Select Committee on Procedure of the House First Report



Bills

  20. The most important proceedings in the Chamber are proceedings on public bills. Scrutinising and revising legislation is one of the key functions of Parliament, and the principal role and raison d'etre of the House of Lords as a somewhat independent Second Chamber.[11] It is also how most of the time of the House is spent. It is therefore of the greatest importance that procedures for handling legislation are sound, and that Lords understand and respect them.

  21. As indicated above, we are aware that the freedoms of all Lords to take part in proceedings on bills are very great, and are open to abuse. In our view, the House will be best able to perform its revising role if these freedoms are maintained; therefore abuses must be identified and avoided. Abuses come in two kinds: lack of consideration for the rest of the House; and excessive exploitation of the procedures to try to frustrate the will of the majority. The House of Lords is traditionally intolerant of both these kinds of behaviour.

Proposals rejected

  22. We believe that our procedures for bills are sound, and should not be changed in some of the more radical ways which have been suggested to us. In particular, we do NOT endorse suggestions that:

    (a)  groupings of amendments should be made binding;

    (b)  at Committee Stage, the Question that each Clause stand part of the Bill should no longer be put;

    (c)  the rule against re-opening an issue which has been decided upon at a previous stage, which applies at Third Reading, should also apply at Report Stage; and

    (d)  starred amendments (which are tabled on the eve of debate) and manuscript amendments (which are tabled on the day) should be prohibited at all stages.[12]

  23. Each of these moves would make life easier for Ministers and civil servants (or, in the case of (b), the Lord in the Chair). However, they would reduce the freedom of the House to perform its principal role.

Recommended changes

  24. However we recommend a modest set of changes, which we believe would improve the procedures without reducing the freedoms of the House.

Dates of debate

  25. The dates of debate on the various stages of bills are sometimes varied at short notice. This can cause great inconvenience, particularly to back-benchers who may have long journeys or other commitments. We recommend that the Government Whips Office should make every effort to inform such Lords of changes of plan.

Length of speeches

  26. The Companion says, rightly, "Long speeches engender tedium and tend to kill debate" (p. 68). It goes on to recommend a guideline limit, for back-bench speakers in Second Reading and other non-time-limited debates, of 15 minutes. It acknowledges that "on occasion, a speech of outstanding importance . . . may exceed the limit".

  27. We consider that this guidance should be refined. 15 minutes should be seen as an outside limit; in most situations, as Lords experienced in public speaking will know, a better target is 10 minutes. There will of course continue to be exceptions.

Postponing the title

  28. Each Committee Stage begins with the Question "That the title of the bill be postponed", i.e. that amendments to the title be taken last. This Question should never be debated, and must always be agreed to. We recommend that it be dispensed with, and that amendments to the title be taken last as a matter of course.

Drafting of amendments

  29. We recommend that amendments to leave out a piece of text identifiable by a number (e.g. paragraph (a), or sub-paragraph (ii)) should normally be tabled in the form "line 1, leave out paragraph (a)", rather than in the form "leave out lines 1 to 10", unless the simpler form would be ambiguous. We believe that amendments in this form are easier to read.

Tabling of amendments

  30. At present Lords may hand in amendments to the Clerks, for printing the following day, at any time up to the rising of the House. The Public Bill Office operates an informal deadline, for amendments to be printed the following day, of 6.30pm, or 5.30pm for a marshalled list, or 4pm on Fridays. In the interests of certainty, and to allow time for all amendments to be processed thoroughly before being printed, we recommend a deadline of 5pm, or 4pm on Fridays.

Grouping

  31. The current timetable for groupings is as follows:

    —  departments send draft groupings to the Government Whips Office by 10.30am on the day of debate;

    —  the Government Whips Office transmit them to the Opposition by 11am;

    —  Lords have until 1.30pm to comment;

    —  final groupings are issued by 2pm.

Failure to meet these deadlines regularly causes difficulties, especially for back-bench peers. Even when they are met, Lords have very little time to consider the groupings before the debate begins.

  32. We therefore propose that departments should produce draft groupings for consultation by 2.30pm on the day before debate, rather than at lunchtime on the day as at present. At present this would be made impossible by the large number of amendments tabled at the last minute; but we propose below that this number should be reduced.

  33. To enable departments to produce draft groupings the day before debate, the marshalled list would have to be issued on that day, rather than on the day of debate as at present.[13] Therefore any amendments tabled two days before debate would be starred, and amendments handed in later than that would have to be printed on a supplementary list or revised marshalled list.

  34. We recommend flexibility as to whether to apply this system to Third Reading. In cases where only the 3-day minimum interval is allowed after the end of Report stage, it might not be workable.

  35. The effect of our proposals is shown in the following table.

 PresentProposed
Deadline for amendments for marshalled list D minus 1 . . . 5.30 pm
Any amendment tabled after this is liable to be printed on a separate sheet
D minus 2 . . . 5 pm
Any amendment tabled after this would be liable to be printed in a supplementary or revised list
Marshalled list availableD . . . 8 am
An amendment tabled on the day of debate is a manuscript amendment
D minus 1 . . . 8 am
Department produces draft groupingsD . . . 10.30-11 amD minus 1 . . . 2.30 pm
Any amendment tabled after 5 pm on D minus 1 would be liable to be printed on a separate sheet. An amendment tabled on the day of debate would be a manuscript amendment
Deadline for comment on draft groupingsD . . . 1.30 pmD . . . 1.30 pm
Final groupingsD . . . 2 pmD . . . 2 pm
D = Day of debate.

Late amendments

  36. Manuscript amendments, tabled on the day of debate, are exceptional, as they should be; but many marshalled lists contain numerous amendments tabled the previous day, frequently by the Government.

  37. We stand by the freedoms of the House, but we suggest that they should be exercised with restraint. We consider that tabling amendments the day before debate should not be prohibited; but neither should it be encouraged. It is inconsiderate and unhelpful to ask Lords to consider in the afternoon amendments which they only received that morning. In the case of non-Government amendments, the chances of last-minute amendments receiving proper consideration by Ministers must be slim. Last-minute amendments also make the work of constructing and agreeing groupings more difficult; discouraging them will of course make it easier to produce draft groupings earlier than at present, as recommended above.

Repeat amendments

  38. We have been expressly asked to suggest an answer to a question put to the Procedure Committee by the Clerk of the Parliaments, following an incident on the School Standards and Framework Bill[14]: should Lords be prohibited from retabling at Report Stage an amendment which was defeated in Committee?[15] This is not the same question as whether Lords should be prevented from reopening a decided issue (to which we say No), since different amendments may raise the same issue.

  39. We consider that a Lord who puts an amendment to a vote in Committee, loses, and simply returns to the charge on Report without any attempt at compromise or genuine refinement, is abusing the time of the House. We recommend that, if an amendment is pressed to a division by the mover at Committee stage, and is defeated, it should be deemed undesirable for any Lord to table the same amendment, or one whose effect is indistinguishable, on Report.

  40. Although we do not want to see the reopening of issues at Report Stage prohibited altogether, some Lords would support this—not all of them on the Government front bench; and this lobby may grow, unless Lords show more restraint in exercising the freedom which we wish to preserve. The Companion contains the simple but sound advice, that:

    "Arguments fully deployed in Committee of the Whole House should not be repeated at length on Report" (page 134).

In other words, though a Lord is entitled to reopen an issue on Report, he should refrain from making what amounts to the same speech.

  41. We would go a little further: if an issue is reopened on Report, it should be for a good reason. This might be, for example, because in Committee the Minister promised to consider the matter; because the authors of the amendment have refined their own position; because, having read in Hansard what the Minister said in Committee, Lords wish to raise further questions; or simply because in Committee the amendment came on too late for proper debate.

Divisions

  42. The time allowed for Lords to reach the Chamber to vote should be extended from 6 to 8 minutes, to allow for the increasing use of offices further from the Chamber or even outside the Palace. The 3-minute deadline for the appointment of tellers should be extended to 4 minutes, to allow time for the Clerks to arrive from more distant offices. This would require amendment of Standing Order 51. The change would of course apply to all votes, not just those on bills.

"That this Bill do now pass"

  43. After any Third Reading amendments, the House has an opportunity to debate a bill in its final form on the Question "That this bill do now pass". This is too often used as an occasion merely to thank Lords who have taken part in proceedings, and their staff. While such thanks may be well-deserved, they are not a proper use of parliamentary time, and they delay the next business. If such thanks become more rare, they will also become more valuable. We recommend that any thanks should be brief, and should generally be restricted to persons outside Parliament and Government who have been outstandingly helpful.

  44. Even more undesirable is the practice whereby Lords who took part in earlier stages speak at length on "Bill do now pass", to review the issues and reiterate the arguments. This too causes waste of time and delay.

  45. Unless a genuine attempt is being made to throw out the bill at its final stage,[16] there is normally no need to debate "Bill do now pass" at all. We recommend that this should become the norm; Ministers should simply move the motion formally.

Reminders of good practice

  46. From our own experience, and from the correspondence we have received,[17] it appears that there are other aspects of procedure on bills where existing conventions and procedures are adequate, but some Lords need to be reminded what these are. In particular:

    (a)  Lords who find, in a debate such as a Second Reading, that all their points have been made already by others, should say so and sit down.

    (b)  Speeches on amendments should be confined to the point of the amendment. Second Reading speeches on amendments are unacceptable.

    (c)  A Lord who decides not to move an amendment should rise and say "Not moved" when it is called; he should not make a speech. If he wishes to make a speech, he should say "I beg to move" (at either the beginning or the end of his speech); then, after other Lords have spoken, he should reply to the debate, and either beg leave to withdraw or seek a decision.

    (d)  At Report and Third Reading, and when considering Commons amendments, Lords should speak to each amendment only once, and should not continue the debate after the Minister's speech.[18] The device of speaking "before the Minister (or other noble Lord) sits down" is legitimate for a genuine intervention,[19] but must not be used to make a second speech.

  47. We recommend that these conventions be added to the guidance in the Companion.

Pre-legislative scrutiny

  48. One way to avoid issues being raised repeatedly in formal proceedings, or even being raised in the Chamber at all, let alone by last-minute amendment, is to deal with them informally, or before the bill is introduced by "pre-legislative scrutiny". Pre-legislative scrutiny has traditionally been conducted on the basis of green papers and white papers; but the Government have begun producing draft bills, for scrutiny by Joint or Select Committees and by the public.

  49. The Government have also extended the practice of offering an informal meeting between Ministers, civil servants and Lords interested in the bill, between Second Reading and Committee Stage.[20]

  50. These initiatives make for better understanding of the issues before the bill reaches the Chamber, and better use of the time of the House. They may also make it easier for the Government to make concessions. They are therefore welcome developments.


11  According to Reforming the House of Lords, "The most distinctive and important role of the present House of Lords is the specialist expertise and independent perspective it can bring to the scrutiny of legislation" (Cm 4183, p. 6). Back
12  Currently the only such restriction is that manuscript amendments are prohibited at Third Reading, by SO 46. Back
13  The Public Bill Office already occasionally produce an early marshalled list, for the convenience of peers, especially when there has been a long interval between stages. Back
14  7 July 1998, col. 1200. Back
15  At present, amendments may be retabled at Report. The rule against putting the same Question twice in one Session (Companion p. 89) is held not to apply, since the Question is put to two different bodies: a Committee at Committee Stage, the House on Report. Back
16  This last happened on the European Communities (Amendment) Bill on 20 July 1993. Back
17  See Appendix 2. Back
18  Or, in the case of a private member's bill, the speech of the Lord in charge. Back
19  For example, seeking clarification, or seeking an answer on a point not covered by the Minister. Back
20  This was recommended in 1992 in Making the Law (para. 400), the report of the Hansard Society's Commission on the Legislative Process chaired by the late Lord Rippon of Hexham, following a suggestion made by Lord Aberdare. The suggestion was picked up in the report from the Group on Sittings of the House, also chaired by Lord Rippon, in 1994 (HL Paper 83, 1993-94), and commended by the Procedure Committee in its 1st Report 1994-95. Back

 
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