HL Deb 12 May 1983 vol 442 cc690-5

9.7 p.m.

Lord Ardwick

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. I do so with a good deal of trepidation, although it is a modest Bill, a very sensible Bill and certainly a well-intentioned Bill; but I am aware that in the few hours that we have known about it, this Bill has aroused considerable anxiety. The anxieties are in no way political, but the Bill does affect the status of your Lordships' House. It falls to me to move the Second Reading because the Bill must come before this House, and convention requires that a Private Member's Bill which has passed through its stages in the other House should be moved by a Back-Bench friend in this House. I am the chosen instrument. I will not say that I drew the short straw, but the short straw was pushed out to me because I am a member of the Select Committee on Broadcasting, over which the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, presides.

The Bill originated as a Ten Minute Rule Bill and was moved by the honourable Member for Goole, who did not even take 10 minutes. He took only six minutes just before the Budget Statement was introduced on 15th March, and I think we would all agree that this is a moment not likely to secure the Bill the greatest amount of notice.

The purpose of the Bill is simple. It proposes to set up a Joint Committee of both Houses to make an annual report on the broadcasting of Parliament. My honourable friend believed that the provision of this machinery would keep the broadcasters on their toes and remind them that Parliament has sovereign power over the reporting of its own proceedings. It must be pointed out that the existing broadcasting committees of both Houses have the right and the power to meet together whenever they so wish, but it is unusual, and probably unprecedented, for a Joint Committee to be set up by legislation. It is also unprecedented to set up a Joint Committee with a majority from one House; we in this House would have an inferiority of one on the proposed committee.

The Bill does not take away any of the powers of the House over broadcasting of its proceedings. As I said, it is well-intentioned. But I must admit that it has hardly been discussed in the other place, and there is no real opportunity for discussing it here beyond this debate tonight.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Ardwick.)

The Earl of Shannon

My Lords, the House is very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Ardwick, for his description of the Bill in moving that it be read a second time. He did so with a certain amount of diffidence and raised many of the points which I feel I should bring to your Lordships' attention as to why your Lordships should not grant this Bill your approbation. I oppose it, firstly, because it is inappropriate; secondly, because it is unnecessary; and, thirdly, because it is undesirable. In moving that the Bill be read a second time the noble Lord referred to the fact that it had had very small consideration in the other place. I agree, because in searching through the Official Report of the other place I could find practically no reference to the Bill at all beyond about one column inch. Even bearing in mind the present haste in our parliamentary procedure, I must with great respect suggest that the Bill has not had the detailed thought that such a Bill should have.

We must do justice to the Bill, which is clearly intended to be part of our statute law. In this respect we must pause to consider what we are doing and the responsibilities which lie upon us. To put it bluntly, should we include in our primary legislation an enactment regarding the appointment and the reporting procedures of a Joint Committee concerned solely with the internal administrative arrangements between the two Houses of Parliament? This is the sort of arrangement which is usually dealt with, and which has been dealt with, by simple Motions in the respective Houses, and not by statute law. As has already been mentioned, your Lordships in fact already have a committee for the purposes proposed in the Bill.

No, my Lords; surely we cannot possibly allow this. Quite apart from the detailed provisions in the Bill, which have also been referred to already, it will forever record in the laws of the land that your Lordships agree in a matter of exactly equal interest between both Houses that your Lordships accept an inferior position on the committee. I am sure that your Lordships will join with me in regretting, but with great respect and even allowing for the end-of-term feeling currently prevailing, that such a Bill is in principle and in detail totally unsuited and unnecessary to be included as an Act of Parliament and part of the statute law of this realm.

To sum up, in my opinion the Bill is, first, inappropriate in that it is not a suitable subject for major legislation; secondly, it is unnecessary in that any objects which it wishes to achieve can easily be obtained by simple Motions in each House, as has been done in the past; and, thirdly, it is undesirable in that the suggested committee is not equitably constituted. With great respect, I suggest to your Lordships that a Second Reading is not granted to this Bill.

Lord Spens

My Lords, I think that I should speak on this because, in fact, I have tabled a manuscript amendment to be dealt with in Committee if this Bill receives its Second Reading. I also had to search through the Official Report of the other place to find out what had been said about this Bill there. As the noble Earl, Lord Shannon, has said, in fact only six minutes of a Ten-Minute Rule debate referred to the Bill at all, and in that no reference was made to the sort of machinery that could be included in the Bill. The reference was that "statutory machinery" would be used, but there was no reference to what that statutory machinery would be. That was on 15th March, just before the Budget.

On 15th April there was a formal Second Reading with nothing said by anyone; and on 11th May—that is, yesterday—the remaining stages were passed, with nothing said by anyone. So the Bill has come to this House undebated in another place and contains what I personally consider to be an insult in the form of the attempt to make your Lordships the junior members, as it were, of this statutory Joint Committee, with only four Members from your Lordships' House as against five Members from another place.

Therefore, the manuscript amendment which I have tabled for consideration, if by any chance your Lordships give this Bill a Second Reading, would create the parity which we ought to enjoy. In other words, I have suggested that there should be five Members from your Lordships' House to equal the five Members from another place.

Lord Ferrier

My Lords, on my track record your Lordships would expect me to welcome this Bill with open arms, as being some measure of restraint upon the BBC's powers in relation to reporting the proceedings of Parliament. But the other day on "Any Questions" the question was asked: Why is there not some restraint by Parliament on the BBC? It is clear from what other noble Lords have said in the debate so far that there are obvious technical problems in this Bill which cannot be overcome. Although there has been very little time, I have glanced hack at some of the debates which have taken place on this matter, and I have transcribed one sentence of a speech by the late Lord Egremont in which he said: We ought to do more ourselves to communicate more directly with all the people of the country who we seek in our endeavours here to serve". That goes for me, but what have we here? In the last few months we have seen a heavy curtailment of the time given to the broadcasting of the proceedings of Parliament, and also a reduction in the number of people who listen to the broadcasts. Another sentence that I have lifted from a previous debate also applies: The newsworthiness and the importance of a debate are not necessarily the same thing". I believe that that has a bearing upon the considerations that we give to what the BBC has done to our system in the last few months, and I look forward to hearing further views. Perhaps we may hear from the Government Front Bench. Accordingly, I await the end of the debate before deciding whether or not to support the Bill.

9.20 p.m.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, I would always wish to do my best to help my noble friend Lord Ardwick to get any Bill on the statute book. Having myself had some experience, I know of the great difficulties that there are in doing such a thing. Usually any old Bill which my noble friend wished to introduce would do—except this one. We are in the unusual position of having from another place Bills which do not bear the inscription of the place from which they come. What the Bills tell us is who is moving them. Sometimes it is more important to know more about who is moving a Bill, than what they are moving. When I look at who were the sponsors of the Bill in another place. I see that among them are some individuals who would abolish your Lordships altogether if they get the chance, and three of them at least, I shall predict, will not be in the next Parliament. We cannot really accept this kind of legacy from such a nondescript source. I sincerely hope that we shall say that with the greatest regret the Bill cannot proceed at this hour, in this way, since in another place it has not gone through with the benefit of really serious discussion.

I agree entirely with the noble Lord who complained that your Lordships cannot submit to an inferior position on a joint committee with another place. We are—well, I need not pursue that point; it is so obvious. Whatever possessed them to think of putting such a proposal in the Bill I do not know. Looking at the names, I wonder who did it. I would hesitate to draw attention to some of the individuals who are sponsors of the Bill.

No, we do not need this, my Lords. As was pointed out a moment or two ago, we have our own committee. From this Chamber we have a different appeal to make to the listening public when compared with the other Chamber. We are more courteous. The standard of our debates is so much higher. We are so much more civilised. People think, "If we could only be run by the House of Lords, how much better the country would be"—

Several noble Lords

Hear, hear!

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

When people listen to the noise from another place, they wonder what sort of rabble there is down there. Why then should we join with them in some joint enterprise to consider how we should best present ourselves to the public, or communicate with them? My Lords, we have our own technique. We have our own style. We have our own appeal; and we are in an entirely different position from the other place. As I said to noble friends around me, we are about to be sent on an enforced holiday, with no praise, no pay, and no prospects. This is a dismal condition in which to say goodbye to this Parliament.

I could go on, my Lords, but the hour is late. I hope that your Lordships will not think that I have been hanging about all day in order to pour a lot of cold water over the last remnants of the dying Parliament on things which have drifted, blown down, the corridor from elsewhere. I am sure that my noble friend Lord Ardwick will undestand the muted reception that I am giving to his Bill. I feel that our parting shot to the dying Parliament and the legacy from another place should be, "Sorry chaps, it can't be done in this sort of way".

Lord Airedale

My Lords, I do not know how one follows that. I know that we are anxious to hear the views of the Government Front Bench, but I think that a word or two should be heard from these Benches in support of what has been stated from the Cross-Benches. There has been one exception to the almost invariable practice of having on Joint Select Committees equal numbers from both Houses. That was the Joint Committee of some years ago on House of Lords reform where it was desired to have a Law Lord as chairman. That gave your Lordships a majority of one on the Committee. No such consideration arises here. We should surely observe the general rule of equal numbers.

I turn from the four members to the four months mentioned in the Bill. Clause 1 states that the Committee shall report not later than four months after its appointment. Where you get legislation, you get rigiditv We might be up against a situation where something needed to be considered by the Committee that was complicated, difficult and also urgent. Parliament might wish that fewer than four months should be spent and that the Committee should report, say, in three months. However, the Committee might say, "No. This is complicated. We need our four months and an Act of Parliament has given us four months". Legislation would be required for Parliament to be able to impose its will and reduce the period to three months. That would seem to me a very good reason for not trying to do this by Act of Parliament, but in the ordinary way of passing Messages between the two Houses.

Lord Denham

My Lords, it is normal for someone who speaks from this Dispatch Box on a Private Member's Bill to give guidance to the House on whether the Bill should be accepted. I am afraid however that I must disappoint your Lordships. Traditionally, the broadcasting of Parliament is a matter that the Government leave to the two Houses. It is therefore not for me from this Bench to advise your Lordships either to accept or to reject this Bill. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, was rather against Joint Committees of any kind between the two Houses. Here, I must disagree with him. At the moment, we have two Joint Committees, one dealing with Consolidation Bills and the other with Statutory Instruments. These are set up under the Standing Orders of the two Houses.

A similar Committee to that envisaged in this Bill could or course be set up in this way. The Bill is therefore not necessary, as some of your Lordships have pointed out. It is also possibly a rather inflexible way of proceeding. As the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, has stated from the Liberal Benches, any change required to be made in a Bill set up by an Act of Parliament would require another Act of Parliament to do so. Having said that, it is up to the House to decide.

Lord Brougham and Vaux

Before my noble friend sits down, I should like as a humble Back Bencher to take up a few moments of your Lordships' time to thank my noble friend the Chief Whip not only for his eloquent speech but also for the fact that it could be a maiden speech apart from his remark of dinners being available. I should like to thank him on behalf of all noble Lords for guiding us through this term of Parliament and to wish him well.

Lord Denham

My Lords, I think, in order to put my noble friend in order, in making those few remarks before I sat down, I should like to thank him very much for the kindness that he has shown.

Lord Ardwick

My Lords, just as the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, regretted that he could not give me warmer support for the Bill, I regret that I cannot give a more enthusiastic backing to it on behalf of my honourable friend the Member for Goole. I should like to acquit him of any charge of wanting to insult the House. He simply got it wrong. He must have been thinking of the differential proportion of members for the Council of Europe. That difference is totally unacceptable on a joint committee.

I still think that the idea contains a certain amount of virtue and that it should be considered by the two committees. They should consider in the new Parliament whether it might be useful to get together and issue a joint report, but there is no need for a Bill for that purpose. I therefore beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Second Reading.

Motion for Second Reading, by leave, withdrawn.