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Arrangement of Business

Volume 750: debated on Friday 10 January 2014


My Lords, before we begin the Second Reading of the European Union (Referendum) Bill, perhaps I may offer the House some advice on timings and say a brief word about the speakers list. It has come to my attention that there may be an error on the list. The noble Lord, Lord Richard, for whom we all have great regard, appears not to be on it, and I believe that the name of the noble Lord, Lord Bichard, may be on it in error. With the leave of the House, I propose that after we have had the opening speech from my noble friend Lord Dobbs, I will discuss the matter with the opposition Chief Whip—the noble Lord, Lord Bassam—and ensure not only that the noble Lord, Lord Richard, is able to speak but that he is able to do so in an appropriately prominent place in the list. I hope that that will meet with the approval of the noble Lord, Lord Richard, and of the House.

I turn to advice on timings. If we exclude from the guidance I am about to give my noble friend Lord Dobbs, who will propose the Second Reading, and the two speakers who will wind up—the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, and my noble friend Lady Warsi—everybody else should speak for four minutes. That would give us a concluding time for the debate of about 3 pm. That terminology does not quite sit with my usual vocabulary, but I believe that the wording will sound particularly familiar to the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, who is to speak in the debate, as I have blatantly pinched his words: it is the self-same advice that he gave on a similar occasion for the Second Reading of a Private Member’s Bill on a Friday, when he was the then Labour Government’s Chief Whip. It was his advice for the Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill, proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Joffe. On that occasion, the same guidance of four-minute speeches was given and there were no complaints, despite the fact that there were then 92 speakers listed, as opposed to 68. The House followed the prediction of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott. He said that it would rise between 5 pm and 6 pm and, my goodness, it rose at 5.29 pm —he was very accurate. The debate proceeded in an orderly manner, because that is the way this House operates. I feel that it is the will of the House that that should apply to this Bill, too.

My Lords, before the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, opens the debate, I will say to the Chief Whip that I am grateful for what she said. I express no opinion one way or the other on what went on in the Government Whips’ Office, save to say that I was insistent that I had put my name down but that it did not appear on the speakers list. I am grateful to the Chief Whip for indicating what she is going to do. However, I am slightly concerned about the procedure that she has outlined for the rest of the debate.

The Companion is very clear. It is a firm convention of this House that, when Private Members’ Bills are taken on a Friday, the House does not sit beyond 3 pm. From what the noble Baroness has just said, I am not sure whether she accepts that it should not sit beyond 3 pm—in which case, if we come to 3 pm and the debate has not concluded, it will be adjourned even though it has not been completed—or whether she is saying that if everybody does what she would like us to do, it is her hope that the debate will finish by 3 pm. If it is the latter—if it is merely her hope—that, with great respect, is not in accordance with the Companion. The Companion is very clear on this. I will read out the relevant piece from the Companion. Chapter 3, headed “Sittings and Documents of the House”, states:

“The House also sits on Fridays at 10 a.m. when pressure of business makes it necessary. It is a firm convention that the House normally rises by about 10 p.m. on Mondays to Wednesdays, by about 7 p.m. on Thursdays, and by about 3 p.m. on Fridays”.

My Lords, if everybody takes three minutes, of course we will be up by 3 pm. If everybody takes 10 minutes, there is not a hope that we will be up by then. This is not a time-limited debate. The only limit is that set out in the Companion, which I think the government Chief Whip is now prepared to ignore.

I am not against this Bill getting a Second Reading; of course it should get a Second Reading. What I am concerned about is that the Bill should be treated no differently from any other Private Member’s Bill. I have been present in this House on a recent Friday when the axe came down at 2.50 pm when one of my noble friends had a Bill he was about to propose. I am told that that was at the behest—although I cannot verify that—but certainly with the concurrence of the government Chief Whip. We were told that 3 pm was the time and therefore the Bill did not proceed.

When the noble Lord, Lord Steel, was proposing one of his Bills, I distinctly recollect a situation in which it was—I hesitate to use the words, “talked out”, but there was expansive discussion of the previous Bill, as a result of which, at 3 pm, down came the axe and the noble Lord’s Bill could not proceed. It is important to establish the principle that this Bill is a Private Member’s Bill and should be treated as such. It should be treated no differently from any other Bill. I say to the noble Baroness that if it comes to 2.50 pm this afternoon and another 30-odd speakers remain on the list, I will be minded in those circumstances to move an adjournment of further discussion on the Bill. I am not saying that I am going to do that, but I am certainly not saying that I am not going to do that.

My Lords, I think it would be appropriate if I responded. The mood of the House is clearly that it wishes to get on with the debate rather than debate procedure. I remind the House that as government Chief Whip I am indeed the guardian of the Companion, so of course I accept what the noble Lord, Lord Richard, quoted from part of it. I sought in my introduction to explain that I was indeed following normal procedure. The Companion was phrased in 2006 in the way in which the noble Lord described—it is normal that we rise at 3 pm, but the House is self-regulating and if Members wish to speak for longer than four minutes and rise later than 3 pm, it is in their hands.

However, on previous occasions, Private Members’ Bills have never—ever—taken more than one day. There has never been an attempt to adjourn the House on a Second Reading; and it would be unprecedented for a Member to seek to adjourn the House to prevent the completion of a Second Reading. On previous occasions, anyone who wished to prevent a Second Reading tabled a Motion beforehand—and, before those procedures were put in place long ago, a vote against Second Reading itself was made.

Let us not indulge in procedural quotations from only part of the Companion. I did explain that I was following the position of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, when a very serious Private Member’s Bill was before this House. In that case, the House chose to rise at 5.30 pm. The noble Lord, Lord Richard, referred to another occasion recently. Perhaps I may explain to the House that when that Second Reading did not proceed, I had beforehand talked to the mover of the Private Member’s Bill to ensure that if the Second Reading could not be concluded at a reasonable time, I would of course ensure that they had the first available opportunity and date that would ensure that their Bill could reach another place. So I always play fair. I am keeping to the rules and suggest that the House moves on. It is now 10.16 am. This is a Bill that the House wants to debate.

My Lords, given that I have been quoted in evidence, I should be able to make a couple of comments. Yes, this is a Private Member’s Bill—but, my word, it is a Private Member’s Bill like no other that anyone else can remember in this House. I need to remind the House that it is a Private Member’s Bill that is passionately supported by the Prime Minister—so much so that when it was going through the House of Commons, the Conservative Party was on a heavy three-line whip. That makes the Bill very different from any other Private Member’s Bill in my experience—and, I would guess, that of anyone in this House with longer experience than mine. I will leave that aside for a moment.

I will make just this plea to the Chief Whip. As she has been kind enough to say that she is following precisely my advice in this respect, will she at least do me the courtesy of assuring me that whenever I give advice on the timing of Bills between now and, say, the general election, she will take it?