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Procedure Committee

Volume 747: debated on Thursday 25 July 2013

Motion to Agree

Moved by

That the 2nd Report from the Select Committee (Backbench Debates; Tabling oral questions; High Speed 2 and hybrid bill procedure) (HL Paper 33) be agreed to.

My Lords, the report covers a number of different areas, which I will cover briefly in turn. The first part deals with the detailed implementation of two proposals by the Leader of the House to allocate more time for Back-Bench business. The first proposal is for a weekly one-hour topical QSD, to be selected by ballot and debated between the two party or balloted debates on Thursdays. The ballot would open at 10 am on Monday morning and be drawn at noon on Tuesday for Thursday of the following week.

As with topical Oral Questions, a topicality test would be applied: we suggest that the subject must have been covered by at least two mainstream media outlets on either the Monday or Tuesday that the ballot was open or over the preceding weekend. The second proposal focuses on balloted debates. We propose three changes: first, that the practice of rolling over Motions from one ballot to the next should be discontinued; secondly, that Members should be able to have either a Motion for balloted debate or a QSD on the same subject on the Order Paper at any one time, but not both; and finally, we propose an element of flexibility in the timing of balloted debates. Where one balloted debate has twice as many speakers as the other, there should be flexibility to shorten the less popular debate to two hours in order to extend the more popular one to three hours.

Moving on from the Leader’s proposals, the report proposes a slight change to the yearly cap on Oral Questions that the House agreed at the end of April. It has been brought to our attention that some Members were unaware that Questions tabled since January have been retrospectively counted as part of the Member’s allocation of Oral Questions for the 2013 calendar year. To avoid penalising Members who were unaware of the retrospective nature of the cap, we propose that the yearly cap on Oral Questions be calculated from 1 May to 30 April. This change will ensure that only Questions tabled after the cap was agreed to will be counted.

Finally, the report recommends to the House two proposals from the Leader relating to the High Speed 2 hybrid Bill, which is expected to be introduced in the House of Commons by the end of the year. The first is to amend the private business Standing Orders to ensure that the House’s procedures are compliant with the EU directive on environmental impact assessment by allowing the public an opportunity to comment on the environmental statement for a hybrid Bill and for those comments to be taken into account by both Houses.

The second proposal is to allow the electronic deposit of documents relating to the High Speed 2 hybrid Bill. Standing Orders currently require hard copies of all Bill documentation to be deposited in every local authority along the line of route. Given that there are around 250 local authorities and the environmental statement alone is expected to run to 50,000 pages, this proposal simply allows, but does not require, these documents to be deposited in electronic form. The Government have undertaken to make all key documents available in hard copy in all deposit locations and to continue to provide all documentation in hard copy if locations so wish. I beg to move.

Can the Chairman of Committees answer a question? On page 4, paragraph 8, the report says:

“The proposal for topical QSDs arose as part of a package intended to create more opportunities for backbench members to initiate debate. We therefore propose that they may be initiated only by backbench members”,

something with which I completely agree. In the case of the Liberal Democrats, as well as Ministers in the Government, they also have Front-Bench spokespersons who get up and speak on behalf of the Liberal Democrats. I presume that they are excluded from initiating Back-Bench debates.

It is intended for Back-Benchers. It should be for Back-Benchers. I am sure that people who operate as Front-Benchers will be aware of that.

With respect, that has not answered the question. We need to be absolutely clear before we approve this that spokespersons for the Liberal Democrats are considered, for this purpose, to be Front-Benchers. With respect, they try to have it both ways. They try to have the privileges of Front-Bench spokesmen, but obviously they might try to be Back-Benchers as well. I therefore hope that it is absolutely clear.

My Lords, there is very little I can add to what I said. It is a matter for the usual channels to work out, if possible, whether there is such a thing as a Liberal Democrat Front-Bencher who is not a Minister.

Motion agreed.