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Procedure of the House Committee Report: Private Members’ Bill

Volume 750: debated on Thursday 9 January 2014

Motion to Agree

Moved by

That the 3rd Report from the Select Committee (Private Members’ Bills; debates on Select Committee reports) (HL Paper 63) be agreed to.

My Lords, in moving this Motion, I will speak also to the fourth report of the committee.

The third report proposes the introduction of a ballot to determine the order in which Private Members’ Bills handed in on the day of State Opening receive their First Readings on subsequent days. At present, the Legislation Office organises the order of First Readings on a first come, first served basis. This proposal will establish a more formal and transparent mechanism for determining the order in which Private Members’ Bills receive their First Readings.

The fourth report is very short and simply proposes that speakers lists should close slightly earlier than at present in order to give Members greater notice of expected speaking times in debate. I beg to move.

My Lords, I will say a few words about the fourth report—not the third one, but the one about speakers lists. I welcome the recognition by the Chairman of Committees and the Procedure Committee that there is a serious problem here, which is exacerbated by the increased number of Members of this House who quite reasonably and rightly wish to participate in its debates. The problem has reached critical proportions. As the Chairman of Committees knows, we do not bring much credit on ourselves when—for example, in the debate on the Middle East originated by my noble and gallant friend Lord Boyce—we give a couple of minutes to everyone to discuss a problem that is not, frankly, susceptible to being properly dealt with in that amount of time.

I fear that that is where the good news ends, because the change introduced by the Chairman of Committees, to which I have no objection at all, is simply tinkering and is unlikely to produce any major change to the problem that the Procedure Committee has identified. I hope that when the noble Lord replies to this point, and to any others that are made, he will assure the House that the door is not closed to a more radical look at this.

There are plenty of ways in which the problems associated with speakers lists and limited-duration debates could be ameliorated. You could have a system whereby the list was closed when the number of people down to speak reached the point where each of them would have a reasonable amount of time needed for that sort of debate. That could be agreed through the usual channels or in some other way. I am not asking for a debate about that now; I am merely asking whether the Chairman of Committees will say that the door is not closed. I fear that this will have to be looked at again when it turns out that this bit of tinkering does not make much difference.

My Lords, I offer my support to the third report, which is the subject of the Motion moved by the Chairman. I fully support the idea that we should end the mad scramble for Private Members’ Bills after the State Opening of Parliament, which I was involved in at the start of this Session. I take the opportunity to inform the House that a particular Bill, in which noble Lords know I have an interest, has gone to the other place and has had a successful Second Reading. It is due to have its Committee stage as the Byles Bill on Wednesday and, with any luck, will be back here in time for us to turn it into law, four years later.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood, on his little commercial, which is much appreciated by the House. Returning to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, I think it is important to understand that we have made great strides recently in increasing the opportunity for Back-Bench debates and contributions in your Lordships’ House. Cutting off a speakers list at a particular time was considered by the committee before it reached its current recommendation, but the difficulty is—dare I say?—that it creates the opportunity for rather mischievous behaviour in terms of flooding the list. That is one of the reservations that we had.

However, I recognise, and have some sympathy with, the general point that the noble Lord made. Having a very short speaking time is not a pleasant arrangement at all but is a product, in part, of the increase in the size of the active House. One thing that is happening is that the active House is getting larger and larger, and the proportion of our membership that is relatively inactive is declining. On the whole, it is a very good thing to have an active House rather than a largely inactive one—but, from time to time, we come close to the point where the House can operate only if a significant proportion of its membership is inactive. That is not a happy position to be in.

Motion agreed.