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Arrangement of Business

Volume 722: debated on Monday 15 November 2010


My Lords, immediately after the Motion in the name of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, my noble friend Lord Strathclyde will repeat a Statement on the G20, followed immediately by my noble friend Lord McNally, who will repeat a Statement on legal aid and civil costs reform.

My Lords, given the very large number of noble Lords—more than 50—who wish to speak in the Second Reading debate and given the heavy business programme that we have today, and the relatively light business programme for tomorrow, will my noble friend the Leader of the House consider the possibility of deferring these two Statements, fascinating though I am sure they will be, until tomorrow?

My Lords, perhaps in the first instance, I might respond. My noble friend makes a constructive and interesting suggestion. I would be happy to discuss in the usual channels postponing those Statements until tomorrow while the debate on the Motion of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, continues.

My Lords, I have great respect for the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, and I know that she will do her best to accommodate the House, if at all possible—I know only too well how difficult it is to schedule business. Given that the earliest we can start the Second Reading debate is six o’clock today—it is more likely to be later than that; given that it would be most unusual to delay Statements, particularly the important one from the Prime Minister—I cannot remember it happening more than once or twice in the past and it will be completely out of date by tomorrow and it is bad enough having it today; and given that tomorrow’s business is incredibly light and will finish by six o’clock tomorrow—it is a debate on an interim report from the Leader’s Group on Members leaving the House, which we have been discussing on and off for nine years—surely the Second Reading debate could be split, three hours today and three hours tomorrow, at no inconvenience to anyone, as far as I can discern. I do not expect an instant reply as the noble Baroness will obviously have to discuss it with other people. To me that seems to be a common-sense solution.

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Grocott has made an eminently sensible suggestion and, as Chief Whip on this side, I am more than happy to enter into discussion on his sensible proposal.

My Lords, I am intrigued by the estimate of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, on the length of business for today and tomorrow. I know that the more than 20 Members who have signed up to speak in tomorrow’s debate consider the future of the membership of this House to be a very serious matter, as I do, and are therefore very concerned that they should not be disrupted.

I am also intrigued that the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, refers to the fact that Second Reading is not expected to start today until six o’clock or later. No doubt, the Opposition have a greater idea about how long their debate on the Motion of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, will persist. I do not know. It is not time limited. Clearly, if it is a straightforward matter to resolve, it should take markedly shorter than that.

It is the expectation of this House that Second Readings where there are about 50 speakers commonly are scheduled for one day only. The former Captain of the Gentlemen-at-Arms, the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, was very much aware of that. He was still Captain of the Gentlemen-at-Arms when I became Opposition Chief Whip, and we worked closely together on that basis: that the normal procedures should be upheld. I am extremely keen that normal procedures continue and that this House has the opportunity properly to consider all business. That also involves the Government being able to take part in discussions whereby the normal procedures continue, and we have obviously been involved in doing just that on a constructive basis.

The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, refers to the fact that it is unusual for Statements to be deferred. That is not quite true, but I know that we can trade statistics between each other. A couple of weeks ago, the Opposition themselves asked that a Statement should be deferred by a day—very constructively—because it was not time-limited, and I had every expectation that they might wish to do the same on this occasion. The G20 debate would be as substantive and important to this House tomorrow as it is today. Clearly, the Opposition have decided to take a different view and wish to delay the start of the Second Reading debate today.

As I mentioned at the beginning, I am very much open to discussions through the usual channels. I heard what the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, said. I am willing to take up discussions across the whole range of timing today, but it is the normal procedure that where we have a speakers list as it was on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and at the weekend, there should be one day for Second Reading. I should remind the House that it is my duty and that of the usual channels to organise the business of the House on behalf of all Back-Bench interests. That means providing certainty as to timing in advance, so that all noble Lords may make a disposition of their outside work and other commitments to be here. Therefore, when a request is made at a late stage today, it would clearly be improper of me to agree that the Second Reading should somehow be changed when others have already made the commitment to be here today to take part in and conclude Second Reading.

My Lords, I thought I heard the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, suggest that we may have discussions, and I hope that they can be constructive, but I think that it goes broader than just discussing the issue of the Statements. I understand entirely what the noble Baroness is saying, and I share her concern to stick to first principles in the organisation of business, but events overtake circumstances and we need some flexibility. It is flexibility that the House is seeking here, and I hope that we can proceed on that basis.

My Lords, I ask the noble Baroness, when she is considering this matter, to bear in mind that the Companion also states that the House normally rises at 10 o'clock, and that the House has risen at later than 10 o'clock on a number of occasions already this year.

My Lords, as ever, the noble Countess is careful and proper in the way that she refers to procedure of the House, on which she is authoritative. I have of course looked at the Companion, as the noble Countess would expect. It states:

“It is a firm convention that the House normally rises by about 10 p.m. on Mondays to Wednesdays, by about 7 p.m. on Thursdays, and by about 3 p.m. on Fridays. The time of meeting of the House can be varied to meet the convenience of the House. In exceptional circumstances the House has met on Saturday and on Sunday”—

which I do not propose.

I was of course keen to ensure that my memory was more accurate than perhaps it might be without having looked at the statistics. The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, will not be surprised that I looked at the position when I became Opposition Chief Whip, when he was the Government Chief Whip. In that period, 2006-07, the House sat beyond 10 o'clock on 36 occasions; and in the following year, 2007-08, on 53.