HL Deb 31 January 1979 vol 398 cc142-59

3.5 p.m.

The CHAIRMAN of COMMITTEES (Lord Aberdare)

My Lords, I beg to move that the First Report from the Select Committee be agreed to. I should perhaps draw the attention of the House to the first item in the report, "Questions on nationalised industries." This matter was first considered by the Procedure Committee on 11th April last year and was subsequently agreed to by the House on 11th May 1978. The recommendation was that Questions on the day-to-day running of the nationalised industries were undesirable.

On that occasion, there was some criticism in the House that the report had been taken without sufficient notice having been given. I have been into the matter and the facts are that the Motion was put on the Order Paper on Tuesday, 2nd May, but, unfortunately, due to printing difficulties with which we are all too familiar, the report was not published and available until Monday, 8th May. The report was not put before your Lordships until 11th May, so there were still three or four days between the publication of the report and the date of its consideration.

However, representations were subsequently made to me by certain Members of your Lordships' House that the decision of the Procedure Committee should be reconsidered. That was duly done, and the Procedure Committee reconsidered the matter shortly before the Christmas Recess, on 6th December last. On that occasion three of your Lordships who were not members of the Committee attended the meeting. They were the noble Lords, Lord Clitheroe, Lord Mottistone and Lord Trefgarne; they came before the Committee and argued their case. The Committee listened to what they had to say but in the end re-affirmed its earlier conclusion. I beg to move.

Moved, That the First Report from the Select Committee be agreed to.—(Lord Aberdare.)

The report was as follows:


The Committee have reconsidered, at the request of certain Lords, their decision of 11th April 1978 (First Report, 1977–78) with regard to the tabling of questions on nationalised industries.

It was argued that there should be no restriction on the right of Lords to ask questions on the day-today running of the nationalised industries. However, having considered these arguments, the Committee re-affirm their decision that the tabling of questions on nationalised industries is undesirable, save for those asking for statistical information on a national basis or those which raise matters of urgent public importance.


The Committee have considered a number of recommendations of the Select Committee on Practice and Procedure (First Report, 1977–78) in relation to Private Bill Standing Order 121(2) which reads as follows:

"Each Unopposed Bill Committee shall consist of the Chairman of Committees and such Lords as think fit to attend".

The Practice and Procedure Committee recommended that the Chairman of Committees should be empowered to invite specific members of the House to serve on Unopposed Bill Committees dealing with important issues of public policy. They considered that the existing wording of the Standing Order was not apt for this purpose.

The Practice and Procedure Committee also recommended that the role of Counsel to the Chairman of Committees in the work of Unopposed Bill Committees should be expressly recognised in the Standing Order and, further, that an Unopposed Bill Committee should be enabled to make a Special Report where they were of the opinion that there were special circumstances which should be brought to the attention of the House.

The Committee agree with these recommendations and accordingly propose that Private Bill Standing Order 121(2) should be amended to read as follows:

  1. "(i) Each Unopposed Bill Committee shall consist of the Chairman of Committees 144 and, should he see fit, such Lords as he may select from the panel of Deputy Chairmen appointed each Session, and no Lord who is not a member of the Committee shall take any part in the proceedings thereof.
  2. (ii) The Committee shall have the assistance of the Counsel to the Chairman of Committees.
  3. (iii) An Unopposed Bill Committee shall in respect of the Bill committed to them make a Special Report on any matter to which they consider that the attention of the House should be drawn".


The Committee have considered the present arrangements for recalling the House for Judicial business to a time earlier than that to which it has been adjourned.

The Committee were informed that there is no authority for such a recall, as there is in the case of Public business.

The Committee consider that there should be such authority and therefore recommend that Standing Order 14 should be amended by the insertion of a third paragraph, as follows: (3) Notwithstanding any adjournment of the House, the House may meet for judicial business at a time earlier than that appointed if the Lord Chancellor or, in his absence, the senior Lord of Appeal in Ordinary, is satisfied that it should do so and has signified that he is so satisfied and has given notice to such Lords as he thinks fit.


The Committee have considered the convention of the House that the mover of a motion or an amendment has the right of reply at the end of any debate which may take place on his motion.

This convention has, in the main, been well observed but it does not carry the authority of the Procedure Committee, nor is it set out in the Companion.

The Committee, therefore, wish to make it clear that they consider it undesirable for a Lord to speak after the mover of a motion or an amendment has exercised his right of reply, except when the House is in Committee.

3.8 p.m.


My Lords, before agreeing to the report, which I think we should do, I can say that the Chairman of Committees has saved the House a lot of time by describing exactly what happened as a result of the withdrawal of labour, the printers' strike, last year, which put great difficulty in the way. Living in Scotland, as I do, when the notice was put on the Paper on 2nd May, that Paper did not reach me in Scotland and I did not receive a copy of the report.

Like other noble Lords, I owe a debt of gratitude to the Committee. I too was invited to attend the meeting to which the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, referred at which the matter was considered, but unfortunately I was prevented from so doing. The first point I had intended to make has really been covered by Lord Aberdare in that it should be on the record that this interference with the business of Parliament took place as a result of the strike. If it had not been for that we should then have had the discussion which we are having now. I can discard many of the notes I had made, and only say that the report could not, as a result of that action, reach many Members besides myself. Indeed, I was speaking with my noble friend Lord Clitheroe on the telephone over the week-end. At the time he was thoroughly snowed in and said that he would be here if he could get through the snow, but it is clear that he is still snowbound.

I was one of those who wrote and I am grateful to the Chairman and his Committee for re-addressing themselves to the matter and inviting some of us to attend. Nevertheless, I am not happy with the wording of the Committee's resolution; namely, that … the tabling of questions on nationalised industries … is undesirable … save for those asking for statistical information on a national basis or those which raise matters of urgent public importance". At a time when Parliament is being pressed from all sides to indulge in more open government I feel those words are too restrictive. I urge that when page 83 of the Companion comes to be re-drafted, as I imagine it will have to be following what has been decided by the Committee, the greatest care should be used in the wording of such amendment so that the responsibility for the wording of Questions can rest with Peers themselves—of course within reason, and they should not involve disproportionate use of time and expenditure.

While on the subject of the cost of answering Questions, may I say that I imagine that the Committee will soon be turning to the matter of the growing list of Questions for Written Answer. There were 14 of these answered yesterday, 12 in respect of the previous Sitting, and there are 60 more on the Paper today. As I struggle through the list I am absolutely deafened by the noise of axes being ground. With those comments I support the Motion.

3.10 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to say a few words on this matter, having what I might call a proprietary interest in nationalised industries. I shall be very brief, though there are one or two points I wish to make. I have noted the actual wording of the report regarding Questions about statistical information on a national basis or those which raise matters of urgent public importance". I think that the problem is the question of what issues are thought of as being of urgent public importance, and opinions may well differ on this. I consider that Back-Benchers are placed in a rather difficult position over matters of this kind. Although I do not expect a specific answer from the Chairman of Committees, I should like to put a point to him.

I wish to hark back to 1973 when, through the kindness of this House, we waged the battle of the West London Air Terminal. At that time there were 1⅓ million passengers using buses out to Heathrow. Under these new rules, would that be termed as a matter of urgent public or national importance, or would I be told that it was not, and that therefore it would not be possible to table a Question about it?

With regard to statistical information, if one tables a Question which involves difficulties for the Department concerned (which does not wish to give a short answer if the questioner is right), there is a very real problem. I regret that on reconsideration the Committee has reaffirmed its decision. We laboured for a long time in the House of Commons under the difficulty that one could not table a Question on a nationalised industry. We are in a position of difficulty, and I should like to bring this to the notice of the Chairman of Committees, though I know that it is not his concern. If we cannot table a Question concerning a nationalised industry, and if a particular consumer council to which I am attached has no statutory standing upon which it can question a nationalised industry, then who is to do so? Here I declare an interest—the House knows my interest—but I think that there is a relevant point here. As I have said to those in authority on the Front Bench, I am disturbed at the way in which Members in this House, and elsewhere, are fobbed off when they really and truly require information. While the prohibition may be right from the legislative point of view, it makes the position difficult for us.

I am glad to have been able to have my say, though we may not get any satisfaction. I hope that if, when one wishes to table Questions, one can show ingenuity and establish that the matter is purely statistical or is not purely to do with day-to-day running but might be seen as relating to an annual basis, some consideration may be given to the setting down of such Questions.

3.14 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to put forward a comment from the other point of view to that of the noble Baroness, whose view I well understand and always admire. I have shared her experience in the House of Commons. This problem, like many we have, is one of balance. We have large public corporations which run a very large part of our life through commercial and industrial utilities, and it is of vital importance that they should be efficiently run. Here we have the problem. To ensure that they are efficiently run it is necessary that the men, or indeed the women, running them, and who are appointed by the Secretary of State to be chairmen and members of the industries, should have the independence to manage them as efficiently as possible. Because they are appointed by the Secretary of State they are inevitably saddled with a certain political responsibility. They must keep the Secretary of State informed, but they will best run their national industry efficiently if, first, they are men or women of top calibre, able to carry big responsibilities and use commercial judgment; and secondly, if they are left independent and free to carry out those functions.

One of today's major problems, of which we are all aware, is the immense difficulty of finding men or women who have this capacity and who will take on these positions. If Parliament—this House and the other House—allowed Questions about day-to-day management, that would constitute an extra degree of interference with the freedom of action and the judgment of the leaders of the nationalised industries. These great national corporations would be so shackled that it would be even more difficult to get men and women of the necessary calibre to run them. The noble Baroness has, like myself, sat in the other place and heard many debates on the matter. The original conception was to have independence in the day-to-day management, while the Secretary of State and the Government of the day are responsible for the overall policies of management.

I feel sure that in the interests of running these industries efficiently we should be most unwise if we were to change the well-established custom regarding Questions. Of course, by the ingenuity of noble Baronesses, and perhaps noble Lords and Members of Parliament, it is possible to include a sharp point in a supplementary question, which to some extent gets past the convention, but I am sure that it would be a major mistake if we allowed Questions on day-to-day management to appear on the Order Paper. There is machinery for consumer complaints to be handled in one way or another in all these industries.

Having recently retired from the chair of one, I can assure the noble Baroness that we were most sensitive to the fact that we were supplying a monopoly utility upon which life itself depended and that therefore we must burst ourselves to ensure that we gave the best possible service. That does not mean to say that we always pleased everybody. A noble friend of mine who is seated nearby occasionally expressed his dissatisfaction; that is inevitable. However, I assure the noble Baroness that there is a great sensitivity as to the big responsibilities which these chairmen and boards carry and that they do their best, within the limits of their huge responsibilities, to satisfy individual consumers and individual complaints. Therefore, I hope that your Lordships will agree that we should accept the report of the Procedure Committee and that we should accept that, although we have not achieved perfection, we have probably the best balance we can attain: and that we should leave it at that.

3.19 p.m.


My Lords, my noble friend Lord Ferrier was kind enough to telephone me during the weekend, and I have succeeded in getting here despite the snow, though I was rather late. I listened with great interest to what the noble Baroness said and I think that I agreed with all of it, despite what my noble friend in front of me has said in his remarks. In private business a public company has an annual general meeting at which any shareholder can ask questions about what has been happening. Moreover, there was a time many years ago when I was a director of a railway company, when we used to meet once a week and question the officials of the railway company about various matters which we thought were not quite right. Really there is nothing quite in substitution for that in what is proposed in this report, or in what my noble friend Lord Nugent has said.


My Lords, may I put a question to the noble Lord the Lord Chairman as to what exactly is meant here? I have some sympathy with my noble friend Lord Ferrier, because, as I understand it, what is intended here is that it is a matter for the Peer who asks the Question to decide himself or herself whether the Question is a matter of urgent public importance; that any Peer is entitled to put any Question down and nobody can stop him so long as it conforms with the ordinary rules. All I am asking is that Peers, as a whole, should get the criterion right. When we talk of urgent public importance, in this House we are normally thinking of a Private Notice Question on a sudden emergency. Nevertheless, it is bound to be a matter for every Peer to judge whether the matter is of urgent public importance. But, then, it is a matter for the Minister to decide whether to answer that Question; and I have a suspicion from my own past experience, not unconnected with the noble Baroness, that it sometimes comes a little hard on the Minister because the sympathy of the House very often lies with the questioner and not with the Minister replying. If the noble Lord could possibly answer that one question of mine, it might be helpful.


My Lords, I think it may be convenient to the House if I could express the Government's position on this. Perhaps I may say to the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, that I am grateful to him for contacting me and informing me that he was going to raise this. Perhaps I may also say to him that it is not a question of open government: it is really a question of a long-established convention concerning Government's relationships with nationalised Boards. So I welcome the views expressed by many noble Lords today. The Procedure Committee has merely given explicit authority to what has been a convention of the House for many years. Successive Governments have refused to answer Questions on the day-to-day running of nationalised industries on the ground of public policy. This has been a practice since 1945, and I believe there is no question of varying it.

The Procedure Committee considered this matter at my invitation following a suggestion from the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, the Leader of the Opposition. On 25th July 1977, the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, suggested that it might be possible to devise some procedure whereby time could be saved by not allowing Questions to be put on the Order Paper concerning the day-to-day running of nationalised industries. I think Lord Carrington's point, with which I wholly agreed, was that it wasted the time of the House and used up valuable starred Questions if Questions were tabled to which the Government could only reply, "This is a matter for the nationalised industry in question". My view is that the Procedure Committee were quite right to come to the conclusion that they reached, and, having done so, they were also quite right to stick to it. We are not talking about an unreasonable infringement of the rights of Back-Benchers. This is purely a practical question, as the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, reminded the House. There really is no point in having Questions before the House to which the Government cannot reply.


My Lords, perhaps I could say a word about Item 2 of the report—Unopposed Bill Committees. It quotes Standing Order 121, sub-paragraph (2), which is admirably short and which says: Each Unopposed Bill Committee shall consist of the Chairman of Committees and such Lords as think fit to attend". The proposed Amendment to that Standing Order is going to sweep away the right of any other Lord to attend the Unopposed Bill Committee even if he sees fit.

This recommendation emanates from the Committee on Practice and Procedure, and I have diligently scrutinised the report of that Committee from which this recommendation comes for the ground upon which it is sought to sweep away this right which every Peer enjoys. The only ground that I can see upon which the recommendation was made is that Peers do not in practice avail themselves of their right to attend the Unopposed Bill S Committee. My Lords, I should not have thought that that by itself was a sufficient ground upon which to sweep away Peers' rights in the absence of some! existing mischief or some contemplated mischief, which could be pointed to, making it necessary to limit the right of Peers to attend this Committee. In the absence of some mischief being pointed to, I should have thought we might well remember the words spoken many years ago from these Benches by the late Lord Esher, who said that we should hesitate long before tinkering with an institution which we should never have had the intelligence to create for ourselves.

In place of this wide, universal right to attend the Committee, it is proposed to have an amended Standing Order which allows the Lord Chairman to invite such members of the panel of Deputy Chairmen as he may choose to assist him in any particular case. I should have thought that the Lord Chairman, confronted with some particular problem, might say to himself that "Lord So-and-so", with his experience and expertise, was the person he would most like to assist him in this matter. But "Lord So-and-so" might not belong to the panel of Deputy Chairmen. I should have thought that the one characteristic of the Lord Chairman and his deputies was that they alternate with each other, and, normally they do not act in concert together. If this particular recommendation goes through, I can see the criticism arising that the Unopposed Bill Committee has become a closed shop run by the Lord Chairman and his deputies, and nobody else is being allowed to have a look in. I hope that these points will be considered before any Motion is brought before the House to amend this Standing Order in the way that is proposed in this report.


My Lords, does it not depend on the definition of the term, used so frequently, "day-to-day administration"? I was responsible for preparing to a large extent the legislation upon which the nationalisation of the coal industry was developed, and also the electricity industry. Throughout the years since 1945, not only in relation to coal or electricity but transport, civil aviation, the Bank of England and steel, which subsequently became denationalised and was then nationalised again, this problem has always emerged. I do not want to argue the matter because it would take a long time if one went into details, but let me put a simple point. Take, for example, the coal industry. Of course, this is a fictitious example. I say it is fictitious because I do not want to appear to be criticising the National Coal Board.

Take the National Coal Board. Let us suppose that it finds itself in financial difficulties, that there are huge losses for which it cannot be held directly and primarily responsible—it may be because of a loss of exports; it may be that there are some geological faults in many of the pits; it may be that some pits have been closed down for economic reasons; it may be that all sorts of matters emerge and create difficulties. But, as a result of huge financial losses, it is on the verge of bankruptcy and therefore has to ask the Government of the day—whichever Government it happens to be; it has nothing to do with the political colour of the Government—to write off losses or to provide a huge subvention. Only the other day Sir Derek Ezra, Chairman of the National Coal Board, when being interviewed on television was asked what the Board would do if it found itself in difficulties because of the huge increases in wages which had been demanded by the miners. He said: "There are many devices that we can deploy. One is that we will go and ask the Government for more money." Is that a matter of day-today administration? Is it not a matter which concerns public policy?

I will give another example: the price of coal at the grate. This is an issue which was frequently brought up in the other place. Questions were frequently asked about the price of coal being raised. Some said that it ought not to be raised because the consumer would suffer accordingly and so on. But supposing the question of the price of coal affects the steel industry. Is that a matter of day-to-day administration exclusively? Surely it impinges on public policy. Therefore, one has to be very careful in accepting the submission, the decision or the recommendation, (whatever it may be) by any Committee or by a Minister of any Government that certain Questions should not be permitted.

When I was in Opposition, I never found any difficulty in getting a Question across. It is true, as somebody remarked, I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, that one can always get in a supplementary question. Frequently in this House when Questions have been asked about civil aviation or coal the Minister on the Front Bench has replied, according to the convention: "Write to the Coal Board" or "Write to the Post Office." How often have we heard that? Or there is the other answer to which my noble friend Lady Burton referred: "You have the consumer councils." We had the Post Office Users National Council under the late Lord Peddie who was perhaps the most industrious chairman of a consumer council that ever existed, but he could not exert sufficient influence over the Post Office to prevent them from raising prices or affecting changes. My noble friend Lady Burton referred to the consumer council in connection with civil aviation. She has achieved some success but I would not say that it was complete success. She did her best. My Lords, that is all I want to say. This question will never be settled by any decision. Time and again Ministers will reply: "Write to the Post Office" or "Write to the Railways Board" or "Write to the Coal Board," et cetera. But Members will go on asking Questions and Ministers will try to escape; but skilled Parliamentarians—unlike myself, a comparative novice in matters of this sort—will find a way out of the difficulty.

3.34 p.m.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees to answer a question which was raised in my mind by the speech of my noble friend Lord Drumalbyn? If the House decides to accept the Motion which he has moved, would the effect of that be to inhibit any noble Lord from putting on the Order Paper a Question relating to day-to-day administration of a nationalised industry which that noble Lord believed, rightly or wrongly, to be of urgent public importance? I am not asking the noble Lord to say how, in a doubtful case, the Minister who replies should handle it. My view would be that that is a matter entirely for the discretion of the Minister. But I think it important to know whether at the initial stage—that is, at the tabling of the Question—the adoption of the noble Lord's Motion would inhibit the placing of that Question on the Order Paper. If it were to have that effect—and I await the noble Lord's answer—for my part I should be very unhappy about the Motion he has moved, and not only for the reason which the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell, has given. What is day-to-day administration and what is of urgent public importance is very much a matter of opinion. If one sits on that Bench opposite then one takes a totally different view from that of someone sitting on these Benches—as I know in the context of the activities of the noble Baroness, Lady Burton, since at one time, as she knows, I had some responsibility for drafting the answers which an unfortunate Minister had to read out and then be harried about by her. That is the question.

May I make two general comments? First, if this is really a further restriction—as I suspect it is, even if only by way of formalisation—on our right to ask Questions about the nationalised industries, I wonder whether the noble Lord appreciates that this is very much against the trend of opinion generally. The nationalised industries are a very important part of our national economy. The whole push of public opinion today is towards obtaining more, not less, information about them and about other activities of Government. It is true that the other place has a similar Rule. But the other place probes into the nationalised industries in another way through the machinery of Select Committees. Indeed, I myself will shortly be attending as a witness, with your Lordships' permission, before the Select Committee of the other place on Nationalised Industries. If our House had similar machinery I would not myself attach so much weight to Parliamentary Questions. But, as we do not, it would seem unfortunate when the whole desire of public opinion is to find out more about these and other activities in the public sector that we should be tightening up a restriction upon us.

Taking, finally, the point of my noble friend Lord Nugent about the calibre of the men who run these industries, I do not believe that a man of any calibre is going to mind providing information which he does not have to present—the Minister does it for him—to this House. If the Government are concerned about that aspect, then the best thing they can do—and I have put this before to the noble Lord the Lord Privy Seal—is not to worry about this but to pay them the proper rate for the job.

3.38 p.m.


My Lords, I think it is probably right that something should be said from this Bench on this matter. Many years ago I used to stand at that Dispatch Box opposite and answer Questions which were addressed on Post Office matters. In something like nine out of 10, I had to give the answer: "My Lords, this is a matter for the day-to-day running of the Post Office." It was a great deal of fun and games which everybody enjoyed, not least myself. But surely here we have got to draw a balance. We have only four Questions in a day and we do not want to waste one of these four Questions by putting a Question which obviously the Minister cannot answer. On the other hand, we must not interfere with the individual freedom of individual Members of this House. That is where the balance must be drawn.

There is very great difficulty, obviously, in distinguishing between what is day-today running of a nationalised industry and what is a matter of more general public interest. My noble friend Lord Drumal-byn, if I may say so, is quite right: it has always been up to the individual noble Lord to decide for himself whether it is right for him to put that particular Question. It has always been up to the individual Minister replying to decide whether it is proper for him to answer that individual Question. And, surely, what the noble Lord the Leader of the House has said is right. This has always been the custom of the House. Nobody is seeking to take away any rights whatsoever. What the Procedure Committee has done is merely to confirm in words what has always been the individual custom of this House.


My Lords, before my noble friend sits down, may I say that that is in respect of starred Questions, is it not?


Yes indeed, my Lords.

3.40 p.m.


My Lords, I wonder whether I may briefly intervene in this short debate. I must first thank the Lord Chairman of Committees for allowing me and other Peers to appear before the Procedure Committee, and indeed for putting this matter before that committee a second time. Having said that, I must say that, like other noble Lords, I too greatly regret that the Procedure Committee reached the conclusion that it did. I must say that I have a certain sense of personal inadequacy in this matter: I clearly failed to convert a single member of the committee to my way of thinking.

However, the decision leaves us in a difficulty with regard to the general management of nationalised industries. It is a problem which needs serious consideration, and it is certainly beyond the scope of any committee of your Lordships' House, no matter how illustrious, as indeed the Procedure Committee is. It may be that the answer lies along the lines suggested by my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter: some strengthening of the select committee procedure which appears to be so successful in the other place. That is not a matter that I would wish to develop at this moment. I would however say that, despite my regret at what the committee has decided, I do not think that it would be right for the House to reject the report at this stage.

3.42 p.m.

The Earl of LISTOWEL

My Lords, as one who has had some experience of unopposed committees on Private Bills and not of the Practice and Procedure Committee, may I say that I welcome the recommendation in the report, provided only that the amendment to Standing Orders is drafted in the right way. We have not the amendment before us, but I hope when it comes it will be so drafted that it meets the point of criticism. I am in favour of an amendment to Private Bill Standing Orders. I think it ought to meet two difficulties which I experienced when I was in the Chair. The first is this: it is awkward for Members of the House, when they are interested in a Private Bill, to be unable to attend meetings of the Unopposed Bill Committee simply because they have an interest in the matter with which the committee is dealing. As the Standing Orders are now drafted, if they merely attend the committee they become a member of the committee and therefore must take decisions on the Bill. For that reason they are disqualified if they have an interest, even though they may wish to follow the proceedings of the Bill. In the case of a committee on public business, they would be free to attend a meeting of the committee even if they were not themselves members.

The other important point is that I often found myself sitting alone as chairman of the committee when it was dealing with Unopposed Private Bills raising important matters of public policy. It is undesirable for the chairman to be the sole Member of this House to have to take the decision on what is recommended to your Lordships on the Bill. It is clearly much more desirable if the responsibility can be shared with one or two other Members of your Lordships' House. It is also unfair to the House when the report of the committee is made to the House that there should only be the Chairman of Committees to deal with the issue of public policy which may be very controversial, and it is therefore very desirable that there should be other Members of your Lordships' House serving on the committee who can also express a view about a matter of public policy.

3.45 p.m.


My Lords, I am very grateful to everybody who has taken part in this short debate. I have no reason to enter into the controversy of it because I am only the chairman of the committee and I am reporting to your Lordships what the committee's views were on the two occasions that it considered this particular matter. I should make it clear that it is not quite such a dramatic decision as some of your Lordships have made out. Words like "questions not permitted" or "prohibited" were used. This is certainly not so. The word is "undesirable". No amendment which may be made to the Companion to the Standing Orders will prevent any noble Lord asking any Questions he likes. It is up to the House in the end whether they permit a Question to be asked, and it is up to the Government how they answer that Question.

If the Question was obviously a matter concerning nothing but the day-to-day running of nationalised industries—and it is impossible to define that, as the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, asked me to do—or a matter of public importance, it is up to the Peer himself. The clerk might say to him: "Do you not think that this is a matter of the day-to-day running of the nationalised industry and therefore probably better not asked?" But, in the end, the decision is for the Peer himself.

If I may say a quick word in reply to the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, although my noble friend Lord Listowel has spoken very powerfully to help me on this matter, Lord Airedale wanted some reason why we should make a change. The reason is that the Select Committee on Practice and Procedure, on looking at Private Bill procedure, found it was not all that satisfactory for the very reason—I think he called it a closed shop; it is now a closed shop—that it is me, sitting alone, who deals with unopposed Bills. Your Lordships who are at the moment able to drift in whenever you like do not in fact do so. It would be rather embarrassing if you did!

The Select Committee thought that it would be much better to make the situation rather more regular and orderly and allow me the chance to have two Peers sitting with me, as the noble Earl has explained, so that I do not have to take decisions off my own bat on matters of policy and without having any assistance. The reason why it was thought that the panel of deputy chairmen might be a useful panel from which to select is simply following the example of another place where they have a panel of Members who are appointed each Session. We thought as we had already had a readily constituted panel of, if I may say so, good men and true—a very fine body of men—it would be a suitable panel to use for this purpose.

On Question, Motion agreed to.