HL Deb 02 April 1984 vol 450 cc476-9

3.1 p.m.

Lord Shinwell

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

The Question was as follows: To ask the Leader of the House whether procedures in this House can be changed to ensure so far as possible that Short Debates are not interrupted to allow ministerial Statements being made in the House of Commons to be repeated here.

The Lord President of the Council (Viscount Whitelaw)

My Lords, ministerial Statements are not really matters of procedure, but rather of negotiation through the usual channels. I know that my noble friend the Government Chief Whip does his best, in conjunction with the representatives of other parties, to ensure that Statements are taken at a convenient moment.

Lord Shinwell

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Viscount for that gracious reply, but it could have been a little more definite. He suggested something about the usual channels. I hardly appreciate that, because they do a lot of talking but take very little action. When channels are regarded as a useful facility nothing really happens, except there is talking. I am far from objecting to repetition in your Lordships' House of Statements made in another place—it is exceedingly important that we should be informed—but is it to the credit of your Lordships' House that distinguished educationists should have been prevented from expressing their opinions because an important debate was interrupted in order to repeat a Statement from another place? Would it be possible for the Chief Whip, perhaps along with some of his colleagues in other parties, to come to a decision on this matter in order to avoid a repetition of what happened recently?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord. I appreciate what he says, and I have a good deal of sympathy with it. The problem that arises is how to deal with the situation and how to improve it. As what I may term a long-standing "old boy" of the usual channels in another place, I do not think that I could possibly accept some of the noble Lord's criticisms of the usual channels because, after all, they seek to serve us to the best of their ability and frequently in very difficult circumstances. I do not know what alternative measures they could find. If there are two Statements we try whenever possible to take them together and so not interrupt the debate more than once. In fact, we try in every way to seek to avoid these interruptions and we would wish to do so. But I am afraid that if, as the noble Lord himself says, there are to be repetitions of Statements from another place, it becomes almost inevitable that we have to interrupt our debates. We shall do our best to improve as much as we can.

Lord Home of the Hirsel

My Lords, would it be possible for my noble friend the Leader of the House to arrange a special meeting of the usual channels on this particular matter? I think that the situation is becoming very serious and it is difficult to regain the thread of a debate after so many interruptions. Was it not the practice in the past that after a Statement was repeated noble Lords on the Front Benches asked, let us say, two questions, and Back-Benchers exercised great restraint? They did that because if the matter was really important, the remedy was to debate it at some future date. Would it not be possible for the usual channels to give us fresh guidance in the light of what used to happen in the past?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, naturally I would pay close attention to what is said by the noble Lord, who has outstanding experience of all these matters. We do our very best to help. We offer all Statements made in another place to the opposition parties to see whether they wish to take them up. There is of course the option sometimes not to take them all up, but I fully understand the reasons why frequently they are taken up. If there was a little restraint occasionally and some of the Statements were not considered sufficiently important to be repeated in your Lordships' House, that might be one way in which to help. But certainly I respond to the noble Lord by saying that we shall of course discuss the matter between the parties to see whether there is any way in which we can help to accommodate the House better.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede

My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Viscount the Leader of the House will accept that the real concern of noble Lords is that debates, whether they be short or long, should be unduly broken up by Statements being taken at irregular intervals during those debates? I wonder whether when there are two or three Statements—as there are today—it would be possible for the first and second Statements to be delayed, so that all three Statements could be taken together?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, of course the noble Lord has his responsibilities in regard to this matter and I gratefully acknowledge the fact that he is most helpful. It would be possible to do what he suggests. But I think that if the House was to agree to that, it would have to be appreciated that on occasions it might be quite late before all three Statements could be made together, and that might in itself have disadvantages. But I am sure that that suggestion, too, can be carefully considered.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, will my noble friend consider with his colleagues in another place whether it is really necessary that Statements given here should be repetitions of Statements made elsewhere, in as much as this is the most ancient House and surely, on that count alone, the senior one?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, I should not wish to tread on that extremely delicate area, except to say this. If there was in the Government a Minister with direct responsibility who is also a Member of your Lordships' House—and of course there is such a person; I refer to my noble friend the Minister for the Arts—who wished to make a Statement, he would of course initiate it here, immediately after Questions. The rest of us do not have that kind of direct responsibility, and I do not think that what is suggested would be welcomed in another place. For example—perhaps I may put it at its most personal and crudest—I do not think that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister would fancy my making a Statement here before she made it in another place.

Lord Shinwell

My Lords, does the noble Viscount appreciate that my primary concern is not to weaken the authority of another place; nor at the same time do I wish to weaken the prestige of your Lordships' House?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, I would accept at once what the noble Lord says. I was not in another place for as long as was the noble Lord, and compared with him, I have been in your Lordships' House for only an infant's time. Therefore, it would be almost presumptuous for me to agree with him, but on both counts I most certainly do.

Lady Saltoun

My Lords, instead of having the Statements repeated in this House, could we not just have them available in the Printed Paper Office?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, if that was the wish of your Lordships' House, it would of course be perfectly possible. But I believe that it is frequently the wish—certainly of the Opposition—that Statements should be repeated, and we have always been prepared in Government to respond to that wish if it is expressed.

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