Skip to main content

Arrangement of Business

Volume 721: debated on Wednesday 20 October 2010


My Lords, my noble friend Lord Sassoon will now repeat a Statement on the comprehensive spending review 2010 that was made earlier today in the other place. It may be helpful if I remind the House of the guidance in the Companion:

“Ministerial statements are made for the information of the House, and although brief comments and questions from all quarters of the House are allowed, statements should not be made the occasion for an immediate debate”.

The Companion goes on to make clear that:

“If a debate upon a statement is desired, a notice should be tabled for a later date”.

A debate on the spending review has been agreed between the usual channels and will be on Monday 1 November. That debate has already been published in Forthcoming Business today and a list of speakers opened this morning. However, the usual channels have been discussing whether there is a case today to extend the 20-minute period available for Back-Bench questions and answers, as has happened in exceptional circumstances in the past. In view of the length of today’s Statement, the usual channels have agreed that we should give an extra 10 minutes for Back-Bench questions and answers.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Chief Whip for her statement, which I welcome. Yesterday’s debate on the strategic defence and security review showed that there is very strong feeling in this House that the time allowed for Back-Benchers to debate such vital issues is not sufficient; that is why we asked for extra time. In the past few days, many Members on all sides of the House have indicated, if anything, stronger feelings about the time which had been proposed for today’s Statement on the CSR, which, by the Government’s own account, is enormously important for our economy and our whole country. A reasonable offer has been made and we accept it, but ultimately the offer is not sufficient. Many Members across the House seek a longer period in which to discuss urgent matters such as those before us today.

We recognise that time has been allocated for a fuller debate, which we also welcome. However, that is not until next month. This matter pinpoints an issue that many Members have raised with us—that this House is currently poorly provided with the means by which we can immediately consider important issues. We have provision for topical Questions and for Private Notice Questions, but, because of this unsatisfied need for a means by which immediate issues can be discussed, we believe that this is an appropriate issue for the Leader’s Group on working practices to give greater consideration to. We will accordingly write to the noble Lord, Lord Goodlad, who chairs the group, proposing that it does exactly that.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his support for the fact that discussion on the Statement should be extended, as was agreed by the usual channels. On very rare occasions the time limit for Back-Bench questions and comments on Statements has been extended by 10 minutes, most recently on the constitutional renewal Statement last June. Although there is always pressure on time in this House because noble Lords take their duties very seriously on all matters of business, it is by no means the case that Statements have always been extended over the past 13 years. For example, when the White Paper on House of Lords reform was published in July 2008, there was no extension of time; nor was that done in October 2008 or January 2009, when a succession of Statements were made by the previous Government in response to the turmoil in the financial markets and the banking sector. However, that is not to undermine the fact that this House always has the right to make its representations with regard to the tabling of business through the usual channels and, on occasion, through other means.

I note in particular two points that the noble Lord has just made. First, he claims that the debate will not take place until next month. I gently remind him that it is a matter of merely 10 days. In that period the expectation is that Peers will have the opportunity to look at further developments arising from today, such as further Statements that may appear from other departments. Therefore, all Members of the House will have a greater opportunity to make an impact on that debate. It is, of course, our responsibility as the usual channels to act in the best interests of all Members and we work together very closely to achieve exactly that.

With regard to the statement by the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, that extra time was not granted yesterday, as far as I am aware no request was made in respect of yesterday’s Statement. However, I am pleased that we have achieved agreement on today’s.

The noble Baroness referred to occasions in 2008 when there were important matters to be discussed and implied that the Government did not allow an extension of time. Did the Opposition ask for that extension?

My Lords, I apologise to the House for the manner in which I raised the issue yesterday. However, on the substance of the issue, I have been overwhelmed by noble Lords from both sides of the House saying they agree with me that it was strange that we had only 20 minutes for Back-Bench questions, and the House was up before 7 pm. There were so many people who wanted to participate in yesterday’s debate, not just on the Labour side but distinguished former service chiefs and many other people with a lot to say. Now we have a Statement on a comprehensive spending review that covers five years and every department of state, but we are getting only an extra 10 minutes. I hope that the Chief Whip will respond positively to my noble friend’s request and say today that they will agree that this matter should be considered in an appropriate way, so that some flexibility is allowed.

My Lords, I am pleased to have had the opportunity to dispel, I hope, misunderstanding about the procedure of this House. Certainly yesterday the House abided by the correct procedure as laid down in the Companion, which guides all our behaviour. If changes are made to the Companion procedure, it is only after discussion by the Procedure Committee and, of course, the decision thereafter by the whole House. That is a continuing development. With regard to the representations made to the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, clearly all Peers who wish to take part in a debate on yesterday’s matters will have the opportunity to do so in a non-time-limited debate on 12 November. That follows the pattern of the previous Government. I was always grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, when that was offered by the previous Government and we complied with that. It provided a time, uninterrupted by other Statements on a Friday, to listen fully to the views of experienced noble Lords in this House on defence matters. I am sure that we will enjoy that again. With regard to the latter point made by the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, I would never prejudge or exempt any Leader’s Group from action. It is for the chair of that group to make decisions—not me.

Perhaps I may briefly try to be helpful. Am I to understand that we are—as I think we are—to have the Statement repeated? This is ludicrous. Most people have watched this on television, been in the other Chamber or can read. When we come to review the way we organise ourselves and the noble Lord, Lord Goodlad, looks at this issue, I hope that the noble Baroness might give a strong recommendation that in these circumstances we do not require the full Statement to be read out.

My Lords, the genuine joy of this place is that novel points can excite great interest. I am sure that this is something that will be further discussed. I am very interested by that proposal, but of course today we will follow the procedure that the Statement will be repeated by my noble friend.