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Lord Dean of Beswick: My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill do now pass.

Moved, That the Bill do now pass.—(Lord Dean of Beswick.)

On Question, Bill passed.

Child Support Bill

3.11 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of Social Security (Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish): My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now again resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now again resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish.)

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Lord Simon of Glaisdale: My Lords, I apologise for the state of my voice, but I wish to ask the noble Lord how far it is expected to go tonight and how late we are expected to sit.

When your Lordships debated the report of the Group on Sittings of the House we were assured that in the general way, other than exceptionally, we would adjourn at a reasonable hour. On the basis of that assurance your Lordships even consented to sit on a Friday before a bank holiday in order to debate the most important Bill of the year, the Finance Bill.

The other place has now reformed its hours of sitting and adjourns at a reasonable hour. It is quite wrong that your Lordships' House, a second Chamber—and in the way of second Chambers in general more elderly than the first—but, unlike most second Chambers, unsalaried, should be expected to sit until the very late and very early hours.

The issue is particularly important on this Bill because this Bill is designed to correct the egregious errors that were committed in the 1991 Act. It is accepted that in that respect it is an important Bill. On the 1991 Bill we habitually sat very late at night and into the early hours of the morning. Under those circumstances there could be no effective Division on any amendment. It is only up to, say, nine o'clock that it can be expected that there can be a representative selection of Peers in your Lordships' House to listen to a debate.

The 1991 Act was a legislative disaster. There have been unparalleled protests to Members of the other place. Their postbags have never been so full. That was because your Lordships were effectively prevented from amending the 1991 Bill. Practically everything in the present Bill is designed to correct the 1991 Act on lines that were suggested in your Lordships' House in 1991 and brushed aside with contumely.

Last night I asked how late we would sit and was told that we should continue without any time being fixed. In fact, the House did not get as far as planned but sat until after midnight. That is wrong. It prevents your Lordships from playing a proper role in the constitution. It does not treat your Lordships' House as an effective legislative Chamber. By about 10 o'clock the House was empty except for two Peers on the Opposition Front Bench, one on the Liberal Democrat Benches and the Minister and a Whip on the Treasury Bench. For all the good that was done, the debate might have been carried on round a comparatively small table with a secretary to take down what was said.

I ask with all the force at my command what time we are expected to sit until tonight, and I ask again that it should be a reasonable hour.

Earl Russell: My Lords, before the noble and learned Lord sits down perhaps I may say that there were two noble Lords on the Liberal Democrat Front Bench.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter: My Lords, I support very strongly what has been said by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, who more than once in the past has done the House very good service by raising this matter. We want to be told by the Minister not only how late it is intended to sit tonight but also to be given an

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undertaking that we shall not sit very late with the result that there is no proper debate to allow this House to function properly as a debating Chamber.

There is a further point. We have recently had these very late sittings because there has been a lot of work to do. However, with one recent exception, we have not sat on Fridays. If the volume of business is such, then in order that it should be debated properly it is surely right that instead of sitting late on a Thursday or any other night the House should sit on a Friday, during the hours of daylight, and have a proper debate on these important issues.

If it is not thought likely that we shall be able to conclude the business intended to be dealt with today, I urge my noble friend the Minister that we should instead sit in addition on Friday.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby: My Lords, I shall give all my support to my noble and learned friend Lord Simon of Glaisdale. I shall try not to repeat what I said yesterday, but I believe that we must go on protesting at the procedure of this House in Committee on matters of this kind until something is done.

We are not being worthy of our role as Members of your Lordships' House when we conduct our business under the conditions in which it was conducted last night. My noble friends on these Benches are insatiable, incorrigible and almost tireless, but there is a limit to what they can do usefully after midnight, and indeed for many hours before, unless they have other Members of the House with them. I try to help to get the business through at night, up to a certain point. However, I shall protest and continue to protest until we have a system which is more businesslike.

The noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, and my noble and learned friend Lord Simon of Glaisdale said that those who remain in the House are not representative. They would not even be representative of a Standing Committee. They are a backroom group coming to the front. They get nowhere. One has only to look at the proceedings. Never were more amendments moved in a parliamentary Chamber and withdrawn than in this one. What is the point of amendments that are moved, seconded and replied to and then withdrawn? Why cannot we have a procedure by which replies to many of the amendments are given in writing? Those who receive those replies can then decide whether to pursue the matter on the Floor of the House. There are many alternatives and ideas as to how we might conduct our business, but this is not the way.

My noble and learned friend Lord Simon of Glaisdale asks: what time are we going to sit until? Unfortunately the answer does not lie in the hands of the Minister. He would probably be prepared to get the business over and done with and stop at about six o'clock.

What is the other place doing? Has it not debated the Bill? What has it done with the Bill? How is it that so much still remains to be done? What sort of mess are we in? I believe that the Child Support Agency is one of the disasters of this Parliament; and that is saying something. We cannot go on like this. As long as I have a voice at my command, my noble and learned friend will have my support.

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Baroness Seear: My Lords, the most important thing—it has not been stressed—is that it is impossible to have a proper vote late at night when there are so few people around. If you cannot vote at Committee stage, you are reduced to voting at Report stage. That is most unsatisfactory because you can speak only once at Report stage. The voting time is in Committee, but you cannot do so at 12 o'clock at night when there are only about six noble Lords present. When the people are not here to vote, it destroys the whole constitutional process of revising legislation in this Chamber and of having votes.

Lord Palmer: My Lords, as an alternative to sitting on Fridays—there is already a rumour going around the Palace of Westminster that we shall have a Summer Recess of three months—surely a shorter Recess would eliminate the problem of having to sit until midnight.

Lord Monkswell: My Lords, in supporting the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon, in his question, it is worth remembering that it is possible to have Divisions late at night. If there are not enough noble Lords present, the House effectively stops sitting and automatically rises. However, we need to be careful when considering the question. One of the glories of the House of Lords is that we consider virtually all of our business on the Floor of the House where every Member has the chance to contribute. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, mentioned that there seemed to be few people in the Chamber late last night. But I know from personal experience—I was here until the end and I listened to some of the debates from below the Bar, apart from sitting in the Chamber—that a number of other Members were not necessarily in the Chamber but were around the precincts taking note of what was being discussed. It is important that we remember this. It is essential that our business is taken on the Floor of the House wherever possible.

We ought to consider seriously the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, that we sit on Fridays. The other suggestion was that we might not have such a long Summer Recess. That is also a matter that we should consider seriously. However, the idea that we should take business off the Floor of the House should be rejected. One of the terrific strengths of our House is that we consider business on the Floor of the House and everyone has the opportunity to take part if they feel it necessary.

Lord Graham of Edmonton: My Lords, before the Government Chief Whip responds in a way which I am sure will be helpful, as one of the "usual channels", perhaps I may refer to a dilemma that we face when the time to be allocated to a Bill is considered. One acts with the best of intentions. On this occasion my colleagues who lead so splendidly for these Benches agreed, accepted and approved the suggestion that two days for the Committee stage of the Bill would be sensible. In the event, having agreed that two days were sensible, we are very much "in pawn" to what happens thereafter regarding the number of amendments, whether they are able to be grouped, and whether people are prepared to make progress against the background, the desire, that the House should rise at about 10 o'clock. One then comes up against great difficulties. There is no problem regarding rising at about 10 o'clock, provided that there is an

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unlimited amount of parliamentary time. As has clearly been seen on this occasion, when considering the manner in which progress has been made, with a Statement spatchcocked into procedures yesterday afternoon, one could have done with more time.

None of the problems is new; they have all been considered previously. I simply state from these Benches that we recognise the great difficulty of trying to marry the two points. My noble friend Lord Monkswell stated that colleagues in this House fiercely protect their right not only to put down amendments but also—it is unusual in comparison with another place—to insist that each be taken separately. As a consequence, in deciding to run its affairs in that way, the House comes up against the problems that we have in this instance.

We have no objection to meeting on Fridays. However, the problem then is that on matters of this kind there could be votes, and Whips could be applied. Colleagues are stating that the solution is not to sit after 10 o'clock but to sit on Fridays until four o'clock or five o'clock, perhaps having to respond to Whips.

Those difficulties have to be taken into account. I simply say that we on these Benches are party to the arrangements that have been made but recognise the difficulties that have arisen.


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