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I support the amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Morris of Castle Morris. I suggest that the mechanical problems could be overcome by having two egg-timers or hourglasses, one timing three minutes and one timing five minutes.
I turn briefly to the report of the cross-party committee I chaired. I begin by stating that it was an enjoyable experience. I express thanks particularly to the other members of the rather disparate group that we were and to the many noble Lords who wrote to us. I thank especially our Clerk, Andrew Makower, who managed to make sense of our sometimes rather disjointed discussions.
The main thrust of our report is to underpin the existing procedures, courtesies and practices of this House which give us our unique style and authority. I hope your Lordships find our report a useful summary of the most important procedures and courtesies and consider that it makes sensible recommendations about administrative procedures.
I am delighted that the Procedure Committee has felt able to accept about two-thirds of our recommendations, especially those on the timing and grouping of amendments which I am sure will be of assistance to us all. I am, however, personally disappointed that the recommendation with regard to a Victorian tradition, much practised in the other place--I refer to the habit of Front Benchers placing their feet on the Clerks' Table--was not accepted and that that practice is to be allowed to continue.
Finally, we made a number of recommendations about introductory courses for new Peers which the Select Committee did not really have the time to discuss in detail. I hope that they will be taken forward at future meetings of that committee. I refer in particular to our suggestion that there should be an introductory day on the history, geography and culture of the House, which would only later be followed by a second day on the technicalities of legislation and Bills. An introductory day which enabled new Peers to understand the way in which we behave and provided them with a formal guided tour of the House and some talk of its history and traditions would enable new Peers to feel comfortable in the House and would assist them with those aspects of our behaviour which we all prize and cherish.
Baroness Young: My Lords, in commending my amendment on item 2 ("The General Debate Day") on page 5 of the report of the Select Committee on Procedure, I should like to start by saying that when the matter was discussed by the Select Committee concern was expressed about the proposed change by Members in all parts of the House. I believe that that concern will be expressed again today in your Lordships' House.
If I may put this in shorthand, the issue at point is to change Wednesday into Thursday. I should like to make three points about that. The first is a point of principle. I believe that the House of Lords has two main functions. The first is to amend legislation and the second is to hold general debates. In fact, the Select Committee was reminded that during the discussions at the time of the 1968 reform of your Lordships' House the function of holding general debates was placed first. We are all well aware of the interest that those debates hold. They provide an opportunity to have a wide-ranging discussion of topical subjects. They are an excellent opportunity for Back-Bench Members of the House to take part. I am thinking particularly of the two debates initiated by noble Lords on the Labour Benches on the BBC and on the British Council. I think also of the interesting debate on AIDS in Africa, which was initiated by the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, and of the debate introduced last week on democracy by my noble friend Lord Waddington.
That leads me to my second point. If we were to agree to the change, the first three days of the week would be taken up entirely with legislation. That function would therefore be assumed to be by far the most important. There would therefore be a real danger that Thursdays would be seen as a kind of afterthought, or a dead day, when it was not necessary for most of your Lordships to be present and most Peers could go home on Wednesday evening. We would then be in great danger of becoming a three-day-a-week House. I regret to say that we would also be in great danger of becoming like the House of Commons where, as far as I can see, a great many Members leave at lunchtime on Thursday.
Many Members of your Lordships' House are already very worried about any weakening of this House. I believe that the proposed change would signal such a weakening. Even if, as is proposed, it was for a trial period, all of us in public life know that such "trials" usually turn out to last a long time. If accepted, this proposal would signal that the fourth day of the week would be for general debates and only those taking part in them would feel it necessary to attend. Thursday would be in danger of becoming rather like Friday, which is usually used at the end of a Session for private Bills and for orders. At first glance, this looks like a small proposal; in fact, I believe that it is of fundamental importance to the working of this House.
That brings me to my final point. Next week we are to debate the Second Reading of the Bill to reform the House of Lords. Whatever the outcome of that, the House is very unlikely to be the same at the end of it. What is the point of altering tried and trusted procedures which matter a great deal to noble Lords in all parts of the House, procedures which have worked well for many years, at this stage in the lifetime of your Lordships' House? I believe that we should stand with those arrangements which we believe are right, which we believe are in the best interests of the House and which we believe reflect what the House of Lords ought to be doing as the second House of Parliament. I suggest that we are not here simply to serve our own convenience; we are here to serve the House and I hope that, in serving the House, we will all feel that we are
Lord Graham of Edmonton: My Lords, as the procedure has been outlined, it is my pleasure to speak to the Motion which stands in my name on the Order Paper. At the end of this debate, I hope to have the opportunity to move my amendment.
I am bound to say that the case made by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, is fair and reasonable. It is a case for the status quo and for no change. It is a case made on behalf of those who have benefited from, and enjoyed, the existing system and who want to continue to do so. However, it means that those who have been disadvantaged will continue to be disadvantaged.
Colleagues are doubtless aware that for many years, and certainly since I have been a Member of this House--that is, for some 15 years--there has been a general grumble about the fact that business on a Thursday can sometimes extend to 10 o'clock, 11 o'clock, or even later, irrespective of whether it is government or other business. I am not making a party political point because this has been said from all Benches. A point that I picked up quickly on becoming a Member of this House, and subsequently as Chief Whip, was that, although our present arrangements are fair and reasonable, they deny a great many Members--I cannot quantify this--the ability to do that which a great many others can do. That is simply because they seek to serve both the House and their party.
I happen to live in Loughton in Essex and, if required, I can catch an underground train at 11 p.m. and be home not much after midnight. However, many Members of this House who want to be similarly assiduous face a human dilemma. The noble Baroness, Lady Young, has told us what this House is and what we are here for, but I have to tell her that many noble Lords, on both the Opposition and the Government Benches, face a dilemma on a Thursday. Having been here on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday because they are good party members, they then look at the Whip and reflect that, in order to get home on Thursday--not at a decent time, but before midnight--they will have to leave here at, say, three o'clock, four o'clock or five o'clock. It is not for me to comment on how that dilemma is resolved by individuals, but that dilemma nevertheless exists. I do not have to face that; nor do many other Members of this House; but I am simply saying that if one wants to plead "no action" because of the imminence of a possible change, we must nevertheless recognise that that dilemma exists--and that means not accepting the amendment from the noble Baroness.
Perhaps I may illustrate this from my experience in the other place. Exactly 25 years ago this month I made my maiden speech--on a Friday. The Member I followed is now the noble Baroness, Lady Chalker, and I was followed by Dr. Rhodes Boyson. Fridays then ended at four o'clock. Later, Friday sittings ended at 2.30 p.m. I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, is in his place. One of the recommendations was that the House shall not sit more than 10 Fridays. Then, for the convenience of Members, for the conduct
The noble Baroness, Lady Young, may be right. It may well be that fewer people will wish to participate in a general debate on a Thursday. However, I tell her from my experience that when one comes into the Chamber at six, seven or eight o'clock on a Wednesday, the only persons present are those who are waiting to speak, or to hear the wind-up speech, in order to carry out their duties. The general debates are an essential part of the operation of this House. But my plea is that for a short period of about six weeks, from the middle of June to the end of July, we see whether these proposed changes meet the wishes of Members. Unless my amendment is carried, there will not be an opportunity for them to express their views. I believe that in 1999 the House, which has proved to be flexible, should be flexible on this occasion. Without diminishing the amount of legislative time or the quality of the debates, my colleagues should be given the opportunity of considering these new proposals. I believe that we shall then have a happier, more satisfactory and beneficial House.
Lord Denham: My Lords, perhaps I may comment on the proposal before the House. Before I do so, may I ask the noble Lord the Lord Chairman of Committees whether he will tell your Lordships, when he comes to reply, what provision he has made for the next meeting of the Procedure Committee which, he will remember, was originally scheduled for the same afternoon on which the second day of the Second Reading debate of the House of Lords Bill is now to be held? As we are discussing the last Procedure Committee report, it will be useful to know on what day that particular meeting of the Procedure Committee will now be held.
At the time of the 1968 proposals, as my noble friend Lady Young has mentioned, the first of the five functions of the House were described as the provision of a forum for full and free debate on matters of public interest. This is the all-important function which she and I believe will be downgraded by the switch of days. It will also, as she has said, turn the House into a three-day-week Chamber.
It will vastly inconvenience Peers who, for a long time, have had the practice of fixing up important meetings on Wednesdays because it is then that no Divisions are likely to take place. Peers whom I know, if they are to take part in the debating day on a Wednesday, will find it very inconvenient indeed. The most important point from my point of view is that the experiment will be distracting for this House at a time when it is considering the most important Bill, as far as it is concerned, probably since the year 1911. To have this particular six weeks as an experiment seems to be rather unkind in distracting the House at such a time.
The final point is that it may all be for nothing and, in effect, no trial at all because what works well for the existing House will not necessarily work well for the interim House, let alone the definitive one, after full reform has taken place. So why are we bothering to have this experiment now? If it is to be made, it is far better to let the new House make it and then judge for itself whether that is what it wants.
When this matter came before the Procedure Committee, as the Chairman of Committees has said, it ran into so much opposition that the committee felt unable to make a recommendation to the House. Therefore, I am very sorry indeed that the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, has seen fit to table such an amendment today. As a former Chief Whip, he of all people knows that this House works by consultation and consent. I cannot remember a previous government of either colour trying to force through a purely procedural matter such as this with such tactics as these. I hope that, if possible, the noble Lord, Lord Graham, will undertake not to move his amendment today, but that if he does so your Lordships will reject it overwhelmingly.
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