HL Deb 16 March 1994 vol 553 cc235-44

2.57 p.m.

The Chairman of Committees (Lord Ampthill)

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

I hope that most of the report is self-explanatory. I should like to refer briefly to the two matters raised in the report where changes are proposed; namely items 4 and 5, concerned with balloted short debates and other time-limited debates.

Balloted short debates were introduced in your Lordships' House in 1972, and since 1982 time limits have also been applied by order of the House to many other debates. The success of time-limited debates has been shown by the fact that the procedures have been gradually extended, so that now there is freedom to apply time limits of any length.

Nevertheless, on a number of occasions a large number of noble Lords have put their names down to speak in balloted short debates, and as a consequence speeches have on occasion been limited to five minutes or even less. As a result there have been calls for reviews of the procedure, and these have frequently taken place.

In 1987 the group on the working of the House considered various changes which would have provided more time for speakers in popular debates, but rejected them. The group commented that, all these expedients might encourage motions covering broad subject matter ill suited to Short Debates". Since then the Procedure Committee has returned to this matter on several occasions, and has always taken the same view as the group on the working of the House: namely, that the subject matter of short debates should be tailored to the time allotted, rather than the other way round.

In item 4 in this report the committee has adhered to that approach, and has recommended only one change—that there should be an indication on the list of speakers in the Government Whip's Office of the time available for each speaker, so that noble Lords considering adding their names to an already long list will be made aware of the consequent limit on speaking time which will apply both to themselves and to all other Back-Bench speakers.

Item 5 of the report is concerned with the application of time limits to debates by order of the House. The committee suggests that it would be for the convenience of the House that on Wednesdays when there are two debates, both debates should always be time-limited and that the sum of the two time limits should not exceed six hours. This guidance should be helpful both to Lords speaking in the debates and to those taking part in any following business.

Moved, That the first report from the Select Committee be agreed to (HL Paper 29).—(The Chairman of Committees.)

Following is the report referred to:


1. SITTINGS OF THE HOUSE The Committee has been informed by the Leader of the House that he has consulted the other party leaders, and the Convenor of the Cross-bench Peers, and has reached agreement on the setting up of a group of five members to consider "the practices and procedures of the House in so far as they affect the sittings of the House". It is hoped that the group will report in time for its findings to be considered by the Committee before the summer recess.

2. DEREGULATION AND CONTRACTING OUT BILL The Committee has given preliminary consideration to those provisions of the Deregulation and Contracting Out Bill, now in Standing Committee in the House of Commons, which give ministers power by order, made by statutory instrument subject to affirmative resolution procedure, to amend or repeal primary legislation which imposes a burden. The bill provides for a forty-day period, supplementary to the normal affirmative resolution procedure, during which the House would have an opportunity to scrutinise a proposal made under the power. The Committee has appointed a sub-committee to take evidence and report on the procedures the House should adopt for making use of the additional opportunity for scrutiny in the event of the relevant provisions being enacted.

3. HYBRID INSTRUMENT PROCEDURE The Committee has considered whether any changes are desirable in the procedures of the House relating to hybrid instruments. This procedure, which exists only in this House and not in the House of Commons, was introduced in 1924. In 1973 the Joint Committee on Delegated Legislation concluded that it had "for nearly 50 years provided valuable safeguards for private interests affected by delegated legislation, and should be retained" (First Report, 1972–73, paragraph 55). The Committee notes that the setting up of the Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee has ensured that careful scrutiny is given to any provision in a bill which disapplies hybrid instrument procedure. The Committee reaffirms the value of this procedure and recommends no change.

4. SHORT DEBATES The Committee last reported in March 1993 (Third Report, 1992–93) on the difficulties which arise when there are a large number of speakers in a balloted short debate, limited to 2½ hours. Since then, notwithstanding the Committee's recommendation 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", there has been one short debate where speaking time was limited to 4 minutes, and another where it was limited to 5 minutes. The Committee does not recommend any change in the rules governing short debates, but recommends that the list of speakers kept in the Government Whip's Office should indicate the time available to each speaker, so that Lords considering adding their names to an already long list will be made aware of the consequent limit on speaking time which will apply to them and other speakers.

5. TIME-LIMITED DEBATES The Committee considers that it would be helpful for guidance to be given on the time limits to be applied by order of the House on Wednesdays when there are two debates (other than balloted short debates). The Committee accordingly recommends:

  1. (1) that on Wednesdays when there are two debates, both debates should always be time-limited; and
  2. (2) that the sum of the two time limits should not exceed six hours.
As the actual time limits applying to each debate arc not usually known until shortly before the debates take place, this guidance should be helpful in giving greater certainty both to those speaking in the debates and to those taking part in any following business, such as a private member's bill or an unstarred question.

6. TIME ALLOWED FOR DISCUSSION OF STATEMENTS Since the House's agreement to the First Report from the Committee, 1989–90, on 12 February 1990, there has been a maximum time of 20 minutes for discussion of statements, beginning when the minister has replied to the Opposition spokesmen. The Committee has considered whether any change in the arrangements is desirable, in the light of the fact that, on occasion, not all back-benchers who wished to speak have been able to do so because others have filled all of the 20-minute period. This situation arose on 13 December 1993, when the Leader of the House agreed that the matter should be considered by the appropriate committee (Official Report, col. 143). The Committee does not consider that any change in the arrangements is desirable. The problem could largely be avoided if all Lords (including ministers and front-bench spokesmen) were to keep their interventions brief.

7. REVIEW OF SESSION 1992–93 Pursuant to a recommendation of the Group on the Working of the House, the Committee agreed in 1988 "to give annual consideration, at the beginning of each session, to the proceedings of the House in the previous session and, where appropriate, to make a report on procedural difficulties which may have arisen" (First Report, 1987–88). The Committee has accordingly reviewed the proceedings of the House in Session 1992–93. In general, the Committee has reported on difficulties as they have arisen. This review does, however, provide an appropriate opportunity for the Committee to refer briefly to three bills which were in different ways exceptional. European Communities (Amendment) Bill The proceedings on this Bill were exceptional in so far as a bill which was itself quite narrow in purpose raised highly significant and controversial issues. While some of the amendments which were tabled were of doubtful relevance to the subject-matter of the Bill, the Committee considers that the circumstances are unlikely to recur in the near future and that it is unnecessary to change the rules of the House in relation to the relevance of amendments. Railways Bill The controversy over provisions of this bill led to the Government being defeated on 3 November 1993 on consideration of the Commons amendments and reasons in reply to the Lords amendments. In consequence the House was adjourned during pleasure for discussions through the usual channels on the timetable for further stages. The Leader of the House then moved that the House should adjourn again until 11 p.m. in order to enable any further Commons message to be considered the same day. This motion was agreed to on division after considerable debate, but in the event no Commons message had been received by 11 p.m. and the House adjourned until the following day. The Committee doubts whether these proceedings, and the failure of the usual channels to reach agreement, could have been avoided by means of any change in the House's practice or procedure, and therefore recommends none. Education Bill This bill was debated for seven days in committee, for three days on report and for one day at third reading. Proceedings continued until after midnight on nine of these eleven days, until after 2 a.m. on seven days, and until after 3 a.m. on five days. The Committee suggests that the question how to avoid a repetition of such proceedings might usefully be considered by the Leader's group on sittings of the House.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, as regards paragraph 4 of the report on balloted debates, and as the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees said, it is ordained that the allotted time of two-and-a-half hours must stand and that the speaking time for each noble Lord must be tailored to two-and-a-half hours irrespective of the number of speakers in a debate.

This rigid application of an inflexible rule from which there is no derogation possible prohibits any voluntary transfer between two debates, as your Lordships will appreciate is possible for all other time-limited debates as proposed in paragraph 5 of the report.

There is no wish to alter the 12 o'clock rule by which that is the time at which the list of speakers is closed. However, if two noble Lords can make a voluntary accommodation, say, after Question Time or before three o'clock, to transfer time between their debates when there are to be many more speakers in one debate than in the other, surely that should not be prohibited. Indeed, such an arrangement was made between the noble Lord, Lord Stallard, and myself on 15th December. The noble Lord very generously offered speakers in my debate 10 minutes instead of seven and asked me whether that would be all right. I asked him if was satisfied that noble Lords wishing to speak in his debate would be satisfied as well, and he said that he was. I put that to the usual channels. At first they made no objection because it would not affect the business of the House; it was a matter between noble Lords and all were content. But the arrangement was struck down by this inflexible rule.

I gave notice to the Leader of the House, the Chairman of Committees and the Government Chief Whip that I intended to raise the matter on the Floor of the House because to me it seems a ridiculous and pointless restriction. It is an inflexibility which destroys the essence of debate. As speakers tend to gallop for the record against the time limit of four or five minutes there is no inclination on the part of any noble Lord to give way. As the Select Committee on Procedure is to reconvene on 23rd May I have raised the matter now so that, whether or not your Lordships think that there is any sense in what I am saying, your Lordships can at least consider it.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, I should like to support the views that have just been expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway. When one compares paragraphs 4 and 5, there appears to be an undue amount of inflexibility about paragraph 4. Paragraph 5 implies that if on the day of a debate rather more noble Lords wish to speak than had been anticipated (which can always happen however limited the subject might be because a subject might be topical but also limited) there is flexibility to adjust time limits within a period of six hours. I fail to see why there could not at least be flexibility up to three hours in the case of short debates. I think that it is wrong that a noble Lord who may want to participate in a debate might be deterred by being told, "If you participate you will be able to speak for only three minutes and you will limit other speeches to three minutes". I do not think that that is the attitude that we should adopt in this House.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, I hope that my noble friend the Leader of the House will pay great attention to the two speeches that have just been made which indicate considerable defects in the working of the system of short debates.

I should like to raise two other points. First, I find paragraph 4 of the report by the Select Committee on Procedure very unsatisfactory. It refers quite properly to the desire to limit the subject matter of such debates to matters which are relatively unimportant and relatively uncomplicated and which can thus be discussed properly within two-and-a-half or three hours. However, no proposal for enforcing that has been put forward. I suggest that your Lordships might consider the proposition that the Leader of the House should be expected to notice what subjects are being chosen for the short debates; that where a major subject is proposed, which plainly cannot be properly discussed in that short period and in four-minute speeches, he should be able to rule it out of order and suggest either that another less wide-ranging subject be chosen or that the mover of that particular debate should be passed over in favour of another.

The only other point that I do not follow relates to the last part of paragraph 4 and the suggestion that was made that some advance notice of the time that is likely to be allowed to speakers should be given when noble Lords put down their names to speak in such debates. That does not seem feasible because, as I understand it, names can be put down until midday on the day of the debate. As I understand it, it is not uncommon for quite a lot of names to be put down on the day of the debate or the previous evening. If one is sticking to the three-hour time limit, that will affect the time available to all speakers.

These are the conclusive points against such debates. If they are on major subjects of major importance and if, as a result of the number of speakers, speeches are confined to five or six minutes, that means, first, that the subject is not properly discussed and, secondly and perhaps evenly more importantly, that there is not a real debate. Those of your Lordships who have participated in such debates know that with only five or six minutes you cannot give way to an intervention or deal with an interruption. You have to read —I am afraid that "read" is generally the word—your speech quickly to get it into the few minutes that are allowed. In other words, such debates are not "debates" as most of your Lordships would understand that word, but tend to become essay-reading societies.

Lord Shepherd

My Lords, I wonder whether the Chairman of Committees can help me, and perhaps the House, in regard to paragraph 5. It is understood that this is an Opposition day. The Opposition have decided to have two debates and are therefore governed by this rule. However, supposing that today was a Liberal Democrat day and that that party had placed one Motion on the Order Paper and that some noble Lord—for mischief, shall we say—intended to seek another debate, would paragraph 5 then apply?

On reading the provisions, it seems that one could circumvent a major debate merely by putting down on the Order Paper another subject for debate. There may be some provision of which I am not aware that could prevent that, but I have always understood that the Order Paper is always open for Motions to be tabled. It is only by convention and good manners that we make arrangements for the convenience of the House. It seems to me that unless we tie this up fairly tightly in standing orders we might find ourselves in some difficulty.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, questions have been raised and criticisms have been offered in connection with short debates. I should like to add my support to the proposition that was made by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, and to his plea for greater flexibility.

The problem arose in a debate which I sponsored on the subject of forestry. It was a short, time-limited debate, but 25 noble Lords had put down their names to speak. Many had travelled from the far corners of this country to speak on that day, but on arrival they discovered that they had only five minutes in which to contribute, having come from Ross and Cromarty, Inverness and other distant places. However, the preceding short debate on the same day was under-subscribed. The speakers in that debate did not take all the time that was allotted to them. I sought on that day to get some flexibility whereby a noble Lord who has initiated a debate that is under-subscribed could cut the time that is available for that debate. However, I was advised that we were limited to two-and-a-half hours for our debate on forestry and that no flexibility was possible.

I suggest that the Select Committee on Procedure should look again at this question. Under the new arrangements which provide three hours, noble Lords might be allowed six minutes instead of five, but I suggest that the committee responds to the request that there should be greater flexibility.

I have only one other point to make. It relates to the paragraph on Statements. I note that the committee has not been moved by the suggestion that more time should be allotted to Back-Benchers wishing to ask questions on government Statements. Whenever we have a Statement in the House, it is generally on a matter of national importance. There is a great deal of experience and knowledge of and concern for such matters, but under the present arrangements all the Back-Benchers in the House are allowed only 20 minutes to intervene on questions of national importance which are the subject of the government's Statement. I suggest that Back-Benchers may have something to contribute on those matters, and may wish to express their concern. I hope that the committee will look again at the possibility of Back-Benchers having an extended opportunity to comment upon government Statements.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, the Lord Chairman of Committees said that when one asks about a debate one is able to be told roughly the time allotted. I did just that yesterday about this afternoon's first debate. At that time I thought that the debate would be a two-and-a-half hour debate. There were already a great many speakers, and so I did not put down my name. When I asked how many Conservatives were speaking, I was told that there were 16 names down of which only three were Conservatives. For a debate in the House to be a good one we must have speakers from all parts of the House. I wonder what procedure could be introduced, perhaps through the usual channels, because it seems to me to be inappropriate to end up with a one-sided debate, whichever side that happens to be. That is another point into which I hope the noble Lord will look.

I like time-limited debates, because if I put down my name I sit through the whole debate. That is the tradition of the House. But the longer the debate the fewer people one sees in the Chamber for the whole debate. That is a great argument for retaining the shorter debates.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, perhaps I may intervene briefly on one point; that is, the matter raised by the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter. I hope that the Leader of the House will resist any suggestion—I am sure that he will—that he should be able to—

Noble Lords

Lord Boyd-Carpenter!

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, I apologise to both noble Lords. I meant the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter. Perhaps I should start again. I want merely to raise the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter. I hope that the Leader of the House will resist the noble Lord's suggestion that he should have some veto over what subjects are discussed in your Lordships' House. We are a self-regulating House. Although the usual channels may use their good offices to persuade people not to put down particular subjects because they are too large to be debated in a short debate, any sense that the Leader of the House should have the power to veto should be resisted. I have no doubt that the Leader of the House will wish to resist that suggestion.

Lord Aberdare

My Lords, I should like to express my view that the procedure committee is right about balloted debates. I do not believe that we should make any changes. I was privileged to sit on the committee that first recommended that they should be introduced. They represented an enormous step forward for Back-Benchers who before that were able only to ask questions, either Starred or Unstarred. The short debates have been a tremendous success, especially for those who sit mostly on the Back-Benches. I believe that one essence of that success is the simplicity of the rules. We all know that there are two-and-a-half hours for each debate: we know when they start; we know when they end; we can plan our day. There is a great deal of merit in not tinkering with the rules.

I realise that some of the shorter time limits may be rather upsetting. I believe that they are more upsetting to the speakers than they are to the listeners. When I sat on the Woolsack and listened to the short debates I always found it stimulating when the debate was moving along at a fairly smart pace. One could look forward to a change of face, a change of voice and a change of opinion. I think that we should leave well alone.

The real trouble, as has already been said, is that the subjects are sometimes far too wide for a short debate. I am sure that that could be pointed out to the mover of the debate, if not by the usual channels perhaps by the Clerks They might suggest that although a debate on forestry is a good one, it is not suitable for a short debate and that the wording could be tightened to draw attention to one particular aspect of forestry which might be better suited to a debate of two-and-a-half hours. As regards the debates on days allotted to parties, the suggestion seems sensible. Those debates are different from the balloted debates.

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, before my noble friend the Lord Chairman responds to the points raised, as a number have been directed at me perhaps I could say just a word or two about balloted debates and time-limited debates. The procedure committee has given consideration to those matters on a number of occasions, and the fact that on this occasion it has not recommended a change does not mean that they have not been given serious consideration. It has recommended a small change; that is to say, the third report of the Procedure Committee of the 1992–93 Session indicated that the Clerks now scrutinise the subjects for debate to advise noble Lords as to whether they think they are suitable for a short debate.

My noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter suggested that that procedure should, in a sense, be strengthened by the Leader of the House ruling that a subject was too substantial for a two-and-a-half hour debate. I view that with some considerable trepidation. The proposition that a subject is too important to be debated in two-and-a-half hours puts the whole issue of Questions and Answers in the House into some perspective. Of course, if that is what the House wanted I have no doubt that the Leader of the House would have to get on and would have to try and do it, but I share the view expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, and I shall not be recommending to the House that it go down that road.

However there is a central point which your Lordships should bear in mind, and that is on the nature of balloted short debates. I stand, of course, to be corrected by those of your Lordships' House with greater experience than I have, but my understanding of the purpose of the ballot is that it provides a chance for Back-Benchers to place before your Lordships issues which they deem to be worthy of debate. In that sense, the balloted debate is an important safeguard for the rights of individual Members of your Lordships' House.

By contrast, other Wednesday debates are, as your Lordships know, usually put forward after discussion within individual parties and noble Lords on the Cross-Benches. While I understand fully why my noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway feels that there should be some flexibility in the two-and-a-half hour allocation —although he was unable to be present at the meeting of the Procedure Committee that discussed that matter, my noble friend the Chief Whip ensured that his views were fully understood by the committee—there is a danger that individual Peers might, on some occasions, be pressurised into agreeing to a shorter time limit for their debates than they would otherwise hope to have. It might happen, for instance, that a debate raised a number of extremely important matters and a number of Peers had indicated that they wanted to speak in it. In those circumstances, a Peer sponsoring a debate of a rather more individual character might feel pressurised into restricting his debate. I can imagine other circumstances in which the same result might occur.

It seems to me, therefore, that it is the rather special nature of balloted debates, safeguarding the rights of individual Peers, that indicates that they should have different treatment from that afforded to debates on a Wednesday, which are normally time-limited. That is one of the reasons why I support the report.

Lord Richard

My Lords, perhaps I may raise one issue before the Chairman of Committees replies. At first blush I had some sympathy with the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway. However, the difficulty is that if the allocation of two two-and-a-half hours is to be altered by agreement between the sponsors of the debates it is too late to do so after 12 o'clock on the day. I speak for myself in saying that when the matter came before the Procedure Committee I was struck by the fact that in trying to cure the fault raised by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, which is a decent, fair and legitimate point, one would create a greater difficulty. If one moves away from the limit of 12 o'clock on the day of the debate one would have to make it the day before. The upset caused to the House in noble Lords being unable to put their names on the list after 12 o'clock on the day before the debate would be greater than the difficulties which occasionally arise in respect of two two-and-a-half hour debates.

On the whole, noble Lords participating in the two two-and-a-half hour debates make arrangements and organise their diaries around them. If one were speaking in the second debate, arrived on time and discovered that, by agreement over the heads of noble Lords who were mere participants and not sponsors, the first debate had been extended to four hours and the second debate cut to only one some vexation of spirit would be occasioned.

The problem is difficult and I do not deny that. However, I believe that on balance it is better to leave the situation as it is with noble Lords having until 12 o'clock on the day of the debate to add their names to the list rather than to move in the opposite direction.

The Chairman of Committees

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Lords the Leader of the House and the Leader of the Opposition. I am perhaps even more grateful to my predecessor the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, who lived through this intractable problem for a great many years.

Before dealing with the subject of the balloted debates, perhaps I may deal with the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, about the time allotted to government Statements. The matter was considered at the latest meeting of the procedure committee. It was recognised that, as has happened in respect of Starred Questions, if one allocates extra time that will be taken up regardless of whether the time is needed. It is a value judgment about what is important. The noble Lord the Leader of the House is unwilling to undertake the task of making a decision as to what is important. I do not believe that any noble Lord will wish to undertake it and to make a value judgment. It is not for him nor for anyone else; it is for the House as a whole to decide such matters. I do not believe that an extension by 10 minutes, which perhaps is what the noble Lord has in mind, will resolve the problem. There will be occasions when the House feels frustrated that it has had insufficient time but I believe that it is better to leave the position as it is. We have not frequently felt that there is pressure to extend a debate.

The noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, was worried about the list which is now in use in the Government Whip's Office and asked whether it would of help to speakers. I do not know whether he has seen the way in which the list is now set out. It merely indicates to a noble Lord who puts his name down at, say, number 10 on the list that he will have nine minutes in which to speak, as will all others. When one reaches number 15 the time allocated will be six minutes and at number 20 it will be four minutes. It is supposed to be a guide to your Lordships to indicate that they will be depriving not only themselves of an opportunity to speak at length but others whose names are already on the list. It will not solve the problem but it might be a small help. The suggestion came from noble Lords on the Cross Benches and it was thought by the committee to be worthy. It was decided to give the idea a trial in order to see whether it helped.

The noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, was worried about the party days. I do not know why he chose the Liberal Democrats to be given the benefit of the day, suggesting that someone might intervene with another Motion which would upset that great party. Perhaps he was making a party political point, but I do not think so. The Order Paper is open, but not indefinitely. The Order Paper is closed at a certain stage and I do not believe that the noble Lord's worry is founded. It is observed by all quarters of the House that on a party day it is for that party to occupy that day in the manner that it chooses, either with one full debate or with two debates, which can now be divided up between any timescale within six hours. That is working well.

What continues to give cause for concern is the matter of the two-and-a-half hour balloted debates. The Procedure Committee has gone over this ground innumerable times. It has come to the conclusion that there is no way in which it can fairly make a variation on the fixed nature of those two debates. It brings into question someone exercising a judgment as to what is important and I do not believe that anyone wishes to undertake that decision. The noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, was able to negotiate with the noble Lord, Lord Stallard. His debate had more speakers and the noble Lord, Lord Stallard, was more than willing to devote time out of his debate. It was a negotiation of complexity which, in the event, would not have made a great deal of difference. Although the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, said that it would have made a difference of some minutes, the statistics of the debate indicate that only 14 minutes could have been stolen from the second debate and added to his debate. In the light of the number of speakers in that debate there would have been less than one minute extra for each speaker.

I understand the frustrations but the problem is almost insoluble—in fact, I believe that it is insoluble. I strongly commend to the House the recommendations of the noble Lords the Leader of the House and the Leader of the Opposition; that we continue to regard it as the right course of action for noble Lords not to put down subjects for the balloted debates which cannot properly be dealt with within two-and-a-half hours. I commend the Motion to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.