HL Deb 21 January 1997 vol 577 cc555-9

I. Committee of the Whole House This is the traditional method of proceeding with a Bill after Second Reading. A Bill is committed to a Committee of the Whole House taken on the floor of the House unless the House otherwise directs.

II. Grand Committee (in the Moses Room) This procedure was recommended by the Group on the Sittings of the House (chaired by Lord Rippon of Hexham) in 1994 and first used in 1995. The Committee considers the Bill and amendments are tabled in the same way as a Committee of the Whole House, but no divisions may take place. All Lords are free to attend and participate.

III. Public Bill Committee This procedure has been used on nine occasions since 1968 and was last used to consider the Trade Marks Bill in 1994. The procedure differs from Committee of the Whole House off the floor in that a limited number of Lords (proposed by the Committee of Selection) are appointed to undertake the committee stage. Divisions may take place. Lords who are not named of the Committee are entitled to participate in the proceedings but may not vote.

IV. Special Public Bill Committee This procedure, which was first used in 1994, was initially recommended by the Committee on the Committee Work of the House (chaired by Earl Jellicoe) and later by the Rippon Committee. The Committee may take written and oral evidence within 28 days of its appointment. As in the case of a Public Bill Committee, a limited number of Lords are appointed to conduct the committee stage. After hearing evidence, Special Public Bill Committees proceed in the same way as Public Bill Committees: they consider the Bill clause by clause, amendments may be made and divisions may take place.

V. Select Committee This procedure allows detailed investigation by a Select Committee (appointed by the House with the members proposed by the Committee of Selection) at any stage between Second and Third Readings. The Committee may take evidence and reports to the House on the provisions of the Bill, recommending whether or not it should proceed. If it recommends that the Bill should proceed, the Committee may make amendments to it. Thereafter the Bill is re-committed to a Committee of the Whole House. The Dangerous Dogs (Amendment) Bill in 1995 was the last Bill to be committed to a Select Committee.

VI. Scottish Select Committee This procedure was first used early in 1996. It allows a Select Committee (appointed by the House with the members proposed by the Committee of Selection) to take evidence on Scottish Bills. The Committee may take written and oral evidence in Scotland and reports its evidence to the House. The Bill is then recommitted to one of the committees described above. A Scottish Select Committee may not make amendments to the Bill. Lords not of the Committee may attend meetings and participate in the proceedings, whether at Westminster or in Scotland.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, perhaps I may ask the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees just one question about the Committees in the Moses Room. I agree with the report of the Select Committee that these are working very well; indeed, I came in today expecting to chair the Committee on Scottish crofting to find that it had finished its deliberations yesterday. I believe that that is an example of the fact that the work is being dealt with expeditiously.

However, I just wonder whether this is the right way to describe it. The report suggests that such Committees should be called "Grand Committees". I have no quarrel with that because I am sure that all Committees of your Lordships' House are grand in the sense that they are distinguished. But is that not rather a grandiloquent title for what is a fairly small but important Committee? Why cannot it be called a "Standing Committee" as similar committees are called in another place?

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, it may be for the convenience of the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees if I also made some comments at this point. He will then be able to answer all observations at the same time. The Select Committee is very bold when it refers to Committees taking place in the Moses Room in subparagraph(2). It suggests that the procedure, "allows all Lords to attend and participate fully".

If noble Lords will cast their minds back to yesterday afternoon when the crofting Bill was being discussed in the Moses Room, it will be remembered that there was also a fairly major debate taking place in this Chamber on a very important topic. That debate was very well attended by a large number of your Lordships. Although we are supposedly very clever people, we do not have the opportunity as yet to be in two places at once. It is rather difficult for a number of noble Lords to attend business in the Chamber and also try to take an interest in what is being discussed in the Moses Room.

I should also like to refer to subparagraph (4) of the report which highlights the experiments of the Scottish Select Committees, whereby a committee with a fixed membership takes evidence". I believe that that may be a very useful procedure for your Lordships' House. Indeed, where there is a need to take evidence on a Bill, it would be useful for a Select Committee to take evidence prior to consideration in Committee on the Floor of the House.

One of the aspects that we all need to bear in mind is something to which I referred last week; namely, the two strengths of your Lordships' House compared with the other place. I refer to the fact that virtually all the business is taken on the Floor of the House; all amendments are discussed; and every Member of your Lordships' House has the opportunity to table amendments and to take part in debates on amendments. One of the problems with the purport of the report is that it pushes this House further down the road of taking business away from the Floor of the House. If we go too far down that road, I fear that we may lose some of the essential strengths of this Chamber compared with the other place.

I hope that the remarks that I have made will be taken on board not only by the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees—I am sure that he will do so—but also by the Procedure Committee when it comes to consider specific recommendations on how individual items of business should be considered by the whole House.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, I should like to raise another point about the Moses Room; namely, that the acoustics are so bad that we need some extra hearing aids to enable us to hear what the Minister says.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy

My Lords, I speak as one who took part in the Committee in the Moses Room yesterday. I hope that someone will correct me if I am wrong, but I believe that Standing Committees in another place are limited as to those who may take part. Our Moses Room Committees—and I shall call them thus for the moment—are not limited. Indeed, any Member of this House can take part. Any Member of this House can table an amendment to a Bill which is being considered by one of those committees, and there is no question that all amendments which are tabled are not considered. There is no guillotine. I do not like the name "Grand Committee" and I have talked with the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees about this. In the absence of any more suitable name I suggested Moses Room Committee, but as he pointed out—and I was glad to hear—these Committees will not necessarily invariably be held in the Moses Room in future. The noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, was right to mention the bad acoustics in the Moses Room. In view of that, I should be glad if sometimes they could be held somewhere else. Under the circumstances, for the present we probably should go along with the phrase "Grand Committee".

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, a practical problem has been drawn to my attention in connection with these Moses Room Committees. There is a shortage of trained reporters and there are certain problems with the Official Report. Extra staff have to be drafted in. I merely raise this matter so that consideration might be given to the possibility of increasing the establishment.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, did the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees note the point made by my noble friend Lord Rodgers about the extremely late sitting on the Police Bill which continued until 2 a.m.? How can that be reconciled with the reminder given by the Select Committee that, whenever possible business should be arranged so as to avoid the need for the House to sit beyond an agreed time, say 10 pm", when the example given by my noble friend shows that that limit was exceeded by four hours? The Select Committee also recognised, that a significant improvement in sitting hours could come only with general support throughout the House". Is it not equally true to say that this general support must be matched by a willingness on the part of the Government not to table contentious legislation to be debated within a time-span which is far too short in view of the importance of the matters that are discussed?

The Chairman of Committees

My Lords, I shall deal first with the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi. It is probably right to say that there are few issues which cause greater controversy and discussion than naming something. The Procedure Committee had some difficulties with that aspect. In fact, the noble Lord will probably know that one of the suggestions made was for them to be called open Committees, but that was objected to for reasons which may well be all too obvious. We settled in the end for the title "Grand Committees". The noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, also referred to that matter and to the discussions which she and I had. On the matter of Grand Committees, that name was thought to be in danger of causing confusion with another place where of course, there is a Scottish Grand Committee. However, the feeling was that the two Houses are separate and distinct as regards their committees. Therefore we settled for this name in the absence of anything better. If something absolutely splendid were to emerge, I am sure the Procedure Committee would give the matter further consideration.

The noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, raised the question of proceedings taking place in the Moses Room when major matters are being discussed in this Chamber. If notice were to be given in advance that that was to happen to a considerable extent, I have no doubt at all that, with the helpful discussions which go on between the usual channels, account would be taken of that sort of consideration so as to try to avoid such a situation if at all possible. However, of course the prime purpose of the Procedure Committee in suggesting these reforms, which emerged from Jellicoe and the group of the noble Lord, Lord Rippon, on the workings of the House, was to save time in the Chamber. That remains the basic aim. Of course I take note of what the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, has said about that. I am sure that the usual channels will also take note of it.

As regards the noble Lord's point about Scottish Select Committees, again I note what he said. I am sure that the usual channels will note what he said. That is an option for particular Bills. It is not the case that every single Scottish Bill to come before your Lordships' House would automatically be dealt with in that way. It would have to be a matter of choice and it would have to depend upon the particular nature of a Bill. It is a permanent option which is available to your Lordships for dealing with these matters. However, it will be used on a selective and carefully discriminating basis.

The noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, referred to a possible shortage of reporters. I am not aware of that but I shall, of course, look into it. If anything needs to be done, I shall ask for the matter to be considered.

The noble Lord, Lord Mackie, referred to the awkward acoustics in the Moses Room. I agree with him that they are not good. However, some improvement has been made. Complaints have been made about the Moses Room. It is a difficult room from that point of view. Improvements have been made in the acoustics there over the years but I shall look into the matter further and see whether further improvements are possible.

The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, referred to last night's late sitting. I hesitate to make any predictions but tonight could be another late sitting. We are concerned with another important matter in the Chamber this afternoon. It depends upon the will of the House. That is perfectly clear. The noble Lord fairly pointed out that this is a matter which is referred to in the report of the Procedure Committee which is now before your Lordships. It is the case that some time has been saved by the new procedures which have been introduced. However, again, I am sure that all those of us who have dealings with the Business of the House have noted what he said. Certainly every attempt will be made to avoid that situation.

My next point is relevant to what the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, said. I draw attention to the fact that among the procedures suggested to your Lordships by the Procedure Committee is the one about Friday sittings; namely, that those should be used as a means of limiting late nights in the House. Again that is something which will probably be pursued perhaps a little more than it has been in the past. I take note of what the noble Lord has said, and certainly every attempt will be made to meet those desirable ends. I believe I have covered all of the points which have been raised by various noble Lords. I hope that I have done so.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Back to