HL Deb 17 February 1986 vol 471 cc410-7

3.2 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.

May I briefly refer to two items in the report. The first is Item 1: Form of Motions for Papers. Your Lordships will recall that last July there was considerable criticism in the House on the original recommendation from the Procedure Committee on this matter, and I agreed to take it back to the committee. The delay in returning to the House has been due to the difficulty in reaching agreement within the committee.

Considerable efforts were made to find a compromise, but in the end, after two long meetings, a Division took place—a most unusual event in the Procedure Committee—in order to arrive at a decision. An alternative report proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, was rejected by 17 votes to two, and the present report was agreed to with the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, dissenting.

The committee now recommend that the present convention that Motions are worded unprovocatively and avoid tendentious language should be continued, and so recorded in the Companion to Standing Orders. In so doing, the committee recognised that Lords tabling Motions may wish to highlight a particular aspect of the subject, but the resulting text should not amount to a statement of opinion or the demonstration of a point of view. I would emphasise that this is exactly the same procedure as applies to Questions. The committee draw attention to the fact that when it is desired to seek a definite conclusion, if necessary on a vote, then a Resolution and not a Motion for Papers should be tabled.

May I say a word briefly on the second item, Linked Amendments. The recent change in procedure whereby linked amendments are printed together when first spoken to and reprinted in Hansard when moved has proved unsatisfactory. The Editor of Hansard explained to the committee that this new practice had greatly increased the work load on her editorial staff and has resulted in errors and delays. The committee therefore recommend that we should revert to the previous practice and that amendments should be printed at the point at which they are moved. I beg to move.

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

Following is the report referred to:

1. FORM OF MOTIONS FOR PAPERS On 3rd July 1985, the House referred back to the Committee item 1 (Form of Motions for Papers) and paragraph 2 of item 4 (Ministerial Statements) of the Second Report of last Session from the Committee for further consideration (Official Report cols. 1186–98). In the Third Report of last session they reported further on the question of Ministerial Statements and this was agreed to by the House on 27th November 1985. After another meeting the Committee have agreed the following report on the form of motions for papers. Item 1 of the Committee's Second Report of last Session proposed, in the light of the increased party political activity in the House, that in future motions for papers should be worded in such fashion as the Lord who initiates the debate thinks fit, with the proviso that they should be phrased in such a way as to avoid the risk of a division. The Committee have reconsidered their previous recommendation in the light of the criticisms expressed in the House on 3rd July. At present there is no specific guidance in the Companion to Standing Orders on the form of motions for papers. Nevertheless the unwritten convention of the House has long been that the wording of such motions should be, so far as possible, short and couched in terms avoiding provocative or tendentious phraseology. The character of such motions has not been understood to inhibit Lords from advancing controversial points of view in the course of debate. Motions worded provocatively, or containing a partial statement, or which only state one side of a question run 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. The Committee recognise, nevertheless, that in some cases Lords tabling Motions for Papers may wish to highlight a particular aspect of a subject to which they wish the House to give special attention. The Committee regard this as an appropriate course provided that the text does not amount to a statement of opinion or the demonstration of a point of view. The Committee recommend that this guidance should be embodied in the Companion and that the advice of the Clerks should be accepted by Lords tabling Motions, as at present laid down in the Companion page 48 in the case of Starred Questions, Questions for Written Answer and Unstarred Questions. Where it is desired that the House should reach a definite conclusion on a matter, if necessary on a vote, the proper procedural course will continue to be to table a motion for a resolution, which can with propriety incorporate statements of opinion and the demonstration of a point of view.

2. LINKED AMENDMENTS The Committee have reviewed the new procedure whereby linked amendments are printed together in the Official Report when first spoken to, and are thereafter reprinted, if agreed, at the point in the proceedings at which the amendment is agreed. This was agreed to as a permanent feature of the procedure of the House in the Second Report of last session agreed to on 3rd July 1985. The Editor of Debates has drawn attention to the implications for Hansard of this new procedure, especially at the end of last session when the House had to consider exceptionally long and complicated legislation, such as the Transport and Insolvency Bills. In the case of these two Bills, the number of amendments spoken together which were subsequently agreed to were so great that the new procedure could not be carried into effect without disproportionate duplication and unacceptable delays in the production of Hansard. As it was, the editors had to stay on up to 4 hours after the rising of the House, and much earlier cut-off points were required at the Printers' insistence. The new procedure has the added disadvantage of leading to delay in the production of the bound volumes of Hansard. The keeping of the records of the House has been complicated and the risk of error increased. The Committee recommended that the new procedure should be discontinued and that the House should revert to the previous practice whereby amendments are only printed in the Official Report at the point at which they are moved.

3. STANDING ORDER 38 The Committee have considered the terms of Standing Order 38 (Arrangement of the Order Paper), which governs the Order of Business on the Order Paper, and which provides that, subject to certain exceptions, notices appear in the order in which they are tabled, but that on all sitting days except Wednesdays, Bills, Measures and Affirmative Instruments take precedence. The practice of the House is to take motions first on Wednesdays, but this is not reflected in the Standing Order in its present form. To remedy this, the Committee recommended that Standing Order 38 should be amended by the addition of the following new sub-paragraph:— (4A) On Wednesdays, notices of Motions shall have precedence over notices and orders relating to Public Bills, Measures and delegated legislation.".

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, as the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees has referred to some of the discussions—he would agree, rather prolonged discussions—in the Select Committee on Procedure, and mentioned some part that I had sought to play in them, perhaps your Lordships will allow me to offer some brief comments before you decide on an issue which I believe is of some general importance to the House.

In the first place, I would emphasise that there was no difference of opinion in the committee on the general question that Wednesday Motions for Papers should not end in a Division. There was complete agreement on that. The difference lay in the extent to which it was desired to limit even the temperate and moderate expression of opinion in the terms of the actual Motion.

Those of us who took the view that it would be helpful for the Motion to give some indication of the line of argument which is to be taken were agreed wholly with the majority that the language used must be temperate and unprovocative, and therefore in the extreme degree unlikely to provoke a Division. I am not sure that your Lordships will appreciate that the substance of a Motion for Papers is for papers.

Your Lordships may recall the not unfunny incident when Lord Woolton was leading this House some years ago. Great man that he was, he was not particularly interested in matters of procedure. He therefore accepted a Motion for Papers, leaving for the officials of the House the great problem of what they did then. With their usual versatility they rose to the occasion. They filled up a van with a lot of obsolete government publications and dumped them at the private residence of the noble Lord who had had the misfortune to move the Motion which he had not intended to be carried.

Therefore, the risk of a Division on a Motion for Papers would appear to be exiguous unless really violent language is used. As your Lordships will be aware, in the last two or three years there has been a quite considerable move away from the rather neutral form of words to a moderate indication of the kind of matters which the proposer of the Motion wants to bring forward. But it is important that on none of those occasions was there even a hint of anybody wishing to force a Division. Therefore, those of us who argued for some expression of view in the Motion did so on the basis that really it did not seem that we were risking anything by way of a Division.

What is the argument the other way? The words of the report—which I do not think the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees quoted—say that the committee regard this as appropriate, provided that the text does not amount to a statement of opinion or the demonstration of a point of view". A Motion which really complies with that must, in the nature of things, be somewhat insipid.

It would certainly have ruled out a great many of the Motions which this House has, I think successfully, debated on Wednesdays on a Motion for Papers. I have my noble friend Lord Home's permission to refer to one that he moved on 23rd April last, and which those of your Lordships who were present will recall resulted in a highly successful, extremely interesting, and not uninfluential debate. The Motion read: to call attention to the desire of Britain and other western democracies to seek better relations with the Soviet Union"— that, in brief, applies— and the obstacles which continuing Soviet exploitation of economic and social problems in developing countries and intervention in the internal affairs of other countries have placed in the way of obtaining this objective, and to move for Papers".—[Official Report, 23/4/85; cols. 1012–3] I think your Lordships have to accept that if we go to what is suggested in this report then Motions of that character will be plainly outside the rules.

There are two disadvantages in that. I can put them briefly. One is that if the Motion does not contain, as that of my noble friend Lord Home did, an indication of the line which the proposer intends to take, then those of your Lordships who may be interested either for or against that proposition have no warning of the likely way the debate will go. Although the mover, as has been said again and again, is free to say what he likes when he speaks, he will not have given that advance warning, and those of your Lordships who, if they knew what the debate would be about, might like to attend either to support or to oppose would be denied that opportunity.

Secondly, and this I appreciate is a slightly more sensitive point, there is the effect on the media. If the media do not know, roughly, what will be raised and have some idea of the type of debate it will be, they may not attend either in the form of television or in the presence of our friends in the Press Gallery. This is of importance to your Lordships' House because the House must remember that it is not an institution wholly without its critics or wholly without its dangers. I understand that its abolition is still the declared policy of one great party in the state and, if your Lordships' House has less impact than it might on public opinion through the media, the public will be given less chance to understand the high quality of our debates and, to some extent, your Lordships' House will forfeit some of that public esteem which is likely in a crisis to help to protect its continued existence. For that reason, I should very much regret this.

I want to ask the Chairman of Committees for an interpretation of one part of the report which was not, as he will appreciate, fully discussed in the Select Committee, whose deliberations he has referred to. That is: The Committee recommend that this guidance should be embodied in the Companion and that the advice of the Clerks should be accepted by Lords tabling Motions. I should like an interpretation of the word "should", which, as the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees has said, appears in others of our rules of procedure. Does it mean—as in ordinary parlance it does—that the advice of our learned and distinguished Clerks is obviously of great value, that anyone who does not seek their advice in such matters is very foolish and that they should certainly seek it and weigh it seriously? Or does it mean that the decision as to the appearance on the Order Paper of a Motion depends upon the agreement of the Clerks?

That is a crucial question because if the latter interpretation, in whole or in part, is valid, then we are going quite a way towards setting up what we have always sought to avoid—that is, having a Speaker with the power of giving rulings in this House—and we shall have departed from the good principle that in the ultimate the noble Lord tabling a Motion must take full and undiminished responsibility for it and therefore must be free in the ultimate to table it in his own words, in accordance with his own wishes and to take responsibility if your Lordships do not like it. In other words, under these proposals is the agreement of the Clerks to be a condition of the appearance of a Motion on the Order Paper? If it is, I should regret it greatly, because we are so well served by our splendid body of Clerks and quite obviously such a situation would drag them unwillingly and unhappily into controversy and perhaps into criticism. I hope my noble friend will be able to answer that question when he replies, if others of your Lordships take part in the debate.

3.15 p.m.

Lord Shackleton

My Lords, since it was on an amendment that I moved on a previous occasion that this matter and also the rights of Back Bench Peers in relation to Statements was referred back to the Committee, I should first say that I entirely accept that the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter—who perhaps for tactful reasons decided not to oppose my amendment on that occasion, thinking that it was better discussed in Committee—should have deployed his case so forcefully and, on the whole, fairly. However, I disagree with certain of his remarks. The purpose of neutral Motions is that we should be in our manners in this House very different from that in another place. We do not use the Order Paper in this House for expressions of opinion, which is the normal practice in the House of Commons, where Motions are constantly put down just to put people's opinions on the record.

As the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, fairly said, this is something which leads to difficult questions of interpretation. Some of your Lordships may think that this has some of the qualities of a mediaeval schoolmen's discussion and that the difference between us is not all that great. But there is a distinction which became very apparent in the two lengthy sets of discussions that we had in the Committee on Procedure. The reason the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, and I felt so strongly was that, first, we had sought to restrict the expression of opinion in certain other areas, especially in relation to Starred Questions, and we felt (and I feel very strongly) that if a Motion is not put down in fairly neutral terms, it invites not only the possibility of a vote against but, more probably, an amendment. I could have suggested amendments which my noble friends and others might have moved to the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Home. This would be undesirable and would lead us into confusion. Furthermore the argument that the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, used—that the wording of a Motion gives advance knowledge to the press and to the television authorities that there will be a pretty lively debate—is a particularly undesirable reason to give. If a noble Lord wishes attention to be drawn to something that he intends to raise, it is open to him to talk to the Lobby. But that is not a sufficient reason for us to change our practice. On the last occasion I expressed the view that I thought that we ought not to change our procedures without a very thorough-going consideration such as we had in 1971. That is still my view.

I hope therefore that your Lordships will accept the views of the Committee on Procedure and that we shall retain our existing practice. It is a fact that this House has perhaps become more contentious in recent years, but the one thing that I believe all your Lordships would wish is to avoid anything that leads us to having a Speaker to rule on our proceedings and we should find ourselves with endless points of order. Although this is not a major issue, I believe it helps to clarify the position so far as concerns the Clerks. I hope therefore that until we decide consciously to change our procedure we stick to our existing standards of behaviour in your Lordships' House.

Lord Nugent of Guildford

My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, has just mentioned my support for the line he has taken, both in the House and in the committee, I feel I should add one word to what he has already very lucidly said, which exposes the view that he and indeed the majority of other noble Lords took in the Committee on Procedure in the lengthy discussions that we had.

I think we all recognised the force of the observations of my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter. After all, he is perhaps the most distinguished and most able debater in the House. Therefore anything that in any way limited the remarkable contribution that he makes here would be a grave loss to the House and the last thing that any of us would want to see. Thus we really took this very seriously in trying to meet his point of view, a point of view which I am sure would be shared by many people, and yet preserve the normal custom of the House and the important points that are involved in this issue.

I feel that I should not add to those. The noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, has admirably dealt with them. However, I should deal with the last point that my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter made, when he asked what was the role of the Clerk in regard to the word "should": that noble Lords should take the advice of the learned Clerk when drafting their motions. Page 48 of the Companion, to which my noble friend the Lord Chairman of Committees has referred, I think makes plain that, although noble Lords should take the advice of the learned Clerk, at the end of the day it is the responsibility of the noble Lord himself what he puts on the Order Paper. Then it is for the House, if the House does not like it, to take the appropriate action, so that constitutional position is unchanged.

There is here a significant practical point which has been worked out with immense care over recent years to try to meet our needs; that is, that when there is a point of order, either on Motions or on the form of Questions, it is most desirable that we should be able to take it as a House of Lords issue and not as a partisan affair. If there is no independent professional advice available for the House at the time the issue is raised in the House, as it has been once or twice, it is difficult and confusing for the House to take an objective view as to what the issue is.

It therefore follows that if there is a defined obligation on the Clerk to give advice and on the noble Lord to take it, if then a noble Lord proceeds in the House, in the face of that advice, to put down either a Question or a Motion which is out of order, then if the matter is raised in the House it is obviously of the greatest possible help to noble Lords on all sides to know that this was the dispassionate, professional advice. Therefore if a point of order is taken on this particular issue, everyone knows that it is founded, as far as can be, on an objective judgment.

It is for that reason that the particular machinery has been brought in and the learned Clerk given a particularly onerous duty. After all, he is the Clerk and adviser to each one of us impartially and is as helpful as he can be to all of us. Nevertheless, this is his role in this particular way. It can be seen that it plays a vital part in helping us, as a House, to continue to keep order in the way we wish to, without important matters of order becoming matters of party controversy. I think this is an important point. Of course, that is one of the reasons it is necessary to define with come precision the criteria which are to guide the Clerk. Otherwise it would be quite impossible for him to give the advice that the House wishes.

Those are some of the thoughts lying behind this convention, which I think is of great importance to us and of great value in maintaining the kind of atmosphere, the kind of freedom, to which we are accustomed and, at the end of the day, maintaining the principle that each one of us, each noble Lord, is himself responsible for keeping the order of the House.

Lord Home of the Hirsel

My Lords, perhaps I may say a word. I think that I was probably guilty last year, according to the ruling that the Lord Chairman of Committees now reads out. There was a dilemma. I did not want to be provocative on Russia's practices. If I moved a resolution, it seemed to me that there was a danger that the debate would become difficult and controversial. I therefore deliberately chose a Motion and deliberately made my Motion for Papers as innocuous as I could make it, and got away with it. I of course support the Lord Chairman's ruling now. However, I think that with a little ingenuity we can probably still have put down as a Motion matters which are comparatively non-controversial.

Baroness Hylton-Foster

My Lords, perhaps I may repeat a suggestion I made at the committee; that is, that some of us feel that a Wednesday should be treated as a special day. It should be quite possible to have both an informative and an interesting debate, covering many different points of view, without provoking a Division, unless of course a resolution has been tabled. In that event the situation would be different.

Lord Aberdare

My Lords, I think that the House has heard very clearly expressed the issues that were before the committee. My noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter, whose views I respect, together with the sincerity with which he puts them forward, has very ably put together today the same expressions of opinion that he voiced in the committee. At the same time the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, and my noble friend Lord Nugent of Guildford have equally well summarised the arguments that induced the committee to put their present report before the House.

The only question I was asked directly by my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter has in fact been answered by my noble friend Lord Nugent of Guildford. I can only repeat that ultimately the decision lies with the noble Lord who puts down the Motion. Although it is obviously desirable that the advice of the Clerk should be accepted, just as it is or should be in terms of Questions, it is ultimately the responsibility of each one of us what actually goes on the Order Paper. I beg to move.

On Question, Motion agreed to.