HL Deb 24 November 1999 vol 607 cc452-5

3.4 p.m.

Lord Carter

My Lords, it may be for the convenience of the House if I say a few words about the business this afternoon before the debate begins. We have a very long speakers' list with around 40 contributors. The debate is not time limited, and we may therefore find ourselves sitting until rather late this evening when I believe that certain events might take place. Because of that, the usual channels have suggested that it may be for the convenience of all if some informal guidelines are suggested as to the length of speeches.

It has been suggested that Front Bench speeches be kept to around 15 minutes and those from the Back Benches to eight or nine minutes each. These guidelines are of course purely voluntary. However, if noble Lords confine themselves to the suggested times, I am sure that they will find their restraint appreciated on all sides of the House. Of course, if noble Lords have prepared speeches that take less than eight minutes, I am sure that the House will understand if they do not wish to put themselves to the inconvenience of extending them at such short notice.

Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, although I am reluctant to delay the start of the debate, I should like to raise a matter. It is directly related to the point the Government Chief Whip has raised about the length of the debate and who is to take part in it.

When the noble Baroness the Leader of the House spoke last Wednesday, she warned the House that her noble friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath would intervene during the debate. That was understood and was in itself an unusual course. However, now that we have been given the list of speakers for today we find that the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, has been grouped at the end of the debate with the noble Baroness the Leader of the House. In effect, we now have two Ministers winding up the debate.

It was unusual enough to anticipate an intervention from the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, and I say that without prejudice to the pleasure we always have in listening to what he has to say. The matter provokes two questions. If the Government feel that it is necessary not only for the Leader of the House but also another Front Bench Minister to reply to the debate, why does that not happen on other occasions? Noble Lords will have forgotten that at the beginning of the debate I attempted, from these Benches, to give an overall comment on the gracious Speech. The noble Baroness the Leader of the House gives an overall comment from the Government's point of view. So, logically, there should have been another speech from this Front Bench today, and indeed from the Conservative Front Bench, relating only to the business of the day. The conclusion to be drawn is that we should not only have two speakers today or indeed two speakers every day. If we discuss three subjects, then we should have three speakers from the Front Bench. I do not believe that Ministers could argue that they were entitled to three without the Conservative Party being entitled to three and we on the Liberal Democrat Benches having three. That would not be appreciated by Back Benchers.

This may not be a precedent and I do not wish to labour the point too much, but what is proposed today has not occurred within recent memory. I suggest, for the convenience of the House and to cause no further delay, that the whole structure of the Queen's Speech is examined by the Procedure Committee to ensure that Back Benchers have their fair share of the debate. The discussions are far more focused than they have been in the past. With the greatest respect, I believe it to be an anomaly that on a very busy day when Back Benchers are being asked to limit their contributions to under 10 minutes there should be two speakers from the Government Front Bench.

Lord Carter

My Lords, I understand what the noble Lord says. But these are rather unusual circumstances. Conservative Members have made much of the fact that this is the first time in 50 years that the Conservative Opposition have proposed an amendment. So it is certainly unusual under a Labour Government.

I thought it right to provide a health Minister to deal with health issues, which are so important. My noble friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath will speak after every other speaker except the noble Lords, Lord McNally and Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish. If they raise health issues, my noble friend will undertake to write to them and place a copy of the replies in the Library. In the unusual circumstances of the Opposition amendment, my noble friend the Leader of the House will wind up the whole debate, with particular reference to the amendment.

I agree that it would be a good idea for the Procedure Committee to examine the rather unusual structure for our debates on the Queen's Speech. However, I am surprised to receive a criticism from the Liberal Democrat Benches regarding the fact that there is more than one Front Bench speaker after sitting through many hours of debate during which up to three Liberal Democrat Front Bench Members have spoken on many items of business. The Liberal Democrats' argument seems to betray a certain lack of colour co-ordination between the pot and the kettle!

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I apologise to the House for prolonging this discussion. I wonder whether the noble Lord the Government Chief Whip, who is always enormously helpful and charming in the House, can explain what precedent there is in our procedure for this remarkable state of affairs.

I remember an amendment being tabled to the humble Address in the glorious days when the noble Lord's party sat on this side of the House. I seem to remember his noble friend Lord Richard making very effective use of that device. There was no attempt, either by myself or by the noble Lord, Lord Richard, in any way to "double pack" the reply from either Front Bench. The House may disagree, but we seem perfectly well up to doing it on our own, and a single Front Bench speaker would be enough. This is an odd departure—unless the noble Lord can find another precedent to dredge up from the past to compare with this one.

Lord Carter

My Lords, as I said, there is no precedent. This is the first time we have done it. I thought it would be helpful to the House if the extremely important subject of the health service was dealt with by a health Minister. My noble friend will reply to all the questions that may be raised about health and will write to noble Lords on any questions to which he cannot reply today. In the particular circumstances of the Opposition amendment, I thought that this was the best way to deal with the matter. The House may not agree, but it was an honest attempt to provide an answer. There is no precedent. I thought it a good idea.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, will the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, be allowed four minutes, eight minutes or 15 minutes?

Lord Carter

My Lords, as a Front Bench speaker from the Dispatch Box, my noble friend will have 15 minutes.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, perhaps I may put the record straight. It is perfectly well precedented for an amendment to be tabled to the Motion on the Queen's Speech. Noble Lords opposite did that many times when they were in Opposition. I am simply following a recent precedent. The last occasion was the debate on the Queen's Speech in 1996. It is longer since the Conservative Opposition did so, and I explained the reasons in my speech. But what is totally unprecedented is the extraordinary jumble that we shall have at the end of today's debate. We accepted the arrangement on the understanding that it was the result of a request made by the Leader of the House, for reasons best known to the Government.

I strongly agree with the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, although I am not sure that this is a matter for the Procedure Committee. However, if my noble friend Lord Cranborne and the noble Lord, Lord Richard, were able happily to deal with a similar situation in 1996, I am not sure why the same could not have been done today.

Lord Carter

My Lords, as I said, it was an honest attempt to provide an answer to a particular problem. I note that of the last three speakers, two will be from the Opposition Front Bench. I refer to the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, and the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, who will in a sense be winding up in relation to his amendment. I presume that he will to some extent be replying to the speech of my noble friend the Leader of the House.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, I shall make a very brief intervention at the end of the debate. I shall be surprised if I speak for more than two minutes.