HL Deb 12 February 1990 vol 515 cc1094-8

2.54 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. Your Lordships will probably remember that it was the recommendation of the Group on the Working of the House that there should be an annual review of any difficulties which had occurred in procedure during the past Session by the Procedure Committee.

That is what occurred at the last meeting of that committee. I believe that the report is self-explanatory but perhaps I may briefly make three points on it. First, on time limits for ministerial Statements, the present situation is that there is a 20-minute period allowed for discussion on such a Statement and that 20 minutes begins from the time when the Minister's Statement ends. That appears to be somewhat unrealistic because the average time taken during the past Session was 28 minutes and a good many discussions went on rather longer than that.

One problem about the 20-minute period running from that time is that it takes in the two main speeches from the main Opposition parties as well as the Government's reply to them. Therefore, to make it more realistic, the recommendation of the Procedure Committee is that the 20 minutes for discussion will begin when the Minister has replied to the two Opposition Front Bench spokesmen. That will give a full 20-minute period of discussion to those of your Lordships on the Back Benches who wish to participate.

However, the committee also recommends that that new limit should be strictly enforced and draws attention once again to the Standing Order which states that Statements should not be made an occasion for immediate debate.

The next point I mention concerns the consideration of Commons amendments and reasons. In the last Session we went somewhat out of order on the Commons amendments, due mainly to the fact that there were such a lot of them, many on matters which we had not previously considered. Therefore, in the circumstances I believe that it was perfectly understandable that there was a certain lack of order. The committee does not propose any major alterations to our present arrangements except that we recommend that the convention against speaking after the Minister should be extended from the present rule, where it applies on Report and Third Reading, to consideration of Commons amendments and reasons. That has been considered to be the rule before, but it has never been in writing.

The third and final point is on the sub judice rule. The Leader of the House drew our attention to the fact that there was a discrepancy in the practice between the two Houses with regard to petitions for leave to appeal to the House of Lords. He consulted the Law Lords and the proposal now put before the House by the committee is that the sub judice rule should apply in future to matters which are the subject of petitions for leave to appeal to this House rather than as previously, when it applied only from the moment that leave to appeal was given.

Moved, That the First Report from the Select Committee be agreed to. —(The Chairman of Committees.)

Following is the report:


1. The Committee have undertaken their annual review of procedural matters in the preceding session, as recommended by the Group on the Working of the House, and endorsed by the First Report of the Procedure Committee (Session 1987–88), to determine whether any difficulties occurred which warrant report to the House. They have concluded that the attention of the House should be called to three matters; Time Limits for Ministerial Statements, Interventions in Debate and Consideration of Commons Amendments and Reasons. They also report on two further matters to which their attention has been called, the Sub Judice Rule and the application of the rotation rule to the Broadcasting and Hybrid Instruments Committee.


2. In February 1988, the Committee recommended a time limit of 20 minutes for discussion of a repeated Commons Statement (1st Report, Session 1987–88). In January 1989, they recommended a similar limit for discussion of Lords Statements (1st Report, Session 1988–89). Since that Report was agreed to, the House has heard 33 Statements, and discussion exceeded the limit on 23 on them. The longest discussion time was 51 minutes. The Leader of the House did not intervene on that occasion, but he did on six of the others. The average discussion time since the House agreed to the 20 minute rule has been 28 minutes. It is clear that the present recommendation is not being followed.

3. Under Standing Order 33, Statements "should not be made the occasion for immediate debate". The Committee suggest that it would be helpful if the usual channels could, when appropriate, give an early indication that a debate is to be arranged, which might serve to curtail the immediate discussion of a Statement.

4. The Committee draw attention to the fact that recent experience indicates that the Opposition spokesmen take a considerable proportion of the 20 minutes allowed for discussion. They suggest that the Leaders and Whips should take steps to ensure that interventions by front bench spokesmen are in accordance with the spirit of Standing Order 33. In order to preserve the rights of back benchers, they recommend that the time limit of 20 minutes for discussion of a Statement should begin when the Minister has replied to the two Opposition spokesmen. They further recommend that this new limit should be strictly enforced, and that the Leader of the House, with the co-operation of the Opposition front benches, should have the responsibility of calling the attention of the House to any failure to comply with this limit.


5. The Brief Guide contains the following passage, headed


"A speaker may be questioned about a point that he has raised, but such interruptions should be brief, especially in time-related debates" (p 8).

No guidance on this subject, however, appears in the Companion.

6. The Committee recommend, in the light of a series of incidents during 1989, the following guidance:

"A Lord who is speaking may be interrupted with a brief question for clarification. Giving way accords with the traditions and customary courtesy of the House. It is, however, recognised that a Lord may justifiably refuse to give way, for instance when he is in the middle of an argument, or to repeated interruption or in time-limited proceedings. Lengthy or frequent intervention, even with the consent of the Lord speaking, is undesirable."


7. During the 1989 spill-over, the House spent 20 hours spread over 6 days considering 1100 Commons amendments to 4 major bills (Football Spectators Bill [HL], 2 November; Companies Bill [HL], 7, 9 and 13 November; Children Bill [in], 8 November; Local Government and Housing Bill, 14 November), at an average rate of just under one amendment a minute. There were complaints from all sides of the House about the scale of the amendments; but that is a matter for the Government. In the circumstances, the Committee believe that the procedures, of the House which were fashioned in days when legislation was a more leisurely process, coped remarkably well.

8. Nevertheless, the principles of orderly debate in the House were frequently overlooked. Lords spoke more than once to a motion, and those who were entitled to do so by leave of the House (usually the Minister) omitted to seek leave; Lords continued the debate after the mover of the motion or amendment had replied, and even where the formula "Before the noble Lord sits down" would have brought the proceedings within the limits of the acceptable, it was omitted.

9. One particular procedural question calls for resolution. In debate on an amendment to a Commons amendment to the Football Spectators Bill, a member of the House who spoke after the Minister was called to order (2nd Nov., col. 394). The House agreed in January 1988 that it was undesirable for Lords other than the mover of the amendment to speak (except for elucidation) after the Minister on Report and Third Reading, unless the Minister had deliberately spoken early. But nothing was then said about consideration of Commons Amendments and Reasons. The Committee consider that the convention against speaking after the Minister makes for orderly debate, and recommend that it be explicitly extended to consideration of Commons Amendments and Reasons.


10. The House has agreed (First Report of the Procedure Committee, Session 1963–64) that the practice governing motions and questions relating to matters sub judice should be similar in both Houses of Parliament. The Leader of the House has drawn to the attention of the Committee a discrepancy in the practice of the two Houses so far as petitions for leave to appeal to the House of Lords are concerned. In the House of Commons, a case is deemed to be sub judice from the moment a petition for leave is presented to the House of Lords. In the Lords, however, the sub judice rule is held to apply only from the moment that leave to appeal is given.

11. In the light of unanimous advice from the Law Lords, the Committee recommended that the practice of this House should be assimilated to that of the House of Commons, so that, in future, the sub judice rule would apply to matters which are the subject of petitions for leave to appeal to this House.


12. The Committee recommend that the rotation rule, which is applied to most Select Committees of the House in order to secure a regular turnover of membership, should be applied to the Broadcasting Committee provided that no more than two members retire per session, and to the Hybrid Instruments Committee provided that no more than one member retires per session.

Lord Shackleton

My Lords, the House ought to feel considerable concern about this report, which reveals a rather alarming situation. If we continue down the way we have been travelling we are in danger of moving further along the path of needing a Speaker to keep order. I shall not discuss all the items; many of them will reappear. The particular issue to which the noble Lord referred —the question of speaking after the Minister has spoken on a Commons amendment —reveals a serious situation, because your Lordships know that amendments come from another House which have not been adequately debated. We then have the Minister speaking, we hope early on, when the amendment really ought to be discussed in some Committee form.

I hope your Lordships will not take this as a lighthearted matter. The noble Lord the Leader of the House —and it is no good the Chief Whip looking so angry as he always does on these occasions; I am glad to see he is not so angry now —exercises considerable charm, but he needs to take a tougher line both with the Opposition and himelf. A number of noble Lords have been out of order on a number of occasions. I do not think we shall finish this subject just by agreeing to the Motion today. There are a number of other aspects. Unless the Government can get their programme under control and ensure that amendments coming to the House of Lords from the Commons do not represent almost a new Bill, as they do on occasions, we shall have trouble like this again.

The Chairman of Committees

My Lords, I listened carefully to the noble Lord. The subject was discussed fully in committee and I think, and hope, that the very exceptional circumstances in the last Session will not apply again.

Baroness Phillips

My Lords, I should also like to support my noble friend. Twenty minutes for discussion after the Government have made a Statement is quite inadequate, and Statements from the Government have become longer and longer. When I first came to this House a Statement was a Statement and did not contain so many contentious matters so that automatically the Opposition parties have a lot to say about it.

The committee probably did not look at this matter quite as seriously as it should have done. If the Statement is to be followed by only a short debate, the Statement itself should be short.

The Chairman of Committees

My Lords, with the leave of the House perhaps I may speak again. I understand what the noble Baroness says, but the point is that a Statement should not be made the subject of immediate debate. A debate should perhaps be held at a later time if it is an important Statement.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, perhaps my noble friend would draw attention, as he did not in his admirably succinct opening, to what seems to be a very useful alteration of the rule in respect of giving way during a speech. Several noble Lords have been concerned that, with the growth in time-limited debates, sometimes involving speeches limited to a very short duration indeed (the more popular the subject the shorter the duration of the speech), the speaker in question is put in a very difficult position as to whether to give way. If he does not give way he is thought to be not acting in accordance with the spirit of the House; if he gives way in the course of a four or five-minute speech, he wrecks the speech. It is extremely useful that the Select Committee has firmly laid down that during a time-limited debate a person speaking can refuse to give way.

On Question, Motion agreed to.