HL Deb 04 June 2003 vol 648 cc1321-4

3 p.m.

Lord Carter

asked the Chairman of Committees:

When the Procedure Committee will discuss the arrangements for Thursday sittings.

The Chairman of Committees (Lord Brabazon of Tara)

My Lords, in July last year the Procedure Committee put forward a set of proposals arising from the report of the Leader's Group on the working practices of the House. Those proposals, which included changes to Thursday sittings, were agreed to by the House for a trial period of two Sessions. So the Procedure Committee may be expected to review the arrangements towards the end of that period unless further proposals are presented to it before then.

Lord Carter

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that Answer. I would be the first to agree that a number of the changes that we made—the 10 o'clock finish, the use of Grand Committee, carryover, and so on—should be given time to work through. However, the change on Thursday was a stand-alone change not related to those other changes. May I remind the House that the questionnaire issued by the Leader's Group on working practices revealed substantial support for an early start and an early finish on Thursdays? It is the one-and-a-half-hour break between 1.30 and 3 p.m., with the consequential disruption of business, that is proving so unpopular.

Question Time is certainly not the right time to discuss all the alternatives. May I suggest that when the Procedure Committee considers the matter, as I hope it will in the near future, it should consider all the alternative scenarios for Thursdays and present them in a questionnaire in order to see which one has the support of a majority of the House?

The Chairman of Committees

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his Question. I am certainly conscious that the present arrangements for Thursdays do not attract universal favour. I did a canvass myself of the Panel of Deputy Chairmen, a reasonably representative cross-section of Members of this House, and not one of them liked the current Thursday arrangements. Most prefer the pre-Recess Thursday arrangements whereby the House meets at 11 o'clock for Questions and goes straight through to about half past seven. A minority wish to return to the old 3 p.m. sitting but I do not believe that that finds much favour.

Lord Renton

My Lords, will the noble Lord remind the Procedure Committee that membership of your Lordships' House is not a whole-time occupation and that many noble Lords and noble Baronesses have experience and expertise acquired from their other occupations which are of great value in this House? Will he therefore tell the Procedure Committee that having to sit on Thursday mornings deprives Members of the opportunity to carry on those valuable outside activities?

The Chairman of Committees

My Lords, it is not for me to tell the Procedure Committee anything and I would not dream of doing so. I am the servant of the Procedure Committee. This issue was of course debated last July when the changes took place. A vote was very much in favour of sitting at 11 o'clock in the morning. The issue seems to be not so much the sitting at 11 o'clock on Thursdays but whether the lunch break should take place or not.

Baroness Lockwood

My Lords, although 1 do not usually disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Renton, is it not a fact that because noble Lords have outside commitments, having to waste an hour and a half in the middle of the day makes them feel very deprived of useful service? They could usefully fill up that time. Is there not also a conflict between those who are London-based and those based in different parts of the country who have no alternative but to do their other work on Fridays?

The Chairman of Committees

My Lords, the noble Baroness is of course right. As I said, I do not think that there is a particular argument about rising at around 7.30 p.m. on Thursdays; that seems pretty popular with most people. It is a question, as I say, of the one-and-a-half-hour break in the middle of the day. The noble Lord, Lord Carter, suggests that the Procedure Committee should perhaps issue a questionnaire to your Lordships, as happened previously on this issue. I think that that is a very good suggestion. The next meeting of the Procedure Committee is on Monday. I do not think that it will be possible to have a substantive discussion of the issue then, but we could certainly do so at a future meeting of the committee and could indeed issue a questionnaire.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy

My Lords, what is the point of the House rising at seven o'clock on Thursdays in order to enable Peers who live a long way away to get home on Thursday evening when the House is going to sit on Friday at 11 o'clock?

The Chairman of Committees

It is my guess, my Lords, that not all noble Lords feel it necessary to come in on Friday. Too many do tomorrow.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, is the Chairman of Committees aware that I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Carter, that this matter is separate from the other aspects of the changes introduced last year and could be considered separately by the Procedure Committee? It is very clear to me that a large number of noble Lords would like to have the matter reviewed. There is slightly less agreement about exactly what should happen, but many would like at least a review.

This is not the only change that is proving less than popular. The 10 o'clock rule, for example, seems to be proving very unpopular with the Government. I speak as one who was here until 20 minutes to one this morning.

The Chairman of Committees

So was I, my Lords.

Lord Grocott

So were the Government.

The Chairman of Committees

Indeed, my Lords. Certain elements in the package clearly go together. For example, the 10 o'clock rising goes together with more Grand Committees—it is a pity that the 10 o'clock rising tends to slip—and pre-legislative scrutiny goes with carryover. However, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Cope, that it could certainly be argued that Thursday sittings can be seen as a standalone issue.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, does the Chairman of Committees recognise that in one major respect the Deputy Chairmen of Committees are not representative of the full cross-section of the House? Without exception, I think, they are all retired. The substantial proportion of the Members of this House who are still earning their living care about this remaining a part-time House. For that reason we welcome in particular the greater use of Grand Committees and very much hope that that part of the reform will be pursued with vigour.

The Chairman of Committees

My Lords, I take issue with the noble Lord's assertion that the Deputy Chairmen on the whole are retired. I would say that they are not more retired than many other Members of this House. This Question is not about the use of Grand Committees—that is just one element of the package—but about the Thursday sittings. I think that the mood of the House is fairly straight on that.