HL Deb 13 December 1995 vol 567 cc1279-88

3.22 p.m.

The Chairman of Committees (Lord Boston of Faversham)

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

Moved, That the First Report from the Select Committee be agreed to (HL Paper 8).—(The Chairman of Committees.)

Following is the report referred to:

1.COMMITTEES ON LEGISLATION OFF THE FLOOR OF THE HOUSE The committee has reviewed the three new procedures for Committees on legislation off the Floor of the House which were used last Session following the report of the Group on Sittings of the House (the Rippon Committee). The group recommended a number of ways of taking proceedings away from the Floor of the House. The committee notes that in the course of 1995 the House of Commons has implemented a number of the recommendations of the Committee on Sittings of the House (the Jopling Committee) (HC 20 (1991–92)), including sittings on Wednesday mornings, less business after 10 p.m. and taking more business off the Floor of the House. As a result, last Session the House of Commons rose on Mondays to Thursdays on average some 50 minutes earlier than in the previous Session and that House no longer sits on some 10 Fridays a year. With the more limited programme of reform proposed by the Rippon Committee, the House of Lords in the same period rose on average some 25 minutes earlier each day. The committee draws attention to these developments and hopes that further efforts will be made to sit for fewer hours and to rise earlier. We repeat the view we took a year ago that a significant improvement in the hours of sitting of the House can come only with general support throughout the House, and by agreement through the usual channels, and not by any decision of the committee (First Report, 1994–95). The committee makes the following observations and recommendations on the new procedures for Committees off the Floor. 1.The further experiments in Special Public Bill Committees ("the Jellicoe Procedure") were successful and we confirm the view which we took in 1994 after the first experiment that the procedures have proved a valuable addition to the scrutiny function of the House. We endorse our previous observation that the procedure should be used not only for Law Commission Bills but for other Bills. 2.The experiment in taking the Committee stage of the Children (Scotland) Bill in the Moses Room under the procedure whereby Lords are not selected and any Lord may attend, speak and move amendments as if the Committee stage were taking place in the Chamber as a Committee of the Whole House also proved successful. Under the procedure no Divisions at that stage may take place. The procedure should be retained and used for suitable Bills. 3.One or more further experiments should be held in the use of informal committees, on which the results of the experiment last Session were less clear. It will be for Ministers in charge of Bills to convene such committees on suitable Bills as and when the need arises. 4.Special Public Bill Committees should be named (on report from the Committee of Selection) before Second Reading to enable the Members to agree a request for evidence and consider a programme of work at the earliest opportunity contingent on the Bill being committed to a Special Public Bill Committee. After Second Reading, the Committee will be appointed in the normal way with the 28-day period running from that date. 5.Notice of those meetings of Special Public Bill Committees at which Bills are considered clause by clause should be given on the Order Paper. 2.DEBATE ON CONSOLIDATED FUND BILLS The committee was invited to re-examine the current Companion guidance concerning proceedings on Consolidated Fund Bills: It does not offend the privileges of the Commons for the Lords to discuss or even to decide upon consolidated fund bills, but the House has habitually passed such bills without printing them and without discussion or dissent. It is now a convention that proceedings upon them are taken formally."(Companion, p124) We considered this matter in January and March 1993 (Second and Third Reports, 1992–93). On both occasions we confirmed the current guidance and our recommendations were agreed to by the House. After further consideration, the committee once again endorses the current guidance. We invite the House to agree to this conclusion and express the hope that a similar proposal will not be brought again before the committee.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, it is strange that the report which we have in front of us gives no reason why debate on Consolidated Fund Bills—the second item in the report—should be prohibited. Indeed, it goes out of its way to indicate that were your Lordships to debate the Consolidated Fund Bill it would involve no clash with the interests and views of the other place. Therefore, if a ban on debating Consolidated Fund Bills is to be continued I should have thought that we were entitled to be given some actual reasons why that should be so.

It is most curious not only that no such reason is given in the report but that it is proposed to continue the ban on debating one of the most important measures of the year. It is one to which this House, with its great resource of knowledge on finance and the public economy, is particularly well fitted to contribute. It is in curious contrast, too, with what is allowed in respect of the Finance Bill, which otherwise is a parallel measure.

Finally, I was intrigued to note that in the report it is suggested that the House should not again consider this ban. I wonder why not.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, perhaps I may take a contrary view. Could the reason be that the majority of your Lordships happen to agree with the Procedure Committee? I do, and have said so on the Floor of the House on previous occasions. Surely we have spent enough time on this subject and surely the hope expressed under the second heading is welcome and is no cause for surprise.

Lord Simon of Glaisdale

My Lords, I support the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter. Your Lordships stand in the position of the Great Council of the Realm of the Middle Ages. Although, as the noble Lord said, the other place has the machinery and the privileges as to finance, your Lordships can show massive experience and knowledge. Our Members include five former Chancellors of the Exchequer, four former Chief Secretaries, three former Governors of the Bank of England and a chairman of one of the biggest joint stock banks. Your Lordships are in a position to make a contribution in debates on finance, economics and taxation that no other deliberative assembly in the world can match.

The Procedure Committee, as the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, pointed out, gives no sign of having addressed the problem that was presented to it. It was something new. It was suggested that, as there is no occasion to debate finance and so forth between the Finance Bill presented in the Spring and the Queen's Speech presented in the late Autumn, the July Consolidated Fund Bill gives an incomparable opportunity for your Lordships to do so.

Recently, the noble Lord, Lord Desai, introduced what seemed to me to be a valuable debate reviewing finance against the background of the Budget. Presumably the Opposition sacrificed one of its days for that. I see a nod from the Opposition Front Bench. That is quite wrong. Your Lordships are entitled to ask that the Procedure Committee should now consider the question of the summer Consolidated Fund Bill.

Your Lordships have control over our procedure. Although we welcome the advice and help that we receive from the Procedure Committee, in the end it is a matter for your Lordships. In my respectful submission, it is odd that your Lordships are denied the opportunity of marshalling your knowledge and experience, which is unmatched.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, I agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, that your Lordships' House has a great deal of expertise in finance. However, I submit that the Consolidated Fund Bill is not a suitable vehicle for debate in this way. Another good reason is the fact that another place does not debate it. I understand that under Standing Orders it is prohibited from debating the Bill, as the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, with his long experience of another place, and the noble and learned Lord will know. What the other place has, of course, is a debate on the Closure Motion with many short debates on constituency matters. However, it does not debate the Consolidated Fund Bill itself.

We would, therefore, have the rather Gilbertian situation in which another place, which has responsibility for finance, does not debate the Consolidated Fund Bill while your Lordships' House, which does not have responsibility for finance, would be debating it. However, I have some sympathy with the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, that the House should be given an opportunity to debate financial and economic matters. Therefore, I submit that it might be a matter for consideration by the usual channels that the Consolidated Fund Bill should be taken formally and accompanied by a suitable Motion which would give rise to a debate.

Until the mid-1970s this House did not debate the Finance Bill. It took the Finance Bill formally and at the same time there was a Motion, mostly put down by the Opposition, which was often worded in such a way as to lead to a Division. The Finance Bill was taken formally. During the 1970s one or two noble Lords objected to some of the provisions by the then Labour Government and insisted on a Second Reading debate. That became the custom ever since. Perhaps I am in a minority in wishing to see both the Finance Bill and the Consolidated Fund Bill taken formally for the reasons that I have attempted to give.

Lord Ampthill

My Lords, this is a chestnut of such antiquity that I wonder whether the noble Lord the Lord Chairman of Committees might consider, for the sake of saving the Procedure Committee going through this matter yet again, publishing the correspondence that took place between myself, when I occupied the position that he now has, and the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale—with their permission, of course. It might clarify in the minds of those two noble Lords, not to mention the whole House, the reasons why this course has been covered sufficiently.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, many of us quite understand the impatience in some quarters of this House caused by this matter being raised from time to time by the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, and, on occasion, by me.

Perhaps I may suggest that we do not take sufficient account of entirely new forms of expenditure which are being incurred year by year and, indeed, day by day and week by week. I refer specifically to the expenditure out of the Consolidated Fund on sums towards the European Economic Community, the obligations for which are not accepted at one time only—that is, at the time of the Budget—but are in fact accepted by this country every time a new proposal with financial implications is agreed at the Council of Ministers without any consultation whatever with either House on whether or not such matters should be agreed.

It may well be that a debate on the Consolidated Fund Bill may not be the correct occasion on which to take those matters into account. But I should warn your Lordships that the question of direct payments by this country to implement Community proposals and legislation is increasing rapidly to a point at which it is a matter of some financial significance which should be considered by someone. I believe that this House has a reputation for examining with considerable care all matters in connection with Community funding, fraud and so on.

I put it to your Lordships and to the Chairman of Committees that sooner or later, if we disagree on whether or not it should be debated on the Consolidated Fund, machinery should be put in place to enable this House to debate items of expenditure which are not agreed specifically in the original Budget that goes through another place but which happen day by day, week by week and month by month without any check whatever being made by any part of Parliament.

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

My Lords, it is essential that the Consolidated Fund Bill should, as a separate Bill, be debated and examined by Parliament. If the other place does not debate it—and we have just been informed that it does not—it would seem appropriate that this House, which is part of Parliament, should undertake that task, particularly in view of the expertise which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, reminded us that we have. We can give it a proper, thorough, detailed and authoritative examination.

One does not wish to interfere with the work of the Procedure Committee. As the noble Lord, Lord Ampthill, said, it is not a new problem. I believe that this is the wrong time to exclude any part of Parliament from examining in July the contents and the results which will flow from the Consolidated Fund Bill. Even at this late hour, perhaps the Chairman of Committees will allow that sentence to be removed from the report so that we do not commit ourselves to it. That would be one way to extricate ourselves from the present dilemma.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, as a member of the Procedure Committee, I support the Chairman of Committees. The impression may have been given that the Procedure Committee did not give full consideration to this matter. It certainly did. We heard my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter give his reasons for wishing the Consolidated Fund Bill to be debated. I believe that I speak for all members of the committee when I say that we listened to those arguments with great care and we came to the conclusion which has been reached, as the noble Lord, Lord Ampthill, said, on many previous occasions. I agree that this matter should now be put to rest for some little while.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, no one wishes to inhibit debate for debate's sake and no one denies that this may be a suitable peg on which to hang a debate. However, we must bear in mind the timetable for debates, when the House rises and the receipt in this House of the Consolidated Fund Bill. The timing of that makes it impossible to do justice to the good management and order of the business.

Noble Lords who raised this matter say that the House has ultimate sovereignty over the Procedure Committee and that the House may take a decision. The best way that that can be implemented is by noble Lords who feel strongly about these matters tabling a divisible Motion on which the House might then be invited to vote. I doubt that some noble Lords would accept even that democratic decision because they have the democratic right to return to this matter time and time again. We cannot stop them from doing that. They complain about the shortage of time to debate important matters but every time that this matter is raised, time is taken up on it. The time of the Procedure Committee is also taken in consideration of the issue.

I have been a member of the Procedure Committee for a number of years and the matter has been aired thoroughly. The merits of the case are fairly clear and I am sure that the Chairman of Committees will repeat them. In practical terms, I do not believe that there is a case. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon, said that we were wrong to give up a day of our time in order to have an economic debate. That was a genuine opportunity taken by Labour Peers to use the Budget as a peg on which to hang a debate. I did not notice among the speakers many of those who agitate for more debates on the economy.

I sense that we have a small number of noble Lords who I respect deeply but who are not prepared to accept the democratic will of this House as expressed through their delegated committee members on the Procedure Committee. Just as somebody yesterday invited somebody else to take him to court, I invite those noble Lords who wish to press the matter to table a Motion on which the House can vote. That will mean that we shall have on the record the number of noble Lords in favour of that Motion. However, that may not resolve the matter. I suspect that even when an overwhelming number of noble Lords vote against that Motion, the matter will continue to be raised.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, one of the strengths of this House and the way that it does its business is that rules are not provided which determine what shall be discussed and who shall speak. We work on a basis of consensus across the House or around the House and on the basis that we all agree with its procedures.

I did not intend to speak in the debate because I felt that there were noble Lords who could argue the pros and cons of the proposals suggested by the Procedure Committee. But, unfortunately, I am driven to my feet by my noble friend the Opposition Chief Whip who suggested that a divisible Motion is the way forward. I hope that the procedures of this House will not be determined by a majority but will be determined by a consensus, otherwise, I suspect that we may be going down a slippery slope of contention about the way that we do our business rather than considering the particular merits of the case.

I am not sure how we can go forward. A number of suggestions have been made in the debate so far. I hope that the different ways of going forward that have been suggested will be considered by the Procedure Committee as a means of trying to find some consensus on all sides of the House.

Lord Annan

My Lords, can the noble Lord say how you find consensus on the matter without a vote?

Lord Brightman

My Lords, perhaps I may make a brief comment on a completely different aspect of the Select Committee's report which arises in paragraph 1 at the bottom of page 1. It reads that the Jellicoe procedure, "should be used not only for Law Commission bills but for other bills".

It is quite often said that the Jellicoe procedure is not suitable for Bills of a controversial nature. In my opinion, that is not correct. While the Jellicoe procedure is obviously inappropriate for a Bill which is party political, or one that would be subject to a party Whip, I believe that a Bill should not be disqualified merely because it is controversial.

The Jellicoe procedure provides an admirable forum for the proper resolution of some controversial problems for the simple reason that evidence is taken and, therefore, voting takes place in the light of that evidence. I do not know whether the noble Lord, the Chairman of Committees, would care to comment on that particular assessment of the value of the Jellicoe procedure.

The Chairman of Committees

My Lords, in view of the business that is to follow this afternoon, I had hoped not to take up too much of your Lordships' time. However, bearing in mind the debate that has taken place on the matter and which was raised initially by the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, I believe that I should spell out some of the considerations which have arisen.

First, perhaps I may deal with the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, about the Consolidated Fund. I can bring them some comfort in that the Procedure Committee did indeed, as the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, said, consider in very great detail the arguments for and against debates on Consolidated Fund Bills.

The noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, also asked why it was that no arguments were spelled out in the report of the Procedure Committee. I can help him in that respect in a moment, but, by way of preliminary, I should point out that it is not the custom for your Lordships' House to spell out in reports presented to it arguments in that kind of full way. However, as I have already indicated, they were very thoroughly considered.

Perhaps I may briefly take up one point before going through the other arguments that have been raised. It was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton. In view of the fact that quite a number of noble Lords have taken part in the debate, I hope that your Lordships will forgive me if I do not refer to each of them by name. The noble Lord made a perfectly valid point; namely, that if a matter has been raised within a committee of your Lordships' House, and within the House itself, quite a number of times, then, perhaps, the simplest way to resolve the matter would be for those who are concerned to press such a matter still further. They should, perhaps, press it to a Division in your Lordships' House. Without advocating it in one way or another, I can confirm that that is a procedure which is fully open to your Lordships to take. Moreover, as was indicated this afternoon in another context, it is always for your Lordships to decide what the House will do.

As regards the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, on the final sub-paragraph of the report, I should just like to stress that it does not say that your Lordships' House should not consider the matter; it advises your Lordships' House that it would be better, for the reasons indicated, if the matter were not raised in the Procedure Committee again. As I have already said, it is a matter for your Lordships' House to decide how it should work.

As regards the other arguments raised, I recognise the strength of the feelings of the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, and of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale. However, I believe that it would be neglectful of me not to convey to your Lordships the strength of feeling within the Procedure Committee on two previous occasions, not just a week or so ago.

I acknowledge, with support, the point made by my noble predecessor in this post, the noble Lord, Lord Ampthill. I shall certainly have a look at the suggestion that the noble Lord made as regards correspondence. The question of a possible Division also arises in the light of what the noble Lord had to say.

I turn now to the arguments which the Procedure Committee considered, having done so on three occasions recently. The first was the timetable for such Bills—a point that was touched upon by one of your Lordships this afternoon; I believe that it was the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton—which is both fast moving and very difficult to predict. Therefore, the view that the Procedure Committee had before it and accepted was that debates would arise with very little warning and very little opportunity for noble Lords to prepare for them.

As regards another place—another point that has been raised this afternoon —under Standing Order 54(1), which is the one that applies, the other place is now prohibited from debating Consolidated Fund Bills. Even when they were debated prior to recent changes in supply procedure, it was, as noble Lords here who have been in another place will confirm, minor constituency matters which were the main elements of those debates.

So far as concerns Consolidated Fund Bills and their content, there is some misapprehension among a very small minority of noble Lords. They merely sanction the issue of money from the Consolidated Fund. They have no direct relevance either to the health or otherwise of the economy. Again—and this is another matter which was considered by your Lordships' Committee and also mentioned this afternoon —while theCompanion of this House indicates that privilege is not an issue, the principle of comity exists between the two Houses on certain matters. I appreciate that, from time to time, we acknowledge differences. Indeed, if I may say so, I am among the first to say to your Lordships' House that the way we go on is a matter for ourselves and not for another place. However, as I said, on certain matters in particular there is the principle of comity between the two Houses. I submit to your Lordships that that certainly suggests that this House should not decide to discuss Money Bills on which there is no debate in another place.

Then there is the question of when and how often the House should debate economic affairs. With respect, I submit that that is another matter. It is a matter for the business management of the House. The usual channels are always responsive to suggestions and always consider suggestions from your Lordships for debates on particular matters. It is a matter for business management and judgment as to how many and at what times of the year debates on general economic and financial affairs are required. If they are clearly required by a sizable number of your Lordships, and the usual channels are consulted and consider the matter, I have no doubt at all that, if a sufficient case were to be made out, there would be little difficulty in getting a debate on economic and financial affairs when your Lordships required it.

As regards the arguments which were before the Procedure Committee when it considered these matters, the House has followed the practice of not debating consolidated Bills for almost the whole of the present century. That has become a convention. Conventions are not unknown to your Lordships, nor indeed to our constitution. That is a firm convention. I am sorry to have taken up this amount of time in saying all this. I hope that what I have said indicates the strength of feeling within the Procedure Committee about these matters. The committee considered these matters thoroughly.

I acknowledge that the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, put his case fully and fairly in his genial way to the Procedure Committee. However, I am bound to say that his suggestion found no favour whatever with the Procedure Committee. The Procedure Committee was unanimous in its decision. As I have said, we have taken up your Lordships' time this afternoon in discussing this matter. The Procedure Committee felt it had to say that sufficient time had been spent thoroughly considering this matter.

As regards the point made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman, I would say by way of a preliminary remark that I am grateful to him for raising his interesting point in your Lordships' House. The House is also grateful to the noble and learned Lord for acting as chairman of three of your Lordships' committees. He has great experience of these matters.

The question of which specific Bills are suitable for the Jellicoe procedure —as the noble and learned Lord has described it, and as we have come to know it —is a matter for the usual channels and the House itself to consider rather than the Procedure Committee. However, I certainly appreciate the strength of the noble and learned Lord's observation on this matter, as I am sure do other noble Lords. Perhaps it is right to point out that it would possibly not be the best procedure for a wide-ranging Bill, bearing in mind the fact that there is limited time to take evidence. The noble and learned Lord raised the matter of controversial Bills with the Procedure Committee. I accept that the fact that a Bill is controversial in some way does not necessarily exclude it from consideration under these procedures. Indeed, the fact that there is a certain amount of controversy—I do not refer to party political controversy but controversy as regards the merits of the matters being proposed—gravitates a little towards this procedure as it may permit us to iron out difficulties and save your Lordships' time in your Lordships' House.

Your Lordships will recall that about a year ago on 5th December last year in the first report of that Session from the Procedure Committee it was recommended, among other things, that further opportunities should be found for the use of special Public Bill Committee procedure, in particular for Law Commission Bills but also for other Bills introduced into either House. That recommendation was made as early as that date. I fully agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman, that that is a procedure which should be adopted not exclusively for Law Commission Bills but for other Bills too. I hope that that observation has been of some help to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman.

On Question, Motion agreed to.