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Arrangement of Business

Volume 736: debated on Thursday 26 April 2012

My Lords, while we have the Leader of the House with us, I wondered if he would explain to the House the arrangements that will be in place on Tuesday for Prorogation, which I know is a matter of interest to all. While I have the opportunity, would the noble Lord also give fair consideration, if we go late on Monday in debating House of Lords reform, to enabling the closing speeches to take place on the Tuesday morning before we prorogue? I have in mind that, with 63 speakers already identified, things might go rather late and, given the importance of the subject, I am not sure that that is what the House would prefer.

Noble Lords have not heard what I have said yet. I will demonstrate how playful the noble Lord is being. We had of course agreed in the usual channels that we would have a day’s debate. I am a bit surprised to hear him today suggest that there should be more time. It is of course perfectly well precedented for us to have over 50, or even 60, speakers in a day. The further two days that we have given are also now well known; a number of Peers have already put their names down to speak then. They will be on Thursday 10 May and Monday 14 May. So over the next three weeks we have three whole days to debate your Lordships’ House, which must be enough.

Next Tuesday, of course, is 1 May. That is the day when traditionally members of the people’s party go marching and waving flags, and I am sure they will be doing so in Brighton. It is also, I am led to believe, the date of the ancient fertility rite when perhaps even Members of this House dance around maypoles, though I am sure that will not include me. The noble Lord is right that it is extremely likely that the House will prorogue on that day, and we will make a further announcement when we have completed the passage of the Sunday trading Bill. I hope that the House feels that there is more than enough time to discuss the future of your Lordships’ House. I see that the noble Lord, Lord Richard, whose debate it is, is trying to get in, so perhaps I will give way to him.

My Lords, I say to the noble Lord the Leader of the House that I am not in a playful mood about this. If we have 63 speakers down now for the debate on Monday, which could well be 70 or even more by the time that the debate starts, it is quite wrong to expect the House to deal with that issue, the Bill and the report on the Bill in a debate that could perhaps finish at 2 am or 3 am. That is not the way in which it should be done. In my view, which I urge the House to consider—properly, not frivolously—we should adjourn at a normal hour on Monday, come back on Tuesday and continue the debate. Prorogation can easily take place at the conclusion of a normal day’s debate on Tuesday just as easily as it could take place earlier.

My Lords, I am sorry that the noble Lord thinks like that. Earlier this week, we suggested to the Opposition that we could start the debate this afternoon. On Monday, when I made a short business statement about today, my noble friend Lord Tyler prudently sought an assurance from me that the House might sit later than our target rising time next Monday; in fact, he went further and assured me that there would be great enthusiasm in your Lordships’ House to go through the night if necessary on this issue. I know that my noble friend was making a joke, but the fact that there are 63 speakers should really not in any way stop us from dealing with this issue on one day on Monday, as is extremely well precedented.

My Lords, I rarely press a second time in situations like this. The noble Lord is right that there was a suggestion that we could consider this matter today. I saw the early version of the forward business and took the view that the Sunday trading Bill may well take a little longer than business managers opposite believe to be the case; I may be wrong, but I may not. Although the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, may suffer from bouts of insomnia from time to time, I try to control mine, and it is in the House’s best interest at least to consider these matters at a time when all of us in your Lordships’ House have a reasonable opportunity to participate properly.

I urge the noble Lord the Leader to be slightly more flexible in his approach to this. He is known for his flexibility and generosity of spirit. While 1 May is certainly a day that we all enjoy celebrating in different ways, the House might enjoy having some extended opportunity to listen to the arguments on House of Lords reform.

My Lords, I strongly support the noble Lord, Lord Richard, and what has just been said. There is no reason at all why this House should not debate on Tuesday. I have attended many Prorogation ceremonies in this House, having come down the Corridor from another place, that have taken place at 4 pm, 5 pm or 6 pm. There is ample precedent for that and no reason for it not to happen. The facilities of the House will already be paid for—that was an excuse for our not sitting last week—and it would mean that there was ample time to have a civilised debate during civilised hours. It does nothing for the reputation of this House if we sit until 2 am, 3 am or 4 am; frankly, that is an insult to this House and to the wider community. This is a crucial issue on the future shape of the Parliament of the United Kingdom and it should be debated at civilised hours on Monday and, if necessary on Tuesday. The noble Lord, Lord Richard, deserves the support of the House in this matter.

I will give way in a moment because I am generous and flexible on these sorts of matters. When we announced that we were going to have two whole days of the Queen’s Speech devoted to discussing the future of this House, the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton—so it has been drawn to my attention—tweeted to say that it was a sign of skewed government priorities to give so much time to it. Today, he asks for more time. Over the next two weeks, out of six sitting days, we will be debating the future of the House of Lords over three whole days.

I have said that I am going to give way in a moment. If the noble Lord continues like this, I will not.

My Lords, I say to my noble friend Lord Cormack, that outside this House the general public may take the view that, in spending so much time on discussing the House of Lords when there are other things to debate in the Queen’s Speech and otherwise, we are already being very generous. Now I will give way to the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes.

I am grateful to the noble Lord the Leader of the House. I wanted to clarify one thing. My understanding is that the two days of debate on the Queen’s Speech are on constitutional matters, not just on the future of the House of Lords. So those of us who want to raise devolution issues, the Mackay committee or any other constitutional matters could do so in those two days. It is not just confined to the reform of the House of Lords. I hope that the noble Lord the Leader of the House will confirm that.

Can I also put it to the noble Lord the Leader of the House that his statement about there being two extra days during the debate on the Queen’s Speech to discuss constitutional matters, which may include the House of Lords, is not to the point? The fact that there will be two further days makes no difference to the number of speakers lined up to speak on the debate that is scheduled for next Monday on the report of the noble Lord, Lord Richard. Is the noble Lord the Leader of the House suggesting that some of us who have put our names down to speak on Monday should take them off the list and wait for a further opportunity on 10 May or 14 May? If that is not what he is suggesting, these two extra days on the Queen’s Speech will do nothing to reduce the overcrowding of the list of speakers who want to speak on Monday.

My Lords, there will be an extra day added to the Queen’s Speech debate if an announcement is made in the Queen’s Speech that there will be a Bill on the future of the House of Lords. But, of course, the Queen’s Speech debate is one debate. Noble Lords will be able to raise the issue of the future of the House of Lords wherever they want but, for convenience, we have suggested that two days should be specifically set aside so that noble Lords can concentrate on the issue on those two days. I have announced those days.

I understand the issue that the noble Lord, Lord Low, raises. The point is that it is entirely well precedented to have over 60 speakers speaking in a major debate and completing it in one day. There is no reason why we should not be able to do so.

My Lords, will the noble Lord the Leader of the House let us know how many speakers would need to be on the list for next Monday for him to conclude that we could not complete the business in one day, as that would allow us to organise our affairs?

Could my noble friend simply explain, since we have not had an explanation and I do not understand the point, why we cannot debate it on Tuesday as well?

My Lords, I have tried to say, first, that it is entirely well precedented to have 60 speakers in one day. Secondly, it is likely that we will prorogue on Tuesday, subject to the progress of business, although we will not be able to make an announcement on that until we have completed the passage of the Sunday Trading (London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games) Bill.

I warmly welcome the Leader of the House’s comment that we should not waste too much time in this House debating subjects that are of no interest whatever to people outside it. I put it to him that the solution is in his and the Government’s hands—that is, to drop the Bill.

My Lords, it is a kind and generous offer. I have already, and rightly, been kind and generous in offering as much time as I have. Of course, if a Bill is announced in the Queen’s Speech, it will be just the beginning of many debates over the many hours and days that we shall have, not just between now and the Summer Recess but possibly well after.

My Lords, the Leader of the House referred to the traditions of the House. Is one of those not that the Leader listens to the House? Around 10 speakers have now asked him to do something; none has supported him. In pursuance of the point of the noble Lord, Lord Richard, if Monday’s debate ends at 2 am or 3 am, 70 or 80 people—and the staff—will, for no particular reason, have to stay here, very tired, in the middle of the night to hear the closing speeches and get home afterwards. If they do not, they will have to scratch their names. Is this not a ridiculous position for the Leader to get himself into without any good reason? Will he not listen to the House?

In the spirit of helpfulness, may I make another attempt to suggest a possible solution to the problem of accommodating such a large number of speakers in Monday’s debate, so that we will be able to complete it in social hours? If the Leader of the House is so opposed to carrying the debate over into Tuesday and splitting it between two days, may I suggest that we begin the debate at 11 am on Monday?

My Lords, I listen to the noble Lord, Lord Low, with care every time he speaks. I remind the House that many Members travel a long distance to get here. I fear that the reason for not suggesting that the debate begin on Thursday afternoon was that the noble Lord the Leader of the House knows that it could excite the wrath of, for example, the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, on suddenly being told that Thursday afternoon was the time being suggested. I still have not heard the reason for the noble Lord’s absolutely unusual refusal to listen to the House, except that the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, apparently agreed to it. Having heard the views of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, on the future of the House of Lords, perhaps we do not need to debate it at all.

My Lords, perhaps I am being naive again but I thought that the whole point of having this debate on Monday was so that we could make the case for a Bill not being included in the Queen’s Speech. My noble friend argues that there will be two more days to debate the Queen’s Speech—by then it will be too late. I thought that the whole purpose of the debate was for the Government to be informed. I have not put my name down to speak because, frankly, I did not fancy hanging around until 2 am. However, if my noble friend were to agree to the additional time, I would be happy to add my thoughts, which I am sure would be very helpful to the Government.

To say that two more days are available in the Queen’s Speech debate to discuss this question suggests that the Leader of the House thinks that it will be relevant to the Queen’s Speech so to do. I certainly understood that the Queen’s Speech was supposed to be a matter of mystery until it was delivered. It is not therefore reasonable to assume at this stage in our parliamentary progress that the future of this House would be relevant to a debate on the Queen’s Speech, so I find that argument rather difficult. Certainly, for my part, I am not going to take part in the debate on Monday, nor would I do so if it were to be extended to Tuesday. I have various views about it, but I had better not say. The suggestion that the debate should continue until 2 am or 3 am strikes me as absolutely absurd.

I cannot see any difficulty in having the Prorogation ceremony fairly late on Tuesday. In fact, I have been a participant in Prorogation ceremonies that have taken place quite late. I do not remember the latest occasion, but they were certainly late in the evening. I can therefore see no difficulty in having a Prorogation ceremony on Tuesday, but still allowing substantially two days for this debate at this stage, before we know what is in the Queen’s Speech.

My Lords, if the Sunday trading Bill goes through without any great difficulties, will the noble Lord tell the House what time he is planning to hold the Prorogation on Tuesday?

I am unable to do that but we will be making an announcement shortly. I am glad that all my noble friends have been so helpful on this. The plain facts are these: if we had never had a debate in your Lordships’ House with 63 or 65 speakers, and had not managed to complete it in a day, I would completely understand what the House was saying. The point is that time and again we have had debates with even more than 63 or 65 speakers in a day. It is therefore perfectly well precedented to do this. The very significant point that my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern made is entirely right. None of us should pre-empt the Queen’s Speech, least of all me; but in the eventuality that there was an announcement, it was entirely right—and again this is well precedented by successive Governments—to put down the subjects of debate for the subsequent debate on the humble Address. We are doing nothing new, nothing adventurous and nothing dangerous, if I may say so. My noble friend Lord Forsyth is certainly not naive on these matters. If we are taking so much time today to discuss how much time we should devote to the debate on the Joint Committee report, one can only imagine what it would be like if we were ever faced with a Bill itself.

Before I conclude, can I just say that I know there is a great deal of interest in this subject. We have a system of discussing these issues within the usual channels. Would it not be better for us to use the usual channels? We thought we had an agreement until half an hour ago. Perhaps we should use the usual channels again to debate the matter further.

My Lords, perhaps I may raise a point that has not been made so far, which is that the debate is not to be time-limited for individual speakers. Therein lies the problem, because if noble Lords look at the Companion, they will find that they could speak for up to 15 minutes each, and—given the enthusiasm that there is about this subject—if noble Lords chose to speak for that length of time, the idea that we would rise at midnight, or even 2 am or 3 am, is fanciful. On that basis, we will be here well into Tuesday. Of course noble Lords must operate a certain amount of self-restraint, but even if they were to speak for only half the time, some seven and a half minutes, I calculate that they would still be here for nine or 10 hours. This is not sensible and I ask the noble Lord to think. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, said, “No time limitations”. I do not know why he said that; most people could make pithy effective speeches within four or five minutes, and then take part in the longer debate on the Queen’s Speech. That would be an effective way of dealing with this. I disagreed with what the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, said; he is not in his place to defend his views, but it was none the less daft to suggest that we should not be time-limited. I suggest that we try to have time-limited speeches and finish at a sensible hour.

Perhaps I may make one little point to the noble Lord when he is considering what should happen—what he should do about this. My recollection is that on the last day before Prorogation, there is a rush among government departments to say things that they have not had the opportunity to say before. All we need is one or two Statements on Monday and the whole of the timetable is pushed back by another hour or hour and a half. Can he guarantee that there will not be any Statements on Monday?

Does not my noble friend recognise the impact of this performance on his reputation? We all have huge respect for the way in which he conducts himself and it would be very distressing if this example of uncharacteristic obstinacy was to prevail against the wishes of the House as a whole.

I ask the Leader of the House what seems to me a very simple question. We have been told that we are going to prorogue, presumably, in the morning—that is why we cannot continue the debate. Why cannot we prorogue in the afternoon? I just do not understand the argument, because we have not had a reason why it cannot be later in the day.

My Lords, the noble Lord may recall his history of the other place in Edwardian times, when Arthur Balfour, who was rather used to making long and fanciful statements, was ejected from the prime ministership and went into opposition. He may recall the occasion on which Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, who had just become Prime Minister, said that Balfour tried to dazzle the House with his verbal gymnastics and studied eloquence. Henry Campbell-Bannerman dismissed him with the following two sentences:

“I say, enough of this foolery! It might have answered very well in the last Parliament, but it is altogether out of place in this”.—[Official Report, Commons, 12/3/1906; col. 992.]

I appeal to the noble Lord the Leader of the House to recognise that the specific report to be debated is one of such significance. A report of this importance rarely comes before the House. It is an insult to the people who worked for three months to produce the report on such a significant issue to have it debated right into the early hours of the morning. I fear—this may be what the Leader of the House has in mind—that a number of people will strike their names from the list because they will not be able to stay that late. That is a way of muzzling the House which is quite unacceptable.

My Lords, I suggested a moment ago that we have a means of discussing these issues through the usual channels. I think that that is the most appropriate way. I was struck by something that the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, said. She said that Peers should be able to speak and make pithy and effective speeches. I quite agree. Sometimes during the course of the past half hour, I have felt that I was suggesting the slaughter of the innocents. If there really were so many speakers down for Monday, of course we would have given it two days a long time ago. No noble Lord has explained why we cannot have a debate on Monday with 63 speakers; we have done it many times. However, I am happy to discuss this with the usual channels, and when we have a clearer idea of when the Sunday trading Bill will complete its passage through Parliament, we will be able to make an announcement on Prorogation.