HL Deb 21 March 2002 vol 632 cc1498-511

5.9 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Whitty)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Minister of State for Rural Affairs in another place. The Statement is as follows:

"Mr Speaker, our manifesto gave a commitment on hunting with hounds. We said: 'We will give the new House of Commons an early opportunity to express its view. We will then enable Parliament to reach a conclusion on this issue'. "I have been given the responsibility of leading that enabling process.

"In reaching my decision on how to proceed, I have listened carefully to what has been said in the debates.

"The votes this week leave the two Houses diametrically opposed. Indeed I have rarely seen an issue where greater divisions exist. It is precisely for that reason that it is right to see how it can be resolved with as much agreement as possible.

"We want to respect all views but that has to start with respect for the strength with which the Commons made its views clear on Monday.

"I promise to engage with everyone who has an interest in this issue in order to make the legislation practical and robust. I promise to bring to the House of Commons a Bill that will deal with this issue effectively once and for all and make good law; and I earnestly hope that we can do so on the basis of as much common ground as possible.

"I propose a process of consultation on the practical issues of detail with a wide variety of interested parties. This period will last no more than six months, including work on drafting a new Bill.

"But we promised in the manifesto that it will be resolved. Should there be no way through and should the new Bill be frustrated in its passage rather than scrutinised and improved, the Government could not properly stand in the way of the application of the Parliament Act, which again of course would be a matter for this House.

"So the Government would prefer for the Ball to proceed by debate and a search for common ground wherever possible, with conflict tempered by tolerance. If that process is frustrated and the Bill rejected, we would reintroduce the Bill as quickly as possible to this House. It will then be for this House and its procedures—and indeed for Mr Speaker—to determine whether the Parliament Act applies.

"However, the reason for re-engaging in a process to try to achieve wider agreement is precisely because we recognise that there are legitimate concerns in the countryside about pest control, about land management and about other practicalities and we want to address these issues in the Bill. These concerns were raised both in this House and in another place.

"Let me also reiterate our manifesto commitment that: 'We have no intention whatsoever of placing restrictions on the sports of angling and shooting'. "And I also want to stress to everyone in the countryside that hunting is at the margins of the real debate about the priorities that we set out in the Rural White Paper. Those of ensuring that people in the countryside get access to good public services, proper investment, sound environmental policies and sustainable development.

"On the content of the Bill itself, I believe that some common ground can be achieved best by focusing on two general principles. The report by Lord Burns on hunting with dogs examined in great detail the principles of cruelty and utility. We propose to frame legislation that prohibits activity based on those two principles rather than simply setting out a list of activities to be banned.

"But the Burns report did not provide a route map. That is why further thought needs to be given in applying these principles and that is what I shall be looking at over the next few weeks.

"I am sure the House will have noted the very clear assurances I have given today about timing and outcome, as well as engagement which will involve those campaigning for a ban on hunting, and Members of this House, as well as those involved in land management.

"Inevitably, I recognise that this is a difficult issue, especially as we all know that there are pressing issues of legislation that also demand our attention on crime, health and education. We must deliver on our central promises to deliver reform and investment in our public services.

"Mr Speaker, I ask the House to trust me to deliver and to join me in a process which is guaranteed to achieve an outcome as soon as possible. I look forward to engaging with colleagues on all sides of this House and in another place.

"The process I am setting out today will ensure that we deliver on our manifesto commitment to resolve this issue during the lifetime of this Parliament".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

5.13 p.m.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made in another place earlier today.

We congratulate the Government on recognising the need to make good law and on their determination not to place restrictions on angling and shooting. I recommend the Government wholeheartedly on this point of good law because it is at the heart of the issue. As many of your Lordships commented during our debate, it would be wrong to distract our police forces, to whom I pay tribute for the job of stemming the rising tide of crime. This is one aspect of a wider issue. The Government's continuing determination to give a ban on hunting the highest priority when so much else is clamouring for attention is a disgrace.

The Statement requests this House to trust the Minister to deliver. Does this mean that the Prime Minister has given him carte blanche to achieve a solution? Although the Statement declares that the two Houses are diametrically opposed, will the Minister accept that on a free vote in this House and in another place earlier this week the two Houses declared themselves to be in favour of a middle way?

We do not accept that this is a black and white issue. It is a wide continuum, with many people sitting in the middle; and that fact tends to go overlooked. Is the Minister not willing to concede that the Statement he has given us today, while seeking views, also carries an uncanny unveiled threat that the Government will use the Parliament Act, and that even prior to us knowing what is going to be in the consultation document?

I turn now to the consultation period. Are these consultation papers ready? If not, how long will it be before they are issued? Mindful of Easter and the Jubilee celebrations coming, will there be time for the Minister to fulfil his promise to engage with everyone who has an interest in this issue?

Earlier this afternoon in another place the Minister seemed to suggest that the noble Lord, Lord Burns, had had his shout and that further interpretations by him of his report would not be considered. Are we to understand that the new round of consultation that is proposed will involve only those interests which have not already been expressed? Are we also to understand that the noble Lord, Lord Burns, will have no further input into the definition of "cruelty" and of the other word used in the Statement, "utility". Can the Minister explain to the House a little more about what is meant by "utility"?

I point out to the Minister that while the rural White Paper might be highly valued by the Government, as indeed they keep telling us, it was produced hack in November 2000. It has not even been debated in this House and its implementation seems to be entrusted to many of the regional development agencies. Those have only one rural member on each board. Is it any wonder that the Government have had to use the Statement to point out to us and to the wider world that hunting is not a central issue in the countryside?

While the Minister is pressing the issues for legislation referred to in the Statement we are still awaiting the Government's response to the Curry report and indeed to the reports that have been produced by the noble Lord, Lord Haskins, who I do not think is in his place today, on better regulation and on the response to the FMD prices in Cumbria. These are just a few. There are many other reports waiting in the wings.

Finally, I ask the Minister where the newspapers obtained their most authoritative articles published today in advance of the Statement, which rather suggests insider knowledge. Were there any briefings and did they take place before the Minister rose to speak in another place?

5.18 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, I would not pretend to speak for all voices in my party because in my party too we have diametrically opposed views. However, following the Statement, which I am glad the Minister has been able to make this afternoon, we can be certain of one thing, which is that we are not entirely clear what it means.

Having said that, I welcome the fact that it makes clear that the Burns inquiry is to be taken seriously. I welcome also the fact that the Government, having commissioned an inquiry, are going to take notice of it. I would certainly interpret the cruelty and utility part as exploring the balance between pest control and sport. That is a very important balance which should be thoroughly explored.

I, too, should like to know more about the timescale for the consultation and also whether local views will be taken into account on a locality basis or a regional basis; and, if so, what bodies will be consulted locally. That is particularly important because of the practical issues—if the Government are thinking of restricting hunting to certain areas, for example, uplands. The over-use of those upland areas is a matter which bodies concerned with them will no doubt want to consider as well. It would be reassuring if the Minister could, at some stage, give us an indication of how the consultation document will dovetail into the recommendations made in the food and farming report. Indeed, as the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, observed, we have not yet received any response to that report.

The economic and social aspects would be well addressed on a regional basis. There are also issues of compensation for those who will be put out of business, as was mentioned during the passage of the fur farming legislation in this House; and, indeed, as regards housing. I believe that the time-scale involved is most important. It means that we shall finally have definite answers. That is as crucial for rural areas that will be affected, as it is for those who would like to see a ban imposed.

Further, it is important to ensure that the sort of turn-out that we saw in this House last Tuesday will be repeated and exercised on other issues in the future. One way or another, it would be pleasant if the hunting debate could be put to bed once and for all in a satisfactory manner.

5.21 p.m.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I appreciate the response to the Statement and the questions that have been raised. I believe that some of those questions seemed to suggest that the way we do these things is slightly misleading. The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, seemed to think that I have been empowered by the Prime Minister to carry through the process. However, I am the mere representative in this House of my right honourable friend Alun Michael who—thank goodness!—is the person who will have that responsibility. Nevertheless, I shall be responsible for processing the matter through this House.

In his Statement, my right honourable friend made it clear that he would wish to engage with Members of this House, those who expressed views in the debate in another place on Monday, and, more widely, with the interest groups involved. It is not a question of the views already expressed being taken as written, including those of the noble Lord, Lord Burns. We shall facilitate the process so that anyone else who wishes to do so may participate in the consultation. I cannot give an answer on precisely when the consultation documentation will be produced, but, following the Easter Recess, we shall start engaging in the process of consultation.

In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, I should point out that this matter needs to be very much separated from other consultations that will take place in terms of how we proceed with the Curry report, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, also referred. The initial response to that report will be available shortly. However, as I have already indicated to the House, we wish to engage in a programme of regional discussion over the spring and summer. The final response to the report will be produced in the autumn, by which time we shall have the advantage—if I may put it that way—of finalising the spending review and other decisions of government. We are, therefore, aiming to produce a White Paper in the autumn.

The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, made a few aspersions in relation to some reports in today's newspapers. I can assure the noble Baroness that there was no such briefing; indeed, when I left my department at 1 o'clock this lunch-time, the Statement had not been finalised. Therefore, it would be impossible for anyone to have received it before that time. I believe that we can ignore that aspect of the matter.

However, the more important accusation that the noble Baroness made related to fact that, by this Statement, we are threatening further action. Everyone has known the potential constitutional position both on the previous, and on any new, legislation. The noble Baroness introduced the rather novel constitutional precept that I have heard repeated quite widely around the House over the past 48 hours; namely, that we would add up the scores of this House and those of another place. As noble Lords well know, that is not the way that the procedure works. Both Houses have to reach their conclusion, and it is to be hoped that we reach a conclusion that is at least acceptable, even if it is not entirely what either wants. However, if that process fails, the Government—or, more accurately, the House of Commons, as it will be on a free vote—would have the option of invoking the Parliament Act.

We believe that this issue has been around for long enough. We have had a sufficient number of debates on the subject, in which everyone has expressed his or her point of view. If, following the consultation—and, it is to be hoped, the taking on board of many of the points raised—the Bill then produced is adopted by the House of Commons, we are indicating that we would not stand in the way of the other place using the Parliament Act finally to resolve the issue, and thus meet our manifesto commitment that we would solve the matter in this Parliament.

Mention was made of the definition of "utility". Clearly, the prime reason for hunting tends to be pest control. However, there are other potential benefits from hunting, including economic considerations, that will need to be taken into the balance. The main concern among those who wish to promote a restriction or a ban on hunting is, of course, cruelty. When the noble Lord, Lord Burns, referred to "cruelty". I believe that he did so in the context that we already have a definition in existing legislation. The issue is whether the consideration of other factors means that the definition of the word has at least to be modified in the light of aspects of utility. We are not balancing one against the other, but we must also take issues of utility into account. That is the basis of the approach to drafting the new Bill.

The response to the Statement indicates that we still have a long way to go in the consultation process, in the re-engagement of the various parties—both parliamentary and otherwise—and in the drafting of the Bill. We have given an indication of the time-scale on which the Bill will be produced—namely, six months—and of the process that will ensue if, regrettably, we still end up in a deadlock. That is simply a statement as to the reality of the situation. I hope that we can move to more of a consensus on the issue. However, if we cannot, the use of the Parliament Act is, therefore, promised.

5.28 p.m.

Lord Hurd of Westwell

My Lords, it seems to me that the Minister has not fully understood the point made by my noble friend on the Front Bench about the leak of information. She was not suggesting that the contents of the Statement had been leaked: I believe that my noble friend was referring to the very detailed accounts to be found in several newspapers this morning. Such reports referred not to the Statement but to the Bill that will eventually be introduced. Is that not rather a serious matter?

When repeating the Statement, the noble Lord talked about certain principles and a process of consultation after which time a Bill will he produced. However, it is quite evident that someone connected with government has been reassuring those in favour of a total ban that their wishes—90 per cent according to one report—will be met. That reflects quite a different, divisive and belligerent approach, and, indeed, one quite contrary to what the Minister has been trying to convey to the House this afternoon. Can he clarify the position?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I can assure the House that no Bill exists; nor does even the outline of such a Bill exist. However, all of these issues have been fairly well aired, and, in the light of the contrary decisions of the two Houses, they have been discussed widely in political and journalistic circles. I assure the House that there has been no decision on the nature of the Bill pending the consultation, and there has been no spelling out to journalists or anybody else what the nature of that Bill will he. My Statement today clearly indicated the process. Also, it is stating the obvious to say that we know where the House of Commons stands and we know what will be required to meet many of the present concerns in the House of Commons. We have a consultation period to undergo, during which we can perhaps establish more common ground on which a further Bill could be based. In any case, the position taken by the other place the other night would need to be translated into legislative terms and there are different ways of doing that.

So, in relation to belligerence, I am afraid that I have to make it clear to Members of this House that, at the end of the day, their votes cannot be added to those of the House of Commons and, if the normal process fails, the will of the House of Commons will prevail.

Lord Hoyle

My Lords, I welcome the early response from the Government. I also welcome the fact that, if a real debate does not take place, the Parliament Act will be used and the fact that due weight will be given to the views of the elected House. I hope that the spirit of libertarianism that was shown in the House the other day continues for a long time.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I accept the welcome from my noble friend. There will be different interpretations of precisely what he meant by his last sentence. No doubt, he will enlighten us.

Lord King of Bridgwater

My Lords, the Minister rightly said that it could not be guaranteed that the votes of this House would be counted equal to those of the House of Commons. However, he gave the House a pledge on behalf of his colleague. Mr Alun Michael—who, as he said, is in charge of the matter— that the views expressed in this House would be carefully considered before any decisions were taken. I am sure that the Minister gave that pledge in good faith, but it has been dishonoured by the Statement.

There is no secret about it. Anyone who has been around for any time in government or Parliament knows what the Statement means. The views of the House have not been taken into account, and that is the worst possible prelude. The Minister pleads for understanding, co-operation and proper consultation, when the first process of consultation—a proper debate in this House and a proper moment for the assessment of our views—has been so manifestly dishonoured.

The Statement was fairly opaque in places. On the second page, there are clear assurances about timing and outcome and that there will be engagement with those campaigning for a ban on hunting, Members of the House of Commons, Members of this House, and those involved in land management. There is no indication that there will be any engagement with those who happen to regard the policy—if the newspaper reports of it are accurate—as a disaster for many parts of the country. They would expect to be fully engaged in the process.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, my right honourable friend made it clear that he would engage with all sides of the argument. The Statement refers to Members of the House of Commons and the view that they took. It was, after all, a Statement to the House of Commons, which has made its views clear, and the Minister is responsible to that House. It also said explicitly in the Statement that he would take into account views that had already been expressed here in the debate and views that might be expressed during the six-month period.

The Statement is not opaque. At least, it is no more opaque than many government Statements. It is fairly clear that the process of consultation will take place; that there will be an assessment of the views that are put to Alun Michael during that period; and that the Bill will be drafted in the light of those opinions. It is a political reality that the House of Commons has made its view clear, as of now. It is also clear that there will now be a period of reflection and consultation, before we produce the legislation. When we produce the legislation, it will go through the normal process. I hope that we can establish other principles and bases for that legislation. The only thing that is spelt out—it is blindingly obvious, not opaque—is that, at the end of the day, we think that the issue has gone on for too long and the Parliament Act might be invoked.

Lord Greaves

My Lords, I shall take up the point made by—I was going to say, -my old friend", but that is not appropriate in this House—my old sparring partner, the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle. Up to now, this has been a matter for a free vote, here and in another place. That was true of the previous Bill, in which there were three options. People were able to vote for what they wanted. It has also been true of the debates in this Parliament.

Are the Government saying that they will introduce a government Bill that will represent their settled view, after the six months' consultation, and that they will do what they usually do with government Bills and apply the Whip, in this House and in another place? If that is not the case, what guarantee is there that the Bill that arrives in this House from another place will be the Government's Bill?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, contrary to what the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, suggests, we have made it explicit that, although the Government will produce the Bill, it will be the subject of a free vote in both Houses, as was the Private Member's Bill and as were the Motions debated this week. The principle of a free vote throughout Parliament still applies: Whips will not be applied on this side of the House or, I suspect, in other parties.

I hope that that clarifies the situation. Of course, the Bill that arrives here will be the House of Commons' Bill, which may not be the same as the original government Bill. That is stating the obvious.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on the Minister's decision to have a period of reflection, rather than follow the line of a "virtual ban", which was apparently briefed overnight from somewhere to the newspapers. That is a positive move.

Following up what was said on the Benches opposite, I ask the Minister for a positive assurance that the final Bill, which will include the Government's decisions, will, in the search for common ground—a crucial part of the process and a good objective— include not only the views of this House as part of Parliament but those of the people in the countryside who will be most affected by a virtual ban, should the Government pursue that policy.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I cannot predict the extent of support for the common ground that will emerge from the process. All I am saying is that it will be the objective of my right honourable friend to seek what common ground there is, before producing a Bill.

Lord Elton

My Lords, the Government have accepted the principle that foxes must be controlled and seek to implement the principle that unnecessary cruelty should not be inflicted, with which one cannot quarrel. Can the Minister give an undertaking that no law will be passed that substitutes a more cruel or equally cruel method of control than fox hunting?

The Government said that they, could not properly stand in the way of the application of the Parliament Act", if the new Bill were to be frustrated in its passage, rather than—I emphasise—"scrutinised and improved". Will the Minister undertake that, if the role of this House is restricted to scrutiny and improvement, the Government will properly stand in the way of the application of the Parliament Act?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, as I said, the Bill will go through the normal process. If improvements are introduced in this House during that process and they are acceptable to the House of Commons, they will be accepted in the Bill. However, were there still to be deadlock, the situation that I described in relation to the Parliament Act would apply. If the question is whether it is worth while for this House to scrutinise and attempt to improve the Bill, the answer is that it is. That is part of the process of trying to reach as much common ground as we can through parliamentary and other processes.

I am not sure that I can give the noble Lord, Lord Elton, a straight answer to his first question. After all, as my noble friend Lord Hoyle and others said, only about six per cent of the control of foxes is through hunting with hounds. There are subjective arguments about whether that is more or less cruel than other forms of controlling foxes. The question is whether that six per cent should continue to exist, be reduced or eliminated. The balance may well depend on the exact outcome and the exact law. I cannot give a clear assurance on that either way.

Lord Campbell-Savours

My Lords, my noble friend will be aware that some of us who are opposed to hunting are nevertheless concerned about the impact of a ban on the foot and fell packs in some of Britain's national parks. I refer in particular to the Lake District National Park where special conditions exist, most especially in the area of lambing. Can my noble friend give an assurance that during the course of the consultation, adequate regard will be given to those difficulties?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, local concerns will be taken fully into account during the consultation. I should have made that point clear in my response to the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, because she too asked whether local concerns would be taken into account. Although we may not put in place an entire structure of local consultation, we shall need to take into consideration the conditions and problems peculiar to certain parts of the country, including the Lake District.

Baroness O'Cathain

My Lords, are the consultation documents ready for publication? If not, when will they be ready? Once they have been prepared, when will they be circulated?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I regret that I cannot give the noble Baroness answers to her questions. The documents are not ready; they are not even at an early stage of drafting. However, following the Easter break we shall he very much engaged in the process and documentation will form a part of that. Although the documents do not exist at present, they will do so very shortly. More than that, I cannot say.

Lord Monson

My Lords, in the Statement the Minister proclaimed that hunting is on the margins of the real debate about the priorities set out in the rural White Paper. While that may be true or partly true, will he accept that hunting is not by any means on the margins of the real debate about the growing threat to British traditions of individual freedom?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I do not accept that. Hunting is an issue which can cause great excitement on all sides of the argument and therefore its importance is exaggerated by those both for and against it. That is the case in all kinds of contexts, including those of human rights. I do not believe that whether or not we ban hunting has any serious implication for other aspects of life, whether rural or in our more general civic society. Views on hunting are minority opinions on both sides of the argument. although both sides believe that it is extremely important.

Baroness Golding

My Lords, can my noble friend say when the period of six months' consultation is to start? It was made clear in the other place that it was due to start now. However, if the consultat ion papers have not yet been sent out, or if they have not even been prepared, then when will the six-month period begin?

Can my noble friend also tell the House who, once the submissions have been made, is to consider them?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the six-month period does indeed start now.

Noble Lords


Lord Whitty

My Lords, there is no inhibition on Members of your Lordships' House or on anyone outside this place with regard to expressing their views before they have received a particular document. This issue has been around for so long that it is not necessary to consult a document in order to express views.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, I think that the noble Lord has been a little disingenuous to the House.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, order. This is the time allotted to Back Benchers for questions.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, it 'seems that the root problem for the other place is the fact that people enjoy hunting with hounds. Can the noble Lord assure the House that, should the three million anglers who go fishing begin to show the slightest sign of enjoyment, they too will he in trouble?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I share with the noble Baroness her incredulity that any enjoyment can be derived from angling. Nevertheless, we have made it absolutely clear that no such intention will be pursued in relation to shooting or angling.

Baroness Golding

My Lords, the Minister did not respond to my second question. Who will consider and prepare the legislation?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, it is intended that the Government will consider the matter and produce the Bill. It will then go through the process that I have already described.

Lord Monro of Langholm

My Lords, the Minister said that there will be no restriction on shooting, but day after day restrictions are being imposed by stealth. It is becoming harder than ever to acquire a shotgun certificate, in particular for young applicants. Ultimately shooting will be dramatically affected by such practices.

Can the Minister give me an assurance that he will speak to the government business managers of another place and say that we do not expect another place to guillotine the Committee stage, guillotine the proceedings on Report, guillotine the Third Reading and then send on to this House an absolute shambles of a Bill? We want to hold a proper, democratic debate so that each side is given a fair amount of time. In that way we shall be able to make progress in this House. However, that will not be achieved under the authoritarian attitude with which legislation is presently dealt with in another place.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I would not dream of trying to instruct the business managers of another place. That has long been the tradition of this House. If the converse were the case, this House would rightly resent it.

Lord Palmer

My Lords, could the noble Lord explain once more to the House why hunting with dogs should take precedence over all the other desperately pressing problems facing the country? Many people do not understand why hunting is so much more important.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I appreciate that many Members of your Lordships' House find it difficult to understand this matter. Nonetheless, hunting has been a major political issue for over two decades in this country. It is time that it was resolved. In our manifesto, for which people voted rather overwhelmingly, we gave a commitment that the question would be resolved during this Parliament. We are therefore fulfilling our promise.

Lord McNally

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the request for trust put forward on the part of his colleagues has been made on rather shaky ground, given that both sides of the argument can claim to have been badly misled by the Government in their handling of this issue over the past four years? Does he further agree therefore that the period of consultation needs to be transparently fair, thus ensuring that no complaint can be made by either side about its ability to have its opinion heard, and so that there is no temptation to indulge in extra-parliamentary action? It is very important that Parliament should handle this issue—on which great emotions are felt on both sides—so that both opinions are assured that here, in Parliament, they have had a chance to state their case.

When I spoke in the debate the other day, I put forward a proposal to set up a pre-legislative Joint Select Committee. Whether that was effective, I do not know. However, some means must be found to ensure that the campaigning groups outside this place are given access in the most transparent manner before legislation is brought forward. At the moment, the Government's record on this is very shaky indeed.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I do not accept the first or the last points put by the noble Lord. We have genuinely endeavoured to find a solution. I can assure him that the consultation process will certainly be transparent. It will be accessible to all the groups to which he referred, as it will be to all parliamentary opinion.

Lord Denham

My Lords—

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, we have had 20 minutes of questions on the Statement from Back Benchers, but I feel that the House would like to hear from the noble Lord, Lord Denham, if he can keep his remarks fairly brief.

Lord Denham

My Lord, I am most grateful to the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House. On a point of order, the noble Baroness stated that 20 minutes are allotted to Back Benchers. The first proceedings on a debate of this kind are taken by the Leaders of all sides, and responses are given to them. It is then the turn of Back Benchers for the following 20 minutes.

I should like to ask for clarification. I have never understood that it would be out of order, if a point arose during the time allotted to Back Benchers, for someone on the Front Bench who had spoken previously to rise to query a minor point? I had not realised that he or she would be out of order in so doing. Is that right or is that wrong? I should not like to make a point of order "on the hoof", so to speak. Perhaps we should consider whether or not this is wrong.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the basic answer to the question put by the noble Lord, Lord Denham, is to be found in paragraph 4.81 of the Companion: The period of questions and answers which then follows for backbench Members should not exceed 20 minutes from the end of the minister's initial reply to the Opposition spokesmen". That is the principle. I do not think that it deals particularly with the noble Lord's question because I do not believe that specific guidance can be found. What I try to do is to meet the wishes of the House as appropriate.