§ 3.1 p.m.
§ The Chairman of Committees (Lord Aberdare)
My Lords, I beg to move that the Second Report of the Select Committee on Procedure of the House be agreed to.
In the debate last November on the working of the House it was pointed out that there are no procedural rules to cover privatised industries. In Item 1 of this report the Committee recommends guidance which would limit the tabling of questions on privatised industries to those matters for which the Government have retained responsibility.
In Item 2 the Leave of Absence Committee has recommended and the Procedure Committee has endorsed a proposal which would greatly simplify the leave of absence scheme. It will operate from the next Parliament on the principle that leave of absence should be granted only to those Peers who ask for it and not by default.
With regard to Item 3 the Committee has twice deliberated on the recommendation by the informal group on the working of the House that the digits of the Clock should turn red after 15 minutes. There is clearly a deep division of opinion in the House and the Committee recommends that this proposal should not be proceeded with for the moment. I hope that otherwise the report speaks for itself. I beg to move.
§ Moved, That the Second Report of the Select Committee be agreed to.—(The Chairman of Committees.)
§ Following is the report referred to:
§ 1. STARRED QUESTIONS ON THE PRIVATISED INDUSTRIES
§ The Committee have considered whether questions on privatised industries are desirable and in order. Procedural rules have existed since 1978 governing the tabling of questions to the Government on nationalised industries (First Report of the Procedure Committee 1977–78, item 1), but up to now no procedural rules have been devised to give guidance about privatised industries.
§ Since 1979 the Government have followed a privatisation programme which has involved either legislation (in the case of the 430 statutory public corporations) or a simple disposal of shareholdings and other interests acquired otherwise than by statute. Privatisation has not followed any consistent pattern, and the method of disposal chosen and the extent of Government interest in controls have depended on the circumstances of the industry concerned. For this reason, the extent of Ministerial responsibility for privatised undertakings is very variable. Where undertakings have been disposed of to the private sector there is no further Ministerial responsibility but where the Government or parent corporation retains an interest in the undertaking, usually in the form of a power to give directions or a shareholding, there remains a degree of responsibility. In some companies, the Government retain a "special" or "reserve" share to protect them from a foreign takeover, or otherwise to protect the national interest.
In the light of these considerations, the Committee recommend that the following guidance in regard to the tabling of questions on privatised industries should be observed:—
The tabling of questions on privatised industries is restricted to those matters for which the government has retained responsibility. For instance, statutory power may be retained by Ministers to give directions either directly or indirectly through a regulatory body or to exercise rights conferred by a "special" shareholding. Questions on the day-to-day administration of privatised concerns do not fall within government responsibility and are therefore undesirable.
§ 2. LEAVE OF ABSENCE
§ The Leave of Absence Committee have considered the operation of the leave of absence scheme, following experience of administering the scheme at the beginning of this Parliament. They noted that, when the scheme was initiated some 30 years ago, the proportion of Lords who took advantage of the scheme was higher than it is today, when the activity of the House and numbers who attend regularly have risen sharply. An elaborate administrative machinery exists for the purpose of identifying those Lords who should be granted leave of absence. For the majority of Lords, the inquiry whether they do or do not wish to be granted leave establishes what is already self-evident.
§ The Leave of Absence Committee have concluded that in modern circumstances the scheme is of marginal relevance and does not require a general trawl of Lords, which takes months to complete and which, in the current Session, produced the result that of the 162 Lords who applied for leave, 124 were already on leave at the end of the last Parliament.
§ However, the Committee recognise that the scheme does give to those Lords who take seriously the demands of their Writ of Summons, but who, for whatever reason, cannot attend, the opportunity to have their position regularised. For this reason, the Committee do not recommend that the scheme be abolished but, instead, propose that it be reformed to operate on the principle that leave of absence should be granted only to those Peers who ask for leave and that it should not be granted by default.
§ The Committee accordingly recommend that in future:
- (a) At the beginning of each Parliament the Clerk of the Parliaments should write to those Lords who were on leave at the end of the previous Parliament asking them if they wish to apply for leave for the new Parliament. Leave will be granted only to those Lords who so apply;
- (b) To ensure that all Lords are made aware of the leave of absence scheme, the Dissolution Notice, which is sent to all Lords giving details of the opening of a new Parliament and the procedure for taking the Oath, will include the following notice:
Leave of Absence
Letters asking all Lords whether they wish to apply for leave of absence are being sent only to those Lords who were on leave at the end of the last Parliament. Other Lords who wish so to apply are asked to communicate with the Clerk of the Parliaments.";
(c) Details of the scheme will be included in the "new Peers' Kit" of general information which is given to Lords on their introduction and to hereditary Lords when first taking their seat.
§ 3. CLOCKS
§ The Committee returned to the subject of clocks, and the suggestion made by the Group on the Working of the House that the digits of the clocks should turn red after fifteen minutes. They received further technical advice that a clock as recommended by the Group would be less practicable and economical than one with hours and minutes and a flashing colon. After lengthy deliberation, they came to the conclusion that there was a deep division of opinion in the House on the subject and recommended that no action be taken at present.431
§ 4. PUBLIC BILL COMMITTEES
§ The Committee have reviewed the procedure for Public Bill Committees, in the light of the Pilotage Bill experiment, the Report by the Group on the Working of the House (paragraphs 21–28), and views expressed in the debate on the Group's Report on 4 November.
§ The Committee have considered:
- (a) whether Public Bill Committees in future should sit in the mornings; and
- (b) the method of holding divisions in Public Bill Committees.
§ Time of Sittings
§ Under existing procedure as stated in the Companion, Public Bill Committees normally sit between 3.15 and 5.45 pm, except on Thursdays, when they sit from 3.45 to 6.15 pm. The Committee adjourn for eight minutes during divisions in the House. The majority of those taking part in the Pilotage Bill Public Bill Committee experiment thought that morning sittings would have been more convenient, but opinion was divided whether the sittings should last only 2½ hours, or longer. This change would allow Public Bill Committee participants to attend business on the Floor of the House, and would not face conscientious members with a conflict; but, on the other hand, it would require members and staff to give additional time to the House.
§ The Committee recommend that the times of sitting should in future be left at large to be decided by the Committee itself in each case.
§ At present, when there is a division in the Committee, the doors are locked two minutes after the question has been put and challenged. A majority of those taking part in the Pilotage Bill believed that a delay of longer than two minutes was desirable.
§ The Committee recommend that six minutes would be a reasonable time to allow, unless all members were present within that time. They also suggest that a division in a Committee should be broadcast on the TV screens, to summon members of the Committee from other parts of the House.
§ 5. POSTPONEMENT OF BUSINESS
§ In the First Report, Session 1984–85, the Committee proposed the introduction of a procedure to enable business to be postponed without notice in certain circumstances. The Committee recommended that the procedure should be introduced, in the first instance, on an experimental basis, which was to be reviewed. Accordingly, the Committee have reconsidered the matter.
§ On 29 April 1985, the House agreed "That, notwithstanding the terms of Standing Order 37, business may be postponed without notice with the unanimous leave of the House until further order …". The procedure has since been used only once, on 19 May 1986. On that occasion, the procedure did not work entirely smoothly. In accordance with this Committee's recommendation, it was necessary for the Bill, which it was desired to postpone, to be called on by the Clerk before the motion to postpone it could be moved. This fact, however, was not fully understood in the House at the time, and some confusion resulted. Furthermore, when the postponement motion was moved, no reference was made to the right of any noble Lord to object and thereby to prevent the motion from being moved.
§ The Committee recommend that the experiment should continue, and that it would be premature to recommend a permanent change to Standing Order 37.
§ On Question, Motion agreed to.