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Procedure and Privileges Committee: Third Report

Volume 837: debated on Tuesday 19 March 2024

Motion to Agree

Moved by

That the Report from the Select Committee Amending stages of public bills (3rd Report, HL Paper 73) be agreed to.

My Lords, the third report of the Procedure and Privileges Committee recommends various changes that are designed to make the amending stages of public Bills more effective and to enhance the quality of our debates within the context of safeguarding the self-regulating nature of the House. The contribution by noble Lords to the scrutiny of legislation by tabling amendments and speaking in debates goes to the very essence of our work here. It is one that the committee had full regard to when discussing the proposals contained in the report.

The proposals today arise from the concerns expressed quite widely by noble Lords that some contributions at amending stages have been unduly lengthy and that this interrupts the proper flow of debate. The Companion sets out that brevity is desirable, and so often the most persuasive arguments are made through succinct and clear speeches. The report’s purpose is to add guidance to that effect. The committee’s report proposes changes to existing practice and to guidance in the Companion in six areas. I will speak briefly about each in turn.

The first two proposals relate to speaking times on groups of amendments. We recommend that during amending stages of public Bills Members opening or winding up, other than the Minister, should keep within 15 minutes. In a similar vein, the committee proposes that Back-Bench speakers should keep within 10 minutes, rather than the current 15 minutes, when speaking on an amendment. These times remain, I would suggest, generous, and would allow those taking part to make detailed and useful contributions. The Minister, who the House will want to have time to respond to all points raised and who is more likely to be intervened upon, should still keep to 20 minutes.

Our third and fourth proposals recommend new guidance on the content of speeches. The third provides that Members other than a Minister who are withdrawing or pressing their amendment should normally be brief when doing so. Members will have had the opportunity to make a detailed speech when moving the amendment and the House will have heard the arguments for and against the amendment during the debate. Your committee felt it unnecessary for the mover to respond to or repeat points already made. At this stage in the debate, the House normally wants to know whether the mover intends to press or withdraw their amendment. This can be communicated to the House in a succinct manner.

The fourth proposal, flowing from the third, focuses particularly on Committee, where Members have a right to speak more than once. This freedom will remain, but the proposed guidance provides that Members, if they choose to exercise that right, should not repeat points that have been made previously or simply summarise or repeat at length points made by other Members. The committee proposes that this general guidance on repetition applies at all amending stages. We believe that both pieces of guidance could, if adhered to, enhance the quality of debate.

The fifth proposal seeks to correct a common misapprehension by the addition of guidance to the Companion. Attendance at earlier stages is not a prerequisite for participation in later stages of a public Bill. A Member who has not taken part at Second Reading, for example, can play a full part in Committee and later stages, but they should not make up for their earlier absence by making Second Reading speeches during those later stages. Each amending stage has a specific character and purpose, and Second Reading speeches made at later stages simply delay progress and impede focused debate on the amendments.

The final proposal from the committee relates to the use of Clocks during amending stages. Currently, the Chamber Clock, managed by the Clerk at the Table, records the time taken on each group of amendments, not each individual speech. We propose that the Clock should, in future, time each speech and flash when speeches exceed guidance. This will make it more obvious to the House when speeches exceed the guidance and will make it easier for Members, if necessary, to intervene to move things along. As the report acknowledges, it is also helpful for the House to know how long a debate on a group of amendments is taking. The committee therefore recommends that this should be recorded on the annunciator.

In proposing these changes, the committee seeks to balance the rights of individual Members with the importance of ensuring that the House is able to make good progress during amending stages. It aims to reflect the will of the House, which your committee believes is to enhance the quality of debate by encouraging Members to be concise, discouraging overlong or repetitive speeches.

What we propose is guidance, not hard and fast rules. The Companion already contains much guidance of this sort and the onus is surely on all of us to adhere to it. The success of self-regulation surely lies in the exercise of self-restraint by each noble Lord.

Your committee’s purpose in bringing this forward is to ensure that public Bills are scrutinised fully during amending stages and that the quality of debate is enhanced, and to emphasise that lengthy and repetitive speeches which do not address the amendment are not conducive to focused debate. I would welcome your Lordships’ endorsement of these proposals, which I believe will overwhelmingly assist the House in its important work. I beg to move.

My Lords, I very much agree with the committee’s report and I hope it is successful in its implementation, but—there is always a “but” at this point—I do not know quite who is responsible for ensuring that the proposed recommendations are actually enforced. I have a suggestion, which is not a novel one, although it enables me to emit one of my favourite parliamentary phrases: I told you so.

At every stage of the enhancement of the responsibilities of the Lord Speaker, powerful objections have been presented. Fortunately, the House has accepted the recommendations to enhance the role of the Lord Speaker. Today, for example, it is the Lord Speaker’s responsibility to stick to 10 minutes for Questions, to cue in people who wish to contribute remotely, and to signpost our proceedings during the day. All these proposals were strongly opposed at the time, and often came into implementation as a result of quite a narrow vote. I submit that no one is suggesting that any of them should now be rescinded. All of them have improved the way the House operates; they have made our proceedings more intelligible to people watching in the Public Gallery or on television, and no one wants to see us going back on them.

Therefore, I have a suggestion for the committee, or a request, really; I could have put down an amendment, but I would rather that the committee just considered this. The proposed 10-minute and 15-minute limits should be policed—that is probably an offensive word to use in this context—or administered under the responsibility of the Lord Speaker. By all means, we can have flashing lights when the 10 minutes are up, but at the moment it tends to fall to some poor Whip occasionally to stand up to call time on someone’s speech. It would be immediately respected if it was the Lord Speaker. The Lord Speaker stands up and, one hopes, the speaker shuts up—whoever it is. I have not consulted the Lord Speaker, but I do not think he would request any increase in his allowance to take on this extra responsibility, which would be for the benefit of the House.

My Lords, I want to make a more general point. I thank my noble friend for bringing forward the proposals. He said that this was guidance, and not hard and fast. In comparison to procedures in the Commons for Committee stages of a Bill, we save time at later stages, particularly on Report, by being able to almost fly a kite, if I can put it very loosely, in Committee to see whether there is any support for a particular theme on a particular Bill. If we restricted speeches as a matter of course to 10 minutes —albeit my noble friend said that he felt that was quite generous—we could store up problems for later stages if those arguments had not been properly debated in Committee. I ask my noble friend to reflect with the committee on that point—that having more flexibility in this House in Committee has saved time at later stages of a Bill.

My Lords, this is an excellent report—and I do not often say that about reports from the committee. Like my noble friend Lord Grocott, I am worried about enforcement. The guidance says that, at Question Time, questions “should not be read”. How many times have we been here at Question Time and questions have been read word for word, as provided by the researchers? I am not just mentioning the Liberal Democrats—

Yes, there are some on our side as well—I accept that. It also says in the guidance that speeches should not be read but that you can refer to notes. But how many times have we had speeches read word for word? It does not constitute a decent debate. To their credit, the Leader of the House and the Chief Whip have pointed this out from time to time. The guidance also says that, at Questions, only one point should be made and then you go straight to the question. How many times have we had point after point made, and we have had to shout “Question!”? Who is going to enforce it if it is guidance? As I say, I have great respect for the Leader of the House and the Chief Whip, but it is not their job to keep us in order. It is our job, or it is the Lord Speaker’s job.

My Lords, I believe that the committee has got the length of speeches correct. On the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, I have been a junior Government Whip, and one day in Grand Committee, I got the advice that I gave to the Committee slightly wrong and was challenged on it by the Opposition Whip. I said, “My Lords, this is a self-regulating House and a self-regulating Committee. If the Committee wants to hear more from the noble Lord, the noble Lord should carry on”, but if you have a Speaker, he has to maintain authority. He has no flexibility.

I have one worry about the proposals. In this House, groupings are voluntary. We do not have our amendments grouped and selected by the Lord Speaker. I worry that noble Lords who are unable to confine themselves to 10 minutes of speaking would have their amendments degrouped to be able to lead the amendment and then have 15 minutes to speak, but I support the noble Lord’s proposals.

My Lords, following on from the noble Earl, the only time I have found it very difficult to keep within the self-restraining ordinance is when there have been very large groups of amendments, which have come through the process of the Government Whips Office or whatever, so I suggest that making sure that we have reasonably tight groups will help us manage ourselves. Unlike the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, I feel it is up to us to manage ourselves when it comes to this process.

My Lords, I rise as a Member without notes. I want to make one point to the Senior Deputy Speaker about this report, which I understand and support. It is not so much about enforcement, mentioned by my noble friend, as about how it is going to be monitored. Will the Procedure and Privileges Committee conduct a review of how it seems to be working out in practice so that if any further amendments need to be made, they can be brought back to the House?

I fully support the recommendation as a member of the Procedure Committee. In my 14 years in the House, I have heard many wonderful speeches from across the House and one or two that have tested the patience of the House. We all have people on our Benches who have done that, I am afraid. I am very much of the view that if we stick to the rules and procedures, it helps the House. I note the point that colleagues have made about going further. I am sure the committee will keep those things under review because this is something that never stops. Things will change and improve. This is a good report that makes welcome changes, and I fully endorse it.

My Lords, I am particularly grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken because the committee spent some considerable time reflecting on this. On enforcement, the point that I would make to the noble Lord, Lord Grocott—I think the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, said it—is that it is for us. If one remembers, there have been brave Peers, not from either Front Bench, who have referred to the Companion. It is a symbol of what we can do in this place to be self-regulating and to have the maturity of self-restraint, so there are good reasons why we should try to help enforce this ourselves for the good order and reputation of the House.

On one detail, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, that I am very mindful of the Lord Speaker. We would be asking the Lord Speaker to be present at all amending stages in this Chamber. That would simply not be possible, obviously. There are wonderful deputies who would therefore have to have that responsibility as well, and I am not convinced that all of us would necessarily want to be put in that position.

We have evolved as a House. We have done many things, and there have been changes. On the point made by the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, of course your Lordships’ committee keeps all these matters under review, because our purpose is to ensure that the House runs as effectively as possible.

On the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, my own view, in the light of my experience of taking the Agriculture Bill through Committee, is that it is quite a tour of duty for some on the Front Bench. It is also a tour of duty for everyone on the Opposition Front Benches and, indeed, many Back-Benchers. My honest view is that with a maximum of 15 minutes for someone moving and winding up an amendment and 10 minutes for a Back-Bench Member, if we really cannot deploy the essence of our arguments in those maximum times, we have not got to the heart of it and we will start to trouble the House. I emphasise that there is nothing in this report that seeks to restrict. There is no word of restriction in this because it was not intended that way: it is meant to help the House.

On the point of reading, made by the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, the Companion is very clear. It can get very stilted. There is nothing worse than hearing a read-out question when the question has already been asked in a different way. It might help if those of us who need to read listen to what has been said before. Our job, again, is to enforce. It is for all of us to seek to help the House.

On the issue raised by the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, about groupings and de-groupings, in the end, as in all these matters, the smooth conduct of business in a self-regulating House requires co-operation and, indeed, restraint. It requires the working together—if that is possible—of the usual channels and Back-Benchers with their own amendments. Clearly, the operation of these proposals is something we will want to undertake. The noble Lord, Lord Fox, mentioned tighter groupings. That is really not within my province, but, as in all these things, the point was given an airing.

This has come before us as a House because the message that I have been receiving from many of your Lordships is that this is an area that they would like your committee to attend to. I think we have done that as responsibly as we could, so, with that, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, for his support. This is very much on that committee, the usual channels and experienced Back-Benchers. I think we have come forward with proposals that, as I said, are helpful. I beg to move.

Motion agreed.