Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I am particularly grateful for the opportunity to raise this issue today. Many of my colleagues, on all sides, have come up to me and said that they are glad that this is being debated—mind you, most of them have said that they cannot be here because they have a long-standing commitment. That is why I am particularly grateful to those who have stayed on a Thursday, more grateful to those who are going to speak and even more grateful that from our Front Bench, we have the rare treat of our Chief Whip making what is effectively his maiden speech in this Parliament. I know that we are all looking forward to it.
This is a strange place. It is the second largest legislative assembly in the world, after the National People’s Congress of China. I am often asked how many Members there are in the House of Lords. It is very difficult to reply, not just because of the coalition-packing exercise under way at the moment but because of the Grim Reaper. That is a strange thing because we do not have a specified number. It is also the only debating legislative body that I know of without a chair, a moderator or a president to control proceedings. I am going to return to this, so if I am wrong then there is time for colleagues to correct me. This Chamber needs major reform, but that is for another day. I hope that the report of the Labour group, which was produced under the chairmanship of my noble friend Lady Taylor and Lord Grenfell, will form the essence of that discussion and those debates, and I hope that the suggestions will be taken forward.
Meanwhile, though, we can try to improve our proceedings and practices as far as we can, and I think we should. My top criterion is: how can we better exercise our role of scrutinising the Government? How can we make that scrutiny more effective? I shall look first at Questions. This week saw some classic cases of how bad it is with so-called self-regulation. First, on Tuesday, we saw the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, shouting down the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne—the first time that I have ever felt sympathy for the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne. Later on, my noble friend Lady Liddell, a former Energy Minister, was unable to get in on a Question on fracking because of the men who were pushing in before her—that was clearly the case. The noble Lord, Lord Selkirk, when he was the last man standing on a UQ, was squeezed out because the clock hit 10 minutes and the Clerk got up straight away, like some automaton, to stop the questioning taking place. Yesterday my noble friend Lady Farrington was delayed in asking a question because of a confrontation with Tory Peers, although it was Labour’s turn, and when the clock hit 30 minutes it was with almost undisguised glee that the noble Baroness the Leader of the House, who is replying to this debate, got up and called time. There was plenty of time, but because of the rules of the House we had to stop.
An impartial observer would ask: “Why is it the government Leader, or indeed the Whip, who is seen as the person who should stop scrutiny of the Government by calling time, or indeed decide between competing claims for speaking?”. The unseemly clamour at Question Time, with effectively the captain of one side acting as the referee, would end if we did what was recommended by my noble friend Lord Grocott in his report, and by others on a number of occasions: give the Lord Speaker and the Deputy Chairmen acting on her behalf their proper role as a moderator of our affairs. I hope that the noble Baroness the Leader of the House will look at this point again and answer it.
Also on Question Time, why is the original tabler of the Question called by the Clerk? Surely that would be more appropriately done by the Lord Speaker. And what is the rationale for limiting the total number of Written Questions by Members and the total number of Oral Questions on the Order Paper? Why is there an upper limit? If we are here to scrutinise the Government, why should our ability to do so be so constrained? There is no logic to this, or at least I have never heard any. Perhaps the Leader will tell us in her reply.
Why do we have no specified opportunity to raise points of order or procedure? True, the opposition Leader, or indeed anyone with a brass neck, can get up before main business—but that opportunity should not be left to the leadership and loudmouths like me; it should be codified and specified so that anyone can raise these issues.
Then there is the issue of Urgent Questions and Statements. Why do we have so few allowed, compared with the other place? We do not seem to have many opportunities here. Why are there such tight limits of 10 and 20 minutes for questions from the Back Benches on these debates? Sometimes we have finished at 7 pm, yet we have been squeezed into 10 minutes on an Urgent Question. It is completely artificial. Surely there should be more flexibility in both kinds of debate, taking into account the importance of the matter and the number of Members seeking to ask questions. If it is something of national importance and a lot of people want to ask questions, while it is true that there is a little flexibility, surely there should be more.
On conventions, we can refer to that great thick tome, the Companion to the Standing Orders. I have noted that it is apparently okay for the Government to ignore important conventions such as a the normal rising time for the House; do noble Lords remember when the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, who is about to follow me, allowed the House to go on and on to get his business through? He was able, as his successor may be, to breach convention. On time between stages of Bills, a great fuss is made when minor conventions are breached by others.
Some of the conventions need looking at again. Reading is not always bad. When someone has to read it is quite outrageous and rude to have colleagues muttering, “Reading, reading”. Of course we should discourage reading—where possible, noble Lords should give their speeches without reading, referring only to notes. However, why are we so adamant about that? It should not be an issue for reprimand if titles are not referred to exactly correctly: “the noble and gallant”, “the noble and learned”, “the noble and brass-necked”—noble Lords can think of an appropriate title for me. Why do we get so uptight about that?
I agree that we should not move about the House when Motions are taken, but surely if the Lord Speaker or the Chairman of Committees had power, if would be better for her or him to deal with that rather than to have to rely on the noble Lord, Lord Geddes, or the noble Countess, Lady Mar, however good they are at that. I venture to suggest that we encourage rather than frown on interventions in speeches—I have not had any yet, but there you are—so that we can have debates rather than a series of speeches. This is a debating Chamber, not a Chamber of a series of speeches.
That brings me to the arrangement of business. Short notice may be okay for London-based Members. However, if business for a Monday is to be tabled on a Thursday or Friday, as the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, did on occasions, how can those of us who live in the rest of the United Kingdom find out about it, let alone get here on time? I only live in Edinburgh; think about those who come from Orkney, the Western Isles, and other places. In addition, of course, necessary and understandable discussions take place in the usual channels about the timetabling of business. However, a little more transparency would help the rest of us, would it not? The idea of a Back-Bench business committee could be looked at again.
On committees, I fail to understand why we have come to a decision on shortening the rotation of membership of committees. Every Member I have spoken to disagrees with that. Some secret power seems to be at work—it is the usual channels again. The result in one case is that a European Union sub-committee is losing all but one of its members, including the chairman. What good is that for scrutiny of the legislation that comes from Europe, of which this House is notably and rightly proud? We should look at that again. If Select Committees have rotation of members, why not domestic committees? Why are they given special protection? Again, some secret power must be at work there.
Finally, as we approach the Christmas Recess, I renew my plea to the Government—for it is they who decide—to consider realigning the sittings of both Houses, the Commons and the Lords. Increasingly, we meet on different dates, which causes havoc with Joint Committees, all-party groups and political groups, quite apart from all the joint services of Parliament. I hope that the Leader will look at this, and at the other points I have raised, so that we can at least try to bring the proceedings and practices of this House into the 20th century, if not the 21st.
My Lords, it is always entertaining to follow the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes of Cumnock, and today was no exception. For most of the 10 minutes I was waiting for him to get to the point. The Question on the Order Paper asks whether the Leader of the House, or the Government, have any plans to re-examine the procedures and practices governing the arrangement of business in the House of Lords. It is not really up to the Government to do so. Ultimately, it is up to the House to decide whether those things should be done.
I take up two quick issues with the noble Lord. He made much of complaining of the rules that we have, such as the 30 minutes that we have for Starred Questions, but these decisions are not made by the Government or by the Opposition but are made and agreed by the House itself. From time to time, those issues are debated and discussed in full in the Procedure Committee and again on the Floor of the House.
One of my admonitions was on interventions—and I am grateful to the noble Lord for allowing me this intervention. I have had inside information from the time when the noble Lord was Leader of the House. I have heard stories that recommendations were agreed before he arrived and that his arrival resulted in a complete change, not because of his strength of argument but maybe because of fear. That does not include just proceedings—he will know that that includes attendance allowances as well.
My Lords, the noble Lord is being unusually flattering of my reputation.
The noble Lord referred to aligning the sittings of this House with those of the House of Commons. Why does the noble Lord not go to his colleagues in the House of Commons and tell them that they should align their sittings with us? That would be a distinct improvement. But there is no need for us to sit at exactly the same time as the House of Commons. Sometimes the greatest possible national recognition of the House of Lords is when the House of Commons is not sitting—and you have only to look at some recent examples, such as when the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, had his debate on assisted dying, to see that it was the House of Lords that ran the headlines. So that is a useful thing.
Of course, it is useful from time to time to have debates in this House on procedure. However, the noble Lord seems completely to misunderstand the role of the powerful and important Procedure Committee and how it works in practice. I am almost ashamed to admit it, but I was a member of the Procedure Committee from 1994 until 2013. For all those years I went along to every meeting. I probably sat longer in that committee than any person alive today. There was a movable feast of people who came and went, including Front-Benchers, Back-Benchers and Cross-Benchers alike. The point is that it is open to any Peer to write to the Chairman of Committees, the Leader of the House or the Clerk for issues to be raised in the Procedure Committee—and they are.
I am entirely in favour of progress and improving how we work. The fact that we do get change demonstrates how effective it is. When the Procedure Committee comes to a decision, it has to be endorsed by the House. There have been many occasions when amendments have been proposed and sometimes even agreed when decisions have had to be taken back by the Chairman of Committees. That is part of the general debate that we have. The noble Lord does not like some of the rules and regulations that we have, but he has every right to propose a change.
I am not in favour of having yet another committee. Already in this Parliament we have had a Leader’s Group, which made some substantial changes—and that has happened over the course of the past few years. The noble Lord said that we had plenty of time, yet it was the Labour Party, when it was in Government, that put the automatic cut-off at 10 o’clock at night. When I first joined this House, Back-Benchers were able to go on and on and on into the night and into the small hours.
I do not think that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, can have it both ways. He has accurately explained the fact that, ultimately, the control of procedure is with the House as a whole. Now he is saying that it is the Labour Party, which has never had more than 30% of the votes here, that has been imposing draconian rules. Which is it?
That was cleverly done, but what I meant was that it was a proposal by the then Labour Government that carried the day. I go back to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes. It was a decision of the House to limit the amount of time that we had available, and it is an experiment that worked well and it has now become permanent. Another was the introduction of Grand Committees. We have far more hours now to spend debating issues—and, unusually, compared with virtually any other legislative Assembly, every Member of this House has an absolute right to put any amendment down to any piece of legislation and must be replied to by a Member of the Government. That is an enormous strength, which is not shared by our colleagues next door.
What is the House of Lords for? We are here to revise, to scrutinise, to debate and to investigate. Actually, I think we do that job remarkably well. We should not put too much pressure on the role of the Government. Every aspect of the work that we do in this House is, ultimately, agreed through the usual channels. That is not always an easy relationship to manage, but in the end it is about the language of priorities between Government and Opposition.
As I have said before, I believe that it would be a great mistake to give new powers to a Speaker of the House of Lords. It would, first of all, be an admission that we were unable to rule ourselves—and you have only to look at the House of Commons to see what happens when you have a Speaker. If I may say so, with due respect to the noble Lord’s eminent career, it is very often former Members of the House of Commons who believe that this Chamber is a House of Commons 20 years older. It is not; it is an entirely different Chamber. Our procedures work extremely effectively and can be changed through the Procedure Committee.
My Lords, in opening my remarks I need to go back to the Parliament Act 1911, and the subsequent general acceptance by a hereditary House that the Commons were entitled to their business—an arrangement that held right up to the exclusion, 15 years ago, of most of the hereditaries. Of course I accept that during the period there were a disproportionate number of Labour Government defeats. Nevertheless, the arrangement was generally sustained.
But the hereditary House was archaic. It had to go. It has been replaced, over 15 years, by a House that is far more politicised and assertive. It is that which brings me to the issue of procedural reform. The introduction of a large group of former Labour and Conservative MPs, along with a substantial contingent of former Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidates, has profoundly changed the House and the way it works.
When I came here in 2001, even then I was conscious of a different culture, and I made a conscious effort to depoliticise my speeches. That, for me, was a big change after 22 years of fierce political debate in the Commons. I took a hard line on secondary legislation, refusing to vote on fatal Motions, and refused to insist more than once on Lords amendments. But this is now all being challenged. With its vast new intake of the more politically engaged, the House of Lords is changing.
That brings me to what might happen next year, after the general election, and the implications for procedure. Historically, polling has helped in the prediction of election results, but next year’s poll is impossible to predict. The political landscape is far more volatile. Both the main parties could see a reduction in votes yet an increase in seats. Both the Greens and UKIP could win a substantial number of votes yet, in the absence of proportional representation, no seats. What happens if the Liberal Democrats, outside their incumbency seats, find that their national vote completely collapses, and perhaps even turns out to be lower than the UKIP vote? What happens if, on a collapsed national vote, the Liberal Democrat group in the Commons is reduced to a rump? What happens if both the main parties lose seats to UKIP? The implications for the House of Lords and its proportionality are immense.
Let us take a step back to the last general election, and the coalition agreement. The programme for government stated:
“Lords appointments will be made with the objective of creating a second chamber that is reflective of the share of the vote secured by the political parties in the last general election”.
On the combined coalition Benches, that objective has been realised. But the May 2015 proportions are likely to be very different. The result may well be a disproportionate House, lacking all credibility. For example, after next May the 106 Liberal Democrats, who currently comprise nearly 20% of the working political appointees to the House, may have a much reduced mandate, while their numbers are increasing in the Dissolution Honours List.
How will we be able to justify a House of unelected Peers who may well in no way reflect either the proportions of votes cast in the country or even, on a lesser measure, the proportion of seats won in the House of Commons? How will we be able to justify their right to amend legislation and on occasion to drive legislation into the process of horse-trading during wash-up, which so often can lead to unreasonable compromise? Horse-trading over amendments with representatives of disproportionate political parties would be an affront to democracy, particularly under a minority Government.
If there are those who doubt that such conditions could arise, let me remind the House of the comments of the noble Lord, Lord McNally, who is in his place, speaking on behalf of his party in 2005:
“I do not believe that a convention drawn up 60 years ago on relations between a wholly hereditary Conservative-dominated House and a Labour Government who had 48 per cent of the vote should apply in the same way to the position in which we find ourselves today”.—[Official Report, 17/5/05; cols. 20-21.]
Speaking in the same debate, the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, said:
“The Government should not rely on an outdated convention but should argue for their programme on its merits”.—[Official Report, 23/5/05; col. 274.]
We can see where the Liberal Democrats are coming from and how they see their role in the House.
We are on notice, let there be no doubt, that a disproportionate and more assertive House of Lords that could meet after the 2015 general election may lose all credibility if it proceeds to handle legislation under the present arrangements. I foresee a crisis in credibility and the management of business, and some of us may well have a lot to say pending the wider debate on Lords reform. I believe that a major review of our procedures, under the changed circumstances that I have outlined, is utterly inevitable.
And now for something completely different. I am very pleased to have the opportunity of this debate to fly a kite which I have flown at least three times before. It is my idea for debating statutory instruments. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, for this chance. I have not flown the kite so far this year, so that is why it is going to have another outing.
My starting point is that affirmative statutory instruments, which are powers devolved by Parliament to Ministers, say that they are in draft, but that only means that they have not yet been through both Houses to be approved, so “draft” does not mean that they can be amended. One of the first things you learn about SIs is that they cannot be amended by either House, only agreed to or thrown out. We in this House are very loath to throw them out because our mindset is to try to seek consensus to make the law better, mostly where it resides in a Bill. However, sometimes an affirmative SI contains a good deal of meat which could not be foreseen in the parent Act, or circumstances have changed between the passing of an Act and the making of an instrument—years often pass—so, on occasion, a draft affirmative SI is laid before Parliament which is extremely controversial. Various Peers may table regret or even deplore Motions, with reasons, but that does not alter the fact that even if these Motions are passed, the SI is still passed with a mild slap on the wrist from the House.
How much better it would be to have a meaningful debate about the substance of the instrument in the Chamber, without the instrument itself being taken at that point. I envisage a carefully worded resolution to which amendments could be proposed and voted upon, but with their effect being advisory only. This would almost be another stage in the consultation process, which all Governments now take much more seriously than they did. The House would be the consultee, knowing that the arguments could be taken on board by the Government. The Government would know what the arguments against the instrument were. At that point, they might just decide to tough it out by taking the original instrument through the House, marshalling their arguments accordingly. Or they could withdraw the original instrument, even if it had been through the House of Commons, and retable another one to reflect points made in the earlier debate.
I know it will be said that I am being unrealistic and that no Government would agree to such a procedure willingly. However, if in the future more SIs are voted down, as quite a few Peers advocate, then any Government might feel that my halfway house approach is preferable. I do not think that this procedure would be used more than once or twice a Session, if that. The real question is how long Parliament will accept the “take it or leave it” procedure we have now.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, for giving us the opportunity to debate our procedures, but I really cannot agree with the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, that this is a matter we should look at only once every 10 years when we have a Leader’s Group. It is precisely because I so strongly believe in the value of the work of the House of Lords that I want it to be seen to be done as effectively as possible.
It would be wrong to deny that improvements have been made since the Leader’s Group chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Goodlad, on which I had the honour to serve. We now make better use of Grand Committee, and have extra Select Committees on specific subjects, more time for QSDs and more pre-legislative scrutiny. All this is very welcome. However, the system does not work in the way that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, suggested. I want to take just one case history to illustrate that, as I have only limited time.
The Goodlad group recommended that this House should give Back-Benchers the opportunity to propose subjects for debate, as happens in the House of Commons. That was considered by the Procedure Committee, which agreed that it should be put to the House in a neutral way because, as the noble Lord said, it is for the House to decide. The relevant Motion was tabled. There was no Whip on the government side but Members on the Government Front Bench made it absolutely clear to their Back-Benchers that they were opposed to the Motion going through. They did that by ensuring that the debate took place on a day when the government parties were heavily whipped. Noble Lords who were not in the Chamber received a message on their mobile phones, saying that their Lordships might like to know that the Government Front Bench did not wish to see the Motion go through. It was not a Whip but it was something pretty close to it. That was how the Motion was defeated in this House. I am afraid it is the case that improvements which are in the power of the House to make are often defeated by the Government Front Bench, often in cahoots with the Opposition Front Bench.
I know that an effective House of Lords is often regarded by the Executive as a thorough nuisance. Parliament is regarded by the Executive as a thorough nuisance. However, having spent my career in the Executive, I know very well that it would not be kept up to the mark unless Parliament did its job of holding it to account and making itself awkward to the Executive from time to time. Your Lordships’ House should always ask how we can do that job more effectively—not by obstructing the Government getting their measures through but ensuring that they work to high standards. One of the weaknesses of Governments in this country is that there is too much legislation of too low a standard.
Both the House of Commons and the House of Lords should be taking a stand on that. The House of Commons is often not in a position to do so but the House of Lords is, and it is for that reason that many of us have argued that there should be a committee to look at the standards of preparation of legislation and advise the House when legislation coming before it has not been properly prepared. Then we might be saved from legislation such as the absurd Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism Bill—the SARAH Bill.
If there is one message that I would like to ask the Leader to take to her colleagues, it is that while they may regard the improvements in the effectiveness of Parliament, and in particular of your Lordships’ House, as a nuisance, they should take a longer-term view because we have a role in improving the Government’s performance; and those improvements are in their interests as well the country’s.
My Lords, a number of points have been raised on which I might very well like to comment on another occasion, but time forbids me to do so now. I listened to the noble Lord, Lord Butler, who was a most distinguished Cabinet Secretary, as he reminded your Lordships. I was a very junior Minister in the Government over which he so effectively presided, if that is the right word, and we spent our time thinking of ways of doing things that did not need parliamentary or ministerial approval.
The purpose of your Lordships’ House, as is often said, is to examine Bills in detail and debate important matters. It is also important that the House should not forget that it indeed has a duty to hold Ministers to account, as MPs do in the other place. We tend to do so more gently, perhaps more courteously, here than in the other place. Questions to Ministers are a crucial part of that process. We have four Oral Questions a day for four days a week, and three topical Questions, but no Questions on a Friday, which is regrettable. Often no slots are available and we often have the unseemly sight of noble Lords queuing outside the Minute Room waiting to table their Questions. They have to sit there for an hour or more sometimes to get just one slot. We are allowed only one Oral Question on the Order Paper at any time, which is understandable and necessary, given the restriction in the number of slots, but it certainly restricts the capacity of noble Lords to table Oral Questions.
I suggest that we think in terms of increasing the number of Oral Questions to perhaps five a day instead of four—and, as I say, perhaps to allow Oral Questions on Fridays. If we were to allow five a day, I would advocate no increase in the time we have to take Questions, namely 30 minutes. The reason for that, I have to say, is that ministerial answers are often rather long-winded and could be further reduced in length, particularly to meet the opportunity for Back-Benchers to ask more supplementaries. However, Back-Benchers should also be ready to keep their supplementary questions shorter and more terse than at present. We have on many occasions heard noble Lords reading out three or four questions supplementary to a single Oral Question; we lose track of them by the time the noble Lord sits down and, of course, Ministers are obliged to answer only one. That has removed the opportunity for at least one or two noble Lords to ask any supplementary question at all.
I turn now to topical Questions. Three are three a week, decided by ballot. On the whole, that system works rather well and I hope that it will be continued. However, topical Questions are heard as Oral Questions in the normal way and ought to be subject to the same restrictions on length.
I will also refer to Private Notice Questions. One way in which to increase the opportunities for Back-Benchers to ask questions would be to relax the rules that govern the allowance of PNQs. Very few are taken in this House, mostly because they have been refused by the Lord Speaker—correctly, no doubt, in accordance with the rules—but also because noble Lords are put off tabling them, assuming that they will be refused, as is usually the case. In years past, Private Notice Questions were considered and allowed or disallowed by the Leader of the House, not the Lord Speaker, and there was a right of appeal to the House if a Private Notice Question was refused. That is not now the case. There is no appeal following the refusal of a Private Notice Question. That is regrettable. I once put that very proposition to the Procedure Committee and it was rejected fairly smartly. However, I think the fact that Private Notice Questions are allowed or disallowed absolutely by the Lord Speaker and there is no right of appeal is not the right arrangement. I hope that that can be further considered.
I will refer to Questions for Short Debate. As a matter of fact, I think that they work rather well. There is a question over whether perhaps we should have only an hour instead of an hour and a half—in which case I had better sit down quickly. Be that as it may, I think that they work well, on the whole.
Finally, I will respond to the point made by my noble friend Lady Thomas about statutory instruments. I am probably one of the very few Members of your Lordships’ House who was here in 1965 when we turned down the statutory instrument imposing sanctions on Rhodesia for the first time. I remember my late noble friend Lord Jellicoe standing at the Dispatch Box, turning round and advising my noble friends to reject the Motion, as indeed we did. Whether that was wise or unwise is for others to judge. There is an argument for allowing noble Lords some means to amend statutory instruments. They can, of course, reject them and Ministers can come forward with a revised one, but that very rarely happens—I cannot remember it ever happening. However, I have some sympathy with the point made by my noble friend.
My Lords, it is desperately dispiriting that nearly all debate about reform of this House concentrates on the single issue of whether we should be elected. I am not in favour of election, but I am in favour of a radical change in the way the House works. I believe such a change is necessary if we are to earn our corn in the troubled political period ahead of us.
The pace of change in this House, though it never goes much above glacial, ebbs and flows over the years—it has over my 16 years, anyway. Perhaps it reached a peak just before the House debated the Goodlad report in 2011. Indeed, on hearing the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, I nearly bit back the reflection I am about to make. Looking at his period as Leader, it is as though we had a radical reformer, red in tooth and claw, at the helm of the Lords. Since then, nearly all change has come juddering to a halt. Even then, the agenda we were considering was relatively constrained.
I know that some noble Lords will disagree, but, for example, is it really sensible to examine a Bill by me making a speech at a Minister sitting there and the Minister making a speech back at me? Of course not: it should be in a reasonably small room, exchanging views in a conversational way and taking evidence if necessary. Even Commons Bill Committees now take evidence, but we still think that making 19th century-style speeches is the sole way to do it. We could be even more effective revisers of legislation if that changed.
I can think of a number of other issues on which wider reform is more necessary than anything that has yet been floated. Why does it not happen? It is because the forces of conservatism in this House are very strong. This is not mostly due to the Members, although there are a few who think that it has all been downhill since the 1911 Parliament Act.
Thank God we do not have them anymore.
The real resistance to change, let us face it, comes from the Whips—from the Government leadership—because they have a sole object, for all the gilded words in which they tend to clad it: to get the Government’s business through with as little trouble, scrutiny and change as they can get away with. That is their fundamental mindset. I do not criticise them for that—that is what they are paid for.
Those are the forces of conservatism. However, it seems to me that there is now a great countervailing force in the people who are coming into this House, particularly—we are all glad to see this—the growing number of women but also people from outside politics and those who have not been acculturated to the way in which we have traditionally done business. I know that there is an argument about whether the Lord Speaker should call questioners. Who has talked to incoming Members about Question Time—about the bear garden and about the bullying males thrusting ahead of polite women and preventing them getting in? I will not come in for Question Time; I have had 16 years of listening to it. Seeing what we tolerate brings the House into poor regard. Therefore, I believe that there is a constituency for change.
I just wanted to give another impression to the noble Lord, who is concerned about women being shouted down at Question Time. I carried out a statistical survey over four weeks and discovered that proportionally there were more interventions by women at Question Time than would be expected from their number in the House. In other words, they are not shouted down; they are managing quite nicely and the noble Lord ought not to worry.
I am delighted that there are some bullying women as well as some bullying men.
I come to my final comment, which reflects a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. It is true that the forces of conservatism that I have described have this House in a strong grip, but they need not be allowed to have that grip. Down in the Commons, people said, “We’ll never get a business committee here”, but they have. People said, “We’ll never get to elect Select Committee chiefs here”, but they have. Back-Benchers have fought for their roles and rights and they have won their roles and rights. If I am right that in this House there is now a new spirit—particularly among the new arrivals, although there are many distinguished older Members who share it—we simply have to stop knuckling under out of a false politeness towards the official leaders of the House and force change through.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow those comments and the others that reflect the need for modernisation in this place. As a conservative with a small “c”, I also had the feeling when I first came here 10 years ago that one should not really utter any suggestions or ideas about these things for the first 17 years because that would be very pushy and presumptuous, and people would, rightly, tut-tut. However, things move on and accelerate, and this place is changing. The sociology of the House of Lords has changed enormously. Taking a foreign example, I have always been impressed with the system in Denmark. It is a single-Chamber system where a perpetual minority Government are on their knees, constantly begging MPs in Copenhagen to support their latest legislative proposal. I do not detect that Denmark is worse run than Britain; in fact, it is probably the other way round. Denmark also has a high-taxation system, both indirect and direct, which produces efficient economic results.
Secondly, on arriving here I treasured the story of the old days when, about 50 years ago, the Chief Whip said to a hereditary Peer who had just joined the House, “It is a great honour for you. You’ve got to appear to be very enthusiastic and deeply honoured to be here. On the question of making your maiden speech, you shouldn’t be pushy but you should be enthusiastic about doing it, eventually”. The new Peer asked, “How long do you recommend”, and the Chief Whip replied, “Three and a half years”. Nowadays, it is three and a half weeks, which is considered to be quite a long time.
I am grateful for that correction and for the excellent suggestions of the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, and the points that he made today. I do not have the time to go into them. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, for initiating the debate, and for some of his suggestions as well.
We had the example of the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, intervening on the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, and the confusion that that caused. It was only a small occasion, of course, and the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, with his customary skill, solved it very quickly. If we had a Speaker with the power to call someone or ask someone to sit down, would that not be better? Is that not more modern? I see the Leader of the House indicating that she is against that idea, but maybe she will change her mind later. That would not necessarily happen quickly because she is a new Leader and needs time to think about these things.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Butler. It is always a great joy to see the gamekeeper turning operational poacher, going through the thickets of all these problems with some excellent suggestions. Having been in the Commons for 27 years myself, I am almost in despair at the terrible Bills that now come this way. The noble Lord mentioned a famous example in the last few days of a badly drafted, silly Bill that is all to do with “manifesto-itis” rather than any deep legislative urge on behalf of the Executive. Other badly drafted Bills have come through that were not properly considered by the Commons because of the timetabling of every Bill nowadays. They come here to the House of Lords, with insufficient time for them to be dealt with properly, but it is an excellent revising Chamber none the less. That is good and needs to be built on.
However, the modern sociology of this place—men and women—demands that it modernises itself much more fundamentally than that. Whether or not it is elected in the future, this place must represent the people of this country more directly, legitimately and instantaneously, too. There is no harm in being quick about these things; we do not want to appear to be slow. It is very unfair that the press continually just use the famous photograph of us wearing robes. That is what people think we do every day, partly because of the antics of some of our colleagues, tragically, but also because of some mischievous reporting. We have a wonderful, enlightened press, owned almost exclusively by foreign owners who do not pay UK personal taxes, but lecture us on the need for British patriotism. It has caused trouble by giving the impression that people clock in here for a few minutes and then leave. There may be a small number of those but I doubt it. Most people here now, maybe 350 to 400, are what I describe colloquially as FTWPs—full-time working Peers. They are really active people who are here every day, working very hard for long hours on behalf of the public. But do the press give us any attention as a result of all that activity and cerebral work that we do in trying to improve some very dodgy Bills and sending them back to the Commons?
Incidentally, why does ping-pong always have to end in a Commons victory? It may perhaps concern a strong leading manifesto item, on the basis of which the Government may have won an election. But of course, mostly they cannot win an election on their own; it has to be a coalition, as we see now. Normally Governments here in Britain are elected by less than a genuine majority of the public, and a percentage of seats. If ping-pong is always to be defeated, we should say that we will have one ping-pong stage, as for some JHA stuff that is now coming up, and that will be enough. We will have made our point and can then defer to the Commons. I am not sure that that should always be right. It would probably be mostly right but not always.
Question Time should definitely be longer. It could be up to an hour, or maybe 45 minutes might be better as an experiment and to see how that would go. It is very frustrating that so many colleagues want to get in on Questions and are prevented from doing so repeatedly—not only because of the difficulty of not having a Speaker who is able to call Members to put a question or stop putting a question, and so on. There are other things we can do around that to modernise this place. Some people are traditional and feel very affectionate about the past of the House of Lords. They want to keep it that way: old-fashioned and very endearing but not really doing a proper job.
My Lords, at a rough count, I think that we spend 15% to 20% of our time on debates. The specific question I want to address is this: are our debates as effective as they could be and are we getting as much out of the time we spend on them as we should? My feeling over the past 10-odd years that I have been here is that we are not. I shall make four or five suggestions for improving the way we organise our debates.
The question to ask is: what are these debates for? Sometimes a debate is intended to allow your Lordships to express their opinions, as in the case of assisted dying. Speakers were given barely a minute or two, which did not allow anyone to develop an argument. Such debates do not allow the development of argumentative propositions; they are largely expressions of sentiment. Alternatively, debates are intended to raise major issues which are being debated in the country at large, or because they will be appearing on the horizon in five or 10 years’ time and we would like to see them being discussed. If that is so, the question then is what happens at the end of such debates. A fascinating bunch of ideas will have been circulated and one hopes that the Minister will have made a note of them, but what next? Occasionally, and nowadays more frequently, some of us will receive a letter from the Minister setting out a response to what a Peer said in a debate, but has any action been taken? If the ideas are worth while, they should be acted upon, and if they are not worth while, Peers should be told why they are not.
The first point I want to make is that we need to debate the debate itself. We must ask how to make sure that our debates and the ideas they generate are effective. A way to do that would be to look at how we select the topics for debate. As the noble Lord, Lord Butler, pointed out in a very powerful speech, it is important to note that Back Benchers do have ideas about issues that they would like to see being debated. I am not particularly happy about the term “Back Bencher” because many of us do a lot of active things as well. Nevertheless, as I say, a large number of Back Benchers have ideas about issues that they would like to debate. It is quite important to find a way of introducing a systematic and regularised method of allowing Back Benchers to have a say in the choice of topics for debate.
Another point to bear in mind is that when topics are selected for debate, they are largely presented in the form of a general proposition. On many occasions when I have looked at whether I want to put my name down to speak in a debate, I have not been entirely clear about what the proposer of the debate wants to discuss. The result is that the topic is a kind of peg upon which we can hang our different ideas, so the debate tends to lack focus. It would be helpful if every suggestion of a topic for debate were to be followed by two or three lines indicating what it is that is supposed to be discussed—or at least two or three specific questions. As a professor, I am used to seeing questions being asked; then I know which one I am answering. It would be useful to have a topic for debate followed by two or three specific questions that the initiator of the debate would like to see discussed.
My third point relating to our debates concerns the fact that sometimes Peers have only one, two or three minutes in which to speak. It happens because the number of speakers in the list is very large, and rightly so in the case of some important topics. It is also because sometimes a debate cannot be given any more time than what has already been allocated. How do we deal with that kind of situation? We cannot cap the number of speakers by saying, “First come, first served”. That would be rather silly because many people who sign up late might have something profound and interesting to say—although it is likely that they would not be able to make their points in only one or two minutes. As I said earlier, in debates on subjects like assisted dying, Peers put their names down to speak because they want to make a point. They want people outside this place and other noble Lords to know where they stand. Would it not be possible, as I gather happens in some jurisdictions, to have a system where everyone is allowed to put their names down but in some cases the speeches are “taken as delivered”? They could be printed in Hansard even though they might not have been delivered on the Floor of the House. That would profoundly change the meaning of Hansard and what it is for, but it should be possible to find a way in which everyone can put their name down to speak while making sure that the speaking time is not so short as to make the whole thing ridiculous.
My last point has to do with the composition of the House. Over the years we have grown so large that it has become extremely difficult to organise debates or indeed any kind of sensible discussion about important issues. More and more Peers continue to be appointed in an effort to reflect in this place the results of elections to the House of Commons. I want to make two points very quickly. First, it is absolutely right that the results of the election in the House of Commons should be reflected here in some way, but they could be reflected not only positively, as we do, by increasing the number of Peers but negatively by reducing the number of Peers. If a party is defeated in the election, it ought to be possible for us to say, “As a result of the election, party A has lost a certain proportion of seats and therefore will lose a certain proportion of Members here, and we should leave it to the party concerned to nominate who it would like to see leave the House of Lords”.
Many of us who are past 75 or about to be 75 would be more than happy to leave the House of Lords if we were convinced that we would be replaced by people from within our own party or by people sharing our professional expertise. If there was an imaginative alternative—not in terms of money; hardly any of us would be tempted or induced by the offer of one or two years’ allowance—such as people being able to keep their title, come into the building, have a cup of tea and entertain their guests, I should think that many people would be more than happy to accept the invitation to leave. We should think of this as well as other imaginative ways in which people could be persuaded to recognise that 75 years of age or being in the House for 10 or 15 years is just about the limit of their contribution.
My Lords, when I joined this House, I inquired how long it would take me to master the way it worked. I was told that 10 years was about the length. I have now had the privilege of being a Member for nine years, so I hope your Lordships will forgive me if I am only 9/10ths right in my conjectures about procedure.
I have two suggestions. One relates to the way in which we consider and debate amendments. In my estimation, it is unnecessarily hard—indeed, confusing—to express and debate amendments in the way that we do. Take, for example, the piece of paper headed, “Amendments to be Moved [Supplementary to the Marshalled List]”—opaque enough in itself, and as each amendment is tabled, the numbers change, so that those who have drafted them originally or are involved in moving them have to keep track of what number they have become when they are planning to be in the House or discussing them prior to the debate.
Another example of difficulty is from the Assisted Dying Bill list of amendments:
“Page 2, line 27, leave out ‘an’ and insert ‘a fully’”.
On its own this is almost incomprehensible and involves much shuffling of paper, whispered consultations and, in the case of a Division, last-minute consultation of the Bill papers and the seeking of advice as to what it is about. In fact, what that amendment sought to do was to change the wording from “an informed basis” to “a fully informed basis”—a state of mind much more difficult to judge. The subsection concerned—Clause 3(3)(c)—is about what the doctors must be satisfied of in acceding to a person’s desire to bring his life to an end. That amendment would make a significant alteration.
The obvious clarification and assistance for noble Lords in this digital age would be for amendments to be produced in tracked form in the text of the Bill. Each proposed amendment would be presented as if inserted in the Bill. It ought to be possible, if each noble Lord is equipped with an iPad, to see the entire text of the Bill that is being debated on that day with amendments inserted. I stand to be corrected, but arranging that cannot be more onerous for our wonderful staff than printing overnight the amendments in the form in which they are now presented. This House is going to be refurbished in coming years and it will be essential and indisputably an improvement to arrange digital screens in front of every seat, in the way that some Committee Rooms already provide, or to have many more annunciator screens in large print around the Chamber showing the amendment in its actual setting. This House should take full advantage of the very considerable amounts of money that have been spent on bringing us into the digital age.
My second point relates to the comprehensiveness and evenness of our discussions about foreign affairs. Because it is fairly rare for a debate to be arranged by the Government on an aspect of foreign affairs, our discussions are dominated by the Questions tabled by individual noble Lords with their individual interests. I looked at the Oral Questions tabled for the last two weeks before Christmas as an example. There are Questions about Afghanistan, Kuwait, Iran, Ireland and Sudan. Questions for Short Debate may never find time to be debated at all, but currently refer to Bosnia, Sri Lanka, Eritrea, Israel, the Philippines, Russia and North Korea. On the day I checked, Questions for Written Answer, which are guaranteed an Answer, included references to Palestine, Ukraine, Iraq, the Caribbean, Burma, Guinea Bissau, Colombia, the UAE, the Congo, Zimbabwe and Sudan. There are some very significant omissions and no particular programming according to topicality or importance, or failure to address for a number of years. There was nothing about China; nothing about Europe, the Far East or Australasia; and nothing about the United Nations or the USA. Can it be right that in one calendar year there were 308 Questions and debates about Israel/Palestine but 27 about Russia and 24 about China? I suggest that an overwhelming number about one country alone does not suggest expertise but obsession. It is a situation that does not improve the standing of this House and its involvement with foreign affairs in the eyes of observers. Should it not be for consideration that there should be a survey of the areas of the world that need periodic attention in this House, and that either the Government should ensure that there is time to debate them or that noble Lords be invited to table Questions on areas in an even way, without concentration on one at the expense of others?
I complained about this myself in early 2012 when the unfortunately named Arab spring was at its height. I said then that 300 Questions had been tabled in that Session on Israel and only one relating to the Arab spring. The Government responded by scheduling, albeit belatedly, a debate on the Arab spring. I am afraid that our coverage two years later continues to be erratic in relation to the areas of the world to which our attention should be turning.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, for asking this Question for Short—perhaps far too short—Debate, as hitherto I have been unable to give my counsel on this matter. I spent 13 years in opposition, but I did not find any difficulty in holding the Government to account, even though I was a very junior member of the Opposition; I felt that I had all the tools that I needed.
I found little to agree with in the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, although I did have some sympathy with some of the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours about the size of the House. My noble friend Lord Dykes commented on our new Leader. I gently point out that my noble friend the Leader was a Government Whip for some time, and she understands how this House operates left to right, back to front, and inside out. The noble Baroness, Lady Deech, talked about the difficulty of securing a QSD debate. My understanding is that, very often, the usual channels offer a day for a debate but it is not taken up.
On that point, I forgot to say, by the way—and I meant to say in my introductory remarks—how grateful I was to the staff of the Government Chief Whip and of the Leader, who were very helpful in guiding me to an appropriate day and getting everything organised. I was really grateful to them.
My Lords, I know from my own personal experience that they are extremely capable.
Most of us pride ourselves on the extraordinary fact that we are a self-regulating House, and most noble Lords believe that we should stay that way. My understanding of the situation is this. When we are not quite sure what we should be doing, or a noble Lord has forgotten some detail hidden in the Companion, the Leader of the House expresses the sense of the House. In other words, she tells us what we should do if we had the time to work it out for ourselves.
A great advantage is that the Leader can be flexible and pragmatic by taking account of the circumstances of the time and not adhering slavishly to precedent or the rulebook. There are some who believe that the Leader might act in a partisan manner, but I have never seen it as a real problem, even when I was in opposition. The Leader will be careful not to do anything that will lose her the confidence of the House and, in any case, a competent Minister, properly briefed, can answer any question that may arise at Question Time. My noble friend Lord Gardiner, responding just now to the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, demonstrated a brilliant intervention to help the House with what we should be doing.
There is one particular reason why a stronger Lord Speaker is not a solution to the alleged problem of a partisan Leader. Yes, the Lord Speaker is neutral, but the Deputy Speakers and Deputy Chairmen are often rank and file party members on a Whip.
As for Question Time, when I was a very junior Member on the opposition Benches, I had no difficulty in asking a reasonable number of supplementary questions —and I still do not experience any difficulties now.
When the Leader, Deputy Leader or Chief Whip is not present in the Chamber, it falls to the junior Whip on duty to act on behalf of the Leader and in the same way. Obviously, I have a slight interest as, until earlier this year, I was a junior Whip—but I managed to escape.
Your Lordships will recall how challenging the early part of this Parliament was for all of us, with some very controversial but necessary legislation. I will take this opportunity to praise my noble friend Lady Anelay of St Johns, the then government Chief Whip. It is not generally recognised how much effort she put into training the junior Whips so that we knew what we would be doing long before we were appointed. It is fair to say that if she had not been so far-sighted, the House would have experienced far more difficulties than it did.
It is possible for a junior Whip either to get the “sense of the House” wrong or not to enjoy the support of the House. It happened to me in Grand Committee one day, but, with our system of self-regulation, it was easy to get out of. I just said, “My Lords, it is a self-regulating House and a self-regulating Committee. If the Committee wants to hear more from the noble Lord, the noble Lord should continue”.
My noble friend Lord Trefgarne suggested having extra Oral Questions. He may have forgotten that we tried that some years ago and, by the end of the fourth Question, the House was very bored and we stopped doing it. I also believe that I hold the record for a Minister answering the most supplementary questions in a seven and a half minute slot. I will now sit down.
My Lords, first, I thank my noble friend Lord Foulkes for tabling this debate. It has shone a rare light on the dark shadows of the “how” of government and opposition negotiations in a national Chamber of Parliament. This has a genuine and important effect on legislation and on the way our country is run.
Secondly, what an unusual pleasure it is to speak in a debate. Chief Whips are usually only seen or felt; rarely are they heard. The last time a Labour Chief Whip spoke on a non-business item seems to have been my noble friend Lord Grocott way back in 2002. Noble Lords should take note; I am not planning to make a habit of this, although, as many of those present will know, I have a very different and much more numerous flock outside the House to give me the voice that this role denies me.
The “usual channels” is more of an art than a science, with trust an important element of the relationship. Despite its mysteries to many, I strongly believe that it works for the benefit of the whole House. It is a role that I took seriously in government and that I certainly take seriously as opposition Chief Whip.
The usual channels in this place are a unique institution and are quite unlike the House of Commons. Government Front-Benchers are always available as they are full time, but opposition Front-Benchers are not always available. They can have outside commitments; they cannot move; or they are doing other legislation. This is why, in general, the Government Whips Office negotiates at the opposition Front Bench’s convenience. I remember as a Whip in government that an opposition Front-Bencher was not available because they were away skiing for two weeks. That really is taking the piste.
My Lords, it is Christmas.
Proper, consensual negotiation is how business management should happen. Sadly, it has not always been that way in recent years. It is a myth that business is formally agreed by the Opposition Chief Whip. In reality, the power of resistance is very limited. I do not have the power of a majority. The Government consult more than they actually negotiate, but through discussion, we can usually find agreement.
Regrettably, there have been occasions on which the Government have tabled business without agreement—such as yesterday’s Autumn Statement. By convention, the Opposition decide whether to take repeated Statements, but yesterday the Government simply told us that they were repeating the Statement whether we liked it or not. On some occasions, the Government have gone much beyond what the House believed was right: for example, with last Session’s supposedly Private Member’s Bill on the EU referendum. Earlier in this Parliament, the relationship was tested almost to destruction with one particular Bill. That would not have happened without a political majority to assert over the Opposition.
I shall say a little more about the power of a majority. Despite the great hereditary cull of 1999, Labour was a minority Government, at 28% of the vote in the House, even though we had a landslide in the Commons. Defeats were regular—one in three of all votes—as all it took was the Chief Whips of the two opposition parties to join together to defeat Labour. One of the curious constitutional anomalies of the coalition Government has put the boot on the other foot. The Government again have a political majority in the Lords and the Opposition are in a minority. This fact makes asserting the Opposition’s rights against the Government tricky, as we saw with the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill.
As the House has been further stacked with new coalition Peers, the ability of the Lords to tell the Commons to think again has been steadily eroded. The Government’s recent defeats on the Criminal Justice Bill—and I look forward to more next week—are the product of hard work and advocacy, but they have become increasingly rare, as Labour Peers try to overcome the two government political parties’ massive numerical advantage, which now stands at 120. Through the power of argument and building bridges across the House, we have managed to win votes and gain a substantial number of important concessions.
As Chief Whip, I always look for innovation in what I do and how I could revise the procedures and practices to make more efficient use of the House’s time. I broadly welcome the Bill calendar that is now published with the forthcoming business. It gives the House and the Government more certainty and transparency, but only if it is used sensitively and not unnecessarily to go past the normal sitting times, in contravention of the Companion and without agreement. It cannot be right that a House with an average age of 70 and with the stature of your Lordships’ House continues to work well past 10 o’clock at night. That simply reduces the quality of scrutiny that too many government Bills need too much of.
What reforms might this prospective Government Chief Whip look to? The reports of the committees chaired by my noble friends Lord Hunt and Lord Grocott were both helpful in suggesting practical changes that could be introduced to improve the House’s efficiency: helpful for both for the Government of the day and for individual Back-Bench Members, who have much greater rights in this House than in the House of Commons, thanks in part to our system of self-regulation.
I support many of the ideas contained in those reports, including: reforms to the way that Statements are conducted to give Back-Benchers more time; better and extended use of the Moses Room—including for Bills and Statements—thereby allowing more general and topical debates in the Chamber, but not in the Government’s gift; reforms to discourage repetition; and changes that mean that key decisions are taken when the most Members of the House are around. Those ideas seem to me to be of value.
Other ideas worth thinking about are time limits for legislation; public votes on which balloted debates the House takes; using the Moses Room for Private Members’ Bills, and, last but not least, a role for the Lord Speaker at Question Time—all good issues to debate.
It is my son Tom’s birthday today, so it is time for me to sit down. I return to my seat with the firm promise not to tweet my 10,000-plus followers until the noble Baroness the Leader has finished.
My Lords, I am very pleased to respond to what has been an interesting debate. I feel that noble Lords have had a good time this afternoon and that we are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, for allowing us to enjoy a debate on our processes.
Before I address the detailed points that have been raised, and I will of course try to respond to as many as I can, I would like to take one step backwards from where we started. When considering our procedures and practices, it is important that we are clear about for whom and for what are we here. My answer to that is clear: I am sure that this is one on which we are all united. We are here to serve the public by making good law and informing public policy. But over recent years, the public have become increasingly unconvinced that Parliament and the political system as a whole is totally committed to serving them. While in that context there is more focus on the Commons, I know that we in the Lords want to play our part—this is evident from our debate this afternoon—in showing that we are committed to serving the public, so that we, too, help restore public confidence in Parliament as a whole.
In doing that, we obviously we need to aim at the right target, so in my view we need first to be clear when and for what reasons the House of Lords attracts a positive reaction. The impact that we have on the things that matter to people is what counts, along with how we go about our business. My noble friend Lord Strathclyde mentioned, as indeed one or two other noble Lords did in their remarks, the recent Private Member’s Bill of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer. It is not by accident that the comments in the media following the initial Second Reading debate on that Bill were about how we conducted our business.
During the summer there was also our debate on military action in Iraq, which led to Mark D’Arcy, who noble Lords will know to be the BBC’s parliamentary correspondent and regular presenter of “Today in Parliament”, tweeting about our debate. He said that we showed “stunning self-discipline” when we finished on time; a sign, he said, of our “self-regulation in action”. It is our less political, less rowdy and less combative approach which shows that we can be more considered, more collaborative and more constructive. That is what people value; it is what marks us out as different from the other place.
I am here at every Question Time. I will come to Questions in a moment and address some of the specific points that the noble Lord made about them.
In responding to the debate, I consider that the points raised fall into two main categories. One is on what I would describe as conduct and how we behave; the other is about content or how we arrange the business. Perhaps I may start with conduct. Self-regulation is what distinguishes us from the House of Commons and allows us to show off all that is good about what we do. In my opinion, we should cherish it. There may well be good arguments for considering changes to our approach but we must be conscious of their potential impact on the rights and freedoms that Members currently have. As many noble Lords have indicated today, we have many more freedoms than Members of the other place do.
However, when it comes to the conduct of this House we are all responsible for good order. We currently have, as indeed we had before, a very distinguished noble Baroness as our Lord Speaker, but as recently as 2011 this House voted decisively against changing the Lord Speaker’s responsibilities. I, as Leader, do not have the same powers as Mr Speaker in the Commons. My job, and that of my noble friend the Chief Whip and the other government Whips, is to assist the House. We are not here to rule the House but to help it to do what it has already decided it wishes to do. That was clearly explained by my noble friend Lord Attlee in his contribution.
When it comes to Oral Questions, there are a few facts that it is worth sharing with noble Lords. The noble Baroness, Lady Deech, was right in her comment about the contribution of women Peers at Oral Questions. Indeed, of the six Peers who have asked the most supplementary questions this year, three of them are women. The Peer who asked the most supplementary questions in the most recent Session, though, was the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes. We have a large number of Peers asking questions: 350 this year so far. I say to my noble friend Lord Attlee that he remains top of my chart of Members of the Front Bench answering them.
I am saying to the noble Lord that we are all responsible for ensuring that people have an opportunity to ask questions at Question Time. It is important to state that this House is usually keen to hear from those who are not frequent askers of questions, if other noble Lords who are more frequent in the asking of their questions are more readily willing to give way to them. That is what the House is usually keen to see.
While we are on the subject of Questions, the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, asked why we have so few Urgent Questions allowed. The Government always consult the Opposition on which Commons UQs to repeat here, and every one that the Opposition want repeated is repeated. If he has any questions on that, I suggest that he raises them with the noble Lord, Lord Bassam. The noble Lord, Lord Bassam, referred to my noble friend the Chief Whip’s decision yesterday to go ahead in any case and repeat the Autumn Statement but I think that that was vindicated, not least because of the contribution made today by my noble friend Lord Forsyth, who was asking for more time for debates on the Autumn Statement. We are here all the time to try to ensure that noble Lords are able to debate and determine the topics that they wish to consider.
I could not possibly comment. My noble friend the Chief Whip felt that the House as a whole, regardless of the Opposition, wanted the opportunity to ask questions, so he went ahead as he did. I am sure that many noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Forsyth, were grateful to him for that decision.
I move on to the category of points raised under the heading, “Arrangement of Business”. As the noble Lord, Lord Butler, acknowledged, we have already changed an awful lot in this Parliament to make our work more relevant and accessible to those who want to engage with it. We have indeed created more opportunities for Back-Bench debates on matters of interest, including the introduction of topical QSDs, which allow time-sensitive issues to be debated quickly, and we have significantly increased the availability of QSDs more generally. We have also devoted more resources to ad hoc Select Committees so that a wide range of cross-cutting topics are able to be scrutinised in detail by noble Lords.
The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, asked about co-ordinating sitting times with the Commons. Where we can, we do. In the main, our sittings are aligned because the two Houses work closely together. However, as my noble friend Lord Strathclyde said, we are a separate Chamber with our own priorities, and it is right that we organise our sittings to meet our overall needs.
The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, also asked about the notification of business. The forthcoming business document produced by the Government Whips’ Office gives a three-week forecast of business in this House, and, clearly, we work hard all the time to ensure that we provide as much information as possible.
The role of the usual channels was raised by several noble Lords, and I was grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, for his comments about how the usual channels work in the interests of the House as a whole, not against them. I dispute the point that the noble Lord, Lord Butler, made. Indeed, we have tried, through the usual channels—whether by ensuring that we schedule business so that we have the right people on the Opposition Front Bench in place to challenge the Government, or by beginning to publish more business calendars on government Bills—to make sure that those who want to engage with our business are able to do so because we provide enough information in advance about what will happen and when.
The noble Baroness, Lady Deech, made an interesting remark about the digitisation of our amendments. That might lead to complications, but on the general point that she makes, a lot of departments are trying to do that now to ensure that there is greater clarity on how amendments affect legislation.
The proposal for a Back-Bench committee was looked at and voted on by this House—I dispute the way in which the noble Lord, Lord Butler, described that process. The point is that everyone in this House is able to table Motions for debate themselves, without anybody else deciding it. Any noble Lord can go into the Table Office and table a debate, and they are now looked at in the order in which they were first scheduled.
Noble Lords raised several other things—
The noble Lord raises an interesting question, but I suggest that it is something for a different debate. This is about procedure and ordering of business.
To conclude, a wide range of interesting points was raised today. The Leader’s Group, which I went back and looked at, considered 54 different issues in 2011—it looked at most of, if not all, the matters discussed today. It is still possible for any noble Lord who feels strongly about any particular issue to write to the Chairman of the Procedure Committee to ask for it to be considered further. Where there are sensible, pragmatic steps forward that would allow us to improve our work, we should take them. However, we have already done a lot in that direction in this Parliament, and I am grateful to all noble Lords for their co-operation in doing just that.
House adjourned at 6.08 pm.