Select Committee on Procedure of the House First Report



FREEDOM AND FUNCTION

REPORT OF THE GROUP ON PROCEDURE IN THE CHAMBER

Introduction

  1. We have been asked by the Leader of the House "To consider how the procedures of the House can be improved within the existing framework of self-regulation; and to make proposals for ensuring that Lords are better informed of procedure so that self-regulation can work".[1]

  2. Before we discuss particular procedures, it may be helpful to set out the fundamentals of the procedures of the House, as we understand them. They are of course bound up with the present powers, functions and composition of the House. If these were to change, the fundamentals of procedure might change too.[2]

  3. First, the House is "self-regulating": it has never delegated its power to regulate its own proceedings (which it enjoys as an aspect of parliamentary privilege) to any other authority. The Lord on the Woolsack or in the Chair, the Leader of the House and other front-benchers, and the Clerks, all have important roles in matters of procedure; but, with exceptions which are few and minor,[3] any discretionary ruling which they may make can be over-ruled, by either an individual Lord or the House as a whole. Our terms of reference therefore exclude any proposals which would seriously impinge on self-regulation; on the contrary, we have been asked to find ways to make self-regulation work better.

  4. Secondly, back-bench members of the House enjoy very extensive procedural freedoms. This is not the same as self-regulation; but the two are connected, since imposing new restrictions on members' freedoms might involve setting up an authority to administer them. The freedoms of the House date back to times when the House was much smaller,[4] and sat far less, than today; their survival into today's conditions is a tribute to the restraint with which they have customarily been used. One of the reasons which prompted the Leader of the House and the Procedure Committee to set up our Group was concern that this restraint is beginning to break down.

    (a)  First, all Lords enjoy freedom to initiate business. Any Lord may take up the time of the House for a Question, Starred or Unstarred, with at most a few weeks' wait; and Lords have plenty of opportunities to secure a full-length debate, either through their party or through the ballot for Short Debates. Any Lord may introduce a bill, and, provided it is not introduced too late in the Session, a private member's bill has every chance of proceeding through all its Lords stages.

    (b)  Secondly, all Lords enjoy freedom to participate in business. In principle, any Lord may speak once on any business. On Starred Questions and Ministerial Statements Lords are expected to be brief, and not all Lords who wish to speak may be able to do so in the time available; in these areas the procedures of the House are showing signs of particular strain, and we will have more to say about them later. Debates are subject to the discipline of the "list of speakers", and in some cases to a time limit; but, even for time-limited debates, the list is open until noon on the day of debate, and any Lord not on it may speak (briefly and if time allows) in the "gap".[5]

  5. Freedom to participate is at its widest on legislation. Lords may table any number of amendments to bills, and may have each one of them debated. In Committee and on Report, though not at Third Reading,[6] amendments may even be tabled without notice[7] ("manuscript amendments"); and on Report, though not at Third Reading, an issue may be re-opened even though Lords have already reached a decision on it at a previous stage. Stages of bills are never time-limited; and, at Committee stage, Lords may speak to the same amendment as often as they wish.

  6. It is not always appreciated that the freedoms of individual members of this House are wider than in any other legislative assembly. They make the House uniquely well-equipped to carry out what is currently regarded as its major role, namely the revision of legislation. They are however wide open to abuse; and even non-vexatious use of the many opportunities open to the Opposition of the day can make it difficult for the Government to get its business through the House. In this area we stand by the freedoms of the House, and we have resisted calls from several quarters to recommend that they be restricted. However we urge all Lords to use their freedoms responsibly and constructively; and we make recommendations intended to encourage such behaviour.

  7. Procedure in the Chamber has traditionally been marked by a degree of courtesy, good manners and good will across the various political divides, which is rare in parliamentary proceedings. This may be due partly to the role and composition of the House, which enable us to stand back a little from the rough-and-tumble of party politics; if these were to change, the style of the House might well change too. In the meantime, however, we have been asked to consider whether the traditional courtesies can be better maintained. We believe that they can; we believe that the House should be proud of its capacity to conduct good politics with good manners, and should do its best to continue to set an example in this way. We make recommendations accordingly; and in Appendix 1 we list existing conventions of which, in our opinion, Lords particularly need to be reminded.

  8. Courtesy should not be seen as an optional extra. Without a high degree of courtesy and self-restraint, self-regulation will become unworkable, and the freedoms which enable the House to do its job will be forfeit.


1  Procedure Committee 4th Report 1997-98. Back
2  According to the recent Government White Paper Reforming the House of Lords, "The Government recognises that the procedures of the House of Lords are a matter for the House alone to determine. However, it would see advantage in the Royal Commission, as part of its examination of legislative powers, also considering whether it wanted to make any recommendations to the House on changes in procedure to accompany its recommendations on powers" (Cm 4183, p. 41). Back
3  The Lord Speaker may call to order Lords conversing, at least behind the Woolsack (SO 19): this power is never used, but we recommend below that it should be revived. The Leader of the House rules on the admissibility of Private Notice Questions, subject to appeal to the House (Companion p. 86). The Leader also has discretion to waive the sub judice rule; in this context, appeal to the House is "undesirable" (Procedure Committee 1st Report 1994-95). Back
4  Number of members of the House: November 1957 (before the Life Peerages Act) 885; November 1976 1,139; April 1997 1,204; December 1998 1,296. Average daily attendance: 1986 317; 1995-96 372; 1996-97 381; 1997-98 417. Back
5  In debates which are not time-limited, speakers in the gap are to keep within four minutes (Procedure Committee 3rd Report 1995-96). Back
6  Companion p. 135. Back
7  Though this is discouraged-Companion pp. 120, 133. Back

 
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