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Procedure Committee

Volume 797: debated on Tuesday 21 May 2019

Motion to Agree

Moved by

That the 6th Report from the Select Committee Role of the Lord Speaker and Deputy Speakers; PNQ deadlines on morning sittings; Clocks in the Chamber and Grand Committee; Explanatory statements to amendments; Dinner and lunch break business; Oral question tabling time on Thursdays; and Procedural changes resulting from the extended parliamentary session (HL Paper 353) be agreed to.

My Lords, the report covers seven areas. The first concerns the role of the Lord Speaker and Deputy Speakers. We are recommending that the Lord Speaker and his deputies take on two signposting roles: first, calling the business on the Order Paper currently called by the clerks at the Table, for example, Oral Questions, stages of Bills, secondary legislation and debates; and secondly, calling business not on the Order Paper and not currently called by anybody, for example, Private Notice Questions, Statements and Commons Urgent Question repeats.

Calling business not on the Order Paper will help make our proceedings more comprehensible to those watching on television, online or from the Galleries. It will put an end to the potential confusion over why business is sometimes interrupted with no warning by another piece of business. Giving the Lord Speaker and his deputies the role of calling business that is on the Order Paper also has several advantages. First, the occupants of the Woolsack are in a better position to see everyone in the Chamber and, secondly, it is less likely that Members will try to ignore or override the Lord Speaker.

The committee was keen to emphasise that these recommendations respect self-regulation. They are a small but helpful step in making our proceedings easier to understand. They will be subject to review in six sitting months.

The second section of our report recommends that the deadline for submitting Private Notice Questions be moved forward by 30 minutes to 9.30 am on days when the House is sitting in the morning. This will allow time to commission briefings before the House sits.

The third section of the report relates to the clocks in the Chamber and in Grand Committee. We believe that more should be done to help Members of the House stick to time limits. Therefore, the new clocks will display seconds and will change colour and flash when speaking—

In case noble Lords did not get that, I repeat: the new clocks will flash when speaking time limits, both formal and advisory, are reached.

The fourth section of the report recommends that the trial of attaching explanatory statements to amendments should be rolled out to all Bills from the start of the next Session. We hope this will be welcome news to the many Members and others who gave positive feedback about the trial.

The fifth section relates to dinner and lunch break business. The current rules do not allow the flexibility for dinner or lunch break business to be taken around the time intended every day. These recommendations allow the House to take the business at the time expected notwithstanding the progress of other business.

The sixth section relates to Oral Question tabling time on days when the House sits in the morning, and recommends that the deadline for tabling Oral Questions on such days should be moved from 2 pm to 10.30 am. Priority will continue to be given to those who attend in person, as on other days.

The final section of our report relates to procedural changes resulting from the extended parliamentary Session. Now that the Session looks likely to extend beyond two years, we recommend that the limits per Member on the number of Oral Questions, balloted topical Oral Questions, balloted debates and topical Questions for Short Debate should be reset on 1 June, and that the usual arrangements for Thursday debates should run from the first sitting Thursday in June to the end of the current Session. I beg to move.

My Lords, I am one of those who strongly welcome what has been said on the powers of the Lord Speaker. It is two years since we had a debate on precisely this subject; 12 people spoke in that debate and 10, in one way or another, said that it was important to enhance the role of the Lord Speaker in the operation of the procedures in this Chamber. As the Senior Deputy Speaker has already said, the main reason most people advanced this was that it is bizarre to anyone sitting in the Gallery to see a stately procession with presumably quite an important figure walking into the Chamber each day, arriving on the Woolsack and then—unless someone has died or left the House—proceeding to do absolutely nothing other than look decorative. Added to this, there is the situation, which seems absurd to me, in which in a Chamber of 800 Members, the only Member not allowed to speak during Question Time is the Speaker.

It is much to be welcomed that there has been movement in the right direction, but those who spoke in that debate had two main recommendations. First, there were the procedures recommended in today’s Procedure Committee report about common-sense things such as announcing when a Statement is coming—that occurs pretty much randomly as far as anyone observing our proceedings is concerned. The other very important area, which I fear is not included in the report, is the potential development of the responsibilities of the Lord Speaker to include exercising light-touch control at Question Time.

Whatever we say about self-regulation, by custom and practice, this is currently exercised by the Government Front Bench, which is an absurd position from which to direct the Chamber. I thought the noble Lord, Lord McFall, gave this point away when he said that the reason these changes are being made is that the Lord Speaker is in a better position to see what is going on in the Chamber. Exactly the same argument applies if you are talking about the Lord Speaker exercising light control—we are not looking for a Stalinist Speaker and I think we are unlikely to get one—so that we avoid a situation in which the person currently exercising control has half of the audience sitting behind him. That is a peculiar way in which to operate; I challenge anyone to show me an assembly anywhere in the world where that happens.

This is a glass half full as far as I am concerned, and I think many others in this House share that view. It is right that we have a review in six months. I am absolutely confident and will make a bold prediction—the only one I dare make in the current political climate—that when the six months are up, no one will want to revert to the previous system. At that time, I will propose—or if I do not, I am sure someone else will—that the House extends the role of the Speaker, very gently, to take over the responsibilities currently carried out by the Government Front Bench. With that proviso, I strongly support the proposals on the powers of the Speaker.

My Lords, to come back on the remarks from the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, I hope we have learned a few lessons from the other place. It is possible to hear much too much from the Speaker, as well as too little.

My Lords, I reinforce the second point made by my noble friend Lord Grocott. On 4 April, the Government Front Bench in this House went on strike, in so far as it abandoned the so-called light-touch control at Question Time and during debates—quite deliberately. The body language of the Whips was such that they disappeared completely. The Front Bench allowed Members to speak beyond the time limits and go way beyond the subjects that we were debating. It was on the day of Yvette Cooper’s Bill. I formally complained to the Procedure Committee because nominally I was the Member in charge of the Bill. All I said was that, on days when the Government decide to abdicate their responsibility to keep good order, they should indicate as such so that the Chair can carry out those responsibilities.

I had that responsibility for two years, when my noble friend Lady Amos was Leader of the House. Upstairs, I have a copy of every single day’s Order Paper. I monitored how the speeches and questions were going around the House, to see fair play operating. Sometimes I upset people, because I had to intervene. These days, nobody intervenes; we might go a fortnight before anybody from the Front Bench intervenes. This allows chaos and allows the bullies in this place to dominate Question Time. That needs to be attended to but it is not attended to in this report. We still have a situation in which 80%, or whatever it is, of the Questions are asked by 50% of the Members, simply because of the bullying. Giving the role of seeing fair play to the Speaker, or someone in the Chair, will encourage a greater diversity of Members to intervene at Question Time. Sadly, that is what is missing. However, this report is a very good thin end of the wedge; it is a wedge I intend to hit very hard.

My Lords, I endorse the views of the noble Lords, Lord Rooker and Lord Grocott, because in addition to the practical points they have made there is a constitutional issue. It is absurd, in a House that holds the Executive and the Government to account, that a member of the Government decides who should do so. In addition to the problems already referred to, someone on the Government Front Bench cannot see who is standing behind him or her—that was illustrated again just a few minutes ago. But that is not the major issue, which is that our responsibility in Parliament is to hold the Executive to account. Who should decide who should do that? Surely it should be the totally independent Lord Speaker, not a member of the Government.

My Lords, I welcome this modest change. I support what my noble friends Lord Grocott and Lord Rooker, and the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, said but, on a lighter note, and on the Senior Deputy Speaker’s third point, I have never been in favour of flashing. I would like to know how I am going to tell whether the clock is flashing. I hope it will be possible for whoever is on the Woolsack not just to introduce Statements and Private Notice Questions, but to give a gentle indication at the end of them when time is up, which will help some of us to be a little more professional in how we deliver ourselves.

My Lords, I thank the committee for its work. I support the recommendations before the House, but I strongly support what previous speakers said about the Chair’s role. Of course, that applies not just to the Lord Speaker but to all the others who take that position. Therefore a lot of people will quite rightly be involved.

Since I have been here I have found two things most difficult to cope with. The first is the squealing match that goes on every day when people are trying to be called to speak, which is a very undignified business. What people think about it when they look in I do not know. Today was relatively modest, with only a couple of incidents, but on some occasions it is much more brutal. It is very undignified and inefficient. The Chair could, at the very least, identify the group from which the speaker should come, even if we do not go the whole hog and identify the Member, as they do in the other place. As the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, said, physically in the Chamber a third of the House is behind the clerks and half is behind the Front Bench. Obviously the current approach does not make sense.

The other thing I would like the committee to look at if it has not already done so is how Oral Questions are identified. We have a situation where people have to sit for hours outside the Table Office. If we were to accumulate the number of person hours per annum wasted sitting there to table a Question, it would be most off-putting to a lot of Members. We would get a greater number of Members tabling Questions if we were to look at that. Personally, I would eliminate it and have ballots for all Questions, but if we were to take it in stages we could encourage more Members to participate in Oral Questions. Not everybody is prepared to sit twiddling their thumbs for an hour or an hour and a half outside the Table Office to table an Oral Question. We should look at those two items. Nevertheless, I welcome the report as far as it goes and fully support it.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a Deputy Speaker. I have been a Member of your Lordships’ House for nearly 44 years and I have seen a lot of changes. I remind noble Lords who want more power for the Speaker that, apart from this, we are a self-regulating Chamber. It is up to us to discipline ourselves in the length of our questions and our answers—incidentally, this includes Ministers—to speak to the time allotted and not go beyond it, and just to behave properly like good, civilised human beings.

My Lords, I have the greatest respect for the noble Countess and she is absolutely right to encourage people to have self-discipline. But the truth, as the noble Lords, Lord Grocott and Lord Tyler, said, is that we do not have self-discipline or self-regulation at Question Time. We actually have regulation by the Government Front Bench and while I cast no aspersions, as I know the Government take great care to do that in as equitable a fashion as they can, I believe it is wrong in principle that the Executive should choose who speaks in the legislature.

I should have declared a past interest, although I have to say that the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, never accused me of looking decorative on the Woolsack, so I am slightly concerned about that. The House’s view of self-regulation and its anxiety about the role of the Speaker has changed dramatically in the experience of three Lord Speakers. I hope the House would now feel that it was possible to create a greater role for the Lord Speaker without invoking—this was always in inverted commas—a “Commons-type Speaker” in this House. I believe we are perfectly capable of creating the light-touch Speakership that has been referred to, and I hope the Procedure Committee will look at that in the near future.

My Lords, I thank the eight Members for their contributions and for the welcome that the report has had. I am very much aware of the aspirations of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, and I am sure we will have further positive meetings on this issue. Whether the glass is half full or not, this is a modest step forward. Its aim was to ensure that we maintain the self-regulation of the House but also enhance the public’s understanding by communicating what the House does, so that people looking in can understand what we are doing as a result. Perhaps the noble Lord’s comment on the Lord Speaker will ensure that he goes back home with a spring in his step tonight, as a result of being decorative.

I would mention to the noble Lord, Lord Hamilton, that I think we would all agree that the Speakers in both Houses are entirely different personalities. We have our own, very welcome, brand of Speaker here.

The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, wrote me a letter which came too late to discuss it at the last Procedure Committee meeting, which led to this report. But at the committee’s next meeting it will be on the agenda. I know he wishes the Lord Speaker to be the custodian of the Companion, so there is no doubt where he is coming from on that.

Given his comment, I will certainly meet the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, before we take this issue forward. The clocks will start flashing in mid-June but the time for having the new procedure will be in July. That gives us a couple of weeks to test it so that on the first day of July, when it is in operation, we are certain that it will work. I thank noble Lords for their contributions and we will continue this discussion.

Motion agreed.