The report can be found at http://www. publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld200607/ldselect/ldprohse/188/188.pdf
rose to move, That the 5th Report from the Select Committee be agreed to (Session 2006-07, HL Paper 188).
The noble Lord said: My Lords, I shall begin by saying a word about the procedure for today’s debate. I shall first speak to the main Motion and, at the same time, will cover the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Denham, concerning the words “this day six months”. Once I have finished speaking the Lord Speaker will call on the noble Lord to move his amendment, which he will then do. When he has finished the Question will be put and the general debate will follow. Although technically the debate will be on the noble Lord’s amendment, it might be for the convenience of the House if any noble Lord wishing to comment on the Procedure Committee’s report, not just “this day six months”, takes this opportunity to do so. When the debate has reached its conclusion I shall respond to points made by noble Lords. It will be then for the noble Lord to respond and either press or withdraw his amendment. The original Question, whether amended or not, will then be put formally.
I turn to the substance of the Procedure Committee’s report. First—and this is the change that will have the most significant effect on how we go about our business—the committee recommends a change of sitting times on Fridays. At present Friday sittings begin at 11 am, with no target rising time. The Leader of the House has suggested starting at 10 am, with a target rising time of 3 pm. The committee agreed that that would be for the convenience of most of your Lordships. The House authorities have been consulted and raised no issues in respect of staff or administration. If this part of the report is agreed to, the first day to be affected will be this coming Friday, 30 November, when the House will sit at 10 am.
Secondly, we recommend a change to the time limits for Questions for short debate taken in Grand Committee. That would allow a time limit of either 60 minutes or 90 minutes to be set, subject to the wishes of the noble Lord asking the Question. We hope that that added flexibility will be welcomed.
Finally, I turn to the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Denham, and the time-honoured formula, “this day six months”. We recommend that it be replaced by a form of words which means what it says—namely, that this House declines to give a Bill a Second Reading. It may be helpful if I outline for noble Lords the various ways in which Second Readings may be opposed. Essentially the Companion describes three forms of opposition: first, a dilatory amendment—in other words, the “this day six months” amendment, which we are discussing today; secondly, and now very rare, there is the reasoned amendment that sets out the reasons why the House declines to give the Bill a Second Reading; and thirdly, and rarest of all, the Question that the Bill be read a second time may be negatived, although this is to be deprecated as, in the interests of good order, notice should be given on the Order Paper of any intention to oppose Second Reading. I must emphasise that all three forms of opposition are fatal. If any is successful, the Bill is automatically rejected and removed from the list of Bills in progress.
What the Procedure Committee proposes will not in any way limit the existing rights of Members to oppose Bills on Second Reading in the ways that I have just outlined. All we are doing is recommending that the wording be changed for the first of these procedures so that, instead of a dilatory amendment, which appears to postpone Second Reading for six months, we have a clear decision that this House declines to give the Bill a Second Reading.
It may interest noble Lords to know that the form of words “this day six months” became fixed in convention in the first half of the 19th century at the same time as the convention was established that parliamentary Sessions should also last six months; from February to August. The point of the amendment was therefore not to invite the Government to bring back the Bill in six months, but to ensure that the Government could not bring it back until after Parliament had been safely prorogued.
The first example of the six months amendment being used that we can find dates back to 9 April 1832, when an attempt to kill the Great Reform Bill on Second Reading was defeated. Clearly, the opponents of that Bill were not asking the Duke of Wellington to come back with a revised proposal in six months: they wanted to stop reform dead in its tracks.
Let us be clear about the significance of “this day six months”. If such an amendment is passed on Second Reading it means and has always meant that the Bill is dead, as when the Opposition successfully killed the Fraud (Trials without a Jury) Bill in March this year.
Unfortunately, the natural conclusion reached by those outside the House, who are less familiar with our proceedings, is that the six months amendment means that the Bill can be brought back six months later. That was very evident at the time of the Second Reading of the Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Joffe, in 2006, when the Information Office and the Public Bill Office were bombarded with calls from members of the public who were confused over the significance of what had just happened.
Different views were expressed about the proposed change in the Procedure Committee, but in the end we agreed to recommend it. Let me repeat that this change to our procedures will have absolutely no impact on the ability of Members to oppose Bills on Second Reading; it simply changes the form of words used. However, we have a duty to the public to do whatever we can to ensure that our proceedings are comprehensible, or at least not wilfully misleading. In the interests of clarity and public understanding, I recommend the report to your Lordships and I strongly oppose the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Denham. I beg to move.
Moved, That the 5th Report from the Select Committee be agreed to (Session 2006-07, HL Paper 188).—(The Chairman of Committees.)
rose to move, as an amendment to the above Motion, at end insert “with the exception of paragraphs 5 to 10 (“this day six months”)”.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, as is widely known and as the Chairman of Committees has just said, the “this day six months” Motion is a parliamentary tool for killing a measure, and I believe it to be an indispensable parliamentary tool. It leaves the victim more lifeless than it would have been if you had simply denied the measure a Second Reading. The crispness of its tone also alerts the House to the likelihood of a Division actually taking place.
The change proposed by the Procedure Committee is no substitute for the present practice. The report maintains that,
“those outside … are confused by the formula”.
In my experience, members of the general public know far more about the proceedings of Parliament than political parties give them credit for. Furthermore, they have come not to trust, let alone like, politicians, and the last thing they want is to be patronised by them.
I have to confess to a certain amount of déjà vu over this. Some 25 years ago, there was a procedure in this House known as “the Previous Question”. This was a very useful device designed to enable the House to avoid debating and voting on a matter if, for any reason, it would be inappropriate to do so. As the then Companion to the Standing Orders put it:
“This is an expedient by which a decision may be reached that the Question on the issue be not put at all”.
Some bright spark put it to the Procedure Committee of the day that nobody understood the Previous Question, it was seldom used and did not really work in the first place. Does that sound familiar? In point of fact, the Previous Question worked in the first place because Peers were hesitant about incurring what amounted to a finding by the whole House that they were behaving in an inappropriate manner. It was seldom actually used because the mere suggestion from the Clerks that a Motion might incur its use was often enough to persuade the Peer concerned to change his mind about tabling it.
But the Procedure Committee of the day swallowed the idea whole anyway and, with hardly anybody who knew anything about it noticing, amended the Companion to the Standing Orders to substitute for the “Previous Question” a “Next Business” Motion—that,
“this House do now proceed to next business”.
It was bound to happen, perhaps, but only a matter of weeks after the demise of the “Previous Question”, a matter came up that would have been tailor-made for it. A matter of great national, or international, importance had arisen and highly delicate negotiations were going on to try and bring it to a satisfactory conclusion. It was very strongly felt that for the House of Lords to debate the matter and come to a conclusion could be disastrous. We looked instead at the use of the “Next Business” Motion, but it appeared to us that it would give the impression, not that we were having the sensitivity to avoid muddying the water, but that the whole thing was too petty for us, and that we could not be bothered to discuss it. So the “Next Business” Motion was denied its maiden voyage and, as far as I have been able to find out, it has never been used yet. The public ask us to do our job, and they have the sense to know that some of our procedures are not as instantly understandable as an advertisement hoarding.
We have many procedures that a passion for modernisation and political correctness might react against instantly, without consideration of the fact that these are tried and tested ways of doing our job. I confess to great affection for, and loyalty to, them. Others may feel differently. I suggest that these procedures make your Lordships who and what we are, and often they gather meaning as time goes by.
To revert to the “this day six months” amendment, I believe that its apparent ambiguity, that people find perfectly easy to understand, represents something of the essence of how your Lordships continue to exercise your function as a revising Chamber against another place’s habitual and sometimes slightly brusque determination to have its way. And if we let this one go, where and when will the modernisers strike next? But there is something more important than that. Over the past 50 or 60 years, your Lordships have absorbed and weathered major changes. The Salisbury/Addison convention turning the House into a true revising Chamber. The arrival of the life Peers. Nine-tenths of the hereditary Peers departing with good grace. Many noble Lords opposite coming in numbers large enough to achieve the balance between the parties that had become necessary since 1997. All this happened without changing the essential atmosphere of the House, good will, good manners, good humour and good faith on all sides of the House—however deeply we may feel on any particular measure. And how was this so? It is my belief that the answer to this is not unconnected with the mystique of your Lordships' House, a mystique clothing a deep respect for our procedural mysteries, and trust in the point of them. I also believe that we tamper with this at our peril. I beg to move.
Moved, as an amendment to the above Motion, at end insert “, with the exception of paragraphs 5 to 10 (“this day six months”)”.—(Lord Denham.)
My Lords, I wish to speak briefly on the report as a whole. I support the measure on the Questions for Short Debate in Grand Committee but I hope that it will be applied with flexibility and common sense. I notice that today’s Question for Short Debate is set down for 90 minutes. There are six speakers limited to 10 minutes each, apart from the Minister, who is limited to 12 minutes, which according to my arithmetic comes to 62 minutes. I do not know which bureaucrat decreed these time limits but when speakers such as the noble Lords, Lord Warner and Lord Elystan-Morgan, are available to speak on such a subject, to artificially limit them when time is available is silly. I hope that when we look at these matters, whether in Grand Committee or the Chamber, some common sense will be applied.
We give the Friday sittings measure our full support. On “This day six months”, I have some sympathy for the idea that this House should keep some of its mystique. I have always said that if we started behaving like Croydon Council we might get treated like Croydon Council.
My Lords, it is not a Lib Dem council; I know that there are numerous members of the Croydon mafia on the Conservative Benches.
It is a balance. I have been a wholehearted supporter of the Lord Speaker’s outreach programme, and I have been thoroughly convinced of the need for this place to make itself more understandable to the general public. I really think that there is a difference between some of our procedures which might appeal and give us a certain authority, and a simple suggestion that replaces something that is palpably wrong—
“that this bill be now read a second time”—
with something that is quite clear:
“that this House declines to give the bill a second reading”.
The example given by the Chairman of Committees of the Joffe Bill is telling. It did confuse the general public, and it is one example where we should abandon a little of our mystique in favour of plain speaking.
My Lords, having Questions for Short Debate in Grand Committee is an experiment that we shall watch with interest. There is so much expertise around the House that it is important to use it as best we can in matters such as our short debates. With regard to sitting time on Fridays being advanced to 10 am, if I can only go by the straw poll of those with whom I have spoken in the Corridors, one expects that it will be welcomed, particularly by those noble Lords who have some distance to travel home on a Friday after a lengthy week of work in this House.
No one who reflects on the immense experience of my noble friend Lord Denham, after over half a century of service in this House and his unparalleled experience in the usual channels and on the Procedure Committee, would do other than take very seriously indeed what he says. This is an old House, even if the majority of us have come here in the past 10 years or so. I came here in November 1996. There is a wealth of experience in our procedures and customs, and it would be sad if changes that may seem trivial to some noble Lords were to trouble longer-serving Members who value our traditions. Those of us who have come here more recently are now in the majority, but surely we have a duty to heed and respect the views of our more experienced colleagues.
In the great scheme of things, this change is not a matter that will rock the walls of this House. Of course “This day six months” did not mean precisely what it said on the tin, but not everything does. For example, the Clerk of the Parliaments—whom we greatly respect—is only the Clerk of your Lordships’ House, but I would not want to see that ancient title and honour change, and I do not remember that ever being proposed. I suspect that if it were it would be given a very short answer.
The Chairman of Committees has referred to an occasion when a Second Reading of a Bill was defeated. When we voted last Session to defer to this day six months the Second Reading of a Bill to restrict the right to jury trial in fraud cases, there were precious few of us, if any, in that packed Chamber who did not know precisely what we were doing. I was in the Chamber, and it was very clear to those of us taking part.
The removal of the middle option of “This day six months” leaves the House with only two options, which the Chairman of Committees has set out, as has my noble friend. First, we could come up with an argumentative reasoned amendment—it is familiar in another place, but we do not normally use it in this House yet. Secondly, we could bluntly vote down a Second Reading outright. Perhaps my inclination, like that of my noble friend Lord Denham, would have been to keep the middle way. Of course, as a member of the Procedure Committee, given that there is no minority report, I judge my words carefully but maintain my absolute respect for my noble friend.
If we do not follow my noble friend’s recommendation today, as the Procedure Committee recommends, it will be more than unusually and especially important that the Government make it clear that they will not complain if noble Lords are to reject outright at Second Reading a piece of legislation that, as far as these Benches are concerned, is not covered by a manifesto and thus by the Salisbury convention. Some are suggesting already that this House should lose its right to reject a Bill at Second Reading. Surely it is a corollary of the removal of the “This day six months” Motion that that clear power to reject Bills at Second Reading must remain and be accepted by all parties.
I ask colleagues on all Benches carefully to bear in mind the words of my noble friend Lord Denham alongside those of the Procedure Committee. But, having reflected on the views of many Peers—both new and more experienced—who have spoken to me on this matter in recent days, I hope more than anything that we can look forward to a period of stability in our customs and procedures.
My Lords, I know that the opposition Chief Whip does not speak too often, but today she has made herself very unclear. I am not sure whether she is supporting the Chairman of Committees or her noble friend Lord Denham, who was crystal clear. He wants to keep things as they are, because, he said, the public understand these things rather better than we believe they do. I am not sure that the average Sun reader understands very well the fact that at the moment we say something that does not mean what it says. I am not sure that even the average reader of the Times—although it has moved a long way—quite understands what we are doing.
The noble Baroness said that her noble friend hoped that the Government would stick by the fact that we could reject a Bill at Second Reading. She may have forgotten that the opposition Front Bench like to attack the Government, but this is hardly a point on which to do that, because we can still reject a Bill—whether or not we do that in a nonsensical way. It is not a mystique that even the average reader of the Daily Mirror understands. The fact is that we all know that “This day six months” does not mean anything. To carry on with it is nonsense and, in supporting the Chairman of Committees, I hope that he will understand that, when the Liaison Committee meets shortly, my support will be wholehearted.
My Lords, I was a member of the Procedure Committee when these points were discussed. I agree with the report. On the specific issue of “This day six months”, I understand that often in this House a balance in our affection for mystique is required—sometimes a little camouflage is useful in political matters. That is one side of the issue. The other side is that the House is in a confident mood and that if we decide that we decline to give a Bill a Second Reading, it would be an expression of confidence if we made that clear to ourselves and the public. I fall clearly on the side of noble Lords in the Procedure Committee who recommend in their report that we should move to the more direct statement of what we intend to do. I will always defend the House when it makes matters clear in plain English, which I have spent most of my life defending in the European Community. I will defend that in this House also.
My Lords, I am asking a very pertinent question on this and so, yes, I think that I must. The “This day six months” Motion and the reasoned amendment are of course a prior warning that there is likely to be a Division. Under the system proposed by the Procedure Committee, will the new amendment be on the Order Paper in advance of a debate being held?
My Lords, I thought that we had had sufficient debate on this issue. Perhaps I may deal, first, with the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord McNally, and the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay of St Johns, on Questions for Short Debate. I agree that they are very important in this House and that it is important that we maximise their usefulness with our new procedures. The proposal relates only to Questions for Short Debate held in Grand Committee and not to those held on the Floor of the House. It is up to the asker of the Question to say whether the debate should last for 60 or 90 minutes, but the advantage is that in the time allowed in Grand Committee there would, in theory, be time for four 60-minute Questions rather than two of 90 minutes.
I am grateful for the support of all those who have spoken on the subject of Fridays.
I think that there is some confusion about the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Denham, and I am sorry about that—it must be my fault. It is manifested in the question put by the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, and in the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay of St Johns. Three options are still available to the House. First, there is the reasoned amendment, which has not altered. Secondly, there is straightforward rejection of a Bill at Second Reading, which, as I said in my opening remarks, is deprecated because it gives no notice to anyone that it might happen. That should not, and does not, happen very often and in fact has not happened for a long time. The third option is merely a change of words, which will appear on the Order Paper. Instead of “this day six months”, the wording will be, “This House declines to give the Bill a Second Reading”. That will be the exact signal that the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, rightly asks for that there is likely to be a Division on the issue, just as there is on the question of “six months”.
I say to the noble Lord, Lord Denham, that it may well be that we should retain some mystique in our proceedings. I am not going to make a comparison between ourselves and Croydon Council, which I have nothing against—nor does the noble Lord, Lord McNally, who I see is shaking his head. I am all in favour of tradition but I do not think that we should deliberately mislead the public. With the “six months” amendment, there is no question that a Bill will come back in six months’ time; it is clear that it will not and never has done. It may interest your Lordships to know that before 1832, when the House generally started to sit for six-month periods, amendments to Bills stated, for example, “That this Bill be read a second time this day two months” or “That this Bill be read a second time this day two weeks”. That was when there were no fixed terms to Sessions, as there are now.
I grant that we should probably have dealt with this issue a long time ago when we moved from having six-month Sessions, which, unfortunately, I do not suppose the government Chief Whips are in a hurry to get back to. We should probably have changed the wording when we moved to longer Sessions, but better late than never, I say. I hope that what I have said and what has been said in the House will enable the noble Lord, Lord Denham, to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I am in a slight quandary because all but one of the noble Lords who have spoken on this have been members of the Procedure Committee and so, by custom, are unable to advise against the Motion. Therefore, the Chairman of Committees has a distinct advantage on the issue. On the other hand, I do not feel that I can press your Lordships to a Division if no actual support has been expressed in this House. I therefore have no alternative but to beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
On Question, Motion agreed to.