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Procedure Committee

Volume 787: debated on Monday 18 December 2017

Motion to Agree

Moved by

That the 2nd Report from the Select Committee Revisions of Private Business Standing Orders (HL Paper 34), and the proposed changes to those Standing Orders, be agreed to.

My Lords, the report proposes amendments to the private business Standing Orders. Most of them are the product of the first stage of the review of hybrid Bill petitioning procedure, which my predecessor the noble Lord, Lord Laming, commissioned in 2016 together with the Chairman of Ways and Means in the House of Commons. They are intended to remedy a number of issues which came to light during the passage of the High Speed Rail (London-West Midlands) Bill by modernising and clarifying some of the procedures for petitioning against a private or hybrid Bill, and by enabling a Select Committee charged with considering petitions against a Bill to group petitions. A small number of changes not arising from the review are also proposed. These are also intended to modernise procedures relating to private and hybrid Bills. Noble Lords may also wish to know that amendments with similar effect to those set out in this report were agreed by the House of Commons on Tuesday 7 November. The details of the changes proposed are set out in full in the report. I hope that noble Lords will support these amendments, and I beg to move.

My Lords, I draw attention to the fact that I currently live near the agreed line of HS2 as it tunnels through part of the Chilterns and that I was a petitioner during consideration of the HS2 Bill in the House.

We owe a great debt of gratitude to those of our number who serve on Select Committees for hybrid Bills. I observed a number of sittings of the recent HS2 Bill and read all the transcripts of it. They did a heroic job. It is fair to say that they were heavily constrained by the Standing Orders in place at that time. I am very pleased that the House authorities have carried out a review of the Standing Orders currently used for hybrid Bills, and I support the changes recommended to the House this afternoon. I agree with all the points made by the Senior Deputy Speaker.

When a Select Committee of Parliament considers a hybrid Bill, it has an unusually direct engagement with thousands of individuals and organisations through the petitioning process. In that part of the hybrid Bill, Parliament is in effect acting as a planning authority for projects, with all that that implies. Since major infrastructure projects can have a devastating effect on individuals and businesses directly affected by them, it is very important for our reputation and for the trust that is placed in all of us that both Houses of Parliament do the best we can to allow those who wish to make representations to us to do so as simply and efficiently as possible. The changes in Standing Orders before us today try to make sure that the system and processes used for petitioning, whether in writing or in person, are not phrased, as they are at present, in archaic language or bedevilled by jargon and procedures from an earlier age. These procedures currently dissuade or even prevent people from participating to the full, and I therefore support the changes.

The decision to go ahead with this group of changes, which have, as has been noted, been agreed already in the other place, will of course greatly improve our procedures in relation to the next HS2 hybrid Bill, which is imminent. But there will be other Bills before too long and the papers before us represent merely the low-hanging fruit of the changes that might be required. I would be grateful if the House would consider at the appropriate time that other issues should be addressed. There should be separate Standing Orders for hybrid Bills that properly reflect 21st-century language, and they should be separate from those other Bills that currently share their procedures with us. Using and adapting the procedures set out for other Bills leaves far too many uncertainties and does not take the trick.

It is important that the House clarifies that, as with other Bills, the two Houses have co-equal powers in respect of hybrid Bills. The systems employed in hybrid Bills must be such that the public interest in the proposal is properly tested and Parliament must insist that there is full transparency. The systems must be permissive enough to allow those materially affected to be heard if they wish and to be represented and the physical conditions of these meetings must be greatly improved. Do they have to be held in Parliament?

It should be possible for a Select Committee to require issues to be grouped and marshalled and more can be done to deal with their outlier issues through correspondence. Where a compromise position is identified between the promoter and petitioner, much more effort and resources should be devoted to getting these dealt with properly and for them to be formally registered and agreed. I look forward to progress on these issues in the months ahead and I fully support the present arrangements.

My Lords, I have been known in the past to express some concerns about this issue and, on this occasion, I want to make it absolutely clear that the Senior Deputy Speaker should be commended for the work that he has done. It has been a long and detailed exercise carried out with great expertise and diplomacy. He derves our thanks.

My second point is in relation to committees. The more ignorant observers of this House seem to think that getting up, asking questions and making speeches in this place, as I tend to do from time to time, is the only important work that this House carries out. That is as far from the truth as one can get. This House carries out a huge amount of detailed, painstaking and important work in committees. Incidentally, I tried to get the producer of the three documentaries on the Lords to film some of them. I was told that it was too boring. It may be boring, but it is very important—some of it is not boring, by the way.

We should try to get this message over, especially on these Bills. My noble friend Lord Elder and others served on the high-speed rail Bill. He spent hours, days and weeks on it for almost no public recognition or, even more importantly, awareness of what he was doing. We need to take every opportunity—I know the Senior Deputy Speaker and the Lord Speaker will do this—to shout from the rafters and explain, when we go to schools and other institutions, that a great deal of work by this House is done outside this Chamber and is not fully recognised.

My Lords, my noble friends have made some very interesting comments on this report. I join in congratulating the Senior Deputy Speaker on what he has achieved. One other thing we possibly ought to look at, given the fact that there may be two or three more hybrid Bills coming on HS2 and maybe other projects in future, is whether in certain circumstances there should be Joint Committees of both Houses, which would save quite a lot of reading time for MPs and your Lordships. More radically, we should consider using the same procedure used for building motorways these days through the Infrastructure Planning Commission—I think it is called that—and build railways that way. Railways are built with hybrid Bills for historical reasons—there were no motorways when the railways started and everything had to go through both Houses. It is a bit ironical that a motorway can be built using one procedure and a railway can be built using another. Maybe it is time to start looking at them both to see whether there are benefits in doing them all one way or the other.

My Lords, I take the opportunity to very strongly reinforce the words of the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, who put very clearly the point that there are a vacuous and ignorant few outside the House for whom the only measure of activity is what goes on in and is spoken in this Chamber. The noble Lord is entirely right. A vast amount of work goes on not merely in parliamentary and sessional committees but in all-party groups and less formal groups connected to the outside, such as charities. This aspect of what the House of Lords does has so far not reached most of the media. It is time that we reinforce this message powerfully to get over the truth of what we really do.

I thank noble Lords for their comments on the report. I welcome the warm words of support from the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, for the changes to the private business Standing Orders being considered. He has been vigilant in ensuring that the work that the Chairman of Ways and Means in the House of Commons and I do is scrutinised. We have had many meetings on that. I look forward to many more as we take this through because, as he mentioned, this is low-hanging fruit.

The noble Lord has taken a keen interest in HS2 legislation and the hybrid Bill procedure more generally. He has first-hand experience of the procedure. I know that the House officials involved in the hybrid Bill review have been grateful for those insightful contributions to their work. As he rightly said, there is a great deal of further work to do on the low-hanging fruit. During 2018 this further work will be undertaken in conjunction with the House of Commons with a view to developing clearer and more modern Standing Orders applicable to private and hybrid Bills.

The noble Lord has identified a number of examples of what needs to be done. I have a great deal of sympathy with many of them. However, one that he mentioned that could be more problematic is the one about the House clarifying that, as with other Bills, the two Houses have co-equal powers in respect of hybrid Bills. That is because the House of Commons has to agree to any changes that the House of Lords wishes to make in additional provisions or whatever, as he said. I assure him that, while the mountain may be quite high, I will take up that issue with the Chairman of Ways and Means. I will ensure that each of the points that he has raised will be addressed in the forthcoming review stages. Either I will report back to him personally or my officials will do so.

The comments from the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, were very important—and very welcome. The Select Committee and scrutiny work done by the House of Lords is really important—we undersell ourselves in that area. For example, by the end of this week, the EU committees in the House of Lords will have produced 28 reports. The House of Commons has produced two or three. I know that the environment is different there, but the big issues being discussed at the moment in Brussels—for example, the Irish border—were identified very early on in this House in the summer. Joint press conferences were given by the noble Lord, Lord Jay, in Dublin and the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, in London when that report was produced. The relevance of that report is very much alive, but the House of Lords undertook it a long time ago.

The noble Lord, Lord Patel, is coming to see me in relation to the Science and Technology Committee. It has the greatest number of followers on Twitter— some 60,000. He wants to enhance the footprint of the committee. That, too, will be very important in terms of Brexit. I do not know whether the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, is in her place, but she produced a simple and easy-to-read ad hoc report on financial exclusion. She has come to me and said, “Look, Michael Sheen, the actor, is quite interested in this. Can we invite him into the House so that we can discuss this issue of financial exclusion?”. We do not sell ourselves enough in areas such as that. One of my tasks is to ensure that we do.

The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, mentioned committees and speaking to groups. On behalf of the Liaison Committee, I am undertaking the first review of committees for 25 years. I have been around the groups—my last meeting this week will be with the Liberal Democrat group. I hope that there will be a call for evidence on that in the new year. We will look at issues such as Joint Committees. That issue will not be off the agenda. The point made by the noble Lord, Lord Howell, reinforced those made before. As chair of the International Relations Committee, he oversaw the report on the Middle East. I know how influential that report was, but we need more resonance.

Can the Senior Deputy Speaker confirm that the way in which committees are appointed will also be subject to some examination?

I do not think that I am breaking any confidence in telling the House that the noble Lord has both written to me on this issue and come in through the door of my office to discuss it. I therefore cannot deny that that will be on the agenda.

With the enlarged footprint of our debate today, I commend the Motion.

Motion agreed.