§ 3.1 p.m.
§ The Chairman of Committees (Lord Aberdare)
My Lords, I beg to move that the Second Report from the Select Committee on Procedure of the House be agreed to.
Let me briefly refer to two items in the report, Nos. 1 and 4, because they are items to which the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, is seeking to move an amendment that they or part of them should be referred back to the Committee.
Item 1 is on the question of Motions for Papers. The Committee was mainly concerned that Motions for Papers should not lead to Divisions. The traditional role of Motions for Papers has been that they provide an occasion for general debate and that the Motion is phrased in neutral terms. If the mover of a Motion desires it to end in a Division, the proper procedure is to put down the Motion in the form of a Resolution. However, it was put to the Committee that Motions for Papers often include controversial speeches, and that it is important to word the Motion somewhat vigorously in order that it should attract more interest. The Committee debated that for some quite considerable period and eventually decided that the wording of the Motion might best be left to the mover on the clear understanding that it would not lead to a Division.
So far as concerns Item 4—Ministerial Statements—the Committee was very concerned at the increasing amount of time spent on the repetition in this House of Ministerial Statements made in another place. Their timing interrupts the normal business in this House particularly when there is more than one Statement and when very often those Statements are not consecutive. With regard to the number of Statements, the Committee hopes that the usual channels will exercise restraint and will make more use of the existing procedure whereby a Statement made by leave of the House be printed in Hansard rather than repeated orally. It also hopes that replies to Private Notice Questions in another place will be less often repeated as Statements in this House.
Regarding the time taken on Statements, the Committee draws attention once again to the guidance in the Companion to the Standing Orders that comments and supplementary questions both by Front-Bench and Back-Bench speakers should be brief and not lead to debate. It goes further and suggests that, apart from the spokesmen of the main Opposition parties, Peers should be restricted to asking questions only on the content of the Statement. I beg to move.
§ Moved, That the Second Report from the Select Committee be agreed to.—(Lord Aberdare.)
§ Following is the report referred to:
§ 1. FORM OF MOTION FOR PAPERS
The Committee have considered the form of motions for Papers on which at present there is no specific guidance in the Companion to the Standing Orders. Up to now the unwritten convention of the House has been that the wording of such motions should be, so far as possible, short and couched in neutral terms avoiding argument and tendentiousness. The neutral character of such motions has not been understood to inhibit Lords from advancing controversial
points of view in the course of debate. Motions worded in a partisan spirit ran the risk of attracting amendment or even of being taken to a division, contrary to the guidance given in the Companion that debates on motions for papers should not conclude in a vote.
Recently Lords have shown an increasing desire to table motions for papers worded in a controversial or politically charged fashion in order to advertise the intended thrust of the debate and to attract greater interest and participation in it; this tendency reflects the increasing party political activity in the House.
In recognition of the strength of this new feeling in the House, the Committee recommend that in future motions for papers may be worded in such fashion as the Lord who initiates the debate thinks fit. In so recommending, the Committee emphasise that it should continue to be clearly understood that a motion for papers ought not to be divided upon. It will be the responsibility of the Lord who tables the motion to phrase it in such a way as to avoid the risk of a division. Where it is desired that the House should reach a definite conclusion on a matter, if necessary on a vote, the proper procedural course to follow will continue to be to table a motion for a resolution.
§ 2. LINKED AMENDMENTS
The Committee have reviewed their recommendations of the last two sessions (First Report 1983–84, item 1 and Third Report 1983–84) that for an experimental period until the end of the session it should be open to a Lord, when moving the first of a group of linked amendments to indicate subsequent amendments which he wished, by leave of the House, to be printed together in the Official Report (Hansard).
The experiment was tried because of the inconvenience which may arise from the fact that where the first of a group of linked amendments (which is often simply a paving amendment) is disagreed to, the succeeding amendments were not printed in the Official Report. By indicating subsequent amendments to which a Lord wishes to speak, he gives authority to the Editor of Debates to print those amendments at the first point at which they are discussed. The text of subsequent linked amendments, which may be agreed to later in the proceedings are not reprinted at the point at which they are actually moved. Instead they are identified simply by their number in the Marshalled List and where possible by the column number in the Official Report where the text of the amendment has originally been printed: where this cannot be done in the daily parts the previous references are inserted in the bound volume.
The Committee believe that the experiment, which has now been tried for two sessions, has been a successs and that it should become a permanent feature of the practice of the House, but in view of certain mistakes which have occurred and the difficulty which it has caused in keeping an accurate printed record of the proceedings of the House, they recommend that an agreed subsequent amendment in a group, although initially printed when first spoken to, should in future be reprinted at the point in the proceedings at which it is agreed.
§ 3. STARRED QUESTIONS
The Committee have considered the procedure where, on occasion, a Lord is unable to be present to ask a Question standing in his name and gives authority to another Lord to ask it on his behalf. Sometimes there has been procedural confusion caused by a failure to inform either the Government or the Table of the arrangement.
The Committee recommend that, to assist the orderly despatch of business in future, on such occasions the Lord who is in fact to ask the question should inform the Table of the substitution, and that the Table should then tell the Government.
§ 4. MINISTERIAL STATEMENTS
The Committee have considered the procedure of the House on Ministerial Statements. The existing guidance in the Companion to the Standing Orders (page 73) is as follows:
Ministerial Statements are made for the information of the House, and although brief comments and questions for clarification are allowed, such statements should not be made the occasion for an immediate debate.
It will be observed that this guidance affords the same opportunities for comment to all Members of the House alike.
However, the Committee are of the opinion that, whatever may have been the case in the past, the procedure has now evolved to the point where the spokesmen for the main political Parties are
understood to enjoy the right both to make brief comments and to ask questions on Ministerial Statements while other Members of the House are entitled only to ask questions. The Committee recommend that the Companion should be amended to reflect this distinction.
The Committee have also noted that the number and time taken by Ministerial Statements has increased recently. They recommend that this tendency be reversed. They recognise that all statements are made by Leave of the House and that as happened on Thursday, 6th June (Official Report, cols. 849–51) it is proper for Lords to question the necessity for any given statement, if necessary in an extreme case by refusing leave. But as the practice of the House is that Ministerial Statements are offered by the Government to the main Opposition Party, the prime responsibility for reducing the number of statements must rest with the "usual channels".
The Committee recommend that in seeking to reduce the incidence of, and time taken by statements, the following points should be observed:—
§ 5. PEERAGE CLAIMS: PRINTING OF PROCEEDINGS BEFORE THE COMMITTEE FOR PRIVILEGES
The Committee have reviewed their recommendation that the transcript of proceedings on Peerage claims before the Committee for Privileges should not be printed (Second Report 1976–77, item 6). They recommend that, where the Committee for Privileges is of the opinion that it is in the public interest that such transcripts should be printed, this should be done, as was previously the case.
§ Lord Shacketon rose to move as an amendment to the above Motion, at end to insert ("except item I (Form of Motion for Papers) and paragraph 2 of item 4 (Ministerial Statements), and that those recommendations be referred back to the Procedure Committee for further consideration").
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, I hope that the amendment will be considered in our normal good tempered way rather than in the more fractious mood of the recent contentious legislation that we have had before us. It is my intention to ask the House to give very careful consideration to an important statement. We are grateful to the Committee on Procedure, and we are particularly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, who presides over it. It is not always the most easy Committee to preside over, but it nonetheless contrives to arrive at a report which represents a view which the House should consider. But it is for us to consider this matter. There is a certain repetition in what now comes in front of us.
§ I have put down an amendment dealing with two points to focus attention on matters that I think are important for us as the House of Lords and not, if I may say so, as a pale shadow of the House of Commons. I should like to draw your Lordships' attention to a debate that took place on 23rd November 1971, when the House was concerned about its procedures. The Motion was moved by the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, who at that time was a Minister of State. A number of noble Lords had taken part in a special Committee appointed by the Committee on Procedure. They included Lord Byers, the noble Earl, Lord Perth, and my noble friend Lord Shepherd.1189
§ It was interesting that in his opening remarks the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, said he was not speaking as a Minister but as a Peer like any other Peer. It is important to recall to your Lordships that in this House we are all equal. Indeed the word "peer" means equal. If anyone likes to go to a dictionary he will find that that is the first definition. Anyone who is doubtful may be familiar with the expression which academics use, "peer review"—a review by equals. We accept that the Leader of the House, and to some extent the Leader of the Opposition and the Whips through the usual channels, have a responsibility for guiding us; nonetheless, responsibilities rest on each one of us. It is important that we do not start to cut through our customs in a way which will alter the nature of your Lordships' House.
§ We have achieved interesting results on a controversial measure. I heard fairly rough words like "dirty". I think that "sharp" would have been a more appropriate word. This therefore is perhaps not the best time to bring up these issues. Indeed, when I have spoken to the points that I wish to make, if the Chairman of the Committee on Procedure feels inclined to consider them again, as we have an important debate this afternoon, we need not go into the whole of our procedure but could perhaps have a further report and then a proper debate on another day.
§ Many of the points raised in 1971 have come up again, in effect, in the proposals before us today. I should like to stress that in my opinion your Lordships' reputation stands higher than ever. The work of our Committees, particularly those on European matters, are regarded in the EC as a shining example for once of British performance. We do not wish to become like the House of Commons. If we do, we shall press more changes, more restrictions on our activities.
§ When I was first in the House—I used this argument in 1971—Lord Silkin approached me. I had recently come from the Commons. He said, "You will find that it looks like the Commons but, wait a bit, it is very different in all kinds of ways." What none of us wants to see are further time rules or even a Speaker.
§ I should like to comment on two of the matters. The first one concerns a form of Motions for Papers. I should like to ask the Committee to think again. Your Lordships are aware that a Motion for Papers, traditionally and in accordance with our own practice over many years, should be in neutral form, however strong are the arguments used in debate. I understand that the Clerks of the House have had difficulty in interpreting this in the light of particular Motions that have been put down from both sides of the House. However, what is now proposed, the placing of the responsibility on Peers, seems to me to leave the position of the Clerks in a rather worse state than before.
§ Furthermore, there is an inconsistency, because the 1982–83 First Report of the Procedure Committee instructed the Clerk to exercise a control over Starred Questions, so that the Order Paper was not used to put forward individual views. Many of your Lordships who have been in the Commons know that one procedure which is open to Members of Parliament in order to put their views across involves putting down 1190 a Motion on the Order Paper. Sometimes it attracts a lot of names, but Members know that the Motions will never be debated. I doubt whether these Motions result in anything other than a certain satisfaction for the Member of Parliament who puts them down. However, this is not our way of doing it.
§ I should like to ask this question, and other noble Lords may wish to speak on it. I should like to ask the Committee to think again. I appreciate that some noble Lords have felt constrained; they wanted to put down a Motion that reflected their views. However, it is perfectly possible to put down a neutral Motion and still speak as strongly as possible. If it becomes less than neutral and if it becomes contentious, it ought to be a Resolution, not a Motion for Papers, so that it can be voted on.
§ I should like to turn to the second item to which I raise some objection. It concerns Ministerial Statements and the decision to take away from Back-Benchers the right to make a comment. This point was debated quite strongly in 1971 by the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Inchrye, and others. The House finally came to a view that because we are all equals and are Peers it ought to be possible for a Peer to make a brief comment. What goes wrong now is that the comments and the questions and the statements from the Front Benches are sometimes interminably long. What we are saying is that they ought to be a lot shorter That is what was said in 1971.
§ However, we ought not lightly to throw away a right which is inherent in our position as Members of your Lordships' House. If I look at some of the Members of your Lordships' House who are experts in their field, it would seem to me to be ironic and peculiar to prevent, for instance, the noble Lord, Lord Ashby, from making a brief comment on environmental pollution, or the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, commenting on social science, or to prevent many others who are experts from making comments. It is not desirable to bring them on to the Front Bench on every occasion to make their statements. Furthermore, those of us who are not without parliamentary ingenuity can say it all in question form in a rather ridiculous way. That will take longer and will not, I think, achieve the self-discipline which we are seeking.
§ I do not see us yet going down the road where we shall have a Speaker, guillotines or points of order—all the things that we are at present free from here. The Committee has said it was expressing its views on the first point I made because there was a feeling in the House. We need to ensure what that feeling is. Therefore I think it would be right to ask the Committee to think again on these particular points. Whether another committee should be set up as it was on the last occasion is a matter which can be considered. I should like to see a proper debate on our procedure in the autumn, when we are not under the pressure we are under now. My Lords, I beg to move.
§ 3.15 p.m.
§ The Lord Chancellor (Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone)
My Lords, the original Question was that the report of the Procedure Committee be agreed to, since when an amendment has been moved by the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton,at end to insert (`except item I (Form of Motion for Papers) and 1191 paragraph 2 of item 4 (Ministerial Statements), and that those recommendations be referred back to the Procedure Committee for further consideration'.)
§ The Question I therefore have to put is that the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, be agreed to.
§ Lord Balfour of Inchrye
My Lords, perhaps I may detain your Lordships for a few minutes. I promise it will not be for many minutes, because I know there are speakers hungry and thirsty for the next business. I have been through that myself and I know how they rather resent someone coming in before the main debate.
I believe that this Motion is important. I take the two points about which the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, spoke. First, there is the Motion for Papers. I believe that the proposal would be the death of the debates, which I think most of us consider very precious. Those are the debates that take place without any political asperity, without any bad feelings, where views are expressed objectively and constructively. On those occasions I feel that your Lordships' House is almost a council of states. This proposal would inevitably bring about controversy and asperity in the debates. I think it is rather silly. I shall tell your Lordships why.
In the country much attention may be given to debates which take place here, and fierce party debates will arise if noble Lords are allowed to have freedom to frame their Motions as they wish. There may be several hours' debate. Then what will happen? Well, nothing at all. I think the House will look rather foolish to the rest of the country if that procedure is allowed. Thus personally I sincerely hope that the Procedure Committee will take back the proposal to allow freedom to Members to draft their own Motions. I hope it will be taken back and that the Procedure Committee will think again.
On the question of Statements, I object to the creation of a special privileged section of the House in regard to its proceedings. I do not think there should be a privileged section. The noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, said that we are all equal. We ought to be equal. But this Motion of the Procedure Committee will create a privileged class. The leaders of the parties are, quite rightly, entitled to speak first. However, I do not think that they have any more right than a Private Member to make a comment. It should be all or none. Our procedures have developed so that Private Members can, quite rightly, and do, make comments in many cases. The comments of Private Members are often more valuable and more to the point than the contributions from the Front Bench.
It is interesting to consider that there is hardly a subject on which the House cannot produce an expert when necessary. There are certain subjects that we debate that will always attract more noble Lords to speak on them than will other subjects. I can think of three very popular subjects—education, sex and foreign affairs. With education, sex and foreign affairs you will never have any trouble filling the Chamber. It 1192 is wrong that those who have great knowledge should be prevented by a new rule in Standing Orders from making a very brief comment. Incidentally, I notice that the committee is careful not to try to define the word "brief". This depends upon the person and the subject. A brief comment can be quite a long business.
It is good that Back-Bench Members should in practice—it has grown to be an accepted practice—be able to speak for a few moments when they have something authoritative to say. There is really nothing more for me to add, except to say that I regret very much the creation for the first time in this House of a privileged section for speaking. I hope that the Committee will consider the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, perhaps even those points that I have made, and no doubt points that other Members will make, and will consider it wise to call back its report and think again before bringing it forward once more.
My Lords, the House will have listened with the utmost respect to my noble friend Lord Shackleton and to the noble Lord, Lord Balfour, who is against privilege. Of course, in this House there are privileged classes. We are all privileged just to be here. And we represent ourselves. We have been elected to represent no one else that I know of. As to Statements of policy by Her Majesty's Government and everyone being free to make a speech, perhaps I may say that the two years that I have had the privilege of being in your Lordships' House have taught me that brevity is unknown in this place. With all its faults, the other place, through the Speaker, makes it possible for people to realise that they cannot get in, when everything has been said, just to repeat it and to be heard. The Select Committee of this House has spent a long time on this matter. It must have gone into the question in depth. It would not have come to the House with these proposals if it had not felt them to be in the interests of the House itself.
I should like to say to the noble Lord, Lord Balfour, that I dislike disagreeing with so senior a Member of your Lordships' House. But the noble Lord will realise that, in your Lordships' House, there must be limits, and there are limits, on the freedom of all of us. The spokesmen of the parties are themselves privileged people because they speak for their party. If they do not, they should not be there. I trust that we are not going to decide to send back the report just on the basis of one or two speeches and without a proper debate. There should be a major debate on the proposals of the Committee. It is much too big an issue to go back because two or three noble Lords dislike the proposals.
§ Lord Nugent of Guildford
My Lords, I should like to say a brief word in support of the first amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton. The impact of the Report, in this respect, is that Peers putting a Motion on the Order Paper can please themselves how they draft it, and that we depart from our tradition of drafting it in neutral terms. We must recognise the realities. Noble Lords' enthusiasm for a subject often overruns their discretion. It is a help to them if there is some restraint from the Companion to the Standing Orders which tells them what the boundaries are that they should observe.
1193 The noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, referred to Parliamentary Questions. In the last two or three years, some of us have had quite a tussle over Questions appearing on the Order Paper in order to bring them within the order that they should not be offensive. It is a very subjective judgment, what is offensive and what is not. If, however, something appears on the Order Paper that is offensive, it runs the risk that a Peer will object to it and will refuse to give the Peer concerned the permission he is requesting to ask the Question. This can provoke a debate and all kinds of trouble. That is the last thing that we want.
Following quite a bit of discussion and consultation we have managed to evolve a slightly stronger form of guidance in the Companion about Parliamentary Questions; that is to say, the filter now used of the advice of our admirable Clerk of the Parliaments. This has proved a very great help to all of us in ensuring that what we put on the Order Paper is right.
The question of a Motion on the Order Paper is exactly the same. The noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, is absolutely right. If we are left free to put down what we like, some of us in our enthusiasm may occasionally put down something that is offensive to other noble Lords. The result is that it will be there on the Order Paper for the House to see, for the whole world to see. After all, Motions often stay there for months. The Government will have no alternative but to allow a debate in order to get it off. It will be extremely awkward for the Government. This is quite contrary to our traditions.
I feel that my noble friends on the Procedure Committee have made a mistake in giving this piece of advice. It would be much better to go back to the tradition that we had previously of Motions on the Order Paper being neutral. Perhaps we could take a leaf out of the book of Parliamentary Questions and apply the same filter of our learned friend the Clerk of the Parliaments to give advice to noble Lords wishing to put down a Motion. I am sure that this would be in the interests of everyone. I hope very much that my noble friend the Chairman of Committees will be able to take it back.
§ 3.30 p.m.
§ Lord Aberdare
My Lords, in view of the doubts that have been expressed about these two particular matters, I am sure that, rather than spend a good deal of time this afternoon debating them, the Members of the Procedure Committee would be quite prepared to look at these items again and come forward with some other proposals. If there are still hesitations and doubts in your Lordships' minds, perhaps we can have a full debate on a day to be properly arranged through the usual channels. I hope that that will satisfy your Lordships. Personally, I should be quite prepared to advise the House to accept the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, so that the matter can be taken back and looked at.
§ Lord Taylor of Blackburn
My Lords, in accepting what the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees has said, I think that it is only fair that a genuine BackBencher—because so far everyone who has spoken has either been a Privy Counsellor or a Front Bench 1194 spokesman—speaks on this matter. From the Back-Benches we accept what the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees has said. I had intended to speak at some length on this matter, but I am glad that the Chairman of Committees has taken the course he has. At times Back-Benchers feel very frustrated, even though we are first among equals. Nevertheless, we accept that the Committee should think again on this matter.
§ Lord Harmar-Nicholls
My Lords, I should like to ask a question which is relevant to the report. I believe that the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees used the phraseology that it would be the spokesmen of Opposition parties. Does not that phraseology leave out the Cross-Benches?—because the Cross-Benches are proud that they are not an Opposition party; they are completely independent. Left as it is, the phraseology would not give the Cross-Benches the same advantage as is given to all the other groups.
§ Lord Shackleton
My Lords, I shall sit down if the noble Lord wishes to interrupt or even to ask a question if he cannot make a comment, and I know that he spoke very valuably in 1971. However, I believe that a number of other noble Lords, including the noble Earl, Lord Jellicoe, had hoped to be present to support this view and perhaps I may even dare say that the former Chief Whip of the Conservative Party has been trying to get to his feet. The noble Lord, Lord Airedale, has another amendment down which he can move, and no doubt he can make his remarks then.
Of course, the point that the noble Lord has just made is very relevant. These are matters at which the Committee might look further. I should like to see a proper debate in the Autumn. This is the time when we have to decide whether to send the matter back. I shall not argue with my noble friend Lord Tonypandy. In another 10 years—
§ Lord Tordoff
My Lords, will the noble Lord give way? I apologise for interrupting him, but I do not think that he is aware of the difficulty in which my noble friend Lord Airedale finds himself. If the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, is agreed to and this matter is referred back, it will not be possible for my noble friend Lord Airedale to make his point in reference to the amendment that he has put down. That is why a number of us on these Benches 1195 wish my noble friend Lord Airedale to have the opportunity at this stage of making his comments on what will arise later. I really think that the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, should have given way to my noble friend on this occasion.
§ Lord Shackleton
My Lords, if my understanding is correct, I am not moving to remove the whole of that section, and it will be posssible for the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, to move his amendment. If I am wrong, I would certainly wish to give way, but the noble Lord's amendment relates to consultation with Front Benches. I am sorry to throw this at the noble Viscount the Leader of the House at this stage; but as the purpose of my amendment is ultimately to refer the matter back so that the Procedure Committee can look at the whole issue, perhaps the noble Viscount can help. I do not wish to deprive the Alliance of their chance.
§ Viscount Whitelaw
My Lords, I am advised that whatever happens at this stage, the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, has the absolute right to move his particular amendment thereafter. The noble Lord the Chairman of Committees suggested that there might be a debate in the Autumn if these matters are referred back to the Procedure Committee. While I am on my feet, perhaps I may say, on behalf of the Government, that I shall undertake to seek to provide time for such a debate in the Autumn, if that is the wish of the House.
§ Lord Shackleton
My Lords, I am obliged. I am not surprised at the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, who has not been here very long, not understanding that his noble friend had the right to speak; but the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, should have known that. However, the last thing that I want to do is to turn this into a shouting match. If I understand the noble Lord correctly, he is content for the House to accept my amendment, so perhaps that can be moved and then the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, can move his amendment. In any case, I understand that the whole matter will be reconsidered.
§ Lord Diamond
My Lords, perhaps I may ask the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees one question. I am a Member of the Procedure Committee. When the noble Lord said that the Committee would be prepared to consider the matter again, I take it that he means prepared to consider it again without prejudice to what conclusion the Committee might reach?
§ Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede
My Lords, may the Question first be put on the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Shackleton?
§ The Lord Chancellor
My Lords, I can only put the Question if nobody is rising to speak on the Motion which is being debated. Please understand that.
§ Viscount Whitelaw
My Lords, apart from myself, nobody else is rising to speak, so the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack will be able to put the Question.
§ The Lord Chancellor
My Lords, the original Question was that the Report of the Procedure Committee be agreed to, since when an amendment has been moved in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton. Therefore, the Question that I have to put is that the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, be agreed to.
§ On Question, amendment agreed to.
§ Lord Airedale rose to move as an amendment to the report, in item 4 (Ministerial Statements), paragraph 3, lines 7 and 8, to leave out ("main Opposition Party") and insert ("Opposition Parties").
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, I have very few words to say in support of my amendment; I am sorry that it has taken me so long to come to the time to say them. I realise that the amendment seeks to put into the mouth of the Procedure Committee words with which it may not agree, and therefore there is no question of my seeking to press this matter this afternoon. All I seek to suggest is that whatever our procedure may have been up to now, as from today it shall be a tradition, as the American General said, that Ministerial Statements should henceforth be offered by the Government to all Opposition parties.
§ I know that the object of the exercise is to limit the number of Statements that Ministers repeat in this House, and the noble Lord the Lord Chairman told us so when he moved the original Motion just now. However, I believe that this is better achieved by the exercise of restraint on all sides than by limiting to one the number of Opposition parties to which the Statement is offered in the first place. I beg to move.
§ Moved as an amendment to the Report, in item 4 (Ministerial Statements), paragraph 3, lines 7 and 8, to leave out ("main Opposition Party") and insert ("Opposition Parties").—(Lord Airedale.)
§ The Lord Chancellor
My Lords, the original Question was that the Report of the Procedure Committee, as amended by the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, be agreed to, since when a further amendment has been moved by the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, in the terms on the Order Paper. The Question that I now have to put is that the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, to the amended Motion be agreed to.
§ Lord Denham
My Lords, I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, is not asking your Lordships to put into the mouth of the Procedure Committee words that it did not in fact say because at the Committee meeting concerned it was asked to say these particular words and it specifically rejected them.
The position about Statements has always been that the Government Chief Whip of the day, first, has the responsibility to decide whether a Statement being made in another place is, from the point of view of the Government, right to be made in this House. Then the Opposition Chief Whip has an absolute right to say whether it is, in the view of the Opposition, right that 1197 the Statement should be repeated in this House in the circumstance when the Government Chief Whip had not decided initially to do it himself.
That always has been held between those two people and it has always worked very well indeed. It worked very well for the reason that they are both in fact paid officials; they both have, for their pay, clearly defined and well-understood responsibilities covering the whole of the House. The difficulty is this: obviously the House has made it plain over the years that it wants to have as few Statements repeated in this House as it properly can.
The other point is that the more people you consult, the more Statements will be asked for. This is a fact of life. I can give your Lordships an illustration of this. When I occupied the position now so well held by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, I had to ask my noble friends who were shadow spokesmen whether a particular Statement was in their view important enough to be repeated. The answer I invariably got from one particular shadow spokesman was that while he wished to keep Statements down to the bare minimum, this particular one, which affected his own interest, was of such importance that it would have to be included in that minimum. In fact, I subsequently discovered that if I asked my shadow spokesmen on these matters whether they wanted a Statement, the answer was invariably "Yes", and so I then made up my own mind. That, I have no doubt, is what the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, very properly does.
I should like to say that I also have a residual duty to consider the rest of the House, to consider my own Back-Benchers, whose interests are not necessarily always the same as the Government's, and to consider the Cross-Benchers who are a large section of this House, and to consider the minority parties. I think this works very well as it is done at the moment. On the occasion when I make the wrong decision, it is made known to me very quickly after the event.
§ Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede
My Lords, perhaps I may add to what the noble Lord the Chief Whip has said. The present situation on Statements is that they are, first of all, offered and the Official Opposition are asked whether they wish to have the Statement. The Liberal Party immediately after that is informed that there is a Statement and that it has been offered to the Official Opposition. Therefore, the Liberal Party gets to know immediately that there is a Statement on offer, and they are informed of that by the noble Lord's office.
The secretary to the SDP Peers, on her arrival, is informed about the situation. Therefore, all the main political groupings of this House are aware of the situation as quickly as possible after 11 a.m. As the noble Lord the Chief Whip says, consultations are then held to see whether or not the Statement should be taken.
There is a difficulty with Lord Airedale's amendment. It refers to "Opposition Parties", and technically there are other Opposition Parties. We have a member of the Communist Party present. If this was literally interpreted, it might produce certain difficulties.
1198 My quarrel with the report of the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, is that I think the report should have referred either to the "Official Opposition" or to "Her Majesty's Opposition", because in fact the Opposition in this House may not necessarily be the largest opposition party. Indeed, it was not so long ago when we were the Official Opposition in this House but not the second largest political party.
§ Lord Mackie of Benshie
My Lords, perhaps I may, on behalf of my Leader and Chief Whip, say that I understood that the Government Chief Whip said that one of the necessary things for consultation was to be paid. On their behalf, I would say that they would be glad to accept this qualification.
§ 3.45 p.m.
§ Lord Tordoff
My Lords, I am eternally grateful to my noble friend. I want to pick up a point from the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby. It is true that the informal arrangement is there and works, but I must say that for a group of Peers—both the Liberal Party and the SDP in alliance—to have to wait for crumbs to fall from the Labour Party's table is not something we enjoy. That is not to say that the relationship is not perfectly amicable on a daily working basis, but it seems to me that the time has now come to formalise the changing position in your Lordships' House. We do not want necessarily to be treated in precisely the same way as the "Official Opposition", or "Her Majesty's Opposition", or the paid opposition, or call it what you will, but we should be counted in on the act on a slightly more formal basis than we have been in the past.
My Lords, may I ask my noble friend the Chief Whip one question? He has made it abundantly clear that the whole question of Statements is manifestly the business of the official channels. Why then are Statements made apparently by leave of the House, when that leave is never ever sought?
§ Lord Denham
My Lords, I think that my noble friend will recall that every time one of my noble friends gets up to repeat a Statement he does so "by leave of the House". I think he specifically asks for leave of the House.
§ Lord Airedale
My Lords, if the Procedure Committee is going to do some rethinking at the instance of the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, no doubt it will take into consideration the exchanges which have just taken place upon my amendment. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw it.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ The Lord Chancellor
My Lords, I think I now have to put the amended Motion. The Question therefore is that the Motion standing in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, as amended by the amendment carried at the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, be agreed to?
§ On Question, Motion, as amended, agreed to.