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Baroness Young: My Lords, when he responds to this short debate, I hope that the Chief Whip will take account of the points made from this side of the House. We are being asked to debate a constitutional Bill of unparalleled importance at a time which is very unusual, to say the least.
I, too, have had responsibility for business in this House. I know full well that when discussions took place they were by agreement. One of the most unfortunate and unpleasant aspects of this matter is that there is no agreement on it. It is a divisive Bill; and the jeers and laughter coming from the government side, if I may say so, are unworthy of them and certainly unworthy of the House. They will not contribute either to good government or clear thinking on a very important matter. I think it is absolutely deplorable that this matter will be debated at the end of the business before the Easter Recess. I take very much to heart the points made about Holy Week, and all those who will be affected, whose personal religious beliefs the House has a right to expect will be respected.
I therefore suggest in the interests of the House as a whole that the Select Committee abide the delay for a little while, and reconsider the issue in the light of the independent expert report on the integrity of the Commission.
Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, on the timing of the Second Reading of the House of Lords Bill, are we not the masters of our own procedure? Is it not possible for me, or any other noble Lord, to move that the matter be taken after Easter? The view of the House is sovereign. The Government do not rule the House; we rule the House.
Earl Ferrers: My Lords, before the Chief Whip replies, will he be kind enough to give more thought to the issue? Having said that they want to do a certain thing, I know that it is always difficult for a Chief Whip or a Government to change their mind. But we are dealing with a serious matter. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich said that he saw a number of members of his congregation in the Chamber and that he expects to see them in church. I happen to be one of the members of his congregation. I suppose that one will be obliged to choose between God and Mammon; and I think on this occasion God might expect me to choose Mammon.
The important point is that this is a highly controversial Bill. It ought to be given the appropriate consideration by your Lordships' House, including the right reverend Prelates. It is a pity, as we have heard from all sides, to bring it on at a time which causes maximum consternation among all members of the different religious faiths. It is a great pity to start the Second Reading in Holy Week. If the noble Lord the Chief Whip could find a way of postponing it, he would achieve harmony, which is the best way of dealing with a controversial Bill.
Lord Carter: My Lords, the question about the Select Committee debate has already been answered by the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff. He said that the timing of the debate was at the specific request of your Lordships and the European Communities Committee. The committee has done valuable service to the House in producing a short report in time for the House to debate the issues in advance of the Heads of Government meeting next week. Fifteen noble Lords have already put down their names to speak in the debate, indicating that many Members welcome the opportunity.
Baroness Carnegy of Lour: My Lords, I apologise for interrupting the Chief Whip. He says he can find no other reason. Does he believe that the right reverend Prelate and all the Members on this side of the House are lying?
Lord Carter: My Lords, I shall come to that in a moment. Perhaps I may say at the outset that as a practising Christian, like many other noble Lords I shall be attending a number of church services during Holy Week on Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday. Those noble Lords who wish to attend the debate and go to church during that week will have plenty of time to do so.
I find it surprising that a particular observance of the Christian Church is being brought into a debate on Lords' reform in this way. So far as I can discover, there has never been any assumption that important and contentious government business should not be taken in the week before Easter. I have pages of examples which I could quote to your Lordships, but I will not. However, there are two which may be directly relevant. In 1996, the Defamation Bill was taken the week before Easter. Your Lordships may recall that the Bill was used to amend the 1689 Bill of Rights to enable Mr. Neil Hamilton to sue the Guardian. That could reasonably be regarded as both contentious and constitutional.
The second example, which is of even greater relevance, concerns the Sunday Trading Bill in 1994. The Committee stage was taken on the Tuesday before Easter with important votes on that day. There was a long debate in which the Archbishop of Canterbury and four other bishops took part, and 16 bishops went through the Division Lobby at the end of the debate. I fail to see why Sunday trading can be debated in Holy Week, but reform of the Lords cannot.
I always do my utmost to be accommodating in the organisation of business when reasonable requests are made. However, I am afraid that, in this instance, the noble Lord the Opposition Chief Whip and I have, it is to be hoped, a rare occasion on which we must agree to differ.
As regards steamrollering the Bill through the House, the steamroller started last October and has rolled for 40 hours. We are obeying the normal intervals for the Bill. In fact, I deliberately chose to make the Business Statement today, which is a day early. It would normally have appeared on the future of business tomorrow. It has been known for some time that it was intended to take the Bill on those two days.
I understand and respect the feelings of those noble Lords who, like me, are practising Christians. I know that the noble Lord the Opposition Chief Whip falls into that category. However, I announced as long ago as 4th February that the Easter Recess would include the week beginning 5th April. The House has thus known for a long time that Holy Week would be a sitting week. There are so many precedents for this House sitting in Holy Week that they are much too numerous to mention.
I have listened to the remarks that have been made and I am not convinced. I know that your Lordships will not like it, but I must say that I regard it as an attempt to delay the progress of the Bill. This is a major Bill of constitutional importance and we are following the normal intervals with a two-day debate. I have already tried to accommodate the House by starting the second day early. I am prepared to start the first day early, if that will help. If noble Lords would like to meet at 11 o'clock on the Monday, I am prepared to consider that. For all those reasons, I believe that we should leave the arrangements--
Lord Pilkington of Oxenford: My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, perhaps I may repeat that I am not mentioning the devotional habits of noble Lords opposite or those on this side of the House. I wish to refer to a constitutional point which I am sorry the noble Lord the Chief Whip did not mention. Twenty-six Bishops have sat in this House since the Reformation. They have a professional duty in Holy Week, which is denied to the Chief Whip or myself--
Lord Pilkington of Oxenford: My Lords, it is. Please listen. It is therefore unfortunate that the Chief Whip did not say why the noble Baroness the Leader of the House did not consult the Archbishop as to why there should not be a substantial number of bishops present to answer. I speak not as a Tory, but as an Anglican who cares for the constitution. I am not in the business of wrecking the Government's business, but I am sorry that the Chief Whip did not mention the point raised by the right reverend Prelate.
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I had no intention of taking part in the debate, but it might be useful for me to make a few comments. I deeply regret the fact that the Government Chief Whip has held up some ridicule on behalf of the Opposition Benches and has accused the Bishops Bench of hypocrisy and double standards--