§ 3.56 p.m.
My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.
849 I am all too conscious that I am rather inflicting myself on your Lordships this afternoon and therefore I rise with rather more trepidation than usual to introduce the report which we are considering this afternoon; namely, the Report to the Leader of the House from the Group on Sittings of the House, chaired with his usual ability by my noble friend Lord Rippon. I am sure that, like me, your Lordships are grateful to my noble friend and his committee for their most valuable report and to my predecessor, my noble friend Lord Wakeham, for his initiative in suggesting that they should consider this most important subject.
In March this year my noble friend Lord Wakeham appointed the group chaired by my noble friend:To consider the practices and procedures of the House in so far as they affect sittings of the House".My noble friend was responding in characteristically well-judged fashion to the feeling of a number of your Lordships that the House was sitting too long and too late. In particular, the prospect that recommendations from the Jopling Committee could lead to another place sitting for fewer hours prompted a wish to examine our own procedures.
I am sure that it will come as no surprise to your Lordships that my noble friend and other members of the group carried out that examination most thoroughly. I believe that their report is thoughtful and considered, and I hope that it will provoke a useful debate this afternoon and also in the Procedure Committee.
It may be helpful to your Lordships if I indicate briefly how I think we might best act on the report's recommendations. Above all, today's debate gives the whole House an opportunity to consider and comment upon the contents of the report. When I have had the opportunity to reflect on all that your Lordships say this afternoon I should like to invite the Procedure Committee to consider what changes, if any, should be implemented on the basis of the report's recommendations. The report of the Procedure Committee will then be laid before the House for approval in the usual way. I am prompted to suggest this course of action because I understand that it is the same as that adopted in 1987 by the then Leader of the House, my noble friend Lord Whitelaw, in respect of a similar report, and I hope that that procedure will meet with the approval of your Lordships.
It is right that I should emphasise that my primary purpose this afternoon is to listen to the views expressed in the House and to let those views inform such proposals as I may eventually make to the Procedure Committee. However, it may assist your Lordships if I make a few observations on the recommendations which the report contains which, as I am speaking first without having had the benefit of listening to the views of the House, must be of a provisional, preliminary and even tentative nature.
Perhaps I may say, first, that in my view the report presents us with an opportunity that we should not overlook. In his inimitable way, the noble Lord, Lord Dean, made an important point this afternoon. If by small adjustments to our proceedings we can achieve early hours of rising, we should be very happy indeed. If 850 we can do so without resort to selection of amendments, selection of speakers, or use of guillotines, I am sure that your Lordships would be as happy as I would be. Such procedures seem inimical to the work of your Lordships' House as a revising Chamber and without them I doubt that we can ensure that the nature of the work of this House and its spirit could be preserved. As a result, from time to time we may, unavoidably, sit late into the evening. Nevertheless, any movement in the direction of shorter sitting times within the spirit and well-established practice of your Lordships' House is much to be welcomed.
Your Lordships will be aware that the report makes five key recommendations. First, the idea of informal meetings between Ministers, officials and Peers seems to me sensible. I understand that already that takes place occasionally, perhaps even often, in the most informal manner. Indeed, I know how valuable such meetings can be in ironing out uncertainty or misunderstanding and in airing concerns which Ministers can then seek to meet. However, I am less convinced that such meetings serve to shorten Committee stages which, after all, are the occasions when your Lordships, and not only noble Lords opposite, wish to be seen to be taxing the Government over a given piece of legislation. I have doubts, too, about the wisdom of extending the minimum interval between Second Reading and Committee since our minimum intervals are perhaps already quite generous; but I shall, again, be guided by your Lordships in this matter.
The group's second main recommendation is that Bills might be referred to Committees of the Whole House off the Floor. While this might give rise to some timetabling difficulties, since I have no doubt that your Lordships would resist having two major or contentious Bills under consideration simultaneously, it would certainly save time in the House. However, I suggest that the group's related recommendation —that such a Committee should not vote—is crucial, were it to be adopted, if we are to uphold the principle that, on the whole, your Lordships vote after hearing and considering the arguments.
There are some difficulties arising from this proposal, however. For instance, this House's function as a revising Chamber means, perforce, that the Committee stage is a central part of its legislative proceedings and as such belongs, if I may put it this way, in the mainstream of our consideration of Bills. It follows that if the committee's recommendation were adopted, the Bills selected for this new procedure should be chosen with the greatest of care and that, initially at least, that innovation should be treated very much as an experiment. I shall be particularly interested, if I may say so, in your Lordships' views on this section of the report.
The third main recommendation is the one with which, I confess, I have most difficulty of all. The carrying over of public Bills from one Session to another would give the Government of the day an unprecedented advantage. The principle of taking one Session at a time, it seems to me, is fundamental to the way in which our parliamentary business is arranged, 851 and provides the Opposition with one of their most useful tools—perhaps their only useful tool apart from the power of argument—that of delay.
The fourth recommendation is that all Unstarred Questions should be time-limited to l½ hours. I have to say that I find this an attractive idea. However, it might be that there is also a case for retaining the one hour Unstarred Question which may be taken in the dinner break, since this, it seems to me, has the advantage of a more or less fixed starting time, and is suitable for debate of fairly discrete topics or, indeed, those which are of specialised interest.
The fifth main recommendation which the group has made is that Friday sittings might, when appropriate, be used for Private Members' business.
My Lords, I hear what my noble friend says from a sedentary position and I suspect from representations that I have already had—
My Lords, perhaps I may repeat what my noble friend said for the benefit of those i who did not hear it. He said, "That is not on". I believe that I quote him exactly. But there is clearly an advantage in not sitting on Fridays. It is that there is one weekday—perhaps I should declare an interest — on which Ministers can undertake other ministerial duties and on which others of your Lordships can pursue other responsibilities. I am not entirely persuaded that taking Private Members' business on Fridays would result in legislative business being completed at an earlier hour on other sitting days which, after all, is the objective of my noble friend's committee. We know from long experience that Parkinson's law applies to parliamentary time at least as much as to any other field. That no doubt is a matter which the Procedure Committee will wish to take into account when it considers what changes to recommend.
I do not wish to delay your Lordships. My job today is to listen to the views of your Lordships and to take careful account of them. However, I thought it might be useful if I sought to give a brief indication of my provisional views. In conclusion, perhaps I may again thank my noble friend Lord Rippon and his colleagues for what seems to me to be an extremely thought-provoking and useful report.
§ Moved, That this House takes note of the report to the Leader of the House from the Group on Sittings of the House (HL Paper 83).—(Viscount Cranborne.)
§ 4.8 p.m.
§ Lord Richard
My Lords, perhaps I may start in the same way as the noble Viscount the Leader of the House in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Rippon, and his committee for the work they have done and the report they have presented. If I may say so, it is a thoughtful, worthwhile document. It is a useful starting point for our discussions on the subject, as I am sure it was meant to be. In that respect, I certainly welcome the report.
852 The subject is clearly a matter for the House and not for the usual channels. If ever the usual channels were there to act as a conduit, I would say that this is the time. My function today is to listen to, and ponder on, what Members of the House say to see how fax we can move the position on.
Like the noble Viscount the Leader of the House I, too, wish to say a few words and give some indications of how I approach these matters. It is I who speak and not my party. Therefore anything that I say is essentially in my capacity as a Member of the House, although as part of the usual channels I undertake to ensure that what is said is channelled in the appropriate direction.
It is important that we are clear at the outset about the nature of this House. If we do not get the nature of the House right and are not agreed on the kind of House we are and what we are supposed to be doing, it is difficult to get the procedure right. We are not a House of full-time, paid, professional politicians. If we were, then matters might be different. But we are not. Therefore, our times of sitting and the way in which we organise our business are bound to be somewhat unusual. However, while they may be unusual, I do not think they have to be downright eccentric It is basically wrong, absurd and thoroughly unwelcome that this House should be considering serious and major legislation at two or three o'clock in the morning or later. We had an appalling example of that on the Education Bill in the last Session of Parliament. We have also had it in this Session.
As a starting point, we should try to view the proposals and any others in relation to procedure against the proposition: will it actually help the House to consider major legislation in a sensible way at a sensible hour? Although it is not spelt out in the report, I think we should aim for a 10 o'clock rising of the House when it considers normal business.
Perhaps I may turn to the topics in the report, starting, as did the Leader of the House, with the proposals in relation to committees off the Floor. First, if Fridays were to become genuinely a Private Members' day, that should release some time for Committee stages on the Floor itself. I do not think we should ignore that possibility.
Secondly, the principle that every Peer can participate is one which clearly should be preserved. It is a valuable right that we have. Prima facie, I have to say that my instinct and inclination are that Committee stages should take place on the Floor of the House rather than off the Floor of the House. That is only a personal view and I make certain exceptions. I do not think that the use of Public Bill Committees has been properly and fully explored. I served on the Public Bill Committee which considered the Charities Bill. It was not entirely a non-political Bill; it had some political content but not a great deal. It was fairly technical, quite thick and hefty, and required a fair degree of examination. However, I have to say to the House, as I have said before, the consideration in the committee of that Bill was a success. It worked. The committee consisted, on the whole, of people who were interested in it. It was given proper consideration. Also, although I am not entirely sure how, we managed to avoid a situation in 853 which everything was debated in the committee and then re-debated in the Chamber on Report and at Third Reading. That is obviously a great danger of Public Bill Committees. If we want to reserve the right of the House to consider a Bill on the Floor of the House and we take it off the Floor, people may feel that they have to do the Committee stage again when it comes back here. On the Charities Bill, at any rate, I believe that we managed to avoid that because it was a fairly technical and relatively uncontroversial piece of legislation.
I do not believe that the Public Bill Committee would necessarily work the same way in relation to major pieces of legislation where there is a political content and where perhaps more Members of your Lordships' House would be interested in the topics being discussed. On the other hand, the procedure is useful. It is a piece of our machinery which deserves to be used more, and that would help.
Special Standing Committees are, for such matters as Law Commission reports, an admirable device and, I hope, will be used. Much worthwhile legislation is pushed to the end of the queue when it could and should go through. With something like a Special Standing Committee, there is a fair chance of getting it through.
The more controversial recommendation, or suggestion, of the informal committee is interesting and one I have thought about. I say this: do not expect too much from it. It would be useful for getting rid of detailed technical issues —getting them out of the way. But one cannot ignore the politics. The dilemma is that for the procedure to be effective it has to apply to the big Bills. And the bigger the Bill is, the more political and therefore the more controversial it becomes.
I believe that if the procedure were to be introduced, either in the form proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, or the variation proposed by the Rippon Committee, there is a slight danger of over-cosiness which would perhaps not be good for the working of Parliament as a whole.
Secondly, how would one enforce the understandings reached in the informal committees when the Bill returns to the House without eroding the principle of universal participation? If the Bill has been discussed outside, off the Floor, and if there is an understanding— I believe that the report uses the phrase "by convention"—that it will not be re-discussed when it comes back to the Floor of the House, it seems to me that there will be a number of stages. There will be the Second Reading of the Bill; the informal committee, negotiation or whatever we like to call it, as a result of which certain matters are cleared out of the way; and the Bill then comes back to the House for the Committee stage. I do not see how we could prevent people speaking when the proper Committee stage takes place or prevent their raising matters which, on the face of it, had been cleared away in the informal committee. So I am not sure that we would save a great deal of time.
It is probably worth an experiment to have a committee at which advisers, civil servants and draftsmen would be present. While it is obviously important that we should address our remarks to Ministers, those who have been involved in politics 854 know that frequently such remarks are addressed to anonymous people sitting elsewhere in the Chamber. Frequently, one sees the rush from the ministerial Bench to the Box and back again with the answer coming just in time to save the Minister. If one could actually get at the people who are really doing the thinking—and I mean no disrespect to the Minister in saying that—those who do the nuts and bolts thinking when it comes to a Bill, it would be helpful. I would be in favour of an experiment along those lines.
I am not in favour of a Committee of the Whole House off the Floor. It seems to me the worst of all possible worlds. It would involve some Peers but perhaps not as many as would take part in the proper Committee stage if the Bill were on the Floor. If there were no Divisions, the process would have to be repeated; the issues which were important would have to be repeated and Divisions take place when the Bill came to the Report stage and Third Reading.
Nor do I like the proposal regarding amendments being deemed to be negatived unless accepted without a Division. That is a very difficult proposition for any Opposition to accept whether the committee is on the Floor of the House or off the Floor of the House. I am a little doubtful about it. In the words of the report, if it is only,a forum … for rehearsing the arguments comparatively informally",it is not very different from the informal committees with which the report deals earlier, either in the Aberdare form or in the Rippon variation thereof, if I may put it that way. So the proposal is well worth looking at. But, frankly, I am not convinced that we have got it quite right in either of the existing proposals.
I follow the Leader of the House on Unstarred Questions. To retain the practice of taking Unstarred Questions during the dinner hour is thoroughly desirable. It has worked, and seems to be working, quite well. Also, to have a time limit of an hour-and-a-half on Unstarred Questions outside the dinner hour would again be a good idea. I find the wording of the last sentence of paragraph 30 of the report a little surprising. The paragraph deals with an Unstarred Question where speakers would have a three-minute limitbut for the fact that the main business of the day was concluded without a dinner break and speakers on the unstarred question suddenly found themselves subject to no time limit. This kind of occasional mishap"—I thought that the "mishap" was serendipity of the highest order, at least for people taking part in the debate. Obviously that can happen, but by and large I support what the report says.
As regards Friday sittings, I am sorry that the Leader of the House—perhaps repeating the views of his noble friend Lord Harmar-Nicholls—was not more enthusiastic about them. It seems to me that one could establish as a general principle in this House—as is done in the other place—that there normally is business on a Friday, that it consists of relatively uncontroversial Private Members' business and Unstarred Questions; that Divisions do not take place; and that as a matter of normality government business is not introduced. I 855 would have thought that that was desirable. It would clear the Order Paper of a fair amount of other business and, frankly, leave the House free to get on with what—
§ Lord Harmar-Nicholls
My Lords, if the noble Lord will permit me to intervene, we know that "government business" develops into business other than strictly government business. Should we not keep in mind that it would be convenient only for people whose main house is in London? In this House, as indeed in the other place, Members perhaps derive the information which enables them to play a part here, not from London but from their own areas. Unless there is one weekday when one can feel with some certainty that one is able to go away and refresh one's mind, I do not believe that the contributions to our debates would be anything like as effective as they are.
§ Lord Richard
My Lords, that is the contrary argument. It is a fair point, and it is worth considering. It seems to me, however, that it is worthwhile having an experiment on Fridays to see whether or not the sort of thing that is proposed in the report by the noble Lord, Lord Rippon, makes sense and indeed helps to unclog the Order Paper so far as the rest of the business is concerned.
I share the view of the noble Viscount the Leader of the House on carrying over Bills. I do not believe that that is a practical proposition. In some ways it is so far away from normal parliamentary procedure that I personally would have some difficulty in accepting it. I fear, however, that I have to agree with the report in denying to the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, the variation that he has sought for a considerable time in relation to timed debates. The Procedure Committee went round and round this point, as the committee members will know, on a number of occasions. It is very difficult to see how it can be done, unless the number of speakers is restricted, or alternatively debates are open-ended. But once it has been decided to have a debate of three hours on a particular subject, one really cannot, on the morning of the debate or the day before, suddenly adjust the whole time limit.
I am sorry that I have spoken for rather longer than I had intended. I conclude by again thanking the noble Lord, Lord Rippon, and his committee. The report is helpful and useful. Some of its thinking is innovatory, and I hope that we shall have one or two experiments along some of the lines proposed.
§ 4.22 p.m.
§ Lord Jenkins of Hillhead
My Lords, I join with the two previous speakers in expressing our gratitude to the committee, and to the noble Lord, Lord Rippon of Hexham, in particular, for its speedy and succinct report. Perhaps I may express my thanks by being, on some issues at least, a little more positive towards the recommendations than the noble Viscount the Lord Privy Seal sounded on some of them, particularly towards the end of his speech.
856 In my view, the most striking sentence in this report is:The House of Lords sits for more hours each year than any other Parliamentary chamber in the world apart from the House of Commons".That is a rather remarkable fact in relation to an entirely amateur Chamber. It is in incredible contrast with the position, say, almost exactly 100 years ago, when half the sittings in this House took less than half an hour. There were, broadly, no more than about a dozen Members who habitually participated in debates at that time of year. Mr. Andrew Adonis produced a little book called Making Aristocracy Work, which I read during the summer. It contains some very interesting facts and figures relating to that period.
It may be thought that that was just a function of the much more leisurely parliamentary politics of Victorian times. But I do not believe that that is by any means the full explanation. It is an illusion to think that the parliamentary regime in another place was leisurely at that period. It was leisurely in one sense, in that it was concentrated into six months of the year, with a six-months' Recess. But within the six months, at any rate for the principal participants in the political process, the regime in the House of Commons was more strenuous and more demanding than it is at present. The House invariably sat for a full day—which often meant a full night—on Fridays. It quite often sat on Saturdays, 10 or 12 times a year being quite habitual. The short day was Wednesday. And it transacted an incredible amount of its business, including some of the most major orations of the period, between midnight and 2.30. The regime was very strenuous. There was, however, a much greater contrast between the regime in this House and that in the other place than is the case now. After 1886, this House became for a period almost a one-party Chamber. That reflected itself in the low level of interest and activity.
Most of us in this House would probably prefer the pressure on time of today to the moribundity of the 1890s. But that of course does not in any way excuse us from trying to use the time as effectively as possible and to avoid hours which can certainly be oppressive and may even be ridiculous.
The most serious and central recommendations, of which there are several, are clearly those that relate to holding Committee stages, or some approach to Committee stages, other than on the Floor of the House. The experiments that are suggested are moderate and cautious and I in no way oppose them. Indeed, I support them. But it is important that we keep in the centre of our minds the extent to which dealing with Bills in Committee is the absolute core and heart, the cutting edge, of the work of this House. That is true in this Chamber in a way that is not at all the case in the House of Commons. One can argue as to what are the true functions of another place. In my view, the British House of Commons has always been remarkably ineffective in subjecting the Executive to full parliamentary scrutiny. What it does, and this House does not do, is that, initially, by its composition, it determines the basis of the Government for the next four years. It can make or break the reputation of Ministers, 857 and sometimes of those who aspire to be Ministers, in a way that rarely, if ever, happens in this House in exactly that form—indeed, in my experience I do not think that has ever happened here.
The other place can hold important debates on Second Reading, whereas our debates on Second Reading lose some of their impact by the fact that the Bill always receives a Second Reading. Also, in another place Supply Days, votes of censure and other matters are of importance. In this House we are to a much greater extent dependent on our central hard function—there are many softer functions in the penumbra—of amending Bills when we think it right to do so. Our amendments may or may not subsequently live, but at any rate they have a validity for a time and sometimes have a permanent validity. I therefore think that our approach to this very important issue should essentially be based on keeping sight of that fact and not weakening our ability to discharge that task.
I shall touch very briefly on a few other issues. First, I turn to the question of Friday sittings. I do not believe that Friday sittings are wholly desirable in themselves. However, I think it is much better to have Friday sittings than to conduct important government business late at night when there is hardly anyone in the Chamber and when the atmosphere is totally unsuited to the issues that are at stake. I would not necessarily use Friday business exclusively for Private Member's business. It would be better to use it for public Bills than it would to have some of the excesses of late-night consideration that we have seen in recent years.
The noble Lord, Lord Harmar-Nicholls, seemed to indicate, as did the noble Viscount, that a Friday sitting meant every Member of your Lordships' House had to cancel his engagements if they were anywhere other than in London. Sitting on Friday does not mean that all your Lordships must sit on every Friday that a sitting takes place. Indeed, attendance here on Fridays, and frequently on other days, indicates that that is far from the truth. While I do not want to see a situation in which Friday sittings become habitual, I do not believe that they should be ruled out. Sitting on Fridays would be much better than the alternative of doing important business far too late at night.
In relation to Unstarred Questions, by all means we should keep the hour in the dinner break; but I believe also that the one-and-a-half hour limit is desirable. That touches on the question of the length of speeches referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter. The habit of your Lordships' House of favouring and usually providing short speeches is a beneficial one. In the House of Commons I rarely spoke for less than 20 minutes. In your Lordships' House I have rarely spoken for more than 10 minutes. That brings an all-around benefit both to me and to your Lordships' Chamber as a whole. I am therefore in favour of the tradition of shorter speeches.
On the other hand, for an opening speech of a fairly major subject there is a critical minimum and that critical minimum time is around seven minutes. A debate on a major subject in which Peers are restricted to speeches of two, three or four minutes is certainly 858 unsatisfactory in some ways. While I cannot say that it is easy to find a way to do that, we should endeavour to avoid that situation. We should have in mind speeches of under 10 minutes but perhaps not under seven minutes, that being a critical minimum below which the debate loses a large part of its usefulness.
For the moment I shall confine myself to those comments and sit down, again thanking members of the committee for what they have done. I hope that in the Procedure Committee we will follow up the debate with constructive consideration of what should in practice be carried out.
§ 4.32 p.m.
§ Lord Rippon of Hexham
My Lords, I welcome the way in which the Leader of the House opened the debate and I am grateful for his generous comments on the work of the Committee. I also appreciated what was said by the noble Lords, Lord Richard and Lord Jenkins of Hillhead. Their observations are obviously of relevance and will no doubt be carefully considered both by the House and in due course by the Procedure Committee.
As your Lordships will appreciate, the working group was an ad hoc body set up by the previous Leader of the House, my noble friend Lord Wakeham, to take a broad brush approach and not in any sense to be a substitute for the deliberations of this House or of the Procedure Committee. Our purpose was to concentrate on certain limited areas where there seemed to be scope for reforms which could have a beneficial effect on the sittings of the House.
We therefore put forward some ideas to be considered in the first instance by the Whole House, then by the Procedure Committee, and then again by the House as a whole. We did not make specific recommendations, though we hope that some of our suggestions may find general favour albeit perhaps with modifications. As the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, pointed out, this House sits longer than any other parliamentary chamber in the world except the other place. That is partly because we have more legislation calling for detailed amendment. But as the Leader of the House said, its increasing quantity has led on some occasions to decreasing quality. So there have been more late sittings.
We are not alone in facing the problems of the need for change. The Australian House of Representatives recently made changes in procedure, some of which are relevant to our situation; for example, more consultation during the legislative process and more proceedings off the Floor of the House, though there, as elsewhere, ultimate control remains with the House as a whole. It seems that the Canadian Parliament are contemplating similar changes.
I do not want to take up the time of the House in going through the whole report. It was printed on 20th July and the time has now come to hear the views of noble Lords other than the members of the committee. But I hope that some points in the report will prove to be relatively uncontroversial. That seems to be the flavour of the observations I have heard so far. Some parliamentary Bills could be taken off the Floor of the House including, in particular, technical Bills and I would hope also a larger number of Law Commission 859 Bills. That would help to provide fewer late sittings. But again, it must be emphasised that the House retains ultimate control in regard to any of the suggestions contained in the report.
In connection with the greater use of the Moses Room, my noble friend the Leader of the House may be aware that my noble friend Lord Salisbury wrote to me wanting a rider added to the report saying that if that was to be done, steps should be taken to improve the acoustics. I wrote to him and promised to raise the matter if he was not present. For one reason or another the Leader of the House may feel that it would be right and proper to accede to that request in any event.
Clearly more controversial may be the suggestion for greater use of Fridays. I should say that the committee did not have in mind any sort of substitution for the present use of Wednesdays. It may be felt that no Whipped business or certain legislative business should be taken on Fridays. Nor did we contemplate in any way using every Friday. But in regard to Motions and Unstarred Questions—not Starred Questions—it may be thought that debates raising such issues as the constitutional role of the House of Lords or the independence of the judiciary where the debate continued until 1.30 a.m. in the morning may be dealt with in a different way.
We had difficulty in offering any further observations on matters already fully considered by the Procedure Committee in relation to the length of time given to Unstarred Questions or Motions. But your Lordships may feel that there are matters where time constraints may not be appropriate. In such cases one would expect noble Lords to use their usual self-restraint to ensure that the House did not sit late on Fridays.
As we conclude, no proposals for improving the pattern of sittings of the House are likely to be effective unless all sides want to make them work. We hope that there will be some will in that direction. As the late lamented Lord Emsworth might have said if he had known the Russian proverb: it is no good trying to make a pig sing; it will not work and it only irritates him! We have tried to put forward some practical proposals. But we recognise that change needs general agreement. I hope that your Lordships will agree with the Leader of the House that the opportunity should now be taken to ensure that we fulfil our constitutional role in better and more efficient ways.
§ 4.39 p.m.
§ Lord Weatherill
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Rippon, and it was a privilege to be invited to join his committee. I am certainly not an expert on procedure in your Lordships' House but I do know a certain amount about procedure in another place. I must tell your Lordships that I start with a prejudice against so-called "reform".
In the course of the coercion Bill in 1883, when the House was in uproar—incidentally, the behaviour in those days was much worse than it is today—Speaker Brand leaned forward and whispered to his learned clerk: "What do I do next?" The clerk just had time to 860 give him some wise advice, which was: "Sir, I should be very cautious". I approach reform of parliamentary procedure with that sentiment.
Every reform that I have seen in another place has always cured one disease and created others—frequently worse. On the whole, they have been designed to make life slightly easier for Ministers and for the government and thereby slightly more difficult for Back-Benchers. But, having said that, and against the background of all the inexperience of two years in your Lordships' House, I do commend the changes recommended by our committee.
It is true that they would make life slightly easier for Ministers during the course of the week anyway, but it may mean, as the Leader of the House said, that some will have to come in occasionally on a Friday. But they would not diminish the right of Back-Bench Peers— specifically the right to speak. The right to speak was enjoyed by the other place until the coercion Bill, when the House was held to ransom by the Irish. After some 36 hours of debate, Speaker Brand got up at about six o'clock in the morning, came down to the House, took the Chair and said: "I have had enough. I put the Question".
Every abuse of conventions leads to the introduction of rules. On the one hand, we do not have the closure here, and I hope that we shall never have it. On the other, the hours which we sit in this place are getting longer and longer, as previous speakers have already said. So I hope that your Lordships may agree that we should look at how we use that most precious of all commodities, time, before rules are forced upon us.
The noble Lord, Lord Rippon, has spelt out in some detail our recommendations and I shall not repeat them. Indeed, as he said, they are in the report. But I believe that we should have regard to the Australian experience in taking business off the Floor of the House and setting up what they call the main committee, instead of a Committee of the Whole House, sitting concurrently in another room. Our committee has recommended a similar—perhaps more correctly—a parallel, procedure. I have discussed this with the Cross-Bench Peers. I believe the suggestion broadly meets with their agreement, but they were concerned about how we would deal with votes in committee; and that matter will have to be addressed.
I hope that your Lordships will agree too with the suggestion of an informal committee—I refer to our report, page 5, paragraphs 11 to 14—to forestall probing amendments and to make the passage of Bills, when they get back to the Floor of the House, easier and speedier. I have long been in favour of pre-legislation committees and of the Special Standing Committee procedure, which would, I believe, lead to better legislation.
As regards Friday sittings, I note what the Leader of the House and the noble Lord, Lord Richard, said. I also note the comment from a sedentary position of the noble Lord, Lord Harmar-Nicholls. Our committee does not recommend that Friday sittings should be used for government business but for Back-Bench business. Your Lordships have wide-ranging interests. The wealth of knowledge and experience in this House is very great.
861 Incidentally, there would be another bonus. Political news on a Saturday morning is usually pretty thin and I believe that debates in this place might well receive wide press coverage, to the credit of your Lordships' House.
I have only one reservation about all this and that is that the Government might just be tempted to take over Wednesdays, which are currently used for short debates, or possibly take over more Fridays than they already have. We would need to have a care about that temptation. The noble Lord, Lord Richard, said that all this was a matter for the House, and I hope that it will be, rather than just for the Government.
The suggestions are experimental. I believe that they would be sensible and that we should give them a try. If they do not work—as the Crossman reforms in another place some years ago did not work—we can always go back. Years ago when I was a Whip with the noble Lord, Lord Pym, I did the late stint one night at about three o'clock in the morning. I found a piece of doggerel left in the Whips' folder which said this:Absolute evidence have I noneBut my aunt's charwoman's sister's sonHeard a policeman on his beatSay to a housemaid in Downing StreetThat he knew a man who had a friendWho thought he knew when the sitting would end".I suspect that that is a sentiment with which a lot of your Lordships might agree.
Our report gives an opportunity to do something about that. As has already been said, legislation by exhaustion is no way to proceed. It does not lead to good legislation. I believe too that in the eyes of the public it brings our proceedings into disrepute. I know that it is difficult for all of us to agree to change when we reach a certain age. I used to keep a list of Back-Bench speeches which had pleased me when I was in the Chair in the other place. I remember Mr. Frank Haynes, the Member for Ashfield, in a debate on new technology concluding his speech with the phrase: "Mr. Speaker, Sir, I am all in favour of progress as long as it does not mean change". I believe that a lot of us would agree with that, but these are modest changes. I believe that they are sensible and I hope very much that they will commend themselves to your Lordships' House.
§ 4.47 p.m.
§ Lord Shepherd
My Lords, like the House, I welcome the initiative of the Leader of the House in bringing this report before Members prior to it going to the Procedure Committee. There is very little which is new within the report. The proposals and possible solutions have been considered over a wide number of years. But it was because of the conservative reluctance which is within us all that we were hesitant. We had an experiment and then we allowed it to drop.
I hope that this report will permit a new initiative to be taken. But it is well worth recalling why we are in the present difficulties. Of course in the past we have sat late at night. What I believe the House is concerned about is not the odd nights sitting late but the successive nights in a sitting week and perhaps in the following 862 week. As my noble friend the Leader of the House has said, that is not the way in which we should handle major, controversial legislation.
I believe that we should give great credit to the usual channels. When one considers the changed nature of this House, it is remarkable that we are able to retain our present flexibility and our general give and take. Like the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, I hope that that will always be maintained.
Obviously change has to be brought about. Because this is a matter of government, I think that there are two points for the Leader of the House to take away and consider. First, the legislative load is becoming heavier. I am not referring necessarily to the increased number of Bills but to the way in which the subject matter of some Bills really encompasses two or three Bills. That adds to the time that is needed for the piece of legislation to be considered by the House. Secondly, I have a suspicion—I am not a lawyer, but I have listened to many lawyers speak in your Lordships' House—that the quality of the drafting of the legislation is not as good as it used to be. It appears to be hurried. I believe that in their own interests the Government should seriously consider the quality of legislation.
Perhaps the most significant reason for the need for change is the increased membership of this House. The Life Peerages Act has worked in a way that those of us who were present when it was enacted had never really contemplated, and the House has become richer as a result. It has Members with wide experience of government, business, the social services and the like, all of whom want to make their contributions. That means that this House has an even more valuable role to play in its revising capacity.
One is also beginning to feel the effect of professional lobbying. I do not know about other noble Lords, but I am amazed at the amount of paper that comes through my postbox nearly every day about the legislation that is before the House. We are thus receiving new fuel with which to maintain and develop our debates.
So far, we have worked well, but I believe that 1995 and the new Session will be particularly difficult. The noble Viscount the Leader of the House must recognise that the problems of the Chief Whip in seeking to get his legislation through at a reasonable hour may well increase. That will happen unless the Government reduce their legislative programme.
We are now faced with the effects of the Deregulation and Contracting Out Bill. Orders may well come before the House to replace primary legislation. They may not be politically controversial—some will be but many will not be—but all will have to be scrutinised with the greatest possible care because orders and statutory instruments tend to have a greater effect on ordinary people than primary legislation. Therefore, we shall need to consider how to handle orders in this House. There is a rather cumbersome procedure for amending orders, so we shall also need to consider how such procedures can be adapted for orders of, say, five, six, 10 or 20 pages. I think that change will be pressed upon us if we are to retain our rights to speak, to deliberate and to make decisions.
863 Friday Sittings would be a move in the right direction. We have done that in the past. When we started that many years ago when I was Leader of the House, there were grumbles such as those that we have heard from noble Lords directly opposite, but in the end the move was welcomed. However, I should not like to see private business being shunted off on to a Friday, as was perhaps suggested in the report. Some private business is very important. Some private legislation may be very important and it should therefore be treated in the same way as public legislation. If I were the Government Chief Whip I would want to be able to use a Friday to relieve the burden of having to sit until a very late hour on a Thursday night.
However, I would not support Friday Sittings as an ad hoc arrangement. The House should be entitled to at least two or three weeks' notice before a Friday Sitting and should know the purpose of the business to be considered. Whether or not that appears on the Order Paper is another matter, but we should at least know (officially or unofficially) what business will be considered on a Friday. I believe that Friday Sittings offer a very important opportunity for the Government to overcome some of the problems of late-night Sittings.
I have always supported the idea of taking Public Bill Committees off the Floor of the House, but we have always treated such moves as experiments, with gaps between them. That has meant that we have lost the momentum and the lessons learned from previous meetings. Taking Committees off the Floor of the House is not our usual practice. Therefore, we must maintain the momentum. We should have the courage to take Committees off the Floor of the House. Major legislation could be considered in that way, although not politically contentious pieces of major legislation.
I see no difficulty on the question of Divisions. Let us be honest: how many noble Lords come in to the House to vote during a Committee stage who were not present to hear any of the debates? Therefore, if noble Lords attending a debate in the Chamber were to vote in a Committee, I do not see that that would be any different from what happens now in our Committees. We could then go straight to Report stage. The House could change its rules to allow a little more freedom with regard to the way in which our debates are conducted on Report.
My noble friend was quite right in regard to carry-over Motions. That is not practical. I would certainly not consider that if I were in government—or even in the government in waiting. I think that that proposal should go.
I believe that the proposals with regard to Friday Sittings and taking Committees off the Floor of the House should be adopted permanently. I do not mean that we should necessarily sit every Friday. We could sit on two Fridays before Easter when there is a bit of a log jam. We could sit for four, five or six Fridays in the latter part of June and in July when the real pressures are upon us.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, I treasure our freedom in this House. I should not like to see any change in that. Again, like the noble Lord, I would be bitterly opposed to moving what are now our 864 Wednesday debates to a Friday or a Thursday. Those debates are important. This House is something more than simply a legislative Chamber. This is a House in which the big issues should be debated and Wednesday is the day on which that should be done.
I hope that the Procedure Committee will consider the proposals. I hope that the Government and my noble friend will have the courage—certainly in terms of taking Public Bills off the Floor of the House—to make any such changes permanent as opposed to experimental. If such changes are permanent, they will work.
§ 4.58 p.m.
§ Lord Aberdare
My Lords, I too welcome the report, which is brief, sensible and constructive. I hope that it will be followed by some experiments to put its proposals into practice. I should like to congratulate my noble friend Lord Rippon and his colleagues on having produced it.
My noble friend was also the chairman of the Hansard Society Commission Report on the Legislative Process, Making The Law, which was published two years ago. That report was a thorough-going examination of the whole of our legislative process. It was extremely well argued and met head-on all the criticisms that are often made about legislation, such as the point about drafting that has just been mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd. It dealt also with the question of previous consultations and with the fact that neither this House nor another place has sufficient time in which to consider all the various proposals that are put before us. If that report had been accepted it would have had some helpful advice to give us and enormously improved our legislation. Unfortunately, it comes up against the difficulty that, as the commission realised, to achieve the ideal requires more time in the legislative process. The commission's answer was to put forward a two-year cycle of legislation rather than the present one year.
As the report before us today points out, this is not popular with business managers. I include my noble friend the Leader. He was not too happy about a two-year cycle, although he did make the point that it would deprive the Opposition of the opportunity to impose some delay on the Government at the end of the Session. Of course, that would be for only one year, because thereafter the two-year cycle would come to a head every following year and the Opposition's powers of rejection would be restored. I was encouraged that the group whose report we are considering today recommended that continued attention be paid to this idea. Although it is an ideal, we can make some progress towards it, as indeed I believe the suggestions of the group offer a way of improving our legislation.
In paragraphs 8 to 17 the proposal that I made to the Hansard Society Commission is repeated. The suggestion is for an informal meeting between the Minister in charge of the Bill and various Peers to take place after Second Reading and before Committee stage. As is made clear in the report, since 25 per cent. of our time is spent in Committee, that is the point at which we may perhaps save time. My idea arises from a practice that has crept in and is now quite general. 865 Between Committee stage and Report the Minister in charge of the Bill holds a meeting with those Peers who have put forward amendments in Committee. That is done with a view to ironing out difficulties and perhaps persuading critics that they have no grounds to fear what the Government are doing, or, even if they do not satisfy the critics, at least they hope to clarify the issues so that when the matter is debated again at Report stage those issues are clear and not much time is wasted. That was the reason why I thought up this proposal.
Perhaps I may endeavour to explain the points that I believe may be brought up at such a preliminary meeting. First, although probing amendments are not intended to be pressed, they can sometimes take up a fair amount of time. They are only for information. Nobody ever divides on a probing amendment. There is nothing politically sensitive about a probing amendment. I should have thought that in an informal meeting before the Committee stage the Government could explain exactly what they were doing and what their clauses meant and then there would be no need for a probing amendment at that stage.
Secondly, there are some Motions in Committee to oppose that a clause shall stand part of the Bill. It may be that the proposer wants to cut the clause out of the Bill. That is perfectly understandable and is a political matter. In no sense will that be covered by the preliminary committee that I have in mind. But there are Motions to oppose that a clause stand part which are probing amendments, and are said to be so by their proposers. In those cases the matter could be ironed out before the Committee stage.
Thirdly, there are drafting amendments. These are minor amendments and are not politically sensitive. I should have thought that drafting amendments could be sorted out at that point.
There may well be other possibilities. One source of delay arises from time to time from the fact that Back-benchers do not have the services of a draftsman. Very often they put down an amendment which does not make very clear what they have in mind. Judging from the amendment itself, the Government's advisers do not get hold of the right end of the stick. When the proposer of the amendment speaks, he makes clear what he proposes but the Government Minister has a speech that is geared to something quite different, simply because the amendment has been misunderstood. That is a point of misunderstanding which I believe can be ironed out before the Committee stage is reached.
So I believe there are ways of saving time. It may be that not an awful lot of time can be saved, but it would allow the Committee stage to concentrate entirely on those matters of political import which, as the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition has emphasised, are so important at Committee stage. I have no intention of suggesting that anything of that kind should be discussed before the Committee stage itself, but when I was in the Army there was an old saying that time spent in reconnaissance was seldom wasted. My suggestion is something along those lines. A little bit more reconnaissance before the Committee stage would not be wasted. I should add that I fully accept the 866 modification to my proposal suggested in paragraph 12 that any Peer should be able to attend such a preliminary meeting.
As far as the other recommendations of the report are concerned, I fully support the limit of one-and-a-half hours for Unstarred Questions. However, I must confess that I am far from enthusiastic about Friday sittings. I look with some nostalgia to the past, when we did not always sit on Mondays.
In general, I believe this to be a valuable report. I hope that eventually, through the Procedure Committee and further consideration by the House, an experiment on the lines suggested will take place.
§ 5.8 p.m.
§ Lord Stoddart of Swindon
My Lords, like other noble Lords, I welcome the report; and so far I have found the debate useful and interesting. As power has tended to slip from Parliament and the Cabinet to unelected bureaucrats, whether they be in Whitehall or Brussels, this is certainly no time for either this House or another place to relax scrutiny of legislation and of the conduct of the Government, nor to make it easier for the Government to force even more legislation through Parliament, especially if that legislation is bad, ill thought out and badly drafted, as so much of it has been.
In paragraph 4 of the report it is noted that both Houses of Parliament sit longer than any other parliament in the world. Since our history is different from the rest of the world and our Parliament has grown through centuries of experience rather than by imposition, it is not surprising that government need constant scrutiny and often serious check.
I refer again to paragraph 4. The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, is chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Parenting. He apparently wrote to the committee drawing attention to the importance to relationships between children and parents of the time between the end of school and bedtime and to the stability of parental relationships in the period after the children's bedtime when social activities may be enjoyed together. I do not know what that means. Is it suggested that Parliament should sit from nine to five on four days a week? That seems to be completely out of touch with parliamentary reality. What about Members of both Houses whose families live in parts of the country distant from Westminster? Is that once again a suggestion from the London-based elite rather than from the whole of Parliament? What about the people who live in Scotland, the North of England or the West of England? We must consider also their convenience.
We know that being a parliamentarian is not a nine-to-five job. It is a position which confers privilege and demands constant attention. One cannot base democratic accountability on putting baby to bed. It is much more important than that. It may well suit the Government to have a less watchful and tame Parliament. I suppose that it does. The real need is for government to bring forward less legislation and legislation that has been researched and tested thoroughly and drafted properly.
867 Perhaps I may comment upon one or two matters dealt with by the committee where it has made suggestions. First, Committees off the Floor of the House: I would treat that with the utmost caution. I am glad that most speakers so far, including the noble Viscount the Leader of the House and my noble friend the Leader of the Opposition, have urged caution about any suggestion that might take the focus off the Chamber of the House. It would tend to make Members feel far less involved and might result in fewer noble Lords taking part in the proceedings of the House. That would be unfortunate. Pre-legislative hearings to iron out drafting difficulties are one thing; small committees to discuss and decide policy matters are another. The committee has taken a middle course, but even so its suggestions might lead to an unstoppable trend towards the Commons system of transferring Committees off the Floor of the House to Committees upstairs.
In relation to Unstarred Questions, it is sensible that they should be limited to one and a half hours, and, wherever possible, as now, should take place during the dinner period.
One suggestion that worries me greatly is to have Private Members' business on Fridays. First, we should note that the other place is trying to reduce the number of Fridays that it sits. I hope that we are not suggesting that we should increase the number of Fridays upon which we sit. It would be bad if Friday were to become a Private Members' day as in the Commons. First, the Government would be relieved of the responsibility of finding Private Members' time in what I term to be prime time—between Monday and Thursday. All the deficiencies of the Commons system would undoubtedly sooner or later be imported into the House of Lords. For example, Bills would be talked out so that other Bills would not be reached. Everyone who has served in the Commons knows well what the system is. Eventually such Bills would go to the bottom of the pile and be killed. That would do the House of Lords no good at all. I hope that in due course such an arrangement will be rejected by your Lordships.
The suggestion that controversial business should not normally continue after 10 p.m. sounds all right and would give the Government a much easier ride, but the Opposition would be made less effective by such a means. As my noble friend said, he does not want any cosy understanding between the Front Benches. He is right. The Opposition are here to oppose not to assist the Government to get their business. They are here to oppose the business that they do not like. If we had such a system, any Back-Bencher who broke the informal rule would be pressurised into submission to the informal convention which would undoubtedly grow up. Time is the enemy of government and the friend of opposition. In our parliamentary system we should never forget that. I cannot believe that the Government or the Opposition would agree to such an arrangement. After all, the Conservatives are likely to be in opposition after the next election. Such a system would lessen their effectiveness. The Labour Party, which has been in government for only 21 of the past 94 years, would be taking a great risk in the long term if it agreed to that 868 principle, even though it probably will form the next government. It might suit it in the short term but not in the long term.
The committee referred to the informal arrangements adopted in relation to the European Communities (Amendment) Bill in 1993 to support its contention, but that is not a good example. With the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, I had something to do with those arrangements. They arose because the Government and the Opposition were at one in wanting the Bill to be rushed through the House in the shortest possible time. An unofficial opposition—it was called the Maastricht Study Group—was formed on an all-party basis. It negotiated the arrangements. It had nothing to do with the Official Opposition, as a matter of fact. It did so on the basis that the House of Lords should have adequate time to discuss the far-reaching proposals of the Maastricht Treaty. It did not have the status or the authority of the Official Opposition, nor did it seek it. It was a one-off issue—a vital one of course—but nevertheless it does not serve—I emphasise this—as an example to be followed generally.
The real solution for saving time in the House is less legislation. The Government are interfering too much in the nooks and crannies of peoples' private lives. We want less legislation. We want better legislation, which is being discussed, thought out and drafted properly. That is the main requirement, and I hope that the Government will listen to it.
§ 5.20 p.m.
§ Lord Simon of Glaisdale
My Lords, I apologise for the state of my voice but I wish to put one or two points, even baldly, before your Lordships. I hope that if my voice gives out entirely the noble Lord, Lord Colnbrook, will be ready to rush in as I sit down.
The background to the debate is that, like most second Chambers, your Lordships' House is largely an elderly House. Unlike most second Chambers, it is unsalaried. It is therefore extremely difficult, to put it mildly, to achieve a representative House after eight o'clock. That is virtually impossible with a Committee stage going on after eight o'clock.
The result is that an enormous burden falls on one or two Front-Benchers who are prepared to assume that burden. It also means that we are abnegating our task not merely to be a revising Chamber but, as seemed to be suggested on 25th October, a Chamber which can make tentative suggestions for revision to be accepted or brushed aside at will by the Government—and that is our last word. We cannot even do that after eight o'clock. No worthwhile Division can take place; no Division representative of the views of your Lordships' House as a whole. Why is that? I agree so much with what was said by the noble Lords, Lord Stoddart and Lord Shepherd. We have far too much legislation and its quality is defective.
Obviously, every Minister is anxious—and his officials are even more anxious—to push through a measure which is conceived as improving the law. But it is not always so. There are two recent examples among many others. When we embarked on the deregulation Bill, Opposition Peers gleefully pointed out 869 that practically every measure which we were engaged in deregulating had been enacted in the past 14 years. Then we had the annual Education Bill. Its object was to control student unions and to improve teacher training. As was pointed out by the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, and recently reiterated by the Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University, both those objectives could have been performed in the universities. I do not doubt for one moment that the Department for Education preferred to do it its way. It is a very restive, intrusive and aggrandising department. However, those two examples show how much unnecessary legislation we have.
The noble Viscount the Leader of the House is a member of the Future Legislation Committee, which is the initial sieve. He is in a minority there with his opposite number in the other place subject to the enormous pressures of departmental Ministers supporting each other for a slot in future legislation. In addition, there is the Cabinet Committee, which prefers the Queen's Speech. Both could be more rigorous in determining whether a measure is strictly necessary or merely on balance desirable. Then there is the question of the drafting. It is a little misleading to say that the legislation is badly drafted, but it is drafted over-elaborately. The parliamentary draftsmen are men of high intellectual calibre and they compound the desire of officials to cover every conceivable situation.
Perhaps I may read an extract from the Renton Report, which was published in 1975. The noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition was a member of that committee. I quote from the memorandum submitted by the two senior Scottish judges; my noble and learned friend Lord Emslie and the late Lord Wheatley, who were then the Lord President and the Lord Justice Clerk. Their memorandum was quoted with approval. They stated:Most of the problems encountered by the Courts flow directly from the tendency of Parliament to ignore the virtue of enacting broad general rules".They go on to state that the official and the draftsman will try to cover every conceivable situation. In the nature of things, the vital situation that will come before the court will be missed.
It seems to me that not only do we need less legislation but less elaborate legislation. Year after year since 1975 the statute books have been getting longer. I have quoted statistics on previous occasions and I shall not repeat them today. Unless we can have less legislation, and less elaborate legislation, we are bound to have trouble, however we tinker with our procedures.
There is a famous rule of law that the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition and my noble and learned friend Lord Brightman will know well. It originated in the 16th century. It was called "the rule in Shelley's case", and Shakespearian scholars take note of it too. During the centuries it became more and more elaborate and more and more encrusted with different precedents. When in 1925 the law of property was codified and consolidated, one section ran simply:The law in Shelley's case is hereby abrogated".870 In primary, and even more in secondary, legislation we have page after page of consumer protection. How much of that could be avoided if we had a simple provision stating:The rule of caveat emptor is hereby abrogated".If only officials and draftsmen could be instructed to draft in that way, our task would be much easier. In order for that to happen, parliamentary counsel must come under the aegis of the Law Officers, as recommended by Sir Robert Andrew. At present they are responsible only to the Prime Minister, which means that they are responsible only to themselves. If they were responsible to the Law Officers, they would be subject to greater control and they could be told that they must follow the recommendations of the Renton Committee.
The noble Lords, Lord Rippon of Hexham and Lord Renton, have on many occasions described the former role of the Legislation Committee of the Cabinet. That was a committee which scrutinised the drafting of legislation and also its constitutionality. Today that committee is no more than a business committee. If it were reconstituted in its former role, that again would help greatly with the quality of legislation.
§ 5.30 p.m.
§ Lord Colnbrook
My Lords, we are all glad that the voice of the noble and learned Lord did not give out, as he feared it might, because we enjoy listening to him. I enjoyed his speech in particular because I agree with his views on the quantity of legislation, a matter to which I shall return in a few moments.
I wish to concentrate on two points made in this extremely interesting, indeed fascinating report of my noble friend Lord Rippon. The first is the question of informal committees off the Floor of the House. I believe that was originally thought of by my noble friend Lord Aberdare and enlarged upon by my noble friend Lord Rippon.
I believe that for two reasons that idea, as outlined in paragraphs 11 to 14, has a great attraction. The first reason has already been touched upon; that is, it would avoid some of the discussions on probing amendments which take place in Committee. Those matters could be dealt with informally before they ever reached the formal Committee stage on the Floor of the House. Therefore, those discussions would not be necessary.
Other matters could also be clarified and dealt with. One major problem with regard to Committee stages on the Floor of the House is that an amendment is tabled by a noble Lord which is taken away into the department and looked at by the civil servants and the Minister. In principle, they do not like it because they reckon their Bill is perfect anyway and they do not wish it to be altered. Moreover, they look at the amendment before they have heard the returns in relation to it. They say, "We do not like this", and the Minister stands at the Dispatch Box with the word "resist" written on his brief. I believe that a great deal of time is wasted because the Minister comes forward with that brief with the word "resist" written on it and with some reasons as to why the amendment should be resisted. Those reasons have been prepared without having heard the arguments in 871 favour of the amendment. That seems to me to be very silly. We should try to find a way to address such matters beforehand without the need for a Division or the formality of proceedings on the Floor of the House. If the amendment is considered in that way, the Minister and the civil servants may even consider that there is some merit in the amendment; that would be an advantage.
A problem with too much of our legislation is that not enough account is taken of the effect that it will have on people outside. I am sure that that is a difficulty. It is thought up by political parties, with the best intentions in the world; it is discussed by civil servants and sent to parliamentary draftsmen. Those civil servants and parliamentary draftsmen are seeking to comply with the desires of their political masters, as they must do. But they all live in Whitehall. They do not live in the country where it will have an effect. They are locked up in Whitehall all day. They do their best; of course they do. But it is very important to bring to bear on legislation the knowledge of people whom it will affect and who will have to put it into operation.
That is where your Lordships' House has a particular part to play. We are a voluntary, part-time House and we all have lives outside it. Increasingly, and I think regrettably, Members of the other place have less and less of that because more and more they have to become full-time politicians. Just as the civil servants are locked up in Whitehall, so, to almost too great an extent, are Members of the other place locked up in Westminster.
Among our number we have experts on any subject you care to name, and usually several of them. Certainly Members of this House will realise the effect of proposed legislation. Members of this House are not outsiders and they should be brought into the discussions at an early stage. If that is done, not only will the legislation be improved but less time will be required for discussion on the Floor of the House. I very much hope that we can proceed with those informal committees on an experimental basis to begin with, because I believe that that is an experiment which is worth pursuing.
I wish to turn now to the subject of Fridays. I was interested to hear the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, say that he thought it would be a good idea not to have Private Members' business but to have government business on a Friday; and that we should not sit too often on a Friday. That is exactly what we do already. Therefore, I do not believe that any change is needed, because, as the report says, we spend anything between five and 10 Fridays a year doing exactly that.
§ Lord Harris of Greenwich
My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that part of the problem in the current Session has been that there has been a significant reduction in the number of Friday sittings? A number of us found ourselves at half-past one and half-past two in the morning discussing issues of great significance with regard to the criminal law simply because, at that stage, we were not sitting on Fridays. That is part of the problem.
§ Lord Colnbrook
My Lords, the noble Lord is quite right. The number of Friday sittings has come down this 872 Session. However, I was referring to the proposition made by the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, that we should sit on perhaps six or eight Fridays.
The proposition made in the report is that we should sit on a Friday for Private Members' business. That is a trap into which we must not fall. Several noble Lords — in particular the noble Lord the leader of the Opposition—have said that that should provide more time for Committee stages to be taken on the Floor of the House. The noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, said that. It will not, you know. My noble friend the Leader of the House referred to Parkinson's Law. He is right and I know exactly what will happen. For a few weeks we should discuss public legislation and we should rise at a reasonable time. Everyone would cry, "Isn't this nice?" And then one day the Government would come along and say, "A matter has arisen which must be passed by Parliament by next Thursday and it must be fitted in. The House will have to sit late on Tuesday". We should do that. A week would go by and the same thing would happen again and again and again. Before we knew where we were, we should be sitting just as late every night as we do now, and on Fridays as well. The only beneficiary of that will be the Government because they will get more legislation through, which all governments want to do. I honestly believe that the proposition to take Private Members' business on a Friday is a trap into which we should not fall.
The only remedy is that put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale; namely, to have less legislation. I have been arguing for that for years and years without any success whatever and I shall continue to do so for as long as I have breath. It is the only way in which we shall be able to achieve sittings of a reasonable length. It is no good us saying that we shall stop at 10 o'clock on a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday and that will be that. The other place has many rules and one of them is called the Ten o'clock Rule. It provides that the House shall not sit after 10 o'clock. Do they do that? Of course they do not. Night after night a Motion is passed suspending the Ten O'clock Rule. The noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, will know better than I how often the House of Commons actually ceases to sit at 10 o'clock, but I believe that it is very seldom. It cannot be done. That can be achieved only by having less legislation or by the House simply refusing to sit. But governments have majorities and that will not happen.
People say that sitting late is terrible and! that it is all wrong. In many ways it is. However, it has one beneficial effect from the point of view of noble Lords opposite: it is the only way to stop the Government producing even more legislation. I say that because there comes a time when the Government's business managers say, "We really can't ask the House to sit again later and later; we must hold back". Ministers do not like that. In fact, they hate it. They say to the business managers, "Don't be silly, of course we can". I know that that is true because I was one of them and they did say that to me. There comes a moment when you have to stand up to Ministers and say, "Look, you 873 can't ask people to do this because it is not fair. You must drop this or postpone it". That is the only weapon that the Opposition have. I spent a good many years in Opposition. They must have some weapons, although not too many; and that is one of them.
While I do not like sitting late at night, I do not believe that the proposition for us to sit on Fridays will make the slightest difference. I hope that the Government will recognise the fact that no one likes to sit late at night. However marvellous they may think their legislation is, it would not do them any harm to put some of it by for a bit.
§ 5.40 p.m.
§ Lord Archer of Sandwell
My Lords, perhaps I may begin with a provisional apology. I very much hope to hear the whole of the debate, but I have to catch a train later this evening in order to meet an unavoidable commitment tomorrow morning in another part of the country. It is an illustration of a point made by some speakers in today's debate. If I have misjudged the timing and I have to leave the House before the end of the debate, I beg your Lordships' forgiveness.
I intervene simply to invite the attention of the House to one matter in the report. As some speakers have mentioned —and as the noble Lord, Lord Colnbrook, just reminded us —the group referred to the recently introduced experiment of the Special Standing Committee. Last week, your Lordships debated the third report of the Procedure Committee. In its report, the committee said that the experiment,has already proved a valuable addition to the scrutiny function of the House".The committee recommended a change in the nomenclature because, technically speaking, it is not a Standing Committee. It was recommended that the committee be called a Special Public Bill Committee. But however we name the rose, it promises to contribute to the more expeditious dispatch of suitable business.
If it fortifies him, I wholly agree with my noble friend Lord Stoddart that it is not the function of the Opposition to assist the Government in getting business through. I respectfully agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, that there is a plethora of legislation at present. However, I should like to add, as a rider, that there is legislation which some of us would like to see introduced. Indeed, we wish the Government would introduce it. If they will not do so there ought to be some provision for ensuring that we have such an opportunity. I take the point made by the noble Viscount the Leader of the House that it would have to be suitable business—in other words, it would have to be business which is not substantially controversial.
I wish to refer to the fact that the group suggested specifically that that procedure might provide a solution for the appalling back-log of unimplemented reports by the Law Commission. That matter was referred to by my noble friend Lord Richard and the noble Lord, Lord Rippon. I intervene simply to make a plea that that 874 suggestion should be adopted. The Law Commission exists, as expressed in a recent speech to the Bar conference by its chairman Sir Henry Brooke,to make the law simpler, fairer and cheaper to use".All those objectives are very much in the public interest and would help to resolve many of the complaints about which we read daily in press reports.
Yesterday, in his maiden speech, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Nicholls of Birkenhead—a speech which I respectfully commend to those noble Lords who were not privileged to hear it—said:Procedures and provisions that were necessary and valuable … in a less sophisticated and non-technological society … now in some instances, overall [are in danger of doing] more harm than good".— [Official Report, 1/11/94; col. 792.]Equally, the noble and learned Lord pointed out that well intentioned proposals for reform must be thought through. There could not be a better way of encapsulating the purposes of the Law Commission.
The Law Commission harnesses the talents of its distinguished members and of its hard working secretariat to produce what one can only describe as suggestions for improving the law, many of which are not at all controversial. Yet, when they have been produced, they disappear into a secret cavern from which they never seem to emerge.
I do not believe that the problem is the fact that the Government do not want to see such suggestions implemented or that, for some reason, the Government are against them. The problem is one of parliamentary time for the necessary legislation. The difficulty is that they are not of the sexy category which would reflect in a Minister's standing in the popularity stakes. Therefore, they do not find a way into a highly competitive legislative programme.
Between 1967 (when the Law Commission was established) and 1981, 40 Law Commission reports have been wholly or partly implemented—about half on the initiative of the government of the day and about half on the initiative of private Members in one or other of the Houses. Since 1981 only 33 have been wholly or partly implemented. Moreover, since 1989 there has been what Sir Henry Brooke has described as a grade one disaster area: only one Bill has been implemented on government initiative since that time.
In 1981, 13 reports were awaiting implementation. That figure had doubled to 26 by 1985. The figure now stands at 36 reports and represents the hard work of some of our most talented people—hard work which has borne no fruit of any kind. There are reports on the sale and supply of goods, on the grounds for divorce, on the law of domicile, on obsolete restrictive covenants on land and on land registration. Indeed, one could go on but your Lordships will be relieved to hear that I do not propose to do so. Those are just some examples.
Even with our existing procedures, such measures would not be very time consuming. Apart from four examples which, admittedly, did tackle controversial areas, the last 15 Law Commission Bills required an average of less than two hours for all their stages in your Lordships' House and only 71 minutes in another place. When the noble Viscount responds, I hope that he will have some good news for us. Obviously he cannot 875 forestall what will be said in the committee; but I hope that nevertheless he will have some good news for us both about the Government's intentions in sponsoring some of those Bills and about the availability of the experimental procedure for that purpose. I also hope that he will have some good news for those of us on the Back-Benches who may wish from time to time to sponsor such Bills. Of course, our function is to scrutinise legislation, but it really would be a tragedy if, instead, we were to paralyse it.
§ 5.48 p.m.
§ Lord Brightman
My Lords, the only topic upon which I should like to address your Lordships is the question of referring public Bills to a committee off the Floor of the House. I had the honour of serving on five such committees and of chairing three of them. In my opinion, more use could advantageously be made of such committees, with the object of producing better Bills, more informed debates and, I believe, of saving time on the Floor of the House.
Perhaps I may summarise the present position. There are three committees which accept public Bills off the Floor of the House. First there is the Select Committee procedure. I have had experience of three public Bills which have been referred to such a committee: the parochial charities Bill, and the small charities Bill which went to a Select Committee in 1983, and the infant life preservation Bill which went to such a committee in 1987. The advantage of that procedure is that evidence is taken. Any Peer can attend the meetings of such a committee, speak and examine witnesses if he desires to do so. Then there is a written report to the House followed by an ordinary Committee stage on the Floor of the House. It is therefore appropriate for a controversial Bill because the Committee stage on the Floor of the House is not supplanted. I take just one small example of a Bill which, in my humble opinion, could usefully have been referred to such a Select Committee—the Dangerous Dogs Bill. If evidence had been before your Lordships when that Bill came to its Committee stage on the Floor of the House many of the agonies which followed the Bill might have been avoided.
Then there is the Public Bill Committee procedure. No evidence is taken but any Member of your Lordships' House can attend and speak and move amendments. However, only Members of the Committee can vote so that the Committee stage on the Floor of the House is supplanted. I think your Lordships may feel that because the Committee stage on the Floor of the House is supplanted that procedure is not really very appropriate for a highly controversial Bill. The Pilotage Bill was referred to a Public Bill Committee in 1987. I think it is universally recognised that it was not a success because the Bill turned out to be highly controversial and all the arguments which had been deployed before the Public Bill Committee were again rehearsed at the Report stage. However, as I think has already been said by one of your Lordships, the Charities Bill was referred to a Public Bill Committee 876 in 1992. Again, I think it is recognised, that was a great success and a lot of time was saved on the Floor of the House.
Further, I would mention what I venture to call the highly successful Special Standing Committee introduced following the report of the noble Earl, Lord Jellicoe. The committee was originally called a Special Standing Committee but I believe it has now been renamed the Special Public Bill Committee. However, to avoid confusion, it is perhaps better to leave it with its old name just for the time being. Under that procedure evidence is taken and any Peer may speak and move amendments but only Members of the Committee can vote. It supplants the Committee stage on the Floor of the House. Again, I think it must follow that it is not suitable for a highly controversial Bill. So far it has been used for only one Bill, although I hope it will be used for many more. I refer to the recent law of property amendment Bill. That, I think, was a success. The time occupied on that Bill upstairs in deliberation, the taking of evidence and the Committee stage, was seven-and-a-half hours; the time occupied on the Floor of the House at the Report stage and Third Reading was 23 minutes. It is significant to observe that when that Bill came before Standing Committee A in the other place on 19th October last the Labour Party spokesman on that Committee stated that his party wished it to be understood that the procedure should be used more readily.
What I am leading up to is this. I ask your Lordships to consider whether it would be useful for Bills, perhaps most Bills, to be looked at before, or during, Second Reading to see whether the Bill could with advantage be referred to one or other of these three committees in order, first, to produce a better Bill and, secondly, to save time on the Floor of the House.
All I should like to add in conclusion is that I entirely agree with everything said by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, and I do not think there is anything that I could usefully add to his words.
§ 5.58 p.m.
§ Lord Campbell of Alloway
My Lords, it is only on three or four occasions over the past 20 years that there has been a "take note" debate on reports on procedure sought by the Leader of the House. On this occasion we acknowledge the initiative of my noble friend Lord Wakeham. Some time ago, I believe following the previous occasion we had such a debate, timers were installed in the Chamber as an aid to self-regulation. Today, self-regulation hovers in the shadow of the lingering but elusive spectre of imposed reform.
The even-handed manner in which my noble friend introduced the debate, with the candour of an open mind, is much appreciated, as other noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Rippon, have said. That is a benign augury and an earnest of his own declared style of leadership. But taken by and large, in one way or another, whether directly or indirectly, on some occasion or on some other occasion, any single one of our practices or our procedures could have an effect upon the sittings of the House. It is therefore suggested that the perspective for this debate should be set by the 877 wider dimensions of the terms of reference rather than the framework within which the report is constructed. As my noble friend Lord Rippon said, that was a narrow construction, namely, to identify certain options for reform which had a beneficial effect.
As to the substance of the report, I have similar reservations to those expressed by my noble friend Lord Cranborne. Is it not much to be doubted whether the double burden of attendances at a formal and informal committee, as proposed in paragraphs 11 to 17, would be honoured by observance? Would many noble Lords be unwilling or unable to find the extra time to take two or three bites at the same cherry?
As regards the proposal to take Committee stages of government Bills off the Floor of the House, as proposed in paragraphs 18 to 23, that would appear to be wholly impracticable save for the exceptional circumstances to which the noble and learned Lords, Lord Brightman and Lord Archer of Sandwell, referred—technical Bills and Law Commission Bills. In respect of such Bills there is no reason why that practice should not continue and be broadened.
I take the point made by my noble friend Lord Colnbrook that some machinery should be devised for gathering up probing amendments. However, with the greatest respect to him and his experience, it is much to be doubted whether the informal committee which is proposed would be the appropriate vehicle. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, that the Committee stage is the core and the cutting edge. I believe that the procedures of the House demand that it should always be seen as such.
Even if the carrying over of public Bills, as referred to in paragraph 24 of the report, would enable your Lordships' House to benefit from the two advantages identified in the report, surely the situation has to be considered in the light of government business, the gracious Speech, the attitude of another place and in a far wider context than what is convenient to your Lordships. I suggest that it would be unacceptable.
I oppose Friday sittings for every reason given by my noble friend Lord Colnbrook. He opposed the proposal set out in the report for a Private Members' day for taking Private Members' business or Unstarred Questions. It is true that we have to grapple with the problem of sitting early in the mornings if we can. But Friday Sittings, for the reasons given by my noble friend Lord Colnbrook, would hardly be appropriate.
It is possible to mitigate the problem of long sittings by improving legislation. But surely this is all merely a proverbial whistle in the wind; likewise, reconstructing the ethos of the old Legislation Committee. We have been talking about that ever since I have been in the House, which is more than 10 years. Nothing will ever be done about it. The only effective way of dealing with the problem—it depends upon the man—was that adopted by Lord Dilhorne. He personally went through Bill after Bill. He summoned Ministers. He said, "It's gibberish. Take it away. Do it again". He knew how to deal with the problem. Under his aegis there was a form of sane direction.
878 I do not see how Friday sittings can be improved beyond the manner in which they now take place when there is occasionally government business to be dealt with. The matter is arranged through the usual channels. There are Questions. I suggest that we retain the existing procedures.
As regards the limitations on time, I support the recommendations of paragraph 31 as to Unstarred Questions and defer to the series of decisions of the Procedure Committee at paragraph 42 of the report.
Another place imposed reform in one direction under Lloyd George and in another under Macmillan. One day it may be ordained by another place that we move again in another direction. However, the hope is that that will not be as soon as certain noble Lords may wish or, indeed, as is proposed.
The survival of this House as a self-regulating institution along traditional lines has been achieved largely by that remarkable exercise of self-discipline and restraint, the Salisbury convention, and by other exercises in restraint which have maintained comity and have stood, or withstood, the test of time.
If the time is ripe for fundamental reappraisal and comprehensive review of our practices and procedures by the Procedure Committee, then those should be treated as a composite whole in which each component interacts upon the other components so as to affect the sitting of the House. It assuredly would not be possible to single out any particular item and treat it as having no effect.
I conclude by making a few suggestions. We have reversed the usual process. It is beneficial that we consider this matter before the Procedure Committee considers it. It is a process which I hope will be repeated. I also hope that when the matter is referred back to the House the same procedure may be considered by the usual channels. There should be a list of speakers and the House should have more time to consider the reports of the Procedure Committee.
My second suggestion concerns the Companion, which is now five years out of date and is to be revised soon. It would be to the advantage of all noble Lords if we could have annual supplements, perhaps compiled by the Table and made available in the Printed Paper Office. Although the Table does a fantastic job of work in helping us to understand what is the current position, we should be able to go to the Printed Paper Office to discover the position. I am sorry that I have spoken for so long.
§ 6.9 p.m.
§ Lord Monson
My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Rippon of Hexham, the noble Viscount the Lord Privy Seal and the whole House for the fact that, most unusually, I shall have to leave before the end of the debate because of a long-standing prior commitment. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Rippon, and his colleagues on producing a well reasoned and pertinent yet wonderfully concise report.
I begin with the report's first recommendation. The suggestion of informal committees off the Floor of the House is excellent provided that all Peers are allowed to 879 attend (not the restricted number originally suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare) and that the experiment is strictly experimental and genuinely informal. It is curious that Committees off the Floor of the House tend to be more formal and even stilted, less relaxed and spontaneous than Committees on the Floor of the House. It is difficult to know why that should be so, but perhaps the layout of the Moses Room, the positioning of the microphones and, above all, the high ratio of experts to non-experts on the subject being discussed have something to do with this. It is not right that legislation should be considered only or even mainly by experts. We also need the voice of the sceptical or commonsensical non-experts. We also need the voice of the noble Lord, Lord Renton, to point out drafting defects, the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, to bring grammatical defects to our attention and my noble and learned friend Lord Simon of Glaisdale to castigate undue prolixity in Bills and subordinate legislation. For that reason, I am less happy with the suggestion of taking formal Committee stages off the Floor of the House. The notoriously poor acoustics of the Moses Room—they have already been alluded to by the noble Lord, Lord Rippon—are another reason for caution.
I agree wholeheartedly with the rebuttal in paragraph 16 of the suggestion by the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, that we should take Report and Third Reading stages together. That would be a great mistake; I shall give another reason later.
The notion in paragraph 24 that Recess dates could be fixed further in advance is undoubtedly seductive but not so seductive as to justify Public Bills carried over from one Session to the next. That would encourage yet more legislation—both government and Private Members' legislation—being piled on to our already overloaded statute books. The present system helps to discipline the government of the day. It helps to ensure that they heed both the Opposition and their own Back-Benchers. Indeed, the noble Viscount the Lord Privy Seal already referred to that.
Like so many other noble Lords, I endorse wholeheartedly the recommendation in paragraph 31 that Unstarred Questions should be limited to an hour and a half. Paradoxically, that would almost certainly encourage a greater attendance at and participation in those Unstarred Questions. At present people are reluctant to put their names down when they know that they will have to be in their seats at eight o'clock on an empty stomach, not knowing whether they will be able to have dinner at 10 o'clock, 10.30 or even later. When they know that they will be able to dine at 9.30 it will encourage much greater interest. Limitation to one and a half hours will be necessary if the recommendations about Friday morning sittings are agreed to. On the latter, I reserve judgment. I fear that it could be yet another avenue for overloading the statute book.
I have some sympathy with the complaints of the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, about timed debates, even though I cannot agree with him that seven minutes is invariably too short a time to make one's point. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead: it very much depends on the subject being discussed. When we have a single five-hour timed debate, there is 880 no solution to the problem raised by the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter. But where one has two debates which are allocated a total time of five hours, could not the problem be solved in the following way? Instead of having to agree a formal resolution over 24 hours in advance, allocating, say, two hours to the first debate and three hours to the second, or the other way around, could not the movers of the Motions meet together with the usual channels between, say, 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. the previous evening when the lists of speakers would be more or less complete? There might be one or two additions and deletions but not many. Then, for example, if seven speakers have put their names down for the first debate and 25 for the second, one and a half hours would be allocated to the first debate and three and a half hours to the second.
§ Lord Campbell of Alloway
My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord will give way. That is exactly what happened between the noble Lord, Lord Stallard, and myself. He had six speakers to his debate and I had 18. Therefore we made an arrangement to allocate the time between ourselves. But we could not implement the arrangement because the Procedure Committee had ruled that such an arrangement could not be made; and the Table so informed us. I made representations to the Procedure Committee. I raised the matter on the Floor of the House and, frankly, I now defer to the ruling of the Procedure Committee. I can see both sides of the problem.
§ Lord Monson
My Lords, I am interested to hear what the noble Lord says. I urge the Procedure Committee to think again because such a solution is excellent. The matter could be fine tuned still further: there is no need for the timing of debates to be in multiples of half an hour. One could have one debate of one and three quarter hours and another of three and a quarter hours. However, the House should be entitled to consider the matter again because I suspect that most people would approve of such a change. It would not inconvenience speakers, who as things stand do not know how many minutes they will be allocated until the last moment. They would be able to have a rough idea of how long they would have by glancing at the list of speakers in the Whips Office the previous evening.
In paragraph 45 the suggestion that controversial business should not normally continue after 10 p.m. is over-optimistic. We cannot ignore the political dimension to our deliberations, with the element of gamesmanship which it implies. Perhaps the understanding might be 11 o'clock; 10 o'clock is too early. I remember that in 1975 or 1976, when Labour was in power, it was common practice for this House to sit until 11 o' clock, 11.30 or even midnight. People did not complain much then, even though I do not believe that the average age of Members of the House was very different from now.
Having said that, I entirely agree that we should never legislate after midnight. People become too tired after 11.30 or so and dreadful mistakes can occur. As a relative new boy, I attended the House on 23rd October 1967 when, most unusually, the Report stage and Third Reading of a Bill were taken on the same day. The Bill in question was Mr. David Steel's Abortion Bill. Great 881 pressure was put on us to rush the Bill through before the end of the Session. Even more unusually, a manuscript amendment was moved on Third Reading just before midnight by the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Dilhorne—father of the present Viscount. I immediately spotted that the amendment—it seemed at first glance technical—was more significant: it would make the Bill more permissive. However, as I had not at that time made my maiden speech, I could do nothing about it. One or two other noble Lords also spotted that point, notably the noble Lord, Lord Kennet. I am sorry to see that he is not in his place. But most people in the House were weary, we had been sitting on the Bill since the early afternoon and there was a general sense that it should be got out of the way as soon as possible. Accordingly, the amendment was passed without a Division.
The consequence was that the Abortion Act 1967 on the statute book is rather more permissive as regards the status of the two medical practitioners who have to testify that an abortion is needed than had been intended when the Bill came to this House, as the result of a compromise between the sponsors of the Bill and what might be called its moderate opponents. I am positive that that would not have happened if we had considered the matter two or three hours earlier in the evening. At midnight that is just the kind of thing that happens.
Finally, I come to something that touches only obliquely on paragraph 4 which refers to the emphasis given by my noble friend Lord Northbourne to the relationship between parents and children, if I have got it right. School holidays now start and finish earlier and earlier, besides which, statistically the weather is much better in Britain in July than in August. Many noble Lords have children of school age, and that applies with even greater force to another place: the average age there must be 15 years younger than it is here. Should there not be a concerted attempt by both Houses together to shift the entire parliamentary timetable so that it starts and finishes two or, better still, three weeks earlier than at the moment, so that we are able to rise for the Summer Recess on 14th July or, better still, 7th July? The gracious Speech could take place in mid or late October and the party conferences could start earlier, if need be. I am sure that the public would be delighted if all the party conferences took place in the same week. But I do not believe that the BBC, ITV or the parties themselves would like that. It is too much to hope for. However, there is no technical reason why they should not start earlier. I believe that a majority of parliamentarians in both Houses would welcome such a change.
§ 6.22 p.m.
Lord Campbell of Croy
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Monson, certainly found an echo with me in referring to times from 1975 to 1978 when I was on the Opposition Front Bench. I remember two or three all-night sittings here. We did not just sit late. That was because the government of the day felt they had to get their business through with the Committee and Report stages of the Bills in the House.
882 This is a very helpful report and I wish simply to comment on two or three of the proposals. Paragraph 3 raises comparison with another place. We have to co-ordinate with another place and each House controls its own procedure. But this House naturally takes into account the convenience of the other place, as we hope too it takes our convenience into account. I assume that this is the reason why we are sitting at 9.30 tomorrow for Prorogation, because that is now the time for the other place. It used to be 11 o'clock for morning sittings in the past.
Paragraph 3 also refers to the Jopling Committee report. One aim of that report was clearly that most sittings should end well before the small hours in another place. We should, of course, take into account any changes that are made in the programme of meetings in the other place, but they are unlikely greatly to affect us. However, I remind your Lordships that the late Richard Crossman introduced morning sittings in the 1960s in another place and that they duly took place. But the experiment was deemed unsuccessful and was discontinued. Noble Lords who were in the other place at that time will remember it well.
It was not just due to Parkinson's law, which has been referred to. The main reason was that Members of the other place still occupied the available time, or insisted upon more time, until about midnight, which was when the media normally stopped reporting. In a competitive Chamber that is to be expected. Of course, governments do not wish to appear to be applying a gag, in that case at about seven or eight in the evening. The result was to impose a greater burden on Members of the other place: they had morning sittings and were sitting till the same late hours in the evening. So one has to remember what happened in the 1960s.
I now come to the suggestion that Public Bills be taken in Standing Committees upstairs. Occasionally that is done now and it is useful, I suggest, in particular circumstances; for example, where there are specialised Bills of a broadly non-controversial nature. A successful example took place in the 1975–76 Session. There had not been one for some time before that. It was one of the earliest post-war ones. I remember it because I was asked to lead the Opposition in the small committee which was selected. It was on the Scottish Liquor Licensing Bill. The bonus from that occasion was that the points and arguments in the committee upstairs were not all trotted out again at the Report stage in the Chamber. Of course, it was a specialised subject of particular interest to Scots and visitors to Scotland.
There was one difficulty—that most, if not all of us, had our homes in Scotland. It was difficult for the committee clerk to find times for meetings which were possible for most of the members, so we did not have a weekly routine. The meetings had to be arranged on an ad hoc basis because, of course, Divisions could take place. I do not remember any, but a Division was possible and one had to make sure that there was not just a quorum but that the Government had enough support. We were the Opposition and we recognised that. As there is no system of pairing in this House, that raises a difficulty.
883 I consider the proposal in paragraph 18 that there could be committees of the whole House off the Floor a very difficult one for reasons which other speakers have already mentioned. I think that it is possible only for Bills which are entirely non-controversial and perhaps on specialised subjects. I should add to what I said just now about the Scottish Liquor Licensing Bill that, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman said, unfortunately the later Pilotage Bill did not have the same success. All the arguments seemed to be trotted out again on the Floor of the House.
The attendance of any Peer would not require new arrangements under the suggestion in paragraph 18. In the past a Peer could attend any Lords committee but could not vote. He did not need to be selected or nominated. I hope that the Leader of the House will write to me about this. I do not expect an answer this evening, but I should like to ask the noble Viscount whether the situation has been restricted by any changes in procedure following our internal examination of the Select Committee system on the report of the committee chaired by my noble friend Lord Jellicoe. My understanding is that the situation is the same, even for private meetings or deliberations, not just for questioning witnesses. I hope that that is still the case because it is a great help in an unpaid, voluntary House. I remember that when I first came to this House I would be telephoned to ask whether I could go to a Select Committee the next morning because so few other Peers could be there. I was not a member of the committee but I was available and was asked whether I would also examine the witnesses. The noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, was the Leader of the House at the time and he will remember that.
Attendance at Select Committees is now much greater and the problem does not arise in the same way. Nonetheless, it is a useful facility. I repeat, however, that it is not suitable for controversial Bills, as speakers have said, or particularly important government Bills which need to be subjected to the cutting edge of Committee examination in the whole House.
I turn now to the subject of time-limited debates and at the same time I should like to consider the proposals for Unstarred Questions. I note that paragraph 40 of the report states that my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter suggested that it was wrong for a debate on the constitutional role of the House of Lords to be limited to two-and-a-half hours. I was a close observer on that occasion, and I would remind noble Lords that that was a balloted debate. The subject had been on the green Minute and had been known for weeks beforehand. The initiator must have thought it an appropriate subject for two-and-a-half hours. The initiator was no less a person than the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, for whose parliamentary knowledge and skills we all have the greatest admiration—not least some of us who served in the same government with him over 30 years ago in the other place when he was Solicitor-General.
I know that the noble and learned Lord would have liked more than two-and-a-half hours. He would have liked five hours or more. But, clearly, he must have put the subject down because that time was better than 884 nothing. If anybody says that it could have moved into the other debate and the business could have been split up—I had won the ballot for the other debate. I am therefore in a very good position to remember that on 13th April my debate, on the employment of disabled people, was also attracting a full number of speakers. There is already provision for five-hour debates. But they are allocated to the political parties and to independents on days which are known well beforehand.
What emerges from all this is the magnitude and importance of subjects. Who is to decide whether a subject is so important that two-and-a-half hours will not do justice to it? Is it the Clerks who should tell somebody who tables such a Motion? Is it the office of the Leader of the House? Should guidelines be submitted as to the kind of subject which should be put down for balloted Motions? I do not know the answer to those questions, but I believe that that is what is being raised by paragraph 40.
§ On the matter of Unstarred Questions, the recent change to—
§ Lord Shepherd
My Lords, the concept of the two-and-a-half hour debate as a consequence of ballot was introduced to break the power of the Whips in respect of Motions that they would have liked to have had debated on a Wednesday but could never get. So the two-and-a-half hour debate was introduced to allow Members of the House to debate subjects. I do not believe that it was ever considered then that there would be, shall we say, a vetting as to whether the Motion that was before the House was right or wrong in terms of importance or interest in this House. So far—broadly, anyway—it has worked very well.
Lord Campbell of Croy
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving us that background. That was all done before I moved here from the other place 20 years ago. Certainly my experience is exactly as the noble Lord has said; namely, that the practice has been beneficial for noble Lords on all sides of the House.
Turning to the matter of Unstarred Questions, I personally welcome the new system of having Unstarred Questions in the dinner hour. But that means that debate on them is limited to an hour. Initiators of these Questions should not drum up, through the post, several speakers weeks beforehand, as happened to me recently. Of course, it was new, and the noble Lord concerned did not realise that the debate would be limited to an hour. It is quite clear that no more than four speakers, besides the opener and the Minister, can reasonably be fitted into one hour. I am sure that this matter will right itself as we become more familiar with the dinner hour Unstarred Question. One would hope that noble Lords, when they saw that three or four names were already down, would not go on adding their names too.
I feel strongly that noble Lords should still be able to ask Unstarred Questions and initiate debates at other times to allow longer debates with more speakers when it is appropriate. Worthwhile debates have been arranged starting at five or six o'clock in the evening by which time the other business has predictably ended. Some such cases arise normally in November and 885 December and early in the New Year; that is to say, at the end of a Session or in the early weeks of a new Session.
I must admit to having myself made use of that procedure. Noble Lords may remember that in November three years ago I was able to have a full debate on the future of the Scottish regiments, which was a very topical subject. The debate started in the early evening. It was a full debate with several speakers and had no time limit, but the House did not sit late. No similar debate was possible at that time in the other place. One adjournment debate in the small hours of the morning was, I believe, the only time that could be arranged. It is only right that I should record that the Government later carried out nearly half of what was urged by the speakers in that debate; namely, one amalgamation of Scottish regiments was cancelled.
Other occasions, I should mention, arose during the 1979–80 Session which followed a change of government. I was able to obtain several debates starting at about five or six o'clock in the evening because the new Government simply did not have Bills ready to come into Parliament—of course, this House always has fewer Bills than the other place at the beginning of a Parliament.
I do not anticipate an early election, or indeed a change of government. But, nonetheless, the same opportunities occur after a general election, because Bills are not immediately ready to be presented to Parliament. So, again, there are opportunities in this House for ordinary debates starting at about 5 p.m. when the other business is thin.
To put it briefly, I think it would be a pity if opportunities were to be curtailed of having normal debates on topical subjects, at a normal hour, on days when the other business is thin. Those opportunities, which have been utilised through the Unstarred Question procedure, have been envied by Members in the other place. If Unstarred Questions at any time of day are to be limited to an hour-and-a-half, I hope that there will still be the opportunity, as is mentioned in the report, of noble Lords being able to table Motions with no time limit, as proposed, which would take the place of the Unstarred Questions to which I have referred and which do not keep anyone up late.
§ 6.37 p.m.
§ Lady Saltoun of Abernethy
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Colnbrook, said that the only way to reduce the hours that the House sits was to reduce the volume of legislation. How I do agree with him! But how is that to be achieved? I am afraid that I do not have very much faith in the self-restraint of governments of any political complexion as regards the amount of legislation that they bring forward.
In 1978 in his book, The Dilemma of Democracy, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham, advocated, among other things, regional assemblies for Scotland, Wales, Ireland and various parts of England. I am beginning—albeit very, very reluctantly—to think that that may be the only solution for the future. It would leave central government fewer areas on which to 886 legislate. The noble and learned Lord also advocated a drastic reduction in the number of Members of Parliament and reform of this House. I would not advocate reform of this House, but I do wonder whether it would be possible to have a little restraint in the number of life Peers who are created for a few years, in order perhaps to "thin the ranks" a little bit.
The noble Lord, Lord Rippon, said that he had received a letter from the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, complaining about the acoustics in the Moses Room. I entirely endorse that. If Committees were to take place in the Moses Room some arrangements would have to be made for improving the acoustics. One committee on which I sat, and on which the noble Marquess sits at present, decided almost unanimously that, for that reason, it no longer wishes to sit in the Moses Room if it is possible to sit elsewhere. But it is not only the acoustics about which I complain; it is also the climate. I remember attending one meeting last winter when it was so cold that I was obliged to wear a fur coat. I should have been glad of a pair of fur boots as well. I would be glad of a pair of fur boots now, but that is not the point.
Recently a suggestion was made to me by a fellow Peer which seemed to me to be eminently sensible. In that regard I must declare an interest as one of the Peers whose home is furthest from London. I am not sure whether the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, lives further north than I, but it would be fair to say that there are certainly no more than two Peers—and possibly only one—living north of us.
If government business were to take place on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and debates on Thursdays, or debates were to take place on Mondays and government business on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, then, unless there was a Friday sitting, those who were not involved in debates would need to spend only three days a week in London instead of four. That would give them one more business day a week to attend to their private affairs and to be with their families, which would be a great advantage to them. I do not know how that would affect Ministers and Whips; I should not have thought it would present a great problem. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, will be horrified at that suggestion, but for many Peers who live a considerable distance from London and who cannot travel home each night it would make quite a difference to their lives.
§ 6.42 p.m.
Baroness Faith full
My Lords, I rise to support the noble Lords, Lord Shepherd and Lord Stoddart of Swindon, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, who spoke of the quality of Bills. I hope that my noble friends the Leader of the House and Lord Rippon will forgive me if I go somewhat outside the report. I wish to speak about the birth of a Bill. If I may I will give three short anecdotes and from those anecdotes will draw conclusions.
Long ago—in 1942 to be precise—I was working in Leicester. The then Mr. Rab Butler was preparing his Education Bill, which later became the Education Act 1944. The then Mr. Butler saw members of the 887 education committee; he saw the outstanding Director of Education, Mr. Brockington; he visited schools and talked to teachers, and he spoke to parents. He carried out that procedure in many parts of the country and took three years to draft the Bill. Those of us who remember the 1944 Bill—particularly as we realise that he did that consultation during wartime—recognise that it was a particularly good Bill, which went through both Houses fairly quickly without a great deal of acrimony or discussion. It therefore saved much time.
The Children Act 1989 took many years to come to fruition. It was based on the work of a Select Committee which looked at social services. As a result of a report on children in care, there was a report on the review of the law relating to children. There was wide consultation throughout the country with local authorities, with people, with voluntary organisations and with the statutory services. It was a good Bill; it is a good Act of Parliament and it went through both your Lordships' House—where it started—and the other place without long discussions. I suggest therefore that, if Bills are to come before this House and before the other place, the people of the country should be consulted. The Bill should be based on opinions garnered by either a Minister or perhaps senior civil servants.
I am not an educationist and was not concerned with the education side of the recent Education Bill. But I was concerned with Part III, which dealt with the special educational needs of children who were mentally or physically handicapped. As chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Children, I invited as many voluntary organisations as I could to participate; I invited magistrates; I invited teachers and all those concerned with that side of children's education. My noble friend Lord Wakeham suggested that I should also invite civil servants and therefore civil servants from the Department of Education attended those meetings, of which there were three or four.
That meant that the people involved in the work were consulted and gave their views. That did not altogether mean that the Bill was changed or that anything was altered to any great extent. It meant that there was understanding and acceptance. And if the participants did not obtain everything they wanted, at least they had been consulted and knew what was happening.
I would ask whether the Bills that come to your Lordships' House have really been thought out in a democratic way; whether people really have been consulted. I suggest that, if we were to adopt a better procedure at an early stage—that is, at the birth of a Bill—much time and trouble would be saved. Equally, a lot of paper would be saved, because there would be no need for all these tremendous reports to be produced that come to us from throughout the country.
What I deduce from those anecdotes is that, first, we do not want "knee-jerk" Bills. They cause more trouble in this House and the other place than many of us realise. A knee-jerk Bill is not a good Bill and it smacks of dictatorship. That is one thing that I learnt. I learnt also that the people of this country want to be consulted; they need to be consulted and, in a democratic society, they should be consulted.
888 I agree with paragraph 8 on page 4 of the report that there should be informal Committees off the Floor of the House. My noble friend Lord Colnbrook made that point. The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, made a plea for family life to be considered. As a woman Peer—I believe that there are only two women Peers speaking this evening—I can say that we women need to prepare if our families and friends are to have a good weekend. We must shop; we must plan; we must cook, and we must get home. Speaking from the domestic point of view as a woman Peer, therefore, I would not want to sit on Fridays.
I finish as I started. I believe that legislation should represent the feelings, ideas and views of the country and that being the case, I believe that, if we spend more time on the birth of Bills, we shall spend less time in your Lordships' House.
§ 6.50 p.m.
§ Lord Monkswell
My Lords, we have just heard a very good contribution from the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, and a marvellous exposition. If I can summarise it, I believe the text was "Legislate in haste and repent at leisure". We know that that has been prevalent for some time.
I would like to thank the noble Lord the Leader of the House for timetabling this debate. It is salutary that, instead of the report going to the Procedure Committee and coming to your Lordships' House for us to accept or reject the report of the committee, we have the opportunity to debate the report before decisions are made. I believe that that is very important. I would also like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Rippon, and his group for the report itself.
It is with some trepidation that I make this contribution, but I am sustained by two factors. The reason for my trepidation is that when I saw the list of speakers I realised that this debate was going to be dominated effectively by what I would describe as real heavyweights in your Lordships' House speaking from all sides of the Chamber. We have heard speakers this evening whom I would describe as Members of eminent stature: I do not mean physical stature, but in terms of presence in this House. As a relatively new boy with only nine-and-a-half years in your Lordships' House and with no major qualifications to my name, it is with some trepidation that I rise to speak.
I am sustained by two factors. The first is that one of the glories of this House is that every Member has the opportunity to speak and we all have different expertise to bring to the deliberations of your Lordships' House. That is a great strength. The other factor which sustained me arose from conversations which I have had today with a number of fellow Members from all sides of the House. When I explained the remarks that I was to make, their reaction was, "Yes, you must make those remarks as strongly as possible because you are not only speaking for yourself, but probably also for a significant body of opinion within the House which may not necessarily be able to contribute to the debate this afternoon".
889 While welcoming the report from the group led by the noble Lord, Lord Rippon, I would like to identify a number of aspects. The first is the idea of informal committees off the Floor of the House referred to in paragraphs 8 to 17 of the report. It is a very good idea and fits in with the ideas which the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, was articulating as regards taking a more leisured view and getting information. I believe that that was very ably expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, when he said that time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted. The idea of reconnoitring Bills with the aid of the Government, civil servants and parliamentary advisers for the Opposition will be enormously beneficial to the further deliberations of your Lordships' House on the Bills.
I am not very keen on the idea of formal committees off the Floor of the House. My limited experience, as I say, goes back a little less than 10 years. During that time there has been a sustained argument from some quarters of the House; namely, that we need to take business off the Floor of the House and to deal with it in committees off the Floor of the House. I note that one of the suggestions is that committees off the Floor of the House would be available for attendance by all Members of your Lordships' House. But the difficulty is that we cannot be in two places at once. At page 6, paragraph 21, of the report, there is particular reference to,requiring the presence of different ministers and opposition front-Benchers".It is all very well to take into account the Front Benchers of this House, but we must recognise the importance of Back-Bench contributions as well. That is something which we must not lose track of.
Time-limited debates are a continuing problem, with the speaking times, if my memory serves me right, ranging from three minutes to something like 18 minutes per contributor. I am sure that in the best traditions of this House and its flexibility we should be able to arrive at a situation where, if one debate has too few speakers and another debate has too many, then some arrangement is capable of being reached.
When one looks at the thrust of the report and the need to try to prevent late night sittings and to accommodate government business, if I may put it like that, one of the factors which we need to recognise is that over the past year or so the parliamentary timetable has changed significantly. We now have a situation where the Budget, which used to come forward in the spring, now does so in the autumn. That has had significant effects not only in the other place but also here. One of the beneficial effects of the changes which have affected this place is that the evenness of our parliamentary timetable has broadened, in the sense that before this change we tended to have a log-jam situation in the summer. We tended to sit five days a week and sometimes push the sittings of the House into late July and, in one case, early August. That is in recent memory.
That situation has changed and one of the significant reasons for that is that the Government have seen fit, because of the changed date of the Budget, to introduce 890 major legislation in this House early on in the parliamentary Session. There have been two benefits arising from that: the first is that in this House we do not have to deal with all the major pieces of legislation in the summer. The second benefit, which is enormously beneficial and which really strikes at the kernel of our existence, is that we must recognise that in a democratic society we can only act in an advisory capacity to the House of Commons. By considering government legislation in this House first, we have the opportunity of providing unfettered advice. I am sure that that benefits not only us but the Government and the other place. That unfettered advice can then go forward to the other place for its consideration. We are not challenging its will, but effectively offering it advice.
The idea of Friday sittings has been queried in some quarters. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, and other speakers were exactly right when they said that Private Members' business should not be relegated to Friday sittings. It is important that we should have regular Friday sittings and that they are available for the consideration of major business as well as private business. One of the arguments against ad hoc Friday sittings is that Members of your Lordships' House will not know when those sittings will take place and therefore will be unable to plan their own timetables. The solution is to ensure that we always sit on Fridays. However, varying types of business could be taken on Fridays, which could be open for the consideration of Select Committee reports, for private Bills and for government Bills when the pressure on parliamentary time so dictates. Regular Friday sittings would be beneficial in helping to even out the business throughout the week. They might help to prevent late night sittings, but I suspect that that is more in the hands of the Government and Opposition Front Benches than of the House as a whole.
I leave this thought with your Lordships: one of our great strengths is that all Members are able to contribute to our proceedings. That strength is reinforced when it is recognised that among the Members of your Lordships' House are individuals with enormous knowledge and expertise across a whole range and in almost any subject under the sun. If we allow our procedures to be changed in such a way as to prevent all our Members from being able to contribute, we shall diminish the House as a whole.
§ 7.1 p.m.
§ Lord Dean of Harptree
My Lords, I hope that your Lordships will not think it presumptuous of me, as a relatively new Member of your Lordships' House, if I contribute to this debate. I do so because during 10 years as Deputy Speaker in another place I had to know the nuts and bolts of procedure and, as a consequence, I now have an abiding interest in the subject.
I echo the tributes that have been justly paid to my noble friend Lord Rippon on the work of his committee. I am particularly glad that the committee restricted its suggestions to limited reforms in specific areas. Both Houses are conservative when it comes to considering the reform of procedure. Our procedures, conventions and customs have developed over the centuries to meet 891 changing needs. They provide flexibility and continuity and should not be changed lightly. I suggest that a clear need for change should be established and that there should be widespread agreement in all parts of the House before we embark on reforms.
I must admit that as a new Member of your Lordships' House my very early impression of your Lordships' processes when dealing with Bills was that they were perhaps a little repetitious. I realise that that impression was a mistake. I recognise that, if we are to be effective as a revising and amending Chamber, it is sometimes necessary to take more than one bite at the cherry. I have been very impressed by noble Lords on all sides of the House who have moved amendments to Bills and then, at the end of the debate, have withdrawn their amendments saying that they wished to consider the debate and the Minister's reply. That can be done in the knowledge that if, on reflection, they are still dissatisfied, they can bring forward the same or similar amendments on Report or Third Reading. Furthermore, if another place is to take our revising role seriously, it needs to be satisfied that our amendments have been debated thoroughly.
I am very interested in the committee's suggestions about shortening our procedures in Committee and subsequent stages, and about ways of improving the quality of debate. The suggestion about having an informal committee off the Floor of the House is valuable and well worth a trial. However, I very much agree with what has already been said in the debate that it is very important for all Peers to have an opportunity to attend such proceedings: otherwise we may very well find that the informal procedure merely adds another stage to our consideration of Bills. We might find that that consideration was lengthened rather than shortened. The noble Lords, Lord Richard and Lord Monson, made that point effectively.
Another reform that is likely substantially to influence our procedures is contained in Chapter I of the Deregulation and Contracting Out Bill. I realise that that was not covered in my noble friend's report, but it seems relevant to this debate. I warmly welcome those suggestions because I believe that they could strengthen parliamentary scrutiny. As I see it, that pre-legislation procedure for deregulation orders could be of immense significance for our future procedures. I note that Clause 3 states that a Minister must lay,a draft of the order",together with a full explanation. I emphasise that the provisions do not refer to "a draft order" but to,a draft of the order".I believe that I am right in saying that at the moment neither House has a formal pre-legislation procedure. The government of the day may produce Green Papers; they may produce White Papers which may or may not be discussed before legislation is produced, but all too often the first that Parliament sees of government proposals is when a Bill is published, when, to some degree and inevitably, it is set in concrete. If any parliamentarian does not agree with it, we have the uphill task of persuading the government of the day that they have got it wrong and that they should accept amendments. Therefore, I believe that the new 892 procedure that we are introducing for deregulation orders in the first instance is valuable. I realise that it will mean much more work for the Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee, but I note from that committee's report that it is prepared to accept the additional workload.
Friday sittings have received pretty rough treatment in your Lordships' House today. I have: some doubts, but I am rather more friendly to the suggestion than some noble Lords. My first doubt relates to the additional workload for Ministers, Officers and officials of the House. I am very impressed by how extremely hard Ministers in your Lordships' House work—and perhaps I should add in parenthesis, for very poor pay. They often have to answer not only for all the work of the department to which they are accredited, but for other departments also. If they are dealing with something with which they are not wholly familiar, inevitably that means that their work in briefing themselves to make adequate replies in this House is that much greater. I am not suggesting that that is an overriding factor against having Friday sittings, but it is a matter to which we should give serious consideration.
My main doubt, however, arises on a question which has been referred to many times during the debate: would Friday sittings really mean that we would rise earlier on other days? That is the key question. I believe that, unless there was strong will to rise earlier on the part of the usual channels—and, indeed, in all parts of the House—we should get into the position that was described by my noble friend Lord Colnbrook, who drew on his experience in the House of Commons. In theory, another place finishes its main business at 10 o'clock at night, but time after time governments of all political colours put down suspension Motions for 10 o'clock. Those Motions are not debated but can be; voted upon. Usually, they go through on the nod. The effect of those Motions is that, instead of finishing at 10 o'clock, the business can continue until any hour. I trust that if we decide to go for Friday sittings we will not use that escape route, which is used in another place to prolong business to any hour.
In conclusion, I believe that the House owes a great debt of gratitude to my noble friend and his group for the interesting and valuable proposals that they have brought forward. I am grateful to my noble friend the Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House for giving us this opportunity to discuss the proposals. I look forward to my noble friend's reaction to the debate.
§ 7.10 p.m.
Earl Baldwin of Bewdley
My Lords, in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Rippon, on a most concise and helpful report, I should like to make just two short points on specific issues addressed in it, and one general one.
The two points concern Friday sittings and time-limited debates. I have a fear, as a relatively insignificant Cross-Bencher, that to convert Friday to a "kind of private members' day", as described in paragraph 33, would inevitably devalue it. In a sense, of course, that is the point. And yet to have: a separate second-class citizens' day, if that is not putting it too 893 strongly, might be unfortunate, not least for the second-class citizens. One of the charms of your Lordships' House has always seemed to me to be the mix in mid-week of the fairly sublime with the moderately ridiculous. Separate them out, and you may easily find a separation also in the quality of the attendance, I think to the slight impoverishment of business in general. I can see the virtues of the proposal, particularly for the Front Benches and for those who live far away, as my noble friend Lady Saltoun (who is not in her place) eloquently described, but still it makes me a little uneasy. I was fortified in this and glad to hear a number of noble Lords—notably, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, Lord Shepherd, I think, and Lord Stoddart—who also felt that they were not necessarily in favour of confining Friday to private business.
On time-limited debates I realise that I have missed the bus in the past in not putting something in writing to the Procedure Committee. I have also had the wind taken to some extent out of my sails by the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, on the suggestion made by my noble friend Lord Monson, because I jotted down a very similar suggestion to his which I nevertheless think is perhaps worth putting on record. It has occurred to me that at least some of the problems referred to in paragraph 41 could be alleviated if the two debates which took place end-on were regarded as one for the purpose of allocation of minutes per speaker. At present, as has been said, you can have one two-and-a-half hour debate for which 20 of your Lordships have put down your names, followed by another which attracts, say, only eight speakers, resulting in a great imbalance in speaking time in favour of possibly the less weighty topic. Division into, say, three hours and two hours is still largely an exercise in guesswork, though it may produce an improvement. But if instead you divided the five hours by the total of the 28 speakers, imbalances would be ironed out by the fact that each debate would, like water, find its own level, and this would be more satisfactory for all.
The objection, of course, which we have heard, is that you would not know long in advance at exactly what point the second debate would begin. Now, for some this may be important to know. I suspect that for many others this is no more important than knowing for how many minutes they are going to be allowed to speak. Both these matters can be gauged approximately from the Government Whips' Office some time in advance, although not precisely until the late morning of the day of the debate. In any case it may be a small price worth paying for ensuring fair allocations of speaker time throughout, and a proper balance between the two debates, as an alternative, or even in addition, to leaving the final finishing time open-ended, as touched on in paragraph 31.
I attended a presentation of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution's recent report on Transport and the Environment on the same day that I first read this report on sittings of the House. I was struck by the argument there, which I think is increasingly accepted, that in building more motorways you actually increase the total volume of traffic on the roads. Create more 894 space, and more things will come along to fill it. We may be in the same position here: is there any reason to think that a version of Parkinson's Law, as foreshadowed in paragraph 43 of the report itself, and as mentioned by one or two other noble Lords, will not similarly afflict your Lordships' House, and that business will not expand to fill the space available? Maybe we have to bow to the inevitable pressures on parliamentary time. But there is perhaps something a little ironic in making it any easier to accommodate a legislative programme which a great many Members of both Houses already judge to be excessive.
§ 7.15 p.m.
§ Lord Skelmersdale
My Lords, by this time in any debate the central context tends to become obscured by practicalities. It also becomes increasingly difficult to find anything new to say. I hope that I can, like a well-known beer, refresh the parts that other speakers have not reached. In the context of today, perhaps I should say that I do not have an interest to declare.
I start from two standpoints. The first is that when I took my seat almost 20 years ago I joined an amateur House of Parliament. I mean "amateur" in the best possible sense. The noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, used the same expression. Experts were available from the ranks of noble Lords to advise the House on every possible subject from academia to zygotes, perhaps from agoraphobia to xylophones. A surprising example of this arose in 1980 on the Second Reading of a government Bill. I wonder how many of your Lordships now in the Chamber remember the Bees Bill which sought authority for the Ministry of Agriculture to destroy swarms of bees in private ownership when there was no hope of treating them for such diseases as varroa. My noble friend Lord Ferrers certainly does. I believe that he suffered the first defeat of the new Conservative Government. Clearly, it was a subject on which we needed an expert to advise us, and one came forward to speak on Second Reading. He was the son of a an ex-chairman of Rolls-Royce who, in retirement, had become a very efficient amateur bee-keeper. That noble Lord was sitting next to me earlier this afternoon. I refer to my noble friend Lord Hives.
Since then, I believe that, although it has been dented to some extent, the House has retained its amateur status, always eventually bowing to the will of another place. That does not mean that we do not influence it. Of course we do. The Bill that gets Royal Assent is seldom the same as the one that we receive, whether the Bill starts in this House or another place. Wednesday debates and Unstarred Questions are a valuable part of our ability to persuade government for or against a particular course of action. We should do nothing to damage that aspect of our activities. If we do not have enough time to pursue our paying activities, the House—even the country—will be the poorer for it. That is what worries me about Friday sittings, for example. They are all very well for those Members who are totally retired. I am glad to say that that covers very 895 few of us, in spite of what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon, said. Friday sittings have nothing to do with the central issue.
My second point concerns the saving of time of your Lordships' House. Not only will we spend more time on average in a week, but it will probably mean that fewer Members will be available to be persuaded, or otherwise, by the arguments advanced in a Friday debate. I am afraid that it could easily lead to an "us and them" situation: those who could and would organise their lives to be here on Friday, and those who could not. My noble friend Lady Faithfull gave an example of a reason why not. There is a money cost in terms of Clerks' time, the Official Report, doorkeepers and all the staff of the House. There is also a psychological cost in having to find more deputy Speakers and deputy chairmen.
As has been pointed out, we are the second longest sitting parliamentary body in the world. I would not be surprised to learn that we are also the cheapest in terms of cost per member of the population of the country being governed. That said, I believe that we need more time for non-government business, some of which can come from time saving on government business and some from occasional sittings on Friday, such as we have at the moment, which can be slightly—but only slightly—more in number.
I like the idea that when the Government require Wednesdays, as they always do at some time soon after the Whitsun Recess, Fridays should be given over to major debates. In passing, why Wednesdays? The business of the House should be organised for your Lordships' convenience rather than that of the Government. Here I am greatly surprised, but have great pleasure, in agreeing with the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell.
I am therefore grateful to my noble friend Lord Rippon and his committee for producing the report. I am especially glad that in considering the use of valuable time it has swung marginally towards my suggestion of getting more business off the Floor of the House. Doing that for affirmative statutory instruments has always seemed so obvious that I wonder that it has not figured in the debate. That said, slightly over 50 per cent. of such instruments arouse no interest in the House. I am sure it is not beyond the wit of man to arrive at a situation where some orders do not need to be debated at all if the House does not want to do so.
We already have a precedent. How often have we heard the words, "My Lords, I understand that no amendments have been set down to this Bill and that no noble Lord has indicated a wish to move a manuscript amendment or to speak in Committee. Therefore, unless any noble Lord objects, I beg to move that the order of commitment be discharged".
With a slight change in our arrangements, it would be possible to have a formulation which would go something like this: "My Lords, since this Motion was set down for debate no noble Lord has indicated a wish to speak. Unless, therefore, any noble Lords object, I beg to move that the Paralytic Shell Fish (Scallops) Order 1997"—or whatever it is—"be agreed to". That 896 would enable us to spend more time debating fully those orders that the House feels need to be debated on the Floor of the House or off it.
Like my noble friend Lord Colnbrook and other noble Lords, with whom I agree 100 per cent., I am excited by the idea that there should be a quasi non-voting Committee stage off the Floor of the House so as to do away with probing amendments when the Bill returns to the Chamber. I must, however, enter a caveat. As the Government's intentions will be exposed, the proceedings will need to be reported fully because nowadays the courts can take the Government's intentions into account in their judgments.
Once the Bill returns to the Chamber, I am not sure whether we would move straight to Report stage or have a conventional Committee stage. If the former, more time would be saved. If the latter, my next point becomes even more important. Like other noble Lords— this has barely been referred to—I have been concerned at the growing practice of running essentially the same amendment through Committee stage, Report and Third Reading. When I first joined your Lordships' House that practice virtually did not exist. Third Readings were for tidying up and for amendments from a government committed to produce them by promises given in earlier debates.
Today it seems that any noble Lord determined to have a Division can pick the moment whenever he or she believes that the vote can be won. In terms of time on the Floor of the Chamber, that is as wasteful as it is unproductive. It is a sine qua non that time wasted in repetition is time that cannot be used for a new subject whether in relation to that Bill, another Bill, an Unstarred Question, or whatever.
I should like to take a step backwards and ask the Procedure Committee—your Lordships agreed just a few hours ago that it should have a look at Standing Orders with a view to reprinting them—to consider the matter. Then page 111, or whatever it turns out to be, instead of saying about amendments on Third Reading,It is considered undesirable that an issue which has been fully debated and decided upon at a previous stage of a Bill should be re-opened by an amendment on Third Reading",would say:It is considered undesirable that an issue which has been fully debated at a previous stage of a Bill should be re-opened by an amendment on Third Reading".In other words, the phrase, "and decided upon", would be left out.
I suppose that I shall be accused yet again of being radical and that I shall be criticised by the Opposition for reducing the power of their main weapon—delay. I do not believe that that is a valid criticism. It merely means that they would have to find other ways of exercising the valuable weapon of delay which is at their disposal and which has already been referred to.
Another thing I hate about the normal planning arrangements is that the time allowed for stages of a Bill is halved. In other words, it seems to me, looking these days from the outside, that if the House spends eight days in Committee, one can bet one's bottom dollar that it will spend four days on Report and two on Third Reading. I cannot see the rationale for that, and I believe 897 that the matter should be dealt with. I have tried to be brief. I hope, like Horace, I have not ended up by being obscure.
§ 7.26 p.m.
§ Lord Palmer
My Lords, I apologise most sincerely for coming in on the gap. I had very much hoped to be able to take part in the debate but I have been at a conference of Food from Britain all day, and I shall be extremely brief. I have read the report of the noble Lord, Lord Rippon, with tremendous interest, and to me there is, I am afraid, one glaring omission, and that is the length of our Summer Recess.
Last year we were consistently kept up, particularly with the Education Bill, until three o'clock in the morning. Then we had three months off. To me that seems the most crazy way of conducting parliamentary business. Living as I do in Scotland, although none of my children is educated in Scotland, Scottish schools now go back at the beginning of August. It does seem that we have a very good case to look completely again at the whole parliamentary timetable. Once again, I apologise for intervening in the gap.
§ 7.27 p.m.
My Lords, I have found this afternoon and this evening's proceedings interesting. I am all the more grateful therefore to those of your Lordships who have taken part in the debate for the trouble that you have taken to comment upon the report of my noble friend Lord Rippon. With your Lordships' permission, a great many people have spoken, a great many wise things have been said, and after a long debate it would not be altogether valuable were I to attempt to answer all the points made by your Lordships. I should like to try to be as brief as possible and to follow the example that so many of your Lordships have set this afternoon.
I should like to make just a couple of points which seem to me to arise out of the debate. First, it is clear that the Procedure Committee will read the Official Report of the debate with great profit and will note the suggestions that have been made. I have drawn already a number of conclusions from the opinions that have been expressed. First, it is clear that my noble friend has produced an extremely valuable report. Not only has he made some suggestions which have found favour with a majority of speakers, he has stimulated a number of formidably well thought out suggestions of the kind that we have heard, for instance, from my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale.
I deduce also from what I have heard that a number of the suggestions made by my noble friend Lord Rippon have commanded overwhelming support. There appears to be unanimous support—if my head count is correct—for my noble friend's suggestions on Unstarred Questions. It also seems as though there has been overwhelming support for his idea of informal committees. I take great pleasure in being able to say that there has been pretty much of a thumbs down for 898 the idea of carrying over Bills from one Session to another. I apologise to my noble friend for putting it in that way.
As regards Friday sittings, my head count leans against that suggestion. However, there has been eloquent support for the idea of Friday sittings, not only for the idea that they should be for Private Members' business but that the Government should use some Fridays for their own business. I agree with my noble friend who pointed out that that already happens when the Government are running towards the end of the Session. It is a well-established practice in your Lordships' House. We try to avoid having to do so, but inevitably in the course of a Session it occasionally happens.
I was also interested by the suggestions made in the wake of my noble friend's proposal that a Committee of the Whole House should sit off the Floor. I took particular note, as is only right, of the practical suggestion made by my noble kinsman the Marquess of Salisbury, who clearly is even harder of hearing than I had realised. However, fortified by the support of the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, I am sure that the authorities of the House will have noted the complaints of both noble Lords.
Nevertheless, I was struck by the substantial support for that suggestion from several quarters of the House, in particular when taken as a more general point with those made by my noble friend Lady Faithfull about the importance of consultation. The references to the suggestion of informal committees and the Committee of the Whole House off the Floor should be taken by the Procedure Committee in its consideration in conjunction with the remarks of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman. He gave us a characteristically crisp account of the existing procedures for taking Committee stages off the Floor and a number of reasons why some of the procedures would be more suitable than others for controversial Bills. I am sure that the Procedure Committee will be minded to consider those suggestions with care. I note that at the same time considerable scepticism has been expressed about that suggestion.
Finally, I turn to what has been an underlying drumbeat to the debate. A great number of noble Lords mentioned the quality of legislation as being one of the main causes of the length of time your Lordships have to spend sitting in the Chamber. Before dealing with that matter, I wish to mention the remarks made by the noble and learned Lords, Lord Brightman and Lord Archer of Sandwell, about the Law Commission. I am well aware that there is a worrying backlog of Law Commission reports that have not yet received the attention that is their due. The distinguished people who make up the Law Commission and the practical spin that they put on their reports deserve the attention of this House and of the Government. I am sure that the noble and learned Lords will appreciate that I am unable to be more specific at present. However, I hope that I can give them some encouragement. I have also noted that the use of special procedures may help us to speed the transition from recommendation to legislation of these most valuable reports.
899 I return as briefly as I am able to the question of the quality of legislation. It is a subject that I have been constrained to try to begin to take a little interest in since my appointment as Leader of your Lordships' House and, therefore, ex officio one of the Government's business managers. The difficulties of those who occupy that onerous position have been ably described by a number of my noble friends and I have nothing to add to their considerable experience. I am already beginning to understand the full justice of their remarks.
I have no doubt that the old axiom that to legislate in haste induces us to repent at leisure is as true today as it ever was. I merely refer your Lordships to a most illuminating piece, in particular to a tiro like me, written by my noble and learned friend Lord Howe of Aberavon. It appeared in a periodical which, I am ashamed to say, because I am not a lawyer I had not come across previously entitled the Statute Law Review. My noble and learned friend published the text of a lecture that he had given on trying to improve the quality of legislation. It is a most elegant statement of what I am increasingly coming to believe. I hope that your Lordships' advice to Her Majesty's Government and to all legislators in this context, as well as my noble and learned friend's, will increasingly be heeded. I am also persuaded that one way, and perhaps the best way, in which your Lordships can get home earlier at night is to ensure that legislation is drafted not in a hurry but with due deliberation—
My Lords, we must ensure that policy is agreed in time and that instructions are able to be issued in time for the professionalism of the parliamentary draftsmen to be given full play.
Anyone who has been a member of any government—including, dare I say, noble Lords opposite—will know that in the real world this is almost always a counsel of perfection. However much we may try to achieve perfection, all of us, of whatever party, always fall short of it. Nevertheless, that is not a reason for not trying. I hope that we shall all be able to take your Lordships' strictures to heart.
It may well be that the Procedure Committee will be able to return to your Lordships' House with a series of modest proposals for your Lordships to approve or disapprove. I hope that it will and that those modest proposals will reflect the approach of my noble friend's report. However, it is perhaps wise for me to end my few remarks by repeating a comment made tonight by my noble friend. In the end the House must want to make this work. If your Lordships believe that these modest reforms, or any modest reforms that are adopted, should succeed, it is up to us to show our usual modesty, wisdom and restraint in applying them.
§ On Question, Motion agreed to.