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Lord Richard: My Lords, I did not intend to say anything until I heard the noble Lord, Lord Jopling. I did not follow his argument at all. He said that moving general debates, which on his own admission rarely have a vote attached to them and are not well attended, from Wednesday to Thursday erodes the duty of good will owed by government to Opposition parties and groups and somehow interferes with the democratic rights of the Opposition. I do not see that for an instant. What democratic rights are infringed? The only difference is that the House will be empty on Thursday instead of Wednesday and that votes will not take place on Thursday instead of not taking place on Wednesday. If the Opposition have a topic that they wish to air, they can air it on Thursday with just as much fervour, skill and determination as on a Wednesday.
There may be other arguments for keeping Wednesday, but the idea that a change would erode the democratic rights of the Opposition is, with great respect to my noble friend--as I would call him--Lord Jopling, somewhat fanciful and a little over the top.
Lord Harris of Greenwich: My Lords, I wish to indicate--I suspect on behalf of all of us--our warm support for the broad recommendations made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton. Her committee produced its report
When the committee began to debate the Wednesday/Thursday issue, I did not hold a strong view on its merits and thought the argument was evenly balanced. However, I have reached the conclusion--speaking entirely for myself, and with a free vote as far as we are concerned--that I shall vote for the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Young. I will do so because I do not believe that major procedural change should be supported unless there is a broad consensus of support. There is no broad consensus of support for the proposal, as was made clear in our debate in the Procedure Committee.
If the change is made in the way that is explicit in the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Graham, I fear the consequence will be a three-day week. It was put that way by the noble Lord, Lord Denham, and he is entirely right. One of the things that we prize dearly in this House is the quality of our Wednesday debates. I believe that there would be a significant deterioration if we were to find ourselves on a three-day week. In a thinly attended House on Thursday, there would be less of a disposition to hold the Executive to account in a satisfactory fashion.
Lord Howie of Troon: My Lords, I follow three old friends of mine--my noble friend Lord Richard, my former noble friend Lord Harris and the antagonist, the noble Lord, Lord Jopling. From my accent, people might think that I would want to get away from this place on Thursday and go elsewhere in order to enjoy life there. But I live in NW11 and would be perfectly happy to come in on Fridays.
Lord Howie of Troon: Or a Thursday, my Lords. I beg your pardon. My colleagues would obviously attend on Thursday to deal with the important matters that the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, said nobody votes on. If they do not vote on Wednesday, they probably would not do so on Friday.
Lord Howie of Troon: My Lords, it would not make much of a difference. The debate would still remain terribly important. The sort of persons who are interested in debates on Wednesday and had something to contribute would come on Friday.
Earl Ferrers: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Howie of Troon, made a fascinating intervention. I am not quite sure what he wants. I think that he wants not to be here on Thursdays but on Fridays, which is a curious combination. I have the privilege of being a member of the Procedure Committee, although I regret that I was not present at the one meeting. I was also a member of the group on procedure of the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton of Eggardon. I reiterate what my noble friend Lady Carnegy said; namely, that the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton, conducted the group with extraordinary flair and understanding, and with Back-Benchers' views in mind.
If your Lordships were to read the report of the group--I have no doubt your Lordships will not do so, although it makes good reading, which I can say because I did not draft it myself--your Lordships would see that paragraph 6 states:
The report also states that noble Lords should not address one another as "you". That seems fairly obvious, but one hears it day after day. With great respect, I must say one even hears it from government Ministers. I hope that we shall keep to the third person and not to the second person. The report reminds us that,
I hope we shall try to remember these courtesies. Some people say it is difficult for new Peers because they have not become attuned to them. However, we have all been new Peers at one time or another and we had to adjust. I do not think it a good idea to alter the procedures just because it is difficult to familiarise ourselves with them.
The biggest problem arises, of course, at Question Time which is also the most exciting time and the most important time. The report suggests that questions and answers should be shorter. I say with the greatest of respect to the Government Front Bench that it would be a good thing if ministerial answers were shorter. That would make matters much more fun and much more interesting. I also believe matters would be far more interesting if questions were shorter. Nothing is more likely to flummox a Minister and not give him time to think of an answer than to ask "Why?" or "Why not?" If three questions are asked, the person concerned has time to think up an erroneous answer which probably lasts twice as long as the time taken by the questioner. It would be of great convenience if we could keep questions and answers short.
In the good old days--as a schoolboy would say--if two Peers got up to speak, one would graciously give way to the other. That does not happen now. People stand like two bulls pawing at the ground, each trying to outstare the other in the hope of winning the right to speak. Or there is the other schoolboy attitude of saying,
I hope that your Lordships will not change the general debate day. Wednesday has always been a general debate day. It splits up the government business. It is all very fine for some noble Lord--I forget who it was--to say that we can have government business on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. However, that would impose quite a strain on Ministers and civil servants, as it would sometimes on people in opposition who might be involved on all three days. I hope that that proposal will not be adopted and that we keep Wednesday as a general debate day. There is no doubt that if the general debate day were moved to a Thursday, people would stay for that debate only if they are interested in it. Some say that everyone would disappear on a Wednesday evening. I fancy that we could see that. One noble Lord said that he would like to return to Scotland on Wednesday evenings and I dare say he would. But one would see a massive exodus on Thursdays after Questions. People will find it convenient to be present for Question Time (if I may be vulgar, because they wish to claim their expenses) and then clear off home, leaving an important debate to just those who are interested in it. That would be a retrograde step and I hope that it will not happen.
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