HL Deb 26 June 2003 vol 650 cc436-43

3.32 p.m.

Lord Grocott: My Lords, with permission, before the Statements I should like to say a few words about recess dates. Back on 6th May, I told the House that the date on which the Summer Recess would begin, subject to the progress of business, would be Thursday 17th July. Since then, progress has been slower than expected. Therefore, with regret, I must tell your Lordships that my target date for rising has had to he revised by one day. The usual channels currently envisage the House sitting on Friday 18th July, and rising for the recess on that date.

I should add, as ever, that this is always subject to the progress of business. On 17th July, Starred Questions will be at 11 o'clock; the usual channels have discussed this. With regard to the September sitting, it remains our intention that the House will sit from Monday 8th September to Thursday 18th September. Finally, I can tell the House that, again subject to the progress of business between now and the Summer Recess, and during the September sitting, the spillover will start on Monday 6th October.

I cannot rule out the possibility that we may need to come back before that date, but I can assure the House that all of us in the usual channels fervently hope that that will not be the case.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for making that statement. We have had great diligence in the usual channels in the last few days in arriving at the business. Like him, I regret and deplore the proposal that we need to sit on Friday 18th July, after a long succession of successive Friday sittings. The cause is the volume and complexity of the Government's legislative programme, which has been compounded by important additions to it, such as fluoride to the Water Bill.

On the question of the recess, I regret that the noble Lord is proposing to sit from 6th October. I draw attention to the fact that contrary to what was published last summer, this means that we will be sitting during the Conservative Party conference. I suggest that, if this kind of thing should be necessary in future years, the other parties should take on some of the problems that this causes. We should therefore, in successive years in turn, sit during the Labour Party conference and the Liberal Democrat Party conference.

Noble Lords

Hear, hear!

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, I am glad to see that there is a wide measure of agreement to that suggestion on the Labour Benches. Finally, I say to noble Lord the Captain of the Gentlemen-at-Arms that the recess starting on 18th September is called, in some parts of this House, the conference recess. What does the Chief Whip call it?

Lord Roper

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that statement. A great deal of work has been done in the last few days to ensure that we do not stray into the following week, which I am sure would not have been popular in any part of the House. I am grateful to the Government for finding ways in which we have been able to avoid that.

It would be convenient in the future if the Attendants' Office did not send out a note about recess mail arrangements until the dates for the recesses are finally known. This has caused a great deal of confusion in all parts of the House in the last few days. We must make sure that this does not occur in the future.

I support what the noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley, said about Friday sittings. We need to have a better strategy, looking at the parliamentary year as a whole, so that we can have a more even spread of Friday sittings through the year, rather than having bunching during this period.

Finally, I heard what was said about the great regret on the Official Opposition Benches about the recall on 6th October. On these Benches, we are glad that time will be available for us to attend the Liberal Democrat conference, and we are not prepared to see any change in those arrangements in the future.

Lord Grocott

My Lords, I am grateful to my colleagues—conspirators—in the usual channels, for some of the comments that they have made. The noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley, referred to the complexity of the Government's legislative programme. I want to put on record, for the benefit of the House, the size of this year's legislative programme compared to one or two other years.

So far this year, 34 government Bills have been introduced. I can compare that to, for example, the Session 1980–81—which, if my memory serves me, was not one when my party was in power—when some 57 Bills were introduced. Also, in 1981–82, some 46 Bills were introduced and in 1984–85, some 54 Bills were introduced. Some complaints therefore should perhaps have been addressed to the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, during that period. I was not here at the time, so I am not sure whether there were complaints. Therefore, this is not an unusual legislative programme.

I have sympathy with the points that both the noble Lords, Lord Roper and Lord Cope of Berkeley, made about Friday sittings. A great deal of the work that we do on Fridays, as the House knows, consists of Private Members' legislation. for one, having been a Private Member for a long time, attach importance to that. I would love to find better ways of managing the business, and all suggestions will be gratefully received. However, we need to bear that in mind when we complain about Friday sittings.

The noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley, referred to the proposal that the House should sit during the Conservative Party conference. I know that Members opposite are anxious to get away at that time. I point out again that when the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, was in charge, during the Session 1989–90 the House sat during the Conservative Party conference; in 1985–86 the House sat during the Conservative Party conference; in 1980–81 the House sat during the Conservative Party conference; and in 1979–80 the House sat during the Conservative Party conference. Those dates were under a Conservative government. So it is not an uncommon decision to be made. Whether complaints were made in the House, I do not know because I was not here.

The noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley, asked me how I describe the period that he calls the "conference recess" between the September sitting and the sitting at the beginning of October. I do not know what to call the recess, but, as far as I am concerned, any recess has the characteristic of being a blessed relief. That fortnight is no different from any other period.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Roper, for acknowledging that it is difficult to manage this programme. I hope that the House appreciates that we do work hard, in as much agreement as we can, but it is surely far better to sit on that Friday than to sit in the following week.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, does my noble friend recognise that 6th October is also Yom Kippur? For the many Jewish Members of this House, it is quite impossible to attend, whether one is pious or not. I ask him to think again about that date.

Lord Grocott

My Lords, I say to my noble friend that this is not by any means the first time that the House has sat at that time of year. I recognise that almost any date can have particular difficulties. I do not in any way dismiss his point. All that we in the usual channels can do is to try and please most of the people most of the time. Whether we succeed or not is for the House to judge.

Lord Renton

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the number of government Bills per Session is not the only relevant criterion for measuring government business? In this Session, the Government have produced an absurdly large number of very long Bills, including, for example, the Criminal Justice Bill, which is already 374 pages long and has 307 clauses and 32 schedules; moreover, the clauses and schedules may be added to. That is not the only Bill that has an excessive amount of detail. Will the Government persuade Ministers, civil servants and parliamentary counsel in the next Session of Parliament to be more in favour of statements of principle rather than masses of detail?

Lord Grocott

My Lords, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Renton, that, yes, there are long and complex Bills but this is not the first government who have introduced long and complex Bills. He mentioned the Criminal Justice Bill; I remind him that the public outside this House are waiting for Parliament to enact that Bill and the Anti-Social Behaviour Bill, which is not quite so long or complicated, because they contain many aspects that respond to the public's requests and demands. That is particularly the case with the Anti-Social Behaviour Bill. I know that we should not be too partisan in this place but there have been two general elections and on each occasion the government were returned by a massive majority. The Government have a right to have their legislation considered in this House. I agree that legislation gets rather complex and I very much agree that the shorter and sharper the Bill, the better. However, I repeat that this is not the first time that governments have introduced complex pieces of legislation.

Lord Carter

My Lords, my noble friend gave some interesting figures but can he tell us the year in which a government had the House sitting until 11 th August? Why they did not sit on 12th August, I cannot imagine. I believe that the same government required us to sit in September, unusually, because the programme was out of control.

Lord Grocott

My Lords, my noble friend did not give me notice of that question so I do not happen to have the answer to hand. However, I am absolutely confident that, because he asked the question, the answer to both will be that that occurred under a Conservative government.

Lord Carter


Lord Marsh

My Lords, does the Minister agree that as this debate continues, it only confirms what we on these Benches have known right from the beginning: that both parties make an incredible mess of the programme in the run up to every recess?

Lord Grocott

My Lords, I can only assure the House that there is one person who would dearly like to move smoothly towards an early recess more than anyone else, and that is me.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean

My Lords, is the problem not the size of the Government's majority but that the other place is no longer doing its job properly and that it is sending huge volumes of legislation up here that has not been looked at? The Government's so-called modernisation programme is resulting in the House of Commons, which contains full-time paid Members, sitting fewer hours, while this House, with part-time Members, is expected to do more and more to make up for the job that they are not doing?

Lord Grocott

My Lords, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, that that is not a bad idea in a bicameral system. As someone with long experience of another place, I wonder whether he accepts the criticism that while he was a senior Minister and his government were in office, the other place was doing too much, or did something miraculously change on lst May 1997?

Noble Lords


Lord Grocott

My Lords, I accept that it changed, and I believe that it did so for the better. It is important that both Houses exercise their scrutiny responsibilities properly. However, when the system is working properly, there should be a complementary system between the two Houses. I see nothing at all untoward in this House having a particular expertise in a particular area and spending longer on that matter than the other House, and vice versa. I return to the idea that we are being less than precise with each other when we suggest that all of those difficulties happen to have occurred since 1st May 1997 and that nothing similar happened during the previous 18 years.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, "subject to the progress of business" is a phrase that has been used down the years by Chief Whips of all parties on many occasions. It is not a trite phrase; it means what it says. The Government are entitled to try to get their business through by agreement.

I am struck by the fact that every word that has been said in this debate, with the exception of the Chief Whips, must be studied. However, I am heartened by the fact that the two Chief Whips who spoke, besides the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, recognised that, in a very difficult situation, the best has been made of what one might call a bad job. That is not to say that they agree with it, but in the end they have had to agree to the proposition of the Government Chief Whip. I am heartened that that is their relationship; that is a good thing.

The Government Chief Whip would be well advised to try to take a longer look at the business, if possible. Since we returned from the Whit break until now, days were set down for progress. The problem occurred because we collectively decided to take matters late into the night and forced business on to a Friday. I regret the fact that the Government Chief Whip has extended the Session. However, I very much hope that he will take note of the fact that although that is to the dislike of the House, we give him our support.

Lord Grocott

My Lords, as ever, I am grateful to my noble friend for the friendly way in which he spelt that out. I shall give one more statistic; it is the last one that I will give to the House. There is no mystery about the job; it is simply a question of trying to fit the demands into the time available. I ask the House to reflect on this statistic if on nothing else: the slowest Bill in the previous Session on the Floor of the House—the National Health Service Reform and Health Care Professions Bill—took 21 minutes per group of amendments. In this Session, the Licensing Bill took 21 minutes per group, the Community Care (Delayed Discharges Etc) Bill took 21 minutes, the Courts Bill took 23 minutes, the Sexual Offences Bill took 24 minutes, the Communications Bill took 24 minutes and the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill took 30 minutes. The simple fact—I do nothing other than report it to the House—is that Bills are taking longer in Committee in the Chamber than they did in the previous Session. I simply put those figures to the House. If anyone wishes to suggest anything different about those statistics, I shall be grateful for any suggestions. Clearly—any government must acknowledge this—Bills that take an average of 30 minutes per group of amendments on the Floor of the House will inevitably slow down the programme. I make no more bold a statement than that.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, the Chief Whip said that we have spent Friday after Friday on Private Members' Bills. That is really a terrible waste of time—I speak as one who has moved a Private Member's Bill. We are able to air issues very well in this House, but there is no hope whatever of those issues getting a fair hearing when they reach the other place because they go at the end of the queue. Can the Government look at the procedures between the two Houses? If a Private Member's Bill goes through the Commons, we give it a very fair hearing in this House.

Lord Grocott

My Lords, I do not disagree at all with the thrust of that suggestion. The system is not the most efficient. However, those who speak for governments are necessarily diffident about giving advice on the way in which the Private Member's procedure should be considered. I agree that there is frequently wasteful time between the two Houses.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I support my noble friend and congratulate him on the skill with which he has explained the difficult situation in which the Government find themselves: their programme is somewhat gridlocked and there have been many complaints about the intrusions on noble Lords' time. Does the prospect of a long, complex and controversial Bill to ban hunting help the Government and my noble friend in this situation or is it unhelpful?

Lord Grocott

My Lords, I discovered in this job that, the longer one goes on, the less one is concerned about content and the more one is concerned about getting the machine going on the rails. I know my noble friend's views on this matter and I know the answer that he wants me to give. But I simply say to him that these Bills are in the Government's legislative programme. So far as it is within my power, I shall ensure that the House has reasonable time to consider them all.

Lord King of Bridgwater

My Lords, does the Chief Whip accept that it is one thing for a government to invite their own supporters not to go to a party conference but it is quite another for them to prevent the supporters of another party attending their party conference? Does he also recognise that there is a distinction? If a party conference takes place in Brighton or Bournemouth, it is possible for people to attend and also to take some part in the business of this House during that week. The next party conference of the Conservative Party will be in Blackpool, which will make it virtually impossible for Members to combine attendance at both. Therefore, will he confirm that, if that is the direction he is following, every effort will be made to ensure that there is no controversial business and that the least controversial business is taken during that week?

Lord Grocott

My Lords, I can certainly say to the noble Lord, Lord King, that, whatever business is or is not taken, as ever we shall try to secure agreement through the usual channels. I do not know whether it helps or hinders my colleagues to say this, but we make every effort to reach agreement and I can make absolutely no promises about what the business will be during that period. However, I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Cope, will make his views known very clearly.

The Earl of Northesk

My Lords, I acknowledge the immense difficulty of the task, but can the noble Lord give the House an assurance that, in so far as is possible, the usual channels will attempt to ensure that our putative 10 o'clock cut-off time is breached as infrequently as possible?

Lord Grocott

My Lords, I say a wholehearted "yes" to that. I am a passionate supporter of the intention of the House normally to secure the conclusion of business by 10 o'clock. I freely admit that on a number of occasions during this Session—although not as many as in the same period during the previous Session—that 10 o'clock rule has been severely breached.

However, I have to say to the House—again, there are no tricks or smoking mirrors in this—that if, in some respects, marginal changes could be made to the conduct of business here, then it would be possible to meet many more demands. For example, if—I should not say "if" because it is history now—the Sexual Offences Bill had been considered in Grand Committee rather than on the Floor of the House, I should have been coming to the House now to say, "Can we rise for the summer Recess a little earlier than anticipated?" Whenever I say anything such as that, I am told, "Oh, you are threatening the House". I hope that noble Lords will believe me when I say that I am not threatening the House; I am simply presenting the dilemma that I have to work daily to resolve.

I simply urge the House to give some consideration to the fact that there are many demands on the precious prime time spent on the Floor of the Chamber. This is half our Parliament. Perhaps we should consider carefully whether major debates on Select Committee reports and other issues of that kind are better held on the Floor of the House and whether it would be possible to move more Bills into Grand Committee. However, I am getting into deep waters and shall keep quiet.

The Lord President of the Council (Lord Williams of Mostyn)

My Lords, I have the impression that we have now discussed these issues sufficiently.

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