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House of Lords: Debates

Volume 744: debated on Monday 25 March 2013


Asked By

To ask the Leader of the House whether he will bring forward proposals to encourage greater interactivity of debate, and to allow time for interventions, in time-limited debates in the House and Grand Committee.

My Lords, our existing procedures allow for a degree of spontaneity. Interventions are permitted in moderation and we allow speakers in the gap. Most importantly, the Companion discourages Members from reading their speeches. Indeed, your Lordships have resolved that it is alien to the custom of this House. Not reading speeches would certainly encourage greater interactivity of debate.

My Lords, I warmly thank my noble friend for his positive Answer. I am sure that he will have heard, as I have, concerns from many Members of your Lordships’ House that debate is in fact not living up to its name, partly for the reasons that he has outlined. Given that the quality of contributions remains extremely high, so the problem is not quality but rather interactivity, will he consider reconvening the Leader’s Group on Working Practices to look at this issue in depth before we get much further down the road of more introductions?

As I have said, there are a number of ways in which we can all try to make it easier for debates to be more spontaneous. If people are not stuck to a script, they are more likely to listen to the debate that is going on and respond to the points that are raised in it. It is open to any Member to take suggestions forward to the Procedure Committee—for example, as to how one might make improvements in this area—and I know that all noble Lords are concerned to ensure that the quality of our debates is as high as it possibly can be.

My Lords, is it not the number of speakers in particular debates that causes the problem? Indeed, in some debates the time allocated is three minutes, an unrealistic time in which to expect someone to give way in a debate. Will the Leader of the House look at the possibility of limiting the number of speakers so that the minimum amount of time available was between seven and 10 minutes?

It would of course be open to the House, if it put proposals to the Procedure Committee, to decide that one way of addressing the problem that the noble Lord raises would be a limit on the number of speakers. As with so many things in this House, there is another side to the argument: if one had a fixed limit and the first noble Lords who put their names down to take part all had the same view, we would not have much of a debate. As often, then, this issue is not straightforward, but that is the kind of thing that one could look at. It is also true that there are a number of debates where we are short on speakers, so we have the problem of undersubscription as well as oversubscription.

My Lords, I hope this will not be regarded as a breach of our convention that we do not criticise the other place, but I express the hope that we do not try to go down the road that they have increasingly followed in recent years where a debate turns into little more than a conversation between the Minister who is trying to make a speech and Back-Benchers who are incessantly interrupting.

Perhaps that sound is someone ringing from another place with a view on the quality of our debates. The response that the House gave to the comments made by my noble friend Lord Jenkin reminds us that we do not want slavishly to follow examples in another place.

My Lords, if there were to be a minimum ration of, say, five minutes for each speech, surely it would not matter very much if from time to time debates ran on a little longer. That would facilitate the kind of more spontaneous and lively debating that the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, rightly calls for while ending what is, frankly, the demeaning practice of limiting the time for noble Lords’ speeches sometimes to three minutes, and sometimes to two minutes or even one.

The whole House has taken a view about time-limited debates. The advantage of them is that noble Lords know how long they have to speak, when the debate is going to take place and so on. The ingenious suggestion from the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, about allowing things to run on would effectively take time from someone else, and they would have an equally strong view the other way. These are not straightforward issues. One point worth making generally is that the amount of time in the previous Session set aside for debates was actually greater than that in the previous three Sessions. The noble Lord will probably know that I have brought forward proposals to the Procedure Committee to try to increase opportunities for debate and, importantly, for topical debates in particular because I know that there is widespread demand for that opportunity.

My Lords, although I strongly agree with what my noble friend Lord Jenkin of Roding said, perhaps there is a case for allowing some “injury time” so that interventions can be taken during time-limited speeches. We could profitably adopt that proposal, and I hope that my noble friend will be prepared to consider it.

It all comes back to the view the House has taken about the length of time it wants to set aside for particular kinds of debate. The only way of doing that formally, as my noble friend is suggesting, would be to have a cap of the sort that the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, suggested.