HL Deb 25 November 2002 vol 641 cc565-83

Lord Williams of Mostyn rose to move to resolve, That it is the opinion of this House that, subject to the requirements of business, in 2003 the Summer Recess should begin not later than the middle of July and the House should sit for two weeks in September.

The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, the Group on Working Practices was eager to achieve a more balanced parliamentary year. We had a substantial and significant—and lengthy—debate on those proposals. The report included the following statement: We believe that the House of Lords should also be willing to sit in September, and we recommend that in return the House should have longer recesses at Christmas, Easter or Whitsun, or rise earlier for the summer recess".

That was part of a package which I believe it is fair to say was fully debated and had substantial approval from noble Lords.

The Procedure Committee said in its report: We believe that the House will wish to express an opinion on this possibility"— that is, September sittings— before a change with such important effects".

The Procedure Committee recommended that any such proposal should be put before the House early in the Session; that is what we are now doing.

On 31st October, it was announced that the Commons will indeed sit in September. This Motion therefore proposes—I hope that your Lordships will agree—that the House should trade, as it were, the latter part of July for two sitting weeks in September. That is a straight exchange; it would not in itself make the total number of sitting days in the year either greater or smaller than we have been used to.

There has been quite considerable support, which I shall cover as briefly as I can. The Conservative Party policy document, Delivering a Strengthened Parliament, said: We support the proposal that Parliament should normally rise in mid July, return at the start of September, and rise again only for the length of the Party Conference season".

The right honourable Mr Forth said very recently in another place: We … enthusiastically endorse sittings in September because it will give the House more opportunity to hold the Government to account instead of giving the Government the free ride that they have traditionally had for two and a half months during the summer".—[Official Report, Commons, 29/10/02; col. 712.]

During the debate on 21st May this year, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, most helpfully said: My view is that if another place starts to sit in September. it will be very difficult for us not to go down that route also, particularly if it is tied in with an earlier rising in July".—[Official Report, 21/5/02; col. 653.]

Perhaps I may also mention the equally helpful remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, who has very substantial experience in another place, as well as that derived during his time as Leader of this House: We did not discuss longer recesses at Christmas, Easter and Whitsun, However, we did agree that, if the House of Commons rose at the beginning of July and returned in September, we should be wise to follow suit".—[Official Report, 21/5/02: col. 719.]

That is the spirit in which I am putting forward this Motion. It is an aspect of something very fully discussed and carried with a very significant majority. I ought to emphasise that we all came to the conclusion on that earlier occasion that this would be for a trial period only. We can always review the situation if your Lordships are agreeable.

I should like to make a few final comments. I am sorry to say that it was not known to me that Royal Assent is not capable of being given unless both Houses are sitting. Therefore, if we did not generally coincide our Sittings with the House of Commons, there would be that difficulty. Your Lordships would lose the ineffable joy of the possibility of ping-pong.

More significantly, I make the following suggestion quite seriously. If we were to decline to sit in September to coincide generally—I put it no higher—with the House of Commons. I believe that the representation of this House and its reputation outside would bring about the suggestion that we were not willing to do our full work. That suggestion would be wrong, because we work harder than the House of Commons; and, indeed, harder than any other Chamber in the discovered universe. However, the representation outside Parliament would suggest that we were not willing to work. That would be very wrong; it would be very unfair; and it would be damaging to our reputation. I commend the Motion to the House.

Moved to resolve, That it is the opinion of this House that, subject to the requirements of business, in 2003 the Summer Recess should begin not later than the middle of July and the House should sit for two weeks in Sept ember.—(Lord Williams of Mostyn.)

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

My Lords, I do not wish to make a ceilidh about it, but I have a very short point t o make about the giving of Royal Assent. Surely this House sits without the House of Commons being in session? As we sat for two weeks in October when the Commons were not sitting, it seems to me that the Minister is being a little invidious in saying that the two Chambers must sit at the same time.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, if I had said that it would have been wrong. But, of course, I did not say it. My suggestion to the House is that we should "generally coincide" with the sittings of the other place. If we do not and there is a two-week period when we are not sitting followed by a further two-week period when the House of Commons is not sitting, that would be a total of four weeks when Royal Assent could not be given. It is an aspect of these proposals. It is not t he most important point, but it is a matter that should be borne in mind.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House for the way that he has proposed the Motion. He is right to say that the matter was discussed during our deliberations in the Leader's Group on Working Practices. As a result, I know just how keen the noble and learned Lord is to introduce what has become something of a novelty; namely, that this House should sit regularly in September.

I also, rightly, warned that this would be a controversial decision, and pointed out that there were many different views around the House. That allows me to say that, as far as I can see, there is no politics in this: there is no advantage or disadvantage to the Government or to the Opposition as regards sitting in September, as opposed to the end of July. This is entirely a House matter. Therefore, there will be a free vote from our party. I am sure that that will be replicated in every other part of the House.

It is important that the issue should be decided this afternoon. We can then put such matters to one side and carry on with our business. It strikes me that there are three issues to be kept in mind. First, if the House is to rise early in July, that may make it marginally more convenient for those of us with younger children, who, at that stage, are already on holiday. However, it will also make it marginally less convenient for those noble Lords who do not have chilldren and who, traditionally, like to take their holidays outside the school holiday period; namely, in September.

Secondly, if we return early in September, which, I understand, is the Government's proposal, we should consider how that will affect Members of the Front Benches on all sides of the House. When those Members realise that they have difficult—and often complicated—legislation on the horizon, they may have to return a week or 10 days in advance of the sitting in order to lay amendments and carry out all the background work involved. Therefore, far from coming back in early September, they may have to return at the end of August. I wonder what the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House has to say in that respect.

Thirdly, there is the idea advanced in the other place of returning in early September, sitting for two weeks, and then rising again for another three-week period so that Members can address their business at various party conferences. It is widely known in this House that, on the whole, there is not quite the same degree of enthusiasm for visiting party conferences as is the case in the House of Commons. If we consider September sittings, I wonder whether we have to replicate another place exactly. That sort of coming and going—toing and froing—may be more confusing for this House than it is for another place.

I also gather that the other place will be returning not so much to deal with the detail of scrutiny of government and of legislation but more for general debates, or to deal with issues that have arisen over the summer period. That would be very different in your Lordships' House, where that is an important period of the Session—the latter part—during which we deal with difficult legislation.

As regards Royal Assent, I understand that the issue is that both Houses must be sitting at the same time in order for Royal Assent to be given. I do not know whether this is guided by legislation, by practice, or by convention; or, indeed, whether it is such an insurmountable difficulty that it cannot be circumvented. After all, it was not so long ago that Royal Assent was always given by a Royal Commission, as is the case at Prorogation. However, that is not so for most Bills during the course of the parliamentary Session. I wonder whether we are entirely wise to rush into this process, given the fact that the other place is undergoing its own experiment. It may prove to be less effective than we all believe.

As the noble and learned Lord said, this is a hard-working House. I have no idea how the public would view both Houses sitting at different times. From my experience, I can make only the following observation. Very often, your Lordships' House is sitting during the last week of July when the House of Commons has risen. At that time, I believe that public opinion views extremely favourably the work that this House accomplishes.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House for moving this Motion. Perhaps I may make a suggestion on a subject on which the noble and learned Lord led with his jaw. The noble and learned Lord might care to issue a business statement at the end of each Session setting out how many hours we have sat, how many days a week we sat, and how much work we accomplished. That would give the world outside a clearer view of the endless hard work carried out in this House and ensure that it is perceived less as some form of a Gilbert and Sullivan opera.

I turn to the arguments before the House. With its normal extraordinary judiciousness, my party is somewhat divided on the issue. The reasons are as follows. The suggested rising in mid-July and sitting throughout most of September has the great advantage of being family friendly. As the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, pointed out, it means that people with young children—or, for that matter, grandchildren—can spend more time with them. That is an important consideration for many Members of the House.

However, there is another clear and important argument to make. I refer to the one mentioned by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Privy Seal; namely, that we should keep more closely in step with another place if we follow its proposals for modernisation. Two real difficulties would arise in that respect. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, made a comment that I believe applies more to his party than to mine. He said that there is no huge enthusiasm for party conferences. My party is wildly enthusiastic about party conferences. It hugely enjoys them. There is always an atmosphere of extraordinary comradeship and friendliness and almost no division of opinion. Therefore, members of my party and, in particular, the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, who is the greatest decoration of our party conferences because he presides over them, would be very sad if not many people attended them. The difficulty of sitting, rising, sitting again and rising again is also associated with the proposal.

I want quickly to advance another consideration which concerns those of us who have a great interest in foreign affairs. Real problems are involved in moving to the proposed new pattern. Effectively, it means that one can never visit another country when its own legislature is sitting. That, in turn, immediately weakens the amount of information that people can bring to this House through work that they do in other parts of the world and, not least, through work done in Europe. That is a serious consideration. I believe that many of us can see the extent to which congressional influence in the world has suffered because so few congressmen and women now travel for any length of time to other parts of the world. I simply want to advance that as a thought on the other side of the argument. But I leave it to the extraordinary wisdom of my colleagues in the House to come to the right answer.

Lord Boston of Faversham

My Lords, it pains me to differ from the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House, especially on House matters. I have great affection and admiration for him but I find myself unable to support his Motion this afternoon. I hope that he will forgive me not only for that but also because I cannot even bring him the comfort of being able to claim that English is not my first language. As a matter of fact, for all practical purposes and despite being partly Italian and partly French, it is my only language. Nevertheless, I hope that the noble and learned Lord and I will remain friends at the conclusion of this debate.

The statement last Monday by the noble Lord the Captain of the Gentlemen-at-Arms was very helpful. One hopes that it will prove to be a precedent over the years. The only part that I found myself unable to accept was that relating to the Summer Recess. That statement said that the two Houses of Parliament, work best when the sitting patterns … run roughly in parallel". I agree with that. But the noble Lord went on to add, as has been the case in the past".—[Official Report, 18/11/02; col. 144.] That is not quite the case. I am sorry to have to disappoint the noble Lord for I am fond of and respect him as well, but it has been precisely at this time of year—that is, the time around the Summer Recess—that we have tended to be out of line with another place.

For some years now, we have tended to sit for days—sometimes for a week or so—longer than another place before rising for the Summer Recess. Similarly, we have reassembled earlier than another place. That has been understandable and perfectly proper. It has been partly, if not mainly, because we have to deal with Bills—normally the more controversial ones—which reach us later in the Session after starting in another place. Therefore, not only are we not in parallel with another place at this time of the year; I submit that this is the very time of the year when it is appropriate for the two Chambers to be out of alignment. In case anyone thinks otherwise, of course I appreciate that it is possible for both Chambers to coincide. But I suggest that not only is that not necessary; it is perhaps better and understandable if we do not sit at the same times.

The Government Chief Whip's statement also indicated that, even under the new proposals for recesses, there is already proposed to be a difference between the two Chambers, as was the case last year. In February next year, another place will be in recess from 13th to 24th February. We shall get, a day or two [probably] during the week beginning 17th February".—[Official Report, 18/11/02; col. 144.] I would add to that, "if we are lucky".

Another important and significant point that has not been raised thus far in the debate in arguing for not resuming in September and then adjourning again until mid-October is the vast annual Summer Recess programme of maintenance and improvement of the palace by the Parliamentary Works Services Directorate. The proposed change would involve two periods of disruption. I suggest that having to take up and put back the floorboards, together with the other disruption caused, on two occasions would make matters very difficult. Such an operation would also be costlier, less efficient and more difficult to control. That is especially the case with regard to the timetable of any of the various contractors whom we commission from time to time.

We are served splendidly by the Parliamentary Works Services Directorate and the Parliamentary Estates Directorate, as we are by all our staff—the Clerk of the Parliaments' Office, Black Rod's Department and the others as well. Of course, the staff of the Parliamentary Works Services Directorate will say that they could cope. They will cope with any obligations that we lay upon them—we need have no doubt about that. But that is not to say that that is the best, most efficient and least costly way of dealing with these matters. As a former Chairman of Committees, I had direct dealings with the Parliamentary Works Directorate, as it was then called. The staff of that department need to have a good run at such work during, the Summer Recess. If at all possible, except when there is an emergency recall, for example, that is the way to get the best out of it.

As we know, and as has been said already, another place has already decided its views on this matter. I do not know how carefully another place considered the matters concerning parliamentary works. Of course, it is not for us to intervene in the affairs of another place. Each House is free to decide upon and control its own procedures, conduct and operation. But that only serves to emphasise that it is for us to decide on the best way to deal with these matters. I hope that this afternoon your Lordships will decide to keep things as they are.

3.15 p.m.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I am conscious that, when we discussed and considered these matters a few months ago, I attracted the reputation of being something of a dinosaur. I shall do my best to dispel that reputation now. The resistance which I then offered to some of the proposals that came before us from the Procedure Committee and, indeed, in the proceedings of the Procedure Committee itself was based on one premise only: the need to ensure that we retain the capacity to hold all governments to account in all circumstances. I do not want to suggest that this issue ranks high in that type of consideration. If hope that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Pricy Seal will think again about this proposal.

I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, about the need for your Lordships to be involved in overseas visits and other activities outside your Lordships' House during September. I do not suggest that we all need to go away at that time simply to earn our livings or matters of that nature, but overseas visits on foreign policy, defence and other matters can be properly scheduled only in September.

There is then the consideration referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Boston of Faversham. This is an old building. Much work needs to be done to it in the Recess and will no doubt continue to need to be done for as far ahead as we can foresee. There is then the question of the staff, who would have to be recalled, perhaps for just two weeks in September at a time when they would otherwise not have to be here and, indeed, when they might be attending upon missions conducted by your Lordships overseas.

I recognise that it was agreed long ago that this matter would be considered now, early in the Session. There is much merit in that. However, there is also a difficulty. At this stage we do not know where we shall be in the business programme by mid-July or mid-September, so there is still a degree of uncertainty. I agree that the Motion refers to the progress of Business but we are seeking to decide now whet her or not we should sit in September.

I hope that the noble and learned Lord will reflect again upon the Motion. I do not believe it is appropriate at this time. The noble and learned Lord concluded by stating that this is a trial arrangement. It is the case that the detailed arrangements we agreed earlier this year were said to be subject to reconsideration after a couple of years. However, the Motion before us says nothing about a trial. Therefore, I hope that we can disregard the Motion on that account.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, I join the dinosaur group in opposing the Motion before us. I do so on the basis that, were it not for the fact that another place wants to alter its arrangements, we would riot be discussing the proposal today. The proposal is not for the benefit of Members of this House but for the benefit of Members of the House of Commons, who want to get away early. We have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, that that would be inconvenient to many of your Lordships who want to go away in September to avoid the crowds of children who by September would normally be back in school. That is an important point.

However, what is important is whether a change would assist us better to do the work of this House. The answer is that it would not. It would be better if we continued our present arrangement to ensure that the proper scrutiny of legislation takes place to a timetable suitable to Members of this House and not to Members of another place.

The noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House said that perhaps it would not be right and would be misunderstood by the electorate if we did not sit while the House of Commons sat. That must have been a joke. There have been many occasions, indeed in the last Session, when this House sat on many days when the House of Commons did not. Therefore, presumably people would take the same view of the House of Commons not sitting while the House of Lords sat. That argument does not wash. As has been observed, we have sat without the Commons on many occasions over a number of years.

I would also make the point that it is only when we sit alone that we get a fair crack of the whip from the press and the BBC. Indeed, "Yesterday in Parliament" and "Today in Parliament" come alive because of the marvellous discussions we have in this House, which are given greater prominence and time than would otherwise be the case. That is perhaps a good reason for sitting more often without the House of Commons.

The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, in a measured speech, suggested that this is not the time to decide this matter; and that perhaps we should have more time to consider it. Does that mean that the matter will be pressed to a vote by the Opposition? I hope it does. Indeed, if so, I should have to support them.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, first, I apologise to the noble and learned Lord for not having been present when he moved the Motion. I had what I thought was an extremely good excuse. I opened my party Whip—a document which I read every week with intense interest and excitement—when I first arrived in London this afternoon. I saw four questions tabled on the Order Paper and had no doubt that if I arrived soon after three o'clock I would be in good time. Unfortunately, I missed what I am sure was a most illuminating speech and am sorry for myself as well as for the noble and learned Lord.

I echo those who said that merely because another place does something, that is not a good reason for us to do the same. I am inclined to a different view. If another place does something without good reason, which it often does, I would rather see us make a point of differing. That is what I should like to see us do on this occasion.

I listened with great respect, as I always do, to the noble Lord, Lord Boston. I was impressed by the way in which, despite his disagreement with his noble and learned friend, he massaged him as near as he could into a good mood before he put the knife in and said that he would not be able to vote for the Motion. Disguised in all that complimentary and extremely civil language was a solid point which, I feel confident at guessing, has not even been thought of by another place.

As the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, suggested, it is probable that another place has been thinking solely of its own convenience, as is its habit. It is always nudged into thinking of its own convenience by the diabolical mephistophelean cleverness of an Administration which does not always display cleverness. On this kind of matter, the Administration is cunning indeed. Clearly, once again it has persuaded Members of another place how much more convenient it would be for them and has not mentioned the convenience or otherwise to the Government.

I shall not continue. The rather short, informal way in which we are being slipped into another change is something about which I am wary and do not welcome. Perhaps I may attempt to copy the example given by the noble Lord, Lord Boston, by saying that I hope that nothing I have said today will disturb the happy and friendly relationship I enjoy with the noble and learned Lord.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I was interested to hear my noble friend Lord Peyton graciously apologise to the noble and learned Lord for not having been in his place. I make the same apology because I was not in my place when the noble and learned Lord made his speech. For that I deeply apologise and grovel in sackcloth and ashes before him. I went round like a whirling dervish this morning trying to get things done in order to be here in time to listen to the noble and learned Lord. However, the whirling dervish did not move as quickly as it should, and I apologise. I hope that that will not preclude my adding a few views.

Like my noble friend Lord Peyton, I regret the idea of making this change. I cannot see that it will do much good for anyone, other than for those—and I can understand this—who wish to go on holiday at the end of July. Of course people have had children for years and years and they somehow manage to go on holiday. I do not know that that is a very good reason, particularly when Members of the House of Commons and indeed your Lordships receive greater emoluments now. My fear is that we will pay everyone, including ourselves, more and more and alter the processes for our own convenience. I do not know that that is a good idea.

I also think that the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Boston of Faversham, is very true. The Palace of Westminster is a huge place. It has to be repaired. Repairs are programmed five years ahead. Everyone knows that one can get a good slice of time in the Summer Recess. If one leaves in July, comes back in September for two weeks and then goes away and comes back again, it really is not the most efficient way to do things.

Perhaps I may give the noble and learned Lord one small lesson in dynamics. He will know, I am sure, that with two four-inch pipes one does not get nearly so much water out as one does with an eight-inch pipe. In other words, if one goes from July—the noble and learned Lord is worried already: I know that it is not a legal argument—to October there is a good slice of time during which work can be done. If one asks people to come in and out, one will not get nearly so much done and it will be far more expensive.

I am deeply apprehensive when the noble and learned Lord comes along with a very simple idea that is really just a little modernising of Parliament. I do not think that it is modernising of Parliament; it is unpicking much of what has been done. What we do at the moment in your Lordships' House is to great effect. I do not see that it is necessary for us to alter our times of sitting just because another place has decided to alter its times. I hope, as the noble Lord, Lord Boston, and my noble friend Lord Peyton, said, that the noble and learned Lord will think again, heavily and carefully, about this matter; and that he will conclude that on the whole it is better to leave things as they are and to not make an alteration which momentarily, for some extraordinary reason, he seems to think is a good idea.

3.30 p.m.

Lord Carter

My Lords, I had not intended to take part. I have been listening to the debate with increased disbelief. This is the second Chamber of Parliament. We hear a great deal about the need for Parliament to call the executive to account, with which I entirely agree. Yet we have to consider apparently the convenience of the public works department and of your Lordships' taking holidays in September in order to avoid the children being under their feet as they have gone back to school. It also appears now we should consider the chance of the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, appearing on "Today in Parliament".

The noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, says that today is too early to consider this matter. As Chief Whip, I used to get asked questions about the Summer Recess about Christmas-time. Noble Lords would come in and say, "We should like to book our holiday. Can you give us any idea when we might rise for the summer?" I used to say. "Well, I will try to get up by the end of July, but we might have to sit in August" and so on. So the idea that this is too early does not run.

I think that it would be sensible to have a six-week break—which is what it would be—from the middle of July to the end of August and then to come back to complete the business. I know your Lordships will agree that it is a long haul in this House from Easter until the summer. There is the spring break. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, is nodding. It is a long, hard haul for your Lordships. I hope that my noble and learned friend and the Chief Whip will be able to give us a defined date for the break in the summer, which would be in the middle of July. We shall have a six-week break and then come back for two weeks.

Many important things happen in the Summer Recess. If international and domestic issues arise—perhaps a strike or whatever—and the Commons is sitting and we are not, I wonder what the effect will be on those who observe this House from the outside.

Lord Elton

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, is it not the case that if the two Houses sit on separate fortnights, the period during which Parliament itself is able to hold the Government to account is extended by a fortnight? Therefore, if that is our chief aim, that does not chime with the present Motion.

I have not apologised for being absent because I was present for the speech of the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House, which was eloquent and almost as persuasive as usual. On this occasion, however, he did not entirely persuade me.

Lord Carter

My Lords, the noble Lord is correct. For a week perhaps at the end of July and for a week in October this House sits and the other does not. If the Motion is defeated—if the Motion is put to the vote—it will not be possible to call the executive to account from the middle of July until perhaps the middle of October. The point about the two weeks in September is that we do have a chance to call the executive to account if there are important issues that arise at that time.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, can the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House tell us what he thinks a proper period of trial would be? It appears to me that one year is enough. We could then look at the situation.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, perhaps I may respond to that point immediately because it is also the point of the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne. The Motion is carefully crafted to limit itself to 2003 only.

Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe

My Lords—

Lord Jopling

My Lords—

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I do not think that there has been a contribution from this side at all.

Noble Lords


Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, apart from the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart.

A noble Lord

He is an independent.

Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe

My Lords—

Lord Jopling

My Lords, unlike some of my noble friends, I was in the Chamber to listen to the speech of the Leader of the House. I would hate to say to my noble friends that I was convinced by his speech because I came into the Chamber inclined to agree with him anyway, having just read the Motion.

I confess, having been around this building for 38 years, that I have always thought it a nonsense that in a normal year Parliament has not sat for 10 or sometimes 11 weeks and has not been able to hold the executive to account at all. I therefore came into your Lordships' House today rather inclined to support the Motion.

Often both Houses are recalled in September. I do not have the statistics, but as that is happening more and more in my experience it would be more convenient for us to know that we were coming back for two weeks in September with due warning, compared with coming back perhaps for a day or two days in September in some years without any warning at all. I should have thought that that would be convenient.

I profoundly disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Boston, on one particular matter: he talked about the disruption to the summer contractors. All I can say to him is that the contractors seem to be able to put the House together again quite quickly when we are recalled in an emergency during the middle of the Summer Recess. In any case, having, as I say, watched these things for a number of years, I am rather inclined to have the Summer Recess broken up because I have grieved over many years at the totally ridiculous waste of money which those contractors are led to spend on replacing carpets and other fittings in the House which I think a normal person would say were perfectly functional. A huge amount of money is wasted in that way. But that is a different point.

It is not in every year—if the noble and learned Lord looks at the history—that, by getting up in the middle of July, as the Motion says, we would be missing two weeks of sitting. If 16th July were a Thursday, if the House sat the following week, in many years—I say this as one who used to organise such things in another place—the House would not sit again on 27th July. So in some years, the House would rise only a week earlier in such circumstances.

That brings me to a point that the noble and learned Lord made early in his speech. One recommendation that he cited was that after the two week sitting in September, the House would rise for three weeks for the party conferences. I have no love of party conferences—I stopped attending them many years ago—but for those of your Lordships who want to attend, I should have thought that it would be far better as a general principle that your Lordships' House did not meet during the party conference period. I know that it has often happened, especially during the Conservative Party conference, which is held last. However, hearing in mind that sometimes we shall miss only one week in July, I hoped that the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House would say what he nearly said but not quite: that he would propose that the House would rise for all three party conference weeks.

Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe

My Lords, I am pleased that I gave way to the noble Lord, Lord Jopling. because I, too, rise to speak in support of the recommendation made by my noble and learned friend the Leader of the House. I, too, was a member of the Leader's Group and I stand by the decision to which I subscribed when we wrote our report, which was to recommend September sittings as part of a package. I must confess that I was surprised that the issue was returning from the Procedure Committee to the House. I was under the impression that the House passed a package including an agreement to effect that change. Perhaps my noble and learned friend the Leader of the House will put me right if I misunderstood the position.

The important point that the House should understand is that we reached our view on returning to work in September in advance of the House of Commons taking any such decision. That decision was reached by the Leader's Group in its own judgment based on what we were trying to achieve with our report. That was not entirely about the convenience of the House, but principally about raising the level of scrutiny and calling the Government to account. Within the Leader's Group, it was generally—almost unanimously—agreed that there was sufficient cause for the House to be recalled during September because there was sufficient work for it to undertake then. In particular, we discussed a whole range of different functions that were delayed that could readily and properly be undertaken in September. I mention to the noble Lord. Lord Stoddart, that I find it amazing—

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. He mentioned coming back in September because there was sufficient work to be undertaken then. My understanding of the proposals is that not a single extra day is being asked of Members of this House, so the point about workload has no bearing whatsoever on the proposals.

Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe

My Lords, as has just been mentioned, it is likely that we will go into recess later than the House of Commons. Later in the year. there may be some changes in the way in which the programme is organised.

Returning to my point about our responsibilities to the public and in regard to scrutiny, I find it amazing that more than 50 per cent of our legislation emanates from Europe. Many people increasingly express concern about the volume of such legislation being passed, yet we ran from the end of July through to October without any close scrutiny of European legislation. We shall shortly receive a report from the European Union Committee examining how we currently undertake scrutiny.

So there is a compelling case for work to be undertaken, especially now that the Commons will resume in September. I ask the House to consider what will be the public perception if they see that the Houses of Parliament are not meeting broadly together as they have in the past—whether we will enhance the reputation of the House for its scrutiny and its calling of the Government to account by taking a break that runs from the second week in July through to October. On balance, I do not believe that that would go down especially well.

Many noble Lords may express views later today about the firemen's dispute and the need for modernisation, flexibility and change. When considering the future of this House. it is also appropriate for us to be prepared to be flexible, to recognise how people perceive us and to consider the work that needs to be done. The change recommended by my noble and learned friend the Leader of the House would ensure that the House would raise its status, rather than be the subject of possible criticism for failing to change.

3.45 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken. I ask your Lordships to consider—putting it as neutrally as I can—- that the Leader's Group was composed of different strands of opinion. As the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, said earlier, we started off with little in common, we realised that we had to give and take and we came to a unanimous conclusion. There was then a full debate in your Lordships' House in which a significant majority decided that we should try to move forward. I think that that is the way. In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, he is quite right to say that we suggested a trial period, but the Motion in my name specifically limits itself to 2003.

I turn to your Lordships' contributions. The noble Lord, Lord Peyton, and the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, both said that they were absent for my speech. I sympathise with them, because listening to reasoned and reasonable propositions often tends to cloud the judgment and erode prejudice. The noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, said that he was going to put forward a few odd views, They were not few, but they were certainly odd. I could not follow the Ferrers faucet point about the eight inch pipe, but I think that he was suggesting two four inch pipes that would not join each other. We would then get all the water running out and nothing useful done.

The noble Lords, Lord Stoddart and Lord Trefgarne, described themselves as the dinosaur tendency. One does not find many live dinosaurs about the world these days; they are normally buried in seaside resorts where people hold party political conferences. The noble Baroness, Lady Williams, said that she was passionately enthusiastic about the Liberal Democrat party conference. I sympathise with her, because the Liberal Democrats do not really have anything else about which to be enthusiastic. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, did not want to go to the Conservative Party conference. I sympathise with him, because Conservatives have everything else about which to be enthusiastic, but not their party conference.

No one has dealt with the "Forth" point. Mr Forth is a parliamentarian. He is an irritant—and rightly. Even in the Chamber in which the current Opposition is in a significant minority, he ploughs his furrow. What did he say, speaking in another place from the Conservative Front Bench? He said: We … enthusiastically endorse sittings in September because it will give the House more opportunity to hold the Government to account instead of giving the Government the free ride that they have traditionally had for two and a half months during the summer".—[Official Report, Commons, 29/10/02; col. 712.] That point is extremely important. We do not simply scrutinise and check the Government on legislation.

Lord Tebbit

My Lords, first of all, Mr Forth was talking about the other place, not this place. Secondly, if' we retain our present pattern of sitting, while the other place changes its. there will be more weeks of the year in which one or other Chamber is here to hold the Government to account than if we sat at the same times as it.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the noble Lord and I have one thing in common: we both hope to be parliamentarians. I firmly believe that, when issues of great public importance and consequence arise, as with Iraq, the quality of scrutiny and informed debate in this House, some would say, is significantly better than in the other place. There is no doubt in my mind about that.

I return to the noble Lord's point. We are both parliamentarians, although we do not agree on everything. It was important that, in the debate on Iraq, for instance, we had half a dozen former Foreign Secretaries contribute to the debate, half a dozen former Chiefs of the Defence Staff and half a dozen bishops, although it is true that the bishops mainly divided among themselves. It is important that that public debate should be had.

This is an opportunity to ensure that we are not put on the second row on the back shelf, as the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, seems to accept. The absurdly logical conclusion of the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, is that it would he a good idea to have neither House sitting at the same time as the other throughout the year.

This is an aspect of limited progress. We must not put in the balance our personal convenience. It is demeaning to consider holiday convenience, the absolute objection to going on holiday when other people's children might be there or the lost opportunity—lost forever—of a discount on holiday rates. We are here with infinite privilege as Members of Parliament. We have an extraordinary advantage; we ought to be able to discharge our duties in a way that the public thinks is suitable. All that the Motion will do is deliver one small segment of what we have already agreed unanimously in the Leader's Group and by a significant majority in the House.

Mr Forth is right, and nobody has dealt with the point. Speaking about sitting in September, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, said: it will be very difficult for us not to go down that route".—[Official Report, 21/5/02; col. 653.] The noble Lord did not say that after the House of Commons had come to its conclusion. I caution your Lordships not to have too much amour propre— neither a Welsh nor an English expression, I am told. We need not object to something simply because the House of Commons proposes it. We come to our own conclusion, as we did long ago, before the Commons had any of its package of change and renewal in place. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, said that in May, and so did the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, whom I cited.

I have not suggested—and am not suggesting—that we should blindly follow the Commons. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, and I confirm my understanding of the question about the conference season. I suggest that it is good, appropriate, seemly and necessary for us to be broadly coincident with the House of Commons. After all, it is elected. It is not our superior in every way, but it has the superiority of election and dismissal, which we lack.

This is a short step forward. Have we not hearts big enough to try it? Must we constantly revert to the eighteenth century or, preferably, the seventeenth? I give way to the noble Earl.

Earl Russell

My Lords, does not the noble and learned Lord belittle the argument for the present arrangement by portraying it as one of simple personal convenience? Does he see any merit in the view, frequently expressed by Lady Seear, that most of us do a good deal outside this place and the less we do outside, the less use we are here?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, of course I agree with that, as a general proposition. However, if the necessary, inevitable, logical corollary of that were that we ought to sit for two and a half weeks in 52, I would beg leave to dissent. The point is that we have two and a half months off in the summer. It is a complete blank space. The noble Lord, Lord Jopling, is right: on three years out of the past five, we have been recalled.

I shall deal with the question of the works in two ways—one is pragmatic and the other goes to the heart of the matter. The pragmatic point is that my office has discussed the question with Black Rod. Those things can be accommodated. I come to the question of principle: if noble Lords really believe that doing our work as parliamentarians should be subordinated to the task of contractors, I differ profoundly. If we come to that conclusion, why are we sitting here?

3.55 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said Motion shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 160; Not-Contents, 76.

Division No. 1
Ackner, L. Berkeley, L.
Addington, L. Biffen, L.
Alexander of Weedon, L. Blackwell, L.
Amos, B. Blaker, L.
Andrews, B. Borrie, L.
Archer of Sandwell, L. Brennan, L.
Ashley of Stoke, L. Bridgeman, V.
Ashton of Upholland, B. Brightman, L.
Astor of Hever, L. Brooke of Alverthorpe, L.
Avebury, L. Bruce of Donington, L.
Bach, L. Burlison, L.
Baker of Dorking, L. Buscombe, B.
Barnett, L. Campbell-Savours, L.
Bassam of Brighton, L. Carlisle of Bucklow, L.
Beaumont of Whitley, L. Carnegy of Lour, B.
Carrington, L. Lea of Crondall, L.
Carter, L. [Teller] Lewis of Newnham, L.
Christopher, L. Lofthouse of Pontefract, L.
Clinton-Davis, L. Macdonald of Tradeston, L.
Cohen of Pimlico, B. McIntosh of Haringey, L.
Corbett of Castle Vale, L. MacKenzie of Culkein, L.
Craig of Radley, L. Mackenzie of Framwellgate, L.
Crawley, B. Mackie of Benshie, L.
Darcy de Knayth, B. Maddock, B.
David, B. Mar, C.
Davies of Coity, L. Masham of Ilton, B.
Davies of Oldham, L. Mason of Barnsley, L.
Deedes, L. Massey of Darwen, B.
Desai, L. Merlyn-Rees, L.
Dholakia, L. Milner of Leeds, L.
Dixon, L. Mitchell, L.
Dormand of Easington, L. Morgan of Huyton, B.
Eden of Winton, L. Morris of Aberavon, L.
Elliott of Morpeth, L. Morris of Manchester, L.
Erroll, E. Moynihan, L.
Evans of Temple Guiting, L. Murray of Epping Forest, L.
Ezra, L. Newby, L.
Falconer of Thoroton, L. Northover, B.
Farrington of Ribbleton, B. O'Cathain, B.
Faulkner of Worcester, L. Pitkeathley, B.
Filkin, L. Prior, L.
Fyfe of Fairfield, L. Quirk, L.
Gale, B. Ramsay of Cartvale, B.
Gavron, L. Randall of St. Budeaux, L.
Gibson of Market Rasen, B. Redesdale, L.
Gladwin of Clee, L. Rendell of Babergh, B.
Golding, B. Richardson of Calow, B.
Gould of Potternewton, B. [Teller] Roll of Ipsden, L.
Rooker, L.
Grabiner, L. Scott of Needham Market, B.
Graham of Edmonton, L. Sharp of Guildford, B.
Grenfell, L. Sheldon, L.
Grocott, L. Simon, V.
Hamwee, B. Simon of Glaisdale, L.
Hardy of Wath, L. Stallard, L.
Harris of Richmond, B. Stone of Blackheath, L.
Harrison, L. Strabolgi, L.
Haskel, L. Symons of Vernham Dean, B.
Hayman, B. Taylor of Blackburn, L.
Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, L. Temple-Morris, L.
Hollis of Heigham, B. Thomson of Monifieth, L.
Howe, E. Thornton, B.
Howe of Idlicote, B. Tomlinson, L.
Howell of Guildford, L. Turnberg, L.
Howells of St. Davids, B. Turner of Camden, B.
Howie of Troon, L. Vincent of Coleshill, L.
Hoyle, L. Waddington, L.
Hughes of Woodside, L. Wade of Chorlton, L.
Hunt of Kings Heath, L. Wallace of Saltaire, L.
Hunt of Wirral, L. Walmsley, B.
Hurd of Westwell, L. Warnock, B.
Islwyn, L. Weatherill, L.
Janner of Braunstone, L. Wedderburn of Charlton, L.
Jay of Paddington, B. Whitaker, B.
Jeger, B. Wilberforce, L.
Jones, L. Williams of Crosby, B.
Jopling, L. Williams of Elvel, L.
Jordan, L. Williams of Mostyn, L. (Lord Privy Seal)
Judd, L.
King of West Bromwich, L. Winston, L.
Layard, L. Wright of Richmond, L.
Ampthill, L. Brougham and Vaux, L.
Anelay of St Johns, B. Burnham, L.
Attlee, E. Butterworth, L.
Blatch, B. Campbell of Alloway, L.
Boston of Faversham, L. Chadlington, L.
Bradshaw, L. Chalfont, L.
Brookeborough, V. Cockfield, L.
Coe, L. Pendry, L.
Cope of Berkeley, L. Perry of Southwark, B.
Dahrendorf, L. Peyton of Yeovil, L.
Denham, L. Phillips of Sudbury, L.
Dixon-Smith, L. Pilkington of Oxenford, L.
Dundee, E. Plumb, L.
Falkland, V. Rawlings, B.
Ferrers, E. Rees, L.
Freeman, L. Roberts of Conwy, L.
Gardner of Parkes, B. [Teller] Rodgers of Quarry Bank, L.
Geddes, L. Russell, E.
Goodhart, L. Ryder of Wensum, L.
Gray of Contin, L. St John of Fawsley, L.
Hanham, B. Saltoun of Abernethy, Ly.
Hayhoe, L. Sanderson of Bowden, L.
Hooper, B. Seccombe, B.
Hussey of North Bradley, L. Selsdon, L.
Jenkin of Roding, L. Shaw of Northstead, L.
Kimball. L. Slim, V.
Kingsland, L. Stoddart of Swindon, L.
Liverpool, E. Strange, B.
Lyell, L, Swinfen, L.
Marsh, L. Tebbit, L.
Miller of Hendon, B. Thomas of Walliswood, B.
Monro of Langholm, L. Tordoff, L.
Monson, L. Trefgarne, L. [Teller]
Mowbray and Stourton, L. Trumpington, B.
Murton of Lindisfarne, L. Wigoder, L.
Palmer, L. Wilcox, B.
Pearson of Rannoch, L. Willoughby de Broke, L.
Peel, E. Windlesham, L.

Resolved in the affirmative, and Motion agreed to accordingly.

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