Motion to Agree
My Lords, the last edition of the Companion to the Standing Orders was issued in 2017. Although preparations for a new edition were almost complete in early 2020, publication was inevitably delayed by the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, which led to the rapid adoption first of virtual and then of hybrid sittings. Only now, as the House has returned almost entirely to pre-pandemic procedures, has the committee been able to complete this work.
If the report is agreed today, a new edition of the Companion will be published online later this week and hard copies will be ready for when the House returns in September. The new edition will take account of changes to our procedures agreed by the House since 2017, giving us all an up-to-date, accurate edition of the Companion once again.
The report, which is, in most respects, identical to the committee’s seventh report of the last Session, also proposes a few minor but substantive changes to which I now seek the House’s agreement. I had originally intended to move the Motion to agree the seventh report on 16 May, but following representations made to me by number of noble Lords, I decided not to move the report but instead go back to your Lordships’ committee to ask it to look again at two particular issues. First, there is the proposal relating to the Lord Speaker’s leave of absence. I hope the recommendation that we have now brought forward, which seeks to accommodate the House’s legitimate interest in the Lord Speaker’s performance of his public duties, will be supported. Secondly, we have looked again at the recommendation on taking young children through the Division Lobbies. I must outline that this is not a change but confirmation of pre-existing, uncodified practice and I hope that the House will agree that the wording that we have now proposed reflects this.
Before concluding, I want to offer some further reflections on the short debate that took place last Thursday on the Motion to appoint the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Bolton, to the committee. The purpose of the Companion is to describe procedures that the House itself has agreed and is not to instigate changes to those procedures. Preparing a new edition is thus largely a technical exercise, updating the text to ensure that it accurately reflects current procedure. This means incorporating any changes to our procedures that the House has agreed since the last edition, as well as reflecting changes in statute law or updating references to Commons procedure. The entire text is carefully checked, errors corrected, and footnote references checked and updated.
Since the Procedure Committee was first appointed in 1940, the Companion has been published under the authority of that committee. The committee triages changes and brings points of substance to the House for a full debate, while taking responsibility for approving the many purely editorial or technical changes that are required when updating any document of this length and complexity.
I take very seriously concerns expressed by noble Lords. As I said in responding to last Thursday’s short debate, there is nothing unexpected in the new edition of the Companion, which, in substance, reflects the many changes that the House itself has agreed since 2017. But, to ensure the maximum possible transparency, I approved publication of the complete draft text of the new edition of the Companion, which was published electronically on Friday 17 June and made available in the Library. I have also arranged for copies of papers considered by the Procedure and Privileges Committee while preparing the latest addition to be placed in the Library of the House. These papers provide an audit trail of the committee’s decision-making.
I hope that, with these assurances, the House will now be content to agree the report that is before it today and thereby allow us to finalise the text of the new edition of the Companion. I beg to move.
My Lords, perhaps I may first say how grateful I am to my noble friend the Senior Deputy Speaker, in particular for arranging a meeting that I had this morning with the Clerk Assistant. I accept that the Companion has never been approved as such on the Floor of the House but rather that its component parts have been.
However, I rise on a small but not unimportant point that concerns the wording and use of language. I refer to paragraph 6 of the report, which my noble friend himself has just referred to, which proposes the following words:
“‘He or she seeks the leave of the House when such absences relate to the public duties of the Lord Speaker’”.
That is a wholly reasonable proposition, from which I do not dissent. Paragraph 8 proposes the words:
“‘If the Lord Speaker knows that an oral question is not going to be asked, they inform the House before they call.’”
In other words, in the first of two paragraphs separated by one, we refer to “he or she” and, in the second, we use the gender-neutral language of “they”. I plead that we have consistency and use the former, rather than the latter, throughout the Companion when we are referring to the Lord Speaker and, indeed, to others.
The Companion is a very valued companion. Many of us find it extremely helpful and important, but consistency of language is something that we have the right to expect. I ask my noble friend to respond positively to that suggestion.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his remarks. As I say, we have worked as a committee. My predecessor’s 20 Procedure Committee and Procedure and Privileges Committee reports have been agreed by the House.
The point that the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, raised was on language. I have looked into this because much of this occurred before my responsibilities, but the process of changing exclusively, for instance, masculine language in core documents has been going on for quite a considerable time and I think that this is universally agreed. It is fair to say that the Companion uses both “he or she” and in other places “they”. The Government have recently reaffirmed that legislation should be drafted in a gender-neutral way but—I think this was important when I looked into this—using gendered pronouns in specific cases. Clearly, one of those would be in referring to mothers of children.
It is also fair to say that we have had a degree of flexibility, mindful of guidelines but also in varying iterations. I am mindful of the point about consistency and accept that we should look at this. I will ask the House, however, to agree the report before us because, from 2017 until now, it is important that we have a Companion we can use.
The other thing I have asked, and we are going to look at it very strongly, is that the online version should be a contemporary version so that the House, over varying periods before it is reprinted, is always updated. This is so that, although some of us quake at the thought of lengthy documents and looking at them online, there is a resource we can all have the current version of.
I suggest that we will, obviously, in our consideration of all these matters look at revisions as they come up and have matters of substance always before your Lordships. I am mindful of what has been said today but I ask, please, for the consent of your Lordships to the report so that we can bring out a Companion which is updated. That is why I earnestly hope that the House will agree to the Motion.
Before my noble friend sits down, can I say how grateful I am to him for changing the language that referred to the Lord Speaker, rather than “he or she”, as “they”? However, I am a bit puzzled as to why, having got rid of “they” and substituted “he or she”, he has continued with “they” elsewhere. What is the reason for that?
Before the noble Lord responds, can I just say that in respect of the Lord Speaker’s duties and the issues regarding school-age children and other matters, nothing is unexpected in this new draft of the Companion? I offer my full support to the Senior Deputy Speaker, and I hope the House can now quickly agree this report. We have important business to discuss today.
My Lords, I welcome the Senior Deputy Speaker’s Motion to approve the report and the idea that the online version should, at any moment, be the most up-to-date version. Can I ask one quick question about paragraph 8? If a Member withdraws her or his Question before the day it is due to be asked, does that Member lose their right to ask the set number of Questions in each year? Is that withdrawn Question counted as one of the number you are allowed to ask in any given year?
My Lords, I am looking to my right, as they say. It is helpful that we have it on the record: providing they give 24-hours’ notice, a noble Lord would not lose their opportunity. I hope that is helpful.
I take the point made by my noble friend Lord Forsyth that in one reference I have “he or she” and in another there is a “they”, but what I really desperately want is for the House to agree that we have a new, up-to-date Companion.
That is what we want to do. As to this reference, the report is to ask the House to agree to the words that are in this document. As I have said, there is flexibility; there are varying moments when different terms are used. I find it difficult to believe that noble Lords would find it difficult to interpret or understand, but the points have been made and I have taken them back. Looking at various Members of the committee who are already here, I am sure that they will take note of the points which have been made.
My Lords, I am sorry—I want to make a point which can be put on the record. As someone who learned English as her third language and is quite sticky about the grammar, I find that this is a terrible sentence, because it starts in the singular and finishes in the plural. This is not English.