HL Deb 17 March 1999 vol 598 cc726-36
Lord Carter

My Lords, I think the House will find it helpful if I take this opportunity to outline the Government's proposals for the Second Reading debate on the House of Lords Bill. It is proposed that the Second Reading debate should begin on Monday 29th March and run until the end of business on Tuesday 30th March. In order to accommodate the large number of speakers expected to attend, however, I propose to go further than merely setting aside two days for the debate on the Bill. I propose that the House should sit at 11 a. m. on the second morning in order to increase the time available for debate. This should allow the House to rise at a reasonable time on the Tuesday. Wednesday will, as usual, be for balloted debates. The House will not sit on Maundy Thursday. The list of speakers for the Second Reading is now open in the Government Whips' Office in the usual way.

I should like to take this opportunity to clarify my remarks yesterday, at column 652 of the Official Report, when I indicated that my noble friend the Leader of the House had inadvertently omitted to read page 3 of the Statement on the European Commission. For the sake of completeness, I have been asked to state for the record that my reference to page 3 was to the third, fourth, fifth and sixth paragraphs of the Statement that is now printed at column 629 of yesterday's Official Report

Lord Henley

My Lords, I thank the Government Chief Whip for that apology on behalf of the Leader of the House. Those of us who were not in the Chamber when the Statement was repeated were somewhat confused by his references yesterday and, when we acquired Hansard today, we were not sure which part of the Statement the noble Baroness had not repeated to this House. I am grateful to the noble Lord for clarifying the position.

I now turn to the first part of the Chief Whip's Statement. We on these Benches have considerable concern and deep disquiet about his proposal that we should proceed quite so rapidly to the Second Reading of this very important Bill, and in Holy Week, too.

The noble Lord proposes that we should have about 23 hours of debate on the Bill beginning at 2.30 on Monday and 11.30 on Tuesday in a week when many noble Lords will be away and will have difficulty attending. Many noble Lords have already made arrangements for Tuesday morning and will find it quite difficult to attend on that occasion. We have looked at business taken in Holy Week during the past few years. The noble Lord knows perfectly well that on a number of occasions relatively controversial Bills—but only relatively controversial ones—have been considered at that time, but that occurred with the agreement of the usual channels on both sides of the House. On this occasion there has been no agreement on this side of the House. I am upset that the noble Lord has not acceded to our request to deal with this matter on a later occasion.

The noble Lord well knows that we have co-operated with the Government a great deal on a large number of Bills. We assisted them on the Health Bill by allowing them to have the debate a day earlier to allow them to send it back to another place a whole week earlier. We assisted on the Road Traffic (NHS Charges) Bill. We have not even objected to the fact that there is to be a debate next Monday on a report of the European Communities Committee, despite the fact that that has not been discussed with the usual channels and is being held only a matter of four days after the publication of that particular report. I make these remarks purely to show that we have co-operated with the Government and will continue to do so as and where it is appropriate. We object to the Government's attempt to steamroller through a Bill of this kind without allowing adequate time to discuss these matters.

The noble Lord well knows that when this Bill was originally in another place it was proposed that Report and remaining stages should be taken the day after Committee stage finished. It was only after interventions at the highest level that the Government finally agreed to delay Report and remaining stages until yesterday which allowed the Government to bring it forward for First Reading today and then for Second Reading in the briefest possible time allowed under the usual time limits.

I ask the noble Lord—I apprehend that other noble Lords will also put this question—whether the Government will reconsider the matter and offer the debate for Second Reading some time after Easter. I stress that if the Government are prepared to do that we shall continue to co-operate as we have co-operated throughout the Session so far.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, I hope that we shall not have a Second Reading debate on this Bill today. The noble Lord, Lord Henley, referred twice to Holy Week. From my recollection over a number of years in this House, I can remember many controversial pieces of legislation being debated in Holy Week without any complaint from any part of the House. It is a bit rich to say that this Bill is being steamrollered through the House. It has been subject to lengthy debate, properly so, in the House of Commons and it will have lengthy debate, very properly, here as well. I can see no argument whatever against the proposal of the Government Chief Whip to hold this debate beginning Monday week. It will be a prolonged debate, as will be the Committee and Report stages. Let us get on with the business as soon as we can.

The Lord Bishop of Norwich

My Lords, I am very impressed by the expressions of devotion from the Opposition Front Bench. I can spot at least four noble Lords from my own diocese. We look forward to seeing them in church on the Monday and Tuesday of Holy Week.

First, I should like to express my gratitude to the Government Chief Whip for his kindness in seeing me privately yesterday and for his courtesy in writing to the Archbishop of Canterbury to explain the decision about the timing of the debate, which he much appreciated.

Whatever our interest or lack of it in the particular subject of this Bill, it is nevertheless a constitutional issue of considerable importance. Because of the historic role of bishops in this House and their long corporate memory, they are sometimes able to offer advice to the House on constitutional matters. It is therefore a pity that the timing of this debate—at the beginning of Holy Week—makes it extremely difficult for all of us to attend and impossible for most. This has nothing to do with party issues. We on these Benches have no interest in delay for its own sake. We might or might not have supported the Government. That is not for me to say. We are rather proud of our tradition of unpredictable independence. But it is a pity that we shall not be given the chance to express our opinion one way or the other. The House might have been interested to hear what we had to say.

Lord Renton

My Lords, in view of the very serious situation that occurred yesterday with regard to the European Commission, which affects the whole life and future of the European Union, are we to be given an early opportunity to debate that matter?

Baroness Goudie

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the Jewish Passover starts on the Wednesday before Easter and that Holy Week in the Christian Church is at the same time? Holy Week in the Orthodox Church is later. Has my noble friend received any representations that government business should take into account those dates?

Baroness Miller of Hendon

My Lords, following the comments just made by the noble Baroness, I am absolutely shocked that a matter of such constitutional importance is to be debated in this House during Holy Week. I am even more shocked by the comments of noble Lords on the other side whom I highly regard. I do not believe this to be a laughing matter or that there should be chit-chat while noble Lords on this side of the House seek to make a serious point.

Invariably the Passover holidays coincide with Holy Week. For the past 10 years I have taken my mother to Israel to visit my brother to share the Seder Night together on Wednesday 31st March. When I knew there was a possibility that this might arise, despite the fact that I intended to travel with my mother and husband, I asked the airline to hold a ticket for a flight late on Tuesday night. I believe that this particular debate is far too important to miss.

I do not believe that the noble Baroness the Leader of the House can possibly be responsible for such an insensitive decision. I must believe that somehow or other this is a directive from one of her honourable colleagues in the other place who have not appreciated the sensitivity of this matter to many in this House. From the comments made on the other side, perhaps it applies only to noble Lords on this side of the House. I beg the noble Baroness to appreciate—as I am sure she does—that she is not just the leader of Peers who take the Labour Whip but is Leader of the House. She should do her best to speak for all Peers and send that message to the other place. This is an extraordinarily important matter.

Lord Richard

My Lords, I am sorry that the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, does not feel that we are treating this subject with the seriousness that she obviously believes it deserves. She may be right. I shall tell her why I say that. We do not treat it with seriousness because we do not feel that the party opposite believes what it is saying.

I spent six-and-a-half years as a fairly fluid part of the usual channels. Some of that time was spent in opposition and some in government. Not once in those years was the question raised of the quality of legislation and debate in this House during Holy Week. When the other party was in government I did not detect a great deal of restraint on its part as to the legislation that it proposed to debate in that particular week. Certainly, at no time did the party opposite come to us and say it was terribly sorry but it could not put in Bill X because it was Holy Week and therefore it had to put in Bill Y.

When I was in government at no stage did the party opposite come to me and ask that we should not deal with a particular piece of business during Holy Week. I just do not believe that the Opposition are sincere in what they say. This outbreak of piety on the part of the party opposite, I believe, is artificial and the House should see it for what it is.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, following what the noble Lord, Lord Richard, said, perhaps your Lordships will take it from me, as an equally fluid member of the same usual channels at an almost identical period, that, whatever the religious feelings being expressed today in your Lordships' House, I well remember a number of occasions—I do not wish to be ad hominem about it, but in particular one in which the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, was much involved—on which a sense of total outrage was expressed at the idea of important legislation being taken either at the very beginning of a Session after a break or at the very end of a Session before a break.

I hope and believe that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, and I, who were then responsible for those matters, met noble Lords opposite in (heir objections. I am sorry to find that that honourable tradition is being broken in this case.

Lord Ahmed

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the Hajj and Eid ul-Adha are on 27th, 28th and 29th March? Have the Moslem community made any representation?

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

My Lords, I hope that without controversy I may escape religious devotion and underline what the right reverend Prelate said. The bishops of this House have sat in this House for longer than almost anyone else. It seems unfortunate that the Government did not consult the Archbishop before the decision was made. It is not a question of whether we attend church in Holy Week. There are 26 bishops in this House. Before the Reformation the clerics were in a majority. We are making a massive constitutional change. It seems to me insensitive, to say the least, that the Leader of the House did not pick up her telephone and ring Lambeth Palace and ask. It seems unfortunate that the right reverend Prelate had to raise the matter at this stage.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, I do not feel qualified to pontificate on Holy Week and whether we should have any particular form of business then. However, during his remarks, the noble Lord, Lord Henley, raised the question of the debate next Monday on the future financing of the European Union. I wish to address myself to that issue.

Since the report was published only yesterday, and there has been no government response, why on earth should we debate that report from Sub-Committee A of the Select Committee next Monday? I understand that the chairman of the Select Committee wanted the matter debated before the heads of government meeting. But, with respect, the report is to this House. It is not to the heads of government meeting. Nor is it to the Government. Members of this House will not have had time to read and assimilate the report, consult and formulate their own views in the short time available. Many will not know that the report has been published.

The contents of the report—I shall not go into them— are hardly likely to be helpful to the British Government, although they may be helpful to those who want to get rid of our rebate. I hope, therefore, that my noble friend will reconsider the timing of that debate and put it back further so that Members of this House can properly consider what has been said by Sub-Committee A of the Select Committee.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, perhaps I may make a brief response. I understand the problem that Members of your Lordships' House will have in dealing with an important report at short notice. However, Sub-Committee A worked extremely hard on the report in order to get it out in time for it to be debated before the European Council meeting.

One of the problems for the Select Committee is the timing of our activities. If we begin too soon the proposals may be in such an embryonic state as to be useless when they are finally agreed. On the other hand, if we leave things too long the amount of influence that a report from your Lordships' House can have once the decision has been set in concrete makes the whole exercise useless.

On this occasion we felt that it would be sensible to have the report out in good time before the meeting of the Council on, I think, 25th March. To that end, Sub-Committee A speeded up its inquiry and produced the report. I believe that it was announced in forthcoming business on Thursday of last week.

I recognise the difficulties with which noble Lords may be faced, but I believe that it is more sensible to have something before your Lordships' House at a time when it can do some good, not after the matter has become dead.

Baroness Young

My Lords, when he responds to this short debate, I hope that the Chief Whip will take account of the points made from this side of the House. We are being asked to debate a constitutional Bill of unparalleled importance at a time which is very unusual, to say the least.

I, too, have had responsibility for business in this House. I know full well that when discussions took place they were by agreement. One of the most unfortunate and unpleasant aspects of this matter is that there is no agreement on it. It is a divisive Bill; and the jeers and laughter coming from the government side, if I may say so, are unworthy of them and certainly unworthy of the House. They will not contribute either to good government or clear thinking on a very important matter. I think it is absolutely deplorable that this matter will be debated at the end of the business before the Easter Recess. I take very much to heart the points made about Holy Week, and all those who will be affected, whose personal religious beliefs the House has a right to expect will be respected.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, perhaps I may add my support to the remarks made by my noble friend Lord Stoddart of Swindon in regard to the debate which is due to take place on Monday. Aside from the question of the absence of notice and shortness of time for reading the report, there is a further question. The report is obsolete, as indeed admitted by the committee at page 5 of the report where it states that it does not take account of any events since 19th February. Important events have taken place since 19th February, all of which conspire to discredit most of the representations made in the report to the Select Committee.

I therefore suggest in the interests of the House as a whole that the Select Committee abide the delay for a little while, and reconsider the issue in the light of the independent expert report on the integrity of the Commission.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, on the timing of the Second Reading of the House of Lords Bill, are we not the masters of our own procedure? Is it not possible for me, or any other noble Lord, to move that the matter be taken after Easter? The view of the House is sovereign. The Government do not rule the House; we rule the House.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, before the Chief Whip replies, will he be kind enough to give more thought to the issue? Having said that they want to do a certain thing, I know that it is always difficult for a Chief Whip or a Government to change their mind. But we are dealing with a serious matter. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich said that he saw a number of members of his congregation in the Chamber and that he expects to see them in church. I happen to be one of the members of his congregation. I suppose that one will be obliged to choose between God and Mammon; and I think on this occasion God might expect me to choose Mammon.

The important point is that this is a highly controversial Bill. It ought to be given the appropriate consideration by your Lordships' House, including the right reverend Prelates. It is a pity, as we have heard from all sides, to bring it on at a time which causes maximum consternation among all members of the different religious faiths. It is a great pity to start the Second Reading in Holy Week. If the noble Lord the Chief Whip could find a way of postponing it, he would achieve harmony, which is the best way of dealing with a controversial Bill.

3.30 p.m.

Lord Carter

My Lords, the question about the Select Committee debate has already been answered by the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff. He said that the timing of the debate was at the specific request of your Lordships and the European Communities Committee. The committee has done valuable service to the House in producing a short report in time for the House to debate the issues in advance of the Heads of Government meeting next week. Fifteen noble Lords have already put down their names to speak in the debate, indicating that many Members welcome the opportunity.

When it was put to me recently that the Second Reading of the Lords reform Bill should not be taken in Holy Week I assumed that there was some reason other than the simple desire to hold up progress on the Bill. However, try as I might, I am afraid that I can find no other reason. As a practising Christian—

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, I apologise for interrupting the Chief Whip. He says he can find no other reason. Does he believe that the right reverend Prelate and all the Members on this side of the House are lying?

Lord Carter

My Lords, I shall come to that in a moment. Perhaps I may say at the outset that as a practising Christian, like many other noble Lords I shall be attending a number of church services during Holy Week on Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday. Those noble Lords who wish to attend the debate and go to church during that week will have plenty of time to do so.

I find it surprising that a particular observance of the Christian Church is being brought into a debate on Lords' reform in this way. So far as I can discover, there has never been any assumption that important and contentious government business should not be taken in the week before Easter. I have pages of examples which I could quote to your Lordships, but I will not. However, there are two which may be directly relevant. In 1996, the Defamation Bill was taken the week before Easter. Your Lordships may recall that the Bill was used to amend the 1689 Bill of Rights to enable Mr. Neil Hamilton to sue the Guardian. That could reasonably be regarded as both contentious and constitutional.

The second example, which is of even greater relevance, concerns the Sunday Trading Bill in 1994. The Committee stage was taken on the Tuesday before Easter with important votes on that day. There was a long debate in which the Archbishop of Canterbury and four other bishops took part, and 16 bishops went through the Division Lobby at the end of the debate. I fail to see why Sunday trading can be debated in Holy Week, but reform of the Lords cannot.

I always do my utmost to be accommodating in the organisation of business when reasonable requests are made. However, I am afraid that, in this instance, the noble Lord the Opposition Chief Whip and I have, it is to be hoped, a rare occasion on which we must agree to differ.

As; regards steamrollering the Bill through the House, the steamroller started last October and has rolled for 40 hours. We are obeying the normal intervals for the Bill. In fact, I deliberately chose to make the Business Statement today, which is a day early. It would normally have appeared on the future of business tomorrow. It has been known for some time that it was intended to take the Bill on those two days.

I understand and respect the feelings of those noble Lords who, like me, are practising Christians. I know that the noble Lord the Opposition Chief Whip falls into that category. However, I announced as long ago as 4th February that the Easter Recess would include the week beginning 5th April. The House has thus known for a long time that Holy Week would be a sitting week. There are so many precedents for this House sitting in Holy Week that they are much too numerous to mention.

I have listened to the remarks that have been made and I am not convinced. I know that your Lordships will not like it, but I must say that I regard it as an attempt to delay the progress of the Bill. This is a major Bill of constitutional importance and we are following the normal intervals with a two-day debate. I have already tried to accommodate the House by starting the second day early. I am prepared to start the first day early, if that will help. If noble Lords would like to meet at 11 o'clock on the Monday, I am prepared to consider that. For all those reasons, I believe that we should leave the arrangements—

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, perhaps I may repeat that I am not mentioning the devotional habits of noble Lords opposite or those on this side of the House. I wish to refer to a constitutional point which I am sorry the noble Lord the Chief Whip did not mention. Twenty-six Bishops have sat in this House since the Reformation. They have a professional duty in Holy Week, which is denied to the Chief Whip or myself—

Noble Lords


Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

My Lords, it is. Please listen. It is therefore unfortunate that the Chief Whip did not say why the noble Baroness the Leader of the House did not consult the Archbishop as to why there should not be a substantial number of bishops present to answer. I speak not as a Tory, but as an Anglican who cares for the constitution. I am not in the business of wrecking the Government's business, but I am sorry that the Chief Whip did not mention the point raised by the right reverend Prelate.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, I had no intention of taking part in the debate, but it might be useful for me to make a few comments. I deeply regret the fact that the Government Chief Whip has held up some ridicule on behalf of the Opposition Benches and has accused the Bishops Bench of hypocrisy and double standards—

Noble Lords


Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, I believe that —

Noble Lords


The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Jay of Paddington)

My Lords, I believe that on behalf of many Members around the House, I am inclined to ask the noble Lord to withdraw that last remark.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, perhaps in withdrawing that statement, since I do not wish to offend the noble Baroness the Leader of the House, I may explain my meaning in another way. We heard the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich talk about his difficulties and those of that Bench in making this very important engagement on 29th and 30th March. We then heard the Government Chief Whip give an example whereby many bishops had attended during the week before Easter. I regarded that as an accusation of double standards to the Bishops' Bench. Having gone through the logic myself, I still believe that there was a hint of that accusation. However, when the Chief Whip replies, he can explain himself so that even I can understand. I do not wish to offend the Government Chief Whip or the noble Baroness the Leader of the House.

The issue which faces us is important because it goes beyond that of religion, piety or devotion. It has to do with the way in which business is managed in this House. In that context, I refer to the words of my noble friends Lady Young and Lord Cranborne. The House knows that I have a great deal of experience in the management of business, as does the Government Chief Whip and the noble Baroness. Business in this House proceeds by agreement. I, too, have a list of the business taken in the week before Easter since 1989. Some important and controversial business has been taken and been dealt with. I became Government Chief Whip in 1994. At no time was any controversial or important business taken during the course of the week before Easter if the Opposition did not agree to it. That is the important point.

That also comes in the context of a statement that was made by the noble Baroness the Leader of the House in February about pitched battles. How are we to take that when the first time that the Opposition ask for the Bill to be delayed until a time which is more convenient the Government decide to dig in their toes?

Those who understand the procedures of the House know also that it gives the Government the ability to introduce the Committee stage in the first days immediately after the Easter Recess, thus giving very little time for this House to prepare amendments and to consider the issues that have been raised at Second Reading. If the Government Chief Whip will not oblige us by moving a Motion against this Second Reading being taken in the week before Easter, then I must ask him to give an absolute guarantee that the Committee stage will not take place in the week after the Easter Recess. In doing so, I urge him to reconsider the position that he has taken about Second Reading.

The Lord Bishop of Norwich

My Lords, since the feelings—

Lord Shepherd

My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Baroness the Leader of the House will consider whether we are now in order. It was understandable at the very beginning, when the noble Lord, Lord Henley, rose and spoke and addressed his remarks in public to the Chief Whip. But we are now having a debate in which noble Lords are speaking from all sides of the House on many different points and subjects. Should we not now come to order? I believe that we are now out of order, or getting very close to it. I suggest that we should bring this matter to a conclusion, recognising that the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, is about to introduce an important debate immediately afterwards.

The Lord Bishop of Norwich

My Lords, since the feelings of these Benches have been imputed, I make it absolutely clear that I took no offence whatever at the remarks of the noble Lord the Government Chief Whip about Sunday trading. Perhaps we had more notice in 1994 but it was a point well made, which I accept. I emphasised—and I do so again—that we have appreciated the great courtesy of the Government Chief Whip.

Lord Carter

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate has made the point for me. I was merely pointing out that on an important Division in Holy Week the Bishops were here. That is all. That is not to impute any motives. Sunday trading was discussed in Holy Week. That was an extremely important subject. The Government in 1994 arranged for it to be discussed in Holy Week. There was an important Division on the matter and the Bishops were able to arrange their affairs in Holy Week in order to be here. That is all I was saying.

I thank the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition for reminding me of an oversight on my part. I had intended to tell the House that the Committee stage of the Bill will not take place in the first week after the Recess. There will be one day in Committee in the second week back; that is, in the week beginning 19th April. That is to be arranged through the usual channels.

I have listened to the debate with great care. Your Lordships will know that since I have had the job of Chief Whip I have done my very best to be as accommodating and reasonable as possible. But there are times when the Government have priority in relation to the business. This is an important constitutional matter. We are allowing two days for debate. I deliberately organised that your Lordships should not sit on Maundy Thursday of Holy Week. There will be two days of debate on the House of Lords Bill; balloted debates will be dealt with on Wednesday; and we then break for the Easter Recess. When we return, there will be no Committee stage of the House of Lords Bill in the first week. There will be one Committee day in the week beginning 19th April.