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Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, meant what he said when he suggested that he would be perfectly content if, effectively, the only people in this Chamber on what would become Thursday debates were to be those taking part in them rather than listening. Having spent time in both Houses, it seems to me that one of the more agreeable and sensible habits of your Lordships is to listen to arguments before voting.
Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, has perhaps a rather more sanguine view of human nature than I. Perhaps in the Economist they are so high-minded that temptations do not arise in the same way as they do for other Members of your Lordships' House. Of course we know how high-minded Members are in another place, but we know, as my noble friend pointed out, that in spite of their good intentions and their high-mindedness the changes which he described there have resulted in effectively a part-time House.
This Chamber was a part-time House for many years, indeed many centuries. In the opinion of many conservative--with a small "c"--Members of your Lordships' House, it was all the better for it. However, I suggest to your Lordships that in one important respect the nature of Parliament has changed. There has been an increasing avalanche of ill-prepared legislation which makes it virtually impossible for this House to be a part-time House any more. If the price of proper legislation is eternal vigilance, the eternal vigilance must be here rather than in another place, because another place is the creature of the executive. Therefore, anything that aids the Government's clear intention to make this House into a legislative "sausage machine"--to use the phrase of my noble friend Lord Strathclyde--is one that we should question.
The point made by my noble friend Lord Denham is the key one here if we are to judge this issue by the correct standard, which is our effectiveness as a Chamber. It is very difficult if we are--in the best sense--an amateur House to have to consider three days in Committee on the trot. That will make the passage of legislation easier and more rapid. In view of the standard of legislation, I am not sure that I am in favour of that under governments of either complexion.
Lord Hughes of Woodside: My Lords, I am a comparatively new Member of this House and perhaps my memory is not as good as it might be. But is it the case that every Wednesday for the whole of the Session will be reserved for Private Members; is it the case that after Easter or at around mid-Whitsun there will be a four-day government week anyway?
Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, I see that the noble Lord is very sensible. As an experienced politician he never asks questions to which he does not know the answer. The noble Lord knows as well as I do that traditionally in this House in order to fulfil the imperative that the Queen's Government must be carried on and that the Government should get their business, Wednesdays are handed over to the Government. That does not mean to say that because traditionally this House has done it towards the end of term, it should extend that habit to the beginning of term as well.
I have a final point. It is not a party political point because I believe it was true of the government of which I was a member as much as it is true today. We would be unwise, as proper parliamentarians, ever to trust a government. Governments are by their nature amoral. As such, the only way that they can be kept up to the mark is by parliamentary scrutiny and control of legislation in your Lordships' House. Like my noble friend Lord Denham, I suggest that this proposal would be a small and significant step towards increasing the control by the Government of the passage of legislation through your Lordships' House. In that respect it would be thoroughly undesirable.
I was rather surprised at the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers. I was pleased to hear him say that he was not speaking for the Liberal Democrat Party. If he had been, I would have been even more surprised
I find the grounds for the opposition to this proposal very interesting. For many of your Lordships, now as before, this House remains a part-time House. I understand that perfectly well. There are many of your Lordships who rightly and understandably need to earn some money outside. We do not receive a salary here. I declare an interest--I earn a bit myself! The policy of the House should not be decided by those Members who wish to be part-time Members; I think it was said in the other context, the other way. The plain fact is that our policy on sitting times should be decided by those who wish to attend. As has been said, those who want to attend a major debate on a Wednesday will do so on a Thursday.
I do not understand why, if we decided to make the switch to the Thursday, we could not have Committee stages on that day. Another place takes Committee stages upstairs. Why can we not do something like that here? I have always been very surprised that the Committee stages of all Bills have to be on the Floor of the House as well as Report and Third Reading.
The noble Lord, Lord Denham, and the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, referred to the fact that on Thursdays and Fridays the other place is empty. If one looks at a television screen, one sees that it is empty all the time-- on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays as well. To suggest that this House should switch, as an experiment, from now until probably the beginning of April when Parliament will be dissolved for an election--
Lord Barnett: My Lords, I did not say it was going to happen; I said "probably". I have no idea when the election is going to be. All I know is that I am not standing; neither am I voting, for that matter. Peers and lunatics do not have a vote at general elections.
Lord Denham: My Lords, if Parliament is to be dissolved on 1st April, surely what will happen, as has happened at every dissolution in my memory, is that the Government will know in advance when they will call an election and the Private Members' days will stop. Therefore, the experiment which starts on 1st February is very unlikely to last more than a month--five weeks at the most, four weeks possibly. There will have been four "Wednesday" debates. That is not a long enough period in which to conduct an experiment.
Lord Denham: My Lords, if the noble Lord will forgive me for interrupting, it is being suggested that we continue the experiment until the end of this Parliament. If we are to do so, that will need another report from the Procedure Committee and another Motion to be passed by this House.
Lord Barnett: My Lords, what is wrong with that? Why should we not have debates? I love debating with the noble Lord, Lord Denham. I disagree with him most of the time. The plain fact is that we are now talking about an experiment and nothing more. It is astonishing to say that we should not have even the thought of a radical change--and how radical? Would not those who wish to speak in a debate on a Wednesday stay for it on a Thursday? It is astonishing that any one can suggest that such a change of such a modest nature should now be stopped because a few Members might find it difficult. I hope that we shall persist and switch debate days from Wednesdays to Thursdays.
Lord Elton: My Lords, I should like to follow the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, because I am drawn to my feet by his final remark that this experiment should not be denied the House on the whim that it is inconvenient for a few people. Convenience is the argument of those who want the experiment. Those who do not want the experiment are voluntarily submitting themselves to an inconvenience just as great as those who do want the experiment if it does not take place. The argument is that we are trying under difficult circumstances, as Parliament sees its power visibly leaching away from it year after year, to maintain a Chamber which can be effective in the scrutiny of legislation. And--because there is time to earn money elsewhere, as I do in order to maintain myself in the manner to which I have become accustomed; indeed, as many of us wish to do--we wish to be able both to scrutinise legislation and to earn a living.
We come to the question of the effect of the proposal on the Committee work of this House. The noble Lord, Lord Barnett, suggests that the work should be done outside this Chamber. He asked why that could not be done. I shall tell him why. This House is unique in that every Member has an equal voice in every sort of business. The Government are exposed to the expertise of every sort that is in the possession of this House. If one divided this House and had it functioning in two different ways in areas which are both important, one would diminish that element of scrutiny. At present, such off-the-Floor scrutiny is done--from my point of view, reluctantly--in the Moses Room, but in such a way that nothing controversial can be agreed there. That is an essential part of the functioning of this House. Therefore, that is not a reason for having the experiment. It is a reason against it.
The next reason against the experiment also relates to Committee work and has been voiced already by two or three speakers. I refer to the danger that the result will be a succession of consecutive days in Committee. Most of your Lordships have experienced this in opposition and have had to cope with the flood of work. The noble Lord the Chief Whip shakes his head, but most noble Lords have experienced this in opposition. If they are on the Government side, and if they are lucky and are trusted by the Government to say only what the Government want, they are fed the material with which to make their speeches.
Those noble Lords who do not have that privilege have to get the information for themselves and devise their speeches for themselves. They have to read the Marshalled List for themselves, see how every amendment fits in, guess at what the motive of an amendment is and guess at what the consequences will be. For two days in sequence, that is difficult. If there is a third day, noble Lords will put down amendments on the first day; and not only will one have to cope with the second day's debate but one will have to prepare for the third day's debate as well. Unlike a great many noble Lords, I have had that experience as a Minister. It is hell for the Minister. I say that and I hope that it is read by the Chief Whip's colleagues. It is a difficult thing to do and it is exceedingly hard work for the civil servants who brief Ministers. They often have to work into the weekend as a result. All of that adds to the tendency towards thoroughly badly prepared legislation and increases the importance of effective scrutiny. That will not happen if this proposal is introduced.
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