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Lord Grenfell: My Lords, I shall be brief. I begin by apologising to the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, for having anticipated the end of his remarks. I am not sure that I want to be characterised as a Labour Back-Bencher with very little to do, as the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, suggested might be the case as regards some of us here; and I am not against an experiment. But I am very doubtful whether this is the right way for the House to go.
I have not been a Member of the House for very long but I have gained a little experience. One of the great dangers we face is that we have not learnt the lesson of the past few years. Your Lordships' House has far too little time in which to complete its work. When I say "work", I do not just mean delivering the Government's business; I also mean all the other work which the House of Lords must do for it to be an effective revising Chamber. I therefore worry about that.
There are currently no fewer than nine Select Committee reports waiting to be debated. I do not know when time will be found for them. If we are to have this experiment, one of the results I fear, as has been mentioned by other noble Lords, is that attendance will inevitably tail off during the latter part of the week. Many noble Lords have referred to what might happen on a Thursday. God forbid what might
While I am not against an experiment--I believe that in the end experiments can and very often do throw up the right answer--I have grave doubts about the suggestion. I do not want to see a House that gives the appearance of being only a three-day-a-week House. That is not right for a revising Chamber. Our responsibilities are far too heavy to go down that route. I therefore issue a strong word of caution on this proposal.
Lord Marlesford: My Lords, I should like to support the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, rather on the same grounds as those put forward by my noble friend Lord Cranborne. The Government find, as all governments find, Parliament an inconvenience. But that is the function of Parliament. If it were not an inconvenience, it would be nothing. We have already seen introduced measures to reduce that inconvenience. My noble friend Lord Waddington referred to Prime Minister's Questions. There is another much more relevant example. It is again a limited experiment down the corridor. From the beginning of this Session, on an experimental basis, without all-party agreement, it has been decided that all votes, other than those on legislation, which would otherwise happen after 10 o'clock at night should be held as deferred Divisions after 3.30 p.m. on the Wednesday.
That is the antithesis of the role and functions of the House of Commons. Indeed, I wonder why, while they are about it, the Government did not seek to change the rules so that at the beginning of a Parliament each Labour MP could cast a proxy in favour of the Government Chief Whip to enable all votes to be cast on the Government's behalf. After all, such a measure could be claimed to be rooted in the Labour tradition of the trade union block vote, which was so convenient for so many years at Labour Party conferences. Actually, I think that it would be rather unwise because the time may come when the Labour Party is in opposition--just as it may come when the Liberal Democrats are in government! But I get the feeling that the Government would like their Chief Whip, in the Commons at any rate, to behave like a ring-master in a circus. They certainly seem to have reduced the Commons from being a lion to a pussy cat. But your Lordships' House is not a pussy cat and it must from time to time roar and bite. We have to be extremely vigilant when we see all these so-called convenience measures.
It is not long ago since I took some part in blocking a proposal from the Procedure Committee that any Written Answer in Hansard of more than two pages should not be printed at all. Luckily, with support from all sides of the House, we saw that one off. I
Baroness Strange: My Lords, speaking as an hereditary Peer, I have always felt it my duty to be here and to be of such service as I can. Speaking as an elected Cross-Bench hereditary Peer, to that duty is added the honour and the gratitude which I owe to my fellow Cross-Bench Peers. As a Peer who lives in Scotland, I would certainly find it very convenient to have a three-day week. But I am alive, and because I am alive I am aware that things change all the time. I am not against change as such, but in this case I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank. I do not think that just a short time before a general election--everyone seems to have a different idea as to when it will be--is the right time to make a drastic change. We should think about it and perhaps try later.
Lord Peston: My Lords, I intervene as a Labour Back-Bencher with very little to do. That is one of the reasons that I am sitting here listening to this preposterous debate. I echo the words of my noble friend Lord Barnett. The most preposterous part of the debate is the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, whom I have known and admired for an enormous number of years, should have adopted this extraordinarily reactionary position. Before the debate I wondered who would make the most reactionary speech. I am looking around at several noble Lords. They spent 18 years in power unable even remotely to reform this House in any way and they are still at it. I am really sorry to see that the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, has got himself mixed up with such people.
On the actual subject of the debate, I am astonished to learn that the future of the House depends on whether we have sixth-form debates on a Wednesday or a Thursday. What an astonishing view! I take part in those debates. I am taking part in one tomorrow--the debate of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale. I am looking forward to it very much. But the notion that these debates are portentous and have major effects on the nation is staggering. I have spoken many times in such debates. I did not think that anyone was listening. I do not accept the idea that such debates affect something "out there". I would probably have spoken more carefully if I had realised that anyone was listening.
What puzzles me even more is this. What is wrong with the personal convenience of your Lordships? What is wrong with an easier working week? When did it suddenly become a crime or a sin? And what is wrong with having fewer days? Many of us who have been here for many years would have put our hands up for fewer days at all times.
Could the noble Lord address his mind to the fundamental argument about the Back-Bench day, the Wednesday, which we share with the Cross Benches, on which none of the Back-Benchers on this side of the House has been consulted, so that it is only today that we can express our opinion?
Lord Peston: My Lords, I am delighted that the noble Lord is expressing his opinion, but he does not realise how cynical I am. If the Back-Bench day had been a Thursday, my view is that all the noble Lords opposite would be arguing for a Wednesday, if that were being put forward. What they do not like is any change whatsoever. They automatically say "No". That is what the Procedure Committee does. This is our first attempt to try to do something sensible.
I have two other remarks. If the House is unable to find time--and I think even my noble friend Lord Grenfell was worried about how much we are able to do other things--why not abolish the Wednesday debates altogether? That would give us much more time, but no one is suggesting that and I do not think it would stand up at all.
My last remark is on the suggestion, which takes me back to my role as a Back-Bencher, of the legislative sausage machine. The present Government, despite their massive majority and their great victory in the country, have not attempted to obtain, and still have no intention of doing so, a majority in this House. We on this side have operated throughout this Parliament in a considerable minority compared with noble Lords opposite. Anybody who has sat here these years and can describe what has been going on as a legislative sausage machine cannot possibly have any experience of this place. I remember when we had a legislative sausage machine; it was all the time I sat on the Front Bench. We could not win a single vote without an ambush. We all found the idea of ambushes most distasteful, but it was the only way. If there is a legislative sausage machine, it is certainly not something that this side has ever put forward or in my judgment ever will put forward.
Earl Ferrers: My Lords, I feel sorry for the poor, unfortunate noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, for being subjected to such castigation by the noble Lord, Lord Peston, who said that he could not understand why on earth the noble Lord should do this, that he is always against change and so on.
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, for saying that it was the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, who pointed this matter out to him. I am also grateful to the noble Lord because he pointed it out to me. When one sees the report from the Procedure Committee it all looks perfectly harmless, until one begins to read it. I had the privilege of being a member of the Procedure Committee, and I remember this great argument. On the whole, those who did not want the change tended to outweigh those who did, and then the report indicated nothing. It was decided that the committee should report the fact that there was a division of opinion and that therefore the matter should be considered by the House as a whole.
Musical bumps operate in all these matters, and I was shoved off the Procedure Committee. I was quite happy about that, but I did not know what happened thereafter, except that by chance I met the noble Baroness the Leader of the House. She will not think that I am giving away any government secrets when I report that she happened to say to me in the Prince's Chamber, "Well we managed all right in the Procedure Committee without you". I thought that that was charming; I was not certain whether it was a compliment or the reverse. It was only later that I discovered that the committee had decided to try to get the matter through your Lordships so that we should make the change.
I do not think, in a nice avant-garde way, that we should make this change. The noble Lord, Lord Barnett, said, "It's only a small change; it's just a little experiment". Well, the housemaid with her baby said that it was only a small baby, and tried to get away with it like that. The noble Lord says that it is only for an experimental period, but the 70 mph speed limit became permanent; it was never simply an experiment.
The point is that if the Wednesday debate, the general debate, is moved to a Thursday an awful lot of people who are not interested in hospitals in the South East, for instance, will not come on Thursday, and there will be a dead House. If there is Government business on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, the Wednesday business is usually well attended. One of the privileges of this House is that people listen as well as speak. But if one is made a life Peer and is told, "You're a working Peer", how does one work? The answer is that it is by making speeches, and when one makes a speech one prolongs the debate for everyone else. That can be quite disagreeable. Therefore, I think that it would be bad to change the day from Wednesday to Thursday, because it would mean that Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday would all be occupied with government business, and those who are not interested in Thursday would buzz off.
The noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, says, "That's quite a good thing, because some of us live a long way from here and we didn't realise that we would have to stay here till Friday". All I can say about that is that he should find out the temperature in the kitchen before he enters it. If he does not like the prospect, he ought not to come here. To suggest that if one comes here one should then curtail the hours of debate for reasons of one's own convenience is a bad thing.
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