HL Deb 08 July 1986 vol 478 cc170-80

3.12 p.m.

The Lord President of the Council (Viscount Whitelaw)

My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That Standing Order No. 38 (Arrangement of the Order Paper) be suspended until the Summer Recess so far as is necessary to give Her Majesty's Government power to arrange the order of business; and that Standing Order No. 44 (No two stages of a Bill to be taken on one day) be suspended for the same period.—(Viscount Whitelaw.)

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, I believe that it would be in the interests of the House if the noble Viscount can tell us when we are likely to rise for the Summer Recess, and when we are likely to return in order to deal with the remaining Government business. It has been reported that we might return at the start of the Labour Party Conference and sit throughout the Conservative Party Conference. This would obviously create problems for some noble Lords, and we should like to know whether there is any truth in that report.

Noble Lords in all parts of the House will agree that we are experiencing a very heavy Session—one of the heaviest on record. In our view, this is due primarily to the Government's failure to calculate the consequences of overloading the Government's legislative programme.

Noble Lords

Hear, Hear!

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, let me give some examples. First, our sitting time in this House has increased substantially. We thought that the last Session, 1984–85, was a very taxing one; and the House may recall that exactly 12 months ago I spoke pointing this out and asking the noble Viscount whether he would bear this in mind for the next Session. The noble Viscount then said that he sympathised with my argument—and I know that he did—and that he would do his best, although he could not guarantee anything. However, in fact this Session has proved much worse.

Let me quote figures to support that contention. Up to the week ending 6th July 1985, this House had sat for 830 hours 35 minutes, with 43 sittings after 10 p.m. This year, up to 5th July—that is to say last Friday—with the same number of sitting days (123) this House has sat 904 hours 21 minutes, and there have been 72 sittings after 10 p.m. That is a considerable increase on last year. Bearing in mind that this is a voluntary Chamber of unpaid Members of a relatively high average age, we must recognise that this places a considerable strain both on noble Lords and on the staff of the House.

In passing, I should like to pay the warmest possible tribute to the staff of this House for their dedication and courtesy under the stress of long hours. The noble Viscount and the House will agree that it is our duty as a revising Chamber—and above all else that is what we are—to ensure that Bills coming to us are properly scrutinised and improved. If they are also contentious, it must be expected that attempts will be made to amend them.

Furthermore, in this Session we have had the experience of "legislation as you go", with huge batches of Government amendments being tabled at very short notice. For example again, in the Education Bill, there were 77 government amendments; in the Airports Bill, there were 107 government amendments; during the Committee stage of the Building Societies Bill there are 191 government amendments, or 72 per cent. of the total; in the Social Security Bill, in Committee, there were 114 government amendments, or 46 per cent. of the total, and I understand that there are also difficulties with the Wages Bill.

That shows that Government Bills have not been properly thought out, and it places a great burden on this House and specifically on noble Lords who are dealing with the legislation both on the Front and on the Back Benches.

There is also the question of the Bills themselves, and I have further statistics, although I do not propose to go into this in any great detail. However, the number of public Bills which had three or more days in a Committee of the Whole House has doubled in the past 12 months. There were four, or 14 per cent., in 1985; and there have been eight, or 24 per cent., so far this year. As a consequence of what I have said, this House will therefore sit later than the other place and return far earlier than the other place.

I believe that this House does its work well, and that noble Lords render a vital public service. Nor do noble Lords in any part of this House readily complain about the way in which they are treated. However, I feel that I have a duty to lodge a serious protest and to ask the noble Viscount the Leader of the House to convey to his colleagues the need to consider this problem very carefully, and specifically to consider deferring at least one Bill until the next Session. This is the least that the Government can do in these circumstances.

Noble Lords

Hear, hear!

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords—

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, I shall of course, defer to the noble Lord but I think I would have been in order to reply first. However, I defer to the noble Lord.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, I would be very glad to give way if the noble Viscount would like to speak. As I understand it, we are discussing a Motion, and the normal procedure is that the noble Viscount, having moved the Motion, will presumably respond to it at the end of the debate. On behalf of my noble friends, I should like to say that we wish to associate ourselves with the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn.

Before I come to the substance of the matters raised by the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, perhaps I may start by asking the noble Viscount a question. In the Motion before us, there is a reference to Standing Order No. 44, which provides that no two stages of a Bill are to be taken on one day. This is the normal Motion at this time of the Session and we make no complaint about that. However, specifically, will all parties in the House be consulted before this Standing Order is waived?

There is a particular reason why I raise this question—and I wish now to return to the events of last Friday afternoon. There was then a short Statement made in the House following pressure from a number of noble Lords opposite, which I can wholly understand and with which I sympathise. The point made to the Government on that occasion—and of course the noble Viscount was in the House at the time—was that many Members were worried that if further time was not made available very quickly for the Building Societies Bill, there would be a danger that it would not receive the Royal Assent before we rose for the Summer Recess.

As a result of that pressure, a last minute change was made in this week's business. The timetable of the Public Order Bill—which is a matter touching the civil liberties of many hundreds of thousands of British citizens—was at the last minute changed. It was taken out of Thursday's business and put into next week's. There was no consultation with my noble friends Lord Tordoff and Lord Kilmarnock. I do not believe that that is in accord with the normal courtesies of the House, and I hope that on matters of this sort there will in fact be the proper processes of consultation.

Having said that, I should like to come to the important points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn. We are now well into the month of July and yet several important Government Bills have not even had a Second Reading in this House. There is the National Health Service (Amendment) Bill, which raises a number of important issues, as we all know. There is the Financial Services Bill, on which this House is almost uniquely qualified to express opinions.

There is the European Communities (Amendment) Bill, which has not even arrived in this House from the House of Commons, and yet it has in fact had a guillotine applied to it there. I can say, as a member of a party which is in favour of the Bill and which will be voting in favour of it, that we nevertheless believe that it should be properly debated in this House with an adequate allocation of time. What some of us find difficult to understand is how Ministers ever believed that the parliamentary timetable on which they embarked at the beginning of this Session of Parliament had the remotest chance of being success-fully applied.

As the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, said, we have heard that this House will be sitting well after the House of Commons has risen, and will be returning well before the House of Commons returns. I see from the morning newspapers a calculation, which I suspect is true, that this House is now sitting longer than any other democratic legislature in the Western world.

Every year since I have been a Member there have been complaints raised by Members in all parts of the House about the weight of government business. I acknowledge at the outset that there is nothing unique about complaints of this sort, save that on this occasion 1 think that the amount of parliamentary business that has been pushed through this House has been an intolerable burden for what is a House of part-time Members.

Many Members of the House will recall previous occasions when there have been complaints made from this side of the House. I well remember the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, when Leader of the Opposition, complaining bitterly in the month of July about the way in which the House of Lords was being treated. And yet at that time the amount of parliamentary business was infinitely smaller than the amount of parliamentary business which has confronted us this year. Some of the statistics read to us a few moments ago demonstrated that clearly. The number of days on which this House has been sitting has been growing year after year.

On that occasion the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, asked the Government to give some form of undertaking that in the following Session they would reduce the amount of government business which was initiated in both Houses of Parliament. With great respect to the noble Viscount, I hope he is going to be able to give some sort of undertaking as to what he is prepared to do next Session. First, there is too much legislation; secondly, too little of it is initiated in the House of Lords. That is why every July we have this problem.

The noble Viscount knows perfectly well why that is so. It is so because a substantial number of Ministers in charge of departments sit in the House of Commons and wish to make the major Second Reading speeches themselves, and that is why every year the House of Lords finds itself in this situation. I hope that as a result of what has been said today the noble Viscount will be able to give us some sort of undertaking about how he intends to proceed with next year's business. I hope he will also give some indication of what he is going to do about this year's business as well. I very much hope, therefore, that he will be able to answer these specific questions.

If the noble Viscount relies upon a certain lack of progress so far as the Gas Bill is concerned—and I suspect that that may just conceivably form part of his speech—may I say to him that on one occasion (namely, last night) the House was counted out because there were not enough government supporters in the House prepared to vote in the Lobbies. The same thing almost occurred on a previous occasion. Then members of the three opposition parties voted and prevented the House being counted out. Therefore, I hope that the noble Viscount will not rely on the Gas Bill as an explanation of why the Government find themselves in this position.

May I say lastly to the noble Viscount that I hope he will once again examine the proposal made by my noble friend Lord Diamond that we should look into the possibility of having Standing Committees of this House to look at some government Bills? I do not say all Bills, but at least let us try it with some. It is at least an avenue which would provide some hope that we are not going to get the same situation arising year after year, whatever the political complexion of the Government may be.

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, I shall seek to reply to the important remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, and indeed by the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich. Before I start perhaps I should immediately apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich. As is the case so often in my life. I was wrong and he was right. If it gives him pleasure, I never mind. I have always been perfectly happy to admit when I am wrong. Had I not been, I would not have lived nearly so long as I have, because I have been so wrong so often. On that basis I apologise to the noble Lord. I was wrong. I should have waited to reply to the debate.

With regard to the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, I should like to start by apologising to the House. I realise very well that the House has been overworked. This is particularly unfortunate for our staff, on whom we have placed a great strain. I should like to join the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, in saying at once that we are extremely grateful to them and that we realise that we have put a considerable strain on them, and I fully understand that.

I have to turn to what are the prospects. I cannot give an exact date at the moment, because inevitably much will depend on events here, and, while I may have control over some parts of the situation, there are other parts over which I do not have much control. For example, it very much depends on the results of Divisions on various amendments that may be brought forward. I may like to think that I have control, but sometimes it seems that that control is rather lacking.

When the Government suffer defeats of various sorts that may change the timing of the programme. Therefore, I cannot give any detailed position. I very much hope that the defeats will not come, but noble Lords like the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, very much hope that they will.

On the other hand, I shall give the best indication that I can. I very much hope that the House will not have to sit into the first week of August. Secondly, yes, the House will certainly sit during the period of the Conservative Party conference. Whether it will sit during part of the Labour Party conference I cannot yet say, but as to the Conservative Party conference, it will have to sit during that period. Perhaps that puts as much inconvenience on me as on anybody else, but if I am the architect of the trouble, I have to bear it, and that is what will probably happen. That is the best indication that I can give.

Now, my Lords, why has this situation arisen? Yes, I think that there is too much legislation. I think the difficulty that has arisen in Parliament with governments of all parties in recent years is that a programme is always added to, usually by unforeseen Bills and unforeseen circumstances that come up during the year and that no one foresaw at the start. It may be argued that they should have foreseen them at the start, but frequently, with all governments of all parties—I have a very long memory because, after all, I was Chief Whip in another place in 1964—I remember well all those things happening in exactly the same way. It is one of the problems that upset the whole parliamentary business.

But that is not the whole story. I accept at once that this House is doing its job as a revising Chamber. Moving right away from my party position and my position as Leader of your Lordships' House, which I greatly value, I realise that that is something which this House should do and does do; and it is extremely important in the interest of the nation that it does so. It is true that when Bills are guillotined in another place they come here frequently not fully discussed. That means that there has to be further discussion in this House. That, again, puts a further strain on this House which has to be accepted. I can remonstrate as much as I like with my colleagues in another place on this matter, but that is a fact of life which has to be faced.

We then turn to the question of the very large number of government amendments which the noble Lord has mentioned. In some cases I should be the first to agree with him. In the case of the Building Societies Bill, a great many of the amendments were put down, I understand, as a result of agreement between both parties in another place and indeed between both parties and the Building Societies Association itself. A great many amendments were put down and I believe they have made the Bill something that most people concerned, especially the building societies themselves, are anxious to get through in its present state. That accounts for a great many of those amendments.

In some other cases, I have to accept what the noble Lord says. I also have to say that there is no doubt that your Lordships take longer to discuss many of the Bills. I am in a position to appreciate that. I shall explain to the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, in a moment why I do not have the slightest intention of arguing about what happened with the Gas Bill last night, for the very best of all possible reasons: that I thought somebody might provoke me to do so and I was not going to. Secondly, it so happened that I was representing the Government in the Isle of Man at the Tynwald ceremony. I am sure the House will be very pleased to know that I stayed up very late and got up very early indeed in the morning to fly away from there; so I was up very nearly as long as everyone else in the House.

However, as I was not here I think it would be quite wrong for me to refer to that. On some occasions when I may be seen sitting here quietly, as I am not going to speak I have the opportunity to observe how long it sometimes takes to get through some of the amendments. I have noticed in my time in your Lordships' House that it has begun to take longer and longer and longer.

Noble Lords

Hear, hear!

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, there may be very good reasons why it has to take longer and longer. Sometimes I think they are good. Sometimes—just sometimes—I am quite clear that some of the arguments have been pursued for rather longer than perhaps was required on the occasion. I hope I shall not be thought to be unreasonably critical, but I think there are occasions when we are taking longer. That is in our own hands because we have to discipline ourselves. If we do take longer, we take longer, and if it is necessary, very well; but I hope all of us will examine whether always it is necessary. The same goes for the Government as goes for those people moving the amendments. Both have tended to get longer and I think we have to look at both.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, raised the question of the many important Bills that have not yet come here. I agree entirely with what he says about the European Communities Bill, which is an important Bill. It is not one which is likely to occupy—perhaps this is an unwise prediction—your Lordships as much as some others. Nevertheless, it is arriving late. The Financial Services Bill is very important to us; I entirely accept that. I hope very much that we can proceed as reasonably quickly as possible with the Bills that we have.

I have given the arguments about the timing that we have to face. As to the question of agreement on business, I understand from my noble friend the Chief Whip that discussions were had through the usual channels about the Building Societies Bill. It was agreed with the Official Opposition, and the other Opposition Whips, as is the practice, were informed. I believe that is so. If anything went wrong, I shall make sure that it does not happen in the future. That is what I understand is the position and what I believe is normal, as I understand it—that these matters are discussed.

I understood that it was greatly in the interests of the House that this change should be made, as there are many people in the building society movement outside this House who want the Bill before the Summer Recess. It was to meet that very widespread view that the Government made that decision.

We shall do our best to make sure that the future Session does not run into the same problems. Indeed, I have to make the fairly obvious comment that it may have been noticed that a Bill which might have occupied a very large amount of your Lordships' time in the next Session of Parliament (had it ever come into the next Session of Parliament) is now not coming into the next Session of Parliament. It may not be a complete coincidence that that has happened because, after all, there are those who look at these matters.

I was surprised that everybody got so excited, because I was brought up on the principle that the Queen's Speech announced the debates for the next Session of Parliament, and therefore until we have heard the Queen's Speech nobody is in a position to state categorically whether or not a Bill will be in it. However, it seems to me that quite a lot of fuss was made, because this Bill will now not be in the Queen's Speech for next year. However, there it is; so perhaps one is seen responding to what is, I believe, a very real point that has been made by the noble Lord. I hope I have sought to answer what was said. I hope that we can stick to the dates, and I would say that I do not think it is unreasonable that some part of the time we take is in our own hands and sometimes we could be a little more careful of it than we are.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, a very brief word—

Lord Broxbourne

My Lords, before my noble friend sits down—

Noble Lords


Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, may I give my noble friend a very brief reminder and to the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn—

Lord Broxbourne

May I, my Lords—

Noble Lords

Order—Lord Campbell!

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I hope my noble friend will allow me to refer helpfully to what the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, said from the point of view of having myself been on the Opposition Front Bench in the mid-1970s.

I should like to suggest, I hope helpfully, that another course could also be borne in mind; a variation concerning recesses, which was adopted by the Labour Government in agreement with others at that time. I did not know this subject was coming up so I do not have the exact dates, but in the mid-1970s the same problems arose and this House had to meet for several weeks after the Recess before the other place. A variation was adopted more than once if I remember it whereby this House returned after the Recess in September for about three weeks. That was done in order to avoid clashing with the main party conferences. Whether that alternative is more acceptable, I do not know, but I should like to point out that it was adopted in similar situations then.

In relation to government amendments, again I do not have the figures because I was not prepared for the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, but I remember in those days that we had huge quantities of government amendments. To give examples we had amendments on the industry Bill, the energy Bill, the petroleum Bill and the devolution Bill. We were glad to see those amendments because they met many of the points which we the Opposition, in another place, had been making.

Lord Parry

My Lords, before the noble Viscount the Leader of the House sits down, may I raise the matter of Standing Order No. 44, (which is that no two stages of a Bill be taken on one day) and point put the dangers of what recently happened when the Protection of Military Remains Bill was taken through both stages in another place on one Friday afternoon and then through this House entirely during supper breaks?

Lord Broxbourne

My Lords, if my noble friend will allow me to intervene for a very brief moment, can he address himself to the last very important point made in the interesting submissions of the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, in regard to the possible use of Standing Committees? I make this point with considerable diffidence as a relative newcomer to this House, but I sat for 11 Parliaments in another place and Standing Committee procedure was of course an integral part of our procedure and it would not have occurred to any Member of that House to do without it. Indeed, if I may be allowed to say so, looking back to my own ministerial experience, two statutes come back to my mind—the Mental Health Act and the Copyright Act—the latter of which my noble friend may conceivably remember because he was with us in the Board of Trade in those days before he went to the lusher pastures of the Whips' Office.

Neither of those statutes which have stood the test of time would, I think, have got on to the statute book had they not been able to have Standing Committee procedure. Can this matter therefore be looked at in the relative calm of the Summer Recess to see whether that might not bring some help to the progress of legislation and some respite and relief to your harassed Lordships?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I wonder whether I may be permitted one thought. I think that everyone has a great deal of sympathy with the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, and the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition so far as the congestion of the timetable is concerned. But as the noble Lord, Lord Harris, has said, there is nothing new in that; it has happened constantly year after year whichever party happened to be in power. However, there is one significant difference, and that is that in the past 10 years the number of people who are Members of your Lordships' House has increased very considerably; and with that increase goes seemingly an obligation to participate, which is wholly right.

But I think that it rests with all of us to restrict our observations as much as possible, and not only that but to ensure that the rules of procedure are more appropriately kept and that the same or similar items are not discussed at Committee stage and Report stage and Third Reading. That really prolongs matters enormously. I think that if noble Lords were to consider keeping contributions as short as possible and adhering more closely to standing orders, we would at least make some progress in that direction.

The Earl of Halsbury

My Lords, I hope that the noble Viscount will bear in mind that, in any question of Standing Committees, a very great and intrinsic problem arises in your Lordhips' House which is not present in the House of Commons; namely, the substantial body of independents, colloquially known as Cross-Benchers, who are not a political party and cannot therefore be represented collectively on a Standing Committee.

Lord Kilmarnock

My Lords, on the question of last-minute changes of business, I wonder whether perhaps we could reach an understanding that all the Opposition parties are consulted before last-minute changes of business, because they of course can be equally inconvenienced with the Official Opposition.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

My Lords, if the noble Viscount is going to reply to this debate, may I ask him to elucidate one issue which he raised in his reply to my noble friend Lord Cledwyn? When he says that the use of the guillotine in another place requires this House to spend much more time on a Bill, he is quite right. But is it not an anomaly that the other place is going into recess at least a week before this House and that this House is coming back from recess at least two weeks before the other place?

Will he take back to his colleagues in the Cabinet the suggestion that they should not be so cavalier in the future with the use of the guillotine in curtailing debate in the other place?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, by leave of the House, I understand that perhaps I may seek to reply to some of the further points raised by noble Lords. My noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy has made some perfectly correct points about the problems in previous years, and I am grateful to him for that. I must seek to shelter under those points to learn from the past; because simply to go on repeating the mistakes of the past and in fact in some cases reinforcing them, is not a good policy. I accept that. He is perfectly right in what he says.

My noble friend Lord Broxbourne raised the question of Standing Committees. He was replied to by the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, with one of the powerful reasons why I understand this House has always objected to the idea of Standing Committees in the past. I understand that there is another reason; that is, that there are some noble Lords who for one reason or another cannot give enough time to sit on a Standing Committee who nevertheless have very considerable expertise on a particular Bill which may be coming up at any time. Those noble Lords would be lost to the discussions on that Bill, particularly in Committee. Of course, they could come in on Report but they would be lost in Committee and would not be able to give their expertise to the Committee at that point. No doubt these are very important points which many Members of your Lordships' House are far more qualified than I am to answer.

But of course they can be looked at. They would have to be looked at by the Procedure Committee, and I suspect that the Procedure Committee would be more likely to look at them in any month, if I may say so to my noble friend Lord Broxbourne, other than August. Nevertheless, they certainly can be looked at, but those are some of the reasons why it is difficult.

My noble friend Lord Ferrers raised the point that there were more Peers and that they thought that they had a contribution to make; and that no doubt is correct and that is perhaps why we sometimes take longer. I had realised this fact about more Peers but I thought that it would be rather unwise for me, of all people, to raise that because I am one of them. It seemed to me unwise actually to chastise oneself if one could avoid it. But it is true and it is a point that is very real.

The noble Lord, Lord Kilmarnock, raised the point about consultation on change of business. I understand that that is done whenever possible. If there has been a mistake, that is something which I know my noble friend the Chief Whip will want to look into. The way in which the usual channels work is for him and not for me, but he has heard what was said.

The noble Lord, Lord Hatch of Lusby, I think in the end seeks to suggest to me that I should start telling my colleagues how they should run their affairs in another place. I spent a great deal of my life trying to run affairs in the other place. Since they, or others, decided that it was time that I ceased to have any part in that, I have been scrupulously careful to confine my attentions to those matters over which I have some control and not to try to tell other people what they ought to do. I have learnt the hard way in life that it is very unwise to tell other people how to manage their affairs. First, try to get on to manage those under your own control.

I hope that I have been sufficiently chastised this afternoon to realise that that is my task for your Lordships and that that is the task to which I shall address myself. I hope that your Lordships will pass this Motion.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Forward to