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Procedure and Privileges Committee

Volume 822: debated on Thursday 16 June 2022

Membership Motion

Moved by

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend the Senior Deputy Speaker for taking the two Motions standing in his name on the Order Paper separately.

I very much welcome the appointment of the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Bolton, who is a formidable Member of this House, if only because it will strengthen the Back-Bench representation on the committee.

I have to say to my noble friend that I was very disappointed that his Written Answer to me this week refused to publish the proposed text of the Companion which will be published, after five years, in September, with marked-up changes. It is really important that Back-Bench interests are considered, particularly when changes are being made—often without the prior consent of the House—to the way in which we carry out our procedures. For example, only today, I learned that there is a proposal to have trigger points in Hansard where what Members say may have been considered to have caused offence, and so someone would put something in to that effect. Similarly, with the Companion, changes are being made to the text which have not been discussed by the House. I hope my noble friend might take account of the fact that there is a feeling, certainly among some on the Back Benches, that the Procedure and Privileges Committee does not take account of opinion on these Benches.

My Lords, without prolonging this, I want to give total support to my noble friend in what he said. Far too much is happening in this place without proper consultation. It is five years since we had the last edition of the Companion. If there are to be changes, we should be forewarned as to what they are and there should be a full debate on them. This is something that could affect any and every Member in your Lordships’ House. I strongly support my noble friend and urge the Senior Deputy Speaker to give a suitable reply.

My Lords, I support the noble Lords who have already spoken. Only a few months ago, it was brought to our attention that the way these things were being handled, as regards contributions by Members of your Lordships’ House, was in clear breach of the Bill of Rights and the conventions on freedom of speech for parliamentarians that had stood for several hundred years. I have no idea whether the new Companion will have addressed that issue or not; the only way to find out is to have the relevant sections and changes produced before this House and, as the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, said, have a full debate on them.

This is not a peripheral issue. It is the central issue of the role of parliamentarians and their right to speak as they see fit, provided that the Chamber itself is content with it. It cannot be right to have some sort of trigger point system—presumably based on artificial intelligence—setting up an alarm when something is said that is deemed not to be right by others outside this House. It is in clear breach of centuries of convention.

My Lords, the noble Lord raises a point that we might all be concerned about. I think Back-Benchers would like to know about these trigger points. I had not noticed that they were there. Back-Benchers would need to know what the criteria are, because people would always want to avoid them. There needs to be total agreement about the level of offence that would contravene one of the points. Perhaps the House might decide to accept such a trigger point, or perhaps it might not.

My Lords, I am genuinely very grateful to have this opportunity to spend a little time clarifying some matters. Certainly, in the Procedure and Privileges Committee, which it is a great honour to chair, we have looked very thoroughly at the changes. These will be brought forward to your Lordships to seek your Lordships’ consent. I think it is next week, on 22 June, when there will be consideration of the changes to the Companion for the House to agree and, if necessary, debate.

Does the Senior Deputy Speaker really mean that this will happen in the middle of the week when strikes are likely to affect attendance in the House? If he does, I hope another date will be thought of.

My Lords, for information, it may not be possible for noble Lords to get a train home on Wednesday, so that might affect people’s decision to come down on Monday.

My Lords, I will look at this. There are a small number of changes, which I think noble Lords ought to have seen by now. If they have not, I would advise them to go and look at the changes that will need the agreement of the House. The noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, has tabled a Question about the changes to the Companion to the Standing Orders. These are to insert, for the help of the House, elements from, say, Erskine May, and they are all designed to be helpful. I am very happy for the House to see all the very minor changes of style that there may be; I have no problem with that at all.

However, this is the suggestion that I find unusual. The committee and I—there is an open door—will always want to hear what Members of the House are concerned about. One of the purposes of us meeting as one of the House’s committees is to look at the changes to the Companion which are of substance, which will have to come to your Lordships for consent. I can genuinely say that I am very happy to share the small changes that are there to assist the House in understanding the Companion, but I think we have many—I cannot remember how many pages it is.

I know the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, has tabled a further Question asking me whether I would deposit a record of the changes in the Library. There is no secret about this. The changes are meant and designed to be helpful to your Lordships. I sometimes worry that some noble Lords think that we are seeking to do things to your Lordships rather than for your Lordships, when the latter is the purpose of the committee.

As for raising trigger points, this has not come before the Procedure Committee, but the committee would look at this with very close scrutiny. It is not something that I have had a formal proposal for. Obviously, we would look at it, and certainly the House would need to consider any changes to our procedures that came forward. All I can say is that I have heard about the trigger points proposal, but it has not been put to me formally and, if it was, I would express concern about it. Let me be very clear: I had heard of this, but there has been no formal request for the Procedure Committee to look at it. I would look with very close scrutiny at any proposal which in any way interfered with your Lordships’ absolute, given rights to express opinions in this Chamber.

Perhaps I can just read my noble friend something on improvements to Hansard online: “Hansard enhancement work is scheduled for the end of this year and includes adding a feature to Lords Hansard and Commons Hansard online that alerts readers to potentially offensive language within the content. This comes from recommendations made by the House of Lords Inclusion and Diversity team.” Would my noble friend undertake to look at this?

I have just been passed a note. Our Services Committee, of which I am not a member, saw this and basically said no. I am very interested in seeing that script. I am absolutely clear about our task on the committee—obviously, I am very much looking forward to the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Bolton, joining the committee —and adamant that we work for the whole House, including the Back Benches, so that we can have a dynamic contribution to the national discourse. I beg to move that the noble Baroness joins the Procedure and Privileges Committee.

Motion agreed.