HL Deb 12 February 1992 vol 535 cc724-31

3.28 p.m.

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Waddington)

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

Moved, That Standing Order 44 (No two stages of a Bill to be taken on one day) be dispensed with for the purpose of taking the Consolidated Fund (No. 2) Bill through all its stages tomorrow.—(Lord Waddington.)

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, before we proceed any further, I should like to point out that we on this side of the House have noted with dismay that the Government now propose to take the Second Reading of the Further and Higher Education (Scotland) Bill on 13th February; that is, tomorrow. Noble Lords will be aware that the original arrangement was that the debate would take place on Friday, 21st February. It has been brought forward by eight days.

That proposal is not acceptable to noble Lords on this side of the House. I must register the strongest protest against it. There are three very good reasons for that protest. First, as the House knows, the Bill is an important and complex one. It is necessary for noble Lords to have adequate time to study it in detail. A First Reading on Monday and a Second Reading on Thursday does not provide adequate time.

Secondly, the new arrangement departs from our procedure; namely, that two weekends should be the minimal time between the introduction of a Bill or the date when a Bill is brought from the House of Commons, and the debate on Second Reading. That rule is to be found at page 91 of the Companion to the Standing Orders. Thirdly, there has not been adequate consultation or any agreement upon the proposal. The House can only carry out its primary work, which is the revision of legislation, if there is consultation and agreement between the Government and the Opposition. That applies not only to the Official Opposition, but also to all parties in the House, including Cross-Benchers, right reverend Prelates and government supporters. That is absolutely essential.

If we depart from that principle of agreement, the House will be in deep trouble, and the Government will have to take responsibility for that. If this party were to form a government, I wish to give a clear undertaking that our intention would be to observe the conventions and the rules and to seek the agreement to which I have already referred. I should be grateful if the Leader of the House would be good enough to explain why this departure from convention is taking place. Is it, for example, related to the date of the general election? I must also ask him to return to the original arrangement and to have the Second Reading on Friday 21st February.

Lord Jenkins of Hillhead

My Lords, does the noble Lord the Leader of the House accept that this is no isolated protest by the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn? My noble friends and I feel equally strongly about the matter. The noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, made several powerful points, the most important of which was that the House operates, sometimes arcanely, but on the whole successfully, upon the basis of agreement. Agreement on this issue has not been secured. The noble Lord the Leader of the House would be unwise to proceed on that basis. He can do so if he wishes, but the resentment which will be built up will be out of all proportion to any procedural advantage he may gain.

As we approach a general election, when a great deal of business will have to be tidied up at the last moment, it would be a heavy burden for the Government to take upon their shoulders.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, having heard the remarks of the noble Lords, Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos and Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, I am bound to say that I am grateful for today's psalm: God is our hope and strength, a very present help in trouble". I realise that I owe the House an apology for the shortness of the notice that has been given for the Second Reading of the Bill and the change in the business. I realise full well that I owe the House an explanation. I believe that it is a good one.

Yesterday afternoon there were no amendments tabled for the Committee stage of the Coal Industry Bill, although that was tomorrow's business and it had been estimated that it would last between three and four hours. There seemed a real likelihood that with a great deal of business for the House to do, we should have been rising tomorrow afternoon at 5 o'clock or 6 o'clock. I am bound to say to noble Lords, with respect, that that would have looked very odd indeed. I am not sure how we could have explained it. It has little to do with the general election. Whenever the general election comes, this is a short Session. All noble Lords are well aware that there is a great deal of business to transact.

At the same time, I knew that noble Lords from Scotland have always taken the view that it is not desirable to take important Scottish business on Fridays. I also knew that many noble Lords from Scotland would have considered it helpful, rather than the reverse, to have the change of business. It is not right to give the impression that our decision was one wholly adverse to the interests of noble Lords. Indeed, there were many noble Lords who had represented to us that it was undesirable to take the Further and Higher Education (Scotland) Bill on a Friday, and had made it known to us that it would be very much better to take the Bill on a Thursday—and on this Thursday —so that it could be dealt with when all noble Lords interested in the measure would be able to be here.

I hope that, on reflection, your Lordships will not think that tomorrow is too soon to take the Bill. Under the minimal intervals rules, which of course are only advisory, the Bill would, in any event, be right for Second Reading next Monday. There was no other Bill right for inclusion in tomorrow's business.

On the issue of adequate time to study the Bill, the Bill was of course published some considerable time ago and has been available to your Lordships for some time, because we are not the first House to consider the Bill. Furthermore, I believe that all your Lordships would agree that many of the issues dealt with in the Bill have already been canvassed during the passage of the Further and Higher Education Bill for England and Wales which has only recently gone through the House.

It is in those circumstances that I hope that your Lordships will feel that we have not been altogether unreasonable. We tried in fact to fill up the time available to take legislation in this place in a reasonable way. We have tried to avoid the absurdity of finishing up tomorrow with no business, or no business which would occupy the whole of our time, and then require a number of noble Lords who find business on a Friday inconvenient to come down for that business a week on Friday.

I owed your Lordships an explanation. I know that this is an unusual course to take. I should not think of doing anything like this as a matter of course, but we were confronted with an unusual situation early yesterday afternoon. It was in the light of the information received, not any preconceived plan, that we decided to find some business to fill up tomorrow so that we would have adequate work to do.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, is it in order for me to ask a question?

Noble Lords


Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, I was one of those who took a strong line against the only Scottish Bill going through the House in this Session being sidelined onto a Friday. Does my noble friend agree that I made strong representations, believing that Scottish Peers on the other side of the House would be grateful to me? I am surprised that the Opposition are taking such exception to the change, because the issues are well known, and have been well known for some time. I accept that the change does not give us much time to write our speeches. I hope that my noble friend will accept that at least some of us felt that this proposition was a much better idea.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, my noble friend asked me a question. The facts she gave are correct.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that many of us on this side of the House are puzzled by his explanation, although of course we are grateful for it? He appears to be saying that if business suddenly becomes light on a particular day, and the House is likely to go up early, he has to find some business to put in its place so that we can have a full day.

Noble Lords


Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, that is what the noble Lord the Leader of the House appears to be saying. I must point out to him that during the eight or nine years that I have been here we have often finished at 6 p.m. or 6.30 p.m. or perhaps even 5 o'clock. It has not apparently been necessary to push forward some business to fill up the number of hours left in that day.

As my noble friend the Leader of the Opposition pointed out, Standing Orders have not been complied with to enable us to have the new Scottish business tomorrow. Many of us are very worried that in the future, if this were to be taken as a precedent, we should find the same kind of thing happening with other Bills if we had two or three hours left between 6 o'clock and 9 o'clock which had not previously been foreseen. That is a serious issue. It is something we cannot allow. I hope that the noble Lord the Leader of the House will be able to retract his proposition, because it has serious implications.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, with the greatest respect to the noble Lord, I believe that he has missed the point. It was not just that there would be insufficient business for tomorrow, it was the fact that while there was insufficient business tomorrow, there was a demand to take business from a week on Friday and to put it on tomorrow for the convenience of some Scottish Members.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, that is not strictly accurate. There was a demand to move the Scottish business from Friday which one well understands. When that business was put down for a Friday, I made a complaint about it as part of the usual channels. The complaint is not that the business has been moved from Friday but that it was brought forward eight days to a day when the party Whips indicated that no such debate would take place.

The noble Lord must understand that there may well be people in Scotland whose first indication that the matter would be debated tomorrow was when they received the Minutes of Proceedings today, if they received them today; they may not receive them till tomorrow. It is grossly unfair to Members of your Lordships' House who come from Scotland and who may wish to be present for the debate to have only 24 or 30 hours' notice, or even less. That is the complaint that the Opposition Whips, the usual channels and others make.

We were told about this yesterday afternoon and we immediately objected. As my noble friend said, unless we can run the House through consent and through the usual channels we are on a slippery slope.

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove

My Lords, I try to be as helpful as possible to the noble Lord the Leader of the House. When it was announced that the debate would be on 21st February I was reluctant but accepted it, knowing that an election was coming and that the Bill would be rushed through. With respect to the noble Lord, it was not correct to say that the Bill was published a week or so ago and that we knew all about it. A number of amendments were made to the English Bill in your Lordships' House which had a strong effect on the Scottish Bill.

When I discovered last night that there had been discussions through the usual channels over moving the debate forward to Thursday, again in order to accommodate the House I reluctantly shrugged my shoulders. But I then discovered that I had a great deal of rushing around to do in order to obtain information about the effects of the English Bill on the Scottish Bill. I had to go back to source, to the vice-chancellors and principals in Scotland.

I did not like the idea of staying here on a Friday but I had adjusted to it. Now as well as having to adjust to having a Scottish debate today, I shall have to put another towel around my head tonight to prepare for a second Bill tomorrow. Helpful though I wish to be, I believe that that is not treating the House as well as it should be treated.

The Earl of Halsbury

My Lords, all a CrossBencher can do in these circumstances is to enter a plea for a little tolerance and express the hope that in arranging the business of the House the usual channels will remember an old nursery rhyme: Monday's child is fair of face, Tuesday's child is full of grace, Wednesday's child"— That is the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, today— is full of woe, Thursday's child has far to go"— all the way from Scotland— Friday's child is loving and giving". I hope that we shall never have sittings on Saturday or Sunday. If Friday's children who favour that day could be loving, giving and understanding, it would improve the atmosphere in which we exchange our views.

Lord Rochester

My Lords, is the noble Lord the Leader of the House aware that, although it is no doubt true that early yesterday afternoon no amendments had been tabled to the Coal Industry Bill, since then I believe that eight or 10 amendments have been tabled? I learned that from the Printed Paper Office this morning.

3.45 p.m.

Lord Hughes

My Lords, does the noble Lord the Leader of the House know at what time he expects the start of discussion on the Bill tomorrow? I gather that only the Government Whips know at this point how many people have put their names down to speak. Does he know?

I ask because I agree that few Scots in the House would welcome discussion of major Scottish business on a Friday. However, in getting away from the Friday the noble Lord may have moved from one difficulty to another. The Scots in this House are not enthusiastic about discussions taking place on a Thursday, which means that they cannot catch the last plane back to Scotland.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, before the Leader of the House replies, perhaps I may remind him that what he indicated to the House about the absence of amendments to the Coal Industry Bill was absolutely correct at 12 noon. However, as soon as I was advised that amendments would be put down, I immediately informed his private secretary and subsequently confirmed shortly afterwards that amendments were being put down. I did so knowing that the situation that brought about the possibility of the change had itself altered during the course of the day.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, perhaps noble Lords will forgive me if I rise to answer the points which have been made, the importance of which I do not underestimate. I appreciate the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff. He expressed the view that it was undesirable to have Scottish business on a Friday and he was not entirely happy therefore about the business set down for next Friday. However, if one is not happy about such business being set down for next Friday, one must consider what alternatives are open to us. The noble Lord will freely admit that we have heavy business planned. I am sure that it would not have been possible to reach agreement on a change in the business next week to accommodate the Further and Higher Education (Scotland) Bill earlier in the week.

The noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, said that there were difficulties over people preparing adequately if the Bill is taken tomorrow. However, I emphasise that to the best of my knowledge this Bill, which started in the other place, has not been significantly amended. Therefore the text has been available for a considerable time.

I am extremely grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury. I cannot ask people to be loving but I hope they will be understanding in the circumstances. I must tell the noble Lords, Lord Rochester and Lord Graham, that although amendments were put down later in the day, there are still only four. It is inconceivable—bearing those amendments in mind and the indication which had been given to us earlier by the Opposition—that that would have filled our work tomorrow. I am sorry if I am wrong, but I understand that there are only four amendments down.

I was grateful for the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, who reinforced my case by saying that few Scottish Peers welcome Scottish business on a Friday. I appreciate that neither do they welcome our sitting late on a Thursday. But my understanding is that there is no fear of our having to face that situation tomorrow.

I am told that there are now nine amendments to the Coal Industry Bill, the earlier business. However, so far as I can see, that would nothing like fill up our time tomorrow afternoon.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, before we finish the discussion, is the noble Lord aware that he is avoiding the central issue—namely, the failure to seek agreement on the way in which a Bill is to be conducted in the House? As the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, said, if we proceed along these lines we are in danger of running into serious trouble.

If I may say so to the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, it is no lack of tolerance on my part. I hope that I am a reasonably tolerant man, but this is not a matter for nursery rhymes. I am not full of woe. I am concerned about the future of the House and the conduct of business in it.

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, perhaps I may ask my noble friend the Leader of the House a question. Not having known anything about all this, I have listened and I fully understand all the arguments. However, I feel deeply, as I know he does, and so does the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, about the need for consultation over business in the House. Without such consultation I do not believe that the House can survive in its present state. I have a deep regard for the survival of the House in its present state. I wonder whether it would be possible for the discussion to be conducted privately through the usual channels rather than continuing on the Floor of the House. I believe that it would be possible to do that and it seems to be the best way of proceeding; otherwise it does not seem that we shall reach a reasonable solution.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, I could not possibly ignore such a suggestion from my noble friend. I have listened to all that has been said by noble Lords this afternoon. Obviously I shall ensure that the matter is discussed through the usual channels. That must be done at once because time is pressing on us. If we were to go into reverse, we would be in a bigger muddle than ever. I shall certainly ensure that such discussions are initiated forthwith.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords—

Noble Lords

Sit down!

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, it is no good noble Lords shouting at me to sit down because I shall not do so. I may well wish to divide the House on this matter. I have a question that needs to be answered before I make a decision on that matter. I am perfectly entitled to divide the House if I wish to without consulting my noble friends on the Front Bench.

The noble Lord the Leader of the House has said he will initiate discussions after we have concluded our discussion in the House today. However, any discussions he may have can only go one way because if we agree to his Motion there is no going back. Will he advise me whether he would be prepared to withdraw the Motion at this point so that realistic consultations can take place?

Lord Waddington

My Lords, I must point out to the noble Lord that when I moved the Business Motion the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos, quite rightly used that as a vehicle for discussion on an entirely separate matter. The Business Motion which is before the House has nothing whatsoever to do with the issue of whether the Further and Higher Education (Scotland) Bill should be taken tomorrow or Friday. I am sure the noble Lord will appreciate that.

Lord Jenkins of Hillhead

My Lords, while the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, was mistaken on a point of form, he was in a way right on a point of substance. To conclude this matter satisfactorily the noble Lord the Leader of the House should assure us that, following the powerful intervention of the noble Viscount, Lord Whitelaw, he will approach these immediate discussions through the usual channels with an open mind rather than with a view to forcing upon the House the decision he has already arrived at.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, I can certainly give the noble Lord that assurance.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

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