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Lord Graham of Edmonton: My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, perhaps I may remind him that the words we are considering in the report say that the matter should be left to the House and that is exactly what I have done.
Lord Gordon of Strathblane: My Lords, perhaps a declaration of interest is unnecessary, as from my accent noble Lords may divine that I am not from the Home Counties. I often face a journey to Scotland--not the far north, but the central belt--and I ask your Lordships to take into account the proportionate inconvenience which is suffered under the existing system and under the proposed amendment. So far as I am aware, this is unwhipped business today and there is no question of the Government trying to force through anything. My understanding is that Members are free to form whatever view they like. I imagine that views may well be split according to the place of main abode rather than the party viewpoint.
Perhaps I may put a very simple point. In terms of what one might call the law of proportionate inconvenience, noble Lords who find it convenient to attend on all four days and who live in and around London will experience no inconvenience whichever day is held to be the general debate day. However, noble Lords who have public interests which they should discharge elsewhere will experience considerable inconvenience if in order to fulfil those obligations they have to travel north and then return.
The attraction of general debates is their intrinsic merit and not the fact that one is forced to attend them because one is sandwiched between a Tuesday and a Thursday when one is down here anyway and cannot be bothered to go home. For example, on Wednesday 21st, despite the fact that I have to be in Lochinver in the very far north of Scotland on Thursday morning, I shall certainly try to attend the debate to be introduced by the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, on digital broadcasting. I believe that most of us prefer general debates to the
In all honesty, however much we enjoy general debates and however much I agree that they are extremely important, they are subsidiary to legislation. I cannot see how it is in anyone's interest to divide the block of legislation into two parts, Monday and Tuesday and then Thursday, when it would be equally convenient to have Monday to Wednesday. Then, it is to be hoped that those who can stay on for the Thursday debates will do so, particularly if they have an interest in the subject. Those who have urgent business elsewhere are not faced with the problem of leaving at four o'clock.
Several times last year I was faced with the problem of Divisions taking place after midnight on a Thursday. I tried to reach British Rail in the late hours of the evening to cancel the sleeper I had booked. I contacted British Airways, via its New York office, to book a flight for first thing Friday morning in the hope that I would get it.
I ask noble Lords to consider this point. The House is justly renowned for its courtesy. Members who find it convenient to attend four days a week will not be upset if Wednesday's business is moved to Thursday. However, those of us who have to travel very long distances will considerably benefit from the change and I urge noble Lords to make it.
There is one final point that should be borne in mind. The public purse is to be considered. People who have to attend each side of the break are claiming two amounts of travelling expenses, which I do not believe is justified in the public interest. It would be much better if we dealt with legislation in one block.
Baroness Carnegy of Lour: My Lords, I live even further away than the noble Lord, Lord Gordon. But on the face of it I agree with him. Since I first came here I have longed for the business to be turned around.
However, that was when I did not understand the role of the Opposition. I am just beginning to understand that role. The noble Lord said that he does not much enjoy the nitty-gritty of legislation, although he admitted that it is the most important function of this House. Since this Government came to power, most of the organisations which want Bills changed have been funnelling their amendments through the Opposition and not through Government Back-Benchers--not all, but most of them.
I should like to cite the example of the Health Bill, which is still before your Lordships' House. That Bill is one reason for my considerable change of mind. It would have been impossible to do it as much justice as we have if we had taken the Committee and Report stages on two days running; for example, Tuesday and Wednesday. It has been a terrible rush to get the amendments through. Because of the way in which the
The earlier part of the report contains the findings of the working party, which suggests that amendments should be brought forward earlier. That will help, but it still will not help this issue. My noble friend Lady Young was absolutely right on this and I shall back her.
In relation to the working party on the procedure of the House, I should like to pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton of Eggardon, for the way in which she chaired that working party. I had not worked with her before but greatly admired the way she did that job. She was even-handed; she was patient; and she was fully on the side of the Back-Benchers, which was an important role for that working group. We came to consensual decisions on our recommendations, and when it turned out that our report was to go before the Procedure Committee on a certain day we were all invited to attend. However, I was horrified when I discovered that the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton, had not even been sent the agenda of the Procedure Committee; she had no idea how the report would be handled and how the Leader of the House would deal with it. I have said personally to the Leader of the House that next time a working party is set up, it would be nice if it knew how its business would be handled by whichever committee to which it reported.
I support the Procedure Committee's response. I am happy that it turned down some of our recommendations and accepted others. I slightly regret that we talked about "training" of noble Lords. One does not train people to be parliamentarians. I would have preferred to call it "providing information". However, I am sure noble Lords understood what we meant. We made some good proposals and those are clearly still on the table.
I speak as a provincial Member, along with many of my noble friends. In many parts of the House people have a long way to travel home at weekends. The change proposed will not reduce the hours in the House; it will underwrite the fact that the debate can take place on a Thursday just as it presently does on a Wednesday.
There was a contradiction in what was said by the noble Lord who referred to the fact that he made appointments on a Wednesday and was not in the House because his arrangements had, in that sense, become regularised. The noble Baroness, Lady Young, referred to the fact that people want to keep Wednesdays for normal debates as such. However, the changes proposed are moderate and very much in line with modern thinking. For instance, the British Parliament sits longer than any other democratic parliament in the world--both this Chamber and the other place. To alter the procedure, as my noble friend from Scotland suggests, illustrates the great problem of travelling home after the House rises.
I speak as a Member who arrives on a Monday, and who is here Tuesday, Wednesday and a large part of Thursday. Therefore I am not trying to say that people should be away from the House. They should be here whenever possible. When we get a reformed House of Lords we will see a great difference. A lot of provincial Members will come in from Scotland, Wales and other outlying areas, and it will make a radical difference to them. Perhaps I can suggest, therefore, that we should allow the experiment. I hope the House will support it. Many people need and demand that the change takes place and I hope that your Lordships will vote for it.
Lord Jopling: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Graham, was good enough to refer to me in his speech, perhaps because of some reforms in another place with which I was closely involved. But speaking--like him and my noble friend Lord Denham--as a former Chief Whip, I profoundly disagree with him. I am much more concerned about the democratic rights of opposition than about the individual convenience of Members of your Lordships' House.
I strongly support the comments of my noble friend Lady Young. She is perfectly right. The classic way in which governments get their foot in the door and start changes is under the guise of "experiment"; many of us have done it.
However, I am concerned about the proposals in paragraph 2 of the report of the Procedure Committee to change the general debate day from Wednesday to Thursday. It most seriously erodes the duty of good will owed by government to Opposition parties and groups. After all, the Wednesday general debates are the prime time in the week for opposition parties to try to chivvy the Government and to do their constitutional duty of opposing. Of course I understand the reason for Government Back-Benchers wanting the change but I hope they understand that the Opposition are entitled to prime time during the week. I calculate that over the years since World War II my party has been in power 37 years, while Labour has been in power 22 years; so in the long run what I am saying will probably be to the disadvantage of Conservative Back-Benchers. However, I believe that the proposition is wrong constitutionally.
Votes rarely follow general debate days. A Written Answer that I received last week stated that there have been only eight Divisions on general debate days over the past 20 years, so everybody knows that such days are unlikely to end in a vote. We used to have a procedure like that in another place called Private Members' Motions. The noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, will remember that the committee of which I had the honour to be chairman did away with them in favour of even better prime time. On Fridays when we had Private Members' Motions in another place, they rarely ended in a vote and the Chamber was virtually empty. The only persons present were those taking part. The noble Lord, Lord Graham, said that one could come here on a Wednesday evening and find few people in attendance. If we change Wednesday for Thursday, even fewer people will be here on Thursday nights. It would often mean the Opposition talking to virtually an empty Chamber. As a former Government Chief Whip, I know the effect on an Opposition of putting their bull points to empty Benches. It is a most effective way of dealing with an Opposition who are trying to put over critical points. If the place is empty, the media take little interest.
I do not believe that the Opposition should be sidelined in that way. In the days when I was the Government Chief Whip and my friend--if I may call him that--the noble Lord, Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe, was my opposite number, he would have gone into orbit if I had tried to move Opposition days to Friday or the end of the week. I am glad to see the noble Lord nodding his head. He would have made my life totally impossible.
The Government have a duty to keep the great occasions for Oppositions, be they the Liberal Party, Cross-Benchers or the Conservative Party. All Opposition groups deserve prime time and should continue to have it.
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