Motion to Agree
My Lords, the Procedure and Privileges Committee report proposes ending the use of speakers’ lists for Oral Questions and Secretary of State Questions. It may assist the House if I briefly recount the background. Prior to the pandemic, there were no speakers’ lists for Oral Questions. Members who wished to ask a supplementary question stood and began to ask their question. If more than one Member stood, they gave way to each other. If there was a dispute about who should give way, the sense of the House, interpreted by the Leader of the House if necessary, determined which Member should speak.
During the operation of the hybrid House model, speakers’ lists were necessary for all business to manage proceedings; self-regulation was not an option with most of us participating remotely. In July, the Procedure Committee reported proposals to the House about which practices should be retained from the hybrid House model and where we should revert to pre-pandemic ways of working.
It is fair to say that the committee was split when it looked at the matter of speakers’ lists for Oral Questions in July. We decided to consult the House using the voting system on PeerHub to determine the preference of Members. That consultation found a majority in favour of keeping speakers’ lists, so we recommended that to the House and it was agreed on 13 July.
However, we undertook to keep these changes under close review, and in recent weeks it has become clear to us that many Members of the House are increasingly concerned over the effectiveness of Oral Questions. There is a strong sense that removing the element of spontaneity has limited the ability of Members to hold Ministers to account. On some occasions recently, speakers’ lists have not been full by the time they closed, and Members who might have wished to ask a supplementary question in the light of the Minister’s response have been unable to participate. The committee therefore recommends the removal of speakers’ lists for Oral Questions. If the House agrees the Motion, the use of speakers’ lists for Oral Questions will cease with effect from Monday 6 December.
As part of this change, we have considered how the House can continue to benefit from the perspectives of Members who are eligible to participate remotely. We propose that they give notice the day before of their intention to ask a supplementary on a particular Question, as they do currently to join the speakers’ lists. On the day, the normal rotation of supplementary questions between the groups and parties would take place, and at an appropriate point the Leader, on the basis of prior consultation with the usual channels, would stand and indicate that the House might wish to hear from an eligible Member belonging to the party or group whose turn it was.
There would, of course, be no guarantee that eligible Members would be called to ask a question, just as there is no guarantee that a Member physically present will be able to ask a supplementary question in the time allowed. But—and I emphasise “but”—we trust that the sense of the House, assisted by the Leader of the House, will support their continuing full participation.
The committee’s report notes that the conduct of Oral Questions before the pandemic was not immune from criticism. While it ensured spontaneity, it was often voluble and at times fractious. There were also concerns that some Members were discouraged from participating in Question Time as a result. We emphasise —and I underline “emphasise”—that it will be incumbent on all Members to respect the House’s traditions of self-regulation, mutual respect, forbearance and courtesy.
I turn to the amendments to the Motion. At the outset, I outline that all three raise broad issues about the conduct of Oral Questions and the role of the Lord Speaker and Leader—issues that are not addressed in the report before your Lordships. I am, of course, in the hands of the House. I have no mandate from the committee to express a view on the amendments, but I do have a duty to advise on the consequences if any of them is agreed.
The amendment from the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, is incompatible with the recommendations contained in the report. The report recommends the reinstatement of the pre-pandemic procedure for Oral Questions, while the noble Baroness’s amendment would confer upon the Lord Speaker the task of calling on Members. If her amendment were agreed, my Motion as amended would be self-contradictory. I would therefore propose to withdraw my original Motion and invite the Procedure and Privileges Committee to consider urgently the fundamental changes the House had decided to make to the role of the Lord Speaker, the practical implications of such a change and the implications for the House’s tradition of self-regulation.
The amendments from the noble Lords, Lord Rooker and Lord Grocott, express regret but do not conflict with the report, so if either of them were agreed I would then propose to move my Motion as amended. I would, of course, also revert to the committee to explore how the concerns expressed could be addressed.
The amendment from the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, proposes to give the Lord Speaker the power to call Members to speak during Oral Questions. The House has considered the role and powers of the Lord Speaker on a number of occasions, most recently on 13 July this year. On that occasion, the House debated an amendment along very similar lines tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, and rejected it by 376 votes to 112, so the House has only recently voted by a considerable margin to retain self-regulation.
The amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, expresses regret that the power to call Members participating remotely would be vested in the Leader of the House rather than the Lord Speaker. The view of most members of the committee is that this role sits best with the Leader as part of her task of assisting the House during Oral Questions, as stated in the Companion, and that prior consultation in the usual channels will help identify when to bring in remote participants.
The amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, expresses a more general regret about a diminution of the role of the Lord Speaker. I assure your Lordships that the committee is absolutely not seeking any such diminution. The Lord Speaker will continue to preside at Oral Questions and to call the Members with Questions on the Order Paper and all items of business from the Woolsack.
Lastly, I should note that the report contains a short section reflecting on the debate in the House on 25 October—a debate I shall not forget—on moving to pass reader Divisions. I am very grateful to many noble Lords whom I have spoken to since that debate for the very constructive feedback received. The committee will bring revised proposals on pass reader voting to the House in due course. I beg to move.
Amendment to the Motion
My Lords, I rise to speak to my amendment to the committee’s report, which asks that the Lord Speaker be empowered to call speakers at Question Time, following the example of the House of Commons, and for that to happen initially for a trial period of six months.
In introducing this amendment, I should say that that I am a Back-Bench member of the Procedure and Privileges Committee and very pleased to serve on that committee under the chairmanship of the Senior Deputy Speaker. As the Senior Deputy Speaker pointed out, there was a clear majority on the committee for reverting to the old system at Question Time, but it was not unanimous. By speaking to my amendment today, I hope I can indicate that the committee is not a monolith wanting to impose its views on the House but a place with lively debate and with different views reflecting, I hope, the diversity of the House.
I am conscious that the amendment is, as the Senior Deputy Speaker pointed out, similar in its overall objective to one moved in July by the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, whom I see is in his place. It might therefore well be asked why I am travelling down the same route, but although I am a long-standing supporter of the Lord Speaker calling questioners, I know that I, and perhaps many others, voted against the noble Lord’s amendment in July simply because we felt it followed too soon on the electronic vote which had approved the continuation of the list system by a majority of nearly 100. It was a question of timing rather than the principle. I am very glad that the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, is in his place and has indicated some sympathy with the amendment I am speaking to. I also welcome the amendments tabled by my noble friends Lord Grocott and Lord Rooker. They, too, highlight the role of the Lord Speaker in ways which I support.
During the pandemic, the House has had to adapt and change its procedures in various new and experimental ways. The adaptability it showed does great credit to our staff, to whom unstinting gratitude is due, and to Members of the House for responding to the challenges in the way that they did. I feel that this precedent of experimentation helps me, and my amendment, in calling for a six-month trial period and that it is feasible and well worth trying.
I have always been struck by the number of people who disliked our pre-Covid system of Question Time—the “shouty system” as I would call it. I remember, however, during our debate in July, that my noble friend Lady Smith of Basildon said that she winced sometimes when dislike of the system was referred to simply as a women’s issue. I certainly know that many women, myself included, who are not tall in stature and do not have booming voices, find it difficult and off-putting trying to intervene at Question Time. But it is equally true that many male Members of the House also thoroughly disliked the old system, and that number included many senior and experienced parliamentarians. Across the House, many Members simply felt that trying to get in on supplementaries at Question Time was not something they would want to attempt. They particularly disliked having to try to out-shout their colleagues in the same group in the House.
The issue is largely a Back-Bench one but, of course, Question Time is very important for Back-Benchers. When I was on my own party’s Front Bench, I did not find coming in at Question Time a problem. It is the competition between Back-Benchers of the same group that causes shouting and confusion and gives a poor image of a House which otherwise regulates itself very well. Obviously, I welcome the points made in the report, and again in the House by the Senior Deputy Speaker today, about treating each other with respect. I also note the attempts made within the groupings of this House to get the system to work better—by Whips, for example. But similar exhortations in the past have not made much difference and would be less effective than what I am proposing.
Having served as a Member of Parliament in the other place for some 18 years, I felt throughout that time that the conduct of Question Time in terms of who got called worked well. I was never aware of any serious concern about it or desire to change it. Obviously not everyone can get called in on a particular Question, but the system worked fairly for Members in that if you did not get called on a particular occasion, that would be noted and rectified subsequently. I understand how strong the attachment to self-regulation is, but making the specific and narrow change that I am recommending does not open any floodgates leading to abandoning self-regulation, which works well; far from it.
Various objections to what I am proposing have been mentioned to me beside the self-regulation point, but they are unjustified. Some have said that it would put the Speaker in an invidious position in choosing. However, if the long-established approach of the House of Commons is adopted, I cannot see why our Speaker, who has shown that he has the confidence of the House and who serves the House as a whole, could not preside over a system easily as effective as that of the Commons—particularly given the less confrontational atmosphere which prevails in this House.
Some have pointed out that the Lords is more complicated in its membership because of the number of different groupings. However, the differences between the two Houses are much lesser than they were, as the old system in the other place of one governing party and one large opposition party has changed in recent years. The SNP, as we know, is the third largest party in the Commons after the Conservatives and Labour. There are also, of course, Liberal Democrat MPs and a Green MP. People have also mentioned to me the question of the size of our House and the Speaker therefore having to have quite a feat of memory to know who all the Members are. Yet the Commons has more than 600 Members and probably a higher average number of Members wanting to intervene at Question Time than we have, for various reasons. Incidentally, thinking of Members exempt from attending physically and able to participate remotely, my amendment would automatically give effect to the amendment on the Order Paper in the name of my noble friend Lord Rooker, who is asking that the Speaker and not the Leader of the House should call those participating remotely.
I can see that some technical changes might be necessary to make the system I am proposing work to best advantage. For example, it has been pointed out to me that it is not as easy to see Members from the Woolsack as it is from the Speaker’s Chair in the Commons. In the Commons, the clerk can advise the Speaker of the names of Members seeking to intervene. We need to ensure that our Speaker has the support he needs, as well as ensuring that Members—wherever they are seated—can be seen and called. But I cannot believe that it is beyond the wit of the authorities of this House or the members of the Procedure and Privileges Committee, in conjunction with the Speaker, to ensure that these secondary considerations can be satisfactorily resolved, particularly in light of all the changes we have had to make during the pandemic.
A point about timing has also been raised with me. The Procedure and Privileges Committee recommends going back to the old system from the start of next week. I thought this was too soon, although I was in a minority view on the committee. But the recent emergence of the omicron variant and the consequent new health concerns that it brings reinforce my view and make me uneasy about any immediate changes which would encourage more people, not fewer, to crowd into the Chamber. Given the imminence of the Christmas Recess, it would seem sensible to me that the trial experiment I am recommending should not begin until January at the earliest.
I hope that my amendment will command some support. I believe that what I propose will ensure spontaneity, which so many Members of this House value, while allowing participation in a much fairer and more orderly way in the future. I beg to move.
My Lords, I will be brief, but I want to go slightly beyond my amendment on the Order Paper. I agree with much of what my noble friend Lady Quin has just said. I want to go back to the old system, but I did not like it because of the defects that have been put forward. That is what I really want to share.
When my noble friend Lady Amos was Leader of the House, I was her deputy and Question Time was managed. There was self-regulation, but it was managed. I have here every single Order Paper for every day that I helped to manage Question Time, and I have my notes on the bottom of where the questions came from around the House. I have the list of the different parties and groups, so that the House could see we were being fair. But from the Government Bench, you cannot see who is standing up behind you on either side—on the Cross Benches or the government side—so there is a difficulty. As the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, said when we had a debate on this issue in November 2016, there is something wrong with a Minister deciding which Member questions another Minister. There is something fundamentally wrong about that.
I have looked at the issues and taken one example of what the situation was. Question Time was 30 minutes; I assume that we are going to keep it at 40 minutes, but that is not an issue. In the example I have, we had 34 supplementaries in 30 minutes. Yesterday, we had 32 supplementaries in 40 minutes. Unless it is managed, the questions and answers are too long.
I know that the Leader intervened on her brief visit today, but the fact is that while the noble Baroness, Lady Chisholm, is one of my favourite Ministers, there is supposed to be a limit on ministerial Answers of 75 words. Their Bench has to intervene to stop the long question and make sure that, within the government team, you get the short answer. If that is not done, it will become chaos and you end up with fewer questions. The idea is to get more questions to Ministers, not fewer. I can show that we were getting more questions with a partially managed system than we are getting even today.
I will make a couple of other points. I am talking about 2005 to 2007; those were the days when my noble friend Lady Amos was Leader, and I first came here in 2001. It was seen as the duty of the Leader and Deputy Leader to be at Question Time every day, because it is the only way to read the House. If you cannot read the House, you cannot really lead the House. It is pretty fundamental, to be honest, to get a sense of what is happening in the House. Then, because you are there every day, the House will accept it when you intervene to stop somebody speaking if they have gone on too long: they get their question cut in half. You may also have to cut the Minister’s reply or have to decide if it is one person or another. That is a pretty fundamental issue.
We have had some changes, of course, in the last two years. The non-aligned Members, some of whom are my noble friends, and the tiny parties can forget their participation on the scale they have had with listed Questions, because it will not happen, and they had better get used to it. From a proportional point of view, they have been having a much bigger share than what their membership has justified. The House will regulate and decide, but we might as well say this now and not wait till a row afterwards: they will get fewer opportunities in going back to the old system than they had before.
We did an analysis at one time: 50% of supplementary questions were asked by 10% of the Members. Think about it: that is the shouty lot. There were occasions when Members who could rise slowly—they were here but could not get up very quickly—would tip me off before Question Time, saying: “I’d like to get in on that Question, but I can’t stand quick enough.” I used to facilitate that, where it was possible—you could not always do it—because I knew that person could not stand as quickly as everybody else. So that is a factor.
We need someone to manage it, and it has got to be the Leader and Deputy Leader; I do not think it is fair to leave it to the Chief Whip. It really needs to be the same people, so they can read the House each day. It is no good coming in as strangers, because it will not be accepted then when you cut someone off in their prime.
It is not a perfect system. On one occasion, my noble friend Lady Amos said to me at the end of Question Time, “Jeff, you owe that Member an apology, and you’d better do it bloody quick.” I had cut someone off; the question was too long. I found out where that Member’s desk was and, at her blind side, I got on my knees and I said to Baroness Trumpington, “I’m ever so sorry.” She forgave me.
There are some serious issues here, because accountability of Ministers is the key. The more supplementary questions the better, because that is important and it is what we are here for, but the way we had it today was a good example. The questions were far too long, and the answers were twice as long as what they should have been. There has got to be discipline within the Government, and it is down to the Chief Whip, the Leader and the Deputy Leader—I am sad to say that they were both here earlier on, but not now; they ought to be here now to read what the House’s mood is on this. Anyway, I have said my piece.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow my noble friends Lady Quin and Lord Rooker, especially my noble friend Lord Rooker’s trip down memory lane, when he was the Deputy Leader and I was the Chief Whip—those were the days; it was a Rolls-Royce operation then.
My purpose in putting down an amendment was to try to put the role of the Speaker into some sort of context, because these issues are not new. It is 15 years since we had a Lord Speaker first elected. Initially—I know that quite a few Members have come quite recently—we had the bizarre situation whereby the Lord Speaker was not allowed to do anything. In fact, the Lord Speaker would process in in a very important way—the public, or some members of the public, would be able to see that—and then process in here in an important way and sit down in an important way. They would then sit there looking important but doing absolutely nothing. That was the choreography of it all. It was even more absurd than that, because, for a period of years, the Speaker of the House of Lords was the only Member of the House of Lords at Question Time who could not speak. That must be a first by anyone’s standards, but, slowly, things have improved.
I will not give the House all the signposts along the way, but they were tentative steps to begin with. One that came shortly after we introduced the post of Lord Speaker was that the Lord Speaker would announce when someone had retired from the House or if someone had died—there was a Statement. That had always been ignored in the past, but then that was announced by the Lord Speaker. That was a small step but then, a couple of years ago, we made quite a revolutionary step in the speed at which things progress in this House. We handed to the Lord Speaker the role of filling roles that were not done in the House at all previously.
Many Members will remember well that when, for example, a Statement was to be made by a Minister, the Minister would simply turn up, whatever the business was at the time would be interrupted and they would make the Statement. There was no announcement as to what the Statement was about—no punctuation. It must have been completely baffling to anyone sitting in the Gallery as to what we were now talking about. So it was agreed that the Lord Speaker could safely do that without affront to the House.
There was another brand-new idea regarding the introduction of each individual Oral Question. It used to be done by the Clerk at the Table, which was a most bizarre situation if you think about it, but we thought it was normal at the time. Then, I am happy to say, a couple of years ago, it was decided that this role would be transferred to the Lord Speaker. These were regarded as really significant, risky changes at the time, but now we can see that they have been an improvement.
Things move so slowly, but the conclusions I take from our experience of 15 years of the role is that, first, the fears that were expressed and the prophecy at the time that the Lord Speaker in this House would end up like the Speaker in the House of Commons—I would not be surprised if we have the odd person saying that in today’s discussion—have proved to be 100% wrong. The Lord Speaker in this House has nothing like the role of the Speaker in the Commons, and rightly so, in my view. We do not want endless, bogus points of order that the Speaker has to adjudicate on by saying, essentially, that they are bogus points of order—some of us have been guilty of that over the years, I must admit. All I am saying to the House is: please be calm and reassured—the horses have not been frightened. There has been no risk of the Lord Speaker acting and performing like the Speaker in the Commons. It just has not happened.
The other thing that we have learned from the last 15 years is that today’s revolutionary suggestion is tomorrow’s common sense. The two specific examples that I mentioned were to be reviewed after six months, as I recall. Does anybody in this Chamber—please say so in this debate—think that we should go back to the system where the Clerk at the Table and not the Lord Speaker announced each Question and where we did not announce anything when there was to be a Statement made in the House? No one wants to go back to those days. So let us please think about the amendments to the Motion before the House today.
The other lesson that I hope we have learned is on the slow growth, not in the power of the Lord Speaker but—to use the phrase that was used the last time we had a debate on this House—of the Lord Speaker acquiring “signposting” roles. That is not a bad phrase; it does not affect self-regulation in any way. What has happened, however, is that we have slowly moved from being a kind of private, almost unintelligible House to the observer who just happens to switch on or come to the Public Gallery into something much friendlier as far as the public are concerned and much more intelligible. I think those are lessons that we should take from the last 15 months.
I very much hope that we will not do what is proposed. I know that the Senior Deputy Speaker has dealt with this point, but there is a reversion in what is proposed in the committee’s report because, for this period of the pandemic, the Lord Speaker has been in control. He has cued in speakers, especially those acting remotely; to me, that has operated very successfully. However, now it is suggested that that power—it is a new power because we did not have remote participation in the past—should be taken away from the Lord Speaker and given to the Leader of the House. I will say no more about this issue because my noble friend Lord Rooker dealt with it so ably.
Please let us learn, after 15 years of the post, that this really is the common-sense, intelligible system that anyone who has never been to the Lords before would understand. In every other legislative Chamber in the world—indeed, at a darts club’s annual general meeting—the person who processes and sits in that position, in that chair, has some influence over the proceedings of whatever club or organisation they are a member of. I strongly support both the amendments that we have spoken to so far; I very much hope that the House will support them as well.
My Lords, I normally agree with the noble Lord, Lord Grocott. I can see the point that he makes about the role of the chair, but I am completely confused by the amendments from the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, and the noble Lord, Lord Rooker.
The noble Lords, Lord Rooker and Lord Grocott, seem to be arguing about who will take the voices of the House—that is, whether it should be the Leader or the Lord Speaker. I can see that that is a perfectly reasonable argument, but I am not sure how what the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, said—that someone would say, “We are just being like the House of Commons”—is consistent with supporting the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, which would turn this House into the House of Commons. We would all have to stand up at Question Time and the Lord Speaker would have to choose a person. As he will well recall, there would then be arguments, as they have in the other place, about whether people were being treated fairlyThe noble Lord presented it as running like clockwork but, under the previous Speaker—I must be careful not to criticise the conduct in the other place—there was a feeling, in certain parts of the House, that things were not always fair. In order to make things fair, a clerk has to stand by the chair and advise the Speaker, who perhaps is not always entirely sure of who people are—I must say, when I go down to the other place, I look at many of the faces and I am not entirely sure—because he needs to know and to keep a running total to make sure that people are treated equally.
In introducing her amendment, which acknowledges some of the practical problems, such as the fact that one cannot necessarily see the whole of the Chamber from the Woolsack, the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, said that this was not beyond our wit. What are we going to do? Are we to have a ladder for the Lord Speaker to climb up? Are we to raise the Woolsack to accommodate this issue? Are we to have a clerk sitting on the Woolsack and indicating names? Are we to have a whole new bureaucracy created to work out who has spoken so many times?
I realise that I may be on thin ice here because I am probably thought to be part of the shouty brigade. I may be part of that 10%—I confess that—but, if we look at how our proceedings have occurred since we came back, we can see that we have the shouty brigade, as the noble Lord put it, operating when we have Statements or PNQs. I must say, I think that Ministers have been given a much harder time on those occasions. As part of the shouty brigade, under the old scheme, when I came into Questions and listened to a Minister giving a hopeless Answer, I would get up and say, “Could the Minister now answer this Question?” I would listen to someone making an unfair or inaccurate point, then get up and say, “Could the Minister confirm what has just been said?” It makes for a much more dynamic process.
Some of us are more shouty than others, and some of us have more knowledge than others. The difference between these proceedings, where we have to work out two days in advance to be on the list and all that, and the proceedings where we have what we had before, is quite marked. The difference in attendance is also quite marked; the number of people participating is down, and we get a series of questions—“hobbyhorses” would be too strong a word—which are particular to certain Members and prevent wider consideration. One of the differences between this House and the other place is that we are a bit more flexible about rules of order. Ministers can get a question on a general subject and find that suddenly the noble Lord, Lord West, has turned it into a question about the size of the Navy —and I think that is a very great strength.
If we want to change and be radical, along the lines of what the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, suggests, that needs careful consideration. It needs to be thought through carefully. The House authorities, the clerks and our leaders have done a brilliant job in enabling us to operate in these extraordinary circumstances caused by Covid, but we should not forget that the right thing to do is to return to the status quo ante. Then, if there are bright ideas about how we could make changes to the system, they should be considered carefully. But we should not get into a position where we no longer have the Bishops’ Bar, a Question Time that works or the Long Table, because these things were changed as a result of Covid. We should go back to where we were, in my opinion—I suppose that makes me a bit of a conservative. If we want to make changes, we should consider them very carefully.
The two amendments from the noble Lords, Lord Rooker and Lord Grocott, are not wrecking amendments, whereas that of the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, is. It would mean that we could not go back to the old Question Time, which would be a matter of great regret.
If I could defend the Leader from the attacks against her, we should not forget—I notice that Ministers sometimes do—that when Ministers answer from that Dispatch Box they are not answering for their department; they are answering for the Government as a whole. If we had the old system, I would be intervening and saying, “You can’t say this is not your department; you are answering for the Government as a whole”. The Leader of the House is the Leader of the whole House. I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, who said how ridiculous it was that a Minister decides who gets called; a Minister does not decide that—the Leader of the House decides what the will of the House is and, as the Leader, she has a duty to represent the whole House and not just the Government. That is not something we should cast aside lightly.
My Lords, I was incredibly struck by a point the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, made. He said that there is a legitimate choice to be made between whether it is the Leader of the House or the Speaker who makes the choice when there is chaos. I had the privilege to sit on the Woolsack for three and a half years before the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, took over from me and did it a lot better than I did.
The point about not being able to see things is a bit bad; ultimately, you can see what is going on from the Woolsack a lot better than you can from the Government Front Bench. In particular, you cannot see from the Government Front Bench what is going on behind you and on the Cross Benches. It is then very difficult to make judgments about how you resolve the chaos. I go back to my experience of the Leaders of the House when I started here. I am very glad to see the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, who is regarded—and I regard him—as the Buddha of Fairness; every time he said, “Let’s have Lord X”, we would all accept it. With my noble friends Lady Amos and Lord Rooker it was exactly the same.
I have the greatest admiration for the House of Lords; I genuinely like being here, and it is its quality and reasonableness that make us survive. However, watching Question Time from the Woolsack was sometimes absolutely horrible. The sharp elbows of the shouty brigade were persistently out, and if you watched the awfulness on their faces when they did not get in, it was very ugly from time to time.
My own view is that we should continue to be self-regulating, and we definitely need to abolish speakers lists, as the report says. However, I would hand over to the Lord Speaker not the task that my noble friend Lady Quin suggested but the task of getting up when the chaos strikes. When that happens, the Lord Speaker is in the best position to make the judgment. I also agree very strongly with what my noble friend Lord Rooker said. It is jolly odd that the Leader of the House makes a decision about how a Minister is questioned. It would be much better if it was the Lord Speaker. The noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, brilliantly created a spectrum which is not really being suggested. The right thing to say is that when the House generates into an ugly, sharp-elbowed place, let the Lord Speaker resolve, not by decision but only by recommendation, setting out what he or she thinks the will of the House is, and express the will of the House. I would expect the House then to comply with what was suggested.
My Lords, the noble and learned Lord kindly mentioned my name and my time as Leader, but I have nothing but the fondest memories of when he sat on the Woolsack, and indeed when my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern sat on the Woolsack as Lord Chancellor. Nobody thought they were irrelevant and unimportant then, and I do not think that anybody thinks that of the Lord Speaker sitting today.
This debate has descended slightly into farce, although I very much enjoyed what the noble Lord, Lord Rooker said. Surely the point is that we must return to what we had before the pandemic. Let us see how it goes, and then in six or 12 months’ time, if we want to have this debate again—we have had it many times in the past—we can do so. Actually, the system of self-regulation works surprisingly well, and the law of unintended consequences would kick in if we gave that power to the Lord Speaker, as my noble friend Lord Forsyth pointed out.
It also struck me that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, was the first Member of this House to speak who was not formerly a Member of the House of Commons. It also struck me that so many former Members of the House of Commons, excluding my noble friend Lord Forsyth, missed something of the firm smack of authority from the Speaker of the House of Commons. This is a different place—a different House with different customs and different ways of doing things. I am very glad that it is, and I hope that we will support this Motion.
My Lords, I always feel rather nervous when I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, but on this occasion I do. The noble Baroness, Lady Quin, and others mentioned the shouty match. I point out that that occurs only on the Labour and Conservative Benches.
I will explain why. The Liberal Democrats decide among themselves who will come in on each Question. If you are a little woman, you can come in if you know that your party has decreed that you are the person who will come in. We will have one or two speakers for the first and the second Questions, and so on, so we do not have shouty matches on our Benches. Can I recommend to my other colleagues around the House that they do that?
I add that in the balmy days of coalition, when I was a Minister on those Benches answering Questions, we were absolutely held to account. We were supposed to get in at least seven questions in the seven minutes, and when the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, was the Leader, she took us to task. Each week she would count who had not got in the requisite number of questions. Of course, there was nothing we could do if the questioner went wrong, but if we were taking far too long for our answers, by golly, our feet were put to the fire. Not all the newer Ministers realise that noble Lords are far more interested in asking their questions than in listening to the answers.
My Lords, I have never been in the House of Commons, but I have had quite a long time watching it. I am conscious that sometimes in the past, the way in which the ultimate questioner was selected was not the best, but I think that what today we are asked to do by the report is to go back to the way we had before. I am perfectly happy if later on, once we come back to what we have done, we consider whether anything more needs to be changed, but I certainly think that it is not an appropriate time to make a change of this sort when we are just coming back to the old system for the first time.
Another matter that has occurred to me is that we have all been through a very serious experience as a result of the pandemic. Who knows, that may have affected the so-called shouting crowd. I hope we will all learn to stop the shouting and extend courtesy. I believe in the very good advice,
“in honour preferring one another.”
If that system operated, we would not need anybody to pick their number.
I have to say something about the practical issue. With a House of 800 and more, it is quite difficult for anyone, even one with the skill of the present Lord Speaker, to know everybody. This business of the people who want to shout getting going is urgent, and unless you know everybody who is here, you cannot select who is the fair one to call. My strong view is that we should not change anything, except go back to where we were before, until we have had a chance to see whether the shouting mob, if that is what we call them, have changed their behaviour and been chastened by the experience we have had.
I venture to think that many of us will not wish to be involved in the shouting mechanism. I have never taken part in that—shouting is not, on the whole, my way of life—but I think there is a very good chance that people will realise that we have got back, wonderfully, to what we were before and that now we will show it to be the best possible way.
My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, but I cannot help but reflect for a moment on the self-regulation of the Liberal Democrats, which is obviously the firm smack that was referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. By the way, you have to have gone to the right school to really appreciate the firm smack. I just wish the Liberal Democrats would carry it a little further into how long their Members speak, particularly when asking questions.
I say to my noble friend Lord Grocott that I really appreciated his anecdote about the early days of the Lord Speakership and the ceremonial of moving to the Woolsack and having very little else to do. It reminded me of one or two Permanent Secretaries who hoped that their Ministers would adhere to the same strictures, and too often they did. On this really serious issue, of course there is a fine line concerning the dynamic that existed under the old system. By the way, when we came back we voted on retaining the list and people putting their names in shortly in advance—not that long in advance, but shortly in advance—of the Question being taken. We voted on that, and what we are being asked to do this afternoon is to reverse something, not necessarily to go back immediately to something that already existed.
We need to reflect carefully on why the dynamic is not there. Why are not so many questions being put? It is partly because fewer people are participating in this House. The number voting is a good indication of those who are on the premises, and it has dropped quite dramatically since we came back to fully sitting sessions. The idea that, simply by going back to a free-for- all—for that is what it is, a managed free-for-all—we will suddenly have an influx of noble Members coming back to the House is delusional. We need to address issues for the future, not for the past. Is it sensible to have some rational order in which the Lord Speaker plays a significant and important part in ensuring that the world outside sees us as we wish to be seen?
I have never had any problem getting in. It is partly that I have a loud voice and partly that people are extremely thoughtful, because they realise that I do not understand who I am upsetting when I intervene, including on my own Benches. It is also partly that Members opposite appreciate just how much I understand the dilemmas of their Ministers in having to answer for government policy; that sympathy remains. Even if I could see, from this juncture or place in the House would I be able to see whether others around are seeking to get in and would I have the sensitivity to deal with that? What is so good about barging your way in, having a loud voice and intervening on the spur of the moment because somebody has upset you, rather than putting your name in because you have a serious interest in a Question? We are not dealing with that now, because it is being ruled out by the committee.
The amendment from my noble friend Lady Quin is a rational, temporary compromise to see how it would work, and I think we should give it a go. It is a compromise between a return to a complete free-for-all and continuing with the system we voted for a few months ago. Let us try not always to revert to whichever part of the past we favour, but to move forward to the future.
My Lords, the problem at the moment is that there is no spontaneity at all. The function of the Lord Speaker is to read out a list of names, which he has been given and over which he has no influence at all. What then happens is as we saw this afternoon: people get up and read questions, which should not be allowed in your Lordships’ House, at inordinate length and we cannot get everybody in, as we could not this afternoon. As I say, there is no spontaneity at all. I believe that the system we are being asked to go back to is very sensible.
Many is the time that one would come into the Chamber, hear a Minister say something completely unsatisfactory and feel that we want to hold his feet to the fire. That does not happen at the moment, because the Minister, whoever he or she is, can get away with parliamentary murder. That is wrong. Over the last few weeks, we have seen a contrast between the system to which we are being asked to go back and this contrived, unspontaneous, boring system.
We have had Urgent Questions, Private Notice Questions and Statements. I have not heard much shoutiness in any of those. We had a very good example with the Question from the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, on International AIDS Day today. Everybody who wanted to get in got in and it flowed well. The people who got in were able to refer to things that others had said. They were not getting up with a pre-prepared text.
It is very important that Question Time in your Lordships’ House is spontaneous. I spent 40 years in the other place and I much enjoyed it, but I greatly value the self-regulation of your Lordships’ House. I have not found it inhibiting or particularly difficult, and I have been able to say things that I perhaps would not have thought of saying because I was provoked by either a very good spontaneous question from another or a wholly unsatisfactory answer from the Minister.
I believe we should give the committee our full support. As my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern said a few moments ago, we can always go back to this. We are a self-regulating House, and if we decide in future to regulate ourselves differently, that is up to us, but let us accept the report, endorse its recommendations and go back next Monday to a spontaneous Question Time.
My Lords, on the spontaneity, we are being asked to do a U-turn, of which I am broadly in favour, but the point made by the tablers of the amendments could also be taken into consideration. It was not the case, as the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, might feel was obvious to everybody, that there was no need for the change made two years ago. It was not made lightly; it was made because the shouting match was a major problem. Is it not possible to tweak what is being proposed? A six-month trial period has a lot of merit to it. We can have the spontaneity as long as we deal with the shouting match.
My Lords, we have had a very interesting consideration by many noble Lords with very strong experiences of the development of the House.
I must be one of the few Ministers who, when I was a Minister, actively enjoyed Question Time, because the House was at its most electric and boisterous, but civilised. That is the really important point that I take from many of the comments made by noble Lords concerned about the committee’s very clear majority view in its consideration of how Question Time flourishes, not just for noble Lords but for the discourse we should have. I remember looking at the newspaper and thinking, “This is going to come up today”, so I always read the papers before Question Time. Indeed, if I had a fishing Question I always knew that the noble Lord, Lord West, would be there, so I had the statistics on the number of vessels at our disposal. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, that I endeavoured to be Lady Trumpington’s Whip. All I can say is that one of the things I remember, and which I put to myself, was the sense and mood of the House.
We have something here that we all cherish, which is the ability for us all to make a contribution. We all come here with a voice. One of the things that we all desperately need, with which I agree and if the House agrees with the committee’s report, is to see how it can be taken more actively on board that noble Lords who have a contribution to make, and for whom the sense of the House is that they should be heard, can be heard.
I pick up the point about Lady Trumpington. There was always a shout of “Trumps!” because she had something to say that was of interest and often of humour. That blend of a civilised Question Time, whereby Members are able to ensure that Ministers give a good account of themselves, their departments and Her Majesty’s Government, is really what the committee was seeking in bringing back this proposal. I am, as I say, the servant of the House and whatever it decides I will do my utmost to facilitate. But there are some lessons that I take back from this.
I also want to say to the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, which relates to my feeling the sense of the House, that he may think that he has a loud voice but my view is that he is able to ask questions and the House actively wants to hear from him. Given that sense of when a noble Lord has something important to say, the House should actively encourage hearing it because that is how we get the dynamic that is so important.
I should quickly say to the noble Baroness, Lady Quin —I think she understands this—that if her amendment were agreed, I would have to withdraw the report that the committee has brought before your Lordships because it and her amendment are contradictory. One cannot have a report seeking self-regulation but come back to a situation, if the House were to agree with her amendment, where regulation should come from the Lord Speaker and the Woolsack. I should say to the House that that would be my response, only because the committee would have to give urgent consideration to how such a view might be expressed if the noble Baroness were to press her amendment and be successful. We would need to address considerable issues of procedure and the practical implications.
I hope, however, that noble Lords will understand that all of us on the committee—indeed, the clear majority as well as those who did not share our view—have gone about our endeavour with the best intent, which is to enable noble Lords to flourish and for Question Time to flow with electricity. I was mindful of that and thought that the PNQ on HIV/AIDS was a perfect example of every noble Lord getting in and giving their experience and understanding to the House. That was also pertinent. I am obviously in the hands of the House but, for those reasons and in seeking to reply to the opinions expressed, all of which I respect, I hope that the House will understand the reasons why the committee came back with the report that it has.
My Lords, I am grateful to all those who have spoken in this debate, particularly those who said words in support of my amendment. I am also grateful to those who, although they did not agree with the amendment, at least conceded that if we revert to the old system it will be possible to reconsider how it works in practice after an interval of, say, a few months. I hope that the Senior Deputy Speaker and the committee will be responsive to the fact that there were many criticisms of the old system—criticisms that still exist. Perhaps if we accept the committee’s report, we can revisit that issue within a fairly short time, particularly if it does not seem to be working satisfactorily, as I suspect it will not. I may be proved wrong and I would be quite happy to be proved wrong if suddenly Question Time allows in all those who are trying to get in rather than just a few.
Having said that, and being conscious of the fact that we can come back to this decision, I sense the weight of opinion in the House. There is also the fact that the only people who can vote are those present on the estate. When we previously voted on the system, it was a full electronic vote. Given all those considerations and the tenor of the debate, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment to the Motion withdrawn.
Amendment to the Motion
Amendment to the Motion not moved.
Amendment to the Motion
Amendment to the Motion not moved.