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Procedure of the House

Volume 744: debated on Wednesday 24 April 2013

Motion to Take Note

Moved by

That the 5th Report from the Select Committee (Private notice questions; tabling oral questions; repeal of Standing Orders; repetition of answers to House of Commons urgent questions) be agreed to (HL Paper 150).

My Lords, I beg to move that the fifth report of the Procedure Committee be agreed to. There are three Motions in my name listed on today’s Order Paper, so I shall begin by outlining briefly the procedure that we will be adopting.

The fifth report, to which I now seek the agreement of the House, contains proposals relating to the tabling of Oral Questions, the repetition of Answers to House of Commons Urgent Questions, and the repeal of three obsolete Standing Orders. I suspect that noble Lords may be more interested in the second Motion in my name, which relates to the Committee’s sixth report, on the establishment of the Back-Bench debates committee.

I think there must be some misunderstanding. According to the document that I received, the fifth report will be taken separately and the sixth report will be taken along with the Motion. Surely it would be better to deal with the fifth report first and then move on to the sixth report.

I thank the noble Lord for that intervention. I am trying to explain the procedure that we will be adopting. I think that in about two sentences’ time I will make it clear that we will deal with the two reports separately. We will have separate debates on the two reports; they are not conflated.

We have not made a recommendation on what would be a major change to the House’s procedures in relation to a Back-Bench debates committee, so I will simply invite the House to take note of the committee’s sixth report at that time. There will be a debate in which all those who either support or oppose the creation of a Back-Bench debates committee will have the opportunity to speak. Since the committee has made no recommendation, my opening remarks will be short and non-controversial, and my position on the Back-Bench debates committee is neutral.

When the debate on the sixth report has run its course, I shall bring it to a close by again inviting the House to agree the take note Motion. I shall then formally move the third Motion standing in my name, which seeks the House’s agreement to the establishment of a Back-Bench debates committee.

I have also misinterpreted what is on the Order Paper. I thought we were going to decide the question. Why are we wasting our time, particularly at this time of year, with a take note Motion? Some of us actually want something to happen. Is the noble Lord going to tell us that nothing will happen as a result of us sitting here and talking? That is not unusual in our House, but sometimes we might actually take a decision.

My Lords, the procedure I am trying to outline is the means by which we get to making a decision. Formally, we have to take note of the report. There will then be a vote on the substantive issue of whether we want a Back-Bench debates committee. I think that is now clear: two debates and a substantive vote on whether we go ahead with a Back-Bench debates committee. Once I have moved that Motion formally, I do not expect further debate at that point, and I hope that we can move straight to a decision.

I shall now briefly outline the recommendations contained in the fifth report. From now on, at this stage, I shall deal entirely and solely with the fifth report. First, on Private Notice Questions, as the report says, we considered a request by the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, to introduce a right of appeal against the Lord Speaker’s decision on an application for a Private Notice Question. We unanimously concluded that the current system works well and that it would be inappropriate to introduce such a right of appeal.

The Lord Speaker has a special authority which comes from being the only officeholder who is elected by an open election of all Members of this House. That brings with it a unique authority, and we should think very carefully in trying to abridge that authority by introducing a concept of appeal against the decisions of the Lord Speaker. We have therefore decided to recommend no change. From the amendment that he has tabled to the Motion on the Order Paper, it is clear that the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, is not satisfied with our decision. I am aware that he is, in particular, concerned about the level of consultation that takes place prior to the Lord Speaker taking her decision. The fact is that noble Lords applying for a PNQ already routinely supply covering letters setting out their reasons for considering that a particular proposal satisfies the threshold of urgency and importance. Their letters are considered by the Lord Speaker before she makes her decision, along with the views of the usual channels and clerks, which are normally sent to her office by e-mail.

Members of your Lordships’ House who have been involved in PNQs will know that a decision on a PNQ takes place within a very tight timescale. The request is usually put in during early or mid-morning and the decision is announced before the House sits. With that tightness of timescale, it is simply not feasible for the Lord Speaker to clear her diary, possibly at a few minutes’ notice, to meet those who have submitted PNQs. Therefore, I invite the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, to consider very carefully whether there is any point referring the matter back to the committee, without any clear instruction, when our views have been so clearly and unanimously expressed.

As for Oral Questions, noble Lords will recall that back in January I sought the House’s agreement to the committee’s proposal to replace the current system for tabling Oral Questions, which is based largely on queuing with a ballot. I think it is fair to say that I was given a pretty hard time from noble Lords around the House and the committee was blamed, in particular for a lack of consultation. The House accordingly agreed an amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, which referred the issue back to the committee with an instruction that we report again before Easter. I subsequently wrote to members of the Procedure Committee to invite them formally to consult colleagues with a view to bringing forward proposals on which we might be able to build a consensus.

As a result of this consultation, we now have much more evidence which suggests that there is broad if not universal agreement that we should encourage participation by a greater number of Members in Oral Questions; however, there is little consensus on how to achieve this. In the absence of such consensus, our latest recommendation is a modest one. We recommend that with effect from the current year Members should be entitled to table no more than seven Oral Questions in each calendar year. This will affect only the five or six Members who currently table most Questions—up to about 10 a year. I hope this small change will be welcomed across the House.

The committee has also taken this opportunity to remind all noble Lords of the rules on supplementary questions. The recent exchanges on the Oral Question tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, showed that there is concern across the House over the length of supplementaries. We should aim for brevity, relevance and genuine questions. Question Time is not for speeches and it appears from some recent contributions that this message has not yet got across to all Members of your Lordships’ House.

I shall touch on the committee’s other recommendations still more briefly. Noble Lords will be aware that we have, since the new year, been operating a trial procedure for the repetition of Answers to House of Commons Urgent Questions, under which only 10 minutes is allowed for questions and answers to the Minister. As our report makes clear, this has led on occasion to Back-Bench time being squeezed and that is not right. We believe that the fault lies with both Front Benches rather than with the procedure itself. We have therefore used this report to remind all noble Lords of the rules on supplementary questions and answers. Again, brief questions, not speeches, are called for. On this basis, we have recommended at this stage making the trial procedure permanent, but we will be keeping a close eye on its operation. If we encounter further problems, we will undertake to look again at the possibility of protecting Back-Bench time more formally, but in the first instance it is a matter of discipline, particularly for the Front Benches. Finally, we recommend the repeal of three ancient and obsolete Standing Orders. The report is self-explanatory. I beg to move.

Amendment to the Motion

Moved by

As an amendment to the above Motion, at end to insert “, with the exception of paragraphs 1 and 2 on Private Notice Questions which should be referred back to the Committee for further consideration”.

My Lords, I will be brief and may no doubt be very easily persuaded to withdraw my amendment. I accept the principal conclusion of the Procedure Committee, which is that there should not be, in present circumstances in any event, an appeal against the decisions of the Lord Speaker. However, it is important that it is understood—I have to confess it was not well understood by me—that representations can be made to the Lord Speaker when permission to ask the Question is sought and should normally be made in writing. It would be nice if the Lord Speaker was willing, in principle if not in detail, to receive verbal representations for this matter because, as the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees has said, time is often very short and it simply might not be possible to write a suitable letter in the short time available. If he was able say that in principle the Lord Speaker would be willing to receive verbal representations, provided her diary was suitably free, that would be of great assistance to me. I beg to move.

My Lords, I hope that this House will not pass this without substantial discussion. It really is quite an outrageous series of suggestions. I go from time to time to schools, under the guidance of the Lord Speaker and her predecessor, as part of the Peers in Schools programme to talk about this House and how effective it is in scrutinising legislation, challenging the Government and in debates. Over the past year in particular, I have begun to doubt whether I am actually telling them the truth when I say that. We are cutting down the time in which we can debate and challenge.

To give one or two examples before I touch on the precise issues of this report, the Leader of the House gave us an extra week of Easter Recess without any consultation, when we were not able to discuss, challenge, raise Questions or take up Statements that were made in the other place. We will be proroguing a lot earlier than ever: tomorrow, as I understand it. Important debates on membership of the European Union and nuclear energy were held the day before yesterday in Grand Committee. In a major debate on nuclear energy, Members were told that they had three minutes to talk. This is ridiculous. We are not debating things properly. Those two debates in the Grand Committee should have been on the Floor of the House and there should have been time to discuss them properly.

My friend the noble Lord, Lord Martin, and I have raised the issue of PNQs on the Floor of the House. There is 10 minutes for supplementary questions when Urgent Questions are repeated here. This is not just a question of the Front Bench. Both the Minister and the Opposition took up minute after minute, but then other Members spoke at length so there was insufficient time to ask questions. All that the committee is suggesting is that we remind Members of what is in the Companion. We can do that until we are blue, or red, in the face; we will still not get the message over to people. Why do we have to limit it to 10 minutes? Do people want to rush home at five o’clock for their tea? I just do not understand. We should be here to ask questions, to challenge, to discuss and debate. That is what we are here for. To limit it to 10 minutes seems totally arbitrary and ridiculous.

The Chairman of Committees said that the committee looked at but rejected giving Oral Questions 40 minutes instead of 30 to allow more time, which would have let more people come in. They say instead that they should limit such Questions to seven per Member in a year. Why limit it arbitrarily to seven? That seems totally gratuitous. Then, in order to persuade us, the Chairman of Committees says that it does not matter very much because it affects only seven Members, and the maximum number of Questions they ask is 10. If that is the number of Members and Questions, it will make no substantial difference. It is an unnecessary restriction.

I am afraid that this is typical of what comes from the Procedure Committee. It does not want debate and discussion. It does not want the Executive and their control challenged. We know that it is controlled by the Leader of the House and the government Chief Whip. It is about time that people admitted this and said so: that they control what is happening. They do not want the Government to be questioned and challenged. After the next election we will be changing sides. We will be the Government. I ask the people opposite to think of that.

My Lords, I support the proposal on PNQs. I have had the privilege of asking two recently, and the procedure followed by the Lord Speaker was entirely appropriate: one was rejected and the other was accepted. There is nothing wrong with it. In my judgment they need a finite length because they happen immediately, and the noble Lord, or Baroness, who has come across that issue is the person best briefed to ask that Question. It is inevitably a Question asked of the Minister of the day. That is the person who should answer the Question, and the best person to ask it is the noble Lord who has raised it.

I will make a couple of observations on Oral Questions, or rather ask for a clarification from the Chairman of Committees. I am mystified as to why Oral Questions should have to be asked in a calendar year. Most things in your Lordships’ House are done on a sessional basis. What is so different about Oral Questions that they now have to be asked within a calendar year? First, it means that the Table Office has to keep two logs, and secondly, noble Members have to keep two logs to know where they are within the calendar year. Within the Session it is so much easier. My question relates to clarity on that point.

Secondly, the words used are:

“to table no more than seven oral questions”.

I ask the Chairman of Committees: is an Oral Question Question 1, 2 or 3, or does it include, or not include, the topical balloted Question? In my judgment, the seven should be confined to Question 1, 2 and 3, and the balloted Question should be quite separate. I do not want to chastise my noble friend the Chairman of Committees, because he has a very difficult job. However, this is the second time that the Procedure Committee has not put in clear terms how this House operates, and it should not be for the Back-Benchers—even though some of us are pretty assiduous in Question Time—to keep correcting the Procedure Committee.

My Lords, I certainly do not agree with the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, which in effect would lead to appealing against the Lord Speaker’s decision. If that were done on the Floor of the House it would mean that the Private Notice Question was aired, irrespective of whether the Lord Speaker said yes or no. I certainly do not agree with that.

I am in part reassured that the Chairman of Committees says that even if we make permanent the procedure on repeating Urgent Questions from the Commons, it will still be reviewed. I would like to hear, certainly from the Leader of the House, that he endorses that. We are getting ourselves into a bit of a muddle on the relationship between the two Houses. Of course, our procedures are different, but there are areas—and Urgent Questions in the Commons being repeated here is one of them—in which if you get a mismatch it looks peculiar to any neutral observer.

In practice, because we are using the PNQ procedure here for repeating Urgent Questions from the Commons —I am sure the clerks would be able to give us the figures if we needed them—you can have an Urgent Question in the Commons that by definition is important; it would not be agreed as an Urgent Question if it was not immediate and important and needed urgent discussion. The Commons can have up to an hour to debate an Urgent Question, but when it gets to this end of the building the procedures are such that it is locked within 10 minutes.

There have been one or two quite spectacular mismatches like that, even in the relatively small number of Urgent Questions that have been repeated here as PNQs. I suppose it was my fault not to have put down some sort of amendment on this, but I would like to be reassured that the Procedure Committee will look at that kind of area, where there is an obvious mismatch between the scrutiny given to an important issue by the Commons and the scrutiny given by us. It is certainly not satisfactory to have these huge discrepancies.

We all know that the practical application of this procedure of repeating Urgent Questions will have no effect whatever on the behaviour of Members of the House. I am sure that the exhortation to keep Questions short has been made for much longer than I have been in the House, and has been routinely ignored. However, will the Leader of the House give me an assurance that among the reviews or consideration that will still be given to the application of this procedure, this mismatch between the two Houses will be kept under review as well?

My Lords, sometimes the repeating of the Urgent Question can be a bit narrow when it is kept to 10 minutes. It depends on the subject. Some subjects merit a longer period. I want to be as helpful as I can, but I believe that whether it is 10, 15 or 20 minutes, an allocation should be given to the Front Bench within that time. There is a case for saying that Back-Benchers should have one question and one question alone. When noble Lords go on too long, it is sometimes because they put more than one supplementary question to the House. There should be only one.

There is a case for a Front-Bench allocation, especially when it is borne in mind that the Urgent Question in the Commons is a little victory—I think that is the way to put it—for the Opposition. It is their way of being able to put aside the business for an hour or less to put their special case on an urgent matter to the House. It is within the gift of the Speaker to grant the Urgent Question, so even though privately the Executive, through the Chief Whip, might have said that they do not want that Urgent Question, the Speaker has granted it. By the time it comes to the House it might be something that the Opposition have achieved, although it could have been an independent Member in the other place who put down the Urgent Question.

It would be a lot tidier if the opposition Front-Bench spokesperson had a few minutes and the rest were given to the House, with Members bearing in mind that there should be only one supplementary question, rather than several. It is not about abusing the privilege, but it is unfair to those who are waiting to put their case when others are asking two or three supplementary questions instead of one.

On the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, if I heard him properly I think he said that he had not realised that a written submission could be made to the Lord Speaker, so that is probably what he will do in future. That written support is very helpful. Oral supplication should not be the only way, because there could be more than one application in one day, which would mean the Lord Speaker holding court when several noble Lords wanted to be heard. That would be wrong. There would also be a temptation for those who support the case for the Private Notice Question to go to see the Lord Speaker as well.

As the Chairman rightly said, the Lord Speaker is elected by all of us here and not only has the duties of the Speakership in this House. It is well recognised that the Lord Speaker also has to meet people, delegations and opposite numbers from all over the world here in this House. That is a heavy diary, and I think it would be wrong to burden the Lord Speaker with oral applications when it is clear that we can have written ones. I thank the House for listening to me.

My Lords, I thank the Chairman of Committees for his clear exposition. To my noble friend Lord Foulkes I would say that the Procedure Committee is not just a rubber-stamping committee. We do debate things long and hard, but clearly in the end we reach a consensus and abide by it.

I do agree with him on two points. One relates to recesses and prorogation. The Leader and the Chief Whip know my views extremely well, sadly for them. These decisions are taken unilaterally by the Government, understandably in some cases but not in others. I agree with my noble friend that it would be a good thing to have an opportunity to question the Leader of the House from time to time and perhaps to have points of order as they have in the other place. That is not to say that we should do everything that they do in the other place, but it is important for noble Lords to be able to question decisions from time to time when appropriate.

I also say to my noble friend that it has already been agreed that the Procedure Committee should consider issues pertaining to the amount of time available for noble Lords to speak in debates, especially when they are of the utmost importance. I think that that is already before the Procedure Committee, but if it is not I will certainly ask my colleagues on the committee to look at the issue.

On Oral Questions, it has been a long haul, but we have reached the right outcome. As the Lord Chairman said, the House made clear its views on the issue and he listened. He has now come forward with proposals that I find entirely acceptable. Like him, I commend to the House the paragraph about brevity in Questions. I also hope that we will all make an effort to be more inclusive and accommodating when it comes to noble Lords wishing to ask supplementary questions.

On Private Notice Questions to the Lord Speaker, I have reservations and fear that the House does not have the correct mechanisms for Questions to be asked on issues that fall between the criteria for Urgent Questions and PNQs, especially in recesses when the other place is not sitting. However, that is not the issue before us today. I am entirely content with the proposal from the Procedure Committee and, with respect, I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne.

Finally, on the repetition of Urgent Questions, on behalf of my Front Bench I undertake to keep supplementary questions short and not to abuse our position. My noble friend Lord Grocott was right to point that out in the report. The Lord Chairman has said that we must and will keep that under review, and I will support him in that.

Will the noble Baroness clarify what she means by points of order? Who are they for? Does she not accept that in the other place points of order are a complete abuse and are used to raise a mass of issues on which somebody cannot otherwise make their voice heard?

My Lords, I would think these things through carefully before putting a proposal to the Procedure Committee. I am not looking for points of order in the way they have them in the other place. However, it would be useful from time to time to have a mechanism whereby one can raise issues on the Floor of the House. Sometimes I feel very frustrated because there are issues that I wish to raise, which is my duty as Leader of the Opposition, but unless there is something on the Order Paper that enables me to raise a point, I cannot do so. This is an issue that I wish to look at and I wish the Procedure Committee to look at.

My Lords, as a member of the committee, one thing that has impressed me most from day one is that committee members recognise fully that the House takes very seriously these matters and gives very careful consideration to them. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, might be reassured by the fact that in the time that I have been on the committee, neither the Chief Whip nor the Leader of the House has attempted to intimidate any member of the committee. Indeed, one thing that struck me is the way in which the committee goes into these matters with great seriousness and in great detail. Sometimes the degree of detail rather surprises me. We know that whatever report we bring to the House, it will be very carefully scrutinised.

When the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, came before the committee, he had the opportunity to present his concerns. Of course he did it with great expertise, as the Chamber would expect. We considered his concerns very carefully, but we were unanimous that we would be ill advised to change the existing procedures. I hope very much that the noble Lord will not feel the need to press this. The reality is that all these items will, I am sure, be revisited from time to time. I support the committee’s report and its recommendations, and I hope that the House will do so too.

My Lords, perhaps I may briefly detain the House to pick up one point, as it is the most suitable moment to do so. We have heard these encouragements to brevity in Questions ever since I can remember, but the only way of actually doing anything about it is as it happens. There is then a responsibility for both Front Benches, not just the government Front Bench, to bring their own side into compliance with the Standing Orders. That applies to many other procedures as well. If something goes wrong in a debate and there are only relatively inexperienced members on the Front Benches, then it falls to people who have been here for many years to take that responsibility on themselves, so that the House continues in good order. I hope that that is acceptable.

My Lords, perhaps I may briefly raise one very minor point. It has occurred to me that when we deal with supplementary Oral Questions, there might be a difficulty for some Members with mobility issues in getting up quickly enough to actually put a Question. I do not know what the solution is, but perhaps the Chairman of Committees and his colleagues would bear it in mind. It frequently happens that in the area around here it tends to be easier for Members to get up and get called, whereas some Members who have difficulty rising in time may find it more difficult.

My Lords, I think the noble Lord should cast his mind back to what happens on such occasions. I always note just how courteous people are about not interrupting people with mobility issues, and we all listen very intently to them. Actually, they normally obey the rules much better than those of us who are able-bodied.

My Lords, I want to make one brief remark on the limit to the number of Questions we can ask. Rationing is an equitable but inefficient way of doing things. I hope that if the House accepts this we would be allowed a shadow trade in surplus Questions. Since I do not ask any Questions I will gladly trade mine with my noble friend Lord Barnett, who is always asking Questions.

My Lords, I would like very briefly to support the noble Lord, Lord Elton, and to say that he would be assisted in his aims if people were not allowed to read Questions.

Heaven forefend that we get a black market in Questions, my Lords.

I will deal briefly with the many points made in this short debate by noble Lords from all parts of the House. I turn first to the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne. I hope that on the basis of what he has heard about individual Members of the House who are seeking a PNQ quite properly having the opportunity to make written representations and to put their case to the Lord Speaker, he will feel able to withdraw his amendment. He did ask whether I could give some sort of undertaking in principle. I am always loath to use the words—

My Lords, I apologise but we cannot actually hear what the noble Lord is saying. Could he speak up a bit?

It may have been that I was turning half way. If the noble Lord will forgive me, although I am dealing with his point I will not actually look at him. He asked whether I could give an undertaking in principle that the Lord Speaker would see individual Peers to make oral representations. I am loath to use the words “in principle” because I fear what they sometimes lead to, but I think it is highly likely that if the opportunity arises that might well be possible. But I have to warn noble Lords that the Lord Speaker’s diary is heavily timetabled—it is virtually impossible to find the odd gap in it. Given the very short timescale involved in making these decisions, which are made on the basis of paper representations, it would often be difficult to find such a gap in the short period of time between requesting one and a decision having to be made.

Another question is on what is covered by the Oral Question. It is the Oral Question; the topical Question is not included as part of the cap, so the cap does not cover the topical Question, only the business of other Questions. I was also asked why a calendar year is used and not a sessional year. We have to think back to the last Session, which lasted for two years. If we had had a limit of seven Questions for the Session lasting two years, the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, would not just be on the Back Bench up there howling abuse at me but would be right down in the front doing it—and rightly so. We have to recognise that a Session can be a bit flexible, and it would be unfair if it became longer and people were penalised and unfairly limited. We recognise that perhaps a calendar year is a better way in which to deal with that.

On how to treat urgent Questions, we have the 10-minute limit because the House initially decided on it. The committee is aware of the concern within the House on the division of time; it is something that we will keep under review. I go back to the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Martin of Springburn. Perhaps noble Lords could realise that the important thing is to get the one question in for their Back-Bench contributions, and not make long, rambling contributions.

I agree 100% with what the Chairman of Committees has just said. On that basis, I will go along with the recommendation, but on the clear understanding that if anyone, including retired generals, asks more than one question and goes on and on and on, I will take a leaf out of the books of the noble Lord, Lord Geddes, and the noble Countess, Lady Mar.

The noble Lord touches on one of the difficulties that we have. We pride ourselves on being a self-regulating House, and that is a discipline that falls on all of us. Once people start acting beyond the boundaries, it is extremely difficult to rein people in. I am afraid that the only way in which to do that at the moment is for the House to make its displeasure clear. It is not a very attractive means forward, but it is the only one available to us, and it ought to be used sparingly but sometimes quite deliberately.

I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes is now prepared to accept the limit of seven Questions a year. We decided on that because it helps us, a little bit, to work forward to an objective that the committee has of creating a context in which it is more likely that we widen the pool of people who ask questions. That is the right thing to do, and I think that we should try to make progress on that little by little.

I think that that deals with the main issues that have been brought up. At this stage, I ask the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, if he feels able to withdraw his amendment.

My Lords, I am obliged to the Chairman of Committees for his response to my amendment. I confess that I continue to be concerned by the difficulty of getting Private Notice Questions agreed. In the time that I have been in your Lordships’ House—a quite considerable time—I have sought to table something like 20 and I have never yet had one agreed. Perhaps I shall be luckier one day. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment withdrawn.

Motion agreed.