, and I do not think it has ever been called in question) to continue the debate after the Minister has replied.

Again, in the next paragraph on the same page, is it correct to say: The Standing Orders on this Question are silent and it has for some time remained undecided"? As I read from Lord Aberdare's Report, if the Standing Orders are silent then presumably there is no doubt about the matter at all. The Standing Orders are silent because from time immemorial this facility has been available. It is not undecided. It is true that it is only occasionally used—and I would emphasise this point. It is very occasionally used, and when used it has sometimes been challenged, but challenged quite wrongly.


My Lords, may I interrupt my noble friend for one moment? He is now dealing with certain paragraphs and criticising them, whereas his Amendment refers only to something quite different. According to his Amendment, he is asking the House to approve of the paragraphs that he is now questioning. I cannot understand why he should invite the House to approve of them and then proceed to criticise them.


My Lords, with due respect, my noble friend has got the wrong end of the stick. I am trying to persuade the House not to approve of them. That is why I am pointing out the faults in them.


My Lords, I think my noble friend cannot have read his own Amendment. The Motion before the House is to approve this Report, to which my noble friend has put down an Amendment, namely, with the exception of the penultimate paragraph…".


Of item 2.


Yes, my Lords; the penultimate paragraph. That is the only paragraph which, by his Amendment, my noble friend is criticising. He is now proceeding to criticise those parts which he is not questioning in any way in his Amendment.


The difficulty, my Lords, was how to word my Amendment. I took the advice of the Table; because, as I shall show, I object to sub-paragraph (a) and approve of sub-paragraph (b), although other of my noble friends do not do so. The only way to cover them both was to move the deletion of the penultimate paragraph of item 2; namely, As regards Unstarred Questions, the Committee reaffirm their previous recommendations… They are reaffirming their recommendations, and it is these recommendations to which I am adverting. It is therefore, with due respect, perfectly correct for me to advert to the recommendations with which I disagree. However, I have nearly done with that.

As I was saying, this particular facility is seldom used and very seldom abused. In fact, it has not been abused, in my recollection, for many years. It is as well to remember—and this is another matter—that it was only a few years ago (namely, in 1966) that it was decided that Unstarred Questions must be taken as the last item of proceedings. It is only seven years ago. This detracted, in some measure, from their importance—there is no question about that—but I think it was a reasonable and acceptable decision. That is my personal view. Nevertheless, it was part of that process of erosion, which seems to be continuing, which, until the institution of these mini-debates, of which I and all your Lordships approved had been regarded by some as "Back-Bencher bashing".

Further, my Lords, it is all very well citing the exchanges on August 4, in which my noble friend Lord Barnby was concerned, but what about the occasion on November 25, 1969, when the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, who was the only lawyer to contribute, or to offer to contribute, to a debate on an Unstarred Question by the noble Lord, Lord Willis, rose after the Minister to make what was likely to have been a perfectly reasonable and useful contribution? He was interrupted by the Leader of the House, and, protesting with his usual courtesy, preferred not to make his speech, though in my view he had every right to do so. Just as had by noble friend Lord Barnby in August.

I had the advantage of a telephone conversation with the noble Lord, Lord Willis, on Monday morning. He asked me to express to your Lordships his regret that he is unable to attend until too late to-day to take part in this debate, because he is flying back from Italy. He also said that he would have supported my Amendment and remembers well his disapponitment at the exchanges which led to the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, being lost to the debate to which I have referred. That is what I mean, my Lords, by the fact that it is occasionally desirable that a Peer might speak after the Minister. The noble Lord, Lord Chorley, at the end of the controversy at that time said, if I may repeat it to your Lordships: I wanted to listen to the Minister in order to hear what he was going to say before I intervened in the debate. This is surely common sense, and in the ordinary way of discussion."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 25/11/69, col. 1247.] And words roughly to that effect were used by my noble friend Lord Barnby in August.


May I ask the noble Lord why, if he thinks it so reasonable, it should not be applied to all our debates, when in fact there is no Rule against it but it is the custom of the House that people do not speak after the Minister other than the questioner.


I do not follow the noble Lord. Could he repeat what he said?


I asked the noble Lord why he thought it reasonable that a noble Lord can speak after the Minister on an Unstarred Question when he is apparently not prepared to advocate this for general application to all other Motions where, by the custom of the House, other than the mover of a Motion, noble Lords do not speak after the Minister.


My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, will come to my help if he takes part in the debate, because it was his words that I was using. Nevertheless, I agree with them. As a matter of fact, on that occasion a statement followed the next day which established that his contention was right —that he had the right. That right, I believe, exists to-day and I hope will continue to do so.

This brings me to the paragraph which my Amendment suggests might be rejected. This explains the point to which my noble friend Lord Conesford drew attention. It is the fourth paragraph on page 3 of the Report, and this is the difficulty. I was advised that it would be inconvenient to word my Amendment in any other way, and the paragraph reaffirms that the two recommendations made in March, 1970, should be accepted. I am moving that they be rejected. I object to (a), as I have explained. I need not go into all the details because I have set out what I had in mind in reply to my noble friend Lord Conesford; namely, that it is not necessarily undesirable for Lords to continue an Unstarred Question debate after the Minister. What is more, for a Lord to do so is a long established right concerning which a number of your Lordships, including myself, are jealous.

As for (b), to the effect that Standing Order No. 29 should be amended to include Unstarred Questions, I personally favour that, and this in a measure answers the question put to me by the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton. However, in putting down the Amendment, I had to word it in the way I have done, and it was wise that I should have done so because I find that at least one of my noble friends does not agree with me over (b), and feels, like a number of people, that although it would provide against the type of abuse which has been used in time long past, it is making change when perhaps change is not necessary.

Somewhere in my researches I have come across the complaint that noble Lords use Unstarred Questions as a vehicle for their views. But of course they do. That is the object of an Unstarred Question as opposed to a Starred Question, and although what time steps seem to be proposed to "clip the wings" of any noble Lord asking an Unstarred Question, a good deal of latitude is granted at Question Time when Starred Questions and supplementaries are being ingeniously used, as they have been on a number of occasions this afternoon, for the expression of opinions: "But would not the noble Lord agree with…" that sort of vehicle for expressing views which are really not strictly a question.

In considering the whole matter, it is well to bear in mind the, as I believe it to be, inalienable right for any Peer to put down a Motion, but it would be undesirable and extravagant in time and an expense if that right to put down a Motion, was used by Lords to replace the Unstarred Question as it now stands. It is interesting to analyse the length of time taken in relation to the importance or even the urgency of some subjects raised in Unstarred Questions. Take, for instance, recent Questions such as that by the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, on December 12 last on Icelandic fisheries, which lasted for 54 minutes and was replied to by the noble Barcness, Lady Tweedsmuir of Belhelvie, and another by my noble friend the Earl of Kinnoull on Rolls-Royce on December 21, which lasted for 44 minutes. Neither of these would have had any impact at all if they had gone into the hat for the ballot of short debates to-day.

Incidentally, I noticed that in "Yesterday in Parliament" on the B.B.C. on December 13, the only item in your Lordship's procedure of the whole day which that programme referred to was the question of the Icelandic fisheries which had been raised by the noble Lord, Lord Kennet. My Lords, again I would remark on this question of timing as it is affected by the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Charley, and my noble friend Lord Barnby. As the matter stands, a Peer can come to a debate on an Unstarred Question with views on the matter not sufficiently strong for him to put his name down to speak. If when the Minister replies he gets an answer on what Ile had in mind then there is no need for him to speak and, therefore, time is saved, and I believe that figures go to show that this in fact is an economy of time. That is the point I wanted to make about timing. There is no doubt in my mind that this contributes to the brevity of Unstarred Questions as opposed to Motions.

My Lords, I have taken much longer than I intended, but I was interrupted—I had intended to speak for only a quarter of an hour. If I have spoken in a rather matter of fact or possibly light hearted manner, I would end on a serious note by assuring your Lordships that I would not have taken up your time in pressing this matter had I not sincerely believed that it is of very deep significance in respect of the functions of this House. Of course, the character of the House is changing, but I suggest that the usual channels in their zeal to promote the efficiency of the House as a legislating machine by this recommendation endanger the retention of our position as a debating Chamber on matters of public interest. My Lords, I beg to move my Amendment.

Moved, as an Amendment to the Motion, to insert at the end: ("with the exception of the penultimate paragraph of item 2").—(Lord Ferrier.)

3.30 p.m.


My Lords, I have listened with care and attention, as I am sure the whole House has, to what the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, has said. He feels—he has convinced me and I am sure he has convinced the rest of the House—very strongly about this matter and about its importance. I do not mean to criticise the noble Lord at all, but I can perhaps claim to take a more detached view of the subject because the possibility of my taking part in a debate which follows on the asking of an Unstarred Question is now not very great; indeed, my opportunities for speaking in your Lordships' House are now not very many.

I start by saying that in his speech the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, has not drawn any difference between a debate which is started by a Motion and one on an Unstarred Question. He has treated the two throughout as if they were the same. The fact that an Unstarred Question is such, if I understand his speech, he contends really makes no difference at all—it is just a vehicle for introducing a perfectly ordinary debate. I venture to doubt that, and for reasons which I will state. I also challenge his observation that it is a long-established practice that, after a Minister has replied to an Unstarred Question, Peers have the right to make speeches. I do not believe that that is true at all. I know that it is his belief. But what I think I can establish is that on many occasions when the right which Lord Ferrier says exists has sought to be exercised, its exercise has been challenged by other Peers as a breach of our procedure. Whatever may be the present position (the noble Lord shakes his head but I will give him instances where that has happened, and they are by no means few), wherever that has happened, it indicates that there are Members of this House of considerable experience who do not for one moment accept the noble Lord's statement that Peers are entitled to make speeches after a Minister has answered an Unstarred Question.

It is all very well to discuss procedure on an occasion such as this, but I do not believe that disputes as to what is the proper procedure to follow, and as to whether a Peer is obeying the Rules of this House, look very good in the course of a debate, and I think we should seek to avoid them if we can. What is the present position?—and this the noble Lord cannot deny, and I will give him instances in a moment. We have had frequent disputes about this and, as the Chairman of Committees has said in his brief but very able speech, the position is unresolved. No one knows at the moment what is the right course to be taken, because that has not been determined. We are masters of our own procedure, and it does not look very good if there is a dispute between Peers as to what the procedure is. It is not, if I may say so to the noble Lord, the "usual channels" who are putting forward this recommendation; this is a recommendation put to this House by the Procedure Committee, which comprises many Members from all parts of the House and from all sections of the House, and, I believe, representing nearly all points of view. We had the benefit of hearing the views of the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, before we made this recommendation last time. It is the task of the Procedure Committee, delegated I believe by this House, to resolve these problems of procedure and to bring their recommendations to this House for its approval.

I make no claim to speak for that Committee, but it is to be recognised that the recommendation of that Committee in 1970 (and I was then a Member) as to the answer to this particular controversy was not accepted by the House, largely owing on that occasion to the efforts of the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, and so the old controversy remained unresolved. Now again the Procedure Committee, we have been told and as is indeed the case, have considered the matter, thought about it, and come forward with precisely the same recommendation. I now have the honour to be a Member of the Procedure Committee again, so I was able to hear the discussions; and I can tell your Lordships, I hope quite properly, that there were prolonged discussions about this matter, and that this recommendation, which was not accepted in 1970, has not been put before the House in any spirit of obstinacy or in any desire to cut down the rights of Back-Benchers or any other Peers. Nothing of that sort at all! It has been put forward because, after prolonged consideration by two separate Procedure Committees, they have both come up with what they believe to be the right answer for the procedure to be followed on Unstarred Questions.

Again, the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, as he is entitled to do, seeks to prevent that recommendation—


My Lords, will the noble and learned Viscount forgive me for interrupting him now that I think he is about to leave that point? May I ask for clarification, because it appears to me that he is himself raising something of a novelty in the matter of procedure? Is it the noble and learned Viscount's suggestion or contention that recommendations of the Procedure Committee, or any other Committee, ought to be accepted by the House without argument?


My Lords, I have said nothing to that effect at all, as the noble Earl would know if he had listened to me. And I was not going on to another point, but I am trying to keep my remarks as short as I can. What I would say to the noble Earl is this. This House is of course free to accept or reject any recommendation which any Committee make to it, but I suggest that some consideration should be given and some weight attached to the recommendations of a Committee such as the Procedure Committee, particularly when the noble Earl knows—or I hope he will take it from me—that many hours have been spent by Procedure Committees in considering this particular problem.

May I now return to what I was saying, which was that the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, again seeks to get this recommendation not accepted. He may succeed. He is perfectly entitled to take that course and I do not criticise it. But I for myself would feel it a great pity, for this reason. The controversy which has gone on now for so many years as to what is the right procedure to follow would be wholly unresolved; we should still go on in the same old way, and that would be a great pity. Unstarred Questions are much older than Starred Questions, which started only in 1919 and became a regular feature of our Business only in 1940. Unstarred Questions and Starred Questions have one thing in common, which is of course quite different from a Motion. They are both Questions which are directed to the Government and to eliciting an Answer from the Government. A Motion proposes a resolution which at the end of the day may be carried, rejected or withdrawn. There is no such conclusion to the discussion started by an Unstarred Question. The conclusion to that, surely, logically is when the Question is answered.

In this question before us to-day there is no suggestion of stopping or in anyway interfering with the rights of Members to rise and make speeches before the Minister answers. Nor is there any suggestion, as the noble Earl the Chairman of Committees has made clear, of inhibiting or preventing an indication to the Minister if it is thought that his Answer is thoroughly unsatisfactory, because one can adopt the usual device of rising and saying: "Is the noble Lord aware that his Answer is wholly unsatisfactory?", or saying something offensive of that sort and getting the point well home. But the question here is whether, after the Minister's speech and when he cannot speak again—I repeat, when he cannot speak again—other Peers should then deliver speeches. It must mean a very ragged end to the debate on an Unstarred Question and I cannot think that it is logically right. If the noble Lord wants to have an absolutely up to date debate, however short, the right thing to do is to put down a Motion and not to put down an Unstarred Question. As I understand it, he is not prevented from putting down a Motion at any time.

May I remind your Lordships of the precedents, which are rather interesting. If I go back to 1947, the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, who seems to have featured to a quite remarkable extent in these matters, was then a Minister. He made a speech which the late Lord Swinton did not like. Lord Swinton followed Lord Chorley who had answered an Unstarred Question, and directly he did so the propriety of his conduct was challenged. Lord Swinton claimed that he was fully in order—and that the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, will no doubt seek to rely on.

I remember that during my tune in this House the late Lord Alexander of Hillsborough, who adorned the Front Bench for a considerable time, used to lie in wait for unsuspecting Ministers who were answering Unstarred Questions and get up and "bite" them when they had answered. I cannot remember whether that led to much controversy, but I suspect that it did. I come to an occasion in 1966 when the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, sought to follow the Minister who had answered an Unstarred Question, and his action was challenged. In 1967 the noble Lord, Lord Erroll of Hale, followed the Minister who had answered an Unstarred Question, and he was attacked for doing so. In 1969 this was sought to be done on two occasions. The first, if my memory is right, was during that debate on Rhodesia, when a number of Peers wanted to follow the Minister. Then the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, as Leader of the House, said that it was turning into a most irregular debate, and my recollection is that it was. Referring to noble Lords speaking after the Minister, he went on to say, "It can be done but it is very unusual." On another occasion in the same year the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, tried again to speak after the Minister. He tried unsuccessfully and was challenged.


Quite wrongly!


The iioble Lord, Lord Ferrier, says, "Quite wrongly". That is his point of view. It has always been a matter of dispute, and the point I am making is, let us resolve these disputes; do not let them continue.


Hear, hear!


The noble Lord says, "Hear, hear!" but what he wants to do, by moving his Amendment, is to leave the matter unresolved so that these disputes will continue. With that support from him I hope that he will withdraw the Amendment.

My Lords, I submit to the House, seriously, that the time has come for us to make an end to this sort of controversy. If we accept the recommendations of the Procedure Committee, that will not be the end of the day. In this House we are masters of our own procedure and we can always change it if it does not work well, or if it does not meet with our satisfaction. I believe that it will work well. But, if we accept this recommendation of the Procedure Committee, at least there will be guidance to all Peers from now on as to what is the current procedure. It will not be left indefinite. The noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, will not like it, but I am sure that if that is done he will for the time being fully comply with it, and, that being so, we shall have resolved that problem.

The only other point raised by the noble Lord's Amendment is this. Part of the paragraph he wants left out makes clear that no Peer can speak twice on an Unstarred Question. I am sure it must have been an oversight that that is not provided for already in the Standing Orders. But none the less the noble Lord does not want that change to be made in our Standing Orders. He has moved to delete the paragraph which would bring that about. I think it would be a pity if the position was left as it is now, and I hope that the House will reject this Amendment and support the Committee's recommendations.

3.45 p.m.


My Lords, after the speech of the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Dilhorne, I do not think I need to speak for more than a minute or two. I am in complete agreement with the noble and learned Viscount and I hope the House will reject the Amendment. I want to say that on the odd occasions when I have sat on the Woolsack at the end of the day, while I have had no power in the matter. I have been greatly embarrassed when noble Lords have tried to speak after a Minister. I have always felt that it was not the right thing to do. A Question is a Question; a Motion is a Motion, and when a Question has been answered by the Minister that should be the end of the situation. Of that I am quite sure. Therefore I am delighted to find that the Procedure Committee have decided that Amendments will be made to Standing Orders to make this absolutely clear.

The only reservation I have is this. We can quite easily pass the Motion that the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, has moved this afternoon, but I would make a plea to the Procedure Committee to look at the situation de novo. Those of us who have served in another place always felt that it was satisfactory in every way to have an Adjournment debate at the end of the day. It was not an Unstarred Question; it was not a Question of any kind. That was a Motion, and anybody successful in persuading Mr. Speaker that he should have that half hour at the end of the day, got it. At the end of what he had to say, or if his speech was short and someone else had time to speak at the end of what he had to say, the Minister replied; and when the Minister had replied that was the end of it.

My Lords, I think that this idea would be more valuable in these days when this House is sitting later than it used to do. Adjournment debates last for half an hour, and if the Minister is on his feet at the end of the half hour he has to sit down, and the House adjourns. I want to suggest to the Procedure Committee that that is a way of approach; that we might scrap the Unstarred Question procedure completely and adopt the House of Commons method of having an Adjournment debate at the end of the day. I want to make one other point, which has nothing to do with this matter. I wish to ask the noble Earl, the Lord Chairman of Committees, about mini-debates. When we get further into the Session and there is a rush of legislation from another place, will the Wednesday mini-debates be in any way in danger.

3.48 p.m.


My Lords, I wish to say one thing very shortly. I am quite clear, as I think the House is, that this debate and proposal by the Procedure Committee derives from an incident that took place when my noble friend Lord Barnby intervened after the Minister's reply during the Rhodesia debate. I do not suppose there was anybody in the House who was more angry at my noble friend for his intervention that I was, or disagreed more with what he said. But he had every right to make that intervention, if he wished to do so. In this House, where the control over our procedure is so very strong and in the hands of the occupants of the two Front Benches, it is not easy for a noble Lord to make his voice heard it he has views which may not coincide with the more orthodox views of one side of the House or the other. Sometimes it is essential that he should resort to the use of the privileges, the facilities, which are allowed him under our rather loose Standing Orders and forms of procedure. The noble Lord, Lord Barnby, did so on that occasion, and he made his point effectively; more effectively than if he had spoken before the Minister's reply. In my view he was absolutely justified in doing so.

I can see no conceivable connection between mini-debates and the point which my noble friend Lord Ferrier raised. All that is now happening is that the Ministers feel that it is unfair that a Private Member can get up after they have replied and perhaps introduce some new facts or arguments. But so far as I understand it in this House we are all equal. We defer, as we should do, to the Leader of the House and to the noble Lord who leads the Opposition. But fundamentally we have the right to express our opinions, whether or not the Minister has replied successfully and satisfactorily to the points that we have made, or that have been made by other speakers during the debate. This is a small curtailment of the rights of private Members in this House. My personal view—and I am reinforced in the strength of it by the speech of the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Dilhorne—is that this should not be accepted by the House, and I hope that my noble friend when the time comes will divide the House on his Amendment.

3.50 p.m.


My Lords, following what the noble Lord, Lord Royle, said I should like to make one short point in case some who have not been in another place might misunderstand the position. An Adjournment debate is not necessarily limited to half an hour, because if the business of the House ends earlier, an Adjournment debate can be at least as long as our mini-debates. Then the Minister really is at risk, because during the half hour anybody who, as a Minister, has had to reply to an Adjournment debate knows how important it is to go on to the very last half-minute or else someone will get up and speak. If he has longer than half an hour that really cannot happen, and the situation becomes one much more like a mini-debate. So an Adjournment debate serves a purpose, but it is not necessarily something that we should like to adopt in entirety from another place and introduce as an improvement here.


My Lords, I am obliged to the noble Lord for putting me right on that, but it is not often that that happens.

3.51 p.m.


My Lords, my name has been mentioned several times during the course of the debate, and I would crave your Lordships' indulgence for a few minutes. First of all, I agree, as has just been said, that there is a great difference between the Commons' Adjournment debate and an Unstarred Question. I do not think an Adjournment debate provides a solution. Secondly, I agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier said. Until recently, I think the position in relation to this matter was perfectly clear. I cannot remember—and my memory on these things now goes back for a quarter of a century—that this matter was ever challenged. The occasion when the late Lord Swinton shot me down as a very junior Minister has been referred to. Naturally, I too remember that very well indeed. The point is that Lord Swinton was one of the most experienced Parliamentarians that I ever knew: and he had no doubt at all that he was entitled to speak after the Minister. My recollection is that he was not seriously challenged. Nor do I think anybody was seriously challenged until well into the 'sixties.

The Clerk of the Parliaments produced a careful piece of research, a good deal of which was put into the admirable memorandum which the Lord Chairman of Committees circulated to your Lordships just before Christmas, in which he took some of the research from Sir David Stephens, starting in 1962 and going down to the Lord Barnby case. During those ten years on about six occasions this happened. Really, these little flutters are rather enjoyable and, as has been said, they give Back-Benchers a chance to take part.

I am grateful to the Procedure Committee because, no doubt through the Lord Chairman, they invited the noble Lords, Lord Ferrier and Lord Barnby, and myself to attend these meetings. But what one notices is that the Committee are nearly all ex-Ministers; certainly those who speak are almost invariably ex-Ministers.


The noble Lord is an ex-Minister.


I agree that there is a certain untidiness about the possibility of this happening, even if, as is the fact, it only happens about once in two years. My noble Leader has a very tidy mind. I have often envied him that. But is he not on this occasion just wanting to be tidy for the sake of tidiness? I know that he has been making his own researches and has gone further back than the Swinton case, to 1943, when he found an occasion when three noble Lords spoke after the Minister. My noble friend is very honest in producing this case, which really defeats the case he is making, which is an attempt to show that it has been the custom for a long time in this House that noble Lords should not be entitled to speak after the Minister. In all these early cases they did speak. So far as I know, there was no protest about this procedure, until my noble Leader himself came here recently with his tidy mind and tried to stop me from intervening in a debate, the subject matter of which was very legal, on a Question by the noble Lord, Lord Willis, so far as I remember, about a policeman. Eventually my noble Leader agreed that he ought not to have stopped me.

There we are, my Lords. Are we not pushing tidiness too far? When occasionally we have been untidy, we have nearly always got something more out of the Minister than we should have got had we remained tidy and quiet. So untidiness has on occasions paid, and I think a little untidiness of that kind does no particular harm even in your Lordships' House. I agree entirely with the noble Lord. Lord Ferrier, that there is no Rule of this kind. Only in the last few years has it been suggested that one exists. But if your Lordships want to change the procedure you can have a Rule. Some noble Lords obviously want to have a tight Rule of this kind. It is entirely for your Lordships to say, but I would suggest that, on the whole, it is better to leave well alone, (or perhaps I should say, comparatively well alone) and not push the matter further. Let us accept the situation which has worked reasonably well over a long time.

3.58 p.m.


My Lords. I want at once to associate myself with my noble friend Lord Ferrier, who in substance says, "No change". The issue now is the defence of a procedure which Back-Benchers have used over a long period of time. It has served the House well for many years, so why change it? I want to associate myself with all that my noble friend Lord Ferrier said: and whatever views may be held by Members of the House, I am sure they will agree that he has shown a depth of research into the subject and admirable application in producing chapter and verse to explain why he has put down this Amendment. For myself, I find it is a little difficult as a Back-Bencher to express my views on this subject, after listening to the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Dilhorne, an ex-Lord Chancellor and therefore once a member of a Government, and habituated as a lawyer to put a case with great brilliance. I can only ask the indulgence of the House when I speak in defence of what I believe is a long standing right of a Back-Bencher. I shall try to explain that, and I shall try also to avoid repeating much of what my noble friend has said.

I feel that there should be no change and we should retain the privilege which Back-Benchers have, and have had for a long time. This procedure has worked effectively. The noble and learned Viscount Lord Dilhorne, referred to confusion. If there is confusion now, why was there not confusion thirty or forty years ago? He referred to the fact that the House observes its traditions. Let us be frank among ourselves. There is a Rule which says that no speeches should be read, and every Member of this House knows that we often hear very erudite speeches read, lasting even up to half an hour to the benefit of the Record but transgressing the Rules of the House. I just wanted to dispose of the point made by the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Dilhorne. I say that there should be no change and, with respect to the House, I would say that I recognise that anybody who nowadays opposes change is inclined to incur the strictures of a large proportion of the young, to whom so many things like discipline, patriotism, citizenship and respect for the Constitution are out of date. I speak from long experience of this House and, incidentally, of the other place, too. For example, I remember well the period before the last war, during the '30s. There was no difficulty about this matter at that time and, indeed, in the '20s. What is it that has caused the difficulty now?

I put this question to your Lordships' House: What is an Unstarred Question? It is a means whereby a Back-Bencher may raise certain subjects which he considers to be of national importance, in order to get an immediate discussion of them. The noble and learned Viscount spoke about Motions and so on, but we have to ask: how long does it take to get a Motion on the Order Paper? If we talk about Starred Questions, how long does it take to get them on the Order Paper? The point about a Starred Question is that it can be put on the Order Paper—and it should be a question. It is within my recollection over this long period—and I should like to ask your Lordships' indulgence in referring to it—that there have been cases when a Starred Question has been put down when it would have been a more appropriate subject for a Written Answer—in other words, there was no immediate urgency.

The Unstarred Question is a means whereby the Back-Bencher can bring to the notice of the House quickly—and I repeat "quickly"—a matter on which he wants an Answer. Of course, it should be a question, as I have said, but there now seems to have developed a tendency to get into a discussion, perhaps unintentionally. My noble friend Lord Alport, to whom we are indebted for his contribution to-day, has referred to a point with which I have some familiarity —there have been cases where an Unstarred Question has developed into a debate. But often it is a matter which the questioner seeks a quick reply. Certainly I recollect well that in the '30s the Minister in his reply may not perhaps have covered one point which some other noble Lords would have wished to see covered, and probably some disappointment was felt because of this. In those circumstances noble Lords got up and naturally asked another question. There was an advantage both ways: I must emphasise that fact.

I speak now as a Back-Bencher and I speak in defence of the rights of BackBenchers and of what can be achieved by them. The Minister replies to a specific Question, but it may be that he has omitted to cover some aspect of the matter which would be of interest to another Member of the House, and that Member therefore wishes to get his point brought to the Minister's notice, and perhaps also to get it on the Record. This avoids the obligation on the Minister to give an immediate reply. It may well be that the Minister is not prepared for it. He is not committed and the matter can always be referred to later; and at some later date the questioner has the privilege of following up something which has not been dealt with. He can do this either by means of a Starred Question or by putting down a Question for Written Answer, and that surely is the best way of eliciting a great deal of information that is sought. It is on those grounds that I wish most emphatically to express my belief that the rights of BackBenchers should be respected in this manner. The noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition, to whom we always listen with great attention and proper respect said that if we change one, why not change all the Standing Orders? I just throw out the suggestion that should there be the need for a change in practice and the asking of questions subsequent to the Minister having sat down—which I defend most emphatically because I think it is to the benefit of the Minister that this should be so—then let us have it limited to some subsequent question, perhaps to the effect that a questioner must not speak for longer two or three minutes. A time limit might be imposed from the Woolsack, for instance. In fact we already have clocks to remind us of the time.

I thank the House for its indulgence in listening to me, but I speak in all sincerity born of long membership of your Lordships' House, which it has been my happy privilege to enjoy. This is a case where there is no need for change, and I most strongly support the case—and it is a good case—put forward by the mover of the Amendment.

4.7 p.m.


My Lords, may I say that I too have been a Member of your Lordships' House for some time—though not perhaps for so lengthy a period as the noble Lord, Lord Barnby—and during that time I have never had the slightest doubt that in connection with an Unstarred Question no one speaks after the Minister. It has never even arisen in my mind—and if I may say so, I have said this to noble Lords who have tried to speak, and it has been accepted without any question. The noble Lord, Lord Chorley, mentioned Lord Swinton. No doubt Lord Swinton was maddened with fury at Lord Chorley's Question—and it was not always very easy to put Lord Swinton in his place. The noble Lord, Lord Barnby, said that surely we could ask questions. Yes, that is provided for.


My Lords, on a point of order, it was Lord Swinton, who objected to my answering the comment which he made. He said that I had no right to speak twice. There was no question of his thinking that he had a right to speak after the Minister.


My Lords, I apologise if I got it wrong: it seems that Lord Swinton was in order on that occasion, and I am glad to hear it. The noble Lord, Lord Barnby, asked: could he not ask a question after the Minister's reply? Of course we all know that Ministerial Answers are never satisfactory, from either side of the House. Of course you can ask questions: this is precisely provided for. The noble Lord also talks about Back-Benchers' rights. One of those rights which has not been mentioned is that Unstarred Questions should be short. This is an enormous advantage to a Back-Bencher. If you start on a long debate people tend to say, "It is too /ate: you cannot carry it on". The real advantage of these quiet little Unstarred Questions taken late in the evening, with perhaps only two or three people taking part, is that they are enormously important and, I believe, very valuable. If we extend them into debates I believe we spoil things. The noble and learned Viscount, Lord Dilhorne, has explained carefully, and I think rightly, that this is a Question and not a Motion. It is for the Government to tell us. It is not really for us to force views on the Government. We have now passed the stage when we can leave things as they are. If we do that, we are taking a decision positively to allow people to speak after the Minister on an Unstarred Question. We must therefore make a decision to-day, and I hope it will be to reject the Amendment.

4.10 p.m.


My Lords, I have come here, a little like Balaam, at the invitation of my noble friends Lord Barnby and Lord Ferrier, and I am not quite sure how I am going to come down in the end. The Motion before us now shows me how much your Lordships' House has changed in the short time since I discontinued regular attendance here. I see in item 2(b), if I read it correctly, that it is proposed that Standing Orders be amended to prevent people speaking more than once on an Unstarred Question.

Your Lordships have been discussing Standing Orders. The noble Lord, Lord Barnby,will bear me out that when we came here for the first time we discovered that there were a very large number of Orders which were quite inflexible, and which were never put down in Standing Orders, and never received any authority of print. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Barnby, will remember that very well. One of the Orders was that on no account does any Peer speak a second time on an Unstarred Question. I am sorry that the noble Earl, Lord Longford, who was sitting close beside me a few moments ago, is not still here, because he will remember when I put an Unstarred Question there must have been half a dozen Peers itching to jump up and put me down if I had tried to speak again. The fact that your Lordships seem to need a Standing Order on this matter shows how changes come about.

Regarding item 2(a) I am bound to say that I do not agree with the noble Earl, Lord Selkirk. I am not at all sure that in the particular case I referred to somebody did not speak after Lord Longford's reply. There are occasions when, on a particularly nasty Unstarred Question, the Government reply but do not answer. Then it may well be that some noble Lord, not the one who asked the original Question, should have a perfect right to indicate that fact. I should far prefer that instead of the word "undesirable" we use a word such as that used by the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, that it is not "customary". That would cover the position.

There are occasions when people feel strongly that they ought to say something after hearing the Government's answer. I would remind your Lordships that the matter is always within your Lordships' own powers, because it is competent to noble Lords to move that the debate be now adjourned, or something like that. The House always has power over its own Members. If the Motion goes to a Division I am not at all sure that I shall not support the Government. Although the Rule may be necessary, I should much prefer to see the word "customary" substituted for "undesirable" because it may be extremely desirable even though it is not customary.

4.14 p.m.


My Lords, on the main question I think the House is ready to come to a decision and I rise only on one point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Royle. He referred to Adjournment debates in another place. One essential fact which the noble Lord, Lord Royle, had missed has already been pointed out by my colleague behind me. But there is another clear distinction: there is no limit regarding the subject that we can raise in an Unstarred Question. An Unstarred Question is, of course, a Question to the Government. In the other place, there is a great restriction: there is the absolute restriction that you must not raise anything that involves any changes in legislation. I merely wish to correct the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Royle. On the main subject of the debate I think we are ready to come to a decision.


My Lords, I should like to raise two points. The first is the question of the rights of Back-Benchers, to which the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Dilhorne, referred. He suggested that the right was either unresolved, or there was no right at all. He went on to say that the Standing Orders were silent on the matter, and he told us that there was case after case of this right being exercised.


My Lords, I am sorry if I did not make myself clear. I said that there was nothing in the Standing Orders—as indeed is the case—which points one way or the other: they are silent. I said that although some may believe that these rights exist, others do not. On many occasions this has led to controversy and dispute, which I believe is undesirable. I pointed out that the effect of carrying this Amendment would be to leave that situation unresolved, and I thought it would be better to resolve it now, and if it does not work satisfactorily we can change it later.

4.16 p.m.


My Lords, I was beginning to think that the House was getting near a point when they might take a decision on the most momentous issue that has come before us in this Session. I have to intervene because there seem to have been a number of references to what I did as Leader of the House. I must correct my noble friend Lord Chorley of two points. I came here in 1958, at the same time as the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, and not in 1968. On the occasion in question, when he said that I was wrong in my ruling—if that is the right word—I was nothing of the kind. I said that I was quite certain I was right. But I was wrong in saying that the Procedure Committee had settled the matter; the matter was under discussion.

I want to make it very clear that the Unstarred Question is not the monopoly of the Front Bench or the Back Bench; it belongs to Members of your Lordships' House. It can be asked by anybody who is not a Member of the Government—for obvious reasons, Members of the Government are somewhat restricted. There is no Leader of the House who, in my opinion, can possibly function successfully unless he is reasonably confident that he has the support of the majority of the House. We have no Speaker here, and no Leader can possibly seek to be authoritarian. I know of no occasion on an Unstarred Question when I have risen to suggest what I believed to be the custom of the House when I did not have the support of the House, provided that there was anybody here at all—sometimes there was hardly anybody here.

I am sure the views of the noble Earl, Lord Jellicoe, are the same as mine in saying that it is of paramount importance to preserve the freedom of your Lordships. It is important to emphasise that the Leader of the House merely performs because somebody has to do it, but the decision rests on the House. If the House does not want to listen to someone, then there are certain ways in which it can stop him. There have been times when the Leader has had to intervene for some unfortunate individual and say that perhaps the House would listen to him. I am quite certain that anybody who occupies the position that the noble Earl now holds must have absolute regard to the freedom of the House.

When we come to the question of the history of Unstarred Questions, shortly after I arrived in your Lordships' House I asked an Unstarred Question—in those days it came on early—and I seem to remember that the subject was an exponential nuclear assembly, which was a bit of showing off on my part. I was told firmly that after the Minister had replied I had no further right to speak again. I fully accept, and I absolutely concede to the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, that the matter has been repeatedly disputed, but when we look at the history of the Unstarred Question the one thing that appears is that there has been no attempt to regulate it at all.

What I find very odd, going back, for instance, to 1942 when there were 14 Unstarred Questions, is that on three of those occasions noble Lords spoke after the Minister, but on seven occasions the noble Lord who actually asked the Question spoke after the Minister. But now, apparently, the noble Lords, Lord Ferrier and Lord Barnby, would maintain that the initiator historically is not allowed to do so. In fact, however, he has done so, and the point I am trying to make is that whatever confusion there may be over the history of this matter, we all bow to the noble Lord, Lord Barnby. I regard him as one of the youngest and most active Members of your Lordships' House, who never uses a note and whose memory, we know, is much longer than ours. I must admit that my memory is sometimes at fault, and my conclusion on this matter is that the position is in a bit of a muddle.

I think it is sensible for us to seek to regulate it, not by Standing Order but in the customary way of the House by taking the view that something is undesirable. The proposed amendment to Standing Orders bears on the question of a noble Lord's speaking twice, a matter which is dealt with in an old Standing Order which applies to debates and which should logically apply also to Unstarred Questions. If I understand correctly, it is not proposed that we should have a Standing Order on this matter, but that we should come to the conclusion that the unfortunate Leader should deal with it. Sometimes it is not the Leader of the House; it may be a Minister of State, and indeed the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, was landed with this situation the other day with the noble Lord, Lord Barnby, in a perfectly friendly way. Anyone who is trying to help the House needs a little guidance, and that is the purpose of the recommendation of the Procedure Committee.

I find it quite illogical that when the established custom of the House is that nobody speaks after the Minister has wound up except the mover of the Motion, who is expected to exercise his right to reply briefly (and the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier will have that chance) in the case of an Unstarred Question that custom should net be applied. There is no Standing Order on this matter to the effect that noble Lords cannot speak after a Minister. There is nothing even in the Companion. It is merely the established custom of the House.


My Lords, may I interrupt the noble Lord on one point? It certainly was an iron rule in the 'thirties and before that anybody who asked an Unstarred Question had no right of reply. It was always emphasised that he had no right to speak a second time. It may have changed since then, but that was the rule.


My Lords, the noble Lord is another of my young colleagues with a good and long memory, and I always look with the greatest respect to the noble Lord, Lord Saltoun, on procedural matters. When I was the Leader of the House I was very much guided by him as to what was the feeling and the practice of the House. At any rate he used to come and see me often and respect his view. But there was not a Standing Order; there was not a rule; it was the custom. We operate in your Lordships' House, where there is no Speaker and the minimum of rules, by our own respect for our freedom; and to argue, as has been argued, that a noble Lord may wish to speak after a Minister, (not, curiously enough, the noble Lord who has asked the Question but somebody else) in order to express dissatisfaction, seems to me ought to apply equally to Motions. About 50 per cent. of the time we are dissatisfied with the reply of the Minister—it does not matter which Minister it is—but that is no reason for turning the debate into a disorderly one. My view is that the Unstarred Question, which is not the same as the Adjournment Motion in the Commons, is a valuable right, and I am nervous about allowing it to turn into a sort of Committee stage debate.

We have enough difficulty in accommodating Unstarred Questions and I am afraid that if we do not settle this matter in a tidy way the result will be that someone will come along and seek to be authoritarian and there will be a rule. Therefore I hope we shall come to a conclusion on this issue. It may not be an important subject, but it is important in the terms of the way we do things in this House. I hope that the very careful recommendation of the Procedure Committee will in fact be adopted and the future Leaders of the House will be in a position to give guidance. That is all they can do. The House can still decide what is the correct procedure, but for the most part the House is very good, provided the Leader is consistent with the feeling and custom of the House, and it will generally accept his advice. I hope now that we shall be able to give the unfortunate Leader or his colleagues the sort of guidance that they need in such matters.

4.27 p.m.


My Lords, I sense that the House wishes to come to a conclusion on this issue, but perhaps I should just say a word or two as Leader of the House. This has been a valuable debate about a valuable subject, namely, the Unstarred Question, and we are indebted to this magical combination of the Procedure Committee and my noble friend Lord Ferrier for having given us the opportunity for this debate and also the opportunity of hearing again my noble friend (if I may so call him) Lord Saltoun. We do not see enough of him in the House at the present time. It is very nice to see him back again.



Thank you, my Lords.


My Lords, I believe the Unstarred Question is a valuable instrument, and, that being so, I think it is right that we should have had this discussion as to how it should operate. On this particular point, and perhaps briefly, I should like to summarise the considerations which lead me, on balance, to support the recommendations of the Procedure Committee. I will run over them quite briefly because I think most of what I wish to say has been said, and said better than I could say, by my noble and learned friend Lord Dilhorne. First, although I do not believe in tidiness for the sake of tidiness I think it is desirable that we should see where we stand here. Also I believe it is desirable that the recommendation of the Procedure Committee should be adopted because it sets a finite term and we see where we are in relation to an Unstarred Question. If not, I can see the debates on them being prolonged almost indefinitely. After all, this is a Question and it is quite distinct from a Motion. Therefore it follows logically that our procedure should be adapted for dealing with it as a Question—and here I find myself very much in agreement with what my noble and learned friend Lord Dilhorne has said.

As noble Lords have said, if Members of your Lordships' House are dissatisfied with the reply. or with what they think is going to be the reply, they can intervene beforehand. If they are dissatisfied along the way they can intervene and ask questions then, and if they are dissatisfied as the noble Lord sits down, they can use our time-hallowed formula and say. "Before the noble Lord resumes his seat" —and make a long speech before the noble Lord resumes his seat. I feel that all the opportunities are there. Finally—I do not wish to stress this point because it is essentially a matter within the judgment and discretion of your Lordships' House as a whole, and the recommendations of Committees, however good, are not sacrosanct—this is a recommendation made three times by a Committee of two different compositions, as it were: a very representative Committee, not a Committee which represents a Front Bench cabal or a junta of the usual channels. I do not wish to rest on this point, but it is usual to agree, although there is no obligation to agree, with the recommendations of a Committee.

Before I resume my seat I should like to say one thing to my noble friends, and that is that, as I see this recommendation, it is in no wise aimed against BackBenchers in your Lordships' House. I have explained the composition of our Procedure Committee, which is representative of all opinion in your Lordships' House. Certainly my own disposition to support the recommendation of the Procedure Committee is not coloured by any anti-Back-Bench feelings. Indeed, it was because I felt that there was a feeling in your Lordships' House that perhaps the channels were not clean and open enough for Back-Benchers that I asked my noble friend Lord Aberdare, the noble Lord, Lord Byers, the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, the noble Earl, Lord Perth, from the Cross-Benches, to look at our procedures. Following their report came the recommendation for the mini-debate, which has proved a very useful vehicle indeed.

All that said, my feeling is that we need to get this matter settled. Some noble Lords seemed to think that our customs were clear here, but it is perfectly evident to me, listening to this debate, that this is far from clear. We have waltzed around this subject for a rather long time and I hope (switching the dance) that this will be our last tango around it, at least for some little time to come. My preference, as I said, is for the recommendation of the Procedure Committee. Having said that, I must say that I feel less than entirely passionate about this matter and should your Lordships decide otherwise in a few minutes' time I do not think that I shall retire prematurely to my grave. This is a matter essentially within the discretion of your Lordships' House. My noble friends have been fully justified in raising and in pressing this matter, and if my noble friend wishes, as I expect he does wish, to press the Amendment to a Division, I. for one, shall gladly accept the verdict of your Lordships' House on an issue which is essentially within the discretion of your Lordships' House.


My Lords, I think that the House wants to come to a decision on this matter and I agree wholeheartedly with what my noble Leader has said. Before submitting my Amendment, there is one point I should like to make. I did not want to interrupt the noble Viscount, Lord Dilhorne, in his speech because it was so interesting. There was also an interruption by the noble Lord. Lord Shackleton, and he more or less challenged me by saying that I did not differentiate between a Motion and a Question. As a matter of fact, I do. A Motion is perfectly clearly a Motion, and the mover has the right to reply. A Motion may be for a Resolution and then there will be a Division. On an Unstarred Question there is no right of reply by the questioner. I raise that point because it was said that there was some doubt about it; however, the Companion is perfectly clear on the matter. It says: Such a Question is entered last. Speeches may be made upon it, but the Lord asking it (since he moves no Motion) has no right of reply. That is why there is such a clear distinction in my mind between the two.

There is one other small point. It does not apply only to Back-Benchers, as the noble Lord, Lord Barnby, suggested; anybody can speak after the Minister. When the noble Earl, Lord Alexander of Hillsborough (to whom the noble Viscount, Lord Dilhorne, referred) spoke he was a Minister and fully entitled to do so.


My Lords, he was Leader of the Opposition.


He was a Front-Bencher, not a Back-Bencher—shall I put it that way? It is not confined only to Back-Benchers. When he did that it was stretching it a bit. When I said that I would agree to sub-paragraph (b), then if, as I hope, your Lordships accept my Amendment, the next thing is for the Procedure Committee to recommend that we alter the Standing Order, and that would achieve the tidiness which the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, seeks. It can be done by a simple Report.

Finally, much has been said about the contention which has arisen recently, and only recently, over this question of speaking after the Minister on an Unstarred Question. I beg your Lordships to bear in mind that this contention is caused by those who object to the speaker, and not by the speaker for daring to exercise his right to get up and speak after the Minister. With those words I would say that I have given the matter some thought, and especially after what my noble Leader has said I feel that we should resolve this matter, and I do not withdraw my Amendment.

On Question, Amendment negatived.

On Question, Motion agreed to.