HL Deb 14 October 2003 vol 653 cc886-90

11. 10 p.m.

The Countess of Mar

The guidance in the Standing Orders states that it is a firm convention that the House should adjourn at 10 o'clock. Given the effects on the Hansard writers, bar staff and other staff working in the House, may I ask the Chief Whip what time it is intended that the House should resume?

Lord Grocott

Your Lordships will know that it was signalled in the business for this week that we would sit late tonight. It is also well known that the advice for the House to rise at 10 o'clock set out in the Companion is not an iron rule for the precise reason that we need to have flexibility. I think that that is understood on all sides.

Tonight it is intended to move as rapidly as we can to the end of Part 12.1 am hopeful that we shall be able to achieve that and I shall resume my place as quickly as possible. However, one must learn to be flexible in this job because one has responsibility without power.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

I fully accept that the rising time of 10 o'clock is a convention and not a firm rule of our Standing Orders. At the same time, however, noble Lords know that that convention has been broken extremely frequently, in particular over recent weeks. We sat until midnight last night and, if we are to achieve the target just suggested by the Captain of the Gentlemen-at-Arms, then we shall sit until at least that time tonight. I think that it is extremely unsatisfactory for both Members and the staff that we should so frequently break the rule.

This particular Bill is enormous, covering two volumes. What is more, it has a large number of government amendments to it. I accept that some of those take on points that were suggested by the Opposition or by outside comment, but some are wholly the result of the Government rewriting their own Bill, having rethought it since it was originally introduced.

So far the Bill has been considered for seven-and-a-half days, but given that it is such a large Bill, it deserves more time than it has been allocated. Furthermore, if, as rumour suggests, it is to be seriously altered even further by the addition of new material at the Report stage, then the time presently allocated to it will not be sufficient.

I have made these points to the Government on other occasions, but it is right to share them with the Committee at this stage of our deliberations and at this time of night.

Lord Shutt of Greetland

I am not convinced that the work of the House is at its best at 12 minutes past 11 o'clock, but word has been given about our business tonight; as that word has been given, it had better be kept. Nevertheless, working into the early hours is not a good way of doing business and I hope that it will not be repeated on subsequent occasions.

Earl Russell

Convention is a two-way street. What the noble Countess said is true, and what the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, said is also true. If the Government wish the House to rise earlier, that creates an obligation to introduce business whose bulk is proportionate to the number of hours allocated to its consideration,

In that context, may I ask the Minister how many Bills originating from the Home Office have been placed before this Session of Parliament, and how many pages those Bills add up to? If the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, is not instantly provided with the answer, I think it should be put down for Written Answer because that information should be made available to the House.

The Earl of Northesk

I wish to intervene briefly and I apologise to the Government Chief Whip; I know that he wants to get on with the business. There is a serious issue here and I wish to make a simple point. In my life in this House, I talk to everyone and I have to say to the Government Front Bench that the staff are utterly fed up with being given a perception of when the House is going to rise, and then finding that that perception has been taken away. The Government really do have to get a grip on this issue.

Lord Grocott

In response to the last point, I make every possible effort to ensure that the people who serve us so well in this House are kept informed at all stages. I regard that as one of my principal functions and responsibilities. So far as it is within my power— which is incredibly limited—to know how long it will take to deal with groups of amendments, I keep everyone informed as much as it is within my capacity to do so.

I do not have to hand the precise answer to how many pages and clauses have been in Home Office Bills in this Session. However, what I do have reserved for emergencies in the back of my brain is the size of this Session's programme in comparison with other Sessions, and it is not excessive.

This really is not the time for this debate. I have debated the issue with the noble Lord, Lord Cope, on many occasions through the usual channels. The remedy is within the House's hands. I shall let your Lordships into a secret: I do not like staying here until one or two o'clock in the morning. I should like to rise much earlier than 10 o'clock. I do not believe we can give legislation effective scrutiny sitting late at night. The remedy is within the hands of the House and it is very simple: there should be agreement that the overwhelming majority of Bills should be considered in Committee. However, they should be considered in a committee as it is understood in every other organisation—legislative or otherwise—of which I have had experience; a committee which does not consist of the whole parent organisation in its normal form.

If two more Bills of moderate size had gone to Grand Committee in this Session, we would have risen easily by 10 o'clock on any occasion we needed to. What is more, we might have had slightly longer recesses. Believe me, that is something which not only I would vote for, but which the two trade unions of which I am honoured to be a member are strongly in favour that their members should vote for.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

But the Chief Whip will also acknowledge that far more Bills have gone to Grand Committee this year than in any previous Session. That was a part of the deal which led to the 10 o'clock arrangement, the 7 o'clock on Thursday arrangement and the whole package. The agreement about sending Bills to a Grand Committee has been kept, over and above what was agreed at the time.

The Earl of Onslow

I have been in the House for 33 years. What seems to have happened is that although there may not have been any more business this year, yet again the end of the Session is getting fuller and fuller and the beginning emptier and emptier. There is nothing new in that. When we were in power, noble Lords opposite moaned quite a lot about a similar subject.

But it seems to have got worse. The reason for that is that we are not having the State Opening until 26th November, which is phenomenally late in my experience. The concentration at the end of the Session has got much worse, and it is that which is causing the problem, not necessarily the number of Bills before us. That is the Government's fault. It is not the fault of the Opposition and other Members of your Lordships' House, who are trying to do the job that they come to this splendid place to do.

The Earl of Northesk

I would welcome some response to the observation I made. Notwithstanding the obligation of the House to get government business through—I understand that that is our responsibility—I beg the Government Front Bench to realise that that can happen only under circumstances where you treat the staff of the House fairly. If you tell them there is an expectation that they will be going home at 10 o'clock, and then consistently break that rule, you betray your contract with them. If you want to live that way as employers, fine, but it is wrong.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, I would like to press the point that my noble friend Lord Russell has made. It seems to me that the problem is not so much that we are getting more Bills but that the Bills are getting bigger. They are now three Bills in one. It is not unusual for Bills to run to 300 or 400 clauses. That is the difference between what is happening now and what happened 10, 15 or 20 years ago. That is what is taking the time of this House. The Chief Whip needs somehow to feed back through the Government's system the fact that we will deal with Bills for as long as it is necessary to deal with them properly but, for heaven's sake, can we have one Bill at a time and not three in one all the time?

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, I am grateful for the Chief Whip's response to my initial question to him. The whole House was asked to vote on the 10 o'clock adjournment, and we agreed to the 10 o'clock adjournment. The agreement that we continue beyond the 10 o'clock adjournment seems to have been between the Front Benches. There has been no consultation whatever with the Back Benches. I think that I voice the opinion of many Back-Benchers—and perhaps some Front-Benchers—who are deeply unhappy with this.

I echo what the noble Earl, Lord Northesk, has said about the provision of staffing, particularly the Hansard writers; they have to find a Hansard writer every 10 minutes. It is extremely difficult for them if they do not know what time the House is going to adjourn. Many of the Bar staff have families and children; they are expected to provide service here and to care for their children and families at home. This is unreasonable, in view of the fact that it is a Standing Order that the House do adjourn at 10 o'clock.

It is a firm convention, but what is a firm convention if it is not firm? We have overridden it time and time again. This is the third time that I have got up in your Lordships' House: the first time I moved the amendment, and I have asked twice what time it is intended that the House do adjourn. I gather that tonight we are expected to go on into tomorrow morning, until 2 o'clock. This is unreasonable, and it is unreasonable to expect us to do our business efficiently at such an hour.

Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen

My Lords, I was not going to speak in this debate because I am very new to the House in relation to many of your Lordships, having been here only three years. However, I am finding this debate rather strange.

I joined the House in May 2000; between May and when we broke up in July, I do not think there was any evening when I went home before 10 o'clock, and this was long before any agreement had been reached about not going beyond 10 o'clock. I remember that once we went right through the night, until 7 o'clock in the morning, and even had to pay for our breakfast. A beautiful cooked breakfast was provided but I thought having to pay about £5 for it was a bit thick, considering that we had done many hours' work. If I were still in industry, I would have objected very strongly.

I absolutely agree with the noble Lord, with whom I have not had the pleasure of discussing this previously. I believe that we have to be fair to staff in the House. But there is no difference to the situation that prevailed before we decided we would leave at 10 o'clock.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, may I interrupt the noble Baroness? There has been a vote in the House that we do adjourn at 10 o'clock—that is the difference.

Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen

My Lords, the difference also was, as I understood it—I may be wrong and I am sure the Chief Whip will tell me if I am—that this was not written in stone. It was explained to all of us at that time that there might be occasions on which we would have to stay longer. I agree with the noble Lord who said that the Bills are long—I have moaned about that to the Chief Whip. But I think we are getting this a little out of proportion. We should get on with debating the Criminal Justice Bill now and then have the debate about the hours another time.