HL Deb 19 October 1992 vol 539 cc602-5

3.6 p.m.

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should like to make a moderately short Business Statement. As your Lordships will by now be aware, the Government are not proposing to invite the House to go into Committee on the British Coal and British Rail (Transfer Proposals) Bill today; nor, should I say, do the Government intend to set down the Committee stage for tomorrow. In view of the rearrangement of business, I have caused to be circulated an indication of how it is proposed that today's business will be conducted. Perhaps I may briefly outline that indication.

First—and indeed the only business on the Order Paper—will be the report from the Committee on House of Lords Offices which will follow this Business Statement. It is then proposed, subject to the agreement of the House, that my noble friend Lady Denton of Wakefield will repeat a Statement to be made in another place on the coal industry. As tradition has it, that will be at a convenient time after 3.30 p.m.

In the event of the business that follows this Statement not lasting until the Statement appears from another place, I propose to adjourn the House during pleasure, in the first instance, until 20 minutes to four o'clock. Immediately following the conclusion of that Statement, my noble friend the Lord Privy Seal will, with the leave of the House, make a further Business Statement in which he will explain why the Government felt it necessary to rearrange the Order Paper at short notice today and also for tomorrow.

It may be helpful if, at this stage, I outline the business for tomorrow. At present, the only item on the Order Paper is the Committee stage of the Boundary Commissions Bill. However, I anticipate that your Lordships may, over the course of the day, identify a possible means of supplementing that business. It may indeed be that the House will become aware of some of those possible means during the course of our proceedings later today.

Your Lordships will know that I am in many ways an opponent of change. Radical change enthuses me even less; and radical change to the Order Paper is something that I have attempted to avoid at all costs. In those circumstances, I feel it incumbent upon me, as Government Chief Whip, to apologise to all in your Lordships' House for the fact that, due to the circumstances that arose, we found it necessary to effect a readjustment of the business at this late stage. My noble friend the Leader of the House will explain the reasons for this immediately after the Statement on the coal industry. At that stage, I am sure that the House will understand why such precipitate action was called for.

Finally, I should like to say a word about food—without which the House would not be able to continue to function properly. I should like to reassure those of your Lordships who have made arrangements to dine in the House tonight that dinner will remain on in the Dining Room. However, in the pursuit of efficiency, the Refreshment Department wishes to provide that dinner in the Barry Room and, in an act of great generosity, the department will pick up the differential in cost between the former and the latter. The Refreshment Department remains a beacon of stability in a changing world.

3.8 p.m.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, I am sure that the House will accept the apology of the Government Chief Whip, the noble Lord, Lord Hesketh, for the change in the Order Paper. In accepting that apology on behalf of my noble friends, I can only say that the change is greeted with the greatest resentment. It has been imposed unilaterally; it has not been agreed through the usual channels. It has deprived your Lordships of a debate on the coal industry which many of us were expecting to have at the Committee stage of the British Coal and British Rail (Transfer Proposals) Bill which the Government had set down for business this afternoon.

I can only say to the noble Lord the Government Chief Whip that, when I make this relatively brief intervention, it will not be the last intervention that comes from this side of the House. We shall take every opportunity to ensure that our views are properly expressed and taken into account by the Government. We shall also make sure that we fill the gap in tomorrow's business, to which the noble Lord referred, unless the Government do a complete U-turn on the coal-pit closures. I give that warning to the noble Lord the Government Chief Whip while accepting the apology that he offered to the House.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, while accepting that apology and appreciating the difficulty in which the Government have placed the Government Chief Whip, and while not dissenting in any way from what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Williams, we will reserve our fire from these Benches until we come to the Statement by the Lord Privy Seal.

Lord Callaghan of Cardiff

My Lords, I had hoped that we would hear from the government Chief Whip. While I have no objection to not proceeding with the Bill—I hope that the Government will take it away and slit its ugly throat, as was said on a previous occasion—can the government Chief Whip give us an assurance that, should the Opposition or some noble Lord table a Motion, the Government will allow it to be included on the Order Paper and taken tomorrow?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, I am grateful for the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan. I can confirm to the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, the reference I made in my Business Statement in anticipation of matters not yet on the Order Paper. I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan too that there is no question of there being any prevention of any Motion being tabled on the Order Paper tomorrow.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, that is all very well. As my Front Bench accepted, I too accept the apology. But when business is taken off the Order Paper it is a serious matter. Many noble Lords will have spent the weekend preparing for today's debate. It may be that they will not be able to take part in the debate tomorrow. It has therefore gravely inconvenienced those Members who came today prepared to debate the matter and who may not be able to debate it tomorrow.

Had the decision been agreed between the two Front Benches, that might have produced a better feeling. As it was imposed unilaterally by the government side, there is cause for grave concern. Bearing in mind the extreme problems it will cause to some noble Lords, I hope that the Chief Whip can assure us that this will never happen again without proper consultation and agreement between all sides of the House.

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, I am only the Chief Whip. However, my mother taught me at an early age that "never" is a dangerous word. I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, that the reason there are two Business Statements this afternoon is in order to satisfy the burden of his argument after the statement on coal. The Leader of the House will then make his Business Statement, which I hope will address the problems raised by the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, I support the Statement made by the government Chief Whip. Your Lordships may think it would be wholly idle and premature to enter into a Committee stage on the Bill before there had been a substantive debate on the question of the pit closures. Some noble Lords may seek an objective reappraisal, some, for various reasons, may wish to question the manner in which the decision was taken, and some may wish to discuss these matters in objective debate in your Lordships' House. At this stage it would be futile to pre-empt that objective discussion. I congratulate my noble friend the Chief Whip on his decision.

Lord Colnbrook

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that I have received a personal letter from the General Secretary of the TUC, Mr. Norman Willis? Other Members of your Lordships' House may have received the same letter. Mr. Willis urges me to use my best endeavours to persuade the Government to postpone discussion on the Bill set down for today until we have had a statement from the Government on national energy strategy. I do not know whether my noble friend can explain why the Opposition are grumbling.

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, I am always grateful for any information from my noble friend Lord Colnbrook. Although the Whip's Office may have a certain reputation, I can assure the noble Lord that we do not interfere with your Lordships' mail.

Lord Shepherd

My Lords, can the Leader of the House or the Chief Whip give a firm assurance that there are no procedural difficulties as regards the tabling of a Motion for business tomorrow afternoon?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, the answer is, yes, there is no difficulty.

Noble Lords

My Lords, it should he "no".

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, the answer should have been "yes" without further addition or embellishment. The answer is no, with embellishment.