HL Deb 30 January 1995 vol 560 cc1254-6

2.53 p.m.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

asked the Chairman of Committees:

What are the grounds for banning Starred Questions at Friday sittings of the House.

The Chairman of Committees (Lord Boston of Faversham)

My Lords, the House decided on 10th January to discontinue Starred Questions on Fridays after a suggestion by the Group on Sittings of the House. It was part of a package of proposals to reduce the burden of business on the Floor of the House; in particular, to enable the House to have more Friday sittings, allowing the House to rise earlier on other days of the week, so lightening the burden on all Members of the House. To have continued to take Starred Questions on Fridays would have added to the burden on Ministers, and would have taken up time that otherwise would have been saved.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer, but is he aware that to take Starred Questions on a Friday would in no way inhibit having a Friday sitting and that, on the contrary, Starred Questions are an effective part of the House's control of the Government? Can he seriously say that if they were restored on a Friday it would in any degree inhibit the House from sitting on a Friday?

The Chairman of Committees

My Lords, first, I would agree with the noble Lord that Starred Questions are one of the means of, as he has put it— I would not quite have used the word—"controlling" the Government. In our debate on the Procedure Committee's report which recommended the proposal, I ventured to suggest that part of the duty of the House was to protect Ministers. I took the view, as was clear during the course of the debate, that there is a clear distinction to be drawn between protecting Ministers in order that they can carry out their public duties for the benefit of the public as a whole and protecting them from proper scrutiny. Not only would that be wrong, but we should probably be failing in our duty if we did it. I come back to the point that the proposals stemmed from a recommendation of the Leader's Group on the Sittings of the House. The proposal was taken up by the Procedure Committee and recommended to your Lordships. Your Lordships felt inclined to accept that recommendation on 10th January.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees will recall that I raised this matter during the debate on the Procedure Committee's report. To my recollection the House took no notice of what I said, and agreed the committee's recommendation. Will the noble Lord advise me whether it would now be in order for any Member of the House to put down a Motion providing for Questions to be asked on Fridays? Could that be discussed and voted upon?

The Chairman of Committees

My Lords, I shall answer the noble Lord's final point first. It is of course open to any of your Lordships to put down whatever Motion your Lordships felt appropriate provided that it was proper, in order and within the procedure of the House. Perhaps I may comfort the noble Lord to some extent on his first question. To my certain recollection, it is not the case that your Lordships did not pay attention to what the noble Lord said. I paid close attention to it and responded to him during the debate.

Lord Renton

My Lords, bearing in mind that our performance should compare reasonably favourably with that of another place, is the noble Lord aware that in another place several score of Questions are tabled for answer by Ministers every day that the House sits and that about 12 or 15 are normally answered every day, whereas in your Lordships' House, even if we were to have four Questions tabled on a Friday, we should have had only 20 Questions in the whole week? Cannot that important factor of great distinction be borne in mind during further consideration of this matter?

The Chairman of Committees

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord that these are considerations which might well need to be borne in mind when this package of proposals falls to be reviewed, if that is your Lordships' wish, by the Procedure Committee in due course. So far as concerns the point about the number of Questions, there are benefits and disadvantages in them. The fact that we have four Questions each day from Mondays to Thursdays, when we sit on Mondays, exposes Ministers to greater scrutiny on those points than happens to be the case in another place. I venture to take a different view from the noble Lord about the amount of time which would be taken up on Fridays. The intention of the Group on the Sittings of the House, followed by the Procedure Committee and by your Lordships, was to save time and to expect that, if Friday sittings took place more often, we would aim to rise at about 2.30 p.m. That means that there would be a sitting of only three-and-a-half hours. If we were to have half an hour of Questions that would limit that time. That is a consideration which was very much in your Lordships' minds on 10th January.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, as the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, had no European connection whatever, I have no hesitation in supporting what he said. The noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, raised an important point. Does the Chairman of Committees agree that it is one of the most important areas of our debate and that we should not be deprived of the opportunity of asking Questions on a Friday?

The Chairman of Committees

My Lords, there is substance in what the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, has said. The proposals are seen as a package and therefore the intention, which arose out of our debate three weeks ago, is that they will be reviewed as a package. Undoubtedly, the comments expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, will be taken into account if and when the occasion arises. I believe that it will arise.

I would not attempt to answer the noble Lord's first point. I well remember that when a couple of weeks ago a noble Lord suggested that the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, had not linked his Question with Europe he immediately came back and did so.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, looking at the matter from an entirely domestic aspect, and excluding any European aura, will the Chairman of Committees be kind enough to explain to the House how the answering of four additional Questions per week will effect the efficiency of Her Majesty's Government and their Ministers? I am sure that the noble Lord will answer the point indirectly if he wishes. However, if the capability of the Government and their reputation in the country depend on such a fragile consideration the Government must be in dire straits.

The Chairman of Committees

My Lords, I do not believe that we can lay this matter at the door of the Government. I am not here to defend the Government or aspiring Members of any future government. It is not for me to judge; it is a matter for the House to decide.

There are still spaces for Starred Questions over the next 15 days; that is, until 14th February. As a matter of fact there is not so much pressure for spaces for Starred Questions during the first four days of the week as one might think.