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Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, further to the point that the Minister made about our relations with Russia, can she also say whether the still-open offer to reconsider disarmament under the Start 2 and Start 3 treaties, which together would bring a huge reduction in nuclear weapons held by Russia and, on the other side, the United States, is being pursued by Her Majesty's Government? Are we making representations to both sides to go ahead with that approach?

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale: My Lords, as noble Lords are well aware, the Start process is a question for the Americans and the Russians. We have always made it clear that one of our important priorities is that there should be further cuts in the arsenals of the Americans and the Russians. We shall do everything that we can to work to that end.

Council Tax

3 p.m.

Lord Bowness asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are considering introducing any additional council tax bands.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, we believe that the council tax is working well as a local tax. It has been widely accepted by local taxpayers and is generally well understood, although we will keep the situation under review. A number of respondents to our recent Green Paper on local government finance raised the issue of the banding structure. Although that was not a matter on which the Government had consulted, we will consider what was said.

Lord Bowness: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Are the reports which appeared in the

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Sunday Times on 7th January--that her right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister is studying a wide-ranging restructuring of the council tax system and has promised a White Paper later this year--correct or not?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, it is correct that we published a Green Paper in September. We shall consider the responses and as a result will be producing a White Paper later this year. In undertaking a process of consultation, the Government will consider all the points raised by respondents, but they have no plans to vary the tax band structure as proposed by the noble Lord.

Baroness Hanham: My Lords, is the new system of floors and ceilings to the council tax, which appears to have arisen, likely to continue in view of the unsatisfactory way it is working?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, the Government believe that in order to avoid major changes of between 1 and 10 per cent it is wise to allow the floors and ceilings to exist. They protect not only local authorities but local people from wide variations. At present, we cannot envisage a circumstance in which that would be necessary in all years but we shall keep the matter under review.

Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, given the preponderance of finance which comes from the centre to local authorities, the Government have my sympathy in dealing with local government finance. The Minister will be well aware of my views on the subject. Does she agree that such problems will continue and will be insoluble while the dominating position of central finance continues?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, I understand and have known for years the point of view taken by the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith. The position which has faced local government during the past four years--that is, a 13.6 per cent real terms increase in grant--has enabled local authorities to respond more accurately to the needs of their communities. The noble Lord's view was expressed by other colleagues in local government and will be taken into account in considering responses to the consultation.

Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, are the Government and the Minister thinking of taxing your Lordships' castles at a higher rate?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, I must admit that I do not know whether noble Lords' castles are in Scotland. If so, it will be a matter for the Scottish Parliament. If they are in Wales, it will be a matter for the Welsh Assembly. However, if they are in England I can tell him that at present we have no proposals to vary the tax bands.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, is not one of the reasons for the proportion of tax to be found by

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local taxpayers that the business rate was removed from local authorities? Are the Government considering properly returning that tax to be raised by local authorities?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, although I have not seen the responses to the consultation, I am certain that collectively and individually local authorities will have raised that point in response to the Green Paper. We must bear in mind two issues when considering the future of the business rate. The most important is the belief of some local authorities that all the business rate which would be collected within their areas would necessarily go only to that local authority. However, all in local government would accept that in equity it must be redistributed. The noble Lord's view has been expressed and no doubt will continue to be.

Baroness Maddock: My Lords, may I urge the Government to re-examine the position of park home owners? The Minister will know that in recent months a working party in which the DETR is involved has been examining the legislation and issues surrounding park home owners. One of the big issues raised by those owners was the level of council tax banding because many properties are at a lower rate than band A. I heard what the Minister said but the matter is urgent. Will she reconsider it?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, the issue was raised by my honourable friend David Borrow the Member for South Ribble in another place. Many people living in park homes have put the points expressed by the noble Baroness. We shall bear them in mind.

Standing Orders (Public Business)

3.6 p.m.

The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Jay of Paddington): My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper. It may be helpful for the House to know that all the amendments to Standing Orders were recommended by the Procedure Committee in its third and fourth reports of the last Session. The House agreed to those reports on 19th July and 13th November last year. The Motion which I am now moving is therefore consequential on the agreement that the House gave to those reports.

Moved, That the Standing Orders relating to public business be amended as follows:

After Standing Order 10 (hereditary peers: by-elections)

Insert the following new Standing Order:

Register of hereditary peers

Any hereditary peer (not previously in receipt of a writ of summons) who wishes to be included in the register maintained by the Clerk of the Parliaments pursuant to Standing Order 10(5) shall petition the House and any such petition shall be referred to the

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Lord Chancellor to consider and report upon whether such peer has established his right to be included in the register.

Standing Order 40 (arrangement of the Order Paper)

After paragraph (6), insert the following new paragraph:

("( ) Any motion relating to a report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights on a remedial order or draft remedial order laid under Schedule 2 to the Human Rights Act 1998 shall be entered before a motion to approve that order or draft order.")

Standing Order 64 (sessional committees)

After ("House of Lords' Offices Committee") insert ("Human Rights Committee")

Standing Order 72 (affirmative instruments)

In paragraph (1)(a), after ("Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994") insert ("or a draft remedial order or remedial order laid under Schedule 2 to the Human Rights Act 1998")

In paragraph (1)(b), after ("Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee") insert:

("( ) in the case of a draft remedial order or remedial order laid under Schedule 2 to the Human Rights Act 1998, there has been laid before the House the report thereon of the Joint Committee on Human Rights:

Provided that the report is laid

(i) in the case of a draft remedial order, within 60 days of the laying of the draft order or

(ii) in the case of an order not approved in draft, within 119 days of the making of the original order,

such periods to be calculated in the manner prescribed by Schedule 2 to the Act;")

Standing Order 73 (Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments)

In paragraph (1), after ("Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994") insert ("and any remedial order or draft remedial order under Schedule 2 to the Human Rights Act 1998")

In paragraph (2), line 4, after ("but") insert ("not including any statutory instrument made by a member of the Scottish Executive or by the National Assembly for Wales unless it is required to be laid before Parliament or either House of Parliament and").--(Baroness Jay of Paddington.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Procedure of the House: Select Committee Report

3.7 p.m.

The Chairman of Committees (Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish): My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper. In presenting the report from the Procedure Committee, I should say

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a few words about items 2 and 3 before dealing with item 1, which is the subject of the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank.

Item 2 clarifies the guidance on Statements in the Companion to Standing Orders and will, I am sure, be welcomed by those who take part in Statements. Item 3 tidies up the procedure at the beginning of a Session when a number of Motions relating to the setting up of committees are taken. Those who remembered those Motions last month will recall that the Leader of the House had to move procedural Motions. As a result, she was questioned about the composition, not me. I did not complain about being able to shelter behind the Leader, but I believe that it is an untidy way to do business. The proposed change would rectify that.

The main item before your Lordships is item 1 of the committee's report. At our meeting, we had a joint paper from the noble Lords, Lord Carter and Lord Henley, proposing to move the general debate day from Wednesday to Thursday on an experimental basis. Wednesdays would then be used for government business.

It was also proposed that general debates on important issues could take place on a small number of Mondays, Tuesdays or Wednesdays during the Session. These changes would be made on an experimental basis until the end of the Session, when the committee and the House would be able to decide whether the experiment had proved successful.

The debate in the committee showed a wide range of opinions. The principal arguments for such a change were that it would give all Members of the House the flexibility of two consecutive non-government days to organise their commitments outside the House. That would be particularly helpful to those Peers whose outside interests and homes were well away from London as such Peers might be able to get away on Wednesday nights or first thing on Thursday mornings if they wished. They would therefore have two clear days to do whatever they wished to do outside the House.

The principal arguments against the change were: that general debates were an important part of the role of the House; that to move them to Thursday might diminish the number of Peers who wished to take part; that there would be reduced attendance, and hence the importance of those debates would be diminished; and there was a danger that the House would follow the other place in what is increasingly seen as a three-day week.

Rather than come to a decision on the matter in the Procedure Committee, it was decided that this issue should be considered by the House as a whole. The only way that the Procedure Committee could do that was to make a recommendation for change and thus report it to the House. If it had decided not to make any change there would have been no report and your Lordships would have been unable to express a view. Therefore, there is no recommendation to make this change but your Lordships should make the decision; in other words, it is a kind of collective passing the buck. I beg to move.

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Moved, That the First Report from the Select Committee be agreed to (HL Paper 16).--(The Chairman of Committees.)

Following is the report referred to:

    1. The general debate day

    The Committee considered a proposal to move the general debate day from Wednesday to Thursday for an experimental period from February 2001 to the end of the present parliamentary session, There would also be, subject to agreement in the usual channels, general debates on important issues on a few Mondays, Tuesdays or Wednesdays.

    Certain members of the Committee were opposed to the proposal. They reported opposition among backbenchers they had consulted.

    The Committee noted that there was opposition to the proposal, but decided that it was proper that the House itself should debate and decide the issue. If the Committee rejected the proposal, there would be no report from the Committee for the House to debate. For this reason, the Committee recommends the proposal to the House so that the House may decide.

    2. Ministerial statements

    In March 1999 the Committee recommended that "while there will be exceptions, the time for the two Opposition front benches and the reply to them should be limited to 20 minutes, as for the back benches." It is difficult in practice to define the exceptions, and the reference to exceptions has been omitted from the Companion to the Standing Orders. On some recent occasions, when long statements have led to long contributions from the Opposition front bench spokesmen, the rule has led to ministers cutting short their answers to the spokesmen, in order to comply with the 20 minute limit. The Committee approves the practice of the House that statements should not be made the occasion for immediate debate. However, the Committee recommends that ministers should not cut short their replies, even if this means going beyond the 20 minute limit.

    3. En bloc appointment of sessional select committees

    The Committee recommends that the Chairman of Committees should, at the beginning of a new session, be entitled to move en bloc the motions appointing select committees, deputy chairmen and any other bodies nominated by the Committee of Selection, without the need for a Business of the House motion. There should instead be an italic notice on the Order Paper of the day informing the House that the Chairman of Committees will, unless any Lord objects, move the motions of appointment en bloc.

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