Motion on Standing Orders
That Standing Order 44 (No two stages of a Bill to be taken on one day) be dispensed with on Monday 25 April to allow the Elections Bill to be taken through its remaining stages that day and that therefore, in accordance with Standing Order 47 (Amendments on Third Reading), amendments shall not be moved on Third Reading.
My Lords, I do not think we should let this Motion pass without at least acknowledging the unusual nature and significance of it. It does two things which affect the rights of all in this House, albeit in respect of one specific Bill. First, it collapses the gap between Report and Third Reading of a Bill, which is there for very good reasons, so that people can reflect on Report and maybe, in exceptional circumstances, bring forward amendments at Third Reading. Secondly—this is more significant—it removes from the House the right to put down amendments at Third Reading.
This is an exceptional state of affairs. It is not unusual for the House to agree to the rapid passage of a Bill through the House, but that is nearly always when the legislation is needed urgently. We should be particularly wary of a decision of this sort on this Bill, because it is a major constitutional Bill. It is not any old Bill, but a major constitutional one which, in many respects, has not had as much scrutiny as many of us would have liked. I am certainly not going to go into the details of the Bill, but it does make voting more difficult, which should be of interest at least to everyone in the Chamber.
I am certain that there must be good reasons why this has happened. I am very sorry that the Leader of the House was called away and is unable to answer on this. That is not because I am making any criticism of the Government Chief Whip—I think Government Chief Whips do splendid jobs, by and large. However, the Leader of the House has a specific responsibility, which is a responsibility to the whole House. This Motion diminishes the rights of the whole House, albeit in the specific way I have described. I am sure that a lot of thought has been given to this, but the Chief Whip—as it is he who is here—should acknowledge that this is a most exceptional set of circumstances. I warn in advance that Governments themselves may live to regret giving up the right to tidy up Bills at Third Reading; this is often a last chance to put things right. I register my disapproval of what is happening, without wishing to take it any further.
My Lords, I wish to do the same, because this Bill contains clauses that put an independent body, namely the Electoral Commission, under the control of a Secretary of State. That is an almost unprecedented step and one fraught with danger. I would never wish to see a Secretary of State from a different party having those powers. It is quite wrong to steamroller a Bill of this destructive nature through the House on the eve of Prorogation.
My Lords, the Government Chief Whip gave the House no explanation as to why this exceptional action should be taken. I do not know why he did not feel it was necessary to inform Members of the reason for this. Is it because there is not time? I put to him that we are due to prorogue on 28 April—he makes an expression, but he has a lot of days to play with to allow legislation to continue to be debated. I do not think it is acceptable to allow this Bill to go through its stages on one day. The noble Lord has many days to play with between 28 April and the Queen’s Speech on 10 May.
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, for allowing me to explain why. One of the reasons I did not do so before was because I wanted to hear these questions—of which I was given advanced warning. I take note of what the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, said, as he was a distinguished Chief Whip himself. I have no doubt that things went smoother in his day than they do now. However, we are where we are, and I will do my best.
I should say to the House that, although my noble friend the Leader of the House could not be here—because she is going to a meeting which involves the usual channels and business for the whole House—I also count myself as having responsibilities for the whole House, as well as for my party. So I understand the issue at stake here. In this particular case, this was an agreement with the leaders of the noble Lord’s party and the noble Lord, Lord Hunt. In return for having more time than we had allowed for Committee, so that more discussion could be had, it was decided that we would have two days on Report, and that we would also have Third Reading on the same day. This was an agreement between us, and not a question of the Government steamrolling business through the House, as my noble friend Lord Cormack said. In fact, in some ways, I would love to be able to steamroll any business through this House, but, when I start every vote 250 votes behind, I think it is pretty unlikely that I could steamroll much through this House.
The noble Lord made the perfectly valid point that one of the provisions was on the Electoral Commission and its relationship with the Secretary of State. Of course, this is what will come out at Report. There has been plenty of discussion in Committee—in fact, six days of discussion, including some evenings that were quite late—so there has been plenty of talk about that. On Report, noble Lords will be able to vote on exactly that provision, and we will be able to send it back, if necessary, to the other place for Members there to consider it. Not only that, we will then have the opportunity for ping-pong.
In many cases, when we come to the end of a Session, deals are done with the Opposition. They concentrate on the things they think are important, and we schedule the business accordingly. All the business is scheduled in discussion with the usual channels. So I take the noble Lord’s point and agree that this should not be done often. However, in fact, most Third Readings recently have been formal and short, and I hope that we can prove that after this is over. Therefore, in this case, I ask that the Motion be agreed to.
My Lords, I will briefly say, as the Opposition Chief Whip, that I agreed the Motion in the usual channels. I speak to the Government Chief Whip every single day, often many times every day—I am sure the noble Lord is sometimes sick of the sight of me coming to his office. I can always make it very clear that I do not like the Elections Bill in many cases, and I will be ensuring that the House divides numerous times on Report and many other times at ping-pong. However, I do actually think that this Motion itself is good, and I am very happy to support it.