Skip to main content

Business of the House

Volume 830: debated on Thursday 8 June 2023

My Lords, before we move on to further business, I will refer to events yesterday. As noble Lords will be aware, the House sat until 4.20 am this morning. In my 26 years in your Lordships’ House, I cannot remember a Committee stage going so late. When the House has sat very late in recent times, it has been because of extreme and legitimate time pressures to get legislation on to the statute book.

I do not think that debating extremely important legislation in the middle of the night is sensible or acceptable in the absence of unavoidable time pressures. It is even less acceptable given that there was no agreement in advance, at least from these Benches and, I believe, the Cross Benches, on what sitting “late” meant. There was also clearly inadequate communication with the Lord Speaker’s office, as I believe the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, the last Deputy Speaker to be rostered, found himself having to sit on the Woolsack for a continuous six hours.

I therefore have several questions for the Leader. Will he explain what urgency impelled him to believe it necessary for the House to sit so late? Does he believe that it is acceptable for staff to have to work until 4.20 am and then to expect the House to be fully operational by 11 am this morning? Does he accept that, as a self-regulating House, all groups in the House need to be informed in good time of the Government’s proposals for sitting and rising times? Can he give an assurance that the House will not sit into the early hours again except in cases of extreme urgency? Finally, will he agree to an early meeting with group leaders, the Convenor and Whips to discuss how we can avoid such circumstances as occurred last night being repeated during the lifetime of this Parliament?

My Lords, it is quite clear that, while some Members may be looking fresh-faced, bright and breezy this morning, others are looking a bit bleary-eyed. The difficulty with very late—or, I should say, early morning—sittings is that they exclude Members who have contributions to make who cannot remain as late.

This is a complex and controversial Bill that we are discussing, which needs examination and scrutiny. May I put forward three suggestions? First, we still have no impact assessment for the Bill. It has been through the Commons; it is now in Committee here and we have Report to come. It would be very helpful if the noble Baroness could commit that, before we get to Report, the impact assessment will be ready. The guidance on legislation says that it should be ready at the start of a Bill’s consideration; I do not think it unreasonable to ask to have the impact assessment before Report.

Secondly, I appreciate that the Minister is relatively new to his job, but I hope he will come to recognise that the House appreciates full answers, co-operation and collaboration. It is possible to disagree agreeably. That kind of co-operation across the House would help the passage of a Bill that is contentious.

Thirdly, it would be helpful to the entire House if all of us, when speaking—and to coin a phrase from the radio—avoided hesitation, repetition and deviation. My noble friend Lord Kennedy has been giving this a great deal of thought—he had until 4.30 am to do so. It would be helpful to have an early meeting of the usual channels to look for a way forward. We recognise that the Government want to get their legislation through and to proceed in a timely manner, but we also want to have the proper debate and discussion that we need.

I agree that, if we are sitting late, it is a courtesy to Parliament as a whole that the caterers, doorkeepers, Lord Speaker’s office and others involved be made aware of that—if there is any possibility of it happening again.

My Lords, it is slightly “three in the hoose” to say the same thing, but I think it is worth underlining these points. Yesterday’s events were, by any measure, extreme. They underline the absolute importance of communication, which came up short yesterday.

Our community is quite a big one. The community of Members is part of that, and we were under the impression that things would be wrapped up shortly after midnight. The deputies community—I am of course a deputy as well—had rostered for the hour after midnight, so it was caught short. I note that the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, is not in his place; I hope he is sleeping the sleep of heroes.

There are other members of the community as well; I have written down a few: our doorkeepers, our clerks, Hansard, the catering staff, the broadcast staff, and even a gentleman in the facilities department who is always here when we are sitting. Communication with these people is essential, and I think we can do better. I therefore ask the noble Baroness the Chief Whip—I suppose it is she who is going to respond—to confirm that she is committed to the principle of even-handed treatment of and strong communication with our community on these things, because then we can manage much better.

Good morning, my Lords. The last point made by the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, is absolutely right. The points that I make this morning will underline that consistency in those principles is very important.

One of the first things to say is that Governments should get their business through. I stand here as Chief Whip to say that what the Opposition commit to doing, I will also commit to doing if I am ever the Opposition Chief Whip. That is a really important principle. Regarding that principle, the Liberal Democrats, when they were a partner in government, spent from 2.15 pm one day until 12.51 pm the following day on getting the AV vote through. Whether the House feels that that was an important, urgent thing to have got through, they did get it through. The House sat until they did, and that was the Committee stage of a Bill.

I endorse the point from the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, about the repetition of arguments. At 3.15 am, I thought that I had fallen asleep, because the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, was repeating arguments from earlier in the day—important though they were. The Companion includes an important principle on the repetition of argument.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, shakes her head at literally everything, but this is in the Companion. Unless noble Lords want to change the Companion, it remains there.

I was also accused of detaining the House. The House detained the House, because, on the point of the repetition of argument, it was the Committee’s decision to keep making the same arguments again and again.

On the point about the usual channels, I was planning to speak to the usual channels 23 minutes ago, but I accommodated the Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, and we will speak later.

My noble friend Lord Lexden is a national treasure. He sat here for hours, without complaint, because that is the sort of professional that he is.

On the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, about the impact assessment, I will certainly take that back. I will speak to the Minister and we will do what we can.

The most important thing I will take away is about communication with the people who support the running of this House.

Although I am sure that the noble Baroness has made some extremely valuable points, could she respond to the question that was put to her by several noble Lords on the subject of what the plans are for similarly late sittings in the future?

My Lords, does the noble Baroness understand that, if the Bills were better when they came to the House, there would be fewer amendments and it would take less time to get them through?

That is a judgment call from the noble Baroness. This discussion is not about how much people do or do not like Bills. What is clear is that Committee and Report stages are lasting an awful lot longer, and that goes back to my first point about the constant repetition of the same point.

Does the noble Baroness not agree—I made this point to her at about 12.30 am—that important debates on the detention of women and pregnant mothers were questions that were not dealt with in a repetitious way? They were important issues, raised by her own Government Benches as well. I appealed to her and the Leader of the House last night that, rather than keeping us here until the early hours of morning, another day will be necessary for the Bill. The Minister is right that the issue is not whether or not you are in favour of the Bill; this is about the way that Parliament does its business and the reputation of Parliament. It is important, therefore, that time is made available so that we can complete this—maybe even with a morning sitting as well, if necessary, rather than keeping Members of your Lordships’ House here until the early hours. Whether we are responsible for that ourselves or whether it is the Government is not the point; we should not be here in the early hours of the morning dealing with important and controversial questions.

I refer the noble Lord to my previous comments; I will not repeat myself and make them again. I point out that the first group yesterday was, in essence, the same as the previous group on Monday night, and it took one hour and 43 minutes to make exactly the same points.

In my noble friend’s discussions with the usual channels, will she make the point that there are some conventions in this House? I have watched debates, even on Report, where noble Lords—not looking in any particular direction—read out speeches for 14 or 15 minutes which were not actually on the subject concerned. That is unfair to our Ministers.

I remind those outside who are so quick to criticise the House of Lords that, this Tuesday, the House of Commons finished at 2.30 pm, while we sit into the early hours because this House does a proper job. However, it cannot do its job if noble Lords do not observe the conventions and operate in accordance with our rules.

Maybe my noble friend brings up a beneficial point at this time. We are very patient and courteous but the reading of speeches irritates the House. If I may express my own opinion, quite often that happens when the speaker has not listened to the previous speech.

I agree with everything my noble friend said. I was one of the Peers here—there were about 80 of us for the majority of the time. I put on record my sincere thanks to all the House staff who supported us, such as the doorkeepers and so on.

Can the noble Baroness respond to what the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, said? One of the reasons why a lot of questions have been asked, over and again, is because of the lack of an impact assessment, which is absolutely vital for this House to do its job. Will the impact assessment be available to the House before Report?