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House of Lords: Sittings

Volume 794: debated on Wednesday 9 January 2019

Motion to Resolve

Moved by

That the House should adjourn at close of business on 14 February to return on 25 February, and similarly adjourn at close of business on 4 April to return on 23 April.

My Lords, I beg to move the Motion in my name on the Order Paper. A number of Members have asked me why I have put down these particular dates. I have put them down because they are the dates for the February Recess and the Easter Recess already announced for the House of Commons. I thought it was strange that the House of Commons, the primary House, in this Parliament is able to announce its recess dates and we are not. It just seems crazy. In both Houses there is a qualification: it is always subject to the progress of legislation. That is understood. It is accepted that things can change, but at least it gives us some degree of potential certainty.

I do not always agree with my noble friend Lord Grocott on everything, but on this I agree with him wholly. When he was Chief Whip, he ensured that both Houses of this Parliament met and went into recess at the same time, so that it was Parliament that was sitting, not just one House or the other. Unless we take a decision, there is uncertainty not just for Members—a lot of whom have already gone into their whips’ offices asking when the recesses will be—but for the staff. We have to have some concern for the staff of this House and for the uncertainty that it creates for them.

I have been looking back over the last 15 years, and the February and Easter Recess dates are normally announced in October or, at the very latest, November of the previous year to give us some degree of certainty. I know that at the moment there is a particular uncertainty about the legislation—I do not need to go into that; everyone knows it—but of course it works both ways, and it works for both Houses.

The Government Chief Whip could have pre-empted my moving this Motion today by making an announcement in the normal way. As he has not done so, I am minded to let the House decide on its own recesses. That would be self-regulation at its best.

My Lords, this is really not how we agree on or give notification of our recess dates. Although I fully understand the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, and others, I cannot support the Motion before the House and ask others not to do so either. As the House has heard, most recently during Question Time on Monday, there will be a significant amount of legislation before the House before the end of March, and I do not think it sensible to confirm recess dates before then.

I have been up front with other members of the usual channels. As I indicated to them at the end of December, all our recess dates are subject to the progress of business. I intend, if possible, to provide for a long weekend during February, but I anticipate that the House will need to sit on days when the Commons is not sitting. The House has an important part to play in scrutinising critical legislation and we all know that we will need to do that during February and March. I hope to be able to confirm our plans for Easter soon, and I hope that that will be a fortnight’s recess, but, again, I cannot guarantee that the dates will match those of the Commons.

I am grateful to everyone for their patience and understanding but, at this critical point for all of us, we need to put the important scrutiny work of the House first, even where it causes personal inconvenience. I do not think that I have to point out to noble Lords how it would appear to members of the public if the House were to vote to give itself a holiday at this juncture.

I give an undertaking to come back to the House at the earliest opportunity to make an announcement in the usual way. On that basis, I ask the noble Lord to withdraw his Motion. If he does not feel able to do so, I ask noble Lords to think very carefully before supporting him in the Lobby today.

My Lords, at great risk to my reputation as Opposition Chief Whip, I have a certain amount of sympathy with the Government Chief Whip over the situation that he faces, but perhaps I may qualify that a bit. I think that the statement today could, and should, have been made earlier. I can fully understand the disappointment and frustration about this situation felt by my noble friend Lord Foulkes of Cumnock and others. We think the Government Chief Whip could have outlined that situation earlier.

Nevertheless, these are highly unusual times, and Parliament has a responsibility to sit to ensure that legislation has been given proper scrutiny by your Lordships’ House. So I understand the situation in which the Government Chief Whip has been put by the Government’s inability to get the necessary agreements in time and by their constant delay in taking critical decisions; this is not about the Chief Whip but the Government’s constant delay in taking critical decisions. Given that the expected Easter Recess dates are after 29 March, I hope the Government Chief Whip will come back as soon as possible to outline to the House what he expects us to be doing then and why.

My Lords, I too have some sympathy with the Chief Whip but not with the Government. They have created this problem, and that is why we are being imposed upon with all this late legislation coming forward. I have great sympathy with the noble Lord who has proposed this, but he says it creates uncertainty for us; I am more worried about uncertainty in the country over the next five years. We need to be here, whatever the situation following next week, to do what is required for the necessary legislation so, on these Benches, we cannot support setting down the Recess dates firmly at this stage. We hope the Government will be able to make some provision but, given the uncertainty, we think the country’s needs come first.

My Lords, as the Chief Whip has nevertheless announced that he is prepared to give a long weekend in the middle of February, would it be convenient to the House if, at the very least, that long weekend could be identified so that Members can make appropriate arrangements?

My Lords, I have been asked a direct question. I am not in a position to identify the weekend. The truth is that the legislative timetable is dependent on the progress of business in the House of Commons as well as the progress of business here. As I said in a communication to the usual channels before Christmas, I intend that there will be a long weekend in February. I understand; I have a life outside this place, believe it or not, so I do understand people’s impatience. I admire the House for the tolerance it has shown with its major task, which is to scrutinise legislation as it is brought to us. I ask the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, to withdraw his Motion on the understanding that I will come back to the House as soon as I am able to give specific dates.

My Lords, can the noble Lord the Chief Whip give an assurance on a question I asked the other day? The timetable for considering Brexit Bills before 29 March is getting shorter by the day. Can we be assured that the legislation that comes forward will not be forced into being emergency legislation? This House needs time to consider the Bills properly.

My Lords, I know that the Government Chief Whip has a life outside this place: I see him from time to time on the plane to Bergerac. But I assure him that I am not moving this because of any personal inconvenience to individual or collective Members of Parliament. All the points he made apply equally to the House of Commons—all of them. They can be recalled, as can we, if urgently needed; indeed my noble friend Lord Adonis suggested late last year that we could be recalled if necessary. I have known my good noble friend Lord McAvoy since we were very young councillors together: he in Glasgow, me in Edinburgh, and we still got on. I do not want to upset him, but a number of people have said to me that too many decisions in this House are made by the usual channels, without consulting individual Members or considering what they think. I suggest that this is an opportunity for individual Members to make a decision. We have been told we may get a weekend, but we have not even been told which weekend. I would like to give Members the opportunity of a free vote on this, and I hope it will be a free vote.

Motion disagreed.