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Volume 591: debated on Thursday 9 July 1998

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3.39 p.m.

My Lords, I have given prior notice to the Government Chief Whip to raise an important matter; namely, whether or not there should be a debate in your Lordships' House before the Summer Recess on the question of reform of this House. At the same time, perhaps I may also ask the noble Lord the Government Chief Whip whether he is in a position to furnish noble Lords with the Recess dates. Can he confirm that he has no intention of allowing the House to rise beyond 31st July which would be regarded by this side of the House at least as a hostile act? Can the noble Lord also confirm that so far this Session this House has witnessed a great deal of co-operation from all sides? We have used an unprecedented amount of time on the Moses Room Grand Committee procedure. We have expedited the Government's business. This month we have sought to ensure that the Government get on to the statute book two important pieces of emergency legislation.

I wrote to the noble Lord the Government Chief Whip exactly three weeks ago. I received a reply to that letter on Monday of this week. The request was a very simple one; that this House should be allowed to debate its future before it rose for the summer.

There was a reason for that: first, to inform the Government of the views of this House; secondly, since the Government have recently made an announcement that they are now willing to provide an options paper in the shape of a Green Paper at some point in the autumn, it would help to guide the Government on the drafting of that document; and, thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, to avoid the many misconceptions of government Ministers that we have seen so visibly over the past few weeks.

I have now received a reply from the Government Chief Whip who stated that it was not possible to provide for such a debate before the end of July and before we rose for the summer. I have two questions for the noble Lord. First, is he now able to reconsider that position; and, secondly, can he confirm that the Green Paper will be published by the time we return for the spill-over? It has struck me on many occasions recently that there is an absurdity in the fact that the only place in which the reform of your Lordships' House cannot be discussed is in this Chamber.

My Lords, perhaps I may say a few words on this point of which the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, was good enough to give me notice. I agree with him that there should clearly be a debate in this House on the future of this House. On the other hand, I cannot say that I regard it as a hostile act were we to have that debate after the Summer Recess. Clearly, it must be in this Session of Parliament. That is a critical point.

Secondly, again, I would not regard it as a hostile act were we to have to sit into the month of August, given the fact that there is a precedent, I understand, for a Conservative government doing precisely that when I do not believe that any of us took a similar position.

I believe that there is an urgent need for more collaboration between the usual channels—and indeed other parts of the House, for that matter—in terms of how we consider legislation. We have all been exposed in recent weeks, particularly on education Bills, to never-ending Second Reading speeches on amendments, where there is not the remotest relevance between the speeches being made and the terms of the amendments which are nominally before the House. I hope that in any further discussions there may be between the usual channels, that issue will be addressed.

My Lords, before my noble friend replies, I endorse the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Harris. It is in my memory that at the same time in the parliamentary timetable of 1980 the Commons sat into the second week of August. It did so because the government at that time felt, despite no doubt valiant efforts to reach agreement, that they had to proceed with their business. Will my noble friend take it from me that if to get the Government's business through he needs to come before the House and indicate that the House will sit in August, while it would be regrettable, it is not a hostile act?

Secondly, will my noble friend tell me whether serious discussions are going on in an attempt to meet the twin imperatives; that is, the Government's business, and the possibility of finishing, as we would all wish, before the end of July? The question of the over-spill date and its length clearly comes into it, but I hope that my noble friend will not fall for the argument that unless he agrees to what the Opposition ask for be will be in trouble. Without that, we are already in trouble.

My Lords, does the noble Lord the Government Chief Whip agree that the expeditious conduct of business calls for flexibility on both sides? Does he further agree that it calls for flexibility in Whitehall as well as in Parliament? Will he note that of the two departments with which I deal most regularly, the Department of Social Security has consistently tackled that very much better than the Department for Education and Employment? Will he make that view heard inside Great Sanctuary Buildings?

My Lords, it ill behoves the Opposition to criticise the present Government for sitting into August. I have voiced criticisms previously that governments seek to push far too much business through both Houses in too short a Session. The problem is that governments—it does not matter what colour they are—just want to push through masses of legislation which cannot be properly discussed and digested in both Houses. I appeal to my Front Bench to review that, and to ensure that in the next Session of Parliament we have a programme that can be properly discussed and properly digested by both Houses of Parliament so that we do not have to sit into August, and can discuss in both Houses the legislation which comes before us in a proper and considered manner.

The other point I wish to make is that I think a number of people in this House are a little resentful of the fact that Members of another place are being sent home for a fortnight's holiday in their constituencies because they are not wanted. At the same time, I must remind the House, if it needs reminding which I do not believe that it does, that this is not a remunerated House. People here are being sent missives every week telling us to be here at all costs. There is a requirement to be here sometimes until three o'clock in the morning. That is not good enough.

In the most friendly manner, I say to my noble friends on the Front Bench that I should like them to use their influence-o-what influence they have—within the Cabinet to try to ensure that we have a much more balanced programme which can be properly discussed in both Houses in a reasonably leisurely way.

My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord to desert the standpoint of political egocentricity and remember all the House servants who serve us faithfully and well the whole year through, and who are as deserving of their holidays as we are?

My Lords, I can perhaps start by answering the question about the Summer Recess. The noble Lord the Opposition Chief Whip seems to be slightly obsessed about the date of his summer holiday. I would be grateful if he would not put questions to me which seem to be based on the assumption that I came up the Clyde on a bicycle. It would have been possible for me to have made an announcement today, but I did not wish in any way to pre-empt the noble Lord's remarks or the views of the House. Under those circumstances, I hope the House will forgive me for remaining silent a little while longer.

Perhaps I may remind the House that the previous administration sometimes announced the Summer Recess with as little as eight days' notice. I wish that I could say that the House will rise on 17th July, but it will not. However, your Lordships may be encouraged to know that my holiday does not begin until 16th August. That is a provisional date, and I have made arrangements to be kept in touch with the Business of the House while I am away.

I thank the noble Lord the Opposition Chief Whip for his remarks and for giving me notice that he intended to raise the subject today. Until I heard his remarks I was not sure of the point that he was intending to raise. I was a little surprised that the noble Lord felt it necessary to raise these matters on the Floor of the House rather than away from the Chamber. It is not the first time in recent weeks that he has done so. I hope that he is not seeking to impose upon your Lordships' House a form of regular weekly Business Questions as happens in another place. I am sure the House would agree that that is not how we do things here, as the noble Lord well knows.

That aside, I shall answer the noble Lord as follows. He did indeed write to me requesting a debate on the reform of the House of Lords by mid-July. After consulting my noble friend the Leader of the House, I replied that the Government agreed that there should be a debate on reform. We would wish to see a two-day debate on reform in the spill-over. The Government believe that such a debate would be of value and want it to take place at the best time for the House. It was my view and that of my noble friend that a debate in the spill-over would allow noble Lords time to gather their thoughts over the Summer Recess and to return refreshed. It would also avoid this important debate taking place in the next few weeks when the workload is very heavy.

Perhaps I may respond to points made by the noble Lord, Lord Harris, and the noble Earl, Lord Russell. Support from the Liberals is always welcome. I take the point about debates on amendments; I am sure we can discuss it through the usual channels.

The noble Earl, Lord Russell, mentioned flexibility and the differing response he had from two departments in Whitehall. That surprised me because I always have had the feeling in this Government that relationships between departments were a seamless robe. I shall draw his remarks to the attention of the people concerned.

That is all I wish to say at present. We expressed our view clearly to the noble Lord. I hope to tell the House the date of the Summer Recess as soon as I can. There is a very heavy workload. As noble Lords know, we have been given extra business. We feel that the two-day debate on reform, with which we agree, should be held in the spill-over.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord the Government Chief Whip for his kindness in answering fully the questions I put to him. It is not my intention for this to become a weekly event. However, it is an important issue which needed to be raised rather more widely than the usual channels.

I asked one further question. Can the noble Lord reply? If we are to have a debate in the spill-over, shall we be able to have before us the Green Paper, or the options paper, that the Government have promised? In other words, will it be published by the time we return in October?

My Lords, the date of publication of the Green Paper has not yet been decided. It will be published, and the Government's plans and proposals will be made available when we are ready.