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Arrangement of Business

Volume 728: debated on Thursday 16 June 2011

Announcement of Recess Dates

My Lords, we have reached 30 minutes, but I know that that Question was one in which many noble Lords wished to take part.

I should like to make a Statement on two matters. First, it may be for the convenience of the House to know that the usual channels have agreed that the speakers’ list for the debate on House of Lords reform next Tuesday and Wednesday will close at 6 pm on Monday evening, which is a little earlier than usual. In addition, the House will meet early on Wednesday, at 11 o’clock, in order to help accommodate the number of speakers currently on the list. However, Oral Questions on Wednesday will be taken at the usual time of 3 o’clock. We will start the day by resuming the debate, then break for Oral Questions, and return to the debate afterwards.

Perhaps it would be helpful if I remind noble Lords that paragraph 4.32 of the Companion provides that Members speaking in a debate should be present for the opening speeches and the winding speeches at the very end, as well as for the greater part of the debate. That does mean, of course, on both days.

I turn now to the Recess. I hear calls of “Hear, hear”, but we shall see how long that lasts. When I announced the long-term Recess dates on 21 October last year, I made it clear at that stage that the dates were subject to the progress of business. We have not made as much progress as is necessary, and I know that noble Lords around the House are well aware of that. I am now in a position to inform the House that we will return one week earlier in October. The House will return from the Summer Recess on Monday 3 October, not on Monday 10 October. That is a limited adjustment and I look to all sides of the House to achieve reasonable progress both before and after the summer to enable us to hold to the other dates already announced. Subject to the progress of business, we will still rise for the Summer Recess at the end of business on Wednesday, 20 July.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for the two Statements she has made, in particular the first one, which has been agreed through the usual channels and will, I think, be convenient to your Lordships’ House. I am grateful to her for confirming the arrangements.

I also thank the noble Baroness for telling the House about the Government’s plan to bring noble Lords back early for an additional week during the Conservative Party conference, which no doubt will be a relief to many, to deal with what I consider to be a chaotic logjam of government Bills. This is almost entirely without precedent. When we were in Government, it is true that we brought in September sittings, but that was done by agreement across the parties. Indeed, when we introduced the change back in 2002, we tabled a Motion on the matter for the House to discuss and determine. We have not been consulted about this and there is no Motion for the House to debate. When I advised Labour Members yesterday evening of the likely announcement, there was genuine anger. It disrupts long-planned appointments and arrangements, and treats the House with contempt. It says that the House is the plaything of the Government—a Government who have lost control of their legislative programme.

The truth is—in saying this I apportion no blame to the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay—that the Government are trying to force through a programme that is overlong, overprogrammed and overblown. In short, it is too long and they know it, and the House and the process of scrutiny are the sufferers. This is a crisis of timetabling, caused not by your Lordships’ rightful desire to scrutinise Bills but by political mismanagement, emanating from No. 10. This House has already had the farce of badly drafted Bills, such as the Public Bodies Bill, and still to come are the Armed Forces Bill, the Scotland Bill and the Office for Budget Responsibility Bill. We have been waiting for a health Bill that was promised to the House in May but will not be here until October or November at the earliest. We also have such complex Bills as the Welfare Reform Bill and the Protection of Freedoms Bill to come.

What assurances can the House have that, even with this extra week, we will complete our work without further incursions into Recess dates, longer nights and earlier starts? I also ask the noble Baroness to reconfirm all existing Recess dates, including those in February, and to do so with certainty. Will she also tell the House when it is intended that we shall have another Queen’s Speech, and when this Session—the longest any of us can remember—will end? How many more Bills do the Government expect to force through this House before the Session concludes? At my last count, we still had 16 in progress and another 12 or 13 to come, and had done only 16 so far. Just how many more Bills do the Government expect to bring?

May I perhaps give the Government a little advice before they embark on their next political programme? Will they ensure that, next time around, they have coherent, well worked-out Bills, and do not have more Bills in their programme than both Houses of Parliament can realistically manage and effectively scrutinise?

This a programme of legislation that has been poorly thought through, badly managed from the centre and forced on an increasingly reluctant Parliament in a timeframe that is wholly unrealistic. I urge the Government to think again about their programme, and to consult the House properly about their timetable and what they put in for the rest of the Session.

Well, my Lords, as my dear old Aunt Rose would say, the noble Lord has a bit of a brass neck. However, I will of course address each of those points. Perhaps noble Lords should not read everything on before they bring information to the House. For example, the noble Lord referred to my having apparently announced the dates of the February half-term. The noble Lord will know that I never have. I know that has said so and that it has been tweeted, but it has never been the case in this House. I do not refer to any Recess dates after we return in January; I never have. Like the noble Lord, I do not refer to the date of the end of the Session. That is not something that happens; it is up to noble Lords to make their own calculations. When we know the progress of business, we will make a Statement, as the noble Lord did when the Labour Party was in government.

This is a self-regulating House, with the implication that scrutiny of legislation cannot be curtailed except by the House itself. That is only right; it is one of the aspects of our work of which we have every reason to be proud. The corollary is that when the House chooses to dwell on a particular Bill, as it did on the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill—on which we spent 17 days in Committee, which is more than double the usual maximum for the largest Bills—more time must then be found elsewhere if the scrutiny of the other Bills in a Government’s legislative programme is not to suffer as a consequence.

I should also make it clear that we have been used, over the past decade, to agreements by the usual channels to take a good number of the Committee stages of Bills in Grand Committee, off the Floor of the House. That kind of agreement has not been achievable this Session. This Session will have the lowest percentage of Bills in Grand Committee for nearly 10 years—since the Session of 2001-02. I know that because I was on the other side taking part in it all. As a result, pressure for time on the Floor of the House is acute and something has to give.

The Opposition Chief Whip will recall that the Opposition refused to put into Grand Committee a Bill that was eminently suitable for that place. I refer to the Postal Services Bill on which the Opposition spokesperson performed a very valuable role. The noble Lord, Lord Young of Norwood Green, steered the Opposition through that Bill with great skill and Labour Party Back-Benchers also acted with great skill and scrutinised it carefully. But it was not an appropriate Bill for the Floor of the House. The Opposition insisted that it should take time on the Floor away from other Bills.

There was consultation about business. Over the past five weeks, there has been consultation with the Opposition Chief Whip to seek certainty about how the Government could deliver their business without extending the sitting period and taking away a week from the summer Session. It is not normal process in this House to consult formally more widely, but I made sure that soundings were taken around the House. It was made very clear to me that, while noble Lords would not wish to extend the period beyond July, for some reason that I find quite difficult to understand, noble Lords on all sides of the House felt that it was quite appropriate for this place to be sitting during the Conservative Party conference, when my colleagues might wish to be elsewhere. That is indeed the final decision that was taken. The decision is not taken lightly. It is one to deal with ordinary business in an ordinary way. Scrutiny in this House, when it is done well, is a model for the world to follow.

My Lords, while my noble friend must have taken a great deal of effort to avoid using the words pot, kettle and black, during the noble Lord’s remarks, she should take it on board that it is a great pity that this Administration appear to be following the example of the previous Government by introducing too much legislation that has not been adequately thought through. It is a bad habit that was formed over the previous 10 years or so and we should be resisting it, not continuing it.

My Lords, it might be appropriate for me to be permitted to answer the questions as they are put. That might be helpful. I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, will of course have the opportunity to ask a question.

My noble friend has long experience in government. He will know that all Governments have to listen and learn and I will certainly do that.

My Lords, will the Government Chief Whip say what advice both she and the Leader of the House have given to the Government on the suitability of legislation for pre-legislative scrutiny? The Government have failed to use that procedure to the full. The Government are, as the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, said, trying to achieve too much too quickly, often with proposals that are later withdrawn because they are unworkable.

My Lords, the Government have made it clear that they are very much in favour of extending pre-legislative scrutiny. That will happen. The Opposition will also be aware that in the first year of a new Government, as when I was sitting on the other side in 1997, it is not necessarily possible for a new Government to go through pre-legislative scrutiny without having a long hiatus. But it is the better model to follow and it is one that will be put within Government plans. I know that that will be welcomed by the House.

My Lords, how much will it cost to bring the House back for an extra week in October? If the noble Baroness is not able to tell us now, could she put that information in the Library?

My Lords, as I said earlier on, this should not have been necessary. I was perhaps not quite as blunt as my noble friend Lord Tebbit would have liked. For once, I will be a little more like my noble friend. Had we had a more appropriate approach to scrutiny of other Bills then we would not be sitting an extra week. If Members of the Labour party wish to know how much they have cost the House, I am happy to tell them.

My Lords, further to the comments made by my noble friend Lord Tebbit, will the noble Baroness undertake to use her best endeavours to ensure that her colleagues in the other place change or reform the introduction of the automatic guillotine for every piece of legislation that comes to your Lordships’ House? That places an extra burden on your Lordships’ House and clearly also on the Government Chief Whip. In the interests of democracy, the changes brought in by the Blair Government at the turn of the century are undemocratic and exceedingly harmful to British democratic traditions.

My Lords, my noble friend says what I hear from all sides of the House. There is a real anxiety, not just from those who have been Members of another place but also from those who have seen what happens there, that proper scrutiny is curtailed by a Government having control of the knife, as others opposite did in a Labour Government, or a guillotine. That is not the best way to run business. It is not the way that we choose to run business here. We came close to having to seek assistance from the House earlier this year. The House took a decision of which we can be proud that we want to move ahead without having guillotines in the House. As I said at the beginning, the corollary to that is that the House has to be self-regulating in the way that it carries through business. I feel, as I am sure does every Member of the House here, that that is the right way to go ahead; to have proper scrutiny but within a timeframe that is reasonable to deliver government business.

My Lords, all noble Lords will know the difficulties that are caused every time that one has to absent oneself from this place to attend to other business. There is such a continuous current of affairs going on in the House that every time one absents oneself as a matter of necessity one is apt to miss something important that one would have wished to participate in. When this happens in the middle of a term it is obviously one’s own responsibility, but when time is taken out of a recess in the way that has just been announced, the Chief Whip should be in no doubt as to the great difficulty that it causes.

As far as one is able, one arranges one’s other business to take place in the Recess. I arranged a major international conference for which I am responsible in the week before we were scheduled to return on 10 October. There is no way that I can cancel this conference. I shall have to miss the business in that week. I do not know at this stage how far the business will be business in which I wanted to take a major interest. It causes great difficulty when one is forced to miss business in the House because of other arrangements that one has made in the reasonable expectation that the dates will be free from House business. I do not know what soundings the Chief Whip took but she did not take soundings from me. I want her to be in no doubt as to the difficulty that these changes of arrangement can cause.

My Lords, I am perfectly in sympathy with the noble Lord Low. He is a hardworking Member of this House and certainly makes every best effort to be here for business. This is not like the stories that appeared in the press overnight—I do not know where they came from, as I certainly did not give any information to the press, and I state that very clearly for those who are tweeting this; I hope they will carry the rebuttal. This is not a matter of Peers being fed up—I shall not use the word that they used on the websites—with having to come back a week early because they were going to miss holidays or going skiing. That is the allegation being made.

Peers take their work here very seriously, and I understand what the noble Lord, Lord Low, said. That is why I was making every best effort to avoid doing this. It is why I sought to come to agreements with the Opposition to avoid coming back a week early, but the Opposition found it impossible to agree to put other business in Grand Committee, which would have meant that we did not have to take another week. In fact, on one Bill that was offered to us in February to go into Grand Committee, before Whitsun the Opposition said that they had to change their mind. I do not blame them for that—I appreciate that political imperatives from the Leader of the Opposition can change things—but that is now public and not a matter for the usual channels. Certainly, every best effort was made by the Government to avoid this step but, regrettably, it is necessary to come back early October.

Of course, we appreciate the difficulties caused by this backlog building up—and the noble Baroness has been very clear as to where the responsibility for that lies—but I wonder whether, for the benefit of those Peers who have other pressing engagements and who will find it very difficult to come back in that first week of October, she would consider consulting and timetabling business that does not involve critical legislation. Perhaps it could involve reducing the backlog of other business that does not require the attendance of all noble Lords in the manner that we attend regularly when we scrutinise legislation.

My Lords, I assure my noble friend that we will consult the Opposition in the usual way to schedule business that is to the greatest convenience to the House but that, of course, takes into account the availability of the opposition Front Bench. We will make every best effort to achieve an amicable resolution.

All Oppositions always accuse all Governments of introducing too many Bills, and too many bad Bills, so let us take that as read and as common ground between the Government and the Opposition. What is fundamentally different about the present situation in at least two respects is, first, that the Government have legislated to provide for a five-year Parliament. They did so, as anyone can see if they care to read the Committee and Report proceedings, to enable them to plan their programme over a five-year predictable period. Therefore, they can know exactly how many Bills they need to introduce in each of the five years.

The second thing that has changed as a result of a decision by this Government, despite strong opposition, is that this will be a two-year Session. I would think that is unique; it certainly has not happened for 40 years, and I doubt very much that it has happened since the Second World War, but perhaps the noble Baroness can tell us whether the period is any longer than that. In other words, were this a normal one-year Session, we would only just have had the Queen’s Speech; it would have been in May, and we would be starting the new Session now that would complete next April or May. Those are unique advantages that the Government have had.

I make no criticism of the noble Baroness, as she has a phenomenally difficult job—I know that very well indeed—so I offer her some very simple solutions to this problem. The Government know that they have five years, so why does not the Leader of the House and the noble Baroness, the Government Chief Whip, go to one of their friends in the Cabinet and do what she knows has to be done to explain the situation to one of the Secretaries of State who has a Bill about to be brought to this or to the other place—a Bill that will no doubt solve, as they all profess to, many of the problems facing mankind. She might suggest that it would not really be a disaster if that Bill, instead of being introduced in November or December this year, were introduced in May next year. That would not be a huge delay. The world will wait, and it would give her space in her programme. Alternatively, she can ask this House to carry over one or two Bills if the programme is in the kind of condition that she has described. I am sure the House would agree.

I suggest one very simple way in which the noble Baroness could save us quite a lot of time. We are about to embark on a two-day debate on the abolition of the House of Lords. I advise her that my judgment of public opinion is that should she announce that the Government have decided not to proceed with this in the immediate future, the nation would remain calm.

My Lords, the advice of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, is always something that I listen to even if I do not agree with it. He always delivers it in a very urbane manner. As a government Chief Whip, he was always one to be highly respected and indeed it was he who helped the House by starting to give notice of government business way in advance. On the other side, when we got into a position when the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, wanted to come back a week early, we then made sure that we curtailed business so that we did not have to. We assisted the then Government.

The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, refers to unique circumstances. At the beginning of this Session the Government planned their business on the expectation of two things: first, that this House would carry out its normal procedure of scrutiny and would not take the 17 days in Committee that the Opposition decided were necessary on one Bill; and, secondly, that this House would accept the normal split of Bills between the Chamber and the Grand Committee in the usual way, which simply has not happened. That is why we have to return at the beginning of October. I am afraid that the House is going to have to observe the results of those two matters. We have tried for over five weeks now to reach an agreement with the Opposition. I have said three times that they have failed to come to that agreement and therefore we are in this position, which is regrettable for all of us.

I know that this debate has now gone on for some time and that the Benches behind me were emptying. I ought to say in defence of my noble friends, since I have noticed some comments opposite about this, sotto voce, that they are interested in business but it is, at this very minute, the memorial service for Lord Pilkington across the road. That is where they are.