HL Deb 13 February 2003 vol 644 cc814-6

3.13 p.m.

Lord Archer of Sandwell

asked the Leader of the House:

Whether he will consider new procedures for voting in Divisions in the House.

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Williams of Mostyn)

My Lords, replacing the present voting system, by which Members' names are recorded manually by Division Clerks and Members are counted by Tellers as they leave the Lobbies, is a matter for the Procedure Committee. I understand that it has not looked into the matter before, but it is open to any Member of the House to ask the Chairman of Committees to put the item on the agenda. Perhaps my noble and learned friend would like to do so.

Lord Archer of Sandwell

My Lords, while I thank my noble and learned friend for that encouraging invitation, would he agree with my arithmetic that on 4th February we conducted seven successive Divisions at an average of 19 minutes per Division? That is a total of two and a quarter hours for something that could have been achieved by other means in 15 minutes. Does he agree that if our predecessors long ago had conducted Divisions by requiring Contents to stand on their heads and Not-Contents to crawl on their hands and knees, we would now hear voices extolling the manifold blessings of that system?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

Well, my Lords—come to think of it! My Lords, we have to bear in mind that 4th February was a very distinguished occasion. We could have avoided the two and a half hours if only noble Lords had voted for a wholly elected House. Also, the topic was of consuming interest. After all, it was that of our own future.

Lord Addington

My Lords, when the noble and learned Lord looks at the problem, will he try to bear in mind how infrequently we get anything like that number of Members into this House? In my nearly 17 years here, there cannot have been more than half a dozen votes in this place arousing that amount of interest.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, there were about 450 noble Lords here, some of whom I did recognise. My noble and learned friend has a point, and one perhaps not limited simply to voting in the Lobbies. A number of noble Lords have pointed out to me that sometimes a Select Committee has to be adjourned quite inconveniently. Sometimes, recently, we have adjourned in Grand Committees. It may be possible to look at alternative schemes of voting, perhaps through voting in the Select Committee or the Grand Committee. Those issues might well be looked at.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, any new procedures are likely to include reducing the time taken by a Division. Will the noble and learned Lord ensure that there are arrangements for disabled Peers, who are unable to reach the Chamber before the doors are locked, to vote? I declare a long-term personal interest, having been partially disabled since 1945.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, that is a very sound point as well, if I may say so. That sort of problem is exacerbated if one is sitting in a Grand Committee or Select Committee quite a way from the Chamber. All such matters need to be borne in mind. The noble Lord's specific point will not be overlooked, but this is essentially a subject for the Procedure Committee.

Lord McNally

My Lords, I want to put in context the comments of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell. Was it not already true that on 4th February there were noble Lords voting on their heads and on their knees?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I was voting on my knees, and the prayer did not work.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, 4th February was of course quite exceptional. As the noble and learned Lord will recall, we suspended our normal rule of not voting twice on the same issue once it had been carried. To some of us, at any rate, that reinforced the value of the normal rule. In considering changes, has the noble and learned Lord observed that in parliaments that have electronic voting, such as the European Parliament, there is great inflation in the number of votes and a consequent devaluation of their significance? That is even worse when the votes, as in that assembly and other places, are separated from the debates with which they are concerned.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I do not think that we want to have any truck with electronic devices. We have got a perfectly good egg-timer here.

Noble Lords


Lord Williams of Mostyn

I know noble Lords will listen to the radio tomorrow morning.

Electronic voting works only if people have specific seats, and there are too many of us at present to have designated seats.

Lord Hughes of Woodside

My Lords, will my noble and learned friend accept that electronic voting by itself is not infallible? Frequently in the Scottish Parliament, Members including Ministers have to explain after a vote that they voted the wrong way.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I think that that is right. One cannot cater for all varieties of human infirmity, even in the Scottish Parliament.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury

My Lords, is it not the case that voting provides an involuntary opportunity for mixing with Peers from both sides of the House? Might not the noble and learned Lord agree that last Tuesday was a unique opportunity for catching up with one's cross-party intelligence? For my own part, so intense was the experience that on one occasion I voted in the wrong Lobby.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I did find myself mixing with Liberal Democrats on that occasion—and it is an argument for not having our present system.