HL Deb 31 January 1979 vol 398 cc222-43

6.43 p.m.

Lord SOMERS rose to call attention to the desirability of shorter speeches; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, many of your Lordships will remember that not long ago we had a debate on this subject introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Egremont. It was a good debate and at the time was very well received, so far as I can remember, but, unfortunately, it did not seem to have a great deal of effect. I think perhaps one of the reasons for that was that the debate did take on rather a light-hearted atmosphere, and possibly the Members of the House were not really taking the subject very seriously. But I do not intend to follow that line tonight. Since then, of course, we have had the clocks fitted, but, unfortunately, it has proved only too easy not to look at the clock.

Perhaps I should say a word or two as to why I feel that consideration of this subject is desirable. The first reason is one of pure practicality; that is, time. Your Lordships all realise, no doubt, that our timetable is getting increasingly crowded. When I first came to the House sittings on Mondays were unknown. They have become quite a commonplace now, and we very often sit till quite a late hour. When we have long debates, long lists of speakers, those who come at the end, who may perhaps have quite a long way to get home, are left in the unfortunate position of having either to remove their names or else stay in town. I think, perhaps, I should declare an interest there, because that is a position in which I have found myself only too often. That makes things very difficult.

However, I think what I really want to emphasise most is that long speeches really defeat the ends for which they are made, because they cease to hold the attention of hearers. One can tell that only too well by just looking round the House. As a long speech winds on its way, one can see noble Lords leaning over and talking to each other, others studying their Order Papers very closely, and others looking incredibly bored or perhaps even going out of the Chamber.

There is no doubt that a long speech, unless it happens to be a very brilliant one, is inevitably far less convincing than a short and clearly-expressed one. Of course, I realise that the length of a speech is really very largely a matter of opinion. I remember quite recently there was a speech by a noble Lord which I found absolutely fascinating from beginning to end, and I was really very surprised when I looked up and found that he had been speaking for close on half an hour. So it is largely a matter of opinion. But I do think that a short, clear speech is far more likely to convince the House and to achieve its end than a long and rambling one.

Also, when one has a long list of speakers, those who are near the end will almost inevitably find that everything they wanted to say has already been said. There is nothing whatsoever to be ashamed of in getting up and just saying that everything you wished to say has been said, that you agree very much with a certain point made by some noble Lord and would like to give your wholehearted agreement to it, and then sitting down. It would save a great deal of the time of the House and would do you no harm whatsoever.

I think it is worth while just considering what is the purpose of your Lordships' House. Is it a real House of Parliament which exists for the purpose of examining and approving legislation and so protecting and improving the conditions of the country, or is it just a platform for those who are fortunate enough to belong to it to exercise their powers of oratory? If it is the first—and I do not think there are any of your Lordships who would deny that—then we can serve it best by making it work most efficiently and by "efficiently" I mean achieving the most in the shortest possible time. I think it should be possible to make your point! clearly in about—and I say "about"; because I do not wish to lay down any! hard and fast rules—10 minutes. There may be occasions on which you feel you must go on a little longer, but I think that 10 minutes as a general rule would be quite good. It might not be a bad plan to have some remark to that effect put into the Companion to Standing Orders. It would be there for people who take the trouble to read it to remind themselves occasionally what is desirable. Of course, I make two exceptions to that rule: the introducer of the debate—incidentally, I shall not take any advantage of that tonight—and the speaker who winds up for the Government. Those speakers must have longer because there will be many more points for them to cover.

There are two other areas worth considering, one of which is Starred Questions. The Companion to Standing Orders says that they are: for the purpose of asking for information only and not with a view to making a speech or to raising a debate". I have sometimes wished that more speakers would keep that at the back of their minds when Starred Questions come on. Of course, it is only too easy to make something sound like a Question by simply preceding it with the words, "Is the noble Lord aware…?" and that of course makes it comply with the regulations concerning Questions. Having said that, one can then go on speaking for about 10 minutes. That is not desirable. As the Companion to Standing Orders says, Starred Questions should be for the purpose of getting information and only that.

The other area is the moving of Amendments during Committee stage. The moving of those Amendments tends to be used as an opportunity for making what is often called in your Lordships House a "Second Reading speech", and it is unnecessary. All that needs to be done is for the mover to explain what the Amendment is, what effect it will have, and why he considers it desirable, and then to sit down. However, of course, many people are not content to do that, though as I have said, this is not a platform for displaying powers of oratory but is for the purpose of getting legislation through, and getting it through as efficiently as possible.

I sincerely hope that your Lordships will consider this question thoroughly and that perhaps something may be done. I have no intention of introducing any compulsory limit or anything like that. I should not like to see anything such as I suffered from when I was a member of a delegation to a Commonwealth Conference in Guernsey last year. We were told that we must confine our speeches to 10 minutes and when we had spoken for nine minutes a bell rung and we knew that we jolly well had to bring our remarks to a close. That, of course, would be totally unsuitable for your Lordships House. If we could have a little advice or persuasion from the Companion to Standing Orders it might be very useful. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

6.53 p.m.


My Lords, I do not think that there are many of your Lordships who will disagree with a single word that the noble Lord, Lord Somers, has said. Equally, I do not think that there are many of your Lordships who, after today's debate is ended, will pay the slightest attention to it. The noble Lord has mentioned the resolution moved some 14 years ago by my noble friend the late Lord Egremont; That speeches in this House should be shorter"; and this was immediately embodied in the Companion to Standing Orders, with the attached comment: Long speeches engender tedium and tend to kill debate". Since then, speeches have become longer and longer and bound volumes of Hansard have become thicker and thicker.

More recently, the 1976 Brief Guide to the Procedure and Practice of the House of Lords laid down guidelines very much on the lines suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Somers, as to what is an acceptable length of speech. Your Lordships will find them on page 9 of that invaluable guide: Lords opening or winding up debates, from either side, should try to keep within twenty minutes and should not exceed twenty-five minutes. Other Lords should try to keep within fifteen minutes and should not exceed twenty minutes". I have never heard a long speech in your Lordships' House, good though many of them have been, that would not have been infinitely better had it been confined to 20 minutes or even more so to 15.

Noble Lords do not take the time and trouble to go through the mass of verbiage beforehand and winnow out what is worth saying from what is not. They leave it instead to their unfortunate audience to take the time and the trouble to winnow out what is worth listening to and what is not. Behaviour that I find quite intolerable is that of noble Lords who have made long speeches early in the day and then leave the House before the end of the debate. They are thereby sparing themselves from the extra 30, 25 or even 20 minutes of sitting that they have inflicted on their better-mannered fellow Peers.

If the noble Lord, Lord Somers, does not withdraw his Motion for Papers tonight, I have no doubt at all that it will be carried with acclamation. In parenthesis, it will be interesting to see with exactly what Papers the Table supply him. As I have said, I am not optimistic about any long term results. But even if only those noble Lords who are speaking today comply just for a short time with what they themselves say tonight, something at least will have been achieved. And it is in that pious hope that I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Somers, on his initiative.

6.56 p.m.


My Lords, I rise to say that I speak officially for the Party. The Liberal Party is against long speeches, as we are against sin and various other matters. I must make a Party point and say that I have looked back at the timing of various speeches, and Liberal speeches are, in fact, much shorter than the speeches from the other two Parties, and, indeed from the Cross-Benches in this House, and the content, of course, is infinitely superior.

The noble Lord, Lord Somers, is greatly to be congratulated on moving this Motion because it is one with which everyone will concur and it will—contrary to the lecture read by the head prefect a moment ago—do a great deal of good. I am perfectly certain that noble Lords will follow the Liberal example and say a great deal that is full of worth in a very short time.

When I was wondering what to say about this evidently virtuous subject, I thought that I would look at the great speeches of the past. I looked first at the Gettysburg Address. I asked my long suffering wife whether she would mind timing me. I then ran through the Gettysburg Address. I was extraordinarly good; I was very fine and much better than the original. It took me exactly 90 seconds, and that shook me a bit. I then turned to Henry V and the marvellous speech before Agincourt. I really had fun with the speech that began: That he which hath no stomach to this fight to the lovely piece about: And gentlemen in England now a-bed Shall think themselves accursed they were not here". By then my wife was wilting a bit but we went through that speech which is probably the most famous and stirring one, in three and a half minutes. Then, greatly emboldened, I turned to the Sermon on the Mount as set out in St. Matthew which I think is the most complete account, but the right reverend Prelate can correct me if I am wrong. I did not subject my wife, who by this time was tiring, to the complete sermon, but I read a column and then multiplied it. It took exactly 19 minutes. I thought to myself that those were examples that noble Lords could well follow. If we can lay down in 19 minutes all the ethics for the Christian religion, it should be possible for noble Lords, even the noble Lord, Lord Harmar-Nicholls, and the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, to express themselves in a slightly shorter time than that to which they have been accustomed.

With those offensive remarks, I now wish to back the noble Lord, Lord Somers, to the limit of my ability and hope that in future Members of this House will so shorten their speeches that they will be so full of pith, wit and wisdom that the Galleries will be crowded and the queues for the House of Commons will melt away.


My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, will he not agree that there is an element of predestination in all this?


My Lords, I have not studied Calvin, but interruptions of that sort lengthen speeches.

7.1 p.m.


My Lords, "Brevity is the soul of wit". So said Polonius. Albeit, does this mean that any noble Lord who cuts his speech by half be deemed a half-wit? That would never meet accord. Far wiser are the words of Horace: Brevis esse laboro, obscuras fio", which translated is: "When I struggle to be brief, I then become obscure." While, up above, that silent digit Reveals relentlessly each unforgiving minute, As every quarter hour elapses, Then why not make it chime, my Lords, To stop the endless flow of words? And, if convention doth decree To moderate prolixity, 'Twere best your Lordships kept their glance Adjusted to the map of France And made their speeches, waiving all excuse, Neither Toulon, nor yet Toulouse. But better still, my Lords, by far, To keep your speeches as they are.

The Earl of HALSBURY

My Lords, whenever I think of this subject I imagine myself at a dinner party held downstairs some years ago where the Leader of your Lordships' House, the late Lord Salisbury, and I were talking about the procedures of the House. He said that there were few things in this House that could not be solved in terms of good manners and consideration for others. He said that that was much more important than the rule book, and that if a person breaks the rules, someone will tell him that he is out of order; and if he takes it in good part and apologises, he can recover and will be forgiven. But if someone makes an overlong speech, there is no recovery and it shall not be forgiven.

If that is a good principle to work on and if it is known that as a Back-Bencher or a Cross-Bencher one is asked to confine oneself to 10 minutes, as a matter of good manners why not at least try to do so? Of course, it is not in mortals to command success, and if one feels a kind of rapport with the House and gets carried along on the wings of oratory, one may overshoot a bit. But there is a difference between overshooting by five minutes and taking three times the length of the target estimate: that is, half an hour or so. We all have an obligation to try to remember other people: the long list of those who will speak after us and those who have spoken before us and who have to sit it out and endure what we shall say.

It seems to me that there is a case for trying to remember what one is doing while making a speech in your Lordships' House by reciting all the things one is not doing. One is not delivering viva voce an introductory chapter to a text book on the subject for attentive students. That is the wrong target at which to aim. Nor should one imagine that one is delivering a lecture as opposed to participating in a debate. To prepare a manuscript of a set speech and then proceed to deliver it remorselessly, without regard to anything that has been said beforehand or is likely to be said afterwards is, to my mind, a lack of consideration for others.

If one has the good fortune to be speaking early in the debate, of course, one can make the points that one knows perfectly well all one's friends and fellow Peers will want to make later; so why not, in the words of someone who gave me my business training, say: "Always leave something for the other guy?" Without wishing to describe your Lordships as "guys", I think it is a good thing for people who speak early to remember that people will follow them, and not try to pinch all the other chap's points.

There is an obligation on everyone to know his personal rate of delivery when it comes to preparing a manuscript. I know that we all have our own methods of getting ready to address your Lordships, and I shall not describe or recite mine as if it were a sort of model for everyone else. But in order to clarify their own minds and order their thoughts, many people will write out their intended speeches in longhand beforehand. It may not be the speech they will deliver, but for many it can be a bit of self-discipline. It is a very simple matter to precalculate from Hansard one's personal rate of delivery. Every speech in Hansard is timed as to its beginning and one knows the time at which one's successor starts. If one has spoken for 10 minutes and that speech! occupies so many columns of Hansard at so many words per column, it is very simple rule—three sum to discover one's rate of delivery. In my own case it is about 100 words per minute. Therefore, if I want to speak for 10 minutes I have to confine myself to about 1,000 words, and as there is nearly always a bit of overshoot as a result of "ad libbing", responding to some remark that someone else has made, making a wisecrack or whatever it may be, it is as well to leave something in hand. If one has about 900 words prepared, that will cover only perhaps one or two points and leave the remaining points for others to enlarge on. I believe that that is the kind of approach which makes debates interesting and lively, in much the same way as a Committee stage of a Bill is interesting and lively if it is a Bill in which one is interested.

Of course, Committee stages on Bills dealing with subjects one knows nothing about are not particularly interesting. The Patents Bill last year was a subject about which a dozen of us in your Lordships' House knew something. It was an extremely lively and very interesting Committee stage; there was the true cut and thrust of debate the whole way through. If we could get a little more of that into Second Reading debates, Motions for Papers, and the kind of formal set-piece debate which makes for the interest of our House on Wednesdays, I believe that more people would be attracted to making livelier speeches, which would be a very good thing.

7.8 p.m.


My Lords, I am very glad indeed to have this opportunity to support my noble friend Lord Somers. I cannot say that I absolutely agreed with everything he said; indeed, there are one or two points on which I rather differ from him. It is very easy to make a political speech; one can make a political speech in a very short time. But if one is discussiong some very technical matter—and every now and again we have to discuss very technical Bills coming from the House of Commons—it is not so easy to be brief. If I were going to make a political speech, I could make it in a minute, because I would simply say, "I do not like this Government; I do not like their policies", and I would sit down. It would be a little mean of me to say that today when the noble Lord the Privy Seal was so nice over my Question. We both come from the same part of the world. He knows that for 38 years I have been fighting for my Party, and so sometimes I hope—I am sure he will—he will accept a joke from me.

However, there are the technical problems—for instance, of dealing with the mining situation. I am very fond of the miners; they have always given me an awful time politically, but I like them and I like putting forward some of the problems which they have to face. If you are making a complicated technical speech it is not so easy to be short.

There is another point, I should like to raise. Very often we in your Lordships' House know exactly what we are talking about—at least I hope we do. But when Hansard comes to be read it is sometimes very important for people all over the world who really do look at Hansard, because they learn quite a lot from it. For instance, the other day I intervened in the debate on China and I spoke for I think four and a half minutes. I have been to China, and I just thought of the problems of China, and the people who knew me when I was out there would not really have thought that a speech of four and a half minutes made in your Lordships' House was long enough. Of course, my noble friend who introduced the debate had a great deal to say too, and quite rightly.

If I might return to the question of the discussion on the mining position, it is hard for the miners, if they read Hansard, to see that one has spoken for only, say, 10 minutes, because you cannot deal with the mining situation in that amount of time. Therefore, I make a clear distinction between making a political speech which, as I say is too easy for words, and making a speech on a technical matter. I do not think this has been mentioned today, but it is important to remember that what goes into Hansard is read by a great number of people who will be interested in the points of view put forward. If you make a speech so short and leave out a lot of technical detail, it does not really help people all over the world who are interested in certain problems—and I am again referring to China. I knew that I had to be short, and I can be short, but I can assure your Lordships that I can speak for two hours without turning a hair. I am not going to today so nobody need be worried about it.

I never make notes. I never write a speech. I dare say that my speeches would be better if I did, because sometimes I think that my grammar is appalling. But I find it easy to speak and I could just get up now and go on for two hours, and rather enjoy it. When you look at what is dealt with in Parliament, and remember that frequently Members speak with technical knowledge, it is a pity that they do not take long enough to ensure that the tetails of technical matters are included in Hansard. We might, however, get into the position that it would be awfully boring.

If I attacked the Lord Privy Seal, well, we are both Northeners, and I like him even if I do not like his policies. I like a lot of people who make boring speeches, even if I do not like what they are saying. It is tremendously important, when we are making speeches, to realise whether or not we are making a political speech which, in your Lordships' House, we can make easily, or whether it is a technical speech. I have been in your Lordships' House since, I think, 1974 and I have listened to some absolutely magnificent speeches, because most of the people who speak really have some knowledge to offer. I think we have a great reputation in the world, and if you offer knowledge to the world you may be helping the world to get over some of the difficult and frightening problems which have to be dealt with.

I am not going to speak much longer because that would be unwise. I think it was right of my noble friend to talk about shorter speeches, but I hope that we shall not forget the fact that it is quite easy to be political and it is not so easy to be technical. Some of the matters that have to be dealt with now are so technical that it would be a pity if people did not take a little longer and make a speech on the subjects about which they know so much. For instance, I sometimes listen to people talking about the mines. They talk as though all mines were the same. If you have been in a mining area you will know that one mine and another can be quite different, and they need different kinds of treatment.

I know that sometimes people talk about Rhodesia, but you can have quite a different view if you have been out to Rhodesia. I always think that I have been extremely lucky in that I have had an opportunity to travel all over the world. I know that I must be short in speeches. But when your Lordships who really have knowledge on so many important matters speak, I should like the Hansards which are being sent out all over the world properly to reflect that knowledge. Very often we are so busy in making our own speeches that we do not realise the influence that this country can have in these difficult world affairs that we are facing at the present time. I say thank you to my noble friend. As I say, some people say they do not suppose that anybody will take any notice of what we say, but, still, sometimes they do, and I have been delighted to have had this opportunity of speaking in this important debate.

7.17 p.m.


My Lords, it is always a great privilege to speak after the noble Baroness, Lady Ward of North Tyneside. She very nearly gave me immense relief because I thought she was going to touch double figures, and she almost did. Everybody else in this debate has admirably kept to their own prescription, the shortest speech being one minute and the longest being five. I feel that it would be unwise for me to go beyond five, and I hope that I shall not.

I have only one practical suggestion to make, and that is not one which will be thought acceptable. It would make speeches a great deal shorter if, instead of being spoken in political English, they were spoken in Latin. We have today had two Statements, both of which took a considerable time, followed by "Questions" and "Commands"; with the result that this debate of the noble Lord, Lord Somers, has—if I may paraphrase Shakespeare—had" all too short a lease", having come on at a very late time in the evening.

I know no more Latin than most of your Lordships, but I remember one of the shortest "Statements" in Latin (spoken from his own brief) was by Julius Caesar: "Veni, vidi, vici", which I suppose in political English would be, "I arrived on the scene, I took a look around, and I was an overwhelming success". That was an easy brief to speak to, but he wrote it himself. Supposing he had had to say: "Veni, vidi, victus sum", that would have meant not only four words instead of three, but seven syllables instead of six.

Before that, in an even more difficult position, a Roman Government had suffered—let us face it—a serious reverse at the Battle of Cannae, which was one of the great defeats in history. On that occasion, a Statement was made by an unfortunate member of their Lordships' House, or Senate, who came out on to the balcony to deliver it, in the words, "Magna pugna victi sumus". He had to use eight syllables and four words to say in literal English, "We have been defeated in a great battle", or in political English for anyone on either side of this House or possibly for the Liberal Party, "There has been an important engagement in which we have not perhaps succeeded in all our objectives, but nevertheless …" and so on.

That is why I believe that if speeches were made in Latin they would be shorter—first, because Latin is more succinct and, secondly, because fewer people would speak, if only because, like myself, they do not know how to pronouce it; in any other debate, I should be corrected.

The noble Lord, Lord Segal, quoted an admirable sentence from Horace, Brevis esse laboro, obscuras fio", which he translated, probably rightly, as "When I am trying to be clear I only become obscure". I suppose one could translate it as, "If I have a Labour brief, the briefer it is the more obscure it becomes". That might not be a good translation, but I sympathise with any Front Bench spokesman who has a brief. Speaking from a brief or reading from a brief, as one is entitled to do, as the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, pointed out, can be done well—and the noble Lord, Lord Denham, does it beautifully—or less well; and the longer the brief the more bored the reader becomes.

Back-Benchers of course do not read from briefs, and they are the worst offenders in the matter of length, of whom I am one. In their case, one must not think of the word "brevis" or "brief" but the word "curt" as in "courteous", which I believe is from the same derivation. How to be curt or curtail one's speech without being rude but being courteous? Both words come—I do not know the Latin word—from "to curtail" or "to confine" or "to condense" something, closing when one has said what one wants to say. I believe the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, pointed out that there is no contradiction between being short and being polite; that is what we in this House are supposed to be.

All I would say is that the noble Lord, Lord Somers, in setting the standard for us, was doing what this House should always do, namely setting a magnificently high standard. To make a speech which gets a great many points in, to condense it and to make it audible and acceptable to the listeners is not an easy thing to do. The noble Lord, Lord George-Brown, can make a speech of 38 minutes sound like three minutes or less; he differs from some of us in that way because he has a great gift. There are others—I have been accused of it—who can make a speech of five minutes sound like 50. I notice that I have already spoken for five minutes, so I will sit down, thoroughly agreeing with everything that has been said about the desirability of short speeches. But they are not easy to make.

7.24 p.m.


My Lords, I have been a Member of your Lordships' House for only a little over two years, and if that does not seem a sufficient qualification for taking part in this debate, I can only plead that in this time I have become something of an aficionado of speeches in your Lordships' House. Persuing the analogy, there is no doubt that the matador who despatches his opponent with one thrust is deservedly more popular than those who take a number of stabs before delivering the côup de grace.

I also have read through the distinguished debate on the Motion by the late Lord Egremont in 1965. In that debate, the noble Lord, Lord Somers, to whom we are indebted for the revival of the subject today, made a speech of 31 words—it was too short for the time to be recorded—thus beating the record for brevity confidently claimed earlier in the same debate by the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, with 56 words, also taking a time too short to be recorded. Incidentally, just before the Leader of the House rose to reply on that afternoon, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner, pointed out from the Woolsack that there had been 21 speeches in 86 minutes. I hope the reduced number of speakers today does not indicate complacency.

In that debate I do not think anybody was in favour of a statutory limit on the length of speeches. The noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, reminded the House on that occasion that the speech of the late Lord Keynes on the American loan, lasting nearly 1¼ hours, had not been a minute too long, while the late Lord Halifax had managed to swing the opinion of the Conservative Party on Indian Reform in nine minutes. Thus, there are no magic numbers.

In those perhaps more expansive days a voluntary 20 minute limitation earned the approval of a number of speakers. The late Lord Casey quoted the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, who had said 10 years earlier: I take the view that if you cannot say what you are going to say in 20 minutes, you ought to go away and write a book about it". On that occasion also the noble Lord, Lord Tweedsmuir, said: You can get any subject into 20 minutes if you know what you are talking about". The noble Lord, Lord Carrington, said on that occasion: I do not know which alarms me more, the noble Lord who rises with a large bundle of typescript or the one who rises with no notes at all. The one takes a long time to end and the other does not seem to know how to". As against that, the noble Earl, Lord Baldwin of Bewdley said: Speaking from scripts, except when obviously necessary, is discouraged, I know, but if they are good scripts, they can help to keep matters within bounds". How do we keep matters within bounds these days? I have done a little research. In the past three debates on Motions for Papers dealing with broad general issues, the average speech lengths were as follows: in the debate of the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, on industrial recovery on 17th January, it was 19 minutes; in the debate introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Robson, on 24th January on social and industrial policy, 17 minutes; and in Lord Carrington's debate on 25th January on the industrial situation, 18 minutes. It may be significant that the debate with the highest number of lady speakers, which was Lady Robson's, had the lowest average of the three.

If we turn to debates on specific reports, whether of committees of your Lordships' House or of other bodies, we find significantly shorter speeches. The debate introduced yesterday by the noble Lord, Lord Greenwood of Rossendale, on the fascinating subject of relations between the Westminster and EEC Parliaments yielded a 15½ minute average. Going back a little, an EEC debate on 11th November 1977 on the classification and labelling of dangerous substances averaged out at 12 minutes per speaker; while a Motion on the report of the Post Office Review Committee, debated the following day, worked out at 16 minutes. On the whole, it seems that the average of this type of debate has recently been running at 14 or 15 minutes.

It must also be borne in mind that debates of that nature generally attract fewer speakers than those on broad general subjects. This would seem to suggest that the greater the number of speakers the shorter the speeches should be, but in fact the opposite is the case. My sample of three recent major debates yielded an average of 18 minutes per speaker, which is surely far too high when there are frequently between 20 and 30 noble Lords down to speak.

Of course, there are various rules of thumb for controlling speech length. The noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, has told us that his delivery rate is about 100 words per minute. There is also the kitchen clock or stop-watch method of timing oneself in private. If this method is adopted it should be borne in mind that 50 per cent. should be added for live delivery to an audience; eight minutes in the kitchen is 12 minutes in your Lordships' House. I suppose we might have a warning bell or red light or a buzzer operated by a button under the Woolsack or the Clerk's Table. I suggest, however, that the proper place for such a mechanism is inside each one of us. I see that I have now spoken for five minutes, and, my Lords, I must sit down—there is something jangling in my head!

7.29 p.m.


My Lords, once upon a time Gracian said that good things, if short, are twice as good, and Pliny agreed when he said, To be brief is almost a condition of being inspired". Horace said that, Every word that is superfluous flows away from a full mind", yet warned that brevity is many times the mother of obscurity". A speech should be short and like an epigram. What is an epigram?—a dwarfish whole, its body brevity and wit its soul.

7.30 p.m.


My Lords, I am afraid that unlike many Peers I am going to make what is a fairly serious speech, and it will certainly last just over five minutes. I have grave doubts about the wisdom of speaking in the debate because my own stock in trade for some time has been short, terse speeches. If I am frank, I will admit that in part that is because I hope to get the attention of the House for a Back-Bencher who is aware of the giants who stand on all sides. In the main, however, the reason is that this approach comes most easily to me, and I am not good at constructing long, flowing prose. I am treading on rather thin ice, but I believe that it is necessary to get to the root of the matter and consider some of the reasons why long speeches are made. Many Peers continue to make them, sometimes with comparatively little real content.

I suggest that as with almost everything else motives, constraints and incentives are mixed, and it would be quite wrong to accuse anyone of speaking solely for his record with posterity where a full analysis of a problem is obviously appropriate; or for the quality of the prose style; or to cover the complete case for an organisation in which he is interested; or simply, in the common phrase, that he enjoys "holding the Floor" and hearing his own voice. All these motives would of course be considered undesirable, but I suggest that to some degree they affect any assembly, and I mention them so that each of us can search our own conscience.

I suggest, however, that most of the difficulty is due to much more mundane considerations. Relatively few people are capable of speaking or dictating as shortly and as succinctly as when they write a speech or a letter in longhand, and in speaking they get led away into elaboration or side-tracked. On the other hand, if a speech is written out in full, it is often very difficult to cut it down without losing the overall continuity and thus spoiling the effect. Moreover, the speech may well contain some choice passages which cannot be reintroduced after it has been cut down. Like the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, I have been surprised that so few Peers to whom I have spoken, if they write out their speeches, count the number of words and realise that the rate is in the region of 110 a minute. If one does this, it is not difficult to decide how long a fully written speech will take allowing for a certain time, one hopes, for departing from it. One can always look up one's old speeches in Hansard and find exactly one's own rate.

What can we do about the situation, apart from exhortation? The real problem is that there are always some Peers, as has already been said in the debate, like the noble Lord, Lord George-Brown, to whom we can listen for a long time and think that it is only a few minutes. But they are usually experts in the subject under discussion, as of course he was the other day. It is invidious to try to make distinctions solely on that basis. One suggestion is that Peers, other than perhaps when introducing a Motion, should be asked to keep their speeches to under 15 minutes, except on not more than two occasions during any one Session. Most Peers who are the real experts in any field are very busy men and speak only infrequently: so they would be unlikely to be affected by this proposal.

Another possibility for shortening debates would be to encourage Peers to withdraw their names if most of what they intended to say had already been covered. At present when one does so, officials at the desk give one a feeling that it is "chickening out." To some extent they may be right, as it avoids staying to the end of what has become a boring debate, but with shorter speeches I think that the temptation to leave early should be much less.

I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Somers, on one point, regarding Question Time. I think that one of the most interesting periods in the House is Question Time. Of course Question Time can get out of hand or go on too long, and people can abuse the privilege. Nevertheless, I should be extremely sorry if any genuine attempt was made to shorten the time taken. I think that the Questions are valuable, and that the Government very often make no endeavour initially to "come clean" and really tell us the Answer to the Question; so in a way they deserve what they get. In any case, Question Time is entertaining, and I should think that the people in the Gallery enjoy it far more than some of the very lengthy speeches. That was six minutes, my Lords.

7.36 p.m.


My Lords, I know that the noble Lord, Lord Somers, will not take it amiss if I say that I shall reply to his Motion as briefly as possible. As Leader of the House I feel it incumbent upon me to set an example on this occasion, particularly as I found it necessary to make a very long speech last week—a speech of 30 minutes. I very seldom speak for as long as that.

The virtue of short speeches has been recognised by some, perhaps by most, of your Lordships for some time. We can go right back: Queen Elizabeth I held the same opinion as early as 1576 when she became impatient and interrupted the Lord Keeper, Bacon, and commanded him to cease when he was delivering a flowery speech of thanks for a subsidy Bill on her behalf.

In more recent times there have been several attempts to curb the verbosity of Peers. In 1887 Lord Denman introduced the Duration of Speeches in Parliament Bill. He recognised that some speakers might be able to delight the House for three hours, but for most 15 minutes was, in his view, adequate, and he implied that what was adequate was best judged by the House and not by the person speaking. I am sure this is true today. I am happy that no one speaks for three hours at a time now, but if the speech is a bad one, even 15 minutes can seem far too long.

I have no doubt that your Lordships are capable of brevity. In July, 1965, on a Motion by Lord Egremont in favour of shorter speeches, 25 Lords spoke by 5 o'clock in the afternoon. This demonstrates that it is quite possible to have a crisp debate in which a large number of Peers speak without the debate lasting for several hours. Our experience with Short Debates has shown the same result. Many short debates do not last for the full 2½ hours, but on occasions when speakers are numerous and it is clear that time will be divided between them, those speaking in the debate have always agreed to co-operate. Indeed, on very rare occasions speakers agree to confine their speeches to between five and 10 minutes in other debates, although I must say that on these occasions the request is often unpopular.

However, although we now have clocks in the Chamber and no one can claim that he does not know for how long he has been speaking, the records show that the presence of the clocks has not made any difference to the length of speeches. They have merely succeeded in making noble Lords listening more conscious of time, but somehow this consciousness vanishes when noble Lords are on their feet. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Kilmarnock, mentioned clocks. That reminded me of an incident when I was in another place. A Front Bench spokesman who was speaking had a very fine wristlet watch which was fitted with an alarm which went off while he was speaking. The whole House shouted, "Hear, hear!" So clocks or watches would not be suitable.

The sad but inescapable conclusion which must be reached by anyone who examines recent initiatives to persuade Members of this House to be brief is that they have all come to nothing. As Leader of the House, I have no cure to offer save vigilance of Members of the House. I could not support the introduction of a time limit on speeches imposed by Standing Order. This is a self-regulating House, and its procedures have remained relatively simple and uncluttered because we have not multiplied Standing Orders unless it has been unavoidable. In this case it is up to individual Members of the House to encourage brevity. If noble Lords feel shy about interrupting a speech, they can always approach the noble Lord after the debate and let him know of their view.

We must remember that we do not have a Speaker, and I do not think that it should be incumbent upon the Leader of the House to take on a Speaker's functions. I find that I have to intervene all too often for my own liking to bring Questions and questions on Statements to a close; but I do so only if I feel that I am expressing the wish of the House. For these reasons, I should be opposed to any suggestion that the Leader of the House should be expected to control speeches in any way.

My own view is that 10 minutes is usually quite enough time in which to put forward a personal viewpoint. I regret that it is often not enough time to put forward a view which represents Government or Party policy; and, of course, it is unlikely to be enough for a Government spokesman who is expected by participants to answer points they have made during the debate. But here, my Lords, I should like to make a point from the Government angle. Government spokesmen all too often feel that the House or the initiator of a debate will regard it as discourteous if the Government reply is brief. The spokesman often feels obliged, by the acknowledged importance of the subject, to prepare to speak for 10 or 15 minutes in addition to the time required to answer points not covered by his prepared speech. If the House wants shorter speeches, I hope that it will also accept shorter Government replies.

In conclusion, my Lords, I can only join with the noble Lord, Lord Somers, and other participants in the debate, in exhorting Members of the House to be as brief as possible. Very few speeches benefit from great length, as noble Lords have said earlier, and short, incisive speeches are often those which provoke most comment and interest. However, as I have said, I am not a believer in imposing time limits on speeches, and in the last analysis I believe it must be up to individual speakers, and the Peers who have to listen to them, to do their best to ensure that more speakers speak briefly.

7.43 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate, and particularly the noble Lord the Leader of the House, who has had the onerous task of listening to two complete debates and answering them both. I should point out, I think, that I was not recommending any imposed length of speeches. It was merely a recommended one; and if noble Lords want to enlarge on a technical subject, as my noble friend Lady Ward was suggesting, there is nothing on earth to prevent them from doing so. They need the extra time, and they should have it. But this, as I say, was merely a suggested length for those who can keep within it.

I was sorely tempted, I must say, by the noble Lord, Lord Denham, not to withdraw my Motion, but I once read an account of what happened if one did not. That frightened me so much, my Lords, that I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.