§ 3.15 p.m.
§ Lord Grocott
My Lords, with the leave of the House, I wish to make a short Statement about Recess dates.
This morning my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced the date of the Budget, which is to be Wednesday 9th April. In the light of that, it is expected that the Commons will not rise for Easter on Thursday 10th April, as provisionally planned, but will now sit until Monday 14th April.
Noble Lords will naturally wonder whether that will affect our Recess dates. The answer is no. My intention is still as it was when I made an announcement last November; namely, that we should rise on Thursday 10th April and return on Monday 28th April. But I must emphasise, as ever—as everyone in my situation always says—that this is subject to the progress of business.
For the Whitsun Recess, the House can still expect to rise on Thursday 22nd May. It is, however, likely that we shall be back on Monday 2nd June rather than Tuesday 3rd June.
Following the decision of the House on 25th November to sit in September, many noble Lords have, not surprisingly, asked me precisely which two weeks we shall sit in September. I accept, of course, that people want to book holidays. I am able to announce today that, subject to the progress of 817 business, we shall sit for the same two weeks in September as the Commons; that is, from Monday 8th September to Thursday 18th September.
As your Lordships know, I have tried to give provisional Recess dates as far in advance as possible so that, for example, I was able to announce as early as 18th November last year the Whitsun Recess on 22nd May this year. The response I have had from Members—I am sure that noble Lords will agree that this is important—and from the staff of this House who serve us so well, has been that giving dates as far in advance as possible has been greatly appreciated. For me this has been almost a unique experience in that, for the first time in my political life, I appear to have done something which seems to be universally supported.
I am aware that in making the September announcement today I have left uncertain precisely when we shall rise in mid-July, and when we shall return in October. I assure your Lordships that I shall provide those dates as soon as I possibly can.
§ Lord Cope of Berkeley
My Lords, I am sure that all noble Lords will wish to thank the Government Chief Whip for his confirmation that the Budget does not affect the business of this House and that its date need not concern us. We all appreciate that all the announcements on this matter are subject to the progress of business.
Your Lordships will have noted that the Whitsun Recess will now be a day shorter for your Lordships' House than for the Commons. The noble Lord referred to mid-July but declined to define it. Does he agree with me that, arithmetically, 17th July, when the Commons will rise, is after the middle of July? Monday 21st July is certainly after mid-July.
The time between 18th September and 14th October is apparently known in another place as the "conference recess". I fully understand that the September dates mean that the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats will be able to go to their party conferences, but it would be very difficult if any dates that the noble Lord might announce in future were to discriminate against the Conservative Party conference.
§ Baroness Carnegy of Lour
My Lords, if the Budget is on 9th April, it strikes me that the subsequent four-day debate in another place will take place during the three-week campaign for elections to the Scottish Parliament. Although the economy is not devolved to that parliament, it is clearly impossible to separate the economy there from devolved matters, or from the person who happens to be the Chancellor, Mr Brown. Do the Government think the timing appropriate, and if so why?
§ Lord Roper
My Lords, we support what has been said about our gratitude to the noble Lord, especially for the fact that he has announced the September dates. Those mean that we on these Benches will be able to attend our party conference in September.
818 However, it would be extremely helpful in terms of booking holidays in the summer if we could have that date—presumably 17th July, the same as the Commons—as soon as possible.
§ Lord Grocott
My Lords, I shall deal first with the question from the noble Lord, Lord Cope, about the Whitsun break. I was quite precise in my use of language when I made my Statement in November. I said that the Whitsun break might or might not include the Monday, depending on the progress of business. That is precisely how matters stand. I do not think that the noble Lord would expect me to be able to say any more than that.
So far as concerns the noble Lord's definition of mid-July, I was honest enough to say that mid-July was not a precise date. I was well aware of that. I have not fed information into a computer to discover when mid-July begins and concludes. I can only reaffirm that it is my clear intention to announce to the House as soon as I can, subject to the progress of business, when the Summer Recess will begin. The progress of business is very dependent on three or four of us working as we normally do.
I had not always detected tremendous enthusiasm for attendance at all party conferences to which the noble Lord referred. However, he will be aware that the date of return in October has varied from year to year. It has not always been possible to accommodate the needs of attendance at party conference. None the less, I shall give the date as soon as I can.
I was asked about the date of the Budget and its effect on campaigning, at whatever level. As the noble Lord reminded us, the date should not affect this House directly, because we do not have a Budget debate in the same way as in the Commons. In the normal way, a Budget debate and all that is associated with it is something to which all parties have equal opportunity to contribute. It will no doubt be debated in all parts of the United Kingdom, as it normally is. It should not directly affect campaigning in the way suggested.
I appreciate the welcome of the noble Lord, Lord Roper, for my early announcement about a number of dates. I simply reiterate that as soon as I am able to give precise dates about any of the outstanding ones, I shall certainly report them directly to the House.
§ Lord Forsyth of Drumlean
My Lords, I do not want to detain the House, but I want to follow up the answer to the question asked by my noble friend Lady Carnegy of Lour. Have the Government abandoned the convention held by successive governments that major announcements of policy are not made during the course of a parliamentary election campaign? The Budget is a major announcement of government policy, and it will take place during a parliamentary election campaign. Surely that is a serious matter. Is the Civil Service content to see that? In my day, the Permanent Secretary would have gone berserk at the 819 notion that we would make major policy announcements during an election campaign in Scotland.
§ Lord Grocott
My Lords, the process of government does not come to a complete standstill during election campaigns, as is well known, and the dates of the sitting or non-sitting of either House of Parliament are not directly affected. When the normal parliamentary processes continue, inevitably there will be discussion, announcements and Statements. I agree entirely that care is taken about the way in which the language of government statements is delivered, but the noble Lord is surely not suggesting that the Chancellor of the Exchequer should not have the normal freedom to determine the date on which it is appropriate to make his Budget Statement. It would certainly be an odd precedent if that were established.
§ Baroness Blatch
My Lords, when deciding on which date the House rises in July, will the noble Lord bear in mind the words of his colleague the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House when successfully persuading the House to vote for the shape of the new parliamentary year? He said that there would be compensatory time off in July, so that the House was not required to sit extra days as a result of voting to return in September. That comment is on the record.
§ Lord Grocott
My Lords, what is clearly on the record is the resolution that the House passed last year. It states: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".—[Official Report, 25/11/02; col. 565.]That is the resolution that binds me and everyone else. The language is quite precise.
§ Baroness Strange
My Lords, would the Minister not agree that St Swithin's Day, 15th July, has traditionally been considered the middle of July?