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Procedure Of The House: Select Committee Report

Volume 504: debated on Wednesday 22 February 1989

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3.15 p.m.

My Lords, I beg to move that the First Report of the Select Committee be agreed to.

Your Lordships will recall that the Group on the Working of the House recommended an annual review of procedural difficulties that had arisen during the previous Session. This was endorsed by the Procedure Committee and the House. The present report is mainly concerned with such a review, in particular on two matters: Third Reading amendments and Ministerial Statements.

On Third Reading amendments the committee came to the conclusion that current restrictions on Third Reading are adequate if strictly interpreted. Perhaps I may remind your Lordships that current guidance in the Companion is as follows:
"The principal purposes of amendments on Third Reading are to clarify any remaining uncertainties, to improve the drafting and to enable the Government to fulfill undertakings given at earlier stages of the Bill.

It is considered undesirable that an issue which has been fully debated and decided upon at a previous stage of a Bill should be reopened on Third Reading".
On Ministerial Statements the committee noted with satisfaction that the number of such Statements had declined and that whenever possible they were now being made at a natural break in business. On the other hand, the 20 minutes allotted for brief comments and questions were exceeded in most cases. The committee recommends the endorsement of the 20-minute rule for Commons-originated Statements and for Lords Statements, but wishes to emphasise most strongly once again that such Statements should not be made the occasion for an immediate debate; all comments and questions from both Front and Back Benches should be succinct. I beg to move.

Moved, That the First Report of the Select Committee be agreed to—( The Chairman of Committees.)

The report read as follows:

ORDERED TO REPORT:—

1. The Committee have considered whether there were any procedural difficulties last session which warrant report to the House as suggested by the Group on the Working of the House and endorsed in the 1st Report of the Procedure Committee last session, and concluded that the attention of the House should be called to two matters, Third Reading Amendments and Ministerial Statements.

AMENDMENTS ON THIRD READING

2. The Committee have therefore again considered the question of Third Reading Amendments, especially the adequacy of the procedural guidance governing the tabling of Third Reading Amendments, and whether it should he better enforced.

3. In Session 1987-88, a total of 576 Amendments were tabled to five bills, of which 397 were agreed to, including 18 not moved by the Government. Third Reading proceedings, including Amendments and debates on the final stage, took just over 7 per cent. of the total time taken by the House on public legislation, compared with 49 per cent. spent on the Committee stage, and 26 per cent. on Report. Of the total time of the House, Third Reading proceedings took only 4·1 per cent.

4. The Companion (pages 99-100) states:—

  • "The principal purposes of amendments on Third Reading are to clarify any remaining uncertainties, to improve the drafting and to enable the Government to fulfill undertakings given at earlier stages of the Bill.
  • It is considered undesirable that an issue which has been fully debated and decided upon at a previous stage of a Bill should be re-opened on Third Reading."

5. Existing procedure therefore is that, while the tabling of repetitious Amendments is not encouraged, only an amendment which reopens an issue previously decided by vote or by being negatived is strictly contrary to the practice of the House.

6. The Committee conclude that it would be neither practical nor desirable to widen the ambit of the rules to exclude totally the tabling of Amendments already debated at previous stages and that some flexibility must remain. They believe that the enforcement of the rule against the tabling of Amendments at Third Reading on which decisions have been taken at a previous stage, works reasonably satisfactorily.

7. The Committee have also considered whether, if enforcement of the existing rules cannot be improved, Third Reading Amendments should be abolished, with the possible exception of Government Amendments to carry out Government undertakings. They note the level of activity at Third Reading last session and the large number of Amendments agreed to, of which some Amendments moved from the Opposition front benches or the back benches were drafted by the Government. Furthermore, many Government Amendments were not directly giving effect to earlier undertakings. The Group on the Working of the House [HL 1987–88 9] (para. 38) recommended recently against any restriction that would introduce the concept of Government priority, which hitherto has been alien to the procedure of the House. The Committee conclude likewise that it would be inappropriate to curtail the rights of private members, and recommend that the House should agree that "current restrictions on Third Reading are adequate if strictly intpreted".

MINISTERIAL STATEMENTS

8. The Committee have also considered Ministerial Statements. The Group on the Working of the House last year drew attention to the deep dissatisfaction felt by a majority of the House over repeated Commons Statements in the Lords. The House agreed on 22nd February 1988 that discussion of a repeated Commons Statement should be limited to 20 minutes; and that Commons Statements should only be repeated when, in the opinion of the Leader of the House, after consultation through the usual channels, they were on a matter of national importance. In accordance with Standing Order 33, such Statements "should not be made the occasion for immediate debate".

9. The decision of the House last year to reduce the incidence of repeated Commons Statements has, since 22 February, been scrupulously respected by the usual channels, and in the remainder of the session only 16 were repeated. On 12 of them, discussion exceeded 20 minutes. The percentage of the time of the House spent on Statements was reduced from 3·9 per cent. in 1986 to 2·1 per cent. last session.

10. The Committee recommend the endorsement of the 20 minute rule on discussion of repeated Commons Statements, and re-emphasise the importance of there being no debate. All contributions on discussion of a Statement, whether from the Government or Opposition front benches or from the back benches, should be succinct.

Lords Statements

11. The 20 minute rule does not, at present, apply to discussion on Lords Statements where the originating Minister sits in the Lords. Last session after 22 February 1988 there were 8 Lords Statements, of which 3 occasioned discussion which exceeded 20 minutes. A statement by a responsible departmental Minister in the Lords is made at the beginning of business, whereas the repetition of a Commons Statement, necessarily after 3·20 pm, inevitably interrupts the business of the House later in the day.

12. The Committee conclude that as there is now a suggested time limit in the case of repeated Commons Statements, and since no Statement of either category should be made the occasion for debate, it would be inconsistent to refrain from adopting a time limit for discussion of Lords Statements. They therefore recommend that a time limit of 20 minutes should be applied also to discussion of a Lords Statement.

PRE-EMPTION AND MARSHALLING OF AMENDMENTS

13. The Committee have considered a suggestion by Lord Airedale that the rules of marshalling amendments given in the Companion, pages 89–90, should be altered so as to prevent amendments being pre-empted. They recommend no change.

On Question, Motion agreed to.