HL Deb 18 April 1985 vol 462 cc804-12

3.28 p.m.

The Chairman of Committees (Lord Aberdare)

My Lords, I beg to move that the First Report from the Select Committee on Procedure of the House be agreed to.

The main business of the Committee was concerned with Starred Questions, to which I should like to draw your Lordships' special attention. In view of the admirable way in which we have just conducted Starred Questions, I have no doubt that your Lordships have all read the report already; but for those who have not done so, perhaps I may be permitted to read out the relevant section. The Committee have again considered the procedure of the House on Starred Questions, at the suggestion of the Leader of the House. Despite this Committee's recommendation endorsed by the House that Question Time should normally be completed in 20 minutes, the House has spent over half-an-hour on Question Time on a number of recent occasions. Starred Questions have been the cause of more procedural disorder than any other business and the House and the Procedure Committee in the past decade have made frequent but unavailing efforts to remedy the situation. The Committee have considered and rejected the suggestion that time limits should be imposed for questions because of difficulties in enforcement and because it would decrease the existing freedom and flexibility of the House's procedures. Instead they believe that another attempt should be made at stricter enforcement by the House of its existing rules, which are set out in the Companion to Standing Orders pages 75–6. In particular, if all Lords observed Standing Order 32 which provides that Starred Questions "are asked for information only" and that "No debate may take place on such Questions, and supplementary Questions must be confined to the subject of the original Question" few procedural difficulties would arise.

Lord Shackleton

My Lords, may I interrupt the noble Lord?

Lord Aberdare

Of course, my Lords.

Lord Shackleton

My Lords, would the noble Lord not agree that it is a change in procedure to have the whole report read out, or is he afraid that noble Lords do not read, which is probably true, and he is wanting to make sure that he gets this across? I hope that is not yet another departure from past practice.

Lord Aberdare

My Lords, I have no intention of reading the whole report. I am simply drawing attention to the first item of the report. In view of its extreme importance to every noble Lord here, I thought it only right that the Committee's conclusions should be put before the House. I have not far to go. The report continues: The Committee recommend that in enforcing these rules, the following guidance should be observed:—

  1. (a) Supplementary Questions should be short, should not be read and should not raise a number of points. If they do, Ministers need only answer the main point.
  2. (b) Ministers should not answer Supplementary Questions irrelevant to the Question on the Order Paper.
  3. (c) The Lord who tabled the Question has no automatic right to ask a final Question.
The Committee emphasise that the absence of a Speaker with power to keep order imposes on all Lords, not only on those on the Front Benches, the duty to ensure that the rules of order are followed. The liberal spirit and flexible procedures of the House can be preserved only if Lords show self-restraint, and are aware of the rules and conventions of the House, and follow them. Although the maintenance of order is the responsibility of the House as a whole, in practice the Leader has a responsibility to advise the House on matters of order which he does with the support of the other party Leaders and Chief Whips, and of other Lords in all parts of the House". My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved, That the First Report from the Select Committee be agreed to.—(Lord Aberdare.)

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, we agree with the general recommendations of the Procedure Committee and with the remarks of the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees. We recognise that difficulties can arise primarily because some Questions are of more importance than others. Where a Question is of current public interest, clearly the House has a duty to deal with it fully. Those of us who ask questions have a responsibility, but so do the Ministers who reply and it will assist if they answer questions concisely and if possible give the information which is requested. Having said that, we must endeavour to work within the framework of Standing Order 32 and of the three points of guidance in the report which the noble Lord has just mentioned. The system in this House depends upon self-discipline and on the whole it works well. We support the recommendations of the Committee.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, we on these Benches should also like to say that in general we support the recommendations. Since we have all had the opportunity of discussing them in advance, that perhaps is not surprising. However, we hope that the answers from the Front Bench will be succinct and to the point. Sometimes the best answer is, "No", or even "Yes". The more that answers of the kind are given, the better it will be, especially as, if other questions are dealt with quickly and expeditiously, that would allow time for those questions which require a greater length of time for discussion to take place.

Lord Shackleton

My Lords, since it was, I think, my mild chiding of the noble Lord the Leader of the House for being too gentle with the House that led to this discussion in the Procedure Committee, I should like to say a few words on a matter which I believe is of tremendous importance to this House. There is a danger among your Lordships, especially among those of us who come from the Commons, of an instinctive desire to get round the Speaker. Well, we have here nobody to get round except ourselves. It has been very apparent that there has been a lot of "shooting own goals" in recent years. If I may say, so, I think it is of importance that it is recognised that on the matter which is dealt with in the admirable report—which I congratulate the noble Lord on reading, because I think it is important that all noble Lords should take account of it—there has been a failure of noble Lords to realise that this is the procedure of the House. I think that it ought to be incorporated in the Companion and that every now and again attention should be drawn to it because otherwise we will be in trouble.

Speaking from my experience as both Leader of the House and Leader of the Opposition, I must say that as Leader of the House I found the Opposition leadership uniformly helpful to me in these matters. I remember one occasion when I was in some slight trouble when the noble Earl, Lord Swinton—and I do not think that he had heard what I said—rose to his feet, saw that I was in trouble and said, "We must listen to the wise words of the Leader of the House and move on to other business". It is very much a matter for us. I believe that the flexibility of our procedures is so valuable to us as is the fact that we do not have time rules. Here I am sure that I have the support of both the noble Lord the Lord Chairman of Committees and the noble Viscount the Leader of the House. There have been cases where noble Lords have gone on too long and then we have had what I can only regard as a most unfortunate episode when a Motion was moved that a noble Lord be no longer heard—a Motion which should be moved only in the most extreme circumstances. Furthermore, there was a slight slip-up at that time and the fact that it was a debatable Motion escaped the notice of the Chair.

I strongly support the report. However, I am bound to say that I think that a noble Lord who has asked a Question, even if he has not an automatic right to the final question, ought normally to have an opportunity at some point to follow up his original Question. Whether in future we shall manage to complete Questions in 20 minutes, as we have done today, I do not know, but I, for one, strongly support this particular provision.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, I fully agree with the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, that it is for us to discipline ourselves in this matter and that it is not merely for my noble friend the Leader of the House to intervene. The House itself has a very considerable responsibility. In that context there are two points in the report to which I should like very briefly to refer. One is the suggestion that read supplementary questions should not be permitted. I hope that your Lordships will insist on that. If a supplementary question is read, it is clearly not spontaneous; it is clearly prefabricated. It seems to me that that spoils the whole spirit of Question Time. I hope that your Lordships, in exercising the discipline that we can all exercise on each other, will be very firm indeed if any noble Lord seeks to read a supplementary question.

The other point—and this is dealt with only obliquely in the report—relates to Ministers. Coming, like the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, from the Commons, I find that, on the whole, the length of ministerial Answers here appears to be excessive. The noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, will remember I think, as I do, that the model in the House of Commons in answering questions was the late Sir Stafford Cripps. Of 100 questions that he was asked, he would answer 75 with "No, Sir" and 25 with "Yes, Sir". That had the advantage not only of brevity but also of making it very difficult to frame a supplementary.

When as a Minister in another place I had to approve Answers to be given by my department's representative in this House I tried to follow that model, but I was very firmly advised by the civil servants and, I think, by the leadership of this House, that this House would think that offensive and that, instead of saying, "No, my Lords" one should say something to the effect that, "Her Majesty's Government had given careful consideration to the proposal but, however, in the light of … ", and that sort of thing.

I hope that with our modern and progressive leadership here, if any of the departments have the sense not to give their Minister an enormous brief but to give him a very short one, very often monosyllabic, the House will support it, because if a Minister, however well intentioned, gives a long original Answer, it is undoubtedly a temptation to questioners to follow it up with a lot of questions. So, in words of which the Bishops' Bench, at least, would approve—and I see that there is a right reverend Prelate present—I say to my noble friends on the Front Bench, "Lead us not into temptation".

Lord Shinwell

My Lords, are we not entitled to further enlightenment on the statement made by the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees on the matter of confining ourselves at Question Time to asking for information? It is not a matter merely of getting the information for which one has asked; surely one is entitled to put a supplementary question in order to notify the Minister that his previous Answer was unsatisfactory. The only redress open to us is to raise a short debate, but short debates are not always very satisfactory. Where it is a matter of public interest which is raised, such as was mentioned by, I think, the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, and the press hardly attaches the slightest importance to it, surely it is very desirable from the standpoint of the prestige of your Lordships' House to get some publicity for it. The only way that can be done is by asking a Question, and sometimes a supplementary question is more important than the Question itself. What I object to is the reading of questions, just as I object to the reading of speeches. I think that both are unnecessary.

However on the matter of Questions I must confess that I have a special interest. I regard the House's Question Time as of the utmost importance, particularly when the Questions relate to matters of public interest. There is no other way of dealing with them. What can one do—go to the press? The press seek you, as they usually do, and make you out to be a person of some notoriety or infamy. We do not want that.

Therefore, although I have the highest respect for the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees—and I must say that he provides the House with a clarification which on occasion we could do with more of—nevertheless I think he is asking us to go too far. We are doing very well. What is wrong with our procedure? There is nothing really wrong with it. There are some Members who take advantage of Question Time—I may do so myself—but you have to forgive us sometimes for being a little out of order. What do we want in this assembly—a drawing room or an academic seminar? Not at all. This is a House of public interest and of national tradition, and it ought to be treated as it deserves.

3.43 p.m.

Lord Nugent of Guildford

My Lords, I should like to offer a word of thanks to the Chairman of Committees for this admirable report. As on several occasions I have had a comment to make on order at Question Time, I should like particularly to thank him for his reference to the fact that each one of us is equally responsible for order here. There is always a danger, when any Peer calls attention to a question being out of order, that it is taken as a partisan matter. This is so bad for the House that it would be a tremendous help if each one of us always had in front of our mind our own personal responsibility to keep in order. If a noble Lord on my side of the House is out of order, I always try myself to call attention to it, as well as doing the same in the case of noble Lords opposite, because I think that helps to make it clear that it is completely impartial. We are just concerned to keep the order of the House in the interests of all of us, and I particularly thank my noble friend the Chairman of Committees for his report.

Lord Beswick

My Lords, I have always believed in brevity in both questions and answers and I hope that I practise what I preach. If the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, is reminiscing about what happened in the Commons, I think I can say that in fact I hold the record for the number of Questions answered within the period of one Question Time. I believe that within the hour I answered 50, and then the Prime Minister came in as well.

However, so far as this report is concerned, it depends upon the interpretation of what it states. My noble friend the Leader of the Opposition said that we give support. Of course we do; but in my political life I have known there to be different definitions of what is meant by "support". If we are going to interpret this matter aright, I think that my noble friend Lord Shackleton is right when he asks for flexibility. After all, 20 minutes for Questions in one day is not an over-long period of time. I think we might well think much more about the questions that are asked on ministerial Statements. They very often take up much more time than the whole of Question Time.

I wish to make a further point. It is all very well saying "20 minutes". However, we have had a situation where the first two or three Questions have taken 20 minutes and then the noble Viscount the Leader or perhaps some other Minister on the Government Front Bench has got up and told the fourth questioner to keep it short. If there is to be a proper interpretation of this, I think that the discipline ought to come not at the end of the 20-minute period; it must be shown earlier than that. I hope that the word "normally" will be interpreted flexibly.

I shall make one more point, if I may, on the rights of the noble Lord who has put down a Question. Certainly I agree that he should not have an automatic right to ask the final question. However, there is an element of courtesy involved here and if a noble Lord takes the initiative to table a Question and there are a number of supplementaries and a number of points come up, I think it is not unreasonable for him to be able to put the final question. I very much hope that the interpretation of this Standing Order will in the main, though not automatically and not always necessarily, enable the noble Lord who has tabled the Question to come in at the end and put a final question.

Lord Henderson of Brompton

My Lords, I wonder whether I may make a few brief comments in support of the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees on this report on Starred Questions, which I find wholly admirable, except for what I detect to be a note of pessimism in the use of the words "frequent but unavailing efforts". That reminds me of the tired waves vainly breaking which seem to make no progress at all, "no painful inch to gain". But that is not so. I do not think this is a tidal matter; it is more a cyclical matter. I am sure that the House will find a great improvement as a result of this report and today's debate. Things will get worse, and then they will get better, and so on; so we must live with the cyclical nature of the discipline of Question Time. That has been the case and no doubt will continue to be the case.

I should like to say also that there are two mentions of the freedom and flexibility of our procedures; quite right, too. But in one respect I should like there to be less freedom and less flexibility. That is in the inadmissibility or admissibility of Questions. I would recommend that perhaps the Procedure Committee should draw attention to page 48 of the Companion to the Standing Orders on admissibility of Questions, because just before Easter there was a glaring example of a Question which should never have been allowed to be put on the Order Paper or should not have been allowed to remain on the Order Paper, and, having unfortunately remained on the Order Paper, should not, in my view, have been answered. The Minister, in the words of this report, should not answer inadmissible questions. This one was classically phrased—I think the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, said this—as a prejudicial question of the type of "When will you stop beating your wife?" It was that order of Question, which should not have been on the Order Paper. That was a Question put from one side of the House.

Another inadmissible Question was asked from the other side of the House relating to a nationalised industry, or the nearest thing to a nationalised industry—the Post Office. It is stated on page 48 of the Companion that, The tabling of Questions on nationalised industries is considered undesirable save for those asking for statistical information There was a very good hunt on the Post Office, but it was contrary to page 48 of the Companion. The noble Lord the Chief Whip used to answer for that particular department, and I am sure he would say that it was right and proper that we should not follow that procedure again. Therefore, in that one respect I would hope that there will be more rigidity and less flexibility.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

My Lords, are not rhetorical questions also important? I have in mind, for instance, the one put by one of my compatriots in another place: What is the answer? That is the question".

Lord Maude of Stratford-upon-Avon

My Lords, as one who has arrived fairly recently from another place, perhaps I may venture very briefly to make one comment which seems to me to be relevant to the length of Question Time. I have noticed that in this House it is becoming increasingly common for the noble Lord or noble Baroness who has asked the original Question to be allowed subsequently to get away with two, three or even four supplementary questions and in fact to indulge in a kind of dialogue or debate with the Minister. I do not feel that this is helpful and it wastes a great deal of the time of the House.

Lord Rochester

My Lords, perhaps I may be allowed to follow up briefly a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, in relation to the procedure to be followed in responding to ministerial Statements. I say this because I have a Question down, asking the Leader of the House whether he feels there is a need to clarify the procedure in this regard. The Question arises out of an exchange in which I found myself involved following a recent ministerial Statement. The outcome of that exchange is, I believe, that in Hansard the procedure which should be followed in relation to responses to ministerial Statements is incorrectly recorded. I wonder, therefore, if only to save my asking that Question at a later stage, whether the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees or the noble Viscount the Leader of the House would have this point in mind in considering a possible reference to the Procedure Committee in that regard.

3.51 p.m.

The Lord President of the Council (Viscount Whitelaw)

My Lords, I start by saying that I am very grateful to the Chairman of Committees and, indeed, to the Procedure Committee, as well as to noble Lords who have spoken in this short debate upon the Committee's report. As is indicated in the report, it was at my suggestion that the Committee once again considered the procedure on Starred Questions. I did so rightly, as the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, has reminded us, because he, I think properly, chided me with being too easy-going and not sufficient of a disciplinarian. He suggested that my noble friend Lady Trumpington would be a better disciplinarian. I think that that is probably very true. Anyway, she is not the Leader of your Lordships' House at the moment and I am. Whether it should be otherwise is not for me to say.

I felt it was right that I should ask the Procedure Committee to have a look at this matter, if they would, and quite simply for this reason. I felt—and it has been impressed upon me in the short time that I have been in your Lordships' House—that it was for me in these matters, as in many others, to seek to interpret the wishes of the House. Of course, that may mean exercising discipline on occasions, but basically I am here to interpret the wishes of the House and I must do that to the best of my ability.

However, I felt, so far as Starred Questions are concerned, that perhaps I needed further guidance as to what exactly was the will and the wish of the House. I did not feel that I was entitled to interpret something about which I was not quite sure when it came to the actual moment of the Starred Questions. Noble Lords will understand my feelings when I say that I am very susceptible to the charge that I might at some time, when seeking to bring a Question to the end, appear to be doing so because I am hoping to put a stop to what would be regarded in many parts of the House as legitimate criticism of the Government. That I must never in any circumstances do. Sometimes it means that I have to let the Question run on longer perhaps than it ought to in all the circumstances, but still I would err on that side on such an occasion. So that was my reason for putting it forward and I feel that in the report itself, and in many of the views that have been put forward this afternoon, I have received just the very helpful guidance that I wanted.

The report suggests that in exercising my duties I am entitled to the support—when it is deserved, I hasten to add—of the Leaders of the other parties, and I am very grateful indeed both to the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, and to the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, not only for what they have said this afternoon, but for the unfailing support that they have always given to me both in private and on public occasions as well. I realise that this is in the best traditions of this House.

I should also like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, who has not spoken this afternoon, for exactly the same most helpful support, without which I do not believe anyone could effectively do the job that I have to do in the interests of the House; and, indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, spoke of the support that he had from Conservative Lords when he was Leader of the House.

The noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, said that some Questions are more important than others and the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, said that an expeditious Answer should be given. I want to divide those two points. First, as regards some Questions being more important than others, I think that nearly all the noble Lords who have spoken—certainly, the noble Lords, Lord Shackleton, Lord Shinwell and Lord Beswick—have emphasised the need for flexibility, and I fully understand that in interpreting the will of the House on these Questions I must always do so with flexibility.

Of course, it is true that some Questions are more important than others. It is also true, as the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell, said, that there are moments when a Question of the utmost importance should engage your Lordships' House and should have time and should be pressed vigorously. I fully accept that and will make sure that such flexibility is used in interpreting these rules. On the other point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, and others—and I think that my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter also referred to this—about the length of ministerial answers, I constantly stress to my colleagues, and needless to say I ought also to do so to myself from time to time, that this is very important. We will do our best.

On the other hand, I hope the House will realise—and I think I ought to say this in deference to and understanding of my colleagues—that they are extremely anxious, as I expect in this House, to an extent which I can say from- my long experience in another place did not necessarily happen there, to treat an Answer with a great deal of courteousness and to make sure that when possible they give a full Answer to a Question. I never found that that was a prized part of the procedure in another place, but it certainly is here and my colleagues are doing their best to do this.

Sometimes if I push them too far and say—and most of my comments are heard far beyond the confines of where I am sitting—"Sit down. Give up", or "Don't do it", they quite fairly say to me, "Yes, but I was only seeking to answer the Question which a noble Lord or Baroness put down. I was doing my best. When I have obeyed your instructions I have then been blamed by the noble Lord or Baroness concerned for not being sufficiently courteous". So we shall do our best to strike a balance.

I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Nugent for what he said about being prepared to check Members on one's own side of the House, as opposed to those on the other, which he has certainly always done and I am very grateful to him for his support. Of course, the noble Lord, Lord Henderson of Brompton, is someone to whom everyone in this House will listen with great care on any matter of the procedure of this House, because I suggest there is no one living who knows more about the procedure of this House than does the noble Lord. He again mentioned the question of flexibility and understanding. I entirely agree with him and I am very happy to have been given that guidance.

I realise that on occasion, as the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, said, it sometimes means that I ought to intervene rather sooner on one of the earlier Questions in order to give more time for some of the later ones. That is a mistake that I have made in the past and I am very ready to accept that and will try to learn from what is wise advice.

The noble Lord, Lord Henderson of Brompton, also referred to the admissibility of Questions. I think that that was not considered by the Procedure Committee on this occasion, but I am sure that what he has said will be looked at very carefully by us all in the future. If the Procedure Committee were to wish to consider some of these points, that would be a matter for the Chairman of Committees if he thought it was right to do so. But I am sure that the noble Lord has made a very important point. I hope that I have answered the main points.

Lastly, my noble friend Lord Maude raised the question of three or four supplementary questions and there is a great deal in what he said. As for the noble Lord, Lord Rochester, of course I shall consider what he has said. Nevertheless, I do not think he would be wasting the time of the House if he decided to put that Question down to me. I do not think that I shall give him a very satisfactory answer now, but if he did put it down I should hope to give him a concise and clear Answer; and it would be a helpful thing for him to do.

I hope the House will feel that this guidance coming to me is helpful. As I said at the start, I shall seek to interpret it in the best interests of this House. I have come in a short period greatly to admire a House which is capable of conducting its affairs on the basis of its own self-discipline. That must be a very rare characteristic in any Chamber in any Parliament in the world. If we can continue to achieve that, and if I can contribute to that end, that, my Lords, is my wish as Leader of your Lordships' House.

Lord Aberdare

My Lords, I only wish to say thank you very much to all your Lordships who have taken part in this short and I think very helpful debate. I beg to move.

On Question, Motion agreed to.