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Procedure and Privileges Committee

Volume 834: debated on Tuesday 28 November 2023

Motion to Agree

Moved by

That the Report from the Select Committee Amendments to motions; Terms of reference of the International Agreements Committee (7th Report, Session 2022–23, HL Paper 265) be agreed to.

My Lords, I will also speak to the second Motion in my name on the Order Paper.

The seventh report sets out various proposed changes to procedures on Motions and amendments to Motions. The genesis of these changes was a letter from the Leader of the House and the Government Chief Whip. It set out their concerns that some practices relating to Motions and amendments to Motions—an important part of the scrutiny function of this House—have become out of step with the normal conventions and courtesies of the House. The committee considered the letter alongside a paper prepared by the clerks, which analysed the procedural aspects of the proposals and suggested ways they could be put into effect.

The first proposal in the report before your Lordships relates to the order of speaking when one or more amendments have been tabled to a Motion. Currently, the Member who has tabled the first amendment speaks after the mover of the Motion and the debate takes place thereafter. The Leader and the Government Chief Whip propose that those moving such amendments should speak after the opposition Front-Bench openers. The committee recognised that it will often be for the convenience of the House, as already happens in debates when amendments have not been tabled, to hear from the opposition Front Benches before the first amendment to a Motion is called. The committee also recognised that there will be times when noble Lords may wish to hear from the mover of the first amendment first. The proposed amendments to the Companion would allow this flexibility, and it will be for the usual channels to agree in advance the appropriate order of speaking when an amendment to a Motion has been tabled.

The second proposed set of amendments to the Companion relates to the length of speeches. There is a feeling, to which the committee is sensitive, that speeches are sometimes longer than the House would like and that occasionally the existing guidance on the length of speeches is not being adhered to properly. The proposed changes restate the guidance that Back-Bench Members with amendments to Motions should adhere to the Back-Bench advisory time in any debate, not the 20 minutes for the mover of the main Motion. I hope that this clarification is helpful to the House. The committee has also recommended a slight strengthening of the guidance on the length of speeches by reminding noble Lords that the House expects this guidance to be observed. I should, however, emphasise that this remains guidance, and that it may in some cases, subject to the sense of the House, be overridden, as is indeed proper in a self-regulating Chamber.

The final set of proposed amendments in the seventh report relates to the length and tone of Motions and amendments to Motions. The committee proposes guidance that

“motions for resolution, and reasoned amendments to such motions, while they may incorporate statements of opinion, should be concise and, in the case of amendments, relevant to the subject-matter of the original motion. They should as far as possible avoid intemperate or argumentative language”.

We believe that this revised guidance would be entirely consistent with the customary courtesies of this House, which of course again goes to the heart of the preservation of good order in a self-regulating House.

The committee’s purpose in proposing these amendments is to ensure that noble Lords are in the best position to be able to debate the main issues of the day and hold the Government to account, while supporting self-regulation and ensuring the orderly conduct of business. I believe, and indeed the committee believes, that the changes proposed in the report help to bring this clarity, and I therefore commend them to your Lordships.

I now turn to the committee’s first report of this Session, which relates to scrutiny of the Foreign Secretary. Following the introduction of the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton, to the House on Monday last week, the Leader wrote to me to propose some minor but important changes to our procedures to enhance the new Foreign Secretary’s accountability to this House. The proposed changes substantially retain existing practice on Oral Questions to and Oral Statements by Secretaries of State, but add some further flexibility to help noble Lords in holding the Foreign Secretary to account. The Procedure and Privileges Committee considered these proposals at some speed and agreed to the recommendations and proposals to the House. I am very grateful to committee members for helping in this regard. The report sets out the changes to the Companion that will be necessary to give effect to them.

There are four key elements. First,

“questions to the Foreign Secretary should take place on one Tuesday each month”,

rather than on a Thursday, as is the normal practice. Secondly:

“Four balloted oral questions should be tabled”

to the Foreign Secretary, rather than the normal three for Secretaries of State. Following on from that, the third element is that:

“The time allowed for the four questions should be 40 minutes”—

in other words, 10 minutes each. Lastly, when the Foreign Secretary makes a Statement in this House, it will usually be appropriate, subject to agreement within usual channels, to extend the time for Back-Bench contributions to 30 minutes, and on occasion 40 minutes, rather than 20 minutes. The time allowed for Front-Bench contributions will continue to be 20 minutes. That means that the total time allowed for this House to question the Foreign Secretary after he has made a Statement will be at least 50 minutes.

We have sought to give effect to these changes by allowing greater flexibility in the operation of existing procedures, rather than by changing those procedures. I hope this approach will find favour. But the effect will be to allow more questions to be asked of the Foreign Secretary at a time when attendance at the House is at its highest and the widest range of Members will be able to participate.

I hope noble Lords will understand and accept why we have had to move swiftly in getting these proposals before the House. We have sought to ensure that these enhanced scrutiny arrangements are in place as soon as possible, so that, subject to the agreement of your Lordships to this report, the first Oral Questions to the Foreign Secretary can be asked on 5 December—Tuesday of next week. To prepare the ground for this, the first ballot was provisionally opened the day after this report was published, and if the report is agreed, four Questions will be drawn on Thursday this week. I commend these proposals and beg to move the first Motion standing in my name.

Can I just clarify something about the Foreign Secretary section? Given that Northern Ireland is now a foreign country in terms of aspects of trade, will he be responsible for answering questions to do with anything to do with the protocol, the Windsor Framework and Northern Ireland?

My Lords, when I came into this Chamber, I always thought that Northern Ireland was part of the United Kingdom, and my personal preference is that it will always remain so. Others rather than the Foreign Secretary will answer questions relating to Northern Ireland.

My Lords, the noble Baroness asked a very mischievous question and she knew very well she was doing so. Many of us will welcome the comments in the first report about the length of speeches—

I speak often, but not at length. I believe that it is very important indeed that we follow what the Companion says and, to add to what the Senior Deputy Speaker said, that we abandon the practice of reading supplementary questions. It should not be beyond the wit of any Member of your Lordships’ House to ask a brief, spontaneous question without having a great long text in front of him or her. I hope that the Senior Deputy Speaker will take that one on board when he is next discussing these matters with the appropriate committee. It would improve things—although I also say that his point on intemperate language should be relayed to another place.

My Lords, I seek some reassurance. “Intemperate language” I understand, but “argumentative” was used as not being appropriate. It may be because I am argumentative but I think that scrutiny and the important role of this House, as it now has the responsibility of holding the Foreign Secretary to account, means that there is likely to be some argument. I worry about the potential of oversanitising the nature of the discussion. No one should be rude, but the word “argumentative” is a little worrying. Perhaps the Senior Deputy Speaker could reassure me that the committee is not trying to quell dissent and have a chilling effect on free speech.

My Lords, before we hear the Senior Deputy Speaker’s response, I say that I fully support both reports. The proposals are practical and sensible and aid scrutiny. I have been in the House for more than 13 years. When I first came, we were constantly reminded about sticking to the Companion, and it was good, sensible advice. That seems to have stopped in recent years, perhaps because of the pandemic. I suggest that all of us get a copy of the Companion from the Printed Paper Office. It will make excellent bedtime reading. If we stick to the Companion, it aids scrutiny and our business. Sometimes we all sit here very frustrated when colleagues are not sticking to the Companion and are straying all over the place with waffly speeches, waffly questions and waffly answers. It is not good. Let us all get a copy of the Companion and start using it when we come back.

My Lords, I am very grateful to all noble Lords who have contributed to the debate. I apologise for jumping in to answer the question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, when in the spirit of things I should have waited for all the considerations from noble Lords.

The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, raised something that we brought to the House today, which is length. I am reminded of the late Lord Judge and his words on brevity, the use of language and the way in which we can all make many good points in a short time. I very much agree. Reading too much often breaks the flow and exchange which we undoubtedly want in the conduct of our business so, wherever we can, we should not read too much. I am sorry that I read my script, but I wanted to get it absolutely right.

The noble Baroness, Lady Fox, raised the term “argumentative”. Deploying argument in debate is one thing, obviously, but the committee felt there could sometimes be a Motion or amendment so highly charged, emotive or argumentative in nature that its text should be considered. I am fully expecting her and indeed all noble Lords to engage in what we do very well here: a very considerable scrutiny of public affairs.

In response to the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, I say that I too can remember when very senior people would just wave the Companion at someone —and it did not half steady them up.

The way the House works best is when we let business flow well, we do not overcomplicate, we are brief when we can be, and we make our points well and fully. That is why I am grateful for all these comments. The committee seeks to be pragmatic in bringing these matters to your Lordships. With respect to the new Foreign Secretary, I very much look forward to our exercise of accountability. I acknowledge the Leader’s very speedy letter to me about how, in having one of the great offices of state in this House, we should fulfil our responsibilities with accountability and scrutiny.

Motion agreed.