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Arrangement of Business

Volume 736: debated on Thursday 22 March 2012

Announcement of Recess Dates

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall make a short statement about business. On the first of this month, my noble friend the Leader of House announced in the usual Written Statement that the Queen will be pleased to open a new Session of Parliament on Wednesday 9 May. As this is the first mid-Parliament spring opening for many years, I should now like to say a word or two about the end of the Session and Prorogation. My right honourable friend the Leader of the House of Commons has today announced that the other place will be considering the Finance Bill in the week of 16 April. Unlike Easter, the Finance Bill is an immovable feast which follows the Budget. While the other place is in Committee of the Whole House—the Chamber—on the Finance Bill, the two Houses cannot effectively deal with ping-pong. For that reason, I now propose to add a week to the Easter Recess. We will now return from Easter on Monday 23 April instead of on Monday 16 April.

It is my intention that our legislative business on this Session’s Bills should be concluded by the end of Thursday 26 April, or thereabouts. That may include a Bill to be introduced in this House to relax the Sunday trading laws for the period of the Olympics and Paralympics, for this summer only, of course. That will go forward only if fast-track legislation on that is agreed between the usual channels. I confirm that discussion is under way at the moment in the usual channels about whether fast-track legislation may be agreed to. In short, we will return from the Easter Recess on 23 April for the outstanding Bills and, potentially, the Olympics Sunday trading Bill. Parliament will then be prorogued in the usual way a few days before the start of the new Session.

My Lords, I have no desire to strike a discordant note at the news of your Lordships’ House having an extra week’s holiday, but I will take a moment to reflect on how we have arrived at this point.

We had an 18-month legislative programme that was extended over two years. The House was brought back for a September sitting. We had a week added to our work in October, and we had a half-term Recess cancelled last November. We have had a rather chaotic approach to legislation in the past two years. With all the pressure that has been applied to our Front Bench to conform to late sittings and early starts, it seems deeply ironic that we have ended up in a bizarre situation where the Government forgot that they had to deal with their Finance Bill before they could deal with ping-pong.

Will the noble Baroness consider taking back to the Prime Minister a request from this House for a reconsideration of the timings of the parliamentary terms? Spring to spring just does not work. We have purdah, we have Budget debates and of course we have the moveable feast of Easter. There is a disconnect. On Monday we are going to be asked to consider extending the hours in which we deliberate in Grand Committee. We are being asked to do more work yet here we are, in April, being given an extra week off. This does not strike me as a sensible way of doing business.

My Lords, this House is indeed a very hard-working House. The noble Lord said that he thought the House was going to be asked to do more work. There will be a debate on the Procedure Committee before the House on Monday, if the House agrees to a Motion later today. Noble Lords will be able to make their points at that stage. The opposition Chief Whip is aware that it is the Government’s intention only to make proposals with regard to Grand Committee that will enable the House to have more opportunity to scrutinise legislation without having the late finishes or early starts that were only tabled at the express request of the Opposition.

We had a September sitting last year. It proved unpopular. I listened to the House and therefore there will not be a September sitting this year. Of course, I always listen to the views of the House. Indeed, on Monday the House spoke with such a loud voice on the Health and Social Care Bill that the Government found that we no longer needed to consider that Bill at further stages in the normal procedure of ping-pong. My overwhelming duty is to ensure that this House sits because it has pressing matters of business and to provide the circumstances in which the House can do so. I am the first to applaud the work this House does and I know it will continue to do it to the best.

My Lords, can the noble Baroness clarify one point she made in her initial statement? She said that she expected the business on current legislation to be concluded by the end of business on 26 April. Was she implying that that would be the last sitting day before the opening of the next Session? Perhaps I could also remind the noble Baroness that by extending the Easter vacation she may have done irreparable damage to the audience for the Parliament Choir on 18 April.

My Lords, I am told just the reverse: that there is great relief that there will not be the prospect of ping-pong on the legal aid Bill on that day, and there is huge welcome around the House that I have managed to ensure that the audience—and particularly the superb performers from this House—will be able to attend and not to disappoint their Chief Whips on that occasion.

The noble Baroness is right to want further elucidation of my comment about 26 April. It is of course never the case that the Government announce the precise date of prorogation until business can be secured. I notice the noble Lord, Lord Bach, looking eagerly forward, because of course he speaks for the Opposition on the legal aid Bill. I am also aware of the number of defeats that the Government have so far faced on that, so there will be time for that Bill. I carefully said, “26 April or thereabouts”. Of course, I will be meeting with the opposition Chief Whip later today to ensure that by the end of today there is a notice of forthcoming business reissued to the House to assist the House.

My Lords, will my noble friend confirm that if the Motions to which reference has already been made are approved on Monday, that will result in most Bills going into Grand Committee rather than being taken on the Floor of the House? There are real constitutional implications here. I should be grateful for clarification.

My Lords, I know that my noble friend the Leader of the House will clarify the situation to make clear that my noble friend Lord Cormack is labouring under a misapprehension. That matter will be debated on Monday.

My Lords, the Chief Whip, by her statement today, has made it clear that in her estimation there is plenty of time in terms of sitting days left before we need to prorogue to complete government business and to have any essential debates. She will know that the Joint Committee on House of Lords Reform will report immediately after the Recess. Can she assure the House that, with all this spare time available, there will definitely be a full day for this House to debate its future as determined or otherwise by the Joint Committee? She says she listens to the House, so “yes” will do.

My Lords, the assurance that I can give to the noble Lord is that when we have all had an opportunity to see that report there will be discussions about what time should be set aside for debate. Clearly, we have not seen the report yet and I know that the committee is hard at work on it.

My Lords, given that we understand the point about the Finance Bill even if we are not sympathetic to it, and given that we understand not wishing to have September sittings for this House, apart from that, will the Government accept that it is better that the two Houses should sit at the same time? A few weeks ago, we were out of synch: we sat for one week and the Commons sat on a different week. That makes Joint Committees and all-party groups very difficult, and is probably more costly. Could we synchronise where it is possible?

My Lords, I cannot agree with the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, which is rather unusual because I agree with him on many things. This House has its own rhythm of business. It does not slavishly follow the business in another place in the way that it has to be scheduled. We do not have matters as yet—I hope not ever—on timetabling and guillotine. Therefore, there has to be flexibility.

I know that cost was raised before and it is really a matter for the Chairman of Committees. I can repeat the assurances that he has given by Written Statement. There is no greater cost if the two Houses sit at different times. There is only a greater cost when this House sits for more days. As one will appreciate, that is simply because of the cost of Peers’ expenses, which for a week run at about £496,000.

Will the noble Baroness clarify a little what she was saying about a debate on the report from the Joint Committee on House of Lords Reform? Does she agree that it would be undesirable if the Joint Committee were to publish its report when just one House is sitting and not when both Houses are sitting? Does she also agree that if we have a debate on that proposal, it probably should be more than a one-day debate because of the amount of interest in this House?

My Lords, reports are often published when neither House is sitting. I have given the answer that at the moment we do not have sight of that report. It is keenly awaited and has not yet even reached the last committee stage. It would be premature for me even to consider giving any undertakings as to business management and I do not propose to do so.

On the question of the £490,000 to which the noble Baroness referred, where will that now go? Could it go back into our budgets and be spent on Select Committee work? As the noble Baroness knows, the Liaison Committee has been under considerable pressure on the matter of resources.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, for trying to assist the House in making savings. He is a valued member of the Administration and Works Committee, a job that I know he takes very seriously since I serve on that committee with him. However, I regret to say that there will not be any savings as such because of the hard-working nature of this House. I should explain that in the calendar year 2011, whereas another place sat for 149 days, this House sat for 156 days, so we actually cost another week. I can give an assurance that in the forthcoming Session, 2012-13, we will sit overall for the same number of weeks as the House of Commons. It is just that we have a slightly different pattern of sitting days.

My Lords, reverting to the matters raised by my noble friends Lord Grocott and Lady Taylor, if I did not misunderstand the Chief Whip I think she said that there would be discussion between the usual channels after the publication of the report on Lords reform by the Joint Committee to consider when a debate might take place, but she did not say that we would have the opportunity to debate that report before the conclusion of this Session. Is it not very important that this House should be able to express its views on the report of the Joint Committee before the Government finalise the content of the Queen’s Speech?

My Lords, I have said two things which I am happy to clarify again. The first is that the report has not even been concluded, let alone published, and we do not yet have confirmation of the publication date. Of course, as would anyone, I would prefer to wait until publication before making decisions on the programming of business. I would expect the programming of forthcoming business to be carried out in the normal way between the usual channels.

My Lords, perhaps I may come back to the point raised by my noble friend about when the report of the Joint Committee is to be published. The noble Baroness will know that there have been extremely helpful discussions in the usual channels and there has been an understanding that the report would be published when both Houses are sitting. I wonder whether the Chief Whip would take that matter back. Surely it would be respectful of this House if the report were published when it is sitting.

My Lords, publication of the report is a matter for the Joint Committee and I would not ever seek to interfere with the Select Committees of this House.

My Lords, I thank the government Chief Whip for the information she has given to the House on the financial implications of the changes being proposed this morning. May I seek a total assurance that when we deliberate these issues on Tuesday afternoon, all the financial implications in detail on any possible changes in procedure will be available in advance to Members of the House?

My Lords, can the noble Baroness tell the House what is to happen to the Oral Questions that have been tabled for the week beginning 16 April? I have tabled one myself.

That is a very fair question. I understand that the clerks are going to talk urgently to those noble Lords who have been successful in tabling their Questions.