HL Deb 28 February 1980 vol 405 cc1503-7
The Earl of LISTOWEL

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask the Leader of the House whether he is satisfied that the Resolution of the House on the length of speeches (13th July 1965) and the recommendations of the Procedure Committee concerning the usual courtesies of the House in debate are being sufficiently observed at the present time.


No, my Lords. On the whole, my modest view is that speeches are too long, questions are too long, and answers are too long—and life is too short. Your Lordships might find it useful to be reminded that the Companion to the Standing Orders has recently been revised and reprinted. I commend its study to all Members of the House. On page 88 it succinctly states—and I have no reason to think that your Lordships would take a contrary view—that long speeches engender tedium and tend to kill debate.


My Lords, I am grateful for what the noble Earl has said—

Several noble Lords


The Earl of LISTOWEL

My Lords, I am grateful, and I am sure the House is grateful, to the noble Earl for his reply. I should like to ask him whether he does not agree that there may be something to be said for the ministerial practice of the late Lord Halifax when he was Foreign Secretary, when he firmly refused to reply to any speeches made by noble Lords unless they were present when he wound up, thus discouraging discourtesy and shortening debate.


My Lords, I think that your Lordships have a record of being particularly courteous, and that is the reason why very often speeches of noble Lords are referred to by Ministers who wind up even though the noble Lords may not still be in their places. I would re-emphasise the noble Earl's point, that those who take part in debate ought to be present to hear the opening speech; they should not leave the Chamber until after the speaker succeeding them has spoken; and they should remain to the end of the debate.

I am glad that the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition did not fall foul of the noble Earl's Question by asking a supplementary before the noble Earl had had that privilege.


My Lords, I agree entirely with what the noble Earl has said. I remember that the Motion I moved that we should shorten our speeches was carried overwhelmingly. In yesterday's debate—which was a very fine one—Members did basically keep to that rule. Our debates are far better when we have short, concise speeches.


My Lords, I agree with that; but I am not sure what the question was.


My Lords, good as the Companion is, would it not be worth while issuing a short note of the major conventions which are in breach and are becoming more in breach? Yesterday, for instance, three Members of this House walked out in the middle of an important maiden speech. These are the courtesies which we must uphold.


My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Byers. If I may say so, Members walking in and out of the Chamber during maiden speeches is a practice which has been growing. A person should not walk in or out of the Chamber at this time. There is no excuse for not knowing, because there is a list of speakers and your Lordships are supposed to know whether there is a maiden speaker. I would say to the noble Lord, Lord Byers, that there is a pocket guide to the Companion which is given to all noble Lords when they first come to the House as part of their "kit" with which they are issued.


My Lords, would not our proceedings be improved if also the reverse of the medal proposed by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, were more widely observed: that when a noble Lord finds that he cannot stay for the closing speeches in a debate he should withdraw his name from the list and refrain from taking part? When this happens it is a praiseworthy act of self-denial. Sometimes it can also be an act of mercy when it helps to shorten a very long list of speakers.


My Lords, I think that my noble friend is entirely correct in that. Indeed, if that practice were to be followed I fancy that the list of speakers would be truncated quite a lot.


My Lords, is it not equally undesirable—and this has happened on two or three occasions recently—that there should be a large exodus of noble Lords just at the time when a maiden speaker rises to speak? Does the noble Earl think that this is conducive to a better maiden speech, and is it reasonable in view of the strain which a maiden speaker is bound to experience the first time that he speaks in your Lordships' House?


My Lords, I know the occasion to which my noble friend refers because I was here. I am bound to say that I was horrified at the total exodus from the Chamber. This was no reflection on he who was about to make the maiden speech, but it must have been peculiarly upsetting and disarming because he may well have thought that it was. I think that your Lordships—if I may say so with respect—ought corporately to be a little more careful when maiden speakers are making their speeches.


My Lords, is not that exodus when a maiden speaker rises due to the fact that he usually does so about 4 o'clock when most noble Lords are just about to go out for their tea? Yes, my Lords, it is a fact; I have noticed it several times.


My Lords, I agree that the exodus takes place when noble Lords are about to go out. Whether it is for their tea or for another purpose, I do not know.


My Lords, my noble Leader referred to the length of Questions. He did not refer to the length of supplementaries. Is there not an understanding—if not a rule—that supplementaries should not be read?


My Lords, it is perfectly true that supplementaries should not be read. I did refer to supplementaries, both the questions and the answers, which I thought on the whole—including my own—were too long.


My Lords, would the noble Earl think it desirable to draw attention to the increasing appalling emptiness of the Benches at times in your Lordships' House, as I have noticed in the past six years? If I may be permitted to give an illustration, in the Second Reading debates on both the Industry Bill and the Education Bill—both of great importance—there were only about 10 noble Lords in the House during the last hour of each of the debates. If I may say so, I have been impressed since I have been in the House that the attendance has tended to be better here than in another place. But that has deteriorated very badly, and, worst of all, in this Session of Parliament. Perhaps the House ought to be looking at that because the impression it makes upon visitors in the Gallery is deplorable.


My Lords, the noble and learned Lord is quite right to draw attention to that because the purpose of debate is in order to hear and to take part. It is not supposed to be only for those who are taking part. Again, it is something we ought to attend to corporately. We should, as partakers of what goes on in the Chamber, be prepared to be here and listen, even though we are not taking part.


My Lords, is my noble friend aware of the experiment which took place in the other House recently when between certain hours of the debate—I think between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m.—a convention was observed to shorten speeches to 10 minutes or less? Is my noble friend aware that this seemed a useful experiment to shorten speeches? Would he consider such an experiment being made here?


My Lords, that would be something for the Procedure Committee to do if that was considered desirable. My own view is that it would be very difficult to limit speeches. We have the clocks which are supposed to help. I know that my noble friend the Government Chief Whip did suggest on one occasion that it might be appropriate to put a cuckoo in the clock so that whenever the 10 minutes appeared there was an appropriate birdlike noise which might interrupt the speaker. But I think it would be difficult to restrict noble Lords to 10 minutes.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that, despite the enthusiasm of some of us to listen to the debates—and some of us apologise even for not listening to the opening speakers—there are legitimate occasions when some of us who may be on important Committees which meet at 4 o'clock stand at that time? There may be 30 or 40 people moving out of the Chamber legitimately without any offence to the speakers or the debate. That must be taken into account rather than give people the impression that masses of people are walking out without any other objectives.


My Lords, I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Leek, is quite right. It is the presentation of it that is important, because however important it is for noble Lords to go to other meetings, it is equally important that they should not imply discourtesy to a maiden speaker.

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