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Lord Graham of Edmonton: My Lords, can the noble Lord tell the House who made the suggestion that the House should sit from Monday to Friday, from nine to five? He majors on that point but I cannot recall it having been made in this debate.
Lord Henley: My Lords, I believe that the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, suggested that there were a number of different views. She talked about sitting in the mornings and about the need to sit on more occasions on Fridays. I make a simple point. It is irrelevant whether we sit from nine until five every day. However, if one starts early on a Monday and then continues to Friday, life becomes very difficult for those of us--I see noble Lords opposite nodding--who come from outside the M25.
I was simply going on to make the point that for that reason I am somewhat sympathetic to the suggestion--I agree that it is not necessarily popular with all noble Lords on my own Benches--made by a fellow Cumbrian, the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, that possibly we should swap Wednesdays for Thursdays. In that case, we could possibly abandon Fridays in their entirety. I do not know what the Chief Whip would think about that. Speaking personally, I have no particular objections to the more family-friendly policy of sitting Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday on legislative business, Thursday mornings on other business, and then we can go home on a Friday. I just float that idea before the noble Lord the Government Chief Whip.
I end on the question of family-friendly matters. The noble Lord should take up the suggestions which have come from both sides of the House that it really would be more family friendly if we could be told when the Recess is going to be, particularly now that the school terms have moved so far away from parliamentary and legal terms. Perhaps we could break up at the beginning of July and come back in September, although I appreciate that that might cause some disruption for those who like to attend party conferences.
The time I have is very limited and I want to deal briefly with one other point; that is, the question of voting in Committee. I understand that many noble Lords opposite do not enjoy--and they made it quite clear that they do not enjoy--voting in Committee. Funnily enough, I seem to remember in the days when I was at the Dispatch Box opposite, when we were in government, that there was no dislike of voting in Committee. Many noble Lords have come to the House since 1997, but I can tell them that their colleagues were particularly enthusiastic about voting in Committee. They voted in Committee on a great many occasions. I am sure that that enthusiasm will re-emerge when we are in government in due course and they will greatly enjoy the prospect of voting in Committee, on Report and at Third Reading.
I conclude by paying tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Peston, as all other speakers have done, for what I thought was a particularly seductive speech. I say that it was "seductive" because it all sounded very tempting. However, one suspects that there may be some underlying dangers. But it has been a very good debate and a great many interesting ideas have emerged. I hope that in due course we shall allow the Procedure Committee the time to consider all those ideas which are suitable and which are designed to increase the effectiveness of the House and of all its Members, both Front-Bench and Back-Bench, in performing their duties. I hope that such ideas can be considered and, where appropriate, adopted.
Lord Carter: My Lords, we have certainly had an interesting and extremely useful debate. I am very grateful to my noble friend Lord Peston, as are all noble Lords, for giving us the opportunity to debate this subject which concerns us all so closely. There have been many interesting contributions. Many suggestions have been made and opinions voiced. But one thing seems clear. There is scope to improve the workings and facilities of the House so that the House can perform its functions more efficiently and effectively. Two words which occurred in a number of speeches were "efficiency" and "effectiveness".
In the time available, it will not be possible to deal with all the contributions but your Lordships may be sure that everyone involved with the workings of the House will read Hansard with very great care.
I come to this debate not as Chief Whip but as a committed parliamentarian. I had an interest in the function and mechanisms of Parliament long before I entered this House. That grew during my 10 years on the Opposition Front Bench. I believe that it is in all our interests to keep party politics out of this debate. I make this speech today from the standpoint of a parliamentarian who is keen to improve the working of the House for all its Members, even if that improvement is inconvenient for the Government.
It strikes me that the concerns voiced today fall broadly into two groups. First, there is a desire, one way or another, to make it easier for noble Lords to attend the House. The obstacles which make this difficult at present include the hours we sit--the fact that they are unsocial, and also that they are unpredictable--and the general lack of facilities. Those concerns are typical of the concerns of many people working in many different walks of life, and innovative solutions are being found. The new technology we have heard about can help.
As regards facilities, and especially desks, your Lordships will know that until we reach the autumn of this year the problem will not be solved. More accommodation will become available this autumn and next summer. That is when I hope that every Peer who needs a desk can have one.
There are some steps which the House can take immediately. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Harptree, will be glad to hear that earlier this week the Liaison Committee agreed to recommend the appointment of a constitutional committee along the lines recommended by Wakeham. The committee also noted the Government's proposal to establish a Joint Committee on human rights before the Human Rights Act comes into force later this year. Those proposals from the Liaison Committee will come before your Lordships for approval in due course. They are good examples of the way in which we can immediately improve the effectiveness of the work of this House.
Formalised attempts to reach agreement on proposals have been made in the past, with a good degree of success. In 1992, the Committee on the Committee Work of the House, which we all know and remember as the Jellicoe committee, published a report. As a result of that report, we now have a much revised and more effective committee structure in the House. Perhaps the greatest success of the committee's reforms has been the establishment of the universally-acclaimed Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee, which has done so much to improve the quality and effectiveness of the work which this House does.
The Rippon group came up with several very useful suggestions for saving the time of the House. Perhaps their most far-reaching proposal was that of Grand Committees in the Moses Room. I am sure that many of your Lordships agree that this has been a very sensible improvement, which has reduced the number of occasions on which a small caucus of Members were kept sitting late into the night going over the fine detail of those Bills. I shall return to that later.
Today's debate has produced a number of constructive and interesting suggestions. The more I listened the more I felt that perhaps change is now possible. Noble Lords counselled against making change for the sake of convenience. I agree. Noble Lords insisted that any change should improve our procedures. I agree. Noble Lords commended the fact that the Government do not have a stranglehold in this House. As Chief Whip, I am fully aware of that. I also agree that the House proceeds always by agreement. Noble Lords stressed the importance of safeguarding Back Bench rights. So do I.
I found the speech of the Leader of the Opposition, Lord Strathclyde, a shade disappointing. I felt that, like Dr Pangloss, the best in the best of all possible worlds is alive and well and safely ensconced in the office of the Leader of the Opposition. He said that changes should produce more effective scrutiny. I agree. He said that under all governments there is too much legislation. I do not know of a Government Chief Whip anywhere who has ever complained that the programme is too light. He went on to say that the changes must not curtail the important discussion needed for scrutiny but must improve the quality of scrutiny.
The noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, also mentioned the possibility of a House of Lords commission that would be similar to that in the Commons. Already consultants are in the process of being appointed to consider the administration committee structure--not the political committees--of the House and the general administration of the House.
I must emphasise that any changes that we may make to working hours--perhaps with morning sittings--will not help Ministers. They will make life more difficult for them and for the Government. The noble Lords, Lord Waddington and Lord Jopling, repeated, as the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, has outside the Chamber, the right of the government of the day to get their business through. As Chief Whip, I find that encouraging.
The noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, said that the interests of the House are not the same as the interests of the Government. That is absolutely correct. There should be what I would describe as a dynamic tension between the interests of the House and the interests of the Government. I was much impressed by the selflessness of the noble Viscount in rejecting a luxurious office with excellent facilities. It is a little hard to envisage the noble Viscount in a hair shirt, but there we are!
My noble friend Lady Gould of Potternewton mentioned an extremely important point, although there was some criticism from some noble Lords about the use of the term "family friendly". However, the staff of the House have to be considered. I received a degree of criticism from some noble Lords for allowing a one-day half-term break in February--Thursday through to Sunday. Your Lordships would be surprised by the number of members of staff with young families who thanked me for that innovation. It gave them a chance to spend just a couple of days with their children in the half-term break.
The noble Lord, Lord Jopling, and other noble Lords said that the government of the day should not gain a short-term advantage from any changes. When all the new Peers have been introduced, there will be 201 Labour Peers, supporting the Government--not all of them all the time--out of a total House of 687. Changes have to be made by agreement. With those numbers, there is no way that the Government can achieve a change to its short-term advantage.
The noble Lord made a point, as he has done previously, about the imbalance of numbers and the fact that the Government are a minority government with only 27 per cent of the House. There is not time now to deal with that, but in order for his ideas to
The noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, and others referred to improving scrutiny. If we can give more time to detailed scrutiny, the function of holding the executive to account will be made more stringent. That should be the objective. I say that as a parliamentarian and not as Chief Whip. If we make changes in the way we handle Bills in Committee, or to the sitting hours, or whatever, and if that increases the chance for detailed scrutiny, that will be of considerable advantage to the House. The noble Viscount, Lord Goschen, and others referred to the burden. Many of the arguments in the debate were to make it easier for Back-Benchers to contribute to the work of the House and thereby improve the scrutiny of the executive.
I fully recognise the contribution made by Back- Benchers in the House and I would fight to the end to maintain that right. But let us be realists. Let us deal with the myth of the whole House in Committee. On important Bills, we all know that only a handful of Peers are involved as the day and the night wear on. The whole House goes into Committee at the start of the Bill at teatime. Between teatime and dinner the numbers begin to drop and we all know that for the rest of the evening the House is populated by Front-Benchers and a few Back-Benchers. The idea that there are queues of Back-Benchers anxious to get into the House in the late hours to contribute to Committee work is just a myth.
The noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, referred in curious terms to the pre-eminence of the House of Commons when he said that it has a quasi-sacramental character and that that had been handed down over the centuries. It is nothing of the sort. The House of Commons is elected and the party with the majority forms the government. We are not elected and after the first stage of reform no party or group in the House has a majority.
The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, produced some interesting ideas regarding the timetabling of Bills. Unlike the Commons--although the other place has started to do this now--we timetable all Bills by agreement as to the number of days that they require. He had some extremely interesting ideas about the timetabling of Bills on the day when they are considered. I shall certainly want to explore those.
The noble Lord, Lord Elton, and others appeared to have a fear of the guillotine. That has never come within my consideration. I have always said to colleagues and to other noble Lords who have suggested it: how can you guillotine business in a revising chamber? It is just not logical. All our business is timetabled by agreement through the usual channels.
My noble friend Lord Brett said that one room should be wired for "hot-desking". As I understand it, in the Writing Room six desks are wired to allow Peers to plug in their laptops and to "hot-desk", which is an awful phrase.
The noble Lord, Lord Henley, referred to the number of government amendments. He is right to say that there are too many. When I came into the House in 1987 the first of the major Bills with which I was involved was the Education Act 1988. I dealt with all the clauses dealing with special education from the Back Benches. As I remember, there were 400 or 500 government amendments on Report in this House. I do not defend that and I do not say that that is right, but I hope that the Opposition and the Liberal Democrats will agree that I have tried hard this Session to encourage departments to produce government amendments in good time so that they are tabled at least a week before they are considered. That has not always worked, but I have tried. If noble Lords had seen some of the letters that I have sent to the departments they will understand that I have insisted that amendments are tabled at least a week in advance and that an explanation or a briefing is sent to all those involved on the Front and Back Benches.
Bills taken in the Moses Room have increased. Ten were scheduled during the last three Sessions of the last Parliament. So far 15 have been taken during the first three Sessions of this Parliament. A fair point has been made that the intention behind the shift to the Moses Room was to ease the problem of the sitting hours in the House. However, what we have tended to schedule for the Moses Room have been smaller and less contentious Bills which in fact have not saved all that much time on the Floor of the House. The only way to make a substantial saving of time in this place and thereby make our hours more social would be to send larger Bills to the Moses Room or to another venue. I shall return to that point.
The lesson we can learn from previous initiatives and from today's debate seems clear. Each time a group or committee is set up to improve the workings of the House, progress is duly made. The previous committees and groups have all been ad hoc. They have been tasked to consider one particular aspect of the practices and procedures of the House and they have been closed down once their inquiries were complete. In order to make consistent progress, perhaps what we need is to put in place some form of consistent machinery to drive that process. As a number of noble Lords have suggested, this could mean setting up a permanent committee charged with the brief to consider ways in which to improve the workings of the House. If such a committee were considered to be the best way forward, it would have
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