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House of Lords

Wednesday, 18th December 2002.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Portsmouth.

The Lord Bishop of Manchester

Nigel Simeon, Lord Bishop of Manchester—Was (in the usual manner) introduced between the Lord Bishop of Portsmouth and the Lord Bishop of St. Edmundsbury and Ipswich.

Standing Order 22

2.40 p.m.

Lord Denham asked the Leader of the House:

    Whether he will draw the attention of the House to Standing Order 22 (Lords not to converse whilst the House is upon business).

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Williams of Mostyn): My Lords, I am deeply grateful to the noble Lord for giving me this opportunity to remind delinquent Lords of the terms of Standing Order 22. It reads:

    "If any Lord has occasion to speak with another Lord while the House is sitting, they are to retire to the Prince's Chamber, and not converse in the space behind the Woolsack; or else the Lord Speaker is to call them to order, and, if necessary, to stop the business in agitation".

This is therefore quite a modern problem: the Standing Order is dated 30th March 1670.

Lord Denham: My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord for his Answer, and I hope that, after this, the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack will not be agitated too much in future. Does the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House agree that this practice has become far worse in recent years and that it is sometimes very difficult to pay attention to the debate because several conversations are going on at the same time? I wonder whether the House could not comport itself better when Question Time ends. There tends to be such a chorus of conversation as Peers leave the Chamber that it is very difficult to hear the opening few minutes of the first speech in the following debate.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I think there are two serious points here. I believe that some noble Lords do not realise that their carefully wrought aphorisms, intended only for their immediate neighbour, are in fact picked up by the microphones. It is very disconcerting, particularly if one is trying to answer a question, because one simply cannot hear the question. The noble Lord, Lord Denham, is right. Very often I have sympathised with colleagues on the Opposition Front Bench, and on ours, who are trying to address the House above a good deal of noise as

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noble Lords leave the Chamber. In March 1999, the committee chaired by the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton of Eggardon, reported that,

    "too many Lords have taken to conducting background conversations in the Chamber. This should be strongly discouraged".

I think we would all agree with that.

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House agree that if we are to continue with a self-regulated House it imposes a responsibility on all of us to stick to the rules? We should be grateful to my noble friend Lord Denham for having raised the matter. I am aware that on occasions I have been seen to whisper to one of my colleagues and I shall now desist.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, the trouble with whispers is that they are normally not whispers at all. Plainly, this is something that the life Peers have learnt from the hereditaries.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, does the Standing Order also refer—

Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, may I?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I think that it is the turn of the noble Baroness, Lady Williams.

Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, she thinks so too. We appreciate the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Denham. Despite the astonishingly high quality of conversation on the Liberal Democrat Front Bench, we accept a certain degree of guilt by association. We therefore confess that we have some responsibility in the matter. In future we shall maintain a trappist silence during all appropriate periods. We thank the noble Lord, Lord Denham, for his Question.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I believe that a good deal of the blame rests on the Liberal Democrats, but I forgive them.

Baroness Boothroyd: My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord agree that if supplementary questions related more directly to the substantive Question on the Order Paper your Lordships would be less likely to hold conversations behind the Woolsack or elsewhere? Will he also keep in mind and acknowledge that this place is after all a Parliament where we parley and speak? It is not a morgue.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, addressing myself to the last part of that observation, it sometimes feels like it. It is true that supplementary questions often do not relate to the Question. The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, now firmly declines to answer such questions. As the noble Lord, Lord Denham, pointed out, it is difficult to hear if other noble Lords are speaking at the same time because what they say is picked up by the microphones.

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The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth: My Lords, I am sure that these Benches are grateful for the noble and learned Lord's absolution. Would he care to comment on the difference between a whisper and a conversation?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, whispers are much more interesting.

Lord Tomlinson: My Lords, as the Standing Order ultimately requires the sanction of stopping "the business in agitation", will we be given a demonstration of "in agitation" so that we shall recognise it when it happens?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I do not think that the Standing Order is free of all doubt. It should be considered by the Privileges Committee. Does the agitation refer to the business, to your Lordships or, Heaven forfend, is it supposed to relate to my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor?

Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord accept that the conversations that go on are not only off-putting for the speaker and those listening to the speech but are also most disturbing for the occupant of the Woolsack at the time? Can the noble and learned Lord tell me when was the last occasion on which the Standing Order was enforced, by whom and against whom?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, speaking from memory, I think it was 15th January 1572.

Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, although conversation is forbidden, can one talk to oneself?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, one should not, but one does.

Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord agree that such conversations create additional difficulties for those Peers who are hard of hearing? There are quite a number of them in your Lordships' House.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I agree that such conversations are disconcerting when one is trying to give a courteous and full reply whether one hears fully or not. Such conversations are discourteous, as the noble Lord, Lord Denham, implied in the Question.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, should not the Standing Order apply particularly to noble Lords on the Front Bench who often chatter among themselves when they should be listening to the debate?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, the Standing Order should be particularly appropriate for those who are members of single-member parties.

Lord Boston of Faversham: My Lords, will the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House also bear in mind, unlike another place, this is the only matter

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upon which our Speaker and Deputy Speakers are empowered to act from the Woolsack so far as order in the House is concerned and that there are those of us who would not wish to impose any additional burdens upon our Speaker in respect of order in the House?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I accept that. We are all willing to blame others for doing what we normally do ourselves. There was one occasion when I believe the noble Earl, Lord Russell, challenged one of my noble friends as regards asperity of language but I have not myself come across agitation in your Lordships' House recently.

Japanese Knotweed

2.48 p.m.

Baroness Sharples asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What they are doing to stop the spread of Japanese knotweed.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Whitty): My Lords, the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 provides measures for prohibiting spread of this invasive species. Under Section 14 it is an offence to plant or otherwise cause Japanese knotweed to grow in the wild.

Waste containing Japanese knotweed is controlled under the Environmental Protection Act 1990 and the Environment Agency produces detailed guidance for landowners and managers on how to control this species.

Baroness Sharples: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that Answer. Is it correct that much research is devoted to the problems caused by Japanese knotweed? When I first asked a question on the matter in 1989 nothing much was going on. Therefore, I am grateful for the noble Lord's reply. Have any successful prosecutions been brought under the 1981 Act?

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