Timing of Debates
I wonder if I can put a couple of questions to the Leader of the House about these time limits that he is proposing to have today. I know it is early days in his tenure of his present post, but does he not recognise that the business managers are imposing limits today which are severely testing the sense of humour of Back-Benchers to a point of destruction? Does he not also recognise that he is moving these time limits pretty close to the time limits imposed in the European Parliament—not an example normally thought good for emulating by this House? Finally, does he not recognise that there could be occasions when the national interest—and I think the two items on the Order Paper today are genuinely of national importance—does not require the House to rise at a fixed time on a Thursday evening?
My Lords, the House has taken the decision over time as to how long it wants to set aside for debates. I take the point about the importance of some of the issues being discussed this afternoon, and the number of speakers who have signed up to discuss Europe is an indication of the great deal of interest that there is in that subject. If there is appetite for a debate of that nature, my noble friend the Chief Whip is always available to discuss that, and one could have a discussion through the usual channels as to whether we could make more time available.
My Lords, I feel it is an important discussion to have now. For example, can the noble Lord say whether the usual channels have discussed and agreed the principle of a limit on the numbers of speakers, which would surely allow those who have prepared for several weeks for debates to have their say in a reasonable way?
My Lords, time is short and I do not want to prolong this debate. However, I, too, am concerned about the time limits today on speeches, on issues which are of concern to all the people of our country. We are a self-regulating House and, although on this occasion it is too late, my noble friend Lord Bassam did make representations to the Chief Whip suggesting that perhaps we could have additional time on another day for the second debate. It is clearly too late now but I hope that in future the Government will exercise more flexibility when it comes to these issues in a self-regulating House.
My Lords, since reference has been made personally to me, on this rare occasion perhaps I may assist the Leader of the House at the Dispatch Box. This is a Conservative Party debate day and the House decided as a matter of procedure that the time allocated would be five hours, as an envelope. That time limit may, in exceptional circumstances and in consultation with the Leader of the House, be extended to six hours. That has happened on one occasion in the past two and a half years, and it was of course open to the usual channels to consider it. However, as I explained yesterday to several Peers individually, even if extra time had been allocated to the first debate, that would not have given each Member one extra minute. It would not have made a difference.
Peers have quite rightly raised the question of the importance of these matters. In a brief discussion with the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, the opposition Chief Whip, I made it clear that I was not going to invite the chairman of my Back-Bench committee, the Association of Conservative Peers, to surrender the only debate that he has had in this Session. In the past two and half years, he has only had one, in the last Session. He is leading our second debate and I would not ask him to abandon it. It could not be moved to another date as this is the last Conservative debate day until the next Session. That is how precious it is.
I have also indicated that I am very happy to look at the possibility of a debate on another day, in prime time, on an issue such as Europe, where I have had representations that have been most fairly made. On that basis, we should now move on. We have important speeches to be made, and this House has made it clear in the past that speeches can be succinct. I can assure the House that I am looking at a way of ensuring that they can be less succinct perhaps on another occasion. It is time to move on and allow those who wish to speak in the debates to do so.