§ 3.10 p.m.
§ The Chairman of Committees (Lord Ampthill)
My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.
In moving that the report should be agreed to perhaps I may draw attention to some of the committee's recommendations. The first section of the 1565 report deals with time-limited debates. The report recommends that when the maximum length of speeches in time-limited debates is calculated a minimum time should be set aside for the two closing opposition speakers. The committee considered that issue at length because, as the report points out, it will mean that the Back Benchers' allocations will be reduced in some debates. But the committee considered that the current rules allowing opposition speakers some leeway to use up spare time were too vague and therefore recommends guaranteed limits as suggested.
The report proposes two experiments in relation to time-limited debates. The first experiment seeks to reduce the occasions when the list of speakers for a time-limited debate is so long that only a few minutes are allocated by helping to tailor Motions for short debate more closely to the 2½ hours available. It is suggested that noble Lords should seek the advice of the Clerks on wording, with the usual channels acting as a longstop if necessary. I might stress that that advice will concern the scope of Motions and not their content.
The second experiment is of some Unstarred Questions to be limited to one hour so that they can be taken in the dinner break. That should allow more Unstarred Questions to be tabled at busy times of the year. Of course, no noble Lord would be obliged to table his Question as a time-limited Unstarred Question. Arrangements for Unstarred Questions held as now at the end of the day would be unchanged.
The other main issue considered in the report was the question of debates on Consolidated Fund Bills. The House will remember that the matter was discussed when the committee's second report was agreed to at the start of February. The committee considered a paper on the subject from the noble Lords, Lord Bruce of Donington and Lord Boyd-Carpenter, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale. But as the report explains, the committee unanimously decided that there should be no change from the current guidance. One reason was that it would be odd for the Lords to debate Bills about public expenditure which cannot be debated in another place. But the main arguments used against debating such Bills were practical. Consolidated Fund Bills appear with minimal notice and in so far as debate is relevant it is relevant to the full range of publicly-funded activities. Debating such Bills, therefore, seemed to threaten ill-prepared, confused and unfocused debates. The committee concluded that it would not be the best way to use the time of the House.
I shall be pleased to respond to any matters which may be of concern to your Lordships. I beg to move.
Moved, That the third report from the Select Committee be agreed to (HL Paper 76).—(The Chairman of Committees.)
§ Following is the report referred to:
§ TIME-LIMITED DEBATES
§ Opposition winding-up speeches
§ 1. Current rules for all time-limited debates guarantee a minimum time for the movers of debates and for the 1566 Government spokesman, but make no specific provision for opposition frontbench spokesmen winding up at the end of a debate. It is accepted practice for opposition spokesmen to seek to sum up points made in the debate in their speeches. The Committee's 2nd Report, 1990–91, suggested that opposition winding up speeches could use up some of the time often left at the end of a debate. But the wording of this guidance was tentative, and it has not been easy for opposition spokesmen to put it into practice. The Committee has therefore concluded that time should be set aside for closing opposition speeches. The Committee recognises that this will mean that, in some debates, backbenchers will be allocated less time. But we believe that guaranteeing a minimum time for all closing speakers would allow a proper balance between the frontbenches, and ensure that winding up speeches can fully sum up the debate.
§ 2. The Committee therefore recommends that opposition winding up spokesmen should be given a minimum of 10 minutes whenever the Government spokesman has 20 minutes for winding up, and 12 minutes when the Government spokesman has 25 minutes. When the backbenchers' time allocation is greater than this, there will be no difference between backbench time and that given to opposition spokesmen.
§ Length of debate when time limits applied by business motion
§ 3. Traditionally, the length of time-limited debates in the House of Lords has been restricted to 2½ hours or 5 hours. In the Committee's 1st and 2nd Reports, 1990–91, it was agreed to have an experiment giving the House the freedom to apply other time limits. This has helped to tailor the length of debates more closely to the numbers of speakers taking part. The Committee recommends that the freedom to apply limits of any length should be confirmed.
§ 4. In the Committee's 2nd Report, 1990–91, it was agreed that debates of 4 hours or more should have the same time allocations for opening and closing speeches as for 5 hour debates, and that debates below 4 hours should have the same allocations as for 2½ hour debates. The Committee recommends that if it is decided to hold 1½ hour debates, 12 minutes should be allocated to the mover of a debate, 15 minutes to the Government winding up, and 8 minutes to the final opposition speeches (see paragraph 2).
§ Scope of short debates
§ 5. No freedom is available to change the time allocated to the 2½ hour debates chosen by ballot (short debates). Broadly drafted motions attracting a large number of speakers lead to the allocation of only a few minutes to each speaker. When short debates were first introduced, it was not intended that they would be used to raise broad issues of important national policy. The Committee recommends that the subject matter of short debates should be limited in scope, and should not seek to raise fundamental or wide-ranging issues which cannot be properly explored in the time allotted. Motions should be examined before the ballot takes place, to assess whether the scope of the motion seems appropriate. In the first instance, the advice of the Clerks on the wording of motions for 1567 short debate should be sought (Companion, p 51). In case of difficulty, it would fall to the usual channels to help to ensure that motions were appropriate to the time allowed. These arrangements should begin on an experimental basis.
§ Unstarred Questions
§ 6. At busy times of the year, it is often difficult to find time for Unstarred Questions to be asked. The Committee therefore recommends that, on an experimental basis, Lords should be able to table Unstarred Questions to be asked during the one hour's dinner break. This would enable more Unstarred Questions to be asked, without extending the House's sitting hours. However, a time limit would have to be applied to the Question, to ensure that the legislative business was not delayed. The Committee recommends a time limit of one hour, with 10 minutes set aside for the questioner, and 12 for the Government response. No special provision should be made for opposition frontbench contributions. It will be important for the questions to be limited in scope. The Companion already states that in the case of a second Unstarred Question, "the Lord concerned should be prepared to postpone his Question to a later date" (p 83). It may be likewise necessary for a Lord to postpone an Unstarred Question intended for the dinner break if it becomes clear that a Question has attracted more interest than can be accommodated in one hour.
§ Speaking in the Gap
§ 7. The Brief Guide to the Practice and Procedure of the House makes it clear that those Lords who have not put their names on a speakers' list, and who rise to speak just before the winding up speakers, should be brief. The Committee endorses this guidance, and recommends its inclusion in the Companion.
§ DEBATES ON CONSOLIDATED FUND BILLS
§ 8. In the Committee's 2nd Report, 1992–93, the Committee endorsed the current Companion guidance concerning proceedings on consolidated fund bills:
§ "It does not offend the privileges of the Commons for the Lords to discuss or even to decide upon consolidated fund bills, but the House has habitually passed such bills without printing them and without discussion or dissent. It is now a convention that proceedings upon them are taken formally."(Companion, p124)
§ The last time that the substance of a consolidated fund bill was discussed was in 1907.
§ 9. The Committee was invited to re-examine this guidance for a second time. Consolidated fund bills are in a different category to other public bills for three reasons. First, the timetable for such bills is both fast-moving and difficult to predict. Debates on these bills would therefore arise with little warning, and little opportunity for Lords to prepare. Second, consolidated fund bills exist to sanction the grant of finance for the full range of publicly-funded activity. If debate on the second reading was deemed relevant under the terms of Standing Order 26, it could therefore range across an enormous variety of subjects, resulting in an extremely unfocused debate. Finally, House of Commons Standing Order 54(1) prohibits debate on consolidated fund bills. Although 1568 the Companion makes clear that privilege is not an issue, the principle of comity between the two Houses would suggest that the House of Lords should not decide to discuss money bills on which there is no debate in the House of Commons. The Committee concludes that the guidance should not be altered.
§ 10. On a related point, it was suggested that the House should have more opportunities to discuss economic and financial subjects. The Committee considered that this was a question of business management, not of procedure, for consideration by the usual channels.
§ WRITTEN ANSWERS FROM EXECUTIVE AGENCIES
§ 11. In the Committee's 2nd Report, 1992–93, it was stated that parliamentary privilege, which confers freedom from legal proceedings on statements by MPs and Lords in Parliament, would not attach to written answers from executive agencies. The Committee are advised that, as answers are printed in the Official Report, they will be fully covered by privilege.
§ OWNERSHIP OF BILLS
§ 12. The Committee's 2nd Report, 1988–89, stated:
§ "Bills once introduced are in the possession of the House, and not in the sole ownership of their sponsor."
§ The Committee endorses this guidance.
§ ALPHABETICAL SPLIT IN DIVISION LOBBIES
§ 13. Analysis of voting figures in the division lobbies has shown that there are consistently more Lords whose names begin with the letters A to K voting than those whose names begin with the letters L to Z. The Committee therefore recommends that Lords should split on the basis of A to J and K to Z in the lobbies.
§ 3.15 p.m.
§ Lord Simon of Glaisdale
My Lords, as one of those who demurred at the second report perhaps I may first express my gratitude that the matter of the Consolidated Fund Bills has been reconsidered. However, I fear that I must also express grave disquiet at the endorsement of the previous decision. It is contrary to the public interest and very definitely contrary to the interests of your Lordships' House.
As has been pointed out, a Consolidated Fund Bill, which turns into an Appropriation Act, covers the whole range of public expenditure. It is therefore particularly suitable as an agent for discussing the financial and economic situation generally. There are generally three Consolidated Fund Bills in each year; in December, in the Spring and in July. If we are to have, as now seems likely, an Autumn Statement followed by a Winter Budget there will be no real need for a Consolidated Fund Bill for discussion at the end of the year. But by this time of the year the situation is entirely different and it is still more different by July.
As was pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, a moment or two ago, some of the forecasts for the Budget only one month ago have been falsified. The headline read, "Record surge in state spending". As the noble Lord pointed out the figure was more than £1 billion over and above that which was prognosticated only one month ago. Obviously the situation merits reconsideration and 1569 will still more merit reconsideration in July, for who can tell now what the economic circumstances will be then?
The second reason is that your Lordships bring unexampled experience and knowledge to the discussion of such issues. There are in your Lordships' House no fewer than seven former Chancellors of the Exchequer, four former Chief Secretaries, a number of heads of government departments with important financial influence, such as National Insurance and social security. Their advice and counsel is available. Your Lordships also have among their Members a former chairman of the Public Accounts Committee and the former chairman of the Committee of Ways and Means, who would also have been chairman of the Committee of Supply. Your Lordships have as a Member the chairman of one of the biggest high street banks and his predecessor and a number of other Members with vast experience of finance, commerce and industry. No other deliberative body in the world can produce anything like that body of experience, knowledge and judgment.
There is no reason to hide such illumination under a bushel and every reason not to do so, particularly at a time such as this when your Lordships' role in the constitution is being questioned. Now, above all, is the time to show that your Lordships have inherited and can still maintain the position of the great council of state.
I said that because I wish to say a few words about the weight of the convention in this case. As your Lordships know, the British constitution depends as much on conventions which are not absolutely binding as upon laws which are binding. Those conventions can be very powerful; for instance, the convention that although your Lordships' House collectively is the highest court in the land it habitually leaves the judicial decision to the Appellate Committee of professionals. That committee has existed for more than 150 years and antedates the Lords of Appeal in Ordinary. It has powerful constitutional arguments in its favour. It is a powerful convention and it is extremely unlikely to be breached. If it were the jurisdiction would almost certainly be abolished.
As an intermediate convention, one can look across the Atlantic. There was the convention that the American president should enjoy only two terms of office. That was sufficiently powerful to disappoint the hopes of Grant and Theodore Roosevelt of a third term. But it was still a convention and it did not prevent Franklin Roosevelt having three terms and being elected for a fourth term.
As a still weaker convention, and very close to the convention with which your Lordships are immediately concerned, one can take the convention that a government should resign after defeat in an election. For many years the convention was that a defeated government should meet Parliament before resigning. That reflected the legal sovereignty of Parliament. But at the end of the last century the electorate had increased to such an extent that it was recognised that the political sovereign was the electorate. Both 1570 Disraeli and Gladstone resigned on being defeated at the polls. Their example was again followed for decades; but in 1923 there was a hung Parliament and the convention was found to be inconvenient. Baldwin met Parliament without resigning after defeat at the polls and I have little doubt that if we have again, as we may have, a hung Parliament, that may be found to be the convenient course.
The lesson is that a convention will be followed so long as it is convenient and will be rejected and departed from when it proves inconvenient. This convention is all the stronger for its renewed endorsement by the Procedure Committee but it still does not make much sense and may be highly inconvenient. Therefore, I venture to suggest that although it is prima facie to be observed, it will be departed from when it is inconvenient.
The more that government business managers provide an opportunity for a debate on economic and financial matters, the less there will be a need to depart from the convention; but at present there is little sign of that. Therefore, I end as I began by expressing very great regret at the re-endorsement by the Procedure Committee.
§ Lord Taylor of Gryfe
My Lords, I do not propose to follow the discussion of the noble and learned Lord on the Consolidated Fund Bill. The Chairman of Committees may find it convenient to reply to the House at the end of our discussions.
I want to raise specifically the question of short, timed debates. I regard those as rather precious in this House because it gives the opportunity for Back-Bench Members to contribute to the affairs of the House; and that is something we should protect. There is an obvious lack of flexibility in the arrangements as quoted in the report. Paragraph 5 of the report states:No freedom is available to change the time allocated to the 21½ hour debates chosen by ballot".I thought that we were discussing the arrangements for short, timed debates; but the report says that there is no freedom available to do so.
There was an extremely interesting example last week of the present difficulties and inadequacies.
§ The Chairman of Committees
My Lords, the present arrangements do not allow for any alteration in balloted debates. Of course that does not mean that the House cannot change those arrangements if it so wishes.
§ Lord Taylor of Gryfe
My Lords, that is not what it says in the report. The report says, "no freedom is available". Surely the House should determine whether or not freedom is available to change those arrangements.
I wish to give an example to the House. Two years ago I put down my name for a balloted debate on forestry. I am not sure whether that will fall within the province of matters of great national importance which may be excluded in the future; I hope it will not. I came to the House the day before the debate and I discovered that the preceding debate on drugs had six speakers. The two and a half hour debate on forestry to follow had 21 speakers. I asked the Clerk whether 1571 it might be possible to make an adjustment so that the 21 speakers in the forestry debate might be allocated some of the time available from the other debate. I was told that that was not possible.
When the noble Lord, Lord Hesketh, gave our timetable on the day, he said that because there were only a few speakers in the preceding debate, there was to be no time limit on the speakers on that debate; but since there were 21 speakers in the debate on forestry, they would have only five minutes each in which to speak. Noble Lords who wish to discuss forestry in this House travel long distances to do so. Some of my fellow Scottish Peers travel more than 500 miles. On arrival they are greeted with the announcement that they have five minutes only in which to speak. I regard that as totally inadequate. I should have thought that the committee looking at those matters would introduce a measure of flexibility which would make for the better working of the House and would make available more time for Back-Benchers like myself.
§ Lord Marlesford
My Lords, I support strongly the objections raised by the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, to paragraph 5 which frankly astonished me. To propose that short debates should not seek to raise fundamental or wide-ranging issues seems to me to beg every question before the debate starts. For it to go on to say that it should fall to the usual channels to help to ensure that Motions are appropriate, strikes me as being a positively soviet approach to your Lordships' affairs. I hope that your Lordships will reject that absurd suggestion.
§ Lord Aberdare
My Lords, I agree entirely with the report. I believe that it is an extremely good report. Although I hate to disagree with the noble Lord who spoke about Consolidated Fund Bills, I found the arguments adduced by the committee to be totally convincing. I very much hope that the House will agree to the report.
There is one question that I should like to ask my noble friend on Unstarred Questions in the Dinner break. I am not sure how that will work when there is government business in the Dinner break, as very often there is. Is it intended that Unstarred Questions should only be permissible when there is not government business or is it somehow intended to fit both into the one hour that is available?
§ Lord Parry
My Lords, I wish to underline strongly what has already been said by my noble friend Lord Taylor of Gryfe and the noble Lord opposite. However, I wish to speak on paragraph 7, "Speaking in the Gap".
It seems to me that in the 18 years that I have been in your Lordships' House, almost by accident the opportunities of the Barons' Benches have been cut back. In a sense it is a casualty of the organisation of the House properly to conduct its business. The more well organised the Front Benches on both sides of the House, the greater is the lack of opportunity for the Back-Benchers to record their important points.
I feel that a frustration is building up which arises from the fact that London-based Barons, who do a tremendous amount of work in this House, almost 1572 inevitably dominate each day's proceedings. It is perfectly possible to journey in from the peripheral areas of Britain with something to contribute on a specific issue upon which one has some experience and competence and find it talked out by people whom one has heard speak every day on every issue for their full ration of time, thus taking up the whole time of the House. While one respects their service and appreciates what they say, it is an awful frustration.
§ 3.30 p.m.
§ Lord Boyd-Carpenter
My Lords, perhaps I may bring the House back to the issue of debate on the Consolidated Fund Bill which, as your Lordships may recall, was the main subject of discussion in the previous report of the Select Committee and, I believe, the reason the Select Committee was good enough to say that it would have another look at the issue, as it has now looked at several others.
I agree very much with what was so well said by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, about the constitutional and presentational importance of the matter. Reading through the report, I had the feeling that the Select Committee, understandably in the light of its composition, was really rather more interested in the mechanics of the operation of the House and the convenience of the work of the usual channels, than it was with the broader issue of the standing of the House and indeed of the function of the House which people will perceive outside.
After all, a Consolidated Fund Bill is one of the most important measures of the Session. As noble Lords know, it authorises the issue of public funds for the various purposes for which they have been voted under the Finance Bill. It is of enormous importance. For your Lordships' House deliberately to deny itself the right even to discuss it, seems to me to be a very serious matter and one which perhaps indicates a certain lack of confidence in the role of this Chamber. It may well be looked at in that way from outside.
Therefore, I hope even now, and notwithstanding the deliberations of the Select Committee, that your Lordships are prepared further to consider the matter. I, and quite a number of others, regard it as of very real importance. As I understand it, the report rejects the idea on the grounds that such debates would be inconvenient and awkward to arrange; for example, they would have to be arranged at the last minute, it would be difficult for the usual channels, and so on. On the previous occasion—although not I notice on this one—the Select Committee also relied on the highly specious argument that, as there is now no Treasury Minister in the House, apparently no one would be in a position to reply to issues raised in the debate. I am glad to say that that argument has not been put forward again.
I hope that most noble Lords will share my view that it is wholly wrong that there is now no Treasury Minister in the House. Of course, there was until a fairly short time ago in the very able person of the then Paymaster General. The absence of the appropriate Minister, who obviously would be the appropriate Minister to deal with the Bill, is the responsibility of the Government, and not this House, to put right. I 1573 ask noble Lords to think very hard indeed before deliberately voting themselves out of the capacity to debate possibly the most important of the year's measures. It is a very serious matter.
The mere fact that the debate may well be difficult and inconvenient is surely no conclusive argument; nor is it conclusive, as the Select Committee suggests, that another place has decided not to debate Consolidated Fund Bills. After all, in that case, they have ample—some may think excessive—opportunities to debate economics and finance. Indeed, they certainly do not lack opportunities. But, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, said, we have comparatively few opportunities in this Chamber. Therefore, either the Consolidated Fund Bill, or a debate in lieu of it, would serve a very useful purpose for bringing into the public view and into operation the immense body of expertise and experience which exists in this House on these grave, difficult and complicated matters.
I hope that the Select Committee will not be obstinate about the matter. If I may say so without offence, I am afraid that it suggests that the Select Committee is a little excessively interested in the smooth working of the work of the usual channels and perhaps a little inadequately interested in the standing, reputation and position of the House in the public view. I urge upon your Lordships the fact that we ought to be free to debate that Bill.
Finally, when my noble friend on the Front Bench replies, can he say what the effect of the guidance would actually be? In other words, if, when the Consolidated Fund Bill was called for a Second Reading, a noble Lord rose to speak to it, would he be ruled out of order or would he merely suffer looks of disapproval from his friends on the Front Bench? Would he in fact be stopped from speaking? If he were to be stopped, perhaps I may ask the alternative question: would he not then be perfectly in order in speaking on the Motion which they always have on such occasions; namely, the Motion to allow more than one stage of a Bill to be taken on the same day? So far as I know, that Motion is not excluded from any discussion. If the Government say that they would regard a speech in the ordinary way on the Second Reading of the Bill as being out of order and would seek to have it stopped—and I really wish to know whether they would do that—
§ Lord Boyd-Carpenter
Well, my Lords; I should like to know whether they would try to do so. If they would, I should also like to know whether the alternative lies in simply debating the Motion to take all stages of the Bill on the same day which would in fact enable the main issues of the Bill to be raised. In due course, when my noble friend the Chairman of Committees comes to reply, I shall be most interested to hear his answer.
Lord Bruce of Donington
My Lords, I am most anxious not to stand in the way of the House by entering upon the time allocated for the very 1574 important debate to be initiated by my noble friend Lord Williams of Elvel. However, I fear that I must pass some small comment on the report which your Lordships are considering this afternoon. I should like to do so without duplicating anything that has been said either by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, or by the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter.
When we consider the paragraph which deals with the whole question of the Consolidated Fund Bill, the explanation for the rejection of the suggestions put forward does not entirely agree with the explanation given in the document itself. If noble Lords refer to the document it will be seen that it says:Finally, House of Commons Standing Order 54(1) prohibits debate on consolidated fund bills. Although the Companion makes clear that privilege is not an issue, the principle of comity between the two Houses would suggest that the House of Lords should not decide to discuss money bills on which there is no debate in the House of Commons".It is the first time that the principle of "comity" has been placed before us in that connection. I am all for comity with the other place—that is, whatever "comity" may mean —although I should like to observe in parenthesis that it certainly does not inhibit the other place from time to time demanding our reform or abolition. If there is to be comity, I suggest that it should apply both ways. In future, I intend to resist the temptation to point out to another place that they are not entirely without certain defects upon which, in the interests of comity, I need not elaborate at present. Surely the position between the two Houses, within the concept of comity, is well understood. It does not even need to be stated in the Companion.
It is accepted between the two Houses that it is desirable that your Lordships' House shall, for example, debate in Committee in detail items and amendments that have not been debated thoroughly in another place. That is one example of where there is a dovetailing of interest and where it is accepted that we have a certain valuable function to perform. I might add that that function has not always added to the friendly relationship between this House and Her Majesty's Government for the time being in Office because we do from time to time defeat amendments that are brought before us. On the principle that there is a certain dovetailing of interest that we in this House find convenient, and that we have the ability despite our ages to discuss matters adequately, surely this principle can be extended into the realms of finance and economics on a far more comprehensive basis than it has been up to now.
I shall not elaborate on the proposals that have been mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter—as far as I am concerned they command some sympathy—but I can give another example. Let us take the case of the European budget. That budget comprises a voluminous document which in my experience is never thoroughly discussed in another place, even in the broadest outline. After all, the United Kingdom contributes £1.75 billion net into the Community budget every year. That matter could be discussed and an opportunity could be provided in this House for its detailed discussion. From my own 1575 examination of the matter I can assure your Lordships that such a discussion would be most rewarding where it is not humourous or even tragic. I hope that we shall not consider ourselves automatically bound to exclude from our agenda items which another place finds it convenient for its own reasons, procedural or other, to omit. Conditions of comity could in those circumstances operate fully.
It would be wrong for me to end upon a controversial note. I wish to congratulate the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees for the constructive way in which he and his committee have set about their task.
I have only one final observation to make which I sincerely trust will meet with your Lordships' general approval. My observation concerns winding-up speeches. I broadly concur with the decisions arrived at by the Select Committee but, just as the Companion can occasionally offer advice to Members on the way that they should proceed, I hope that I may presume to offer a little advice on this occasion to Her Majesty's Government on the matter of winding-up speeches. Most of us would find it convenient if winding-up speeches from the Government, instead of being prepared beforehand and then read, occasionally replied to the debate. I believe that would be most helpful to all Members of the House and would redound to the good reputation and the competence of the Government.
§ 3.45 p.m.
§ Lord Cockfield
My Lords, may I say that I strongly dissent from the views put forward by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, and by my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter. It may be thought that as I was a Treasury Minister in your Lordships' House who was responsible for these matters for a period of years I am therefore prejudiced. But if I am prejudiced I fall only into the same category as the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington.
Debating the Consolidated Fund Bill in another place provides an opportunity for Members to discuss constituency matters or to trot out their hobby-horses to exercise around the yard. It is not the opportunity on which the financial, economic, budgetary or expenditure affairs of the nation are discussed. The correct occasions on which those matters should be discussed are on the Budget, on the Finance Bill or on the humble Address. It is perfectly true—the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, briefly touched upon this towards the end of his speech—that the usual channels have shown in recent years a singular reluctance to have these matters adequately discussed. They have been supported in that by the Opposition parties who no doubt have no greater wish to disclose their position, if they have one, than the Government have to defend their position whether they have one or not. But nevertheless those are the right occasions on which these matters should be discussed. In years past they were adequately discussed and we had many interesting and valuable debates in which many of the noble gentlemen specified by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon 1576 of Glaisdale, made significant contributions. I suggest to your Lordships that the right thing to do is to have adequate provision made for discussing these matters on the right and proper occasions and not to invent the wrong and improper occasions on which to discuss them.
§ Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe
My Lords, first I wish to address the question of debate on the Consolidated Fund. Paragraph 9 of the report states that Consolidated Fund Bills are in a different category for three reasons. First, the timetable is fast moving and difficult to predict; secondly, the debates are very diverse, wide-ranging and are extremely unfocused —that never occurs in your Lordships' House of course!—and, finally (this is the killer punch) the House of Commons Standing Order 54(1) prohibits debate on Consolidated Fund Bills. It is almost as if those provisions were cast in stone.
How did that provision in the Commons arise? I am pleased to explain the position to your Lordships from my personal experience. When my party was in government, on one occasion the then Opposition used the opportunity of debate on the Consolidated Fund to prolong the discussion to such a length that to get things on the move again the government had to make a concession for which the Opposition had been asking since the debate started. When we moved into Opposition I bore this ploy in mind and at a suitable time I sprang the same trap on the Government. I am glad to inform your Lordships that we not only got our own back but we obtained substantial interest into the bargain.
That was an example of exploitation of the Consolidated Fund for purely party advantage. Both sides did it and it was realised that, while it was a bit of good fun at the time and it was painful for one side and enjoyable for the other, it really was not the way in which the House of Commons should conduct its business. That is the reason why the Commons decided not to debate the Bill. There is absolutely no way in which those circumstances could be repeated in your Lordships' House. Therefore despite the reference to comity, or whatever it is—I am not sure whether amity, or cohabitation, is the correct word in this context—there is no question whatsoever of comparison. I ask the Select Committee not to grasp at this particular straw to buttress its rather weak position.
I wish to support the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, as regards his comments on the scope of short debates. When we are discussing whether an issue is an important matter of national policy we are entering fields of subjective judgment. We are asking the Clerks of the House to make a judgment. We are placing upon their shoulders the burden of saying yea or nay to someone who feels particularly strongly about something. That is unfair. If necessary we then go to the usual channels. My experience of the usual channels tells me that the decision may sometimes be made in favour of the establishment rather than of the individual Member who is making the application. Therefore, I ask the Committee to have a further look 1577 at the matter. In conclusion, I look forward to the day when the Procedure Committee comes to the House and says that it has no changes to report.
§ Lord Campbell of Alloway
My Lords, I should like to make a brief intervention to associate myself with everything that was said so well by my noble friend Lord Cockfield. Perhaps I may be allowed to point out in relation to the general debate on economic and financial matters or other matters of current moment which is sought in paragraphs 2 and 3 of the memorandum submitted to the Procedure Committee that there is no precedent or convention that on Second Reading in your Lordships' House there should be any such debate.
§ Lord Simon of Glaisdale
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for allowing me to intervene. He will no doubt have in mind that the House habitually debates the Irish consolidated fund appropriation measure on the basis that all the expenditure therein is a matter which is open for debate. There is the precedent.
§ Lord Campbell of Alloway
My Lords, I am obliged to the noble and learned Lord. I shall spend no further time on that point.
These Bills are not debated in another place. With respect to the noble Lord, the reason matters not. They are not debated. The Bills reach your Lordships' House at very short notice or without notice. Usually, by custom, they pass both Houses within a week. The order of general debate sought in paragraphs 2 and 3 of the memorandum submitted, I believe, by my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, and the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, would inhibit the customary passage of those Bills. It would disturb the comity between the two Houses and, as the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, said, with his genial touch of eloquent humour, we all know what comity is. It is the way in which the two Houses customarily transact their business.
Thirdly, and perhaps even more importantly in view of the suggestion that this should serve as a way of remedying a want of time for such economic debates, a debate taken at short notice would serve little purpose as, without notice of questions to be raised, no satisfactory answer could be given. Indeed, if such order of debate is to ensue after the passage of the Bill, that is a matter for your Lordships to decide on its merits on any particular occasion. In that regard I say with respect to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, that that surely serves the public interest and also the interests of your Lordships' House.
There is no precedent for this proposal. To introduce the proposal in that memorandum would be a clear and distinct departure from precedent which would serve no useful purpose.
§ The Chairman of Committees
My Lords, we have had a good run round this course and I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate. Perhaps I may try to deal with some of the easier matters first.
1578 The point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Parry, about speaking in the gap falls into that category. There was much debate, as there always has been, about the word "brief" and whether we should be more specific about how long noble Lords should be allowed to speak. It is a matter of horses for courses, as is so frequently the case. It is unfair to those who have travelled long distances, as the noble Lord said. He said that he finds himself listening to a great many speakers from whom the House has heard a great many times. That is an impossible problem to resolve, but there is sympathy for the point that the noble Lord made.
§ Lord Parry
My Lords, I am grateful for that specific reference to my point. I also implied that in time-limited debates the gap disappears. Therefore, not only have we lost the time within the time but we have lost the chance to speak in other debates.
§ The Chairman of Committees
My Lords, the noble Lord is quite correct. However, if a debate is to be timed, that is a voluntary exercise and one has entered into an agreement that the debate should be timed.
I should like to deal next with the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare. I was naturally glad of his support on the matter of Consolidated Fund Bills. The noble Lord raised the question of one-hour Unstarred Questions. That is an idea which we have been mulling over for some time. It seemed to us that frequently, as was the case on Monday night, there is no government business of affirmative instruments to be dealt with and that it might please noble Lords to have the opportunity, provided they would accept that the matter had to be dealt with within one hour, to deal with Unstarred Questions at a more reasonable hour instead of the debates beginning at the end of Business, which can be a very vague time—as it will be tonight as a result of this discussion. That is a voluntary exercise and as an experiment it is to be commended. It will not suit everybody by a long chalk, but it may suit certain noble Lords. That would not in any way interfere with the Government's need to put their affirmative orders through the House, but there is not usually an urgent timescale about most such orders which could be packed together and dealt with on other occasions.
I turn now to the difficulties encountered by the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe. We all had a great deal of sympathy for him a few days ago on the occasion to which he referred when there were 25 speakers in his debate which was limited to two and a half hours and there were only six speakers in the preceding debate. The report might perhaps have made the position a little clearer in paragraph 5, where it reads:No freedom is available to change the time allocated".That could perhaps have been better expressed as "no freedom is presently available". The position has been left unaltered. Many changes have been made in respect of other timed debates. Debates of two and a half hours on an ordinary debating day have been changed to two hours and three hours. Many variations can be made in that respect.
1579 The Procedure Committee has not got round to considering whether it would be a good idea to make the same sort of variation in balloted debates. That raises rather more complex issues, curiously enough. I am sure that the noble Lord will agree that when one enters into a balloted debate one is gambling. The gamble extends also to whether the debate to be held on the same afternoon as one's own is more interesting. There is an element of risk attached to the matter and I do not believe that we could devise a procedure which would totally satisfy every situation which could arise.
§ Lord Taylor of Gryfe
My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the noble Lord, but my point was that the preceding debate did not take up the two and a half hours allocated to it despite the fact that there was no time limit on speeches. Time was still available. I merely asked that the committee could consider some flexibility in that respect. Otherwise Back-Benchers are penalised.
§ The Chairman of Committees
My Lords, I was about to say that that is a matter which the Procedure Committee has not gone into in detail. I shall be pleased to place it upon the agenda for the next meeting when we shall discuss it further.
I hope that I have dealt with all the points that have been raised other than the extremely important matter of Consolidated Fund Bills. As I have already said, I was delighted to have the support of the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare. I was equally delighted to have the support of the noble Lord, Lord Cockfield, and the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway.
I am quite certain that those three noble Lords are correct. However, a number of your Lordships do not feel the same way. It is the arrival of those Bills unannounced which means that the notice given will be extremely short. If one takes the last three Consolidated Fund Bills in this Session, the time between the Bill receiving a First Reading in the Commons and the receipt of that Bill for us to pass through all its stages has never exceeded a week. The Commons normally have a gap of three or four days between First Reading and taking the Bill through all its stages. It means that we could only be certain perhaps three days ahead that we shall have those Bills to pass through all their stages. That does not give an opportunity for a debate to be considered and the Motion (if there were to be a Motion) put down.
The suggestion has been made that one could have such a debate on the Motion that all stages of the Bill should be taken in one day. That would hardly be relevant. I am not certain that anyone will know what it was that people wished to speak about. It is the difficulty of constructing a well-focused debate that is my main objection, and the Committee endorses my feelings. It is the wrong occasion to have a big debate on a most important subject.
The key question therefore is whether the House has enough opportunities to discuss issues concerning economics and public spending.
§ 4 p.m.
§ Lord Boyd-Carpenter
My Lords, before the noble Lord leaves that point, I should be most grateful if he would deal with this matter. Has any contact been made with another place as to the giving of more notice of the arrival of those Bills? Has it been asked whether there is any real difficulty about giving a little more notice?
§ The Chairman of Committees
My Lords, I have not asked that specific question. However, it is my understanding that they do not know in another place when the Bill will arrive. It is in the hands of the Treasury. My noble friend may recollect whether he bothered to let the Government know sufficiently in advance of receiving a Consolidated Fund Bill. I do not know the precise answer. But I know that in the three instances in this Session there have never been more than seven days between the First Reading in the Commons and the receipt of the Bill in your Lordships' House.
§ Lord Boyd-Carpenter
My Lords, I am sorry to press my noble friend further. Before coming to a final decision based on this difficulty, would it not be worth while at least to ascertain from another place whether there is any practical difficulty in arranging a convention, if you like, that they allow a few more days' notice? Before we took a decision based on this difficulty, would it not be as well to know the answer?
§ The Chairman of Committees
My Lords, I shall certainly find out the precise answer to that question. However, I am still filled with doubt as to whether that is the right occasion on which to have such a debate.
That brings me, I hope in conclusion, to the question of whether the House has enough opportunity to discuss issues concerning economics and public spending. I certainly echo the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, and other noble Lords who have pointed out that the House is blessed with great expertise in these fields. I do not believe that the Commons' primacy over legislation in such matters should in any way prevent the House of Lords from debating them.
However, it should be remembered that those issues are not neglected in the House. In 1992 there were four general debates on the economy, and another on unemployment. They were all given either five hours or no time limit. In addition there were two-hour or two-and-a-half hour debates on subjects such as industry and capital management, unemployment in manufacturing, the economy in the North West, the economy in the North East, and industrial policy. Unstarred Questions covered issues such as the Bank of England and export credit guarantees. Economic issues are often raised in Starred Questions and Ministerial Statements. Concern about public spending impacts on all our debates about major policies such as health, education and defence. A Second Reading of a Finance Bill is not the only occasion when legislation provides an opportunity to discuss these matters.
I believe that the House would wish to decide whether it would be right to single out debates on 1581 these subjects as requiring a special procedure or whether current arrangements are not generally enough to provide a reasonable balance of subjects.
The noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, asked what would happen if a noble Lord chose to intervene on the debate. The answer is that it lies with the House to decide the fate of the noble Lord on that occasion. I do not believe—I hope that the House will concur—that we wish to embark on making more rules. The fewer the rules there are, the better. The House manages its affairs far better than anyone else is likely to. I hope that I have said enough.
§ Lord Stoddart of Swindon
My Lords, could the noble Lord deal with the issue of principle? I refer to the question of comity between the two Houses. The document states that,the principle of comity … would suggest that the House of Lords should not decide to discuss money Bills on which there is no debate in the House of Commons".As has been raised by my noble friend and others, that gives the House of Commons a veto on what may be discussed in this House on Second Readings. I hope that the noble Lord will bear in mind that the House of Commons used to discuss Consolidated Fund Bills, as my noble friend Lord Cocks pointed out. Therefore its decision not to discuss Consolidated Fund Bills under this particular sentence would preclude this House, willy-nilly, from doing so. It surely must be wrong that the House of Commons decides our procedures.
§ The Chairman of Committees
My Lords, I do not believe that there is the slightest suggestion that we should be bound by the procedures of another place any more than it should be bound by ours.
I do not even know with certainty how to pronounce that word "comity".
§ The Chairman of Committees
My Lords, I am deeply grateful to my noble and learned friend. It is not a word that many of us use frequently in normal conversation. I believe that it means good relations between the two Houses. I see no reason why the tremendously good manners which prevail in this House among ourselves should not be extended to another place.
§ Lord Stoddart of Swindon
My Lords, I understand what the noble Lord says and indeed appreciate his good will. However, the words are written down in this document; and the recommendation is what we shall pass, if we do so. It is not what the noble Lord says but what is written down that we shall agree to. It seems to me that it is a dangerous sentence which gives the House of Commons the right to tell us what we may discuss, and indeed what our Standing Orders may be.
§ Lord Boyd-Carpenter
My Lords, before my noble friend sits down, perhaps I may ask this. He was good 1582 enough to answer one of my two questions as to what would happen if someone tried to speak on a Consolidated Fund Bill. But he did not answer the other question as to what would happen if someone desired to speak on the Motion to take the various stages of the Consolidated Fund Bill on the same day. Perhaps he could answer that.
§ The Chairman of Committees
My Lords, the answer has to be exactly the same. The House decides these matters.
§ Lord Marlesford
My Lords, before my noble friend sits down, he did not deal with my objection to paragraph 5 which suggests that the subject matter of short debates should not raise fundamental or wide-ranging issues. Nor did he deal with my objection that the usual channels should ensure that Motions were appropriate. It was a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Cocks.
§ The Chairman of Committees
My Lords, I should perhaps have referred to the fact that advice can be given by the Clerks when Motions are being put down. That is advisory only. No one is inviting the Clerks to assume heavy responsibilities. The recommendation is merely advisory; a peer or a noble Lord is entitled to make his own decision, contrary to the advice which he may receive.
If the House now agrees that it is time that the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, was able to proceed with his debate, then I commend the Motion to the House.
§ On Question, Motion agreed to.