HL Deb 22 January 1980 vol 404 cc375-7

2.50 p.m.


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 would refer to the Procedure Committee the question of imposing a time limit for Unstarred Questions similar to that for Short Debates.


My Lords, I am not convinced that any change in the procedure governing Unstarred Questions is necessary, but I certainly would not wish to stand in the way of a reference of the matter to the Procedure Committee. Should my noble friend wish to pursue the question, the appropriate course would be for him to ask the Chairman of Committees to place it on the agenda for that committee.


My Lords, does my noble friend mean that if I ask the committee to do something, it will have greater effect than if he asks them?


My Lords, it depends what the question is.


My Lords, does the noble Earl realise that many of us believe that Unstarred Questions make up some of the most interesting proceedings of your Lordships' House, and that they certainly appear so to the people visiting this House?


My Lords, I agree with the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, that a number of people take that view.


My Lords, when the matter was raised in your Lordships' House a very short time ago—a matter of a week or two ago—I asked the Minister who was then replying whether he would ask the acting Leader of the House if this matter could be referred to the Procedure Committee. It is a matter which concerns a large number of your Lordships because of the length of time now devoted to Unstarred Questions, and the number of speakers on them, quite contrary to the practice in this House a few years ago. I ask the acting Leader of the House whether he will refer this matter to the committee.


My Lords, I rather think that the question to which the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, refers in fact relates to the length of speeches as opposed to the actual Unstarred Question. I would only put this thought in the noble Lord's mind: it is not the duty of the Government, though I accept that it would be the duty of the Leader if he felt that there was sufficient reason for this to be brought before the committee. I have done a little ferreting into this matter, and the noble Lord might like to know that over the last three years the average length of time of an Unstarred Question has been only 1½ hours, and only on 12 occasions has an Unstarred Question exceeded the 2½ hours which is the time limit of a short debate. Therefore, on the face of it, I would not have thought that that was a cause for suggesting to your Lordships that there should be a strict curtailment. However, if any noble Lord feels that he wishes it to be brought before the Procedure Committee, he can do so.


My Lords, I cannot quite make out what my noble friend wants me to do. Does he want me to ask the Chairman of Committees, through him now, to put the matter before the committee? If that is what he wants, that is what I now do.


My Lords, I think that that might be a trifle unparliamentary. The correct procedure would be for my noble friend to write to the Chairman of Committees asking him to put this before the Procedure Committee. If the Chairman of Committees were to do so—and I have no reason to suspect that he would not—then the Procedure Committee could discuss it.


My Lords, I do not know whether your Lordships would be interested to know that in 40 years of parliamentary experience, whenever I have found a variation in parliamentary procedure to prove popular, someone has tried to stop it.


My Lords, that is a very interesting question to which I am not quite certain how I should reply.