Motion to Refer to Grand Committee
My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Freud, I beg to move that the Welfare Reform Bill be committed to a Grand Committee. This is a question of business management, for which I am responsible.
Although the House is regularly called upon to agree commitment Motions, such Motions are normally taken formally because they are the result of an agreement among the usual channels. On this occasion, however, the usual channels have not been able to agree on the commitment of this Bill, despite protracted discussions. As a result, and because there appears now to be no prospect of reaching an agreement in this case, the question does need to be put to the House.
This is a matter I have taken not lightly but only after full consideration. In coming to a view on the Motion, noble Lords should be aware that if this House is to have reasonable time to scrutinise each and every one of the Bills sent to us by another place, a reasonable proportion of those Bills do need to be committed to Grand Committee, rather than being taken here in the Chamber itself. That is for the Committee stage only, of course.
That has been our practice for more than a decade. This Session, however, we are on course to have the lowest proportion of Bills sent to Grand Committee since 2001-02. That simply is not a sustainable position. If too large a proportion of Committee stages are taken on the Floor of the Chamber, that has to be, practically, at the expense of the amount of time that the House can debate each of our Bills. If the House is to have reasonable time to consider each of the government Bills, a further Bill needs to be considered in Grand Committee.
Welfare Bills have been considered in Grand Committee before; indeed, under the previous Government that was the case. The Companion sets no conditions on whether a Bill should be considered in one forum or the other. Colleagues will recall that the Goodlad group on working practices recommended that all Bills should be considered in Grand Committee but that Report and Third Reading be taken in the usual manner in the Chamber, where Divisions may take place.
I have taken soundings on this matter from around the House. Overall, bearing in mind the Bills currently before the House and those that are yet to reach it from another place, I believe that the Welfare Reform Bill is the best candidate for scrutiny in Grand Committee. It merits the more in-depth, informal and technical approach and the more, shall we say, paper-friendly reading from outside offered by the kind of facilities available in the environment of a Grand Committee.
I hope that it is noticed that I am stressing Grand Committee, not the Moses Room, where I understand there would be some concerns about a Bill of this nature being considered. I fully recognise that a number of noble Lords who use wheelchairs and have other mobility restrictions would find the Moses Room difficult, and I therefore discarded that as an option. I want to ensure that as many Peers as have an interest in the Bill, whatever their mobility or access issues, are able to play a full part. I am also concerned that those from lobbies who brief noble Lords, who may themselves have mobility issues, should also be able to attend and observe our debates. I know that they are broadcast from both the Chamber and Grand Committee but it is clear that members of the public treasure the opportunity to attend in person.
I have already asked the Director of Facilities to discuss with Members which Committee Room layout they would find the most convenient and to take account of the likely number of participants and observers and their full needs. I am confident that the end result would be significantly more convenient for everyone than would be the case if the proceedings were all in this Chamber.
I am aware that there may be concerns among those who are lobbying colleagues at the moment that Grand Committee does not work. I have been there many a time. It was introduced to facilitate the proper scrutiny of Bills in this House, and it does work.
As the government Chief Whip, my advice to the House is that this Bill should be committed to a Grand Committee for its Committee stage, with Report and Third Reading following on the Floor. This will ensure that the House as a whole has sufficient time to devote all its views to Committee-stage scrutiny of the Bill, as well as being able to give proper time to the other Bills still awaiting consideration over the remainder of the Session. I formally invite the House to commit the Welfare Reform Bill to Grand Committee. I beg to move.
My Lords, this is a very grave situation. It is unusual for the usual channels not to be able to agree on a way forward in dealing with legislation. Colleagues in this House will know that I have a reputation for being very open in my negotiations and that I am always ready to conduct those negotiations in a friendly and charitable way. It is a role that I perform not just for my own party but with an eye on and a mind towards the whole House. I am frequently lobbied by others outside our grouping to approach these matters in that way.
I am deeply concerned about this Motion for several reasons. I see it as a first step towards a fully regulated House. I do not think anybody wants that; we certainly do not and I am sure most noble Lords do not want it either. I have tried to offer options on days in Committee. It is also an open secret that we were prepared to discuss splitting the Committee sessions of the Bill between Grand Committee and the Floor of your Lordships’ House. I thought we were making steady progress towards that objective. So far this Session we have agreed to commit eight Bills to Grand Committee and we were prepared to negotiate on a further two. That is the largest number since 2007-08.
I am seriously concerned about the ability of all noble Lords to participate in the proceedings on this Bill. The noble Baroness has rightly drawn attention to the shortcomings of the Moses Room. Those shortcomings are just as apparent on the Committee Corridor. Several colleagues have told me in clear terms that the rooms upstairs are not much better and that a lot of furniture will need to be moved to facilitate those who have difficulty with mobility and to enable lobby groups and those who are interested in the Bill to participate and observe proceedings.
We should take the Motion away and continue negotiations. There is no rush. In my view the Bill needs around 68 to 70 hours of Committee time. That is how long it had at the other end and that is how long we should spend on giving it fair consideration in your Lordships’ House. If that is to be the case, it would occupy around 15 or 16 sessions in Grand Committee. My last offer on this was to suggest that the Bill be considered on the Floor of the Chamber for some eight days and in Grand Committee for the remainder, to deal with those technical and difficult issues that are tucked away in schedules at the back of the Bill.
The Government have got themselves into a muddle with their legislative programme. I have said that at the Dispatch Box before and I repeat it today. This is a two-year Session at the beginning of a Parliament, and part of a five-year fixed-term Parliament. We have had fewer Recess days than previously; our Recess time has been cut to facilitate the Government’s programme. We are working longer parliamentary days: 70 days have gone beyond 10 pm and in many instances well beyond 10 pm. Bills have been delayed. We have only just received the health Bill for our consideration. There is great concern. This is a highly controversial piece of legislation; let nobody doubt that. The Bill deserves to be dealt with on the Floor of the House. I make my offer again to the government Chief Whip. I am prepared to negotiate; is she?
My Lords, I have been open to negotiation and received just the word “no”. I welcomed the offer of the Opposition to engage in discussions about splitting the Bill between the Chamber and Grand Committee. However, the negotiation was one in which the Opposition said no to the Government. The offer of four days on the Floor of the House and as many as the House wished to spend in Grand Committee was turned down. This has to be balanced against the needs of other Bills, which will also attract great attention around the House from people who feel passionately about and have great expertise in all the issues.
In response, I shall refer to one or two of the points that the noble Lord raised, and I shall try to do so fairly briefly. This is not a step towards regulation—just the reverse. This is the House regulating itself. It is self-regulation to avoid full regulation. It is not the case that Grand Committee has been used effectively in the past few years. I note the careful way in which the opposition Chief Whip referred to a number of Bills. The numbers of Bills in Grand Committee in recent years are as follows. In 2007-08 there were 10 in Committee of the Whole House and 12 in Grand Committee. In 2008-09 there were nine in Committee of the Whole House and six in Grand Committee—that is 40 per cent. In the following years the figures were 36 per cent and 33 per cent of Bills in Grand Committee. We are at an all-time low in agreements from the Opposition to put Bills into Grand Committee.
I would have liked to have been in a position where we did not have to sit in the first week of October during the Conservative Party conference. We debated this in June, when I made it clear that the failure to put another Bill into Grand Committee would mean that this House would have to sit for longer in order to give proper consideration to Bills. On that day the Leader of the Opposition said:
“One of the problems, not only on my Benches but throughout the House as a whole, is that people do not understand yet that the Grand Committee is not a second-rate Chamber”.
She is absolutely right. She continued:
“It is a Chamber where we can deliberate and assess Bills and scrutinise them just as we can in this Chamber”.
Again, she is right. She continued:
“All around the House we have to be more aware of the ability of this House to better use the Grand Committee”.
She went on to say:
“I know that next week my noble friend the Chief Whip will wish to enter into further conversation with the government Chief Whip to see how we can secure other Bills in a Grand Committee of this House”. —[Official Report, 16/6/11, col. 1031.]
We had those discussions but the result was that the Opposition refused to allow the Government to split the Bill in such a way that there could be proper consideration on the Floor of the House and yet also consideration of other matters in Grand Committee, thereby allowing other Bills to have their time in the Chamber. I have done all I can to come to an agreement with the Opposition, but the response has been to turn down the Government’s offer of time.
My Lords, this is a very unfortunate day for this House. For the first time in the past decade we find ourselves having this kind of debate over whether or not a Bill should go to Grand Committee. I would hope that even at this stage the government Chief Whip would agree to go away and have wider discussions if necessary, involving the Convenor of the Cross Benches if that has not been done already, across the House.
I need to say to her that the House may have inadvertently misunderstood the noble Baroness, or she may have found herself misrepresenting the position to the House, but the Goodlad committee did not say that all Bills should go to Grand Committee. It said that Bills should go to Grand Committee except for controversial Bills, emergency Bills and constitutional Bills. I do not think that anyone can seriously argue that this is not a controversial Bill. The Government have got themselves a problem which the noble Baroness betrayed a little in what she said. She was saying that we have got to deal with all the Bills that come from the Commons. That number of Bills, and the degree to which they are controversial, is not an accident or event caused by a third party; it is a decision made by the Government at the highest level, of which the noble Baroness and the Leader of the House are an important part. We have an unprecedented two-year Session in which there has been a very high proportion of constitutional Bills and controversial Bills. It is astonishing that we have got to the position where the Government simply cannot accommodate the Bills. The Government should have had a shorter legislative programme. Why are we considering today a Bill for fixed-term Parliaments that establishes five years for each Parliament? Why could that not have been done next year? It would have saved us no end of time if we had had that Bill next year instead of this year.
I want to try to be constructive. Perhaps I may simply put it to the government Chief Whip that I am sure there is room for flexibility. Anyone who has ever found themselves in her position knows perfectly well how difficult it is. Why does she not have discussions with my noble friend and others? I am sure that there is at least one Bill left in the Government’s legislative programme that could be carried over to the next Session. It would require the approval of the House but I am quite sure that if it was a sensible proposal the House would carry over one of the Bills to the next Session, which would enable us then to have proper time on the Floor of the House, where this Bill should be, for proper consideration.
I just appeal to the noble Baroness. This is a really unfortunate road on which she has embarked if we are going to have these kinds of debates every time a decision has to be made on whether a Bill should be committed to a Grand Committee or considered on the Floor of the House. She should at least consider the proposal that one of the remaining Bills, in order to release time, could be carried over until the next Session.
My Lords, perhaps I may respond briefly to the noble Lord, Lord Grocott. Anyone can call a Bill controversial—that is true. I remind the noble Lord that we agreed that the very controversial Extradition Bill would go into Grand Committee—there are very good precedents—as did the Welfare Reform Bill and the Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Bill. There is a clear impact on other Bills if this Bill does not go into Grand Committee.
My Lords, the noble Baroness will be aware of the consternation that is being expressed by disabled people about this decision. I have been copied into an e-mail to the noble Baroness. Noble Lords have received a number of e-mails. There is both a practical and a symbolic significance to this decision. I am new to this House and I do not know the ins and outs of where Committee stage is taken, but disabled people feel that their democratic right to observe the proceedings at the Committee stage is being severely curtailed by any decision to take the whole of the Committee stage off the Floor of the House. It has been accepted on this side that some of the Committee stage should be taken in Grand Committee, but there are clauses in the Bill that are highly controversial. It is not just about experts coming in; it is about people who feel that their lives or livelihoods are at stake.
My Lords, normally I would not come in on the next day after participating in a very lengthy and big debate the night before. I generally need 24 hours at home to recover. However, this morning I was woken by several phone calls from disabled people who told me of this proposal and urged me to come in to speak. I feel compelled to be here. I am deeply concerned at the noble Baroness’s proposal. I had understood that the technical parts of the Bill would happen outside the Chamber—and we can live with that. However, the new proposal that takes us completely away from the Chamber unfortunately makes it tremendously difficult to have access, not just for disabled Peers to participate effectively—it is much easier in here—but for disabled people who are following this debate online or on the TV and who come here to brief us. It will be almost impossible for them to do this. Yes, a few can come into the room, but it will be more difficult.
Perhaps more importantly, not to be able to test the opinion of the House—I know it is not often done in Committee—on one of the most significant pieces of legislation for disabled people in my adult life is deeply disturbing. I ask the noble Baroness the Chief Whip please to reconsider.
My Lords, I am afraid to say that I disagree with the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell. I believe that the Bill should go to Grand Committee. The last Welfare Reform Bill was quite controversial—I remember it. We had days and days in the Moses Room, it was very useful for the Minister to have his civil servants right behind him and we got a great deal of work done.
We must not forget that this Chamber is constantly interrupted by Statements. Noble Lords opposite, quite understandably, want every Statement going. We hardly ever turn down a Statement, which means that every Committee in the Chamber is interrupted, sometimes for several hours, by Statements. This pushes the time on and a lot of disabled people, me included, find it very difficult to stay late. We will probably find ourselves in a situation where there are a handful of noble Lords in the Chamber debating something important quite late—well after 9 pm. For all those reasons, Grand Committee is, on balance, the best place for the Bill.
It was very good to see so many noble Lords taking part in the Bill. Yesterday it was terrific that we had a really long debate; it does not always happen. Welfare reform Bills usually have a small number of experts, but this time there were masses of noble Lords, which was very welcome. However, if we can be accommodated in a suitable room upstairs, including wheelchair users and people such as me who have mobility problems, alongside members of the public and pressure groups, and we can have quite a number of days, I believe that the best course is to have the Bill in Grand Committee.
My Lords, there can be no dispute in the House that this welfare Bill is a very important Bill. Everybody, I am sure, agrees with that. It is important for literally millions of our citizens out there—indeed, some of our most vulnerable citizens—so it needs to be scrutinised properly and we need to do our best to get the Bill right so that it meets its objectives. Yesterday there were some 50 speakers at Second Reading, which demonstrated very clearly the degree and range of interest in the Bill.
During the years I have had the privilege to be in your Lordships’ House I have always been immensely impressed by the arrangements that we call the usual channels. I have never been a member of the usual channels, but I have always been impressed by their efficiency and skill in managing business, including, I have to say, some complicated Bills and some very controversial Bills. I am sure that I am not alone in feeling sad that the usual channels have not been able to reach a consensus on how this important Bill is to be handled. I hope that I am in order in making a plea on behalf of the Cross-Benchers that we get back to effective use of the usual channels, because I am sure that that is the best way to manage the business of this House. Let me repeat that the business of this House in these Bills is extremely important, not for parliamentary reasons alone but for the impact that these Bills have on the lives of our citizens.
My Lords, in an effort to be conciliatory, would it not be possible when considering putting a Bill into Grand Committee to allow the House to vote that, in so doing, the Grand Committee shall have the right to vote? Obviously, the main difference between being in Grand Committee and being here is that Grand Committee does not have the right to vote. Would that not be a way of easing the problem we now have?
My Lords, will the noble Baroness the Chief Whip please accept from me that the last suggestion, well meant though it was, would, from my experience as a Whip, be a bit of a nightmare? Having said that, I support my noble friend Lord Grocott and I say to the noble Baroness that, as well as the issue of the number of Bills, there is the fact that some of the Bills in this extra-long parliamentary Session have actually been two or three Bills wrapped up, described as one Bill and then—to shock-horror from the Government Benches—have taken a long time.
I suggest two things to the noble Baroness. This is unseemly. It would be much better if the usual channels could have regard to what has been said in the Chamber and look at the position again. Quietly, behind the scenes, the government Chief Whip could look at some of the Bills about which she is concerned, considering not only my noble friend's suggestion about carryover but a little surgical removal of extra Bills that have been slotted in to suit her friends in government which could well wait a short time.
My Lords, it appears that at the moment, the usual channels have not succeeded. I fear that this will not be the last time. It is the logical conclusion of shortage of time arising from the greatly increased membership of this House. Much more time will be required for other debates as well. We are told that Her Majesty's Opposition said no during discussion through the usual channels. Were the Cross-Benchers consulted? Did they say no, yes or nothing? We are also told that the Moses Room is unsuitable and that we must go upstairs. What would be the cost of adapting the rooms upstairs?
My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell, and feel very strongly about this. I have no doubt that appropriate access will be made available for Members of your Lordships' House who are in wheelchairs. My real concern is for members of the public, disabled people, who will really struggle with not being able to access these recordings and information if the debate is held outside the Chamber. For us to offer proper scrutiny and for the public to be able to understand and brief us, it is important that debates are held in an environment to which disabled people have access. It is virtually impossible for disabled people to come to London because of issues with public transport while we have legislation that allows only one wheelchair user to travel per train. We are doing them a great disservice by not having this debate in the Chamber.
My Lords, behind the niceties and pleasantries of these exchanges, the simple fact remains that the Government are seeking to impose their will over the Opposition just because the Opposition will not dance to their tune. That is the fact of the matter. To clarify what are the differences between the two sides, as I understand it—I hope that the noble Baroness will correct me if I am wrong or confirm it if I am right—the Government wanted four days on the Floor of the House for the Bill and the other days in Grand Committee. The Opposition wanted eight days on the Floor of the House and the other days in Grand Committee. Is that the difference that is tempting the Government now effectively to try to impose a guillotine?
My Lords, I do not find myself distressed by this debate. It does no harm for people like me, who grouse about the usual channels, to be reminded what a useful service they are and why we do not want this to happen too often. We have had the Education Bill in Grand Committee. It has not been a happy experience. I agree that it is, by and large, an uncontroversial Bill, although there are certainly some twitchy bits to it. To have the Moses Room filled by the 50 people who take a specialist interest in the subject and to have no room for people to drop in—to participate in small bits of it or to take a general interest in the Bill so that they are informed about it when they think about what they want to do at Report or to develop their ideas—prevents the House doing its job properly. I am not clear how we could adapt the accommodation upstairs to allow room not only for the 50 specialists who are there all the time but for another 50 of us to drop in to enjoy it and for 100 or so of the public, including people in wheelchairs, to participate as well. I do not understand how we can physically adapt ourselves to that, and I would be grateful for help on that point from my Chief Whip.
I remind the House that I had ministerial responsibility for the last two Welfare Reform Bills, which, as has been explained, were taken in the Moses Room. However, the scale and scope of those Bills was nothing like the Welfare Reform Bill before us at the moment. This is not our description, it is the Government’s description. The Government have said that this is a landmark Bill, the biggest change in the welfare system since the 1940s, and how important it is for the future of our country. That is the Government’s position. Therefore, it deserves enough time on the Floor of the House.
Anybody who listened to the debate yesterday would have noted that a big aspect of the Bill, recasting DLA into a new system, has caused real consternation in the disabled community, with millions of people potentially affected by it. For their sakes, if nobody else’s, we need to make sure that we can debate that in this Chamber so they have the best possible access. We did agree a split of the Bill, mostly on the basis of what was tabled by the Government; I think there was one adjustment we wished to make to it. We have co-operated. As my noble friend Lord Corbett says, we are talking about just four days. If that is what divides us we should take this away, rethink and get back to the usual channels.
My Lords, I think we have covered all the issues because I am hearing the same arguments again. The arguments are keenly felt and I do not undervalue them but it is right that I should be able to respond to those points.
Obviously my greatest concern is about those who wish to ensure that there is proper access for all Peers, particularly those with mobility issues, and also for those who wish to watch, hear, understand and read. I am assured that there is more space for wheelchair users upstairs than downstairs, for both Peers and members of the public. When bringing visitors here, I am all too keenly aware of the difficulties for members of the public in getting upstairs to watch the Chamber.
I was concerned by the presumption that those who wish to follow our proceedings will not be able to do so properly unless they are in the Chamber. All the proceedings in Grand Committee are webcast—I know because I watch them—and they are all recorded in Hansard. There is no difference in accessibility through the internet or paperwork between the Chamber and Grand Committee.
There is an allegation that the Government have too much legislation. I remember making the same allegation against the Opposition when they were in government but I agreed to controversial Bills going into Grand Committee to ensure that all Bills could have time for proper consideration.
There was a comment about the importance of scrutiny of Bills. Scrutiny by Members of this House is valuable, and valued by me, wherever it takes place, whether it is at the Dispatch Box opposite, on the Cross Benches or on the Back Benches behind and in front of me. It does not matter whether it takes place in this Chamber or in Grand Committee—the arguments are as strong wherever they may be made.
The point has been made that there is little difference between us, and that is precisely the case. The Government made an offer which the Opposition rejected. Our offer was to ensure that there was a reasonable split between Grand Committee and the Chamber—a split that would have meant that Peers who are interested in all the other Bills have a proper opportunity to consider those Bills as well. I am convinced that it is right to ask the House to take a decision on this matter.