Skip to main content

Business of the House

Volume 820: debated on Thursday 17 March 2022

Motion to Agree

Moved by

That Standing Order 38(1) (Arrangement of the Order Paper) be dispensed with on Tuesday 22 March, Tuesday 29 March, and Tuesday 5 April to enable public bills, measures and delegated legislation to be taken before oral questions on each of those days.

My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Baroness could say a bit more about the Motion before the House. My understanding is that that Motion, which we are not opposing, means that on three Tuesdays the House should sit at 11 am, for long sittings. I point out to your Lordships’ House that the House is now sitting longer and later than at any other time I can recall, either in my time in this place or beforehand.

As an official Opposition, we do not stand in the way of the Government managing their business and getting their business through—but there is a limit to what we can be expected to do. It says in Today’s Lists, “The House may sit late”. The Minister is shaking her head, so I hope she will be able to confirm that that is not the case. Too often this House has been asked to sit far later than is reasonable for good governance and good legislation.

If we are to start at 11 am on those three days, I would like an assurance from the noble Baroness that we will not sit past 10 o’clock. We do not oppose reasonable attempts by the Government to get their business through, but this macho style of government, whereby we have been here until 2 o’clock and 3 o’clock in the morning, and have regularly sat past midnight, is not the best way for us as a House to play our role as effective scrutineers of legislation in the appropriate way. I say that not in a party-political way, but in the interests of this House doing its job properly. Looking at the timings for the Report stage of the Elections Bill, we see that we have already been asked to get that through in three consecutive days. That, too, seems unreasonable to me.

All I would say to the noble Baroness is that although we do not oppose the Motion, we would like an assurance that the House will not be having regular late-night sittings to deal with what is really an overcrowded government timetable.

My Lords, we cannot let this go through without a proper debate, and I strongly support my noble friend Lady Smith on the Front Bench. This is unprecedented. I spent 26 years in the other place and I have been here for more than 16 years now—and I have never seen this happen before. Can the Leader of the House tell us whether it has ever happened before? The Government have totally lost control of their business. Why? What is the reason? The Leader of the House may say that Covid did not help, and it certainly did not, but the real trouble is the confusion at the top of government. There is total confusion about the whole process of legislation, and there are more U-turns than in an Isle of Man TT; it is unbelievable how many there have been.

I also object because the Motion means that we will be meeting every Tuesday morning. Select Committees that we serve on meet on Tuesday mornings, and they will clash with this. It is making a total mockery of business. The Government Whips are always quoting the Companion at us. We saw that yesterday, or the other day, in a despicable way, which I hope that we will hear more about later in our business. We keep having the Companion quoted at us, yet it says that our business should be finished by 10 pm—whereas, as my noble friend Lady Smith said, we have been going right through to the early hours of the morning. Indeed, we went into the early hours yesterday.

Indeed, it was this morning. This is quite disgraceful, and I wait to hear whether the Leader of the House can cite any precedent for it. The Government need to get proper control of their business, so that we do not end up with this kind of ridiculous situation.

My Lords, before the Leader of the House responds, may I ask what account was taken of the impact of these proposals on our staff?

My Lords, just to reinforce what has already been said, may I say that the problem is simple and so is the solution? The problem is that the Government are trying to do too much in one parliamentary year, and it derives from the Queen’s Speech. In the 10 months, or however long it is, since the previous Queen’s Speech, too much legislation has been put into the package.

This is not a great issue; there is plenty of time available in this House for legislation. The Government have been having Thursdays since I do not know when, and we have been sitting early and sitting late. Discussions will now be well advanced on the content of the Government’s legislative programme beginning in May—we do not know, or at least I do not, which day in May—and the Leader of the House should be tackling her Cabinet colleagues and getting them to obtain a grip now. Recognising that the Commons can guillotine legislation, and so can process it much more quickly than we in this House can—that is one of our great strengths—it is a matter of judgment as to how much can be put through during a 12-month period.

As the Leader of the House knows, she has a responsibility not just to her party but to the House as a whole. I would like a reassurance from her that she is tackling her Cabinet colleagues and telling them that they are trying to pile too much into a year for this House. With our much looser timetable for discussing Bills as they go through—that is our strength—unless this is tackled now, we will face exactly the same problem in the next 12 months. This is my specific question: is the noble Baroness tackling her colleagues in the Commons? Is she the only Member of this House in the Cabinet these days? I have lost count. She nods her head. It is particularly important, then, that she take that responsibility, and on behalf of the House, I urge her to do so.

My Lords, before my noble friend replies, may I ask her to reflect on the fact that this is a self-regulating House, and a self-regulating House requires a degree of self-restraint—in the number of amendments tabled, the number degrouped, and the length of the speeches made in pursuit of them?

My Lords, I share the concern about issues of major importance being debated in the middle of the night. Last night the noble Baroness, Lady Sugg, moved a very important amendment. I was not able to speak, because there was not enough time, and we could not get answers about the implications of her proposal, because it was a late amendment. Where we have something fairly major like that, it is important that we do not just debate it in the middle of the night.

I thank noble Lords. May I first say to the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, that I certainly am making those representations and having conversations, and I think the message is getting through, not least because I have to attend Cabinet having had about three hours’ sleep myself? I am making sure that people understand the pressure being put on this House. I assure the noble Lord that I am putting those representations forward, and that I very much hope we will not be in this position next Session.

In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, I apologise: a new Today’s Lists has been published, which says that we will finish around 7 o’clock. I think the hope is that if we are in the middle of a group, we will finish that group, but that that will be around 7 o’clock. Obviously, the Front Benches and the Whips will work together to that end, so I can certainly say that. Noble Lords will also see that a Statement is to be repeated, which is not on the Today’s Lists published first thing this morning, so they may want to check on that.

In relation to starting at 11 am, we did indeed talk to the House authorities because of course we understand. I have passed on to Simon my thanks to the staff for all the work they are doing on our behalf; he has passed them on to the team. We did discuss the timings to make sure that they were doable. There are a few adjustments that the administration will be making to ensure that we are able to deliver the sittings. I am very grateful and I am sure that I speak on behalf of the whole House in thanking the Clerk of the Parliaments and his entire team for everything they are doing to support our workload.

I agree with my noble friend Lord Hodgson on the point he made, and I guess we all need to reflect on that. Of course, when we start at 11 am, we will not be wanting to go on. I cannot—and will not—make a categorical promise because I may break it. I do not want to. But I am very grateful to the usual channels for the engagement we have had in working together, and I know that we all feel the same way and want to work together to make sure that we get through the business we need to, but without putting further undue pressure on noble Lords.

I am grateful to the Leader for her response. I think it is right that she takes this back to Cabinet and makes the point that the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, made in very strong terms. But I do just press her on the point about late nights. It is not just about not finishing late when we start early at 11 am; we are sitting longer and later—far more hours than they do down the other end of the building, as some of us will recall—but on the point that the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, made, when we have important issues, this House is not at its best with just a few Members left to contribute to the debate. The noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, said that we should be briefer, perhaps, and more succinct in some of the comments we make, but it is important that crucial issues are not discussed late at night. Up to 10 pm is in the Companion but beyond that I do not think we are at our best.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Lord Speaker for giving me the opportunity to set the record straight about what happened on Monday night. I endeavoured to make a contribution—your Lordships were denied my pearls of wisdom on the difference between genetic modification and gene editing, but that is for another time—but was discourteously dismissed by the noble Baroness, Lady Bloomfield, on the grounds that, she suggested, I had been asleep during the Minister’s contribution. I said to her that that was not true and in fact what I was doing was listening, as we do, with my ear against the speaker—fortunately, today my hearing aid batteries are now in and I am not reliant on that.

The point I wish to make is this: not only did it cause some damage—passing, I hope—to my reputation but it damaged the reputation of the House unnecessarily, in my view. There are procedures for dealing with this and it should not have been dealt with in that way.

I received what purported to be a letter of apology from the noble Baroness, Lady Bloomfield, and it started with: “Whatever the rights or wrongs”. It seemed to me that that was not really an apology—more of an equivocation, at best—and I do not accept that it was an apology.

I felt that there was an obligation—and I said this to the noble Baroness, Lady Bloomfield, in my reply—to set the record straight in this House, as I am endeavouring to do now, and that she should be here to hear that and, in my view, apologise to the House. That would have been the proper thing to do. She has chosen to be absent and noble Lords can draw what conclusions they like, but I thank all those people, especially those on the opposite Benches—not just them, my comrades as well—who came to me and expressed their concern about the behaviour which they regarded as appalling and discourteous. I thank the Lord Speaker for the opportunity to set the record straight.

Motion agreed.