Motion to Take Note
My Lords, as I said when moving the previous Motion, the committee has made no recommendation on the issue of a Back-Bench debates committee, and the House is invited merely to take note of this report. My position on the appointment of a Back-Bench debates committee is therefore neutral. My task is simply to facilitate the debate and, after the debate, the taking of a decision.
The background to these two Motions is summarised in the report itself. Two years ago, the report of the Leader’s Group on working practices, chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Goodlad, was published. Among the group’s recommendations was the establishment of what the group called a Back-Bench business committee—a committee of Backbenchers whose task it would be to schedule certain types of Back-Bench debates. As noble Lords will be aware, there has been a Backbench Business Committee in the House of Commons since 2010, when it was established following the report of the Wright committee.
The report of the Leader’s Group has been extensively debated in this House but until today the House has not had the opportunity to take a formal decision on this particular recommendation. That we have this opportunity today is thanks to eight noble Lords, listed in the report, who put a paper before the Procedure Committee in February. They will speak for themselves in today’s debate, so I shall not summarise their arguments.
Shortly before the meeting of the committee in February, the Leader of the House, the noble Lord, Lord Hill of Oareford, put a further paper before the committee, in which he set out, on the one hand, his wish to improve the opportunities afforded to Back-Benchers to table business and, on the other, his opposition to a Back-Bench debates committee. The committee did not reach a decision at its February meeting but, instead, invited both the supporters of a Back-Bench debates committee and the Leader of the House to reflect further and to bring back further proposals to our March meeting.
That led to a welcome degree of consensus on the desirability of increasing the range of opportunities for Back-Benchers to table debates. Essentially we have identified various portions of time which either already are or could in future be set aside for Back-Bench debates: first, those Thursdays—one a month from the start of the Session to the end of December—that are already set aside for Back-Bench balloted debates; secondly, additional days in Grand Committee—at least one day for every six sitting weeks in the Session, or around six in total over a typical Session; and, thirdly, an additional one-hour slot on Thursdays, which would be allocated from the start of the Session to the end of January to a topical Question for Short Debate.
These slots of time have been agreed. The decision that the House has to take today is how to fill them. Our report briefly outlines the two proposals put to the committee. One involves the appointment of a Back-Bench debates committee; the other, proposed by the Leader, is broadly based on existing processes, such as ballots and first come, first served, with some variations. I shall leave the supporters of these two approaches to describe them in more detail. That is all I wish to say.
The third Motion in my name on the Order Paper has been drawn up to give the House an opportunity to decide on a fundamental issue of principle to do with how business in your Lordships’ House is selected and tabled. The committee has not sought to explore the options presented to it in detail and, as paragraph 19 of the report makes clear, further detailed work will be needed, whatever the House decides today.
This is an open debate, and I do not wish to limit it in any way, but it may be helpful to the House to hear, first, from one proponent for each of the two options set out in the report. I understand that the Leader of the House would like to speak early, which I think is appropriate, so I suggest that he speaks once the Question has been put, and then perhaps we might hear from the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, who brought the proposal for a Back-Bench debates committee before the Procedure Committee.
Will the Lord Chairman clarify the position that he has outlined? The Motion implies to me—and I may have misunderstood it—that in order to secure the additional slots for these debates, it is first necessary to approve the new Back-Bench Members committee. If this Motion is rejected, will the new slots still be scheduled but just by a different means?
Yes, I am happy to give that clarification. The new slots have been agreed. What we must decide today is how those slots are filled and who has responsibility, whether they are selected by the traditional method of ballots and first come, first served or by a Back-Bench committee. So even if the Back-Bench committee proposal is rejected, the new, identified slots remain. I hope that that is helpful. In conclusion, I beg to move that this House takes note of the 6th Report from the Procedure Committee.
Would the noble Lord, Lord Butler, like to speak first? It might make more sense and, if he would like to do so, I should be delighted to give way.
My Lords, I think that I should defer to the Leader of the House but if he would like me to speak first, I am very willing.
I support the Motion that the House should establish for the duration of the 2013-14 Session a Back-Bench debates committee but I should first make it clear that I have no particular status in doing so. I was just one of eight Members of the House—who will no doubt speak for themselves—who put this proposal to the Procedure Committee. I also speak as a member of the Leader’s Group on the procedures of the House, chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Goodlad, which originally made this recommendation. I say that because one Member suggested to me that I was taking a lead on this because I wished to be made chairman of the Back-Bench committee. I assure the House that I have no aspiration to do that at all and I hope that the fear that I might be chairman will not deter Members of the House from voting for it.
It is also important to remind your Lordships of what the terms of reference for the Back-Bench debates committee would be. The Chairman of Committees explained it to us but there has been some mis- understanding. The proposal is:
“That the Committee be appointed to schedule debates, to be moved by backbench and Crossbench members, or by Lords Spiritual—
During the time currently set aside for balloted debates;
On at least one day in Grand Committee for every six sitting weeks in the session;
That the Committee schedule a one-hour topical Question for Short Debate each week, from the start of the session until the end of January, to be taken on Thursday between the two time-limited debates”.
I emphasise these limited terms of reference because there has been some impression that existing arrangements for Back-Benchers to put down Questions for Short Debate would be transferred to a Back-Bench debates committee. As the terms of the proposal make clear, that is emphatically not the case.
Speaking as a Back-Bencher, I express my appreciation to the Leader of the House for his proposal to increase the time available for topical debates and Questions for Short Debate. I know that he wants to increase the opportunities for Members of the House to take part in debates, and that is very welcome. The only issue between us is that, as the Chairman of Committees has said, the Leader opposes the proposal by the Goodlad committee that subjects for Thursday two and a half hour debates in time allocated once a month to Back-Benchers and for a new topical short debate should be chosen by a committee of Back-Benchers instead of, as now, by ballot.
I remind the House of the current situation by which subjects are chosen for debate in the two and a half hour slots on Thursday. The choice of subjects for debate on government or opposition Motions on Thursdays is made by the Government or opposition parties, presumably after discussion and presumably for their own party-political reasons. As I know, the choice of subject for debate on Cross-Bench days is discussed in the meeting of the Cross-Benchers. In our group, we often take a vote on the subjects for which we should use that time. However, the choice of subjects on Back-Benchers’ days is made by the random process of a ballot—a lottery. There is no rational process for choosing subjects that may be of general or topical interest and may make best use of the expertise available in the House to debate matters of significant national interest. As a result, subjects that come out of the hat for the use of this precious Back-Bench time may be of only minority interest and may even attract insufficient speakers to make best use of the two and a half hours provided.
The Library kindly listed for me the number of speakers in the balloted Back-Bench debates in the past two Sessions of Parliament. The number has been as low as six and the average has been fewer than 20, and that includes the proposer, the government spokesman and the opposition spokesman. My case is that this procedure neither produces the subjects where this House’s expertise can best be used nor makes sufficient use of this very valuable time.
I turn now to the Leader’s opposition to a Back-Bench debates committee and what I would regard as a rational process of selection of debates. It is that such a committee would introduce a new hurdle, in his words, for Back-Benchers in getting issues debated—namely, that they would have to persuade a committee of their peers of the merits of their chosen subject. The Government and the Opposition go through a rational process for selecting subjects for debate on their days, and so do the Cross-Benchers. The only group that does not is the Back-Benchers. When the Leader talks of the merits of Back-Benchers having access to debates without the intermediation of a committee of their peers, it needs to be remembered that Back-Benchers are required to go through the formidable but irrational intermediation of a lottery. That seems to me a formidable type of intermediation.
I looked at the list of balloted debates for the last Back-Bench day of this Session. There were 29 Motions down for the two slots. Those odds are 15:1 against success. Of course, since this was the last balloted day of the Session, many Back-Benchers may not even have bothered to table Motions.
I submit that the argument for giving Back-Benchers unintermediated access to the Order Paper does not stand up as an objection to a Back-Bench debates committee. So what other reason could there be for the Leader’s opposition to the proposal? I suspect that we might need to look at what has happened in another place. Following the recommendations of the Wright committee, a Back-Bench committee has been set up in another place to select subjects for debate in Back-Benchers’ time. In consequence, there have been timely debates on matters of general interest—for example, the rights of prisoners to vote, compensation for victims of blood contamination and the case for an EU referendum. The Government have not welcomed all those subjects for debate. However, the operations of the Back-Bench committee in the other place have been reviewed by the Procedure Committee there, which concluded that the committee has been,
“widely welcomed as a successful and effective innovation”.
The Back-Bench committee in the other place is, of course, elected and not selected by the usual channels. Can the noble Lord tell us how he sees this committee being selected? My view of it is very dependent on it being elected if it is to be as effective as the noble Lord suggests.
The method of appointment is not specified in the resolution but, for my part, I wholly agree with the noble Lord. It is right that such a committee should be elected and it should, of course, include representatives of all the groups in the House, as indeed happens in another place.
The establishment of the committee has been a success in another place. The Procedure Committee there says that it has been widely welcomed as a successful and effective innovation. The Government have said that they “agree with that conclusion” of the Procedure Committee. I suspect that agreement may be through gritted teeth, on the grounds that what has been done cannot be undone. I also suspect—and I hope that I am not doing the noble Lord the Leader an injustice—that the Government in this House suspect that the subjects chosen for debate by a Back-Bench debates committee might be more interesting and more topical than they would ideally wish. Of course, individual Back-Benchers should, and will, continue to be able to get unintermediated access to the Order Paper through Questions for Short Debate, and the Leader has said that opportunities for such debates will be increased.
Therefore, I urge the House to support the Motion for a trial run of a Back-Bench debates committee, as recommended by the cross-party Leader’s Group chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Goodlad. If we are eager, as we should be, to promote the relevance of debates in this House and the better use of the time and expertise that are available here, we should do so. My message to the House is: Back-Benchers of the House unite—you have nothing to lose but your chains.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Lord Chairman for his introduction and to the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, for getting our debate under way. It is extremely good to see a former Cabinet Secretary, who operated at the highest levels within Whitehall for many years, not always in the glare of transparency, openness and accountability, arguing for it so forcefully this afternoon. Like him, and in response to the point made earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Peston, I am very glad that we have this opportunity for the whole House to decide how it wants to move ahead in organising Back-Bench debates. It is good that we have a full House today to discuss it, and it will be good to reach a clear decision later this afternoon as to how we want to proceed.
I am aware that the question the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, and other noble Lords have raised about whether to have a Back-Bench debates committee or not has been hanging around for some time. As a new Leader, I am keen that we should answer it then plan accordingly. I do not want to speak for very long because this is above all a Back-Bench occasion, but I would quite like to do three simple things, if I may. First, I will explain the proposals for the new time for debates that I have made. Secondly, I should like to clear up any misunderstandings that there might be about how our current arrangements work. Thirdly, I will set out what I think is the issue of principle on which we all need to decide today.
When I started thinking about this for my first Procedure Committee meeting, I was struck by the arguments that have been made in favour of having more topical debates and, indeed, for creating more opportunities for Back-Bench Members to initiate debates more generally. I thought those arguments were absolutely right and, as I think the noble Lord, Lord Butler, said, I am extremely keen to provide opportunities for as many Peers as possible, especially newer Members or those who are not able to attend the House as frequently as others, so that as a Chamber we are able to make the best possible use of the full range of contributions that we have at our disposal.
Therefore, as fast as I could, I came forward with two proposals. One was to create a new, regular weekly slot for a topical short debate on the Floor of the House, which I have suggested could also provide a route for getting a prompt debate on a Select Committee report. This would increase the number of short debates on the Floor of the House by about half. The second was to make more use of the Moses Room for short debates, thereby doubling the number of opportunities for Members to have debates there. So there would be more time for topical debates, guaranteed time on the Floor of the House and capacity for twice as many short debates in Grand Committee.
These proposals for additional time for Back-Bench debates were welcomed by the Procedure Committee and, to be clear, they are not at issue today; they apply equally to whatever the House decides. I think this was the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott. The decision before us therefore, as the noble Lord, Lord Butler, said, is how we want this offer of additional time, plus the time that is already set aside for monthly balloted debates, to be used. Do we want it to be allocated in future by a Back-Bench debates committee or do we want it to be allocated broadly along current lines?
Let me say a few words about our current arrangements, as I am not sure that they are always well understood and I think there is a feeling that they are less transparent than perhaps they are. For short debates, Members are free to choose any subject that they want: they simply put their Question down on a waiting list, which is printed in House of Lords Business, and are taken in turn. For balloted debates, Members pick their topic and put the Motion into a ballot which is drawn by the clerks for a particular day. The key feature of these two processes is that neither the identity of the sponsoring Member nor the particular topic that they have chosen has any bearing on their prospects of securing a debate. All entries to the ballot have an equal chance of being drawn. All entries on the waiting list for short debates are offered time in the order in which they were tabled, subject only to a practical constraint that a Minister and shadow Minister must be available to participate and that Members waiting for their first short debate of the Session come before those waiting for their second.
To be crystal clear on this point, there is no selection by the government Chief Whip or the usual channels on merit, personality, party, group or personal profile, or on anything else. This principle—that the views of individual Peers matter and that they should all have an equal chance to pursue subjects they care about and get them debated in our House—is at the heart of how we think of ourselves as a House. It is particularly important for Members who are less well known or who are able to attend less often, who might find it harder to persuade a committee of the merits of the case. Our current approach means that we end up with debates on a wide range of subjects, from the treatment of homosexual men in developing countries to the future of English cathedrals. This allows for the independent-minded, for the quirky and for the whole range of outlooks and experience on which this House is able to draw and which, I believe, is its particular strength.
I agree with the point that the noble Lord, Lord Butler, made—I am sure that other noble Lords will make it later on—in that I do not take the view that everything in our current arrangements is perfect and cannot be improved. I take the point, for instance, that ballots can sometimes produce debates that are undersubscribed. I do not think that our processes are clear enough to the very Members they are intended to serve. However, there are practical steps we could take to mitigate those potential difficulties and which we could discuss in the Procedure Committee. I hope I have made it clear that I am keen to do that if that is what the House would like.
My Lords, can my noble friend go a little further on this very point? At the moment he got to it, I was reading the sentence in his letter which said that,
“there are reforms we could make—for instance, to ensure that debates drawn by ballot command sufficient interest in the House”.
He has now said that this is a matter we can discuss in the committee. We need a little more clarification about what he has in mind on that point, as it really is central to the argument put to us by the noble Lord, Lord Butler.
As the Chairman of Committees made clear earlier, on both proposals some of the precise details of how one can address these points will need to be worked through. For example, it would be possible to have criteria around the amount of support that there was for a particular balloted Motion, such as the number of people. It is also the case—this is why one would need to work this through and come back to the House before going nap on it, because that is also extremely important—that, as the Procedure Committee knows only too well, every suggestion that might address a particular problem can give rise to another set of problems. That is the kind of thing we would need to address.
At the moment I am somewhat neutral and not at all sure which way I would want to vote. One point that is made by the sixth report, and which was put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Butler, concerns dealing with issues that are either topical or of long-term national importance. The difficulty about the ballot is that you cannot get those issues in, perhaps at rather short notice, for an hour’s debate. How would the noble Lord expect that issue to be dealt with?
On the principle of having to set some criteria, for example on identifying topicality, I shall just go back one stage. I am very glad to have been able to come up with this new proposal for guaranteed time, once a week, to deal with a topical issue on the Floor of the House. I very much accept that we need an opportunity to do that. One would need to establish some points around topicality in exactly the same way as a Back-Bench debates committee will have to come up with a set of criteria within which it would operate in choosing those debates. I accept that we would need to do that work; I would need to come back and show the House those processes.
There are a number of different points there. I certainly used the word quirky—I quite like quirky. This goes to the heart of the issue of having a rational process. The noble Lord, Lord Butler, talked persuasively in some ways about wanting a rational process. That could obviously mean a process that can lead, over time, to confirmation around a kind of norm. It could lead to a group of people’s sense of what is rational being superimposed on that of others. On retaining quirkiness, we are more likely to have quirkiness in balloted debates and on QSDs more generally if we do not have a sifting process. The topical slot is a different matter.
I am following my noble friend very closely because I have some sympathy with his point of view and I pay tribute to him for bringing forward some extremely interesting proposals. However, the House does itself no good service by constantly referring to this process as a ballot. It is not a ballot, as the noble Lord, Lord Butler, said. It is a random process. Anyone listening to this debate would think that there was some estimate of support and merit for the proposals that come before the House. Can we please get away from this suggestion that we somehow ballot to see whether there is merit in a particular suggestion? Even on the quirky issues to which the noble Lord refers—I have some sympathy, being a quirky sort of guy—we do not get any opportunity to assess the quirkiness of a Motion because we do not have a ballot.
My Lords, we do have a ballot. I have had this conversation before with my noble friend, who I know takes the view that it is a lottery rather than a ballot. It is a ballot by definition, one in which everyone has an equal chance and does not need to persuade others of the merit of their case or the wisdom of the topic that they want to debate. They have an equal chance among all their peers.
My Lords, I appreciate what the noble Lord the Leader has done in seeking to respond to the pressure for more Back-Bench debates and time. That is utterly commendable. However, he is proposing a mechanism whereby we would still have a lottery in which we chose from topics that were judged to be topical. Who will decide that topicality question? Clearly, from previous discussions, that topicality would have to be decided by the clerks, under whatever guidance the House had given them. That puts them in the invidious position of making a judgment about whether an issue is topical, and it would be much better if such judgments were made by the House itself by the only mechanism that it can—through a properly appointed committee.
My Lords, topical Questions each week are dealt with in precisely that way. As I have said, we would need to agree in the Procedure Committee, in just the same way as we would if we end up with a Back-Bench debates committee, the criteria by which that committee will reach decisions, because the House will want to know on what basis the judgments that the Back-Bench debates committee is making are being determined. At an earlier stage, the proposal for the Back-Bench debates committee was that it would make the consideration and would not have to give reasons, perfectly properly, for why it had reached its decisions. Whichever route we go down, we will have to have a set of criteria within which we operate, so that the House knows what the basis of the decision is.
My point, though, is that I am not proposing new procedures. The proponents of a Back-Bench debates committee are proposing a new procedure. I am effectively saying that we would still have the way in which we have already operated for a long time. There could be some improvements in terms of different criteria, cut-offs and so on, if that is what people want to pursue, but we would fundamentally stick with the current system. It is those who want to change the system who are proposing the innovation.
My Lords, the noble Lord the Leader has referred several times to the establishment by the Procedure Committee of some sort of guidance. To whom is the guidance given in this system if we do not have a Back-Bench committee? I do not follow this. I understand the lottery and I understand the Back-Bench committee but, if I do not like the interpretation of the guidance that leads to a particular result, to whom do I complain?
The guidance would be available to Members of the House in the same way as our guidance is currently available to Members of the House.
To move on, the issue of principle on which we are being asked to decide today is simple: do we want to stand by our current approach or do we want to introduce a new filtering mechanism for this new package of time, whereby a Back-Bench debates committee makes these decisions and decides what will be debated on behalf of us all? That, in essence, is what we are being asked to decide.
I want to make one final point, and then I know that the House would like to hear from Back-Benchers. Those in favour of a Back-Bench debates committee will obviously want to vote in favour of the Motion for resolution before the House. Those who are not in favour will want to vote against when the Lord Chairman moves it. For those who are not sure once they have heard all the arguments, it would be possible to stick with our current overall approach, perhaps refined in some respects, and see how the proposals for a guaranteed regular slot for a topical debate and more debates in the Moses Room bed down. In the light of that experience, it would of course be open to those who still favour a Back-Bench debates committee to bring forward those proposals again.
I hope that I have set out some of the background, explained the proposals and highlighted the essence of the decision that we are being asked to take. I am sure that we will hear some powerful speeches. I look forward to us reaching a decision on this matter of principle, but most of all to being able to crack on in the new Session with the new opportunities for debate that I have identified.
My Lords, I intervene as one of the more naive Members of your Lordships’ House. When I first heard of the proposal to set up a Back-Bench debates committee, particularly given its provenance, notably with the noble Lord, Lord Goodlad, I assumed that it would go through your Lordships’ House on the nod. I am astonished today to find that the Leader of the House, who, I do not have to remind your Lordships, is the Leader of the House and for these purposes not the leader of the Tory Members of the House, has not taken the lead in pressing for this committee.
There is just one thing that I want to make clear. I have been extremely keen to make progress. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Peston, implied that I am seeking to speak on behalf of the views of one party group. I should say to the House, and I should have said it before, that I know that there are a number of people in my party who are in favour of a Back-Bench debates committee. I also know that there are a number of members of his party, on the Cross-Benches and in all groups who have come to me expressing concerns about the idea of a Back-Bench debates committee. All I have sought to do is make sure that they have an opportunity to explore those issues and then the whole House can reach a decision.
It is my dear wish, which I think is that of all noble Lords, that there should not be a party-political element to our debate. That is the point that I was trying to make. What was troubling me is that I did not hear the noble Lord say what he has now said: that that should not be the case. The debate needs to be judged on its merits.
Part of its merits is definitely the provenance of the committee. A committee chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Goodlad, is not some minor committee, not one that would not have deliberated fully, but one that would have come up with the right answer. That is the answer that the noble Lord, Lord Butler, has presented to your Lordships. I know that I do not have to repeat what the noble Lord, Lord Butler, has said. I have no interest in being on this committee. I have better things to do. I have no interest in being chairman of the committee, so I can speak openly.
What matters to me is that your Lordships should be using these slots for important debates. We have been reminded that they are pre-determined; there is no argument about the slots being there. We differ on what we regard as important. I have been waiting for someone to put forward a debate on the present crisis in economics, but my guess is that virtually no one will be interested in debating it. Perhaps that is why it has not come forward. Why do we not trust our own colleagues to be on a committee to which they will be elected by the different groups in the House? Why do we not trust them to come to the right answer in terms of both fundamentals and topicality? I am reminded of that great classic work, Microcosmographica Academica, where it is argued, basically in connection with the universities, that nothing should ever be done for the first time. I heard real echoes of that in the speech of the noble Lord the Leader of the House.
We really ought to make up our minds today, yes or no. We should not do it politically in any way whatever. We certainly should not do it either because we do not want to embarrass the Government, or because, when we are the Government, we do not want to be embarrassed. We want to use this time in a valuable way so that we can make contributions to the subjects and ensure that the subjects are worth making a contribution to.
If we divide, I will vote for setting up the committee. I know that I am an old fogey on this, but I would be much happier if we did not have a vote but just all agreed, as I implied, that we would accept this on the nod, because there are certain things where a vote is not the right thing. This House has a great tradition of sometimes just getting things right. I think that this is the right thing to do, and I very much hope that we do it.
My Lords, with due respect to the committee chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Goodlad, and as someone who does not usually speak on these issues, as a very ordinary Back- Bencher, I should like to make my views known. I fundamentally disagree with the previous speaker, because why should I, as an ordinary Back-Bencher, not be allowed to challenge the report by the committee chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Goodlad, or any other report? I expect to agree or disagree. Why should a group of Members from the Back-Benches select certain topics when we know that we all have our internal prejudices? It would be very difficult for some topics to get through those prejudices. What procedure would the Leader of the House put in place to ensure that, if we had this committee, no Member was open to lobbying by any external group to make sure that Members are free from any prejudice in the list? It is for those reasons that I felt that I had to get up to speak to, very unusually, disagree with my colleagues and very firmly—and this is not usual—agree with the Leader.
My Lords, I support the proposal for a Back-Bench committee. Indeed, I was one of those who put the suggestion to the Procedure Committee. I start by paying tribute to the former Leader of the House for establishing the working group on our working practices. He was sometimes accused of dragging his feet and not getting on, but we have made a number of improvements, although a number remain to be made, of which this is one, and I hope that we can make progress on it today. Secondly, I express appreciation to the present Leader of the House for the extra time that he is proposing we should have for Back-Bench debates, which is very important.
The noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, asked why we should go along with the Goodlad report. The answer is very simple: we should or should not go along with it on the basis of the arguments that were put forward on this issue. The letter that the noble Lord the Leader of the House has circulated strongly stresses that we should look at the situation and read the report of the Procedure Committee. I am sure that we should read the Procedure Committee report, but the report that we should be reading on this issue is the Goodlad report. The recommendations in this regard run to a full page and are supported by a number of paragraphs arguing in favour of such a committee.
The noble Lord, Lord Butler, set forward the case comprehensively. I do not wish to delay the House for long, but I shall refer to one personal experience of these matters. At the height of the first outbreak of the eurozone crisis, I sought to obtain a debate on the Floor of the House. It proved extremely difficult. I tried for week after week on a matter of major importance; meanwhile ballots were taking place on issues of relative unimportance. Eventually I managed to secure a debate in the Moses Room. The Motion was immediately hijacked by the Opposition, who added a second part to it, which was entirely partisan. The debate broke up completely in both directions and the real issue of the eurozone was barely debated. Had we had such a committee at the beginning of the crisis, we could have had what would have been, as always in your Lordships’ House, an expert debate. This is not going to happen with a ballot.
The reality is that the odds on the chance of getting a debate on a major issue as against some particular enthusiasm are not good. A large number of Members may have put in for the ballot and the odds are getting worse because there are more Members. Therefore, the chances of getting relevant, topical, important debates would be improved if we had someone, and a group of the kind suggested, who would be effective in bringing that about.
My noble friend asked a moment ago how the group would be selected. I am strongly in favour of its members being elected. That seems to me the obvious way of proceeding rather than by appointment or any other method. That should ensure that they are appropriately members of the committee and can then act in our interests as far as the overall picture is concerned.
Reference has been made to the situation in the House of Commons. Its Members are enthusiastic about the change that was made to their proceedings. Matters are never on all fours between one House and the other but I had the chance last night of speaking to Mr Bernard Jenkin, who happened to be involved in procedures in the other place and who is wildly enthusiastic about what has happened there. Perhaps that is overstating it; I am not sure that one is ever wildly enthusiastic about such matters. But he has not the slightest doubt that the change has meant that Back-Benchers have a greater influence on the matters that are debated and the priority given to them. That is what we ought to secure by this proposal and I hope very much indeed that we do, because I am frankly rather puzzled by the position that the Leader of the House has taken. I do not think that the present arrangement is working well and we ought to reform it.
My Lords, I will speak briefly, because I am sure that the House wishes to come to a conclusion on this quite rapidly. I was slightly troubled by the last thing that the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, said in his excellent speech, as it is almost guaranteed to ensure that the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin of Roding, will not now vote in support of the Motion. But you cannot have everything, can you?
The points are as follows. If we adopt the proposal on the Order Paper, we are much more likely to be able to have timely debates on issues that the public think are important and we will be seen to be relevant. That is important; it was one of the fundamental issues that the Goodlad report affirmed. Secondly, unlike in the Commons, these issues are not divisible. That is important for our traditions. The Government do not have to fear what they fear in the Commons—that you have a debate on some contentious issue leading to a headline story that the Lords voted X or Y. That would not happen and it is in keeping with our traditions that it should not. That ought to allow the Government and the coalition parties who are signatories to the letter to relax a little bit on this issue. Thirdly, the proposal makes no change to the existing procedure for QSDs. Those who are beloved of ballots will still be able to go in for ballots for a number of QSDs; that is going to continue. Finally, we all know that the Government can ensure that there is a debate on any issue that they judge to be topical and important whenever they wish to do so. Back-Benchers ought to be able to do the same.
I welcome parts of this report, particularly paragraph 6, which gives us extra time for QSDs, but I am not so keen on this idea of a Back-Bench business committee. I know that it was proposed in the Goodlad report, but not everything in the Goodlad report was gospel. I well remember bringing the first half dozen proposals from the Goodlad report to the Floor of the House when I occupied the position of Chairman of Committees; three of them were voted straight out. So I am not certain one should use that as an argument for the goodness of this suggestion.
I make the point, as have other noble Lords, that balloted debates are the only chance that some noble Lords have of getting their subjects debated. Will this new committee have to give reasons for its decisions? Would it deliberate in public? How does it intend to fulfil its remit, in paragraph 10, to “add transparency and accountability”? I assume that the committee would be set up in much the same way as are most of the other committees in this House. Whether it is elected or appointed, it would still have party balance. Like, I am sure, all committees in this House with party balance, it would tend to rotate the debate subjects around the various parties. I am not quite sure why it would operate in a different way from the existing party debate days, which will continue.
I welcome the proposals in the Leader’s section—option 2 in the report. I welcome the idea of not rolling over debates from one to another, so that you hopefully get a slightly lower number of two-and-a-half-hour balloted debates on the Order Paper at any one time. I agree that there should be an element of cross-party support for the particular subject. I make one further suggestion, which is that the present two and a half hours for each balloted debate—five hours in total—should not rigidly be divided at two and a half hours each. If we were to have a situation where there were more speakers in one debate than in the other, the list might have to close slightly earlier but one debate might get, say, three hours and the other only two. I wonder if the Procedure Committee might look at that proposal.
My Lords, my naive noble friend Lord Peston and the Leader of the House may inadvertently have been misleading us in talking about this Back-Bench committee. Like the noble Baroness, I have my doubts about it, but let us be clear that we are talking about experiment here, not an established Select Committee. If anybody reads this report, they will see that we are talking about a temporary committee. I support this strongly, to see how it will work. I am by no means certain. I am as uncertain as I am about economic forecasts; as the Office for Budget Responsibility says, they are usually uncertain.
I am pleased to hear how much the Leader of the House wishes to see more time available for Back-Benchers to hold the Government to account. We still do not know when we are ceasing to sit for Prorogation, or why we had an extra week off for Easter. We could have had a lot of Back-Bench time in that week. We could have more next week. Perhaps the Leader of the House, if he eventually gets up again, might tell us why we were prevented from having some time available then, if he so wishes to hold the Government to account.
If we are talking about the establishment and holding it to account, the noble Lord, Lord Butler, is probably more a member of the old establishment than anybody else in your Lordships’ House. I make it clear that when I was part of that establishment, during my five years as Chief Secretary, I very much welcomed the views of the noble Lord, which were always good to hear even if I did not agree with them. The noble Lord was well worth listening to. Perhaps I should also make it clear, as others have done, that I certainly have no wish to be a member of this special committee, although I do not rule out making representations to it—that is for sure.
I hope that the House will agree to set this committee up on a temporary basis to see how it works. That is all that we are being asked to do. I hope that the House will agree even to take it on the nod. Let us have this settled once and for all. That is all that we are asking.
My Lords, I indicate my appreciation to the Leader of the House for the steps he has proposed to enable Back-Benchers to have greater vocality and greater audience in this place. His proposals have moved us a considerable step forward. The noble Lord, Lord Butler, has made a very strong case, and I do not wish to go over all that again. However, I want to take up an issue—and I say this as a member of the previous Leader’s Group on Working Practices—that was raised by the Leader of the House, the noble Lord, Lord Hill of Oareford, in his letter of 22 April, in which he recognised that our procedures could be improved and that we could make reforms,
“to ensure that debates drawn by ballot command sufficient interest in the House”.
There are a number of other considerations that should properly be taken into account as well as interest in the House. Is the noble Lord really suggesting that that exercise should be conducted by the clerks or not? If not, why does he not look at the five criteria which the committee of the noble Lord, Lord Goodlad, recommended that the Back-Bench committee on debates apply? The five criteria, which were specifically spelt out, were that the subjects for debate should be varied, timely, and address issues which are either topical or of long-term national importance, and that the debates should draw upon the knowledge and experience of Members of the House. These are important criteria, and it would not be appropriate to ask anyone other than the Members of this House to seek to apply them. I therefore support the concept of setting up this committee for a period of time to see how it works.
My Lords, I do not support the proposal for a Back-Bench committee for debates. There will inevitably be a tendency towards safer, more mainstream and more predictable debates and a decrease in the breadth of debate—of issues discussed in this House—something for which this House is known. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Butler, that having only a few people speak in the debate does not necessarily say anything about the quality of that debate, which may be very high. I certainly support staying with the balloting procedure.
My Lords, I always regard things which are commended because they work well in the House of Commons with a certain degree of suspicion. I urge your Lordships to do the same for a very good reason. The pressures that Back-Benchers cope with in the other place are quite different from the pressures that we are coping with here. They do not have tenure, but we do. Their tenure is dependent in part on the power of the Whips to deselect, so the positions of the two Houses in the competition with the Crown for power, which is what this is all about, are quite different. A Back-Bench committee with command of some time in the House of Commons is a very large step forward. A Back-Bench committee here, for the reasons which have just been very adequately voiced by the noble Earl, is a step backwards, and I hope we do not take it.
My Lords, I would like to be very brief. I have just three small points; or rather, they are not small, but I will try to put them briefly. Before I do so, I should say that I found the argument of the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, very strong and, certainly for me, very convincing.
First, I want to take up what the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, just said, which was reflected by the noble Lord, Lord Elton, and a number of other noble Lords. It seems to suggest that a Back-Bench Committee would be devoid of all sympathy for the more esoteric topics that might need to be debated. I think it is rather insulting towards Back-Benchers to suggest that they might not be interested in topics which are rather unusual but personally important to the people proposing them.
The noble Lord the Leader of the House is wedded to the word “balloting”. I am very glad that the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, has once again said—as I have done before—that we should not be using the word ballot in relation to the present system. It is a lucky dip. If you want a ballot then you should be supporting a Back- Bench committee because such a democratically elected committee, working on democratic principles, would be deciding on what debates should take place by balloting within the committee. That is where you get the ballot. So let us not confuse balloting with lucky dips; that is the present system and I find it quite extraordinary.
Finally, I think the case the noble Lord the Leader of the House has made falls flat when we come to paragraph 14 in the report, when he says that all Back-Benchers must,
“have an equal chance of securing time to debate issues of concern to them, without having to secure the approval of their peers”.
Peer approval is one of the cornerstones of a self-regulating House and I strongly believe that there is a case for setting up a committee where democratically elected Back-Benchers can decide and make proposals as to what they think it is in the broad interests of the House as a whole to listen to when debate slots are available. I know we have a topical debate period but it is very important that a Back-Bench committee should be sensitive to both the more specialised issues that some would want to debate—and they would be taken into consideration—and also to the broader interests of the House. This is to make sure that highly important issues do not go by the board because a lucky dip has decided that they have no place in the debating Chamber.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, is right in what he says. We are only asking for a very modest proposal to be accepted by the House. We are asking for an experimental period of one parliamentary Session. We are not suggesting that, during that period, the present system should be completely abandoned. So the House will have the opportunity, as a self-regulating House, to look at the two systems working side by side.
In answer to my noble friend Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, of course there should be a form of election for this committee. I would favour the various groups— the Labour group, the Cross-Benchers, the Bishops—nominating members to sit on this committee. That would be a tidy and sensible way of doing it. The committee would then have the opportunity to listen to the proposals put to it.
It is nonsense that we have had grave international situations that have not been debated in this House. We had to wait ages for the Arab spring debate. My noble friend Lord Higgins talked about the euro crisis. If this House, to use the words of the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, is to be truly relevant to our nation and to its problems, it has to have the opportunity, in a timely and opportune manner, to debate the issues that are concerning people. Occasionally, these may be esoteric: I do not believe that a properly constituted Back-Bench committee would choose only grand international events to debate. Of course it should not, and I believe it would not. However, I do think we should give it a chance. We are a self-regulating House; let us regulate ourselves in this way in accordance with the recommendations of the Goodlad committee.
The greatest thing about this House, in my experience, is that it is collegiate in a way that the other place is not. We sit together on the Long Table and talk. We are not talking about debates that will end in votes. Let us discuss where we should focus our attention. Let us see how this group of colleagues works together. If at the end of the year the committee has not produced the goods, we will abandon the experiment. I do not believe that if you start an experiment you have to continue it in perpetuity; of course you do not. An experiment is an experiment, and I beg the House to give this one a chance.
Perhaps I may detain your Lordships for just two minutes. I am in the very unusual position of agreeing with the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. It is not something that happens daily in this House, and it certainly did not happen over reform of your Lordships’ House. However, I am bound to say that I came to this debate in a wholly neutral frame of mind. I was not sure whether I liked the idea or whether I did not. One argument seems to be absolutely critical, and for me conclusive. When I was Leader of the Opposition in this House, when I was Leader of the House and indeed since, it struck me—as I suspect it has struck every other Leader—that the one great gap in our procedures is that one cannot raise an urgent issue. It is almost impossible. If one wants to secure a debate in this House on an issue such as the Arab spring or North Korea’s nuclear policy, unless the Government are prepared to give it time, one cannot get it. That is wrong. A parliamentary assembly ought to have a procedure whereby issues that are clearly urgent and topical are capable of being discussed. That gap is partially—only partially—filled by the proposals for this experiment. For me that is the conclusive argument. It fills a gap in the procedures of our House that has existed for many years, and we would then be in a position, like other parliamentary assemblies, to deal with urgent, topical questions, which at the moment we are not.
I will say a word or two because I was the Leader of the House when the noble Lord was the Leader of the Opposition. I listened to my noble friend putting forward a housemaid’s baby-type argument; we will have a little experiment and it will be all right. I also listened to the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell. I have no doubt that if he was in charge of all this, it would work very well whatever the rules because he is that sort of person and he would make sure that it did. However, I am still worried about the central proposition that a Back-Bench committee should be able to decide which Back-Bench topics should be debated. The committee will come under enormous pressure and a great deal of lobbying. Inevitably it will end up, in order to keep the peace, taking on the big issues and leaving some of the smaller issues to one side. That is what worries me. Of course I accept the argument that we have to have more topical debates, but I am not sure that a Members’ Back-Bench committee is the way to do it. I would prefer it if we found another way. Therefore, I will vote against the experiment.
My Lords, perhaps I may ask the Leader whether any thought has been given to the objective criteria that will be applied to the experiment to determine finally whether it has been successful or not. There is a lot of talk about this being an experiment, but at the outset it is vital to determine how we are going to judge whether it has been successful when we come to re-evaluate it.
My Lords, most of what I wanted to say has been said. However, on behalf of myself and my noble friend Lady Tyler of Enfield, who cannot be here because she is unwell, I must at least put the points on which we agree as two of the signatories to the paper that was referred to. One is the importance of capturing the public mood, which is another way of saying that there are important things that we may miss out on debating in a timely manner. I, for one, do not want to ignore any chance to increase this House’s standing with the public. The other point is Back-Bench ownership of debates which, as she put it to me, is very much in the spirit of self-regulation of the House, as indeed would be the election of the members of such a group.
I will confine myself to one other point, which concerns the criteria. As has been said, this concerns a small number of occasions. Whoever takes the decisions about what is to be debated on these very few occasions, I understand that for balloted Questions the applicant must convince the clerks that the subject of a proposed topical Question is indeed topical. That may be relatively straightforward. However, the other characteristics—which include quirkiness, for which I have great enthusiasm— are much harder to deal with. I am sorry we cannot include the clerks in this debate and hear their views on how they would deal with that. It would not be a ballot; it would indeed be a lottery. To those of us who have been involved in the democratic process, as we all have, a ballot means putting something to the vote. We are talking about the distinction between the procedure going through the proposed, and a lottery or chance. I for one hope that the House will support a trial arrangement.
My Lords, my arguments against the current procedures have been well rehearsed, and the case for change has been well made. I do not intend to repeat any of them now. If this is put to a vote I shall vote in support of the proposal.
As the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, stressed repeatedly, this is an experiment. It seems to me that the success of the experiment depends crucially on the criteria that the committee will apply, and how it will apply them. That is crucial. What exactly are the criteria going to be? What weight will be given to each of them? Will the committee have a remit, for example, to ensure that all the criteria are met over the period of the experiment, or only some of them? How many of the separate criteria will have to be met at any given time? If a topic meets more than one criteria, how will one topic be favoured over another? What weight will be given to each of the criteria? All these issues go towards whether this experiment will be perceived as fair and objective, and as an improvement on the current process. I very much hope that if this moves forward, as I hope it will, these questions will be addressed as we make progress on this issue.
My Lords, as I said when I intervened in the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Butler, for me the crucial thing is that this committee should be elected. If people are standing for election to this committee whom we do not think would take a balanced view on the quirky topic and the large topic, then do not vote for them. Surely within this House we are grown-up enough and experienced enough to realise the importance of maintaining a balance in what we do, and can trust our colleagues. The alternative is a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory situation, where you have to wait to get the golden ticket to have your chance to put forward your debates. It has been said that colleagues are going to be lobbying—of course they are, but we lobby our Front-Benchers all the time. Surely all of us are grown-up enough to be able to survive the experience of a bit of lobbying. I support this proposal because it is about strengthening Parliament, and it is by strengthening Parliament that we will increase the respect and standing of Parliament outside.
I think it was my noble friend Lord Higgins who talked about us having tenure. I do not think we have tenure in this House. This House has to prove itself every day in the eyes of the public; I think it does a brilliant job. This measure is at least worth trying, because it could strengthen Parliament, increase our ability to hold the Executive to account, and be seen to be relevant to the interests of those outside who, after all, pay the bills.
My Lords, I have three points: first, if there is to be a committee it must be elected. There are no doubts about that. Secondly, a major gap has been identified in this debate, and that is the capacity of this House to identify major topics of current concern and debate them urgently. There has to be a way of doing that, whatever comes out of this debate, and I put it to the Leader of the House that he must look at that. Thirdly, we should not vote to have another committee on the basis that this is an experiment. Any committee that I have ever seen that people have tried to kill has been cut in half and then there are two new ones.
In general, I am in favour of progress, modernisation and change, but I am not in favour of a Back-Bench debates committee at this point because it is unnecessary in view of the Leader’s proposal. In the light of that proposal, a Back-Bench debates committee would be a huge sledgehammer to crack a tiny nut. It could easily turn into a bureaucratic and expensive procedure, if full accountability was desired. One just has to think about it. Peers tabling subjects for topical QSDs would have to give reasons in papers or e-mails, and signatures of support would be sought. Minutes of the committee would have to be prepared; all conflicts of interest, not just financial, would have to be declared; and all lobbying, either ignored or debated, would have to be declared. A clerk would be required, plus an assistant to prepare papers. The committee would not be cheap and, if there is capacity for another committee, I would much rather the money was spent on more pre-legislative or post-legislative scrutiny.
As for transparency, the government Whips’ Office has given a very clear and welcome explanation of how debates and QSDs get on to the Order Paper. As for balloted debates, what is more transparent than pure chance, with all Peers having as good a chance as each other of having their subject debated? Do we really want to go down the road of having a group of our fellow Peers deciding which debates are more important than others? Why do we not give the Leader’s proposals a trial and, if there is dissatisfaction after that, come back to the idea of a Back-Bench debates committee?
My Lords, we have had a good and thorough debate, and I believe that all the possible arguments have been aired. At this stage, I beg to move that this House takes note of the sixth report of the Procedure Committee. After that, we get to the substantive Motion on the decision.