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Volume 751: debated on Wednesday 29 January 2014

My Lords, I apologise for being a bit presumptuous. Perhaps I may take this opportunity to raise an issue on which I am sure the whole House would like some guidance. Will the government Chief Whip clarify her intentions as to the minimum intervals to be applied to the European Union (Referendum) Bill? It is our assumption on these Benches that, should the Bill complete its Committee stage on Friday 31 January or 7 February, Report will take place on 28 February. Can the Chief Whip confirm that that is her intention?

My Lords, first, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, for his courtesy in giving me advance notice that he was going to raise a question on the matter. He did not actually say what the question would be, but I got the rough idea of what it might refer to and I am genuinely grateful to him. He will be aware that I did not intend to be at Question Time today, not because I am uninterested—I listened to every word, as I always do—but because in the coalition Government I share attendance at Question Time with my coalition partner, the noble Lord, Lord Newby, which is why he was here today. That is why I was not in the House earlier.

The noble Lord asked a question about minimum intervals and, in the same breath, referred to Committee having not yet concluded. He also referred to Committee being scheduled for a later date than this coming Friday. I gently remind the House of a couple of things. First, there is a straightforward answer to all this. Matters concerning the intervals of Bills are not considered until one has secured Committee. This House has not concluded Committee, and matters to do with when Report or other stages might be follow at the end of Committee. That is the normal procedure.

Secondly, the noble Lord refers to different dates. I took the chance to check what I said last week—I thought that my memory was okay, but we like to be sure. Towards the end of Committee on Friday, I referred to the fact that we would continue Committee on the Bill next Friday, 31 January, at 10 am. It is at col. 957 of Hansard. I expressed my expectation that Committee stage would finish on that day, this Friday, and I believe it was a realistic assumption given the rate of progress of business last week. It is still my reasonable assumption that Committee will conclude this Friday, and it is at that stage that matters to do with other stages will be considered. That is the time to do it, not now.

My Lords, I find that easy to accept, but all I am asking is for the noble Baroness to confirm that she will advise the House to abide by the minimum intervals set out in the Companion. In the end, it is a yes or no question.

My Lords, this is a self-regulating House. The Companion has rules that set out the process in different circumstances. It is a matter that is considered at the end of Committee. That is not far away. I urge a little patience. I know that the House may soon become impatient because we have serious matters to address in the Children and Families Bill; I know that many noble Lords have attended the House for that.

I am not in a position to go further than I would in any other case. This is not a time for consideration of how the Bill will proceed after Committee has been concluded. It has not yet been concluded; my expectation is that it will on Friday.

My Lords, I would not intervene on this were it not for the fact that the government Chief Whip has been kind enough to quote me in relation to the Bill both at Second Reading, when she said that she was following my previous judgment about timings on Second Readings of Bills, and, as I have since discovered, although I did not have the pleasure of coming along to the House on Friday, in Committee, when she again cited previous Labour Chief Whips as the reason for her behaviour and making judgments in the way that she is.

If it ever was the case that she was following our precedent, she has now clearly decided to depart from precedents. That is something that she must make a decision about in the following respect. It is crystal clear that the normal gap between Committee and Report is 14 days. Although this is the normal gap, it would be particularly so in the case of a Bill with considerable constitutional implications. It seems that even if Committee were completed this Friday—when I, sadly, have to report to the House that I am again unable to attend, which is why I make no apologies for making this point now—14 days could not mean that the Committee stage was considered the following Friday, or on the two Fridays after that because they are in the Recess. The earliest I can see that it could be, in keeping with the normal conventions of this House, would be 28 February. If I have made my calculations incorrectly, given that they are precisely the calculations I would have made had I been in the Chief Whip’s position now, perhaps she will be good enough to correct me.

As the Chief Whip keeps telling the House that she is acting precisely in accordance with precedent and previous procedure, could she please put in the Library of the House a copy of the precedents for a Private Member’s Bill, introduced in mid-January, being given two successive Fridays that are wholly devoted to the Committee stage of the Bill—Fridays which went on in both cases beyond 3 pm, again in contravention of the normal procedures of this House? We will all be interested to read all the precedents for that. Perhaps it will be an extensive list; I just do not know.

The noble Baroness is speaking from the Dispatch Box as the Government’s Chief Whip. My contention about the Bill is that it is not in any sense a Bill with any obvious precedent. Could she then please reassure the House that she is speaking from that Front Bench and giving her advice as the government Chief Whip with responsibility to the whole House? She is an active Conservative Party politician, which I respect and admire. I am an active Labour Party politician and have been all my life, but parts of her responsibility are to the whole House. Those include respecting the minimal interval.

Again, if the noble Baroness is speaking on behalf of the Government, it means that she has the full and wholehearted consent of her deputy, to whom she kindly referred in reminding the House that he would normally stand in for her on a day such as this Wednesday. Perhaps she or the Deputy Chief Whip can confirm that she is speaking on his behalf as well as hers when she has been unable to give an assurance to the House, as she has been unable to give, that she will respect the full 14-day minimum interval between the two stages of the Bill.

As I see it, she is speaking on behalf of the Conservative Party—

I need to say this if the House does not mind. Your Lordships will be able to find that I am frequently prayed in aid. It seems now that I am not being prayed in aid and I wish to establish the distinction. The Chief Whip can possibly do two things. First, can we please have all the precedents in the Library of the House and, secondly, can she confirm now to the House that she is speaking on behalf of the Government, with the full assent of the government Deputy Chief Whip?

My Lords, my answer remains straightforward because I like to be a straightforward kind of person. I am giving the answer that any government Chief Whip would give at this stage. Matters of further stages are not considered until the end of Committee, which should conclude on Friday. I believe that that is a reasonable expectation. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, will give an undertaking that it is his expectation as well. The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, refers to my praying him in aid. I do so with genuine respect, because I respect him as a government Chief Whip. I particularly recall that when he was government Chief Whip, he frequently called in the other Chief Whips, the Convenor and Members of the Cross Benches, to ensure that his guidance that at least three groups an hour should be considered in Committee was maintained.

I give a straightforward answer. Nothing further should be said by a government Chief Whip at this stage because it would be pre-empting any decision that may be made and making assumptions about Friday that it would be wrong to make. My expectation is that Committee will finish and I think the House has wearied of going around the same route. Again, there is only one answer, to which I will adhere because it is the right answer.

My Lords, I ask the noble Baroness what I hope is a fairly simple question. The Companion is quite clear in what it says. If it is for the convenience of the House, the intervals that are set out in the Companion can clearly be varied. One accepts that. It happens quite often with government Bills. You get a Motion down on the Order Paper to say that the intervals should be compressed.

Does the noble Baroness accept that in relation to this Bill, in order for the intervals to be compressed, there will have to be a Motion of this House, which will have to be passed?

My Lords, matters of procedure with regard to usual intervals are a matter to be discussed once one completes Committee. The Companion is absolutely clear. I can certainly see that the Clerk of the Parliaments is able to give firm advice, which may not be that which the noble Lord, Lord Richard, wishes to hear. I have given the only answer any government Chief Whip should and can give at this time. That is where it rests.