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Procedure Committee: Second Report of Session 2008–09

Volume 715: debated on Tuesday 15 December 2009

Motion to Agree

Moved By

My Lords, two reports are listed on the Order Paper and I hope that it will be for the convenience of the House if I speak to both of them, since they are in many respects linked. The two reports deal largely with the procedural consequences of the establishment of the Supreme Court, the ending of the House’s judicial responsibilities and the disqualification of those Members of the House who serve as senior judges from taking any part in our proceedings.

These changes in the composition and role of the House necessitate corresponding changes in our procedures and Standing Orders. Most of these are straightforward and self-explanatory; they are covered in the second report of the last Session, which was published at the end of October. Some of the changes, however, were less straightforward. In particular, we had to consider carefully the future role and composition of the Committee for Privileges, specifically in respect of peerage claims. Our conclusions are set out in the second report on today’s Order Paper, which was agreed and published last week.

I would like to put on record my thanks to the Lord Chief Justice and the Master of the Rolls for agreeing to provide judges to assist the Committee for Privileges in considering any future peerage claims. I can also inform the House that, since the report was published, I have had an equally positive and helpful response from Lord Hamilton, the Lord President of the Court of Session, indicating the willingness of the senior Scottish judiciary to help if called upon. I hope that the House will recognise our proposals in this area, embodied in our proposed revision of Standing Order 78, as a constructive and workable solution to a potentially difficult problem.

I turn now to the other issues covered in these two reports. I trust that our recommendations on the abolition of the Personal Bills Committee and the use of the Welsh language by committees meeting in Wales will be uncontroversial. With regard to national policy statements, we propose that they should normally be debated in Grand Committee on a neutral Motion—in other words, a Motion to consider the statement. It is of course not possible to debate substantive Motions in Grand Committee, as there is no possibility of a Division in the Moses Room. However, the use of Grand Committees for general debates on national policy statements would be in addition to those statutory procedures described in the Planning Act 2008. In other words, noble Lords would be able to table substantive Motions that would require a decision on the Floor of the House. It would also be open to Members to seek to establish an ad hoc committee to examine a national policy statement or, indeed, for one of our existing Select Committees to inquire into and make recommendations on a statement that happened to fall within its remit.

Finally, I turn to the recommendation that may be of greater interest to noble Lords—namely, our recommendation in our first report of the present Session that from the start of the new year each Secretary of State sitting in this House should once a month answer Oral Questions that would be addressed to them as Secretary of State. We propose that for the initial trial period there should be three Questions, taking 15 minutes in total, asked on a Thursday immediately following Oral Questions. The procedure will be as for Oral Questions—for instance, there will be an opportunity for supplementaries from around the House. With two Secretaries of State sitting in the House at present, this additional opportunity for scrutiny will be a fortnightly event. I emphasise that we see this as additional scrutiny. It will not impact on other existing forms of scrutiny, such as normal Oral Questions or Private Notice Questions.

I hope that these proposals will enjoy support across the House, as they did across the committee. If they are agreed, the Leader of the House and I will tomorrow move the consequential amendments to Standing Orders. I therefore beg to move the first Motion in my name—that is to say, that the committee’s second report of the Session 2008-09 be agreed to.

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the Chairman of Committees for setting out briefly but succinctly the procedure to be followed for considering the national policy statements that have been prepared and were made available last November under the provisions of the Planning Act 2008. The noble Lord has already referred to the fact that there has to be scrutiny of these national planning statements in both Houses. This was agreed in the debates in this House to be an important stage in the new planning process.

Of course, this is a formidable task. Those who have seen the volume of papers that were tabled on 9 November—six separate reports covering six aspects of energy policy—will perhaps be a little surprised that we are apparently to try to deal with these in a single four-hour debate in the Moses Room. That is the subject of one of my questions. In another place, two—it may be more—Select Committees have already been appointed to examine the reports. I understand that these Select Committees have already indicated a call for evidence. I have discussed with one or two people whether they will be giving evidence to those committees in another place.

In this House, the usual channels and the Procedure Committee have adopted the very different procedure, which the Chairman of Committees described, of a four-hour debate in Grand Committee. The Procedure Committee’s report on this aspect is very brief. I have been trying to find out exactly how this process will work. We are faced with a wholly new situation. This is not a Bill, a statutory instrument or a report from a Select Committee; it is something novel. Therefore, the authorities have adopted a novel constitutional solution. It is about this that I would like to ask some questions.

First, how is any noble Lord to propose amendments to any of the national policy statements? Will that be able to be done in the four-hour debate in Grand Committee, or will it have to rest until a subsequent procedure? The noble Lord has said that there can be no vote on any of this in the Moses Room, for reasons that we all entirely understand. Will there be a procedure whereby there can be a vote on the Floor of the House? People would like to know that. Section 9 of the Planning Act refers to,

“a committee of either House”.

As I have said, the other House is proposing not one or two but perhaps three committees to consider different aspects of this formidable array of national policy statements. This is not currently proposed in this House, for reasons that have been explained to me, but is it open to any noble Lord to propose that there should be an ad hoc committee? If so, would that be proposed in Grand Committee, or would it require a separate Motion to be considered on the Floor of the House? In paragraph 7 of its report, the Procedure Committee says:

“The Leader has indicated that in the event of a motion for resolution being tabled, the Usual Channels would undertake to provide time for a debate in the Chamber within the scrutiny period”.

Is that something separate from and additional to the four-hour debate in Grand Committee, or is it all part of one and the same debate?

My next question concerns the fact that there are six of these reports, which, as the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, will be well aware, are formidable and detailed. Is it envisaged that we will take all six reports in a single four-hour debate in the Moses Room on a single Motion, or will they be split so that we can have a number of debates on the different subjects of the national policy statements?

When can we expect the process to start? As I have explained, it is already under way in another place. I was trying to find the date for completion of the process. One of the documents refers to its completion by 22 February. I questioned whether that also applies to the consultation in this House; the answer is no. There is a separate time limit for that. In a letter written by the Secretary of State, Ed Miliband, when the reports were issued on 9 November, he stated that—the technical words are “the relevant period”—the scrutiny period should end on 6 May. The letter was addressed to the chairman of the Liaison Committee in another place, with a copy to the then acting chairman of the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee and copies to be placed in the Libraries of both Houses. Not surprisingly I did not see this until quite recently—in fact, half way through this morning, when it was drawn to my attention by one of the extremely able and helpful ladies in the Government Whips’ Office. That states clearly in the sixth sentence that the date is to be 6 May. That gives us rather more time.

Is it therefore the position—this is perhaps my last question—that if we take it right up to the end, including the several stages in this House and in another place, the final process will not be completed before the general election has to be announced and it will be for the Government after the election to decide how to take the matter forward? We have come right up against the boundary in terms of time; the Secretary of State’s letter spells out why that is so. Rules applying to Select Committees in another place state that 39 days must be allowed after issuing a report. If we are not even going to begin to discuss this until after another place has finished—or until nearly after, as has been indicated—will we not find ourselves trying to deal with it in the very last few days in the wash-up before the general election? Is that a satisfactory way for this House to deal with these formidable reports with which we are confronted? I have said previously that I believe that the Government have done as much as they possibly can in drawing up these reports, and I will have some suggestions to make when we debate them, but we have left it to the last possible minute. Is that a satisfactory way of proceeding?

My Lords, we, too, share the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin. In view of the important business to come through your Lordships’ House, I relate my queries to the final issue with which the Chairman of Committees was concerned, which is that of Oral Questions to Secretaries of State. Most of the other proposals are relatively uncontroversial.

I wonder whether the Chairman of Committees can say something about the context for that recommendation. I note that Mr Speaker Bercow has recently suggested that Secretaries of State who sit in your Lordships’ House should respond to Questions from MPs not just in sittings in Westminster Hall but in the Chamber itself at the other end of the Corridor. There are well established conventions about such a summons from one House to another. The two individuals concerned may not need the protection of your Lordships’ House—no doubt they can stand up for themselves—but there is a precedent here. What discussions have taken place with Mr Speaker Bercow on that matter? In particular, can the Chairman of Committees assure us that negotiations are in hand to secure reciprocal rights? Can we be told when Secretaries of State from the other place will answer Questions in this Chamber? It has been difficult enough, as I know from my own experience, to get Secretaries of State to come to sub-committees of our European Union Committee; they usually prefer to send underlings. What steps can be taken to ensure that we can have that reciprocal right?

On a different matter, I wonder whether we can be sure that the circumstances and terms in which one of the current Ministers referred to, who is also First Secretary of State, comes to your Lordships’ House are quite as clear as the Chairman of Committees has implied. Can he confirm that all the oral questions to the First Secretary of State, whether tabled or supplementary, must relate purely and simply to his departmental responsibilities? In exchanges in your Lordships’ House on 16 October 1995, the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, was anxious to establish the exact role and accountability to Parliament of the then First Secretary of State, the then Mr Michael Heseltine, who was also Deputy Prime Minister. If the noble Lord, Lord Mandelson, is also de facto Deputy Prime Minister, can the Chairman of Committees explain what mechanism there is in this Parliament, at either end of the building, to question him on his role? Surely it is unprecedented that Ministers should take responsibility and not be accountable to Parliament.

My Lords, I support every word said by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin. This is an important matter and it is important that this House gets it right. I want to add two points. On a simple matter, there will be many Members around the House who have not taken a detailed interest in the national policy statements that have been issued, mainly about energy, but also one on ports. I emphasise the points made by the noble Lord: the statements are at least four inches thick and are important and serious documents, which cannot possibly be scrutinised properly by this House in one debate in the Moses Room. I do not believe that having a further debate on a report back from the Moses Room in this Chamber would be satisfactory either. There has to be a process of scrutiny that allows noble Lords to get to grips with the content of these important statements.

During the debates that we had on the Planning Bill as it was going through the House, first there was the question of whether there should be parliamentary involvement in these statements at all. Some people said that they should be subject to a vote of approval, but the view that many of us took was that proper, detailed and expert scrutiny is more important than a symbolic vote of approval on the whole document. That is the argument that we put forward. I think that we now have to be true to what we said then and put into place a proper process of scrutiny by a Select Committee or some other means.

Secondly, the scrutiny was originally going to be only by the House of Commons. Led by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, who was supported by these Benches and Members from all round the House, this House insisted that its expertise—not just on the planning process but on the issues that will be discussed about energy, major transport schemes et cetera—has to be brought to bear on these documents in the national interest. The noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, is absolutely right. I think that the Leader of the House, the Chairman of Committees and the usual channels have to think more about this very quickly so that we set in place the kind of process that the noble Lord and many of us want.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, supported by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, asked me a series of detailed and quite hard questions on national policy statements, some of which are for me and some of which are obviously for the Government and the usual channels.

First, the noble Lord seemed to think that all six reports might be debated in one four-hour debate in Grand Committee. This is obviously a matter for the usual channels but my understanding is that there will not necessarily be a single debate; there could be more than one. However, that is a matter for the usual channels. It is perfectly true to say that amendments are not allowed in Grand Committee at the moment and there is no proposal to change that.

My Lords, is it too late to intervene? If not, I should like to say just one thing. Is this not another example of the problems of the Back Benches, which are not exercisable under the authority of the usual channels?

The noble Lord is entitled to his view of course, but business in this House is, and traditionally has been, arranged by the usual channels and I hope that, on the whole, the usual channels accommodate Members’ wishes. It certainly is not a matter for the Procedure Committee.

I was on the point of dealing with the subject of amendments in Grand Committee. It is certainly true to say that at present amendments are not allowed in Grand Committee. This is something that the Procedure Committee could look at in the future but the point is that, as I said in my opening remarks, a debate in Grand Committee is not at all necessarily the last word on the subject. As I said, a Motion can follow on the Floor of the House on which a vote can take place, and amendments can be tabled and so on. The noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, asked about setting up an ad hoc committee to look into the matter. It would be for the Liaison Committee to set up such a committee. Lastly, he asked me—again, this is probably more a question for the usual channels and the Government—

My Lords, I apologise for intervening but I think that the noble Lord has moved beyond the question of an ad hoc committee. Would it then be open to any Member of the House, presumably on a Motion before the House, to recommend that the matter be referred to an ad hoc committee as part of the process?

I think that it could be. I shall have to get in touch with the noble Lord with further information on that but I think that that is possible.

Along with the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, I very much appreciate that the Chairman of Committees is doing his best, but he seems to be struggling a bit with this issue. I wonder whether the best thing for him to say is not that we should pass what is before us today but that the Procedure Committee will look at the issue again as a matter of urgency.

The Procedure Committee certainly could look at it again, but there is, as the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, said, some urgency in the process because all this has to be settled by 6 May. I have an assurance from the Leader of the House that time will be found to debate these national policy statements before the scrutiny period expires on 6 May next year. If that falls within a general election period, then of course that is something that I cannot deal with. I hope that that answers the question. If not, I shall study what the noble Lord said and attempt to come back with a more detailed response.

As I said in my original remarks, as far as the Procedure Committee is concerned this process relates to the four-hour debate in the Moses Room on the national policy statements. It does not affect or stop any of the other processes that take place as a result of the 2008 Act. I hope that that deals with that point.

The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, asked me about Questions to Secretaries of State. I am aware that some Members of Parliament—indeed, the Speaker of the House of Commons—have expressed a wish that Secretaries of State in this House should be available to answer Questions either in Westminster Hall or in the Commons Chamber. Some noble Lords might have an equally strong desire to have a chance to ask Questions of Commons Ministers in this Chamber.

We have yet to receive a firm proposal from another place, although I know that the Lord Speaker has spoken to the Speaker of the House of Commons on the subject. If we do, we will consider it, but we are not yet at that stage. The proposal at the moment is that the two departmental Secretaries of State should answer Questions in this House on their departmental responsibilities—as far as I can see, that means the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, on transport and the noble Lord, Lord Mandelson, on almost everything else.

Reference was made to 6 May. If there is to be a general election on 6 May, which seems to be the favourite date so far, there will have to be dissolution by 6 April. Once dissolution takes place, presumably all proceedings in this House and the other place will cease, because it will be the end of the Parliament. Would the noble Lord like to comment on that?

I have already said that I cannot comment on when there might be a general election and what might happen to these national policy statements if there were. If there were a change of government, the new Government might not wish to pursue the statements. I am just saying what will happen in the immediate process, which is that they will be debated in Grand Committee. I hope that that satisfies noble Lords.

Motion agreed.