HL Deb 04 April 2001 vol 624 cc817-21

3.1 p.m.

The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Jay of Paddington)

My Lords, in moving the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper, I should say how surprised I and my colleagues in the Government are to find that the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne—in whose name the debate was set down—is not in his place to introduce it. It was not until this morning that my noble friend was informed by the noble Viscount that he did not intend to be here.

The House will recall the 50-minute debate held last week when the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, tried to impress upon your Lordships both the urgency and importance that he attached to this issue, arguing that government business should be delayed for such a debate. He eventually withdrew from that position and tabled another debate for today.

The House will also be aware of the enormous burden which my noble friend Lady Hayman carries at this time. She has been assiduous in reporting in detail to your Lordships—I understand that she has spoken seven times on the issue of foot and mouth disease in the past four weeks—and it is worth noting that the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, did not contribute to the debate on any of those seven occasions. I am afraid that I am forced to conclude that his absence today suggests that it was political symbolism rather than genuine concern which led to his request for the debate.

I know that my noble friend will again respond authoritatively and with care, as she has done on every occasion. She understands fully her duties to Parliament. I beg to move.

Moved, That the debate on the Motion in the name of the Lord Jopling set down for today shall be limited to five hours.—(Baroness Jay of Paddington.)

Baroness Young

My Lords, I think I speak on behalf of many noble Lords in saying that the House regrets those remarks from the Leader of the House. I, too, have been a Leader of your Lordships' House. I recognise that one of the most important parts of the job is to speak for the whole House and to consider the needs of everyone in it.

It is true that my noble friend Lord Cranborne put down a Motion for debate last week, very largely to draw attention to the important role that the Wednesday debates play in the work of Back-Benchers in your Lordships' House. Today is a Conservative debates day an Opposition debates day—a practice that has been recognised as such on the Order Paper for a considerable time. It is entirely a matter for the Opposition to determine who leads a particular debate. I understand that my noble friend Lord Cranborne is unable to be present today and we are very glad that the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, will introduce the debate.

To make a serious point, I should have thought that the present situation with foot and mouth, which is terrible for country people—I speak as someone who lives in the centre of a town—and which has a terrible knock-on effect on a large number of small businesses, justified a further debate.

We all recognise the valuable work that the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, has done. I recall first meeting her when she was a young MP; I have greatly respected her work ever since. It is a tough job being a Minister—anyone who has been a Minister knows that—and it is particularly tough in a situation such as we are now experiencing. However, this is an Opposition day and it is the right of the Opposition to determine what will happen this afternoon.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, can the Leader of House tell us whether she observed the normal courtesies—which I am sure she did—of letting my noble friend Lord Cranborne know that she was going to make a personal attack on him in his absence?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I must say to the noble Earl and the noble Baroness that we on this side of the House are a little tired of being accused of discourtesy, as my noble friend the Government Chief Whip was when he raised the issue of the Wednesday debate last week. On this occasion, the discourtesy is certainly not ours.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, as a former Leader of the House, I think it is regrettable that the moving of a formal procedural Motion such as this should be used as a vehicle to make a personal attack.

Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank

My Lords, I am hesitant to intervene because we want to move on to the debate itself. Although it places an extra burden on the Minister, the whole House will welcome the opportunity to debate this issue. It is agreed across all Benches that the Minister has done extremely well over the period of the foot and mouth epidemic.

Without labouring the point, I must say that it also came as a great surprise to these Benches when we discovered that the Motion was no longer in the name of the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne. Last week, he made a particular occasion of having this debate; if he found immediately afterwards that he could not be present today, I should have thought that he would have told not only the Leader of the House but also those on these Benches well in advance of the appearance of the name of the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, on the Order Paper.

The deed is done. It is a matter of great regret. I hope, at least, that the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, will take note of the fact that many of us, on all sides of the House, are disappointed in him.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, one should never be surprised by what is said in the House. However, I was a little surprised by the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, and, indeed, the words of the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank. I can only assume that both of them either lunched extremely well today—or lunched extremely badly—and that the noble Baroness is suffering from indigestion. I cannot possibly take seriously the words of the noble Baroness.

Of course, this is the week when the Leader of the House was hoping to retire from that office. However, because of the decision made by the Prime Minister, she will have to put off her retirement party a little longer. What I take from this is how immensely flattering it is to my noble friend Lord Cranborne that he has aroused so much passion and excitement. He put his name down to introduce a debate on a Wednesday afternoon, and now so many noble Lords are unhappy because he is not able to do so in person.

For the record, my noble friend Lord Henley, the Opposition Chief Whip, told the Government Whips' office after lunch on Monday that my noble friend Lord Cranborne had taken his name off the list and that the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, would lead the debate. Not only did he do that, he changed the name on the speakers' list; so no noble Lord who put his or her name down after that time could have been under any illusion as to who was going to lead the Conservative Party in this debate.

The real humbug in all this is that the Labour Party is obsessed with who runs these debates rather than with the subject matter. The Government did not want this debate. It was forced on them once two weeks ago; it has been forced on them again today. Of course the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, has spoken to the House when the Government have decided to issue Statements, but this is an opportunity for the House to debate the matter at some length during an Opposition day debate.

We know that what lies behind this—the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, is in his place—is that Labour Back-Benchers have given up debating any subject on their Wednesdays, as demonstrated so obviously only last week.

While we are debating the business of the House, perhaps I may mention a report in today's newspapers that the government business managers in the House of Lords have decided to give the Hunting Bill a day in Committee. But at a meeting of the usual channels only a few hours ago it was obvious that they had not made such a decision. Will the noble Baroness the Leader of the House tell us whether or not it is the Government's intention to set a day for the Committee stage of the Hunting Bill before the local elections? Or is this yet another example of the Labour Party saying one thing to the press and doing another in the House?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I must put the record straight on the question of who sets down which Motion and when. I had no intention of going into that degree of mundane detail, but since the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition regards it as important, let me put the record straight. I understand that on Monday afternoon the speakers list in the Whips' Office was changed: "For 'Cranborne' read 'Jopling'". No one in the Whips' Office was personally informed. My noble friend the Chief Whip was certainly not informed, nor was the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman; and I was not informed.

Lord Henley

My Lords, will the noble Baroness give way? I must make clear that I went into the Whips' Office and told those present, "I am changing the name from Cranborne to Jopling because my noble friend Lord Jopling will introduce the debate". The staff therefore knew what was happening. If the noble Lord the Government Chief Whip cannot run his office properly he ought to look to his own laurels. I certainly informed the Whips' Office.

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I have no intention of responding to that degree of attack on members of the staff. The fact is that the usual channels were not informed, the Chief Whip was not informed and I was not informed. I should have thought that the lowest form of courtesy would have been to inform the Minister responsible, who apparently received a letter from the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, only this morning as a result of someone pointing out that the Motion on the Order Paper had been changed at the latest possible moment—yesterday evening. As I say, these are mundane matters of detail, but the detail entirely supports the position that I set out at the beginning of my remarks.

On the noble Lord's point about business management, these matters are, as always, relevant to discussions among the usual channels. I am once again amazed, as I am more or less every day in this House, by the Opposition's reliance for political accuracy on what they read in the newspapers.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, last week I said that I thought that this House was becoming "niggly" and was behaving badly. The Government have some splendid, qualified people on their Front Bench—it is sometimes better than ours. But I am very sorry to say that, now, they are giving an example of spoilt petulance which does the House and everyone else no good.

I have the highest respect for the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman. She has done a brilliant job. The noble Baroness, Lady Symons, is a joy to anybody in any government. The Chief Whip is an extremely good man. But suddenly, the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, thinks he wants to be there and get the praise as well. Suddenly, the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, is losing her cool, and it is not an attractive sight.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, would it perhaps be a good idea if we leave this matter now and get on with the debate?

Noble Lords

Hear, hear.

On Question, Motion agreed to.