Question for Short Debate
My Lords, almost 11 years ago, in June 2006, the House of Lords took what was considered at the time to be a quite dramatic, almost revolutionary step. Despite considerable opposition, the House decided to elect its own presiding officer: the Lord Speaker. Prior to that, the person sitting on the Woolsack had been a senior member of the Cabinet, appointed by the Prime Minister. When you think about it, it is astonishing that a legislative assembly, the House of Lords, should have had so many of its Members preferring to have a member of the Government as its figurehead rather than someone who the Members themselves could elect—almost as odd, you might think, as having by-elections to elect hereditary Peers.
I mention this bit of history for two reasons. First, I want to remind everyone that yesterday’s revolutionary suggestion soon becomes today’s accepted practice. I do not know of any Member of this House today who is suggesting that we should replace the Lord Speaker with a senior member of the Cabinet. Secondly, the strong opposition at the time explains why the newly elected Speaker was given the bare minimum of powers, reflecting the views of so many Members that we were embarking on such a risky new venture. In fact, I kid you not, when one of the candidates in the first Speaker’s election was asked what he planned to do with the role, he replied, “As little as possible”.
In keeping with the caution of this Chamber, I am suggesting two small changes to the role of the Speaker which I believe would improve both the efficiency of the House and the intelligibility to the public of the way in which we conduct our affairs. The first relates to Question Time. In 2011 the then Leader’s Group on Working Practices produced its report. On Question Time it had this to say:
“The conduct of oral questions is the topic which, to judge by the responses to our invitation for views, concerns Members of the House more than any other … When the political character of question time is combined with the larger size of the House, the result is an increasingly fractious and at times aggressive atmosphere … many Members, from whom the House might wish to hear, and whose knowledge and experience would be particularly valuable … are discouraged from participating”.
The House voted on the proposal of the Leader’s Group to transfer Question Time responsibilities to the Lord Speaker, but the Motion was defeated. But since that vote six years ago, there have been significant changes. The House has grown even larger, in both size and daily attendance. This has made it even more difficult for people without loud voices to make themselves heard at Question Time. What is more, there has been increasing scrutiny of this House and the way in which we manage our affairs by the media and the public. Something that should be of concern to us all is the impression given to the public when they view Question Time. At times it appears to be a complete shambles, with people shouting at each other and no one in control. Anyone who observed Question Time this morning would find at least one example of that.
I believe there is a simple and cost-free solution to this problem: we should give control of Question Time to the Lord Speaker. In recommending this, I want to make one thing very clear. I am not criticising in any way the current Leader of the House, the Chief Whip—I never criticise Chief Whips—or any other Minister who might intervene at Question Time. I am saying simply that where they sit in the Chamber, on the Front Bench, is an absurd position from which to see the House and exercise control.
The House of Lords is unique in many ways but none more so for being the only legislative Chamber anywhere on the planet where the person responsible for maintaining order has their back to half the audience. I know, I have done myself it from time to time. You cannot see who is standing up behind you. You need wing mirrors. The people in the Gallery—the people we are here to serve—cannot see who is in control either. They look to the person in the chair, as they would at any other public event. But the Lord Speaker’s role in the chair is purely decorative—and he does that very well. The Companion to the Standing Orders insists on this. Paragraph 4.06 says:
“The role of assisting the House at question time rests with the Leader of the House, not the Lord Speaker”.
I hear the objectors say, “You are eroding the authority of the Leader”, to which the answer is that from the very start the establishment of our elected Lord Speaker has involved the transfer of responsibilities from members of the Cabinet to the Speaker. I will give a couple of examples. Until 2006 the power to determine whether or not a Private Notice Question should be allowed, believe it or not, was in the hands of the Leader of the House. Imagine that for a moment. The power to grant an Urgent Question, invariably requested by a Member of the Opposition and, to put it mildly, not often welcomed by the Government, until 2006 was determined by the Leader of the House as a senior member of the Government. That power was transferred to the Lord Speaker, and rightly so.
Another precedent involves the Lord Chancellor. Prior to 2006, the power to recall Parliament during a recess lay with the Lord Chancellor—like the Leader, a senior member of the Government. That power now rests with the Lord Speaker. Paragraph 1.55 of the Companion says:
“The Lord Speaker may, after consultation with the government, recall the House whenever it stands adjourned”.
So there are two examples—Private Notice Questions and the recall of the Lords—where power has been transferred from the Government to our elected Lord Speaker. In my book, that is entirely consistent with, and indeed an enhancement of, our valued tradition of being a self-regulating House.
I need to emphasise very strongly that I am in no way recommending a Speaker comparable to the Speaker in the House of Commons. I do not think anyone here, including former MPs like me, would want a Lord Speaker who, for example, had to rule every day on seemingly endless, usually bogus, points of order. There are a number of experts on that sitting around me this afternoon, and occasionally I would include myself. But paragraph 1.52 of the Companion states quite clearly:
“The House does not recognise points of order”.
That prohibition would remain. All I am suggesting is that the Lord Speaker should in future perform precisely the functions that the Leader does at present—no more and no less. I have no doubt whatever that this modest change would diminish the shouting match which often characterises Question Time. It would make proceedings more intelligible to the public and encourage and enable many more Members to participate who are reluctant to do so at present.
I suggest one other change to the Lord Speaker’s role, and today is a timely day to suggest it. I would like to see the Speaker take control of the House when Statements are made. At present, all that happens is that the Minister making the Statement simply stands up and reads it with no introduction. It is bizarre, but we are so used to it that we do not regard it as unusual. I think the Lord Speaker should announce the Statement and call the Minister. Otherwise, the matter is not that intelligible to the public. I have sat in this House many times when halfway through a debate or between two orders a Minister stands up and reads a Statement. It would be helpful if that were done by the Lord Speaker. All we have at present is a message on the annunciator to say that a Statement is due. It would also fall to the Lord Speaker to manage Statements in order to prevent mini-speeches—we had the odd example of that today—and to ensure that as many Members as possible are able to contribute in the 20 minutes that are allowed.
I believe the role of the Lord Speaker has grown over the years entirely to the benefit of the House. I also believe that the profile and leadership shown by the current Lord Speaker in speaking for the House on matters of public interest which are relevant to the House as a whole—both to the press and to the public—have been very much to our advantage. Enhancing his role at Question Time, in particular, and for Ministerial Statements would establishing him more effectively in the eyes of the public and the media as the person who can speak for the House of Lords.
My proposals today represent a small but significant extension to the responsibilities which were given to our first Lord Speaker 11 years ago. Nearly half our Members today—362 out of 804—were not Members then. It is high time that we reflected on our experience of having an elected presiding officer and consider the changes that I have suggested. They would make our proceedings fairer to Members and more comprehensible to the public. They would cost nothing and disadvantage no one. I commend them to the Leader, who will be responding, and to the House.
My Lords, I am grateful to the extremely experienced and noble Lord, Lord Grocott, for tabling his QSD. I have agreed with much of his counsel in the past, and even today, but on this occasion, I think we should maintain the status quo and rely entirely on our excellent system of self-regulation.
I observed that when I was a junior Member of the Opposition Benches, I had no difficulty in getting my fair share of questions, even though I do not particularly have the gift of the gab. When I have guests attend Question Time, they often marvel to me how your Lordships know when to get up, as the Lord Speaker appears to have no role and very often my noble friend the Leader has no need to intervene. When she comes to respond, perhaps she can tell the House how often she has had to intervene. I also take this opportunity to say how well she performs her duties and to express our gratitude to her.
No doubt, many noble Lords will focus on Question Time, and I shall point out some of the advantages of the current arrangement that could be lost with any changes. I expect many noble Lords will make the point that the Leader has a better view of the House than the Lord Speaker. Although, unlike the Speaker in the Commons the Lord Speaker sits on his own, in the House of Lords, the Leader, the Government Chief Whip and the Clerk of the Parliaments work together as a team, especially at Question Time. Either the Chief Whip or the Leader will create a matrix to ensure that each Bench has its fair share of supplementaries. The Leader will need to be seen by the House as being scrupulously fair or she will risk losing the confidence of the House, and then be in danger of losing her job.
For ordinary legislative business, Statements and time-limited debates, the role of the Leader is usually delegated to a junior Government Whip, who seeks to express or suggest the sense of the House, in the same way as the Leader. Your Lordships will recall that I have performed this role, and I sought to do so as a servant of the House and not of the Government. I had no difficulty in helping the House manage Statements: it was quite easy. Once, when I got the sense of the House slightly wrong, I was able to say, “My Lords, this is a self-regulating House and a self-regulating Committee. If the Committee wants to hear more from the noble Lord, he should continue”. That is what self-regulation is about.
When noble Lords address the House, they generally do so looking very carefully at the Minister and the Government Front Bench in order to gauge their reaction. They do not look at the Lord Speaker. If a noble Lord is running out of his time, the Whip has a number of non-verbal techniques, which can be escalated, and these can easily be detected by the noble Lord speaking long before the Whip need rise to the Dispatch Box. In these circumstances, noble Lords know that they should drop their remaining points and conclude. Indeed, when I did have to go to the Dispatch Box to intervene on a noble Lord regarding time, I regarded it as a failure on my part. The beauty of this arrangement is that the Whip’s activity will not be seen on the video link, and no guests will be aware—they will not realise that the Government Whip is giving non-verbal directions to the speaker.
I have another reason for being very cautious about expanding the role of the Lord Speaker. The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, was very careful to say that this would be only a very small change, but I fear that we are talking about a slippery slope—the noble Lord correctly anticipated that. With the sensible exception of money Bills, nothing on God’s earth can prevent a Peer tabling an amendment and having it debated to the extent that he or she desires and then if, necessary, calling a Division. In the Commons, amendments are grouped and selected by the Speaker, obviously,
“for the convenience of the House”.
We should be ever so careful about expanding the role of the Lord Speaker, lest we eventually find ourselves in the position of Back-Bench Members of the House of Commons, who are severely constrained.
My final point is this. I expect that the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, believes that he has a unique parliamentary style which will in time make it necessary to give the Lord Speaker increased powers. The noble Lord looks shocked at that, and I can assure him that this is not the case. When my noble friend Lord Trefgarne was a Minister, he had to enjoy the antics of Lord Hatch of Lusby, who had a similar style—I am getting gestures from the Opposition Benches, but I am not yet getting anything non-verbal from the Government Whip. When I arrived it was Lord Molloy. Now it is the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, and I can assure him that the House has no difficulty in accommodating him or his predecessors, or in enjoying his contributions.
My Lords, I agree with one point made by the noble Earl: that the issue of creep would stop Back-Benchers. But that is not what my noble friend Lord Grocott was talking about. I want to support exactly what he said—no more, no less. I do not want this House to replicate the other place anyway. It is a very modest change. For two years, between July 2005 and July 2007, while the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, was the Leader of the House, I was delegated as Deputy Leader and, as such, on occasion I had to help the House out. Because I am a squirrel, I have here two years’ worth of Order Papers, where I meticulously kept a record of every Question. I was not waiting until trouble arose. I looked at every Question as it went through the House, so that I knew there was fairness in there. Because I am a squirrel, I put them all in a box and they are all there so that I have a record. We were meticulous in making sure that all sides got into the debate. One has to consider that some of our Members are a bit slower in getting up than others. I will not mention any names because that is not fair, but occasionally I was tipped off in advance that such a Peer would like to speak and therefore I could commend the House to listen to the Peer.
It is not easy to perform the role. When I sat there, I had the Labour Peers behind me and, if I remember rightly, the Cross-Benchers were to the immediate right; the configuration has changed slightly. You need your head on a swivel wire because you cannot hear who is shouting, and that is part of the problem.
It is not right that a Minister should be the person to choose the Member to question a Minister. There is a point of principle there. In fact, in performing the role, I was a bit rigid in being scrupulously fair on occasion. I recall one day when I cut off the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, just about to go into full flight. I can tell noble Lords that later that day I was on my knees at the side of her desk, begging forgiveness. When the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, became Leader, I was instructed to cease the role.
While I was in the role, I once checked on speakers at Question Time—I would like to think that the noble Baroness the Leader of the House has already done this—and discovered that 50% of the supplementary questions were asked by 10% of the Members. This is because it is a bear pit with verbal bullies—pure bullies. They are on all sides of the House and of all genders. This is grossly unfair to the vast majority of the House. Some noble Lords have never asked a supplementary. They are here because they are world-class experts on a subject, but they cannot bring themselves to get involved in the bear pit. If the Lord Speaker had the role, all the noble Baroness would have to do is stand—not shout to try to be heard over everybody else—and hope to be called by the Lord Speaker. At least it would be a fairer system.
We should hear from the Members themselves who do not participate at Question Time. There is a job to be done there—to ask them why they do not. They are here in their hundreds but they never participate at Question Time. Bearing in mind that at the moment a sub-committee is looking at cutting down the size of this House, I would hate for it to come up with the idea, “This person never speaks at Question Time. Get them out”. The reason for that is the bullying tactics of the system. I am not accusing anybody and I have no criticism of anybody—the Leader, the Deputy Leader, the Chief Whip or anybody. The fact is that it is the system that is wrong. I found it really difficult when I became a Back-Bencher in 2008, because I had arrived here in 2001 as a Minister. I thought, “What the hell am I going to do? How do I get in at Question Time?”. I found it incredibly difficult to start to participate, and I am quite restrained these days because there is a serious problem.
It is a very modest technical challenge that does not alter anything for anybody but would give an impression of this House to the public that we are a bit more professional and look as though we know what we are doing. At present, at Question Time—I watch it on television occasionally—it looks as though we do not know what we are doing. That diminishes the House and we cannot defend it outside.
My Lords, as I have said only recently, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Rooker—it feels like only the other day but I see that it was last December. Uncharacteristically, I could not hear him as well as I usually can to begin with; it must have been some quirk of the microphones because I am sure that it cannot have been a quirk of the noble Lord.
It is also a pleasure to support the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes of Cumnock. I usually do so from behind, but on this occasion I hope that I may be blazing a trail for him. Of course, I have no idea what he is planning to say, but I think we can have a fair idea. If I am right, I hope that my remarks will be supportive, but I in no sense wish to steal his thunder—I am merely the warm-up act for the pyrotechnics to come.
I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, for tabling this QSD and securing this debate, because I have long held that the Lord Speaker’s role needs to be enhanced to give him or her the power to call speakers at Question Time and in response to Statements. A recommendation along these lines—originally emanating from the Leader’s Group on working practices of the House, under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Goodlad, but recrafted by the Procedure Committee for formal presentation to the House—was debated by the House on 8 November 2011. The recommendation ran:
“that the role currently performed by the Leader of the House or Government front bench during oral questions and oral statements be transferred for a trial period to the Lord Speaker”.
It did not go as far as I have just suggested, because it continued:
“the role thus transferred includes the responsibility to arbitrate between groups within the House, but not any responsibility to arbitrate between individual members by name”.
However that may be, it was a good start and I was very much in favour of it—no doubt because it was a recommendation I had myself made to the Leader’s Group. I argued that the principle of self-regulation had not been working well at Question Time. The free-for-all, which was by no means an exceptional feature of Question Time, with Members unwilling to give way to one other, verged on the unseemly. It did not show the House in a good light and called for a greater degree of control than self-regulation appeared to exert.
The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, in that debate, said that,
“our procedures work pretty well on the whole. However, the one area where they do not work well is at Question Time. All I would say is that a House that approaches matters with more dignity than the Commons becomes extremely undignified when we get to Question Time or questions on Statements, and I do not like that”.—[Official Report, 8/11/11; col. 142.]
I also said that I was not alone in thinking it inappropriate that identifying speakers should be the function of the Government Chief Whip. I might interpolate here that as I came into the Chamber this afternoon as the Statement was being discussed, with umpteen people jumping up to speak simultaneously, it was not so much a matter of dignity or unseemliness; the spectacle was simply one of confusion.
In an earlier debate on the Goodlad report on 27 June 2011, the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, said that the role that was proposed to be given to the Lord Speaker was,
“not an enhanced role as such; the role currently fulfilled by the government Front Bench is being transferred to the Speaker. This does, I suppose, enhance the role of the Speaker, but it does not give any more powers—it is very important to note that”.—[Official Report, 27/6/11; col. 1573]
He concluded that, “This is long overdue”.
When the House came to consider the report of Procedure Committee—as opposed to the Goodlad report—in November 2011, there was disagreement as to who could see more of the House: the person on the Woolsack or the Government Front Bench. The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, on that occasion as well as this afternoon assured the House—from experience—that it was the person on the Woolsack. The other day I spoke to a Minister sitting on the Front Bench. He was clear that he was handicapped by comparison with the Lord Speaker in not having eyes in the back of his head.
When the House debated the Procedure Committee’s report in November 2011, the proposal to transfer the function of advising the House on which group’s turn it was to speak next was defeated by 233 to 169. I was in the Lebanon at the time and thus unable to attend the debate—otherwise, I am sure that the result would have been different.
At all events, I am sure that it is time for a review of the role of the Lord Speaker. With a new office like this, it made sense to start low key, but the position has now been in being for 10 years and the House now has confidence in it. No one should worry about its going up a gear. Those who make a fetish of self-regulation may have some qualms, but I hope that they are willing to countenance an experiment in the interests of finding out pragmatically what works best.
I hope that the noble Baroness the Leader of the House will give serious consideration to instituting a review. You never know, but we might find, as the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, says, that what seems like a revolutionary innovation today becomes the orthodoxy of tomorrow.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Grocott for giving me the opportunity to articulate properly what I have been saying from a sedentary position for quite a long time now. Every time that I say it, colleagues outside say, “But we do not want to become a carbon copy of the House of Commons”, but, with respect, it is not just the Commons—or, indeed, every other legislature—which has a chair who conducts proceedings, calls speakers and keeps the meeting in order. It is not just legislatures; it is Rotary clubs, union branches, party branches and Women’s Institutes. I do not know if I have covered anything in which the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, is involved, but I am sure that he has been in meeting after meeting where there is someone in the chair who carries out the function of moderator, presiding officer, chair, speaker or whatever it is.
Like my noble friend Lord Grocott, with whom I agree totally, I am not proposing a revolutionary change. I should actually like the Lord Speaker to call every questioner one after the other, moving from side to side, from party to party. Probably that would not be to my personal advantage, since I have a loud voice and rather a powerful manner. However, it would be fairer.
If we cannot do that, we should, at the very least, change who resolves disputes about who the next person to be called should be, at Question Time and at Statements. We saw such disputes today at Question Time and at the Statement. As the Leader of the House and the Chief Whip, whom I have known a long time, both know, I really have the highest respect for them. My objection is not to them individually; it is that these decisions should be made not by a party-political appointee but by someone who is elected by the House.
I say to the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, again with no disrespect to the Leader of the House, that the Leader of the House is not chosen by the House. She is chosen by the Prime Minister. So we could not get rid of her. We do not want to, but we could not. That is why we want that change.
No one has yet mentioned the Clerk. Again, with no disrespect to the Clerk of the House—we have the putative Clerk of the Parliaments here today and with no disrespect to him and to the current holder of that post—I do not know why the Clerk calls the four questioners on the Order Paper. Why does the Speaker not get up and name the person whose Question it is and call them to ask that Question? How did the Clerk get that role? Perhaps the Clerk will send me an email and let me know why it arose, but it does seem to be anomalous. I do not understand it. Nowhere else does the Clerk get up and call questioners. We should look at this.
There is also a role—I perhaps go a bit further than my noble friend on this—in relation to order in the House. When the Deputy Speaker, the noble Countess, Lady Mar, for whom I have a lot of respect, called to order a Liberal Democrat speaking from the aisle, which apparently is out of order, it was very strange that she was able to do so from the Back Benches rather than from the Speaker’s Chair. It seemed very strange. It might be more appropriate for the Lord Speaker to call for order at that time.
Non-verbal messages may be used to indicate that a speaker’s time is up. Pointing at one’s watch is one such non-verbal message. However, it would be more dignified and appropriate for the Lord Speaker to indicate that someone’s time is up and bring the House to order. By the way, I am watching the clock to note when five minutes have passed.
I would go a little further than my noble friend Lord Grocott in that I would like to see points of order introduced in this Chamber, although I do not think that will happen in the immediate future. However, there are ways of raising points of order. My noble friend the Leader of the Opposition can do it from time to time. I have found mischievous little ways of raising a point of order when we discuss the business of the House. However, it should not be just the Leader of the House and people like me, with mischievous intent, who can raise these things. There should be a proper procedure for doing that. As my noble friend Lord Grocott said, there is a danger that this could be abused, and I think it is something for the longer grass and longer consideration.
However, I hope that the noble Baroness the Leader of the House will look at the other points that have been made. If she could set up just a small group—a Leader’s group—to look at those points, it would show that she understands there is concern about these issues, and that action will be taken on them.
My Lords, coming after the “Lord Foulkes show” is a bit like coming after the Lord Mayor’s show.
This was inevitably going to be a good-natured—indeed, humorous—debate, and I am glad that it is. However, few could compare it with the debate on the recently issued White Paper. That debate was rather fractious, people were shouting and some found it difficult to intervene. Indeed, two newish Members on this side of the House were unable to make their remarks. That is an example of what we are trying to deal with—good-natured, responsible, sensible and relaxed contributions in a main debate compared with rather fractious, somewhat aggressive and, frankly, rather disappointing contributions when noble Lords respond to a Statement. However, I am always delighted with the conduct of the Leader of the House and of the Chief Whip, even when he puts me right at the end of the speakers list, as he has done from time to time.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, I shall concentrate on Question Time and Statements, which I think are the nub of the issue. I noted that my noble friend Lord Attlee, in his interesting remarks, quickly ran out of arguments in relation to conduct at Question Time and Statements and had to pursue other elements of the discussion about what the power of the Lord Speaker might be. I take a very practical view of all these things. The fact is that the present arrangements do not work very well. Question Time and Statements descend too quickly into shouting matches. The words used by previous speakers—fractious, aggressive and so forth—are correct in that regard. We also have increasingly to look at the impression created on the public. I will never forget, some time ago, bringing an American friend of mine into the House to witness our proceedings from below the Bar when a previous Lord Speaker was on the Woolsack. There was a little bit of a shambles and my friend asked, “Why doesn’t that woman in the middle do something? She’s in the chair—why doesn’t she do something about it?”. I explained that she was not allowed to. He replied, “You elect her and she’s not allowed to do anything?”. The look of bafflement on his face when he said that was a treat, and rather disappointing.
As the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, pointed out, it is unfair that many noble Lords are not able to intervene. The situation works against new Members in particular. He was once a new Back-Bencher and appreciates what it is like. The Whips have often told me that new Members find this place rather intimidating. If they have been highly successful in other walks of life, they do not like to lose their dignity here. They see that that can happen if they are trying to intervene and cannot do so. They are not used to that. They need to be led in a little more gently. If that were done, I suspect that we would get a better response. It is probably right that a lot of noble Lords do not partake in Question Time because they are simply intimidated by the atmosphere. Curious though older hands may consider that to be, I think that it is the case.
The noble Earl, Lord Attlee, said that it is self-regulation. It is not self-regulation. How can it be self-regulation when it is regulation by the Front Bench? That is not, by definition, self-regulation. It has to be regulation by the Lord Speaker, who is elected by the Back-Benchers and the entire House of Lords. That is self-regulation. As a former Member of the House of Commons, I find there is less self-regulation here than there was in the House of Commons. That is the truth of the matter, because we do not only get regulation by the Front Benches during Question Time; they also choose the order of speaking, as they have today. That does not happen in the House of Commons, so I think there is far too little self-regulation.
I know that the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, is worried about the “thin end of the wedge” argument, but the time it has taken to get nowhere on this issue means that we need not really worry about a further step beyond this: it will be decades before we ever get there, frankly, so it is not anything to worry about. I support the first resolution of the 2011 Leader’s Group, the so-called Goodlad report, which said that the Lord Speaker should take over the role of the Leader of the House during Question Time for a trial period of 12 months. I would add “during Statements as well”, as I think that makes sense. In my view it would improve self-regulation and fairness; there would be more order, less embarrassing chaos; and it would be more understandable to the outside world. To that end, I would like to see the Government promote a Motion in government time, with government support, by which we could test the opinion of the House today, rather than several years ago. We all know that the Leader of the House, my noble friend, is charming, modern minded and practical, and I am sure she will see the total sense in this.
My Lords, I think that I am going to be the odd man out, because in reviewing the role of the Speaker, I think that we should think in much broader terms than just Question Time in the House. Yes, the Speaker has a crucial role inside the Chamber, but there is a much more crucial role outside the Chamber. It has always seemed to me that this is of greater importance because we are an unelected House: we must reach out to the public so that the public understand the work and the role of this House.
When you google the Lord Speaker, yes, he is there on the parliamentary website and Wikipedia, with plenty of information about him and what he does, so that the public can learn about him, his job and responsibilities, but it needs a lot more. Already 100 of us are involved in the Lord Speaker’s “Peers in Schools” outreach scheme. We must add to this by reaching out to other places—universities and colleges, businesses, trade organisations and charities. I have rarely met a Peer who is not involved in a charity and I have always felt that an outreach scheme could both help the charities and say something about us. The Lord Speaker could maintain a public schedule of this involvement: it would be easily done on a website.
Of course, we receive Speakers and other parliamentarians from overseas, and once a year we reach out with our Chamber event for non-Members, but I think that the Lord Speaker has a particular role in outreach. It is a role that I would like to see further emphasised, to clearly enunciate our mission statement and sense of purpose. We are here to challenge the Government, to challenge the elected Chamber, to challenge proposed legislation. This is what defines us and by reaching out in this way, I think that the public will understand far better what we do and why we do it than they did through the recent BBC programmes.
Turning to the role of the Speaker inside Parliament, I agree with my noble friend Lord Grocott that his task must be to take a lead in maintaining the House’s reputation; yes, at Question Time, but also in other areas. Where I think the Speaker could intervene at Question Time might be by giving a signal when a Question or an Answer has been going on for too long, often much to the irritation of the House.
There is a case for the Speaker leading the way on modernising the House. Take dress, for example. Clerks in the other place now no longer wear wigs. Should we follow suit? Are we going to dress down? I think that this is the kind of thing on which the Lord Speaker could take the lead.
He is lucky.
Thanks to several changes in recent years, the House now has a clearly established code of conduct, with powers to discipline or even expel Members who have broken the code. It is by being a champion for this code that the Lord Speaker plays an important role in maintaining the reputation of the House.
Over the years, we have taken small steps regarding behaviour, standards and procedure, sometimes initiated by the Lord Speaker. Question Time, obviously, is no exception. The role of the Lord Speaker in these matters does not necessarily need reform; what it needs is for the Speaker to be urged and encouraged in taking these small steps, judging when the House is ready for them.
The Speaker’s special role is to help maintain the correct balance between lawmaking and our civil rights and liberties. This is not easy. As times become more difficult, so the Speaker’s task becomes more difficult. At the same time, however, it becomes more necessary.
My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, and I very much agree with him about the representational role of the Lord Speaker. I bet that the Lord Speaker is extremely glad he does not have the power to intervene today, but it would benefit us to reflect on how the office of Speaker in another place began. It began as the Members choosing somebody who would be their spokesman, originally to the sovereign. Some of them suffered for their pains, and indeed at least two parted company with their heads.
In the present Lord Speaker, this House has a figurehead. He had two admirable predecessors but he has taken the post a stage further. His recent comments on the BBC series and so on have been extraordinarily helpful, and he has shown himself to be a true servant of the House, which is the prime role of the Speaker.
I believe it was said when the office was first established that there should be quinquennial reviews. I am delighted that the Leader of the House is here to reply and that the shadow Leader is also here to help wind up the debate The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, in his spirited speech, recommended that the Leader of the House should set up a Leader’s Group to look at the role of the Speaker. That would be an extremely sensible move.
To those who have gone a little far I say: beware of what you wish for. I had the great good fortune of being 40 years in the other place, and sat under seven Speakers. One of the most outstanding is a Member of your Lordships’ House today: the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd. All seven Speakers gave of their best, and we had some interesting times. Of course, when you give the power to the Speaker to select who will take part, not only in Question Time but in debate, you give an enormous amount of power to an individual. I know Members of the other place who were wary of saying or doing certain things for fear of falling foul of the Speaker of the day. We are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, for instituting this debate, but I am sure that he will have similar memories.
The best thing we can do is, first of all, to ask for the quinquennial review. Secondly, if we are to consider giving the Lord Speaker a real role in Question Time, we should go back to the resolution that was defeated and give him the role that is at the moment exercised by the Leader and the Chief Whip, both of whom do it with grace, dignity and scrupulous fairness. My view is that the Lord Speaker should do it in the same way, saying, for example, “It is now the turn of the Liberal Benches” or “It is now the turn of the Conservative Benches”. I think we want to be a little bit careful before we give to the Lord Speaker the absolute power of selecting who will take part.
One thing leads to another. I was very attracted before I came to this place by the knowledge that if you want to speak in a debate in this place and you put your name down, you know you will take part. There is no question of arbitrary selection. There is a little on the part of my noble friend the Chief Whip when he is deciding where you will be in the batting order; I accept that. Once or twice I have been quite high up; much more I have been rather low down, but that does not matter. The knowledge that you will be able to make a contribution is of enormous importance and I would be wary of giving the Lord Speaker the power to decide who will speak and who will not speak in a debate. So we have to take this thing gently and we have to take it sensibly forward.
On points of order, I completely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, that they are an absolute abuse in the other place, but there ought to be in this place an opportunity for Members to raise matters of real concern. I believe that we perhaps ought to allow the Lord Speaker to decide not only on Private Notice Questions but on business questions, so that if there is a matter that is going to come before the House which is not for voting, at least the chairman of the appropriate committee can be called to the Box to explain what it is all about. I have in mind a proposal which I read recently. It says that the Services Committee is going to make some changes to our stationery. We are not necessarily going to have an opportunity to debate that but we ought to have the opportunity to ask questions.
The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, has given us a lot to think about. We have an excellent Lord Speaker but we should not place too many new responsibilities upon him. We should, however, look at those that I have mentioned.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, who, if I may say so, would have made a distinguished Lord Speaker himself, had the House taken a different view late last year. I am grateful, too, to my noble friend Lord Grocott for the opportunity to debate this matter today. I agree very much with what he and my noble friend Lord Rooker said about some of the procedures in your Lordships’ House. I have been a Member of this House now for 13 years and I am still baffled by some of the procedures and still wonder why we tolerate a system which, as was said earlier, benefits those with the loudest voices, those with the most confidence and those who feel that their words should be heard on each and every occasion.
I have to choose my words carefully in these days of equality but I think the self-regulatory system that we have at present discriminates against women Members of your Lordships’ House. A prime example of that took place about an hour or so ago. I have never met or heard before the noble Baroness who was trying to intervene from the Conservative Benches but I thought it was pretty ungallant of some of her colleagues to talk over her in the way that they did, and eventually she gave up and left. I really do believe that if we had a presiding officer—if the Lord Speaker had the power to call individual Members of the House—it would be fairer on those Members on both sides who do not particularly wish to participate in what is a bit of a bear garden.
There are more than 800 of us now, as my noble friend Lord Grocott reminded us earlier, and getting in sometimes at Question Time is extremely difficult. Someone once said all politics is local. All the complaints about what goes on in your Lordships’ House are usually inclined to involve whoever is making that particular complaint. But it is not just getting in to speak that is a problem; part of the weakness in my view of self-regulation in this House is what is actually said. I have lost count of the number of Second Reading speeches I have heard about amendments to particular Bills in the 13 years that I have been here. There is no way of correcting or intervening on noble Lords who behave in a particular way, but many of us do—I have probably been guilty of it. The temptation is there. The fact that there is no presiding officer to intervene makes it even easier.
My noble friend mentioned in particular Question Time on the 14th of this month. A Question was asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, about Great Western electrification. Without boring your Lordships about the ins and outs of the mistakes that have been made here and the hundreds of billions of pounds of public money that have been wasted on that project, I was rather anxious to hold the Minister to account. I did not manage to intervene on that Question, but no fewer than three noble Lords intervened, from both sides, asking questions which bore no relation to Great Western electrification. The word “railway” triggered off something in their minds, and off they went, one about the east coast, one about railways in Wales, and so on. Again, this is the sort of thing that happens with great regularity. I do not think that the House was particularly deprived by my non-participation on this occasion—
I am prepared to concede that that might be the case if my noble friend says so. However, it illustrates one of the weaknesses of self-regulation in this place.
While I am on my feet and complaining, another matter which having a Lord Speaker with real power would help to combat is the reading of speeches. I have with me a copy of the Companion—noble Lords on both sides will be relieved to know that I do not propose to read very much of it in the five minutes available to me. In paragraph 4, on conduct in the House, the Companion specifically says:
“The House has resolved that the reading of speeches is ‘alien to the custom of this House, and injurious to the traditional conduct of its debates’”.
Again, all too often speeches are read into the record. I understand that in the House of Representatives in the United States, it is possible to have a speech written out, send it to the Congressional Record—their version of Hansard—and it appears the following day. Perhaps we should adopt that system rather than having to sit through noble Lords on both sides—we all do it—reading speeches, some of which give the impression that the noble Lords have never seen them before and that they are written by somebody else anyway. Again, if we had a presiding officer, not necessarily intervening on each and every occasion the rules of conduct are breached, it would help to bring about a more sensible way of conducting our affairs. Having said that, I hope that the Leader of the House will listen to the debate, act on the genuine concerns that have been expressed during the course of it, and we should and I hope we will—thanks to her—look again at our proceedings.
My Lords, I find myself in the somewhat disconcerting position of broadly agreeing with the noble Lord, Lord Grocott. This has never happened to me before on a constitutional issue, and I would not necessarily want your Lordships to feel that my remarks today could in any sense constitute a precedent.
The starting point should be one that a number of noble Lords have made: why are we the only deliberative assembly in the world that does things in this particular way? It therefore seems that, looking at this afresh, we should ask why we, uniquely, should behave in this way when the rest of the world has decided to do things somewhat differently.
Obviously, your Lordships’ House has considered this; it considered it at great length in 2011 and decided that it did not want to make any change. But, as the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, said, the size of the House has increased, and there are more people wanting to come in, and it is undoubtedly the case that more people watch proceedings in your Lordships’ House than ever before. The perception that they gain, as a number of noble Lords said, is that Question Time is unduly shambolic. I do not think that having a Lord Speaker exercising a role would stop it being contentious—but the perception would be significantly improved.
I have to accept that the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, the Government Chief Whip, is an extremely benevolent, subtle dictator at Question Time. He does the job extremely well and extremely fairly, as does the noble Baroness the Leader. No Lord Speaker would do the job more fairly; I have no worries about that. But, having been a Whip on the Government Benches, I think that the role the Government Whips play is pretty difficult in practice.
This is not strictly related to today, but my role very often was to try to impose time limits on speeches. I felt that I was often seeking to reduce the time of Opposition Members. They felt that this was partisan and I felt very uncomfortable doing it. My free tip to the Whips is that the best way of getting people to realise that they have gone over time is not excessive gesticulation but just tapping one’s wristwatch with a pen. It is very effective non-verbal communication—but it is not a very impressive way of doing things.
I have great sympathy with this proposal. However, I have to accept that it is not the universal view of the House or indeed my own group—I slightly feel the breath of my noble friend Lord Beith down my neck as I speak. The qualms expressed today are largely born out of experience of the House of Commons that they do not want replicated here. In particular, the point was made by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, that if the Lord Speaker has the power to call individual Members, they might over time moderate their behaviour. I am not sure that it would quite work in that way in your Lordships’ House.
The proposal put to the House in 2011 was not for greater powers to go to the Speaker than currently obtain in the Government Front Bench but simply to transfer the existing powers. I would have thought that that was a pretty good way of avoiding the slippery slope. It is a very easy argument—and not always wrong—to say that if you make any change it is the start of a slippery slope. However, given that we are a self-regulating House and it is virtually impossible ever to change anything here, the idea that making one modest change is going to lead to an avalanche of changes for the Lord Speaker seems implausible. So I recommend that this narrow proposal should go back to the Procedure Committee, whence it came originally, for another look. I would not recommend the kind of review that the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, suggested, because if we went for that we would probably never get anywhere—the only change we will ever make is incremental.
My Lords, this has certainly been a very interesting debate. I also hope it will be a useful one for your Lordships’ House. We should be grateful to my noble friend Lord Grocott for giving us the opportunity to debate it today. However, this debate should not exist in a vacuum of what the Lord Speaker does. It seems from noble Lords’ comments that we are looking to ensure we have orderly, efficient business of the House, to which as many Members as possible can contribute. Management of that business needs to enable us to conduct our business as well as possible.
We need to be very clear about what has been suggested and what has not. No noble Lord—not even my noble friend Lord Foulkes—has suggested today that we replicate the House of Commons system and that the Lord Speaker should have the same powers or role in the Chamber as the Speaker in the other place. It is worth noting that we have had an elected Lord Speaker only since 2006. In the true gender equality that we see in this House, where the Leader of the Opposition and the Leader of the House are female, the current Lord Speaker is the first male to occupy the position.
The three Lord Speakers who have been elected have all willingly taken up the position, yet anyone who has witnessed the drama of the election of the House of Commons Speaker will have seen them being dragged to the Speaker’s Chair—a point alluded to by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, although uncharacteristically inaccurately. In the past, Commons Speakers who have been seen as too partisan for the Government or the monarch have been beheaded, but it was not two who were beheaded; in fact, seven suffered that fate at the hands of the axe, and we would not want that to befall any Lord Speaker, or indeed any Commons Speaker, in the future.
I do not know why this week in particular things have felt so bad—I do not know whether other noble Lords have felt this too; perhaps it has been because we have known that this debate was coming up—but this week your Lordships’ House has at times felt extremely undignified, and I have some examples. We are supposed to be a self-regulating House but I do not know how often the noble Baroness has had to rise to her feet to intervene at Question Time. The fact is that that does not happen very often and it is normally because the House has been very bad tempered and ill behaved, and somebody has had to try to bring some order to the proceedings.
However, it seems to me that more often than not some of the self-regulation is rather bad tempered and sometimes quite rude. This week a noble Baroness on the Liberal Democrat Benches—I accept that her question was far too long, however important the issue—was told to shut up and sit down. I thought it was extremely offensive for any Member of your Lordships’ House to speak to another noble Lord in that way. When somebody speaks for too long or moves away from the Question and asks about another matter—to the disappointment of the noble Lords who wish to get in on that issue—it is rather undignified to have other noble Lords making a comment. A noble Lord who often sits where the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, is sitting now shouts out “Reading!” or “Too long!”. That is undignified and does nothing for the good standing of your Lordships’ House.
On the subject of noble Lords who speak for too long, the noble Baroness, Lady Evans, earned her spurs and the great appreciation of this House when she was a Government Whip. She smiles because she recalls the occasion. A noble Lord on the Liberal Democrat Benches, who should perhaps remain nameless, tested the patience of the House by speaking for far too long. The noble Baroness, as a relatively new Whip, jumped up and told him that he had spoken for too long and that it was time to sit down. He replied, “I’ll just finish”, to which she responded, “No, you won’t. Sit down”—in a very polite way, I should add. That earned the appreciation of noble Lords because somebody took charge when the House itself did not want to intervene.
The point is that it is not just those with the loudest voices who manage to be heard first but those with the deepest voices. My noble friend Lord Snape referred to the fact that a lot of our female colleagues find it harder to intervene than our male colleagues. Often, just the tone of the voice can make things more difficult. Unless you are under a microphone—I have one in front of me here—it can be more difficult to get in at Questions. Also, if you are on the Front Bench, you cannot see who is behind you and you just carry on regardless. You can ignore the people behind you and pretend that you cannot hear them. Therefore, there is certainly room for change.
Another point is that the Lord Speaker can see who turns up late. Sometimes a Minister who is reading or repeating a Statement does not know who is in the House at the beginning of the Statement, and someone who has not heard most of it can get in with a question, thereby disadvantaging those who have sat through the whole Statement. The House as a whole may notice but the Lord Speaker is more likely to notice that than every Member who wishes to contribute to the debate. A favourite of mine, although it is probably inappropriate today, is those who make Second Reading speeches in Committee. Many of us who take part in deliberations on a Bill will have heard many Second Reading speeches by the time we get to Committee.
We need to look at the sensible, wise, incremental proposals put forward by my noble friend Lord Grocott. It is a question not of change for change’s sake but change for the good working and good reputation of your Lordships’ House. If the noble Baroness is minded to discuss this further, I would welcome the opportunity to do so, because I am sure we can come up with proposals to satisfy those who seek change as well as those who are concerned that any change might go too far or lead to even greater change. There are sensible, incremental changes that could be made to enhance the workings and reputation of this House.
My Lords, I am grateful to answer this Question for Short Debate and to the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, for initiating it, and to all those who have contributed. I assure him that I do not take this as a personal insult. In fact, I am delighted several noble Lords have said some nice things about me today, so I thank him for that. I am also very pleased to see the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, in his place on the Woolsack.
As the role of Lord Speaker was established 11 years ago, I entirely understand the desire of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, to have a debate on it and, as we have seen today, there are a range of views across the House. While I will reflect on the comments made and discuss them with the Lord Speaker, I am very happy to have discussions with the leaders of the other parties. I do not consider a formal review of the role to be a priority. For my part, I believe that our system of self-regulation continues to work well and sets us apart from the other place, as the noble Lord, Lord Newby, and my noble friend Lord Cormack highlighted. As is clear from the Companion to the Standing Orders, all sides of this House have a role to play in maintaining order.
The preservation of self-regulation was a key part of the House’s decision to establish the office of Lord Speaker in 2006. Successive Lord Speakers have played an important role in allowing self-regulation to continue to flourish, evolving with the needs of the House while maintaining throughout its distinctive character.
Nevertheless, the possibility of transferring the role played by the Leader during Question Time to the Lord Speaker, to which most noble Lords alluded and to which I will return shortly, has been discussed on several occasions since the role of the Lord Speaker was first established. A little over five years ago, in response to a proposal from the Leader’s Group on working practices, chaired by my noble friend Lord Goodlad, the House voted decisively against such a change when the question was put to it on 8 November 2011.
Notwithstanding today’s debate, since becoming Leader I have to say that this is not a subject that has been raised with me as a significant issue for the House—unlike, for instance, concerns around our size, which is a matter now being explored by the Lord Speaker’s committee.
I hope it goes without saying that I entirely agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, that the Lord Speaker and his hard-working team of deputies have an essential role to play in the Chamber. Their mastery of procedure, particularly when we consider legislation, is essential to the Chamber’s effective functioning. Beyond the House’s vital role in making and shaping laws, noble Lords across the House play an active role in holding the Government to account, particularly through debates and Questions.
I am sure I speak for the whole House when I say that Question Time is one of the most valued—and valuable—parts of our day. It exemplifies our spirit of self-regulation, where we have to work together across the House to make the occasion effective. I assure noble Lords that the Front Bench takes its responsibilities in advising and guiding the will of the House on matters of order very seriously. I do not do it alone; I work very closely with the Chief Whip, the leaders and Chief Whips across all Benches to try and ensure that we manage things. In practice, guidance from the Front Bench is rarely required. In response to the question from my noble friend Lord Attlee, I have checked: as Leader I have been required to make only around a dozen such interventions since the beginning of this year.
During Question Time, the Front Bench also does its utmost to ensure that the distribution of Questions between all sides of the House is handled fairly, and I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Newby, for his comments in recognising this. For example, so far this year, 82% of Questions have been asked by noble Lords other than from the Conservative Party, which is only right because, after all, it is the House’s role to scrutinise the Government. I hope that the House recognises when I am acting in a political capacity and when I am trying to represent the interests of the whole House, which is what I try to do at Question Time.
I will not detain the noble Baroness for longer than 10 seconds. We accept that impartiality plays a big part in her role. Will she accept that there is nothing she can do when two noble Lords from the same party wish to speak at the same time, and that only a Lord Speaker can resolve that dilemma?
As I am coming on to, that is a role for party leaderships as well, but I will come back to that in a second.
I entirely agree that Questions is an occasion that could and should be enhanced by hearing from a broader range of voices across the House. One of our great strengths is the breadth of knowledge and expertise on our Benches, and Questions presents an excellent opportunity both to highlight that and—although difficult for those of us answering them—to hold the Government of the day to account. In order to achieve this, we rely on noble Lords to exercise restraint and self-discipline. We waste valuable time for Questions when noble Lords refuse to give way, but I also think we should expect noble Lords across the House to recognise this and take responsibility for it.
The noble Lords, Lord Grocott, Lord Rooker, Lord Low, Lord Foulkes, Lord Horam and Lord Snape, and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, all referred to the atmosphere and behaviour we sometimes see at Question Time. Words such as “intimidating”, “fractious”, “undignified” and “unfair” were all used during various contributions. I gently suggest that it is for us as individuals to consider how we behave and to become more considerate of colleagues. If this is how we view Question Time, it is surely within our gift to help to change that. I am afraid I am not totally convinced that just having the Lord Speaker preside over this is the magic bullet. We are all beholden to look at our behaviour, but I also think there is a role for the party leaders—I include myself in this—to reflect on how we might try to encourage more Peers to take part and how we can more effectively look to encourage a wider range of voices to be heard.
Will the noble Baroness accept that she is perhaps speaking to the converted? It may be that those who are not here act in the slightly grumpier and less courteous manner than noble Lords who are here today and are concerned about the issue.
I understand that but, as I said, we as Leaders have a role to think about how we might help to do this. As I have said, I am not completely convinced that just this move would change that, but I am very happy to have conversations about ways we can try to improve Question Time. I agree that it is an extremely important and valuable part of the work of the House.
As noble Lords will be aware, apart from overseeing proceedings in the Chamber, the Lord Speaker plays a key role in the Lords administration as the chairman of the House of Lords Commission. In this regard, we have seen recent reform with new governance arrangements agreed only last year on the back of the recommendations of a Leader’s Group established by my noble friend Lady Stowell of Beeston. That group’s recommendations were accepted by the House last May and have led to a refreshed and streamlined domestic committee structure and the new role of Senior Deputy Speaker, ably filled by the noble Lord, Lord McFall. The Lord Speaker is at the apex of this new structure and his partnerships with the party leaders, the Convenor of the Cross Benches and the Clerk of the Parliaments are at the heart of the decisions that direct the way the House is run.
The Lord Speaker is also ultimately responsible for security on the Lords part of the Parliamentary Estate—a responsibility that will assume only greater importance following the tragic events of last week. In this respect, he has a heavy burden to bear on our behalf and he does so with admirable grace and common sense. As my noble friend Lord Cormack and the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, recognised, he also has a very significant role representing the House on ceremonial occasions and as an ambassador at home and abroad. I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, about the important role that the Lord Speaker has in our outreach work, including the excellent Peers in Schools initiative. The Lord Speaker also takes extremely seriously the reputation of this House. I entirely endorse the comments that we are very grateful to him for the way he has been leading us in this regard. I hope we will all continue to support him to do so, because this is an extremely important role and we are very lucky to have him as an advocate for us.
I thank everybody who has contributed to this important debate. As I indicated at the beginning of my remarks, I do not intend to initiate an official review of the role of the Lord Speaker. As I am sure noble Lords will understand, there are other priorities on which I believe we should be focused—to name just a few, the increased legislation this House will be scrutinising as a result of Brexit; plans for the restoration and renewal of the Palace; and, of course, the security reviews that are now under way as a result of last week’s terrible events.
Ultimately, of course, this is a matter for the House to decide, with the option to bring forward proposals to the Procedure Committee being available to each noble Lord. As I hope I have indicated, I will keep an open mind about the working practices and procedures of the House more generally, and I of course appreciate that there is always room for improvement, so I am grateful for the opportunity to hear the views of noble Lords. I look forward to further conversations on this.
Motion to Adjourn