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Procedure Committee

Volume 767: debated on Wednesday 16 December 2015

Motion to Agree

Moved by

That the 1st Report from the Select Committee (Changes to the leave of absence scheme; Ballot for oral question slots during recesses; Status of interpreted or translated evidence to select committees) (HL Paper 62) be agreed to.

My Lords, in moving that the first report from the Procedure Committee be agreed to, I will also speak briefly to the amendment to the Standing Orders. The report covers three areas.

First, noble Lords will have noticed that the report proposes changes to the leave of absence scheme. These changes were put forward by the Sub-Committee on Leave of Absence and were subsequently endorsed by the Procedure Committee. Under the proposed changes, a Member applying for leave of absence would be required to state that they reasonably expected to take a regular active part in the House again in the future. If they could not state this, the House could refuse to grant leave of absence. In addition, new guidance in the Companion would encourage Members who could not commit to returning as an active Member in the future to agree to retire.

Secondly, and clearly on an entirely different matter, the report proposes piloting a ballot for Oral Question slots that become available during recesses. The pilot would run from the first day of the forthcoming Christmas Recess until the House returned from the Easter Recess in 2016. Details of how the ballot would work are set out in paragraph 5 of the report and reflect the existing ballots for Questions and debates. If the report is agreed, the Table Office is now ready to provide information to Members on how the ballot will work over the forthcoming Christmas Recess.

Thirdly—again, on a different matter—the report sets out, for information, the committee’s confirmation that the wording in the Companion authorises committees to take oral evidence in another language or in British Sign Language through interpretation and to accept written evidence originating in another language or in British Sign Language if accompanied by a translation into English. This clarification was prompted by the Equality Act 2010 and Disability Committee, which recently took oral evidence in British Sign Language. I beg to move.

My Lords, I am concerned about the first issue on which the noble Lord has reported. I am a great believer in trying to look at the unintended consequences that can often arise from any sort of rule change. Certainly, we do not have a terribly good history on this side of the House when we think of the consequences of a simple change in our arrangements that was made about a year ago. It seems to me that we are required—I do not declare any interest; I have never thought about taking a leave of absence and am not currently doing so—to ensure that what we do and what we say is on our honour. I can well foresee a situation in which someone might say—although I have no idea what questions they would be asked—that it is their intention to return, but then circumstances make that impossible, either immediately or for a further period. I want some assurance that this is not going to create difficulties which certainly do not happen today. It is not at all clear to me why this change is necessary at all.

It is necessary because the House is trying to encourage people who have no intention of playing a part to take the necessary action. Should they intend genuinely and sincerely to again play an active part, that would of course be accepted. Should the circumstances change, this House will exercise discretion.

On the third point, about translations, can the Chairman of Committees explain to what extent that translation must be authorised and, if so, by whom?

My Lords, clearly it is for the committee to decide how to conduct its business. It would be for the committee to ensure that the arrangements are satisfactory not just for the committee members but for members of the public who are in the room and for the webcast. Therefore, the arrangements have to satisfy all the different aspects involved in taking evidence in committee.

My Lords, how will the committee decide whether a Member’s intention to take a leave of absence is genuine or not? Is someone going to decide whether the explanation given is acceptable?

My Lords, this is a self-regulating House, as we all know. We all of us act on our honour. If someone is willing to state that that is their intention, that will be accepted.

My Lords, I understood that the House was trying to help people retire and perhaps secure increased retirements. Is there a danger under the proposal that is being put before the House that people might undertake this arrangement and not the retirement proposal? That runs contrary to the objective of the whole exercise.

My Lords, these matters were very carefully considered by the committee. At the end of the day, the House has to expect Members to act on their honour.

My Lords, may I revert to the issue of putting down Oral Questions? How would this affect the Topical Question?

My Lords, I should emphasise that this arrangement is only for only the period of recess. Therefore, the Questions that are available during a period of recess will be handled in exactly the way that we deal with Topical Questions and Thursday ballot debates—we have experience of handling ballots of this kind. However, I emphasise that it is only a pilot during this period of recess.

My Lords, the question of a leave of absence, which has been raised by a number of noble Lords, is important. I would like to know whether the committee, when it discussed this, had any representation from noble Lords.

My Lords, the committee acts on behalf of the House. We have taken soundings and received a very detailed paper on the subject. We have come to these conclusions and now report them to the House. It is for the House to agree this matter.

Motion agreed.