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Procedure and Privileges

Volume 817: debated on Monday 10 January 2022

Motion to Agree

Moved by

That the Report from the Select Committee Debates before second reading in Grand Committee; Update on pass-reader voting; Leave of absence (5th Report, HL Paper 122) be agreed to.

My Lords, I beg to move that the first Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper be agreed to. The most significant item covered in the Procedure and Privileges Committee’s report is our proposal to formalise a procedure for holding debates before Second Reading in Grand Committee. This change has been proposed by the Leader of the House and the Government Chief Whip, whose letter is annexed to our report.

We expect that the procedure will be used infrequently and for less complex and less controversial Bills to assist in business management. If a Grand Committee debate has been held before Second Reading, it would be expected that the Second Reading Motion in the Chamber will be taken formally.

The proposal is supported by the usual channels. The procedure itself will be used only following consultation with the usual channels and with the agreement of the House through a Business of the House Motion.

The other change proposed in our report, which gives rise to the second Motion in my name, is to amend Standing Order 21 on leave of absence to establish a process for refusing or terminating leave of absence where this is necessary for conduct purposes.

We made a similar recommendation in our third report in October, but, after the debate on pass-reader voting on 25 October, I withdrew my Motion to agree the report. We have now reflected further, including on the amendment tabled in October by the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth of Drumlean. We have decided to accept his amendment, and so the proposed new paragraph in Standing Order 21, as set out in the second Motion standing in my name, now says that the House “may” refuse or terminate leave of absence, not that it “shall” do so.

Finally, the report provides a further update on our thinking on the introduction of pass-reader voting. I seek no decision at this time but hope that this outline of our thinking will be of assistance to noble Lords. I beg to move.

My Lords, I put on the record a specific point and a couple of statistics relating to the debates before Second Reading in Grand Committee, to which the Minister referred. I note that this measure was proposed by the Leader of the House and the Government Chief Whip, and relates to government Bills. I can see the case for—and certainly do not wish to oppose—making greater use of Grand Committee. This has been a fairly consistent theme over a number of years and, by and large, successful. If we can deal with more business more effectively, while still keeping to proper scrutiny, that is all to be desired.

Under this same procedure, the Second Reading debate can take place in Grand Committee and then has to be accepted by the House in the normal way; the House can still take possession of it should it wish to do so, but the debate is in Grand Committee. My question to the Minister is this: why does this proposal apply only, as I read it, to uncontroversial government Bills? It does not apply to Private Members’ Bills. I think that it should, and I would like the Procedure Committee to look at the case for that, particularly given the frankly shocking record on Private Members’ Bills.

I have corresponded with the Senior Deputy Speaker in the past about the shockingly low record of success for Private Members’ Bills that start in the Lords. For example, in the two-year Session 2019-21, 86 Private Members’ Bills were presented in this House. None of them received Royal Assent; in other words, none got through all the stages. Very few even get as far as the Commons—of course, we have no control over that. To take it even further, in the eight years since 2014, 363 Private Members’ Bills have been first introduced in the House of Lords. Of these, three have received Royal Assent; that is three in eight years, or an average of roughly one every three years.

One way of looking at this is that almost a deception is being practised on the public. All these Bills are being introduced with virtually no chance of success. Some, of course, do not deserve success, but one or two that spring to mind deserve acclamation.

Whatever one’s views about individual Bills, as the Senior Deputy Speaker said, this procedure would apply only to non-controversial Bills; it would have a limited application. But I can think of no good reason why we should not adopt this procedure for Private Members’ Bills. It would facilitate more of them getting through, earlier in the Session—and the earlier in the Session any Bill gets dealt with, the better its chances of getting through the various stages and into the Commons, where it stands a much better chance. I ask the Procedure Committee to look into this modest proposal, and hope for a successful outcome.

My Lords, I wonder what sprang to mind when the noble Lord was thinking of Private Members’ Bills. I do not want to touch on that, beyond saying that I endorse in broad terms what he said.

However, I am a bit concerned because of the experience of the Rating (Coronavirus) and Directors Disqualification (Dissolved Companies) Bill. First, the publicly announced time for the debate was changed on at least two, if not three, occasions, resulting in the list of speakers shrinking because people had made their arrangements and could not suddenly unscramble them. Secondly, it was very much a hybrid Bill—two Bills with almost nothing in common cobbled together. I hope that, if we are going to use this new system—and I am not opposed to it in principle—those who decide on the Bills will take a little greater care on which Bills they put to Grand Committee.

The only other point I make on this report is regarding the use of the proposed new system of voting. When we had the debate in October—my noble friend the Senior Deputy Speaker’s baptism of fire—he listened, and I want to thank him for that. I want to thank him particularly for the clause in this report which says that Tellers will be reinstated when we go to the pass-reader system. That subject is what upset many of us and it is essential—it was not a particular objection in principle to pass-readers but was rather about that. So I would like to thank my noble friend and the committee for listening to what was virtually the unanimous voice of the House. I also ask him if he can give us some idea of when he thinks there will be a proposal to move to this new system.

My Lords, I would like to endorse the point made by the noble Lord about Tellers and ask a quick factual question of the Senior Deputy Speaker about recommendations 3(c) and (i). If a Member were, although it is not expected, to move the formal Second Reading in the Chamber and wished to speak, given that paragraph (i) says that debate

“in Grand Committee should count as part of second reading,”

would a Member in fact be allowed to take part both in the short debate that might not be expected in this Chamber and also in Grand Committee?

My Lords, it is very seldom that we have an opportunity to discuss procedures in this House, and I want to raise a particular issue that arises from the three points in the report but goes wider than that.

Nearly half the Members of this House now reside either in London or nearby. It is a growing feeling among those of us who do not that they do not understand some of the difficulties that those of us who live outwith London have in relation to the business of the House, to keeping up with changes and starting times, and to keeping up with changes in the business and Motions before the House, which often, as the Government Chief Whip will confirm—and I know the problems that he has—take place at very short notice.

I wonder whether the people who live in and around London—who are able to have breakfast at home, wander in and participate, and then go home for dinner—understand some of the problems those of us who do not live in London have: that we have to find somewhere to stay, and pay for that; that we have to travel on a Monday and back on a Thursday, with all the problems that that involves, particularly during Covid. I wonder whether they understand the problems we have in relation to access to papers to be able to deal with these matters. I am raising the issue now with the very helpful chair of the Services Committee about being able to run off documents at home, which is a very expensive thing that we are expected to undertake and very difficult when we are not able just to wander in, as people who live in London can—at the weekend, even—to do these things.

The leader of the Liberal Democrats last week raised the issue of voting and got very short shrift from the Leader of the House on the problems that some noble Lords have had in participating in voting now that we have abandoned the ability to vote from home. I know that there are all sorts of arguments for and against that, but I wonder whether Members realise the problems that we have. I do not think people outside this House realise that, let alone Members living in London.

I have told this story before to some friends. I was sitting at my desk a few weeks past and the phone rang. It was one of these corporate secretaries, who said, “Could I speak to Lord Foulkes’s diary secretary?” I said, “Speaking”, because I look after that, as most of us here do. Some Members—again, particularly those who live in London—are able to carry on other activities outside this House, for example in the law, whereas Scots lawyers are not able to do that. People who live in London are able to take on other kinds of activities that people who live outside London cannot.

I hope that those Members who live in London will give this some thought. In my view—in fact a lot of my colleagues have said this, but I am the only one foolish and daft enough to raise it—a lot of people feel very strongly that we get the brush-off from the people who live in London and who find it so easy. If this House increasingly becomes a south-east of England House, its reputation as a legislature for the whole of the United Kingdom will be put into question.

My Lords, I do not want to detain the House. I just want to thank the Senior Deputy Speaker for making the amendment and to make one point about the use of the Moses Room and Grand Committee meetings. I am ashamed to say that, after probably more than 20 years in this House, I spoke in the Moses Room for the first time on the subject of the governance of this House. I was grateful that so many points were raised and I know my noble friend will be addressing them in due course.

I think it is quite ridiculous to schedule the debate on the Budget in the Moses Room. Although this House has limited influence in these matters, the Budget is a central part of the Government’s programme and this House is meant to give advice. So I hope we will not see important debates on committees or on the Budget being shunted next door, where I think they have limited exposure.

My Lords, will the Senior Deputy Speaker consider the very appropriate plea from the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, for the greater use of the Grand Committee Room for Private Members’ Bills? I was extremely fortunate to have a private Member’s slot very high up on the ballot last year, but of course, because of the Covid constraints on the timetable, no Private Members’ Bills were taken. These Bills have been used as an extremely successful mechanism in the other place when the Government have wanted to see a minor change to the law and have used a Private Member’s Bill for that purpose.

I support the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, about those of us who have our main home outside London.

My Lords, I am most grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken. Some have perhaps used the opportunity to go a little wide of the report, but that is no matter because, in a sense, I would say very strongly, it provides an opportunity for ensuring that this House is contented and harmonious and works successfully.

The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, raised the point about the use of the Moses Room. There is actually nothing in the report that says that this applies only to government Bills; as I have said, it is clearly a matter for the usual channels and the House to agree. From that point of view, there is nothing in the report that says it is just for government Bills. As we know, all Private Members’ Bills go through journeys that involve the other place as well, and many Bills that have gone from this House have not being successful in their journey through the other place—but the points are noted.

The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, raised a point about time changes. I am afraid I did not know about them but, from my work with the usual channels and the Government Chief Whip, I do know that every attention is given to making these matters straightforward. If times were changed, I am sure that that was not with intent but from necessity. What is clearly important in what the committee sought to ensure in the choice of Bills, following the letter of the Leader and the Government Chief Whip, is that they should be less complex and controversial, and should have the agreement of the usual channels. So I think it is understood, in this proposal, that great care will be taken on that.

On Tellers, it was clear from what was—yes—my baptism of fire, that the House feels strongly about the probity and importance of Divisions when we are in the right position. We are meeting as a committee on 17 January, but I think it is fair to say that, in the current circumstances, we should not be returning to the Lobbies. However, we will obviously need preparatory work and consideration on these matters.

The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, mentioned being outside London. In another life, I spent quite a lot of time supporting rural interests and interests beyond the metropolitan mindset—some people may say metropolitan “elite”. It is desperately important that this House is drawn from across the United Kingdom. That is one reason why the start time on a Monday has always been designed to enable Peers from all parts of the kingdom to assemble here. The point is that this is an assembly; it is where we gather and where we all have the privilege of being able to have this discourse. As I live in Suffolk—not as far away as the noble Lord—I have intense sympathy with him on the interests of Peers making their contribution while living outside London and its environs.

The noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, raised the use of the Moses Room. Again, it is clearly important that this is used in a proportionate manner. I am very conscious of that in the context of scheduling business, as I know is the Government Chief Whip, particularly in these times when many noble Lords want to make a contribution.

The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, also raised Private Members’ Bills. I have taken all these points on board but, so far as the committee’s fifth report is concerned, I commend it to the House.

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, he threw me slightly by saying that this applies to Private Members’ Bills as well. Having reread the letter from the Leader of the House and the Government Chief Whip, I think I can be forgiven for not seeing that. The Senior Deputy Speaker is quite right that they do not specifically mention government Bills, but one could reasonably assume, in a letter from the Government Chief Whip and the Leader of the House, that in the front of their mind are government Bills. So if, as he says, from now on people presenting Private Members’ Bills, who normally have to negotiate with the Government Chief Whip about a suitable Friday when a Second Reading can be held—it is often a very long wait—will have this new procedure whereby the Second Reading can be held in the Moses Room, that should be clearly explained as an option to everyone who is successful in the ballot for Private Members’ Bills, and indeed to people who present Bills that are not necessarily in the top 20, or whatever it is. What he is suggesting is a new procedure to most Members and I urge the Procedure Committee to ensure that Members are fully aware of that option when they are successful in the ballot on Private Members’ Bills.

I must reply by making it very clear that this procedure is for less complex and non-controversial pieces of legislation. That is why there is this safety valve for all of that.

My Lords, forgive me. The point I was raising was whether a Member can speak at Second Reading in the Chamber and in the Moses Room subsequently, even though it would be counted as one general debate.

I owe the noble Viscount an extreme apology: I was going through my list and omitted my answer—which is yes—because it was so short. The said Peer is able to participate in both.

Motion agreed.