§ 3.16 p.m.
§ The Chairman of Committees (Lord Brabazon of Tara)
My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.
The package of working practices agreed to in July 2002 was to take effect for an experimental period of two Sessions. This report from the Procedure Committee makes recommendations about how the House should proceed thereafter.
The Procedure Committee based its consideration on the report of a Leader's Group, which sat throughout the summer and into the autumn to review the experiment. For convenience, the report before the House today sets out each of the conclusions and recommendations of the Leader's Group in turn so that noble Lords need refer only to a single document. But I should make clear that what I invite the House to agree to today are the recommendations of the Procedure Committee, which are printed in bold type.
The Procedure Committee concluded that in broad terms the experimental working practices have been a success and should be adopted permanently. Features such as pre-legislative scrutiny and the target rising time are now almost taken for granted. Although some noble Lords hold contrary views, the arrangements for Grand Committees on Bills and for our morning start on Thursdays are now fairly well accepted. We therefore recommend that they should continue.
One area where we recommend a change is in the arrangements for Starred Questions—I think that I hear a sigh of relief from noble Lords. I know that it is widely felt that five Questions in 40 minutes have been too much. Four Questions in 30 minutes provides a tighter, more focused and more incisive Question Time, and there is also an advantage in having the same arrangements on every sitting day. I hope, therefore, that noble Lords will welcome that recommendation.
I turn now to what is, I know, a more controversial issue. It is the recommendation that further types of business could—I emphasise "could"—be taken in the Moses Room. The Procedure Committee recommends 895 that some additional delegated legislation, debates on some Select Committee reports and some Unstarred Questions could be taken there, though only with the concurrence of those concerned in each case. Given the pressure on time in the Chamber, the recommendation is intended to widen the range of options open to those seeking business in the House. The committee recognised that only on some occasions would that option be appropriate. But some Back-Benchers might, for example, welcome the opportunity for an early Unstarred Question in the Moses Room rather than a lengthy and uncertain wait for time on the Floor of the House.
The amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, would deprive Members of this new procedural opportunity. I am sure that he and the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, will outline their reasons for opposing the debate of any committee reports in the Moses Room. But what is proposed is only permissive. It will add to the options, not foreclose them. The requirement that business be arranged in the Moses Room with the concurrence of only those involved provides a safeguard to those who would not wish to follow that route.
Following debate in the Procedure Committee, informal discussions have already been initiated between the usual channels and Select Committee chairmen in order to identify further possible ways of providing dedicated time for committee debates. But I can see no compelling reason why we should wait for the outcome of those discussions before benefiting from what is proposed here. I hope that the noble Lord will not feel obliged to press his amendment. I beg to move.
Moved, That the 3rd Report from the Select Committee be agreed to. (HL Paper 184).—(The Chairman of Committees.)
The report can be found at the following address: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld200304/ldselect/ldprohse/184/184.pdf
§ Lord Barnett
My Lords, as I have a number of points, and I imagine that a number of other noble Lords might as well, would it be more sensible to have a debate on the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, now? We could then move on to other parts of his report later.
§ The Chairman of Committees
My Lords, once the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, has moved his amendment on his item of business, the debate will follow. Any noble Lord will be able to talk about other matters in the report, and I hope that they will.
§ Lord Peston
My Lords, I am also confused. Can the noble Lord say in simple terms whether we will now debate only the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Norton?
§ Lord Peston
My Lords, but if we are now going to debate everything, it will be just a mishmash. The noble 896 Lord, Lord Norton, has a focused amendment with a focused problem, which many of us would like to debate. But, as my noble friend Lord Barnett pointed out, there are a number of other important matters, which we would rather debate separately. Can the Chairman of Committees tell us whether we are to do it that way, which is the sensible way, or the mishmash way, which of course is very dear to your Lordships' hearts?
§ The Chairman of Committees
My Lords, we are going to do it the way which is very dear to your Lordships' hearts.
§ 3.21 p.m.
§ Lord Norton of Louth
rose to move, as an amendment to the above Motion, at end to insert "but with the omission of paragraph 10, which shall be remitted back to the committee with an instruction that the committee should reconsider the paragraph together with possible alternative means of providing additional time for debates on Select Committee reports in lieu of the provision of time in Grand Committees in the Moses Room."
The noble Lord said: My Lords, we may be discussing a report from the Procedure Committee, but the issue involved is not simply one of procedure. It involves an important issue of principle affecting the relationship between this House and its committees.
As we have heard, paragraph 10 of the report endorses the recommendation of the Leader's Group that debates on Select Committee reports may be debated in the Moses Room. Perhaps I may explain why that recommendation is not acceptable.
Select Committees of your Lordships' House engage in serious and sustained inquiries. They produce authoritative, evidence-based reports. The work of the committees fulfils a number of important functions. The committees serve as important links between Parliament and bodies outside. They serve to inform debate. They scrutinise public policy, not just in the context of the United Kingdom but also in the European Union. They influence public policy. The contribution that they make is substantial and is delivered at relatively little cost.
In order to maximise their effectiveness, they need to maintain a clear link with the Chamber. They derive their authority from the House and they report to it. Debating reports provides an important opportunity for other Members to contribute and for a Minister to respond. The leverage of the committees is enhanced by their reports being debated on the Floor, and in prime time.
Hiving off debates to the Moses Room raises a number of serious problems which have not been addressed by the Leader's Group or the Procedure Committee. The recommendation sends out the wrong message, not only to the committees but also to those who have given evidence to them. It would appear—perception is important—that the committees were being marginalised.
897 Where does that proposal come from? Paragraph 23 of the Leader's Group report states:Building on the success of the Grand Committee on Northern Ireland orders, we recommend that other types of business could be taken in the Moses Room, including some other delegated legislation and debates of some select committee reports".Paragraph 10 of the Procedure Committee report claims that debating committee reports would,widen the … options open to those seeking business in the House, in view of the pressure on time in the Chamber".So we have two arguments for the recommendation. One is the success of debating Northern Ireland orders in the Moses Room and the other is the pressure on time in the Chamber. Let me take those in order.
The first derives from not very clear logic. We move from one type of business, subject to one set of procedural rules, to a completely different type, subject to other rules. Neither the Leader's Group nor the Procedure Committee appears to have given any thought to the procedures that would be applied in debating committee reports. I am not sure what the criteria are for determining "success" in debating Northern Ireland orders—we are not told—but I simply do not see how one can derive from observation of the way in which Northern Ireland orders are considered that Select Committee reports can be similarly considered. One is not comparing like with like.
The same would apply if we were to look at the Committee stage of Bills being taken in Grand Committee. The procedure is different. In any event, Bills taken in Grand Committee come to the House for Report stage. If Select Committee reports are debated in the Moses Room, the link with the Chamber is lost.
The second argument appears superficially attractive but is simply not supported by the data. We are invited to accept that debating Select Committee reports takes up the time of the House to the extent that this is a problem—otherwise this proposal would not be before us—and that this time could be devoted to other, presumably more important, business.
How much time is taken up debating Select Committee reports? So far this year, from 1 January to the end of last month, the House has devoted 2.16 per cent of its time debating "take note" Motions on Select Committee reports. Nor is this year exceptional. One has only to look at the data contained in the annual report, just published, to see the figures for the past four financial years. How much time is taken up debating reports from the European Union Committee? In 2003–04 it was 1.8 per cent; the previous year it was 1.4 per cent. How much time was taken up debating reports from the Science and Technology Committee? In 2003–04 it was 0.2 per cent and the previous year it was 0.6 per cent.
Is it not the case though that too many reports are being put down for debate? Looking at the Order Paper, one might believe that to be the case. However, when one looks at the dates that they were published, one sees a very different picture. One of the reports was published in April. Another, the report of my committee, the Constitution Committee, on the regulatory state, was published in May. We had the Government's response 898 within two months, but we are still waiting for a debate. The reports on the Order Paper were published over a span of nine months, which basically averages one report a month.
There is no evidence that Select Committees are not exercising restraint in recommending reports for debate. They already exercise the rigour called for in paragraph 11 of the Procedure Committee report. In the case of my own committee, we have published 31 reports since we were appointed in February 2001. How many of those have we recommended for debate? The number is three. For anyone with a slim grasp of maths, that averages out at one a year. The topics of the three reports—devolution, the regulatory state and the legislative process—can hardly be deemed to be marginal.
Why the need to free up time, little though it will be, on the Floor of the House? After all, we now have the option of referring Bills to Grand Committee. The annual report shows that in the financial year 2003–04, there were 63 days of Grand Committee sittings, totalling 225 hours. That represents a considerable, indeed an unprecedented, saving of time on the Floor of the House. Given those figures, there is no obvious reason why the demands on the time of the House are such as to justify this recommendation.
Indeed, the original Leader's Group report in 2002 promised more prime time on the Floor for committee reports. Perhaps I may quote from paragraph 26 of the report, which is unambiguous in its recommendation. It states:The greater use of Grand Committees that we are recommending will make more time available in the Chamber even with a cut-off around 10.00 pm. This time should be taken up by increasing the number of days set aside for backbench debates on Wednesdays, by scheduling debates on select committee reports in prime time, and by meeting more of the requests for debates on broad general topics … We recommend that three additional Wednesdays be allotted for backbench debates in each session, and that more debates on select committee reports and on general topics be held in prime time on the floor of the House".The desirability of more reports being debated in prime time has been endorsed by the House. That is recorded in the Companion to the Standing Orders. There was at least one proposal before the Procedure Committee, from the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, that was designed to give effect to the view of the House. There are other proposals that might be considered.
This is an extremely important matter. I do not believe that we can simply endorse what the Procedure Committee has recommended and, in so doing, consign debates on Select Committee reports to the Moses Room. The Chairman of Committees says that reports will be referred only by agreement. However, I do not think that we should be going down this route in the first place. It seeks to nudge us in the wrong direction and it misses the point of what I have just been arguing.
The noble Lord also says that if this amendment is carried, other proposals embodied in paragraph 10 will be lost. I invite noble Lords to read the paragraph to see if they can identify anything in it so vital that we must agree to it forthwith. I see no reason why the Procedure Committee should not take this paragraph 899 away and come back with proposals fairly quickly. I also see no reason why the Procedure Committee should not look at the issue again with a view to giving effect to the previously expressed wish of the House, rather than as appears to be the case here, seeking to negate it. I beg to move.
Moved, as an amendment to the above Motion, at end to insert "but with the omission of paragraph 10, which shall be remitted back to the committee with an instruction that the committee should reconsider the paragraph together with possible alternative means of providing additional time for debates on Select Committee reports in lieu of the provision of time in Grand Committees in the Moses Room".—(Lord Norton of Louth.)
§ 3.30 p.m.
§ Baroness Amos
My Lords, in speaking to the report of the Procedure Committee, I begin by paying a series of tributes: first and foremost to the late Lord Williams of Mostyn, who painstakingly negotiated the package of reforms which the House agreed as an experiment in 2002; and next to the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, and the late Lord Rippon of Hexham. Their reports on the sitting patterns of the two Houses, in 1992 and 1994, set us on the road to where we are today.
I also pay tribute to the members of the group which reviewed the experiment earlier this year under my chairmanship. I should say that I did not look forward to the task. I knew that it had not been easy to reach agreement on the earlier report. But my task was made considerably easier by the constructive way in which the group operated. Our discussions were well informed and candid. On behalf of the group, I thank all Members of the House who responded to our questionnaire in June, and I thank also our Clerk, Mary Ollard.
Last, I thank the Chairman of Committees and the members of the Procedure Committee who reviewed our findings and endorsed them. Of course I hope that the House will do so as well.
I have no hesitation in pronouncing the experiment a success. At the heart of the experiment is the trade-off between more Grand Committees and fewer late nights. In the previous Session it can be argued that the trade-off was not in balance. There were more Grand Committee sittings, but still too many late nights. This Session has been markedly better, with very few serious breaches of the target rising times. The group report comments in paragraph 5 that,It has taken a little time for the target to become established",and we concluded that,the increased use of Grand Committee has greatly contributed to increased success in meeting the target rising time, as has the greater experience of the usual channels in working to a specific target".The usual channels have done their share of learning during this experimental period. I should share with the House that I have told my Chief Whip that if we get to the end of next week without sitting until midnight, he will be able to take off his L-plates.
900 The introduction of target rising times has of course been coupled with other changes in the direction of greater predictability, in particular the early announcement of dates for recesses and Friday sittings. Neither of these was part of the original package, but I believe that we all find them very helpful.
I shall touch briefly on other elements of the package. Pre-legislative scrutiny is now well established as part of the legislative process, and we have taken our first steps in carry-over of public Bills. I welcome the endorsement of the Procedure Committee of where we are on these. And I think that most noble Lords will welcome our conclusions on Starred Questions and topical Questions. The fifth Question seemed a good idea at the time, but I believe experience has shown that it is one too many. Having more topical Questions, on the other hand, has been a successful innovation. Noble Lords should note that the report gives the Clerks a mandate to make sure that they really are topical.
As regards the amendment moved by the noble Lord. Lord Norton of Louth, of course we all value the work of our Select Committees. But time in the Chamber is not always available when committees would like. The Chairman of Committees has explained clearly that what the Procedure Committee proposes would be voluntary, and is intended to be additional. Existing opportunities for debates on the Floor of the House will continue to be offered in the usual way. I hope, on that basis, that the House will accept the Procedure Committee recommendation. Moreover, I am pleased to confirm what was said by the Chairman of Committees, that the usual channels are having positive discussions with my noble friend Lord Grenfell about ways of assisting committees with their concerns. I know that some noble Lords are not entirely happy with where we are now, but we have made real progress and I hope that the House recognises that.
None of this could have been achieved without a high level of co-operation in the usual channels. So I should like to pay tribute to those unsung heroes, the Chief Whips. Their good sense and good relations keep things moving even when the political temperature is high.
§ Baroness Amos
My Lords, I hope that in saying that, I have not damaged the careers of the noble Lords, Lord Roper and Lord Cope.
But the usual channels cannot do it alone. So I conclude by quoting again briefly from the group's report. These words are repeated and endorsed by the Procedure Committee in paragraph 11. The context is target rising times, but they apply across the board:Responsibility … rests not only with the business managers, but with all members of the House through self-regulation".If this Session has been a success, the credit belongs to all noble Lords who have contributed to the business of the House. We are all responsible for making our procedures work well.
§ 3.37 p.m.
My Lords, for reasons that I do not think can be genetically explained, I seem to have been born an optimist. I hope, therefore, that at the end of this debate we shall receive an assurance from the Chairman of Committees that the question of debate times is not a closed subject as a result of paragraph 10, which would appear to make it so, but that there will be further full discussions in the Procedure Committee of alternatives, because we have not yet explored all of those.
In the absence of such an assurance, I have to tell the House that I would support the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, even through the Division Lobby if necessary. On that I have the full backing of the Select Committee on the European Union, of which I have the honour to be chairman.
I share the dismay of the noble Lord, Lord Norton, at the apparent intent of parts of paragraph 10 of the Procedure Committee report. Permit me to take a moment to explain why.
In paragraph 10, the Procedure Committee endorses the recommendation of the Leader's Group that debates on Select Committee reports could take place in the Moses Room on the understanding that additional business in that room would be arranged only with the concurrence of those concerned. I am sure that it would not be in the report if the usual channels were not hopeful that chairmen such as myself would take advantage of that offer. My letter to the Chairman of Committees, now annexed to the report, sets out objections of mine, speaking on behalf of the Select Committee, to the view that the Moses Room is a suitable place in which to debate Select Committee reports. It is clear that it is not.
There is no need for me to repeat the objections that appear in the letter I addressed to the Chairman of Committees, but let me emphasise briefly one aspect of our objections. The Foreign Secretary himself has said:The British negotiating hand in Europe is stronger when it is clear that it reflects the concerns of Parliament".I have every reason to believe—in fact, I know—that this view is shared by members of my committee. It is my strong contention that the concerns identified by the European Select Committee on EU legislation are properly and appropriately presented and discussed in this Chamber.
The draft legislation scrutinised in these European committee reports has a significant impact on the citizens of this country. The majority of them address what I would call citizens' issues—for example, gender equality in access to services; fighting illegal immigration; the future of our fishing industry; our environmental responsibilities; and procedural rights in criminal proceedings, to name but a few. They need a proper airing and the Floor of your Lordships' House is where they should be aired, as transparently as possible and before the widest possible audience.
That is one of the reasons why I have repeatedly opposed the idea of diverting debates on Select Committee reports to the Moses Room. At the same 902 time, we as a committee, as opponents of the Moses Room option, felt it our duty and incumbent upon us to propose at least one constructive alternative. That, too, is set out in my letter. It is a modest request. It is for a guaranteed two-hour debate on one Wednesday per month for a period of approximately six months of the year. Yet even this modest suggestion seems, inexplicably, to be opposed by the usual channels as cutting into the time traditionally allotted to balloted Back-Bench debates—as if what we are discussing in our European committee reports is of little interest to Back-Benchers.
Yes, it would cut into that time, I admit, to the extent that while there would still be two balloted Back-Bench debates on that Wednesday, they would each be of two hours rather than two-and-a-half hours and the House would therefore sit for an extra hour to accommodate all three debates. That, apparently, is a price too high to pay to ensure more certainty and transparency in the progress of European Union scrutiny through your Lordships' House.
We are all agreed that there need to be additional arrangements for Select Committee debates, and this modest Wednesday proposal should be considered alongside other modernising proposals. We discussed this at some length in the Procedure Committee on 20 October, but the report, while reflecting my opposition to the Moses Room option, made no mention of the fact that the alternative that I proposed was also discussed. But my recommendation was proposed in good faith as a practical alternative to the Moses Room option of the Leader's Group and was therefore very relevant to the discussion then as it is relevant to the discussion today.
I left the Procedure Committee on 20 October convinced that as I had made it plain once more that I and my committee could not accept the Moses Room option, and had not been without some support in the committee, there would be further discussion of the alternatives at a later date. However, the report as it stands in paragraph 10 appears to make it clear that the Leader's Group recommendation has been endorsed and the matter is therefore closed. The Moses Room option remains, to be used with the concurrence of those concerned.
I feel that I have a duty to inform your Lordships that, as long as I am in the chair of the European Union Select Committee, I foresee no circumstances in which I would recommend a report for debate off the Floor of the House. Existing and maybe new proposals for alternatives therefore must be discussed. The door must not be closed today. I look to the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees to give an assurance that alternatives will be discussed in a future meeting of the Procedure Committee. If he can give me that assurance, I shall be happy to sit down and say no more.
§ 3.45 p.m.
§ Lord Hunt of Kings Heath
My Lords, I welcome the report of the Procedure Committee and thank the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees for introducing it. It 903 seems to take a very sensible approach. We have tried out some of the new ideas and those that have been successful are being retained; those that were not successful are now being removed.
I particularly welcome the action on Starred Questions, which are certainly one of the most important facets of life in your Lordships' Chamber. It is absolutely essential that we get back to the tightness and robustness of Starred Questions that was apparent before the changes were made.
However, in paragraph 7 of the report, the Procedure Committee takes the opportunity to remind the House of the following guidance on Starred Questions:supplementary questions may be asked but they should be short and confined to not more than two points".It goes on to say:The essential purpose of supplementaries is to elicit information, and they should not incorporate statements of opinion. They should not be read".This is not the first time that this advice has been made known to Members of the House. I fear that, unless we as individual Members take note, this advice will be offered on many more occasions. I suggest to the chairman of the Procedure Committee that he should encourage the Leaders of the party groups and the Convenor of the Cross Benches to draw to the attention of Members who do not follow this guidance that they are undermining the whole purpose of Starred Questions.
A further recommendation in paragraph 13 relates to the interesting question of swapping Wednesday and Thursday business. I very much welcome the decision of the Procedure Committee to again look into this matter. I hope that in his response to the debate the Chairman of Committees will give an indication of when it is likely to report to the House.
As to the question of Select Committee reports and their possible debate in the Moses Room, I do not take the view of the noble Lords, Lord Norton and Lord Grenfell. I have attended a number of Grand Committees in the Moses Room and have found that the arrangements work very well indeed. It does not detract from effective scrutiny of government Ministers and the atmosphere is good. I believe that the same would apply if Select Committee reports were also debated in the Moses Room.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Norton, about the importance of the Select Committees, their work and their reports. I was struck by his comment about the limited number of Select Committee reports that have been debated in the past two or three Sessions. I would welcome more debates on Select Committee reports. The reason I welcome the option of using the Moses Room is that it would provide an opportunity for more debates on Select Committee reports to take place.
Some Select Committee reports are very important and attract considerable attention. Many Members of your Lordships' House will enter the Chamber, listen to the debate and take part in discussions. Other Select Committee reports do not attract such attention. I 904 have been present at some debates on Select Committee reports where the only Members present have been Members of the Select Committee and Front Benchers who, frankly, had no other option but to be present.
Surely in those circumstances such reports would be better debated in the Moses Room. There would be a much better atmosphere and, ultimately, the report will appear in Hansard. Ministers will still be called to account and will have to respond to the debate in the same way as in the main Chamber. It will give your Lordships an opportunity to attend more debates in total because of the greater flexibility it will allow.
I very much hope that the House will allow this to proceed because it will prove to be an advantage and will not detract from scrutiny. I hope that the House will accept the full recommendations of the Procedure Committee.
§ 3.49 p.m.
§ Lord Barnett
My Lords, I strongly support the views expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Norton. I also support the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, both in what he said and in what he wrote in his excellent letter to the chairman. It sets out very clearly the points made by both noble Lords. Unless I get the kind of assurances requested, I will join the noble Lords in voting for the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Norton.
I understand that my noble friend Lady Amos is not responsible for what goes on in this Chamber. She does not have control, as we are constantly being told. I understand that. It is a problem for all the leaders whose report is before us. They are responsible for the situation in which we find ourselves.
I was going to set out all the various Select Committee reports that have not been debated, but the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, spelt out very clearly the percentages of reports that have been debated in this Chamber and the need for that link to be sustained. He made the point very well and I do not wish to repeat it.
I have chaired a Select Committee and been a member of Select Committees for some time. If their reports are never likely to be debated in the Chamber or debated properly in your Lordships' House, Select Committee members will feel that they are spending many long hours working hard on Select Committee reports and wasting their time.
We have heard from my party leader, and I hope that we will hear from the other two, telling us that they appreciate and understand the points that have been made so ably by the noble Lords, Lord Norton and Lord Grenfell.
We are told that chairmen of Select Committees should be more rigorous in what they recommend for debate in your Lordships' House. I understand and accept the point made by my noble friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath that some reports could well be debated elsewhere. Equally, you have only to look at the Order Paper to see the number of reports on issues that are not minor and should be debated on the Floor of the House or, for important debates, in the Moses 905 Room. I do not necessarily go along with the idea that the Moses Room is never suitable. I certainly think, as the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, said, that European Union matters deserve to be debated on the Floor of the House. They are not debated enough.
If anybody has to be rigorous, it is the leaders of the parties in your Lordships' House who recommend subjects for debate on Wednesdays. The noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, made an excellent point about the way this should be dealt with. With great respect to the party leaders in your Lordships' House—and I have a lot of respect for all of them—the plain fact is, we suspect that they do not have it in mind to do what the House generally wants to be done, and that this report will sweep matters under the carpet, if they will forgive my saying so.
My noble friend Lady Amos says that time will be offered in the usual way—I emphasise those two words because "usual way" means that we will carry on as before. That is totally unsatisfactory to most people in your Lordships' House, other than those on the Front Benches. So I hope that we will not carry on in the usual way.
My noble friend also said that we will make progress. We will not make a lot of progress if we just carry on in the usual way. We need change, and we need change along the lines that have been spelt out very clearly by the noble Lords, Lord Norton and Lord Grenfell.
We need an assurance from someone, somewhere—from all three leaders, I hope, rather than the poor Chairman of Committees, who is in an impossible position—of the kind that the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, spelt out. I hope that it will not be discussed at some later date but that a report will come back to your Lordships' House within a month. There is no reason why it should not. Unless I get that kind of assurance, I shall be supporting the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Norton.
§ 3.54 p.m.
§ Viscount Bledisloe
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, finished his speech with a request that we should have an assurance that this matter would be taken back and reconsidered de novo. As he half sat down, about three noble Lords rose and the Chairman of Committees had no opportunity to give us that assurance. If he would give us that assurance now, it would enable me—and, I suspect, many other noble Lords—to curtail or, indeed, to abandon our speeches. I will very readily sit down if the noble Lord is about to rise to his feet.
§ The Chairman of Committees
My Lords, I will take up the noble Viscount's kind invitation. I had not planned to say any more until the end of the debate, but if it will assist your Lordships in further consideration of this matter, I am happy to give the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, the assurances that he seeks. This is not a closed matter; the Procedure Committee will look again at timings and debates; and, as I said at the beginning, the usual channels are 906 already working with committee chairmen to try to work out alternative proposals. So I can absolutely give the assurance that this is not a closed matter and that the Procedure Committee will look at it again and at any suggestions, such as those of the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, at our next meeting.
§ The Chairman of Committees
My Lords, I am reluctant to take the whole clause out of the report. As well as dealing with Select Committee reports, the clause deals with the possibility of some statutory instruments and Unstarred Questions being taken in the Moses Room, with agreement. I should have thought that that would be a reasonable—
§ The Chairman of Committees
No, my Lords? Very well. I cannot go any further than the assurance of—
§ Viscount Bledisloe
My Lords, for my part I disagree. If the matter is to be considered at the next meeting, that seems a very reasonable undertaking—the best that we can have, and perfectly satisfactory. On that basis, I shall make only one point.
There is one point on which I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, with whom I otherwise totally agree. The way in which Select Committee reports are treated is scandalous, not merely from the point of view of the Select Committee members, but also because those reports are highly regarded throughout the rest of the European Community. It seems ridiculous that this House, from which they emanate, does not consider them properly.
I venture to disagree with the noble Lord's proposal that the time found to debate these reports should come out of the time allotted to Back-Bench debates, which is already short. Two and a half hours often proves very short for many of the debates, with speeches ridiculously reduced. These reports should be debated in government time, and in good government time, in both senses of the word—that is, promptly and in prime time.
Such reports are, for the most part, the only chance this House has to make any impact on major legislation emanating from Europe. They are therefore the equivalent of Bills, and of Bills for which the Government are responsible. They should therefore be given government time now used for legislation. A certain day once a month should be allocated for that purpose.
It is to be noted that domestic legislation comes before this House no fewer than four separate times in the course of its passage. European legislation can come before this House only once; namely, when the report is debated. It is, I suggest, entirely wrong to say that a lot of this very important legislation coming from Europe should not be debated in government time because that time is needed for the passage of 907 domestic legislation. That is not even true: first, it would not matter if there was slightly less domestic legislation. Both Houses of Parliament, as well as the world in general, would be highly delighted if there were somewhat less legislation. Secondly, it is not true that the legislation needs all the time that is given to it. If Bills came forward properly prepared, discussed and scrutinised in advance, they would take vastly less time.
It is also unrealistic, nowadays, to think that UK legislation is so important that it should always take priority over European legislation. The opposite is very largely true. One of the main reasons our people are so cut off from Parliament and government is that they feel Parliament and government do not exercise any control over what emerges from Europe, some of which strikes them, and indeed me, as pretty good rubbish. Time spent on properly scrutinising that would be not only well spent but also popularly spent.
§ 4 p.m.
§ Lord Oxburgh
My Lords, I shall not rehearse the arguments which have been put forward so elegantly by my noble friend Lord Grenfell and the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth. Although we have heard assurances from the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, if one reads the report, it is hard to avoid a particular conclusion. That conclusion arises from the combination of the exhortation that committee chairmen should exercise rigour and, by implication, more rigour than they do at present, and the statement that some debates should be held in the Moses Room. The only implication of those statements must be that less time is to be made available in this Chamber. That is not satisfactory.
We have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Norton, about the trivial amount of time that is taken up by the debate of Select Committee reports in this House. Given the amount of time and effort that goes into them on the part of Members of this House and the impact which some of them have outside, it is outrageous that there should be any implication that less time should in future be made available for them in this Chamber.
Although some prime time has been made available, it has often been at the last minute, when some item of government business has been withdrawn. I have had to try to gather people together at as little as 10 days' notice for a debate in which many noble Lords would have wished to participate, but which in the end, although it was in prime time, they were unable to attend because they did not have notice of it. I and members of my committee, which unfortunately is meeting at this moment thereby preventing many of them being here, would wish for stronger assurances than we have received today if we are not to support the amendment.
§ 4.3 p.m.
§ Lord Tordoff
My Lords, noble Lords will not be surprised that I have great sympathy with the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell. I sat in that slot for a number of 908 years and had to fight the corner for time to debate reports from the European Union Select Committee. In fairness to the usual channels, more time is made available now than used to be in the early days of my tenancy of that job, but it is still inadequate.
We must avoid at all costs giving the impression that somehow your Lordships' House is not interested in the work of the Select Committees. A very large number of your Lordships take part in Select Committees and work extremely hard. We should do everything we can to make sure that the findings of those committees are made as widely available as possible.
During the Summer Recess, I would flick through the television channels and occasionally come to channel 45 or whatever it was. I was interested to find bits of Select Committee reports being debated in your Lordships' House. I am sure that anybody who has an interest in Parliament and who watches the Parliament channel will have found those broadcasts extremely interesting and very valuable. They will enhance the perception of your Lordships' House.
I shall not go into the argument about whether the Moses Room is totally unsuitable. I do not think that it is totally unsuitable. On occasions, it is suitable. I also take the point that chairmen of Select Committees should not be castigated for pushing reports for debate any more than is necessary. On many occasions, reports are submitted to the House for information and not for debate. Where they are submitted for debate, I have to tell the usual channels that it is after proper consideration of their importance.
I suggest as a practical step forward that if we are going to have debates on reports in the Moses Room, for Heaven's sake, let us make sure that they are televised. I cannot believe that the cost of doing that is so extraordinarily high that we could not let the world in on those discussions. Debates in the Chamber are televised and that is a great help to people who are interested in Parliament and in the work of our Select Committees. Let us at least make sure, if matters are being debated in the Moses Room, that there is proper television coverage of those debates. I think that television cameras have now been installed in Committee Room 4B. Perhaps debates might take place there, where it would be possible to record and televise them.
Essentially, I sympathise with the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell. It is up to Members of your Lordships' House to take our Select Committee work seriously. They should not leave the debates only to the members of Select Committees, but should address themselves to the subjects which arc put before them by the Select Committees and join that debate. That weakness in our attitude is our fault and we really should correct it.
§ 4.6 p.m.
§ Baroness Park of Monmouth
My Lords, I have been honoured to be a member of both the Select Committee on Europe and its sub-committee on defence and foreign affairs. Their members are Back Benchers and include, as usual in this House, a number 909 of men and women who bring real expertise to the issues on which they report and hold under scrutiny. The committees can call on—and they do—a formidable range of witnesses, including Ministers, officials and distinguished foreign and academic experts, including representatives of the European Commission.
Europe is at present an issue of wide and deep concern to the country, both because of the impending referendum and in the context of this country's relations with Europe and the United States. The Government have promised that before the referendum, the Constitutional Treaty, which Ministers have signed, will be scrutinised line by line and there will be the fullest possible discussion of every clause of that treaty, not least with a view of informing the public in general. Our reports are all directly relevant to that process and to the debate going on in the country. They cover subjects from extradition policies to packaging waste.
When I read the report, I could not believe that the Procedure Committee could contemplate for one moment relegating the discussion of those reports at this time to the Moses Room where, it actually said, it will not even consider the provision of television. If ever there were a time in the recent life of this House when we needed to reach the widest possible public with an informed view of European issues, it is now, in the period leading up to the referendum.
Does the Procedure Committee see members of the public, or indeed noble Lords other than committee members, rushing to the Moses Room? How will the public know the view of those noble Lords, not members of the committee, on the report, for that is an important part of our function? We cannot take the place of the whole House; and nor can the scrutiny of the whole House—so that the scrutiny reserve may be lifted—be exercised elsewhere than in the Chamber.
I find it nothing short of amazing that the Procedure Committee should not recognise that public debate on Europe can only raise our profile, which must surely be one of its proper concerns. I hope that it will forgive me for saying that it is not only denying the public and the House generally access to timely and focused knowledge on a major national issue, it is derogating from the House's duty of scrutiny (not just of legislation), and of informing the public. I hope very much that it will recognise that the committee's reports are a vital part of the business of this House, not a troublesome minor distraction.
A taxi driver said to me quite recently, "Of course both Houses are talking shops, but the Lords talks sense". I hope we shall show that we do.
§ 4.9 p.m.
§ Lord Graham of Edmonton
My Lords, I declare an interest as a paid-up member of the usual channels. When I look at the membership of the Procedure Committee listed in its report, I see that it is a list of the great and the good in this House. Not only are there the current Leaders, Deputy Leaders and Chief Whips of all three parties, but there is also the Convenor. 910 There is also a range of other people with long experience who have put their names to the recommendations in this report.
I am not privy to what goes on in the Procedure Committee—and I say that absolutely truthfully. I have not discussed this matter, nor has anyone drawn it to my attention, but I assume that there are arguments and debates in that committee. The very issue that we are discussing, which arises from the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Norton, must have been a matter of debate there. We have before us a recommendation of the Procedure Committee of this House. Members of that committee are not novices; they have been here a long time, and they are recommending to us that an option be opened up.
For the life of me I cannot quite see why we are getting so exercised, if we are told that the Chairman of Committees is so vehemently opposed to going in a certain direction—and Members have the right to say no. I assume that every time that managers of business in this place come to a point where a report needs to be debated, the chairman will say, "I want the debate to be held on the Floor of the House".
I have had only 20 years in this place, which is not as long as many others—and I do not say that idly. I have sat here and listened to debates on Select Committee reports. Do we really believe that the interests of this House, let alone Parliament or the country, are served by televising a debate when only seven, eight or 12 noble Lords are sitting here, sending the message to the world outside that that is the measure of noble Lords' interest in the subject? I do not see it, but if that is what the Chairman of Committees wants, perhaps he has a magic solution for the future which will transform that situation.
Reference has been made to the Wednesday debates. The House has more than once made a great hoo-ha about the importance of those debates, and how people all over the world are waiting to hear the views of Members of the House of Lords. And yet, in my experience—and because of my position, I had to sit here—very often after the first three or four speeches, the attendance dwindles. Sometimes, at the winding-up, not even those who have spoken in the debate are present. So let us not kid ourselves, whoever else we are trying to kid, about the romance and importance of those debates. Noble Lords have to be true to themselves. There is not a lot of interest in most of the business, other than the real political issues, in this House—let alone outside.
I happen to serve on a Select Committee which deals with the merits of statutory instruments. Our function is to recommend in a report that there should be procedures whereby a committee will recommend matters worthy of consideration on the Floor of the House. I can tell you now that there are 10 members on the committee, but I would be delighted if we got to double figures. We will not get many more than that who are interested in the subject. That could very well be a subject for the Moses Room.
911 I believe in the importance of committees and their value to the House, but noble Lords are deluding themselves if they believe that even a quarter or tenth of the 700 Members of this House are seriously interested in listening to the debates on those matters. They are not. Therefore, with great respect to the noble Lord, Lord Norton, and to others who support his point of view, I believe that the proposal of the Procedure Committee is a sensible one. I am heartened by it, because it is put forward by colleagues whom I have known for 20 years, who serve in senior positions on all Benches of the House. I believe that the Procedure Committee's report should be accepted in its entirety.
§ 4.14 p.m.
§ Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Graham. He will recall an occasion when he and I both reached an extremely sensible decision through the usual channels and a man no doubt wiser than us overruled us, and both of us had to stay up all night.
This is intended to be a short debate and I do not intend unduly to prolong it, but I want to comment on two aspects of the Procedure Committee's report before your Lordships' House today. Read in conjunction with the Leader's Group's Review of Working Practices, these reports have an Olympian smoothness that reminds one of the legendary advertisements in the New Yorker for the Rolls-Royce motor car that averred that the loudest aspect of the car was the ticking of the electric clock. The overall conclusion from the reports is that, generally speaking, in the words of Doctor Pangloss, all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. But even a Rolls-Royce can sustain a mechanical defect.
The blueprint is always worth testing against reality. In some regards, one could defer a reference to the Civil Partnership Bill until we discuss it again next week. However, I do not seek to discuss the merits or demerits of that Bill—nor will the possible heat of next Wednesday's debate be the best time at which to engage in academic procedural observations. But in two regards the Bill illuminates with an actual case the placid mill pool of our life here which the reports seem to contemplate.
The first is that the Bill was regarded by the Government as being sufficiently uncontroversial to merit Grand Committee treatment. Perhaps there were good reasons for the Bill having, like the Gender Recognition Bill, been omitted from any direct reference in the Queen's Speech, other than in the time-honoured phrase,Other measures will be laid before you".But my own antennae became sensitised when on the morrow of the State Opening, the Gender Recognition Bill, unheralded the day before, received its First Reading.
The Government's business managers in both Houses have the benefit of the advice of seven special advisers in order to do their work. Perhaps it was those advisers who opined, either unanimously or by a 912 majority, that the Bill was sufficiently uncontroversial to go into Grand Committee. Go into Grand Committee it did—and subsequent events have cast doubt on that verdict of uncontroversiality.
For the majority of your Lordships' House, the story then moved on to the object of second regard—the issue of Thursday morning sittings, on which the reports that we have before us were broadly content. But those of your Lordships who were in the Chamber on 24 June, on the day of Report on the Civil Partnership Bill, will recall the debate on my noble friend Lady O'Cathain's amendment, which blew out of the water any suggestion that the Bill was anything other than highly controversial. It was possible that the Government's business managers were so lulled into a spirit of uncontroversiality that they did not appreciate how untimely the Report stage was likely to be on a Thursday morning, with party meetings going on. But the mien of the Government Front Bench during the remaining proceedings after the amendment had been carried was an index of the disaster of the way in which the Bill had been managed.
What does all this amount to? Like the Procedure Committee, I broadly agree with the Leader's Group's conclusions. But—and it is a large but—there needs to be a massive improvement in the Government's case-by-case handling and steering if the show is to be kept on the road.
I indicated at the start of this speech that I had a second point, which relates to the amendment to the Motion. I agree profoundly that the European Union Committee is one of the glories of your Lordships' House. As my noble friend Lady Park said, at this moment in our history we should reinforce our interest in European Union developments, not downgrade them. But I am equally aware that the underlying Back-Bench principle in what in another place would be called "supply days" is a further glory of your Lordships' House. We maintain a high standard of debate on Wednesdays, on specific or generic topics, and whatever we do to preserve either of these notable features of our affairs should not be at the expense of the other.
§ 4.18 p.m.
§ Lord Peston
My Lords, I am a chairman of one of your Lordships' committees, though happily for only a few days more, so this is nearly my farewell appearance. Since we are having a mish-mash debate, which I do not like, I should say that I very much agree with what my noble friend Lord Hunt said about other bits of the report. Before getting down to what might be called the "Lord Norton problem", I ought to say a word about the scrutiny of the Finance Bill, which is mentioned in the Procedure Committee report.
I may be ultra-sensitive, but I do not like the wording of the Procedure Committee report. Indeed, I find it rather insulting. That report reminds us of the need to conduct our activities with full regard to the sensitivities of the other place. I say in terms that, under my chairmanship, the committee has always stayed well within its remit, has never exceeded it and 913 would not dream of upsetting anybody in the other place. We know what sensitive creatures they are. I hope that words of that sort will not appear in reports in future, when someone else is chairman.
I would like to go further. There was a problem with the finance sub-committee that was not attributable to your Lordships. It was due entirely to the lack of Treasury co-operation with the sub-committee. Treasury officials refused to come to oral sessions, as requested by the committee, and did not answer questions on issues that were well within our remit. They took it on themselves to decide what was within our remit. I regard all of that as showing disrespect to your Lordships' House. Happily, I shall not have to deal with that again, but it will be a burden on my successor.
My position throughout has been to be in favour of the proposal in the Procedure Committee report, assuming that it means what I think it means. I shall tell the House what I think that it means. I hope that I shall turn out to be right. I think, first, that it means that we agree entirely with the promises made last time by Lord Williams of Mostyn to provide proper space or time for our debates. It is not clear whether, within this special relativity theory, we are talking about space, time or some combination of the two. The noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, is right: Lord Williams of Mostyn promised us that something would happen on Wednesdays. My interpretation is that that will now happen.
Secondly, I took the Procedure Committee report to mean that we would use the Moses Room—I am taken with the view expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, that we should use a room upstairs—as an additional resource available to us, not a substitution. I shall give your Lordships two examples. On Friday, in your Lordships' House, we shall debate my Select Committee's report on ageing, pensions and all that sort of thing. The report has attracted major international attention and is regarded as the greatest report available on the subject.
§ Lord Peston
My Lords, I have been annoyed all year that we have not debated the subject, but it turns out that this Friday could not be a better day for debating it, as the subject has risen to the top of the political agenda. Nothing could suit us more than that it should be debated now. It is a good example of a report that should be debated in your Lordships' House. I am happy to say that, to my amazement, 18 Members have said that they will speak. That is marvellous.
At the same time, the committee has today published a report on the economy, the Monetary Policy Committee and the Treasury. It is extremely disrespectful to both bodies, but I doubt that it will attract any attention. None the less, it is an example of a report that should be debated earlier rather than later. If I were still chairman—in a few days' time, I will not be—I would simply say to the usual channels 914 that I was happy to debate it in the Moses Room, as long as I can debate it quickly. That seems to meet the criteria exactly—some here, some there.
I conclude with one remark. When I discussed the matter with colleagues from all parts of the House, they said, "Typically, Maurice, you are being your usual totally naïve self. There is a hidden agenda, which is gradually to pressurise chairmen into accepting the Moses Room and not the Chamber". Your Lordships will not be surprised to hear that, if I were still a chairman, there is no way in which I would be pressurised. However, there may be some weaklings among us who could be.
All that we require is a statement in terms that there is no hidden agenda and no possibility that debate in your Lordships' House will be diminished and that what we are discussing is an addition. I thought that I had got such a statement from the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees, but he or my noble friend Lady Amos may want to repeat it. If we are given that statement in terms, there will be no reason why the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, should divide the House. However, we need a simple statement that we are getting more, not less.
§ 4.25 p.m.
§ Lord Hannay of Chiswick
My Lords, I shall speak briefly to point 10 in the report. I warmly support the views expressed by the noble Lords, Lord Norton of Louth and Lord Grenfell. I am a member of the EU Select Committee.
There is a paradox in the House's handling of EU matters. Our procedures at committee level work well, and the reports that emerge are the envy of other national parliaments in the European Union. They are often praised and taken seriously by the Commission and our own Government. Yet, our procedures for debating such reports in the House remain stuck in a kind of time warp. Many are held in a holding pattern that can last for months. We heard from the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, how many months.
Now, we are offered the solution of debates in the Moses Room. Surely, that is no solution at all. It is an invitation to continue a debate that has already taken place in the Select Committee and its sub-committees among pretty well the same participants. If we are being honest with ourselves, we should recognise that the chances of many others outside that charmed circle leaving the business of the House and going to the Moses Room are slight. We would thus send a clear signal that the House regards the debating of EU business as a minority interest, to be left to those already deeply involved in it. Is that not precisely the sort of approach that is at the root of the ignorance about and distrust of the European Union in this country?
How can such an approach be reconciled with the enhanced role for national parliaments contained in the constitutional treaty, the ratification of which we will debate in a few weeks' time? Will the House leave to a small minority decisions on whether to use our vote on subsidiarity? I imagine not; indeed, I wonder 915 whether it would even be proper to do so. In that case, the House will have to organise itself differently on EU business. The use of the vote on subsidiarity is strictly time-limited.
I do not feel that dividing the House is the best way to proceed. If the House is divided, I will vote in the Lobby with the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth. However, I would rather hear from the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees a copper-bottomed assurance—stronger than the one that he has given hitherto—that a further fundamental look at the issues raised will be taken, with no solution excluded at the outset.
§ 4.28 p.m.
§ Lord Elton
My Lords, I have only two points to make. First, I endorse what the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, said about questions being concise and relevant. I wish to add to that that the answers should be too. They tend to take up an awful lot of time unnecessarily. It is a recognised defensive measure on the part of a Minister who does not want to be pressed too hard.
My second point is that it depresses me extremely that everybody, except, I think, the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, has taken the pressure on time in the Chamber as a given, about which we can do nothing. I remind your Lordships that, in the first full year of this Government, the time spent in this Chamber on government-programmed Bills was 284 hours and six minutes. In 2002–03, the last full year for which we have the record, it was 396 hours and 55 minutes. The number of Bills in the first instance was 27; in the second, it was 36.
Over the years, it is not the number of Bills that is increasing; it is the length. It is a historical process. Somebody recently had time to measure the shelves of legislation kept in the House of Commons with a measuring tape. They found that all the Bills from 1550 to 1950 were a little shorter on shelf space than those from 1950 to the present day. The process has continued even under the present Government. Something must be done about it.
There is a legislative committee of the Cabinet—it used to be called "Leg."; I do not know what it is called now—which decides how many slots there should be for main programme legislation in the Queen's Speech and subsequently. That gate should be narrower, not wider, and it should be coupled with a definition of the number of clauses—or pages—any piece of legislation may have. The custom of a department getting one Bill and then adding another draft Bill to it as part two, and finally finishing up by dishing us up something so thick that it has to be in two volumes or it falls apart has to stop. If that sort of thing stops, the hours will get shorter and we can discuss Select Committee reports when they should be discussed.
§ 4.30 p.m.
§ Lord Lea of Crondall
My Lords, I welcome the assurance given by the Chairman of Committees that the Procedure Committee will look again at the last 916 sentence of the letter of the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell. I have lost count of the number of times that the EU has been criticised regarding national Parliaments not having a chance properly to scrutinise what it is doing. However, an issue arises that is relevant to Wednesday afternoons. I take issue with the point made by my noble friend Lord Graham about debates on Select Committee reports being participated in by very few noble Lords. That is notoriously true of the political debates held on Wednesday afternoons. I see no reason at all why the occasional Wednesday afternoon could not be restructured.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, I, too, do not think that the European Union Select Committee's work is debated to the best advantage at the moment. It needs to be repackaged in some way. The European Union constitution is very relevant to that and I agree very much with the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, in that regard. On Wednesday afternoons we need to discuss a number of reports that have some synergy to ensure that the scrutiny covers a broader field. That would result in more noble Lords attending the debates, which would make sense not only to the noble Lords on the relevant sub-committees but also to other noble Lords within the House as a whole who need to get to grips with European issues. It would be very useful for the European Union Select Committee, in conjunction with the Chairman of Committees, to give that matter some consideration.
§ 4.32 p.m.
§ Viscount Brookeborough
My Lords, I apologise for not being present at the beginning of the debate due to a delay that arose while travelling here. If one had had nothing to do with the European Union Committee and knew nothing about it, having listened to this debate one could be forgiven for believing that the relevant noble Lords wanted most of the matters that they had discussed to be debated in the Chamber, and that the noble Lords who serve on that committee and its sub-committees were fighting for those committees.
I have served on those committees and I am struck by something that I consider far more serious; namely, that the subjects on which those committees report constitute a very small number of the subjects that we would like to report on. Therefore, the subjects that are reported on are far more significant than is realised by those who are unaware of what those committees do. They are very important; in fact, they are the most important subjects. Normally a sub-committee report refers to four, five or more very important subjects. Noble Lords should realise that these are very important subjects and that we should not seek—as we may appear to be doing—to have them discussed in a back room.
§ 4.33 p.m.
§ Lord Goodhart
My Lords, I had not intended to speak in this debate until I heard the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Hannay. I disagree with what he said. I am now a member of the Procedure Committee. 917 I have in the past been a member of the EU Committee and of Sub-Committee E which deals with law and institutions.
Some of the reports of the European Union Committee and of Sub-Committee E are undoubtedly of major importance and deserve to be debated on the Floor of the House. I refer in particular to our report on the Charter of Fundamental Rights. Others are not in the same category. For instance, we produced a report on European patent law. That seems to me something that is not suitable for debate on the Floor of the House. If it is to be debated at all, it ought to be debated in the Moses Room or in some suitable alternative venue.
It seems to me that the proposal in response to paragraph 10 of this report seeks to give an opportunity for more reports to be debated; for those which are not suitable for debate on the Floor of the House to be debated in the Moses Room; and for the important debates which should and must be debated on the Floor of the House to reach the Floor of the House more quickly. For that reason I hope that with the undertakings which have been given on this matter from the Front Bench we will be able to approve the report as it stands.
§ 4.35 p.m.
§ Lord Alderdice
My Lords, in listening to this debate I am reminded a little of the American tourist who asked a countryman in Northern Ireland how he would get to Belfast and what his advice would be. The gentleman replied, "Sir, if I were you, I would not start from here". That was good advice, but not terribly helpful.
If we take the data that have been presented by the noble Lord. Lord Norton of Louth, it is quite clear—I do not think that anyone would disagree—that the percentage of time that is allocated to discussing Select Committee reports is inadequate. It is very small. It is absolutely clearly too small. However, we do not start from a blank sheet of paper. If we are to allocate more time to those debates, we either have to sit longer or we have to shove other things out of the way, or, perhaps, we have to open up another possibility. There does not seem to be a great appetite for sitting through the night to debate these matters. I doubt very much that there is any evidence of a volunteering either by the Government, Back-Benchers or anyone else to restrict their time.
What is proposed by the Procedure Committee, of which I am a member, is that we open up another possibility or route by which debates on a range of instruments can take place. It is not just a question of Select Committee reports; other matters are involved. We need to see whether, by agreement, another channel and another opportunity for debate can be opened up. I have considerable sympathy with the comments of my noble friend Lord Tordoff who indicated that the cost of broadcasting debates might not be so prohibitive or that they might take place in locations other than the Moses Room where they could be broadcast and be made available much more widely. I refer also to the radio and the Internet.
918 However, we do not start from a position where we can simply implement all that we want in the way that we want because we already have commitments. We have an opportunity to open up another channel by agreement not in order to shunt important Select Committee reports into a siding but rather to give them more exposure. We also have an opportunity to conduct other kinds of business off the Floor of the House. That merits some consideration and we could review the experience to see whether it is satisfactory.
§ 4.37 p.m.
§ Lord Williamson of Horton
My Lords, I should like to say a few words about the Procedure Committee's report in general. Attention today has been centred on the question of the time allocated to debates on Select Committee reports, but there are a number of other important issues in the Procedure Committee report. As this is, at the request of various people, a mishmash debate, I wish to say a few brief words about that.
It is important to bear in mind that we are not starting from a blank sheet. We put into effect, by a decision of this House in July 2002, a package of measures. We are looking to see whether we can confirm those. That is what we are doing; we are not starting from scratch.
My own impression is quite clear; namely, that the working practices now being reviewed have generally bedded down very well and that they command, for the most part, the support of the House. We should rate as improvements the bigger role, without setting a rigid target, that is being taken by pre-legislative scrutiny, which in my view improves the quality of legislation, and, very importantly, gives advance notice of the issues which will come up when a Bill comes before the House. For Cross-Benchers that is an extremely useful system; it helps us a lot, and is much to be welcomed. A similar pragmatic approach applies to the carry-over of desirable Bills and to the use of Grand Committees for some Bills. I think there is a wide measure of agreement that we should revert to our former practice of four Starred Questions each day and that we should keep the Thursday arrangements for the present.
Clearly the main issue this afternoon is the use of time for debates and, in particular, for debates on Select Committee reports. That is the subject of the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, and, I emphasise, of the letter of the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, which is attached to the Procedure Committee's report. We have a common interest in ensuring that significant reports from Select Committees are debated in a satisfactory way and in satisfactory circumstances. I think that I can take a pretty balanced view. I am a very new Convenor but a very long-time contributor to reports of the Select Committee on the European Union and debates on them.
On the vexed question of the Moses Room, I stress—it has been partly pushed aside by some speakers—that the proposal is not that it be the sole or almost principal method of dealing with the reports. It 919 is not a case of the Moses Room or nothing. To coin a phrase, the Moses Room is not written on tablets of stone. On the contrary, the report states specifically that the additional business in the Moses Room would be arranged only with the concurrence of those concerned. That is an essential condition. It should not be devalued, in particular if it is linked—I think that it will be—with a genuine intention to fix debates elsewhere if they are not to take place in the Moses Room. There is plenty of scope. We have had quite a lot of debates—eight, I think—on the Floor of the House in the current Session on Select Committee reports on Monday to Thursday and not on Friday. There is more to be done, as we all know, but I am sure that it can be done.
I took the assurance given by the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees very seriously. He responded to the point, saying that the question of the use of the Moses Room, subject to certain conditions, for Select Committee reports was being taken back and would be looked at thoroughly and that, at the same time, the other possibilities would be reviewed. That was a direct response, and a very good one, to the words in the amendment, which I have just reread.
There is one point which so far has not been made much. It is pretty difficult to make a new point after an hour and 25 minutes; none the less, I wish to make it. The real problem is not only the choice between Unstarred Questions, Friday debates or some other use of prime time in the rest of the week, but the rather haphazard planning and, in at least the case of the Select Committee on the European Union, the loss of impact or even interest when the delays are too long. The EU Committee reports are on future legislation, for the most part, as some have said. That legislation will be implemented in the UK. They are not academic exercises.
I would like to see regular monitoring by the usual channels together with each Select Committee chairman of the backlog of reports, if there is one, and proposals for dates and the appropriate forum for debate—the Chamber on Monday to Thursday or on Friday, if that is decided, or, by agreement, Unstarred Questions, for example. That would go a long way to defuse the question that seems to have clocked up quite a few amps; perhaps it is ohms, but I forget. I do not believe it impossible to get right up to date with the outstanding Select Committee debates and minimise the problem for the future. I emphasise the value that I attach to the assurance by the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees.
§ 4.44 p.m.
§ Baroness Williams of Crosby
My Lords, we have had a very thorough debate; I also intend to be brief. First, let me say a word about the review of working practices and its considerable success. It is interesting that, in the debate, we have concentrated almost entirely on the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, and supported by the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell. However, it sounds as though most of the House broadly accepts the other 920 proposals for working practices, which is something of a tribute to Lord Williams of Mostyn, who was our Leader, and to the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, and her colleagues for the smooth transition from the original proposals to the current report. I want to make it very clear that I believe that the modernisation of working practices has been an impressive example of how to do such things.
Before turning to the amendment, I want to refer to pre-legislative scrutiny, in which I have always strongly believed. I have always thought it right and proper that most major Bills should be subjected to pre-legislative scrutiny if they are to be the kind of legislation that lasts, is respected and is highly obeyed by society. In that context, I strongly want to underline what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Elton. The truth of the matter is that we have too much legislation. Members of this House will know very well—Members of another place will know even better—how frequently we simply repeat, year after year, much the same kind of legislation because the previous Act is overtaken by a few changes or by a new Minister. Once again, we have yet another criminal justice Bill, education Bill or health Bill. If those were more carefully considered by the legislative committee of the Cabinet and the various government departments—I make no distinction between the parties that happen to be in power—we would have a much more effective body of law than we have, and it would be much better debated. I shall not proceed with that further, except to say that the noble Lord, Lord Elton, was absolutely right. The matter should be given more attention than it is.
I shall turn briefly to what the noble Lords, Lord Norton of Louth and Lord Grenfell, had to say. The subjects covered by the European Union Committee and the Science and Technology Committee continually grow in importance. In that sense, the noble Lords were absolutely right to say that they had a substantial responsibility in those areas. The Science and Technology Committee is recognised widely throughout the legislatures of the world as one of the major contributors to sensible and thoughtful debate about technological advance. We are all aware that it is in that area that we have the least democratic control and the least wide understanding. I accept fully the case made for greater attention to be paid to that committee's reports.
It is fair to say that the European Union Select Committee does crucial work, recognised widely outside the House. However, let me take an example from inside the House. Since I have been a Member of this House, we have spent day after day and week after week discussing asylum policy, in great detail virtually every year. However, it is likely that much of the responsibility for asylum and immigration policy will pass to the European Union. In that respect, debates on the Select Committee reports in the area are at least as important as debates on primary legislation in this House—probably more so. Therefore, they deserve to be considered in much greater detail than at present.
921 How do we meet that legitimate demand? I would not have agreed to the unanimous decisions on working procedures made by the Leader's Group and approved by the Procedure Committee had it not been made absolutely plain to me that the use of the Moses Room would be additional. I underline what was said by the noble Lords, Lord Peston and Lord Goodhart. Our understanding always was that it would be over and above the procedures on the Floor of the House, and we would not have agreed to it otherwise. The noble Lord the Chairman of Committees made that clear as well.
As my noble friend Lord Goodhart said, there are certain very specialised reports that could well be debated in the Moses Room or—perhaps even better, as the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, said—Committee Room 4, where they would be covered by television. However, I accept the serious problem that we do not know—no one has mentioned it so far—whether the scrutiny reserve that holds up the procedures of government approval of European legislation would be raised in a debate in the Moses Room. That is a crucial issue, because it is the one great power that Parliament has over members of the Council of Ministers in terms of European legislation.
The noble Lord, Lord Norton, might want to respond to my final point. I believe that the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees was strongly trying to give a fair assurance to the House that the range of possibilities covering the use of Committee Room 4 in certain circumstances, some part of the debate on Wednesdays and some extra time to be found in the Chamber itself, might meet the legitimate grievances of our colleagues who are so significant in the world of those Select Committees. I support that.
In that context, perhaps I may say that I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, that 2.4 per cent is a pretty thin ration of time for discussing such a substantial part of the work of this House. I hope, therefore, that the Procedure Committee, together with the usual channels—to whom I pay full tribute as the great lubricants of the engine of this House—can find a solution that is satisfactory to all who have taken part in this debate.
§ 4.50 p.m.
§ Lord Strathclyde
My Lords, this debate is the latest culmination of a process that has been continuing for several years and in which the Procedure Committee and the House as a whole have rightly been actively involved. As the Leader of the House explained, it follows the initiative of Lord Williams of Mostyn, who felt that there were ways in which the procedures of this House could be modified in order to make life easier for all Members of the House without weakening the vital role that we perform in scrutinising government legislation.
In 2002, it was decided that there should be a two-year experiment. Some of the ideas floated by the Williams group, such as restricting amendments at Third Reading, were rejected—rightly, in my view. My main interest throughout this process and today has been to uphold the unfettered right of every Member 922 of this House to table amendments to legislation and to have those amendments debated. This is an important privilege and we should defend it for as long as we can, because it is a precious right. It is something that has enabled this House to evolve during the 20th Century to become the finest revising Chamber in the world. There is nothing in the package before us that threatens that right or any other freedom of the House.
Some of the ideas that flowed from the Williams report naturally represented a compromise, a balance between opposing ideas, which is also in the best traditions of this House. One balance has been the rising time of 10 p.m. I am one of those who used to oppose the fixed rising time. Indeed, until 1998, nearly all the business conducted by the House was conducted on the Floor of the Chamber. But that meant that sometimes we and the staff did not go home until after midnight—sometimes 2 a.m. or 3 a .m. Many noble Lords will remember when the House sat through the night.
§ Lord Strathclyde
Not that often, my Lords, but it did happen. The House has recognised the wish of many Peers to close business at 10 p.m., and that has had advantages for us all. In return for the 10 p.m. cut-off, we agreed to support more consideration of business in the Moses Room in Grand Committee. I have also never made it a secret that I prefer that more legislation be taken on the Floor of the House. But the Moses Room experiment has broadly worked, even if some Peers have told me that the record 18 Bills that we have agreed to send to Grand Committee this Session were far too many.
I cannot believe that if that is workable for our vital work regarding primary legislation, it is not also workable for other business. Indeed, it has already been in use for some aspects of secondary business relating to Northern Ireland. The experiment has shown that, with good will and flexibility on all sides, these arrangements can be made to work.
The noble Baroness, Lady Amos, told the House about the group that she set up earlier this year to review the experiment. Perhaps I may pay tribute to her chairmanship, which she carried out with great skill and professionalism. She obtained nearly everything that she wanted, and without any fuss whatever. She deserves the congratulations of the House on that. Under her skilful chairmanship we reached a unanimous conclusion. That was broadly endorsed by the Procedure Committee and I see no reason to advocate change today. We agreed that the Williams experiment had gone too far in some areas, such as the increased number of Questions, but, in the main, the experiment has worked and we have reached the right balance.
Therefore, I was one of those who was disappointed that my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth had tabled an amendment to the Motion, although I must say that it has also provided an opportunity to discuss not only this issue but many others away from the rarefied atmosphere of the Procedure Committee.
923 The purpose of the contentious paragraph was to increase opportunity for debate, to bring debates forward in time and sometimes to provide for the convenience of the chairmen. But I dare say that the Government will take that as a lesson that no good deed goes unpunished. Like all other noble Lords, I suspect, I recognise the great importance of the work of the committees of the House. They are widely respected. However, the Government have a duty to ensure that important reports are debated. My impression is that they largely succeed in that, although I fully support the suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, the Convenor of the Cross Benches, that there should be better monitoring so that we might see more transparently when the reports are published, when the Government respond and when the reports are finally debated.
If that does not happen, then of course the Procedure Committee should address the matter and we should look at it again. But I do not believe that there is a compelling case for remitting that individual element of the package now. I would certainly oppose any idea of reducing the time that is made available on Wednesdays, until the end of June, for Back-Bench debates. In my view, there is already too much encroachment on that valuable time and it should be protected. Equally, I cannot see any dogmatic objection to debating some reports in the Moses Room. It would be odd to say that the Moses Room was acceptable for primary legislation but never for a debate on a Select Committee report.
Surely we should keep a sense of proportion about this. We should preserve our normal flexibility and freedoms and not hedge our procedures with too many of the hard-and-fast rules that have so damaged another place—where the usual channels virtually do not function at all and all time is controlled by the Government.
As has already been said, the only way to provide more time on the Floor is to eat into someone else's time. We could sit earlier in the day, but I do not think that that would be very popular. Another way to provide more time would be to have much less legislation, which I think we would all welcome. I hope that the Government will take that message away from this debate.
I submit that we should accept the Procedure Committee report. We should trust in the undertakings given by the Leader of the House that the Government will be fully mindful of the need to find time for the debates to which I referred. For our part, we will do our best to facilitate that through the usual channels. I hope that, in the light of that, my noble friend will not press his amendment and that the House will agree to the Procedure Committee report.
§ 4.57 p.m.
§ Baroness Amos
My Lords, I had not intended to speak again, but I feel that I must respond to the point made by my noble friend Lord Peston, who asked me to be absolutely clear that the Leader's Group had no 924 hidden agenda and that no pressure would be put on committee chairmen to have debates in the Moses Room.
The Leader's Group was seeking to be helpful. I note the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, regarding what that might mean in terms of how we handle these issues in future. Our intention was to give committee chairmen and others options for additional time for discussion of business in the House. I have to say that it did not strike me, when that recommendation was agreed by the Leader's Group, that it would be read in such a negative manner. The wording was in no way intended to give that impression, and of course I am happy to give the House the assurance that it was intended to give the House additional opportunities to discuss issues.
I am also happy to endorse the assurances given by the Chairman of Committees with respect to the Procedure Committee continuing to address such matters.
§ 4.59 p.m.
§ The Chairman of Committees
My Lords, perhaps I may start by dealing with one or two points which have been made that did not relate to paragraph 10 of the report. First, the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, spoke in support of reverting to four Questions a day over half an hour. He asked me to encourage the party leaders to persuade their troops to follow the guidance on Starred Questions contained in the Companion. They were all here to hear that, as were many other Members of the House. I hope that noble Lords abide by the guidance in the Companion—that is, short questions and short answers, which will allow time for more questions from around the House at each slot. The noble Lord, Lord Elton, also referred to that.
The noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, also referred to the paragraph concerning the swapping of business on Wednesdays and Thursdays. As the report states, the Procedure Committee will consider that matter again at its next meeting. I do not have a date for that meeting but I anticipate that the Procedure Committee may well need to meet before the end of the year.
The noble Lord, Lord Peston, referred to the scrutiny of the Finance Bill. I can only note what the noble Lord said, but I remind him that the part from which he quoted was from the Leader's Group report rather than from the Procedure Committee report. The noble Baroness, Lady Williams, referred to the item on pre-legislative scrutiny, with which I think we probably all agree.
With regard to debating Select Committee reports and the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Norton, there is not a great deal more that I can say, but I can give one answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Williams. It is up to the House to say whether a debate in the Moses Room would lift the scrutiny reserve. It can do so. I am told that at present very few outstanding reports are waiting to be debated.
925 Of course, we all recognise the very important work carried out by Select Committees. I myself had the privilege of chairing the European Union Select Committee. Everyone I met around Europe and elsewhere said how very important the reports are, and I do not think that anyone would disagree with that. I simply repeat what I said at the beginning: this is only an option. The noble Baroness the Leader of the House has given an assurance that there is no hidden agenda to this matter.
It is also an option which can be turned down by the relevant committee chairmen. We have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Norton—we shall know in a moment what he is intending to do about his amendment and from the noble Lords, Lord Grenfell and Lord Oxburgh, none of whom said that they would have any of their reports debated in the Moses Room. But the noble Lord, Lord Peston, who, I am sorry to say, is retiring as a chairman (he is not so sorry, I know) was prepared to give it a chance—even more so, I hope, having heard the assurances.
I can only repeat the assurance that I gave earlier to the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell—that is, the Procedure Committee does not regard this as a closed matter and we shall look again at any suggestions, such as having an additional debate on Wednesdays. However, having listened to some of the speeches this afternoon, that does not appear to find universal favour around the House. In the context of Wednesdays and Thursdays, I also remind the House that the Procedure Committee can only advise the House on what it thinks it is best to do; ultimately, it is for the House to agree or not agree with the Procedure Committee.
§ Lord Norton of Louth
My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down and before I reply, can he tell the House why he does not simply accept the amendment and come back within the month, as suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, with a fresh report which addresses the question raised by Members, which is not covered in the report, about how additional time will be provided?
§ The Chairman of Committees
My Lords, I cannot allocate time in this House; nor can the Procedure Committee do so. That is a matter for the usual channels. Therefore, I cannot give any assurances about time. The noble Lord asked why I cannot just accept the amendment. I said at the beginning that I think it would be a pity to lose all the things in the report, such as the possibility of taking Unstarred Questions and statutory instruments in the Moses Room. A big queue of people is waiting to ask Unstarred Questions and very little time is available for them in the ordinary way. I am sure that some of those who wish to ask Unstarred Questions would be very happy if the opportunity were provided to take them in the Moses Room in the near future.
§ 5.5 p.m.
§ Lord Norton of Louth
My Lords, if the Procedure Committee were to take away the matter and come back within the month, as suggested by the noble 926 Lord, Lord Barnett, I do not think that we would lose a great deal in terms of what the noble Lord has just said. I do not think that that gets to the nub of the question.
This has been a general debate. The noble Baroness, Lady Amos, referred to pre-legislative scrutiny. That subject is covered in the Constitution Committee's report on Parliament and the legislative process. Indeed, we are somewhat more enthusiastic about pre-legislative scrutiny than the Procedure Committee appears to be. But I look forward to the debate on the Constitution Committee's report on the Floor of the House in prime time.
Perhaps I may respond briefly to one or two of the points raised. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, that I, too, have taken part in debates in Grand Committee, but the exercise is a very different one. The noble Lord failed to address the point that I made earlier. I, too, would welcome more debates on committee reports, but it is not clear that that is the issue before us. Most members of the Procedure Committee seem to think that it is but, from reading the Procedure Committee report, I am afraid that that is not at all clear. The fear is that it is likely that the debates will be in place of, rather than in addition to, Chamber debates. That point was made very eloquently by the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh.
§ On the point about attendance at debates—
§ The Earl of Onslow
My Lords, I came to this debate with a completely open mind but was rather inclined to vote with my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth. But both my noble friend on the Front Bench and the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, have said categorically that it is additional time. I am old-fashioned. I think that when Ministers, and especially Leaders of the House, say something from the Front Bench, they are not telling porky pies; they are actually saying what they mean. It seems to me that the very valid point made by my noble friend has been answered equally validly, if not more so, both by my noble friend Lord Strathclyde and the noble Baroness, Lady Amos.
§ Lord Norton of Louth
My Lords, I am afraid that it has not been answered validly and I shall come to that point.
As for the argument that few people speak, that is to confuse quality with quantity. What is said is more important than how many people say it.
The noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, is right: members of the Procedure Committee are not novices; they include distinguished people. But I am sure that the noble Lord will agree that the Leader's Group in 2002 contained distinguished people and I believe that the Leader's Group got it right on that occasion. That report also addresses the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice.
I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken in support of my amendment. I am also grateful to those who have contacted me to express their support, including Members who are currently tied up with committee business. The more I listen to the debate, 927 the more I think that we are debating different documents. I see nothing in the report—the document before us from the Procedure Committee—that identifies how the time will be additional. That is the crucial point, and I believe that the matters that I raised in opening remain valid.
If the time is to be additional—I have heard it said that it is and I do not doubt that that is the intention of those who are saying it—it would be helpful to the House to know how that is to be achieved. If more time is to be provided, what is the mechanism for arranging that? I fully accept that the Procedure Committee cannot guarantee time, but I want to know the mechanism by which we will get there. As I said, it is not at all clear from the report that the time is to be additional.
From my reading of the report—it is a pessimistic reading—the time would be "in place of" rather than "additional to". That was why I made my point to the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon. I cannot see why one cannot simply accept the amendment and invite the Procedure Committee to come back within a matter of weeks, as the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, said, with a clear explanation. That point was also made by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams. I accept that that is the intention but there is nothing in the report that clearly identifies how it will be achieved. I think that inviting the Procedure Committee to come back on the matter would settle the minds of Members of your Lordships' House who are concerned about this particular procedure. If we have that and if the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, says that that is fine, the Procedure Committee can go away, meet very quickly—
§ Baroness Williams of Crosby
My Lords, I believe that the House would like a unanimous view on this report. Will the noble Lord accept the situation if the Front Bench on the other side give an assurance that the Procedure Committee will consider this matter at an early date and return with proposals for how this can be managed? Trying to tie the whole thing down to about a month is difficult for anyone.
§ Lord Norton of Louth
My Lords, if the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, agrees and if we had a very clear assurance that what is proposed is additional time, I would be happy.
§ Lord Norton of Louth
My Lords, I am not sure how it will be done. That is why I want the Procedure Committee to return quickly on this point. I look to the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, to see whether he would be content with that assurance.
My Lords, I said that I would be content for the issue to be examined further by the Procedure Committee. Of course, that would embrace a large number of issues related to the time available for debates and the venue in which debates take place, 928 but that assurance would be quite enough for me. If there is that assurance, which I believe we have from the Chairman of Committees, it may be inadvisable to proceed with a Division at this stage.
§ Lord Norton of Louth
My Lords, given what we have heard that there will be additional time and that we shall have a recommendation on that point, I shall not pursue the matter on this occasion. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ On Question, Motion agreed to.