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Procedure of the House: Select Committee Report

Volume 684: debated on Monday 24 July 2006

My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper. Our recommendation, that Unstarred Questions should be tabled in No Day Named before seeking a date from the Government Whips’ Office, is meant to avoid the situation where an Unstarred Question appears on the Order Paper as if from nowhere. We think that this will be welcome.

However, I imagine that the House is more interested in the general debate day and whether we should stick to Thursday or revert to Wednesday. Let me briefly remind the House of the history. The matter first arose in 1999, when the House voted against an experimental switch, by 225 votes to 87. It came forward again at the end of 2000, when the House voted against an experiment, but this time by only two votes. Finally, following the review in 2004 of the package of changes to our working practices negotiated by the late Lord Williams of Mostyn, the House voted a third time in March last year. This time the House agreed to an experiment by 135 votes to 98 votes. In January, we agreed, as part of the experiment, to sit at 3 pm on Wednesdays.

The experiment ended with the last general debate day at the end of June, and the Procedure Committee has reviewed it. For what it is worth, statistical evidence shows that there has been little change on the general debate day. Average attendance in the Chamber on new-style Thursdays was the same as on old-style Wednesdays, at around 380 Members. The average number of speakers per available hour in general debates did not change. The average limit on Back-Bench speaking time fell from 11 minutes to 10 minutes and an average sitting on the general debate day was 15 minutes longer.

It is the other day that appears to have changed. Average attendance on an old-style Thursday was 350; on a new-style Wednesday, it has jumped to 430. Whether that is a good or a bad thing, I would not like to say. The report recommends that we stick with Thursday for general debates. We accept that there are different views around the House and it is for the House to decide. My view is that what we have now is working and we should stick with it.

Moved, That the sixth report from the Select Committee be agreed to (HL Paper 231).—(The Chairman of Committees.)

My Lords, I should like to refer to the general debates and, in particular, to paragraphs 4 to 8 of the report. As the Chairman of Committees has said, since 1999 there has been a question about whether the general debate day should be switched from Wednesday to Thursday. On the first vote, there was no wish to see a change. In January 2001, a change was proposed, but, following a Division, there was no change. However, as the report shows, and the chairman reminds us, on 24 March 2005 the House voted to switch the debate day from Wednesday to Thursday for an experimental period.

In moving an amendment last year, I said that switching government business from Thursday to Wednesday would effectively lead to a three- or even a two-and-a-half-day parliamentary week, and that in due course Thursdays would imperceptibly die. Eventually there would be poorer attendance at Questions and fewer speakers in general debates. There would be fewer Members in the corridors and lobbies, the Library, the Guest Room, the Bishops’ Bar and dining rooms elsewhere. The House would be like a half-closed place of work, empty of life and flat. However, the processes of Parliament are complex and subtle. They are very different from the routine procedures and relationships in other institutions. Parliament is unique and special, and we should hold fast to its particular qualities.

I said then, as I say now, that it is very convenient for busy Ministers to be largely free on Thursday. In the Division on 24 March last year, there was certainly a very full turnout of Ministers and Whips, led by the noble Baroness the Lord President, to vote for the switch. I also said then as I say now that it is convenient for government Back Benchers, who are often bored stiff in helping to keep a House, to go home early at least after Questions on a Thursday. In March last year almost 100 government Back Benchers voted for change, more than sometimes vote in routine Divisions.

The best case was put by the noble Baroness, Lady Lockwood, who said that the House prided itself on being representative, including its regional nature. For Members who live and work in the north, it would be very convenient to end the parliamentary week at the end of Wednesday. The noble Lord, Lord Gordon of Strathblane, explained eloquently the difficulties faced by Members coming from distant places.

For the most part I believe that my own anxieties last year are justified. The House is usually dead by lunch time on Thursday. We used to hold party meetings on Thursday in preparation for the following week, but we now meet on Tuesday or Wednesday, so at best in the middle of the week. My view remains that Parliament is diminished when Ministers are largely free, except for a few summer weeks, from their appearance in this House. On my own criteria, I can find no evidence that the experiment has been a positive success, at least in strengthening Parliament and raising its standing. But I recognise that the tide is flowing against what was once the majority and my own view, so I reluctantly acquiesce in the sixth report.

My Lords, I want to address another matter, but as it happens I agree strongly with the views just expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers. It is the duty of this House to hold Ministers to account, and as a result of this change we have made it easier for Ministers to come and give an account of themselves than was the case previously because now they hardly ever have to be present on a Thursday for that purpose.

Be that as it may, I am more concerned with the issue of Unstarred Questions, which the committee also addressed and to which the report referred. The Chairman of Committees was good enough to agree that I should submit a short paper to the Procedure Committee on this matter, in which I suggested that Unstarred Questions should be decided by ballot and not by the slightly magic-circle arrangements we have at present. Your Lordships know that one registers one’s interest in asking an Unstarred Question with the Government Whips’ Office. If one wishes, it can be put down under No Day Named as well, but at present one is not obliged to do so. Sooner or later the private secretary to the Government Chief Whip will offer a space for one’s Unstarred Question. I do not think that that is a very satisfactory arrangement because it leaves open to abuse the question of which Unstarred Question might be selected on a particular day. While I do not suggest for a moment that the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, has participated in any such abuse, at some future time a less assiduous Government Chief Whip might be tempted to reject or overlook an Unstarred Question that had moved to the top of the list.

The Procedure Committee has now suggested that all potential Unstarred Questions must be entered into the No Day Named list on the Minute, as well as some other changes to the Minute. I welcome that because it will mark a small improvement on the present arrangements. However, I still think that there are difficulties. The fact is that an Unstarred Question is an extremely attractive and effective means of holding Ministers to account and asking about matters of importance. However, at the moment it is difficult to get one except far in advance. That of course is more a question of supply and demand and thus perhaps a different matter. So I regret that the Procedure Committee did not see fit to consider or to agree to my suggestions, but I certainly support the improved arrangements now proposed.

Much of the discussion surrounding Unstarred Questions and the general debate day was included in the record of the proceedings of the Procedure Committee, which apparently has not been published. I have made inquiries about that. The Printed Paper Office was not able to help and, apparently, it has not been entered on the House of Lords website as is usual. I should be grateful if the Lord Chairman would look into the matter because that is a disappointment.

We now have a slightly more regularised arrangement for listing Unstarred Questions, but what happens to one which comes to the top of the list and the noble Lord in question cannot accept it—no doubt for perfectly good reasons? Does that Question then go to the bottom of the list or does he go on being asked until a slot is found to the convenience of all?

My Lords, I have noted the very important points made by the previous two speakers. I have not addressed myself to the merits of Wednesdays and Thursdays but I note that the committee recommends that your Lordships should make something permanent. Permanence is a very long time—perhaps longer than this House has been in existence—therefore I would have expected the committee to advance reasons for its choice. However, all it does is recommend that paragraph 5 be preferred to paragraph 6. The Chairman of Committees gave some reasons for the recommendation which I understood to be mainly statistical. For those Members of the House who are as non-numerate as I, having these figures waved about orally does not help us to reach a conclusion. Presumably, we are allowed to conclude for or against a committee report.

Would it be possible for the Lord Chairman to take the report back and print the reasons that he gave? I would have thought the House would require some written evidence of reasons of this kind. It may be that, in my enforced absence from the House, new practices have been introduced in the past six months—in which case, I am very sorry to draw the attention of the House to what may be a new practice—but committees should give reasons. If your Lordships agree that something be permanent without reasons having been printed, that would set a precedent. Could not the reasons at least be published on the understanding that if the House passes the report they will appear in print?

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Wedderburn, has a point; no reasons have been given. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, but he is too tender about his views. He asked whether the change had strengthened Parliament and raised standards. It has not. The committee should be congratulated on coming to the conclusion that it did if the option was to continue with the experiment or to go back to what it was previously. The previous system was a disaster; therefore the experiment, in so far as it is an improvement, is a good thing.

When we had set-piece debates on a Wednesday, sandwiched between government business on Tuesdays and Thursdays, the House was always full and people took an interest in what was going on. Now people come in on Thursdays, and the House is well attended to start with, but by lunch time it is half empty and by three o’clock, as has been pointed out, the place is dead. It cannot be right that at three o’clock the only people left are those taking part in the debate.

It was much better when the House sat at three o’clock on a Thursday. You had your party meetings before, the House sat at three o’clock and it was full. I know that one does not like going back on things, so perhaps the Lord Chairman could consider, in the next experiment, using the precedent used for the past 50 years which has worked extremely well. There is, I agree, one drawback: those who live in the north of England, Scotland, the Midlands and almost anywhere north of Shenfield find it disagreeable to spend a Thursday down in your Lordships’ House. It is only a Thursday, not a Friday or Saturday. Ten years ago, your Lordships’ expenses allowance, including night allowance and day attendance, was £107. Now it is £231.50 and we cannot be bothered to be here. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, that that is not strengthening Parliament. It is not doing Parliament any good or helping to hold the Government to account, if that is what we are supposed to do. I hope that when the noble Lord the Lord Chairman thinks of some new wheeze for the future, perhaps it will be to take the precedent which has worked extremely well.

My Lords, may I offer a rare word in support of the Government and therefore in support of the Procedure Committee? Having listened to the debate, I think that people’s perception of the past is different from mine. I have been here for 20 years, and this Government have been subject to more critical scrutiny and more adverse votes than any before. The idea that Ministers are getting an easy ride is the most preposterous thing I have ever heard. That is one problem. The second is the idea that these general debates are so marvellous. I may have been special, but I have addressed a large number of empty Houses over the years. I do not blame anybody for not wanting to come and hear what I have to say, but the notion that the House would be packed if it were on one day rather than another slightly eludes me.

I am not sure that I followed the argument of the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, but I think he said something that I agree with—that Unstarred Questions should be subject to a ballot. That is an extremely good idea. One slight drawback is that it would be tricky to include absolutely urgent Questions, but subject to that point, a ballot is overwhelmingly the best approach. I hope that the Procedure Committee will reflect on the noble Lord’s proposal.

More generally, the experiment has worked except for one other little bit: starting business at three o’clock is a waste of half an hour. I had the appalling experience a few weeks ago of forgetting that we started at three o'clock, wandering in and finding myself locked in Prayers. As you can imagine, that was the most horrifying experience for me. I would never have made that mistake if we had started at 2.30. I would like us all to reflect on the three o'clock start to protect some of us.

My Lords, perhaps it would be a good idea to bring this short debate to a close. I have heard a number of voices reflect the more traditional view on arrangements for Wednesdays and Thursdays. The noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, recognised that the tide had turned against the old Wednesday and Thursday arrangement; I hope that the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, and others will also recognise that. I can see them not nodding but shaking their heads, but I am afraid that I have to tell them and the House that that is the way things seem to have gone.

I mentioned some statistics that the noble Lord, Lord Wedderburn, did not like, but they showed that attendance and, more importantly, participation in debates are, little changed from Wednesdays to Thursdays—a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Peston.

The three o'clock start, which the noble Lord, Lord Peston, raised, is an integral part of the Wednesday and Thursday experiment. It was called for because parties wished to arrange their party meetings on Wednesday afternoons between lunch time and the House sitting. The change, which was made in January, has been popular.

The noble Lord, Lord Wedderburn, and others asked why the report was not more detailed. Again, it is the custom for Procedure Committee reports to concentrate on the recommendations made rather than on the discussions that took place. The minutes of the Procedure Committee have yet to be put on the website but they are available for all to see in the Library, where noble Lords will be able to see the arguments deployed.

The noble Lords, Lord Trefgarne and Lord Peston, mentioned the balloting of Unstarred Questions. As the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, will know, because he was there, the Procedure Committee considered this but did not favour it. There are difficulties with having a ballot for an Unstarred Question, in that there is no fixed time for them.

The noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, asked about Questions that are at the top of the list when the person who has tabled them does not want to ask them, or where it is inconvenient to take up an available slot. The current situation is that a noble Lord in that position can turn down a slot but still be offered the next available one. There are those noble Lords who do not wish their Questions to be taken that quickly and who therefore do not press for a slot.

I may have missed one or two questions, but I hope that that summarises the questions that I have been asked.

On Question, Motion agreed to.