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House of Lords Hansard
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Arrangement of Business
12 May 2014
Volume 753

Announcement

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My Lords, there is a question that I have been asked on many occasions over the past week and I am now able to answer it. Now that the progress of business is certain, it may be for the convenience of the House if I indicate that I expect Royal Commissioners to attend this House at the end of business on Wednesday this week to signify Royal Assent to several Bills and to prorogue Parliament until 4 June. The exact time of the ceremony will be settled on Wednesday itself, once the flow of business in both Houses is clear.

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My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her statement advising the House of the date of Prorogation. I make one simple point. We on these Benches have long predicted this particular day in view of the flow of government business. However, the House is being underused. It is clear from the figures that we are losing about 10% of active days of consideration in your Lordships’ House. I am sure my colleagues share my view that this is highly unsatisfactory. We do a very good job and we do it well, but it is not right for the Government to play fast and loose with this House when it comes to the proper consideration of business.

I welcome what the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, has said, and I am glad that the statement has been made. It gives some certainty to Members of your Lordships’ House. However, the other matters bear further consideration.

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My Lords, in the past the Leader of the Opposition has made points about sitting patterns, and certain figures have been shown to her. Therefore, I am more than a little surprised that the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, continues to allege that this House is somehow sitting for some 10% less than its normal pattern. I just happen to have the figures with me.

The noble Lord, Lord Bassam, raises a serious point. This House is very adept at holding the Government to account and I know that it will continue to do so. The Opposition Front Bench is charged with that task and always carries it out to a high level of ability. I do not underestimate that at all.

It might be helpful if I refer to the working days available to this House. Without wishing to be too tedious, over the three most recent Sessions, if one looks at working days lost—in other words, working days on which we did not sit—at Christmas 2011 it was 10, at Christmas 2012 it was 10 and at Christmas 2013 it was 10. At Easter 2012 it was 15, at Easter 2013 it was 15 and at Easter 2014 it was 15. At Whitsun it was six days in 2012, including the extra bank holiday for the Diamond Jubilee, last year it was six and this year it will be six. With regard to Prorogation, in the Sessions 2010-12 and 2012-13 it was four days. For Prorogation last year it went up to seven. It has come down to five this year. There has been a perception—it is only a perception—that we have had longer, because of the way in which public holidays fall for Easter, Whit and Prorogation. On this occasion, Prorogation and Whit happen to be consecutive, but they would have happened anyway. I have plenty more figures, but that shows that we have a pattern and that we have kept to it.

Comments have been made about the Summer Recess. It is true that we went down to nine weeks last year, but it was 10 the year before and it is 10 this year. I have every confidence that this House will do the job that it does superbly, which is to hold any Government to account at all the proper times.

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Will my noble friend kindly tell us at what time the House will sit on Wednesday?

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My Lords, the announcement I made was in the normal format but I know that the normal format is rather opaque, so I understand why my noble friend asked that question. I cannot give the exact time of Prorogation until Wednesday, because another place will still be dealing with divisible government business. As to the starting time, on Wednesday we will start at the published time of 3 pm. That is because it is appropriate for those who have their Questions that day to ask them at the time they expect. As I explained last week to the Opposition Chief Whip, it is appropriate that we and another place should try to get to the point of Prorogation at about the same time. In that way, there is only a small hiatus while the House adjourns during pleasure before we have the ceremony of the commissioners. We shall begin at 3 pm on Wednesday, by which time I hope to be able to give a better indication of exactly when on Wednesday Prorogation might be.

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I put it to the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, as gently as I can that, while I understand all the difficulties that can be brought about by Prorogation, it should be borne in mind that many of us travel a considerable distance to come here. In doing so, we usually make arrangements a fortnight in advance for Monday to Thursday. The change to a Wednesday therefore causes considerable difficulties in arrangements for those Members who are travelling several hundred miles. I have accommodation in London, but I know that other colleagues who have to stay overnight have to make not only travel arrangements but overnight bookings. Perhaps this can be considered in future.

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I have a simple question. Will the noble Baroness agree to publish, in a letter placed in the Library, the stats on a per annum basis for the number of sitting days that the House has had since 2010?

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My Lords, I can certainly look at that and see what helpful figures—helpful to the noble Lord—we can give. With regard to advance notice, I sympathise with those noble Lords who travel a great distance here and try to have some regular pattern of attendance. The problem normally arises only with Prorogation, as it is simply impossible to predict when it might take place. I follow the pattern, which has always been the case, that one can make the announcement only once this House has completed its legislative business. That, of course, does not include statutory instruments but only the substantive primary Bills themselves. I could have waited another 24 hours, because normally one gives only 24 hours’ notice. However, I am always keen to give as much advance information as possible because I recognise, with sympathy, that Prorogation can cause a particular difficulty.