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House of Lords: Behaviour in the Chamber

Volume 737: debated on Thursday 21 June 2012

Question

Asked by

To ask the Leader of the House what is his assessment of current standards of behaviour in the Chamber of the House and whether he will make time available for a debate on this subject.

My Lords, standards of behaviour vary, which is why in a self-regulating House it is incumbent on us all to take responsibility for ensuring that the rules set out in the Companion are adhered to in spirit as well as in letter. I would welcome a debate on the subject should my noble friend secure time for it through the normal routes.

I thank my noble friend for that Answer. Does he not agree that certain habits that are coming into this House, such as trying to intervene on people excessively and compulsively, are becoming much more of a pattern and that the noble Lord who is speaking does not have to accept an intervention? Is it not the case that in a debate where we have a speakers list and a noble Lord intervenes and the intervention is accepted, that noble Lord should be here at the end of the debate to hear the summing up?

My Lords, I have every sympathy with what my noble friend says. The Companion allows Members to interrupt each other with,

“a brief question for clarification”.

But it also makes it clear that Members are entitled to,

“refuse to give way … in time-limited proceedings when time is short. Lengthy or frequent interventions should not be made, even with the consent of the member speaking”.

That is good practice for the House of Lords and we should not emulate aspects of behaviour in another place that do not suit the flavour of this Chamber.

My Lords, it is certainly true that the House is now a bit more assertive than it was. I am bound to say I think this is a good thing rather than a bad thing. It is also true that people get intervened on in the course of their speeches. It seems to me that that is part of normal debate. I hope the Leader of the House agrees that this is meant to be a House of debate, not one in which people just get up and read set speeches from a script. In that sense it is much healthier than it used to be. Will the noble Lord consider another issue, which is Question Time? Behaviour at Question Time seems to be getting increasingly disorderly. I hope the noble Lord will agree that one of the main reasons for the disorder is that there is confusion as to whether the other side of the House is entitled to two slots or to one. On this side of the House we are perfectly clear that the coalition is entitled to one slot in the normal ladder and not to two. I ask the Leader of the House to confirm that again.

My Lords, I very much welcome the assertiveness of the House. However, there have been instances in the past of Peers intervening in an opening speech and then leaving the Chamber, not intending to speak themselves. This is something which I think we should all deprecate and is not part of the normal traditions of this House. I wish to make two comments about Question Time. I think that the behaviour in the House over recent months has been very good and I have had to intervene on very few occasions. I comprehensively disagree with what the noble Lord, Lord Richard, says: we have a very good system of understanding which side should speak next. The statistics demonstrate that at Question Time Labour Peers probably speak more than is their fair share.

Will my noble friend confirm to the House yet again that there is no such person as a noble Minister?

Does the noble Lord the Leader of the House agree that an underlying pressure on behaviour in the Chamber is the size of the House and the number of Members who want to participate? On an earlier Question, he spoke about the increased costs of a reformed House. Will he confirm that an elected House and a reformed House do not have to be the same thing, and that a smaller reformed House would in fact be cheaper than the current House?

My Lords, I understand the point that the noble Baroness makes. In 1999, the average attendance at the House of Lords was 350; in 2005, it was 400; in the previous Session it was 475; so we can see the increase there. However, as far as behaviour is concerned, more than half of the Peers appointed since the general election have not attended any of the induction seminars offered by the Clerk of the Parliaments. I have written to them, encouraging them to do so. I am glad to say that the Clerk of the Parliaments will be resuming a further series of seminars in the autumn and I would very much encourage them to go along.

Like the noble Lord the Leader, I welcome the fact that this House is more assertive in terms of interventions, but it is not so different from how it was in the past. I well recall that my noble and learned friend Lady Scotland was intervened on 20 times in one speech. I would like to put that on the record. Does the noble Lord agree that if more recommendations from the Goodlad report on working practices were agreed to and implemented perhaps that would assist with behaviour in the House?

My Lords, many of the recommendations in the Goodlad report on working practices have been agreed, but quite a lot of them have been rejected by the House. The Procedure Committee will no doubt wish to take that into account.

Does my noble friend share my dismay about the behaviour of some Members of the House of Commons? Has he seen that the president of my party in the other place, Tim Farron, described Peers as unelected political appointees coming in for a few minutes to get £300 a day? The deputy leader, Simon Hughes, said that the tax-free £300 a day was the only reason that Peers come in to the House and that we are lobbyists anyway. As a full-time working Peer, I bitterly resent such an accusation. What is my noble friend’s reaction?

My Lords, will the Front Bench perhaps give a lead on one matter and stop the growing practice of the Whips trying to intervene and stop important speeches during Second Reading debates—a practice that is in breach of the rules and conventions of this House?

No, my Lords, I completely disagree with my noble friend, but I am very glad he raised that point. The Whips on all sides of the House have a responsibility to draw attention to when a rule, as laid down in the Companion, is being broken and to offer guidance to the House. That is what they do, and they should continue to do it.