HL Deb 13 October 1993 vol 549 cc201-10

3.30 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 doing so, it may be helpful if I mention briefly the four matters which the Procedure Committee considered at its meeting in July and which are dealt with in the report.

First, the Committee welcomed a proposal by the Leader of the House to set up a group to consider practices and procedures which affect the sittings of the House. As your Lordships will recall, a Select Committee in another place on sittings of that House reported in 1992, but formal action has not yet been taken on its recommendations. The Procedure Committee felt that we should not continue to await developments in another place, but should undertake our own enquiry into possible improvements in practices and procedures in this House. I understand that the noble Lord the Leader of the House plans to begin consultations through the usual channels on the composition of the proposed group once the House has approved the idea in principle by agreeing to this report today.

Secondly, the Committee noted that there appears to be an increasing disregard of the practice of the House regarding the reading of speeches, in particular through the use of texts provided by outside organisations. The Committee has invited the House to confirm the existing guidance that the reading of speeches is alien to the custom of the House and injurious to its debates.

Thirdly, the Committee recommended that, for an experimental period, the fourth Starred Question each Thursday should be chosen by lot from questions tabled on the previous Tuesday, before the sitting of the House. The intention is to introduce greater scope for the asking of topical Starred Questions. The report proposes that the experimental period should begin this month. This recommendation was made in the expectation that the report would be agreed to in July. In the circumstances I propose that, if the House agrees to this report, the arrangement should begin at the beginning of the new Session.

The Procedure Committee will keep under review the operation of this experiment, and will in due course report again to the House. Finally, the Committee has looked again at the practice whereby some Questions for Written Answer are answered by reference to a letter from an agency chief executive. The Committee recommends that, in accordance with past practice, any criticism of the Answer in the House should be directed at the Minister and not the chief executive. I beg to move.

Moved, That the fourth report of the Select Committee be agreed to (HL Paper 105).—(The Chairman of Committees.)

Following is the report referred to:



1. The Leader of the House presented to the Committee a proposal to set up a group to consider practices and procedures which affect the sittings of the House. The Committee welcomed and agreed to this proposal. The Committee considered it appropriate that such a group should be served by the Clerks.


2. The practice of reading speeches, including extensive use of notes prepared by outside organisations, appears to be increasing. The Committee invites the House to confirm the guidance in the Companion to Standing Orders, that the reading of speeches is alien to the custom of this House and injurious to its debates, though notes may be used; and that Lords speak for themselves and not on behalf of outside interests.


3. The Committee recommends that, for an experimental period beginning in October, the fourth Starred Question each Thursday should be a Topical Question. The Topical Question should be chosen by lot from questions tabled with the Clerk Assistant before the sitting of the House on the previous Tuesday. A Lord should not be permitted to enter the ballot if he already has two Starred Questions on the Order Paper, or if he has tabled a Starred Question for the day in question; and no Lord should ask more than two Topical Questions in one session.


4. The new practice whereby some Questions for Written Answer are answered by reference to a letter from the Chief Executive of a Government Agency raises the question, whether the Chief Executive may properly be criticised in the House. The Committee understands that, where Government functions are delegated to an Agency, accountability to Parliament remains through Ministers. The Committee therefore recommends that criticism of the answer in the House should be directed at the Minister, not at the Chief Executive.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I wish to comment briefly on paragraph 3 of the report, which concerns topical Questions. This proposal would be a considerable departure from the present system for tabling Starred Questions but an innovation which I personally welcome for the experimental period suggested. At present about two weeks or more elapse between the tabling of a Question and the date for reply. It is difficult to foresee whether the subject will still be of interest when it is reached on the day, or will have been answered by events in the interval. I venture to comment on the proposal because noble Lords may have noticed that I have been in the habit of using my quota of Questions. Usually the subjects have been of public interest, consumer affairs or the environment. I hope those subjects are of interest to the House.

Recently my Questions have extended from piracy in the seas of South East Asia to the legality of private wheel-clamping nearer home. However, when I have to prepare such Questions three weeks or so before the date they are due to be heard, I have wished that I had the gift of second sight. This experiment could be useful and I particularly applaud the fact that the Government have, as I understand it, accepted it, as it will mean that Ministers may suffer considerable inconvenience by having to be here at short notice on a Thursday afternoon.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, I wish to comment briefly on this matter and concur with the noble Lord that the proposal seems to be a good idea. However, I hope we can consider two aspects of it. If it is a case of a topical Question, undoubtedly it will be popular and many noble Lords will wish to ask questions on it. Therefore it is essential in the first place that we reach the Question on time. That matter needs to be given some attention. While that matter is being given some attention, I hope we can perhaps go a little further and, on Thursdays, allow a few minutes extra for Question Time. I am not suggesting we spend a great deal longer on Questions—perhaps only five minutes longer.

I believe these points are important, as a topical Question will be popular. I hope the Committee will in due course consider the two points.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, I am glad that the Procedure Committee has made the recommendation in the second item of its report relating to the reading of speeches. I fully share the Procedure Committee's view that the practice of reading speeches has been substantial and has tended to grow. I am sure your Lordships will agree that it is harmful to the standard of debate in this House if speeches are read because, if a speech which has been written out beforehand is then read to the House, it generally has no relevance whatever, or bearing on what has taken place in the debate up to the moment that speech is read. It is the very negation of debate if, as it were, essays written before the debate are read. I am glad that the Procedure Committee has noticed this.

I wonder whether my noble friend the Leader of the House can go a little further and indicate that, when speeches are quite plainly read in this way, the noble Lord the Leader of the House, or whoever is leading the House at that time, will intervene and will invoke the perfectly clear rules in the Companion to Standing Orders against such speeches and will secure that the reading of that speech is stopped. I hope we may have a firm lead from the noble Lord the Leader of the House because it seems to me, with respect, of enormous importance to the functioning of this House that the reading of speeches be stopped and that your Lordships should debate issues and not read essays about them.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, speaks with authority on the question of speeches being read, as I have never seen him read a speech and therefore he is quite entitled to make the point that he did. However, I wonder whether the matter is riot a little broader than he has stated. One of the things that I believe spoils debates in this House, if I may respectfully say so, is that though, perfectly understandably, Ministers read their briefs when opening a debate, several Ministers, not so understandably, read their speeches at the end of a debate. Right at the end of reading out the brief they deal somewhat summarily with the often pertinent questions that have been raised in the debate. I wonder therefore—I repeat the word "respectfully"—whether the noble Lord the Leader of the House will consider admonishing not only ordinary Members like myself in the recommendations he brings forward but also his noble friends on the Front Bench.

Lord Chalfont

My Lords, I suggest this is not merely a matter of reading speeches, as there are some noble Lords who are more readily able to make impromptu speeches and speeches without notes than others who are not so fortunate and who may have to refer to their notes rather more frequently. Is it not really the point that a number of speeches are made in your Lordships' House nowadays that are clearly written by someone else? I believe that is the sadness. It is not just a matter of our debate being inhibited by this kind of activity but rather that we are clearly hearing the words of someone else and we are probably hearing words that have appeared in mail that has come through our letter-boxes that morning and which has been sent by someone representing a particular lobby. I ask whether that is not really the issue rather than that some people read while others are able to deliver impromptu speeches.

Perhaps I may also ask a question for clarification on the matter of a topical question for the fourth Starred Question on a Thursday. What will be the procedure for choosing the question and the questioner?

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

My Lords, while the reading of a speech prevents a debate being a debate in the true meaning of that word, should we not beware of any possible danger to our parliamentary procedure which may flow from the proposal? If people read a speech, who is to say that they are wrong? My noble friend suggested that the Leader of the House would invoke whatever powers he has to persuade. I should not like to feel that we are going to move from our present strength, which is based on self-discipline, with no one, speakers or Chairmen, having the power to prevent anybody from making a contribution as he or she thinks fit. If we can preserve that self-discipline, we shall be preserving something which makes this House so much superior to another place and to alternatives.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, I venture to agree with the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, and my noble friend Lord Mishcon, concerning the winding-up speeches of members of the Government. By convention, Ministers are permitted to read their speeches, but nevertheless it is often discouraging when substantial points have been made from all quarters of the House which are then not addressed directly by the Minister who is replying. I do not know whether the noble Lord the Leader of the House can use his influence in this matter, because at the same time he is also leader of his own party, to see whether the practice can be ameliorated to some extent.

I am just a little worried about the matters raised in paragraph 3 because sometimes ideas of what is topical and what is not may vary considerably. If what is topical is determined by the less reputable sections of the tabloid press, judgment as to what is topical will be a little difficult. In addition, it may well be that topicality and urgency will overlap. If a topical question is also urgent there is a difficulty. There might be different rulings as between this House and the other place as to urgent questions which are also topical. Close liaison between the officials of this House and the Speaker's Department in another place would obviously be necessary if such confusion might conceivably arise. Otherwise I have no objection to the experiment itself.

My principal concern is with paragraph 1 in which it is stated that the noble Lord the Leader of the House presented to the committee proposals for the setting up of a group. Oh, my Lords! We have Committees, sub-committees and occasional working parties, but now we are to have a group. I am not sure what purpose it is to serve. As a Back-Bencher, I always regard any changes in procedure and practices as being possibly initiated more for the convenience of the usual channels than being concerned with the conventions and rights of the Back-Benches. I therefore regard the proposal with some suspicion. I should be glad to know from the noble Lord whether it is intended to confine membership of the group to Back-Benchers, because I do not believe that it would be in the best interests of the House if the group consisted of members of the usual channels, whose one desire, of course, is to get debates over as quickly as they can. That may not always be in the interests of the House as a whole.

In general, in relation to reports on the procedure of the House and from committees associated with them, I recall some matters which relate to my own profession. For many years I have been a management consultant. One of the axioms, which I regret to say is still not practised by firms of management consultants, is: if something is working leave it alone, do not always think that existing procedures can be improved. I hope that the House will accept that that axiom ought possibly to apply in current circumstances.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, I should like to endorse very warmly what my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter said, with his usual eloquence, about the second recommendation. I would add only two points. First, could not some consideration be given to those noble Lords who feel that they have no alternative but to read their speeches so that they could instead deposit them where those who have the time and inclination could easily browse through them for an hour or so?

In making my second point I cannot quite emulate the delicacy with which the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, approached the matter of ministerial speeches. Ministerial speeches of great length replying to a debate, but prepared long before the debate, somehow lack conviction and charm. When they are read at such a speed that no one with ordinary intellectual powers—and I certainly number myself among them—can possibly grasp the meaning of what has been said the practice needs some correction. I very much hope that my noble friend the Leader of the House will give the matter his urgent attention. I am sure that he would earn the gratitude of us all.

Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees for his explanation of the first paragraph, because on inspection I could not quite understand what it meant. I know that the noble Lord the Leader of the House would never produce anything for this House which was not entirely structured, but it seemed to me that a committee was being set up within a committee to do the same job. However, from the explanation, its purpose is clearly to consider what is known as the Jopling Report which was produced by another place. I hope, with due deference to the other place, that the Jopling Report will be scrutinised very carefully if we begin to consider how we should react to it because I am extremely cynical about the motives which led to its production.

Having said that (and this is not germane to what we are talking about now), perhaps in his capacity as chairman of the Offices Committee the noble Lord might consider setting up a group whereby your Lordships could have some input into the schedule of work done in this place during Recesses. It seems to those of us who come here during the Recess that there is not only appalling disruption but also often substantial waste of public money.

The noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, suggested that the Leader of the House should intervene if there is reading of speeches. In fact the policing of these matters has to be undertaken by the Members of your Lordships' House themselves. On 4th November 1987 the House considered the report of the group on the working of the House. One of its recommendations, which was accepted, was that the practice of speaker after speaker congratulating maiden speakers was not necessary and that it was sufficient for the following speaker to go through the normal tributes and commendations. That has been totally ignored.

When the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees mentioned the question of outside business interests having long screeds read out, a murmur of assent went round the House. If that is to be dealt with, then it is up to every Member of this House to deal with it and not rely on somebody from the Front Bench on either side of the House. We all have to take responsibility for policing these matters.

I shall not delay the House further except to say that today we had seven minutes on the fourth Question. The whole question of a topical subject being raised is very difficult. However, an experiment is an experiment. Let us see how it goes and then make a judgment.

Lord Alport

My Lords, I fully understand that my noble friends Lord Boyd-Carpenter and Lord Peyton—they are extremely capable extempore speakers—express the views that they do. I remember that 45 years ago my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter was a member of the ABBs—the Active Back Benchers—whose job it was late at night in the House of Commons to speak extemporarily and so exhaust the energies of the party opposite that eventually it should be driven from power, as in 1951 it was. However, for many Members of this House, who do not have experience of the House of Commons, speaking in this House is an ordeal. For my noble friends, it is easier. They are extremely good at it and obviously enjoy it.

We should remember that this is not the House of Commons. Fundamentally we are not an adversarial House. We are invited and instructed by Her Majesty the Queen to come to the House to give our views. Although there may be controversy at the Committee stage, when debate should properly take place, on the more general debates we are present to give the advice that we consider we should give to government and, through government, to Her Majesty the Queen on great issues of state.

Many Members would not be able to give their views unless they were able to do so from a written script. We have imported into this House too many of the practices and too much of the atmosphere of the House of Commons. That should not be encouraged. We should allow Members of this House who have never had experience of speaking in another place to read their speeches if they so wish.

Baroness David

My Lords, perhaps I may comment on the first item. I shall not speak about the membership of the group until I have seen who will be serving on it. I wrote to the Chairman of Committees before the Recess to complain about the sittings of the House during the time of the Education Bill. We sat long hours and this House could not undertake its revising work properly. I am therefore glad that something is being done. When will the group report?

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, I rise to say a brief word in support of the noble Lord, Lord Alport. I do not read my speeches. However, I take his point, which I believe is a fair one.

As to sanctions, I agree wholeheartedly across the Floor of the House with the noble Lord, Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe. We are the masters of our own procedure and our own order. We are assisted by the Leader of the House. By convention his intervention is inevitably accepted. If he is not present, we are assisted by one of the Whips. It is the purpose of my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter, although I may have misunderstood him, to import sanctions into our procedure in order to stop such a practice. It would be for the House to stop it; there is no other proper way.

The reading of speeches in reply by Ministers is within the province of government. It is unacceptable to a degree, certainly to some of us on these Benches, to hear some speeches made by Ministers which simply do not deal with the issues. How can the House discipline the practice? How can one intervene in the middle of a Minister's speech if one is practical about the matter? How can the Leader of the House rise to say, "This is a rotten speech. You are not dealing with any of the questions"? He cannot do so. With respect to my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter, it is not for the Leader of the House to say, "This is a rotten speech, and you cannot do that". It is for the Leader of the House quietly to persuade, albeit behind the scenes, that this practice should cease.

I have not attended this House for long but all Leaders of the House have served it magnificently. We have always accepted their interventions in good heart. Can we not leave it at that?

Lord Ardwick

My Lords, on behalf of those who do not have an impromptu gift of speech, perhaps I may remind noble Lords that one of the greatest readers of speeches was Winston Churchill. So too was Sir Stafford Cripps. The issue depends not so much on whether or not a speech is read but whether it is composed as a speech and not as a memorandum. It also depends upon the way in which it is delivered. Some people are capable of writing speeches and delivering them from a script.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, in relation to the method of choosing topical Questions, I observe that they are to be "chosen by lot". Would it not be livelier if occasionally they were chosen by Lot's wife?

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Alport, for what he said. I am a very new Member of the House. In a debate in which I have only five minutes to speak on an important subject, I have a strong wish to be able to say something solid and worthwhile. I still find it easier to write out such a speech than to deliver it impromptu. I wish that I could be like my noble friends Lord Peyton and Lord Boyd-Carpenter; but I am not. I hope that the House will be indulgent with those of us who do our best but who read, not from lobbying material but from what we have written based on our own knowledge.

Lord Geddes

My Lords, as regards the reading of speeches other than by speakers on the Front Bench, while I warmly support remarks made by noble Lords today we have to be careful about the recommendation. I intervene briefly to ask a series of questions. How is the House to know whether a speech is being read verbatim? Are they extremely succinct notes? Are they rather full notes? Is it a full text which is being elaborated upon? There are many grey areas on the subject.

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, my noble friend the Chairman of Committees will respond to the points made but a number were directed at me. It may be for the convenience of the House if I intervene briefly.

As often happens in this House, as the debate proceeded common sense took over and I was happy with most of the contributions. It seems to me that the rules have to be interpreted with reason and common sense at all times. One hopes to avoid a situation where someone is clearly reading a speech, boring everyone and not getting the issue over well. However, I am not sure that the right way to deal with the issue is to intervene at that moment. There are other ways in which we can deal with the matter.

The generality of views expressed in the debate is right. And the Procedure Committee was right to draw our attention to a practice which perhaps had gone a little the wrong way.

Perhaps I may say a word about Front Bench speeches. I agree that Ministers should always answer debates. When I am in the Chamber I always consider that they do so well, if I may say so. However, the House has to recognise that it is important that Ministers stick closely to their briefs. They have obviously to answer the debate but they have also to make sure that the views of Her Majesty's Government are properly expressed in this House. From that point of view I do not know that their position has been made easier by a recent judicial decision of this House in Pepper v. Hart. There were perfectly sensible reasons for coming to that decision, but it makes it necessary for Ministers to be particularly careful what they say from the Front Bench. I have listened to what Members have said. We shall certainly try to do our best from this Dispatch Box.

I refer to the sittings of the House, and the group that I intend to set up. I have deliberately not started to consult with anyone until discovering whether the House wished us to set that group up. I have an open mind as to how best to set about it. I should be interested to hear the views of any noble Lord on the best way of doing so. The noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, has given an indication. Even from this Front Bench I am as conservative as he is on the way in which changes should take place. But nevertheless there are times when they should occur.

I was intrigued at my noble friend Lord Peyton saying that those who wanted to write their speeches out should deposit them somewhere. He did not say quite where they should be deposited.

The Chairman of Committees

My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords—15 in number—who have taken part in this brief debate. I shall try my best to reply to it and obviously I shall not be reading my speech. Perhaps I may work backwards through the report in that the fourth item was not referred to at all. I therefore take it that the House is content with it.

On "Topical Questions", there seems to be a general welcome for the fact that there should be an experimental period and we shall see how it works. I take the point that there may be a similarity between a Private Notice Question—in other words, a matter of great urgency—and what is topical. However, I think that one must leave it to the good sense of the House, and I am sure that that will prevail. I do not believe that they are necessarily the same. There are plenty of subjects which are topical and plenty which may be regarded as urgent, but it does not happen too frequently that the House or the Leader of the House is invited to allow a Private Notice Question. This proposal is well worth while and I hope that it will be a success. But if it is not, the matter can immediately be reviewed.

On the subject of reading, the noble Lord the Leader of the House has already commented. The situation is immensely difficult. Many of us have never been in politics in our lives before and make very bad speeches off the cuff. It could be said that they are pretty bad when we read them.

I think what was incensing the House in July was that immense tomes seemed to be being read which had patently come from a source which was not the inspiration of the noble Lord reading them. That is something to which we must give considerable thought. It is not an easy matter. Some can do it. The noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, is a hero to us all in his ability, as well as others such as the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, who is not in her place. Some of us cannot. But to lay down rules beyond those in the Companion seems to me to be extraordinarily difficult. Perhaps it is a matter which can be looked at by the group which is to be set up.

Therefore, I turn, if I may, to the group. It was agreed in early July, and the House will recollect that we had other things to do during that month. The Leader of the House wished to await the opportunity afforded by the Motion now before the House before he embarked upon the discussions necessary before the group can be set up. He will have heard all that has been said today. I hope it will be a group which can look at everything with a totally open mind and imagination to see whether there are ways to make our procedures work better. Whether or not it is successful remains to be seen, but I do not think there is any need to be alarmed by this because its report will go to the Procedure Committee.

It was suggested by one noble Lord that the Procedure Committee itself might be the appropriate body, but I believe that it is too big a group to be able to do such a thing quietly, calmly and inventively. A little invention would not be a bad thing. The proposals would then, of course, come to the House and if the House does not care for them, it will reject them. I am glad that on the whole there has been a general welcome for the report and I commend it to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.