Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Lord Pilkington of Oxenford: My Lords, I do not wish to make a ceilidh about it, but I have a very short point to make about the giving of Royal Assent. Surely this House sits without the House of Commons being in session? As we sat for two weeks in October when the Commons were not sitting, it seems to me that the Minister is being a little invidious in saying that the two Chambers must sit at the same time.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, if I had said that it would have been wrong. But, of course, I did not say it. My suggestion to the House is that we should "generally coincide" with the sittings of the other place. If we do not and there is a two-week period when we are not sitting followed by a further two-week period when the House of Commons is not sitting, that would be a total of four weeks when Royal Assent could not be given. It is an aspect of these proposals. It is not the most important point, but it is a matter that should be borne in mind.

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House for the way that he has proposed the Motion. He is right to say that the matter was discussed during our deliberations in the Leader's Group on Working Practices. As a result, I know just how keen the noble

25 Nov 2002 : Column 568

and learned Lord is to introduce what has become something of a novelty; namely, that this House should sit regularly in September.

I also, rightly, warned that this would be a controversial decision, and pointed out that there were many different views around the House. That allows me to say that, as far as I can see, there is no politics in this: there is no advantage or disadvantage to the Government or to the Opposition as regards sitting in September, as opposed to the end of July. This is entirely a House matter. Therefore, there will be a free vote from our party. I am sure that that will be replicated in every other part of the House.

It is important that the issue should be decided this afternoon. We can then put such matters to one side and carry on with our business. It strikes me that there are three issues to be kept in mind. First, if the House is to rise early in July, that may make it marginally more convenient for those of us with younger children, who, at that stage, are already on holiday. However, it will also make it marginally less convenient for those noble Lords who do not have children and who, traditionally, like to take their holidays outside the school holiday period; namely, in September.

Secondly, if we return early in September, which, I understand, is the Government's proposal, we should consider how that will affect Members of the Front Benches on all sides of the House. When those Members realise that they have difficult—and often complicated—legislation on the horizon, they may have to return a week or 10 days in advance of the sitting in order to lay amendments and carry out all the background work involved. Therefore, far from coming back in early September, they may have to return at the end of August. I wonder what the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House has to say in that respect.

Thirdly, there is the idea advanced in the other place of returning in early September, sitting for two weeks, and then rising again for another three-week period so that Members can address their business at various party conferences. It is widely known in this House that, on the whole, there is not quite the same degree of enthusiasm for visiting party conferences as is the case in the House of Commons. If we consider September sittings, I wonder whether we have to replicate another place exactly. That sort of coming and going—toing and froing—may be more confusing for this House than it is for another place.

I also gather that the other place will be returning not so much to deal with the detail of scrutiny of government and of legislation but more for general debates, or to deal with issues that have arisen over the summer period. That would be very different in your Lordships' House, where that is an important period of the Session—the latter part—during which we deal with difficult legislation.

As regards Royal Assent, I understand that the issue is that both Houses must be sitting at the same time in order for Royal Assent to be given. I do not know whether this is guided by legislation, by practice, or by convention; or, indeed, whether it is such an

25 Nov 2002 : Column 569

insurmountable difficulty that it cannot be circumvented. After all, it was not so long ago that Royal Assent was always given by a Royal Commission, as is the case at Prorogation. However, that is not so for most Bills during the course of the parliamentary Session. I wonder whether we are entirely wise to rush into this process, given the fact that the other place is undergoing its own experiment. It may prove to be less effective than we all believe.

As the noble and learned Lord said, this is a hard-working House. I have no idea how the public would view both Houses sitting at different times. From my experience, I can make only the following observation. Very often, your Lordships' House is sitting during the last week of July when the House of Commons has risen. At that time, I believe that public opinion views extremely favourably the work that this House accomplishes.

Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House for moving this Motion. Perhaps I may make a suggestion on a subject on which the noble and learned Lord led with his jaw. The noble and learned Lord might care to issue a business statement at the end of each Session setting out how many hours we have sat, how many days a week we sat, and how much work we accomplished. That would give the world outside a clearer view of the endless hard work carried out in this House and ensure that it is perceived less as some form of a Gilbert and Sullivan opera.

I turn to the arguments before the House. With its normal extraordinary judiciousness, my party is somewhat divided on the issue. The reasons are as follows. The suggested rising in mid-July and sitting throughout most of September has the great advantage of being family friendly. As the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, pointed out, it means that people with young children—or, for that matter, grandchildren—can spend more time with them. That is an important consideration for many Members of the House.

However, there is another clear and important argument to make. I refer to the one mentioned by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Privy Seal; namely, that we should keep more closely in step with another place if we follow its proposals for modernisation. Two real difficulties would arise in that respect. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, made a comment that I believe applies more to his party than to mine. He said that there is no huge enthusiasm for party conferences. My party is wildly enthusiastic about party conferences. It hugely enjoys them. There is always an atmosphere of extraordinary comradeship and friendliness and almost no division of opinion. Therefore, members of my party and, in particular, the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, who is the greatest decoration of our party conferences because he presides over them, would be very sad if not many people attended them. The difficulty of sitting, rising, sitting again and rising again is also associated with the proposal.

25 Nov 2002 : Column 570

I want quickly to advance another consideration which concerns those of us who have a great interest in foreign affairs. Real problems are involved in moving to the proposed new pattern. Effectively, it means that one can never visit another country when its own legislature is sitting. That, in turn, immediately weakens the amount of information that people can bring to this House through work that they do in other parts of the world and, not least, through work done in Europe. That is a serious consideration. I believe that many of us can see the extent to which congressional influence in the world has suffered because so few congressmen and women now travel for any length of time to other parts of the world. I simply want to advance that as a thought on the other side of the argument. But I leave it to the extraordinary wisdom of my colleagues in the House to come to the right answer.

Lord Boston of Faversham: My Lords, it pains me to differ from the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House, especially on House matters. I have great affection and admiration for him but I find myself unable to support his Motion this afternoon. I hope that he will forgive me not only for that but also because I cannot even bring him the comfort of being able to claim that English is not my first language. As a matter of fact, for all practical purposes and despite being partly Italian and partly French, it is my only language. Nevertheless, I hope that the noble and learned Lord and I will remain friends at the conclusion of this debate.

The statement last Monday by the noble Lord the Captain of the Gentlemen-at-Arms was very helpful. One hopes that it will prove to be a precedent over the years. The only part that I found myself unable to accept was that relating to the Summer Recess. That statement said that the two Houses of Parliament,


    "work best when the sitting patterns . . . run roughly in parallel".

I agree with that. But the noble Lord went on to add,


    "as has been the case in the past".—[Official Report, 18/11/02; col. 144.]

That is not quite the case. I am sorry to have to disappoint the noble Lord for I am fond of and respect him as well, but it has been precisely at this time of year—that is, the time around the Summer Recess—that we have tended to be out of line with another place.

For some years now, we have tended to sit for days—sometimes for a week or so—longer than another place before rising for the Summer Recess. Similarly, we have reassembled earlier than another place. That has been understandable and perfectly proper. It has been partly, if not mainly, because we have to deal with Bills—normally the more controversial ones—which reach us later in the Session after starting in another place. Therefore, not only are we not in parallel with another place at this time of the year; I submit that this is the very time of the year when it is appropriate for the two Chambers to be out of alignment. In case anyone thinks otherwise, of course I appreciate that it is possible for both Chambers to

25 Nov 2002 : Column 571

coincide. But I suggest that not only is that not necessary; it is perhaps better and understandable if we do not sit at the same times.

The Government Chief Whip's statement also indicated that, even under the new proposals for recesses, there is already proposed to be a difference between the two Chambers, as was the case last year. In February next year, another place will be in recess from 13th to 24th February. We shall get,


    "a day or two [probably] during the week beginning 17th February".—[Official Report, 18/11/02; col. 144.]

I would add to that, "if we are lucky".

Another important and significant point that has not been raised thus far in the debate in arguing for not resuming in September and then adjourning again until mid-October is the vast annual Summer Recess programme of maintenance and improvement of the palace by the Parliamentary Works Services Directorate. The proposed change would involve two periods of disruption. I suggest that having to take up and put back the floorboards, together with the other disruption caused, on two occasions would make matters very difficult. Such an operation would also be costlier, less efficient and more difficult to control. That is especially the case with regard to the timetable of any of the various contractors whom we commission from time to time.

We are served splendidly by the Parliamentary Works Services Directorate and the Parliamentary Estates Directorate, as we are by all our staff—the Clerk of the Parliaments' Office, Black Rod's Department and the others as well. Of course, the staff of the Parliamentary Works Services Directorate will say that they could cope. They will cope with any obligations that we lay upon them—we need have no doubt about that. But that is not to say that that is the best, most efficient and least costly way of dealing with these matters. As a former Chairman of Committees, I had direct dealings with the Parliamentary Works Directorate, as it was then called. The staff of that department need to have a good run at such work during the Summer Recess. If at all possible, except when there is an emergency recall, for example, that is the way to get the best out of it.

As we know, and as has been said already, another place has already decided its views on this matter. I do not know how carefully another place considered the matters concerning parliamentary works. Of course, it is not for us to intervene in the affairs of another place. Each House is free to decide upon and control its own procedures, conduct and operation. But that only serves to emphasise that it is for us to decide on the best way to deal with these matters. I hope that this afternoon your Lordships will decide to keep things as they are.

3.15 p.m.

Lord Trefgarne: My Lords, I am conscious that, when we discussed and considered these matters a few months ago, I attracted the reputation of being something of a dinosaur. I shall do my best to dispel that reputation now. The resistance which I then

25 Nov 2002 : Column 572

offered to some of the proposals that came before us from the Procedure Committee and, indeed, in the proceedings of the Procedure Committee itself was based on one premise only: the need to ensure that we retain the capacity to hold all governments to account in all circumstances. I do not want to suggest that this issue ranks high in that type of consideration. I hope that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Privy Seal will think again about this proposal.

I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, about the need for your Lordships to be involved in overseas visits and other activities outside your Lordships' House during September. I do not suggest that we all need to go away at that time simply to earn our livings or matters of that nature, but overseas visits on foreign policy, defence and other matters can be properly scheduled only in September.

There is then the consideration referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Boston of Faversham. This is an old building. Much work needs to be done to it in the Recess and will no doubt continue to need to be done for as far ahead as we can foresee. There is then the question of the staff, who would have to be recalled, perhaps for just two weeks in September at a time when they would otherwise not have to be here and, indeed, when they might be attending upon missions conducted by your Lordships overseas.

I recognise that it was agreed long ago that this matter would be considered now, early in the Session. There is much merit in that. However, there is also a difficulty. At this stage we do not know where we shall be in the business programme by mid-July or mid-September, so there is still a degree of uncertainty. I agree that the Motion refers to the progress of Business but we are seeking to decide now whether or not we should sit in September.

I hope that the noble and learned Lord will reflect again upon the Motion. I do not believe it is appropriate at this time. The noble and learned Lord concluded by stating that this is a trial arrangement. It is the case that the detailed arrangements we agreed earlier this year were said to be subject to reconsideration after a couple of years. However, the Motion before us says nothing about a trial. Therefore, I hope that we can disregard the Motion on that account.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page