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The Countess of Mar: My Lords, I support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris. It may be of interest to noble Lords to know that our egg-timer is not always perfectly accurate. Sometimes it is jinxed and therefore we may not get three minutes. Therefore, in view of all the modernisation that is going on at the moment, perhaps a modern timepiece would be more appropriate for your Lordships' House.
One point that the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, did not bring to your Lordships' attention was the reminder that conversations should be carried out in the Prince's Chamber rather than on the Benches of your Lordships'
I have listened to all the speeches that have been made on the subject of the Wednesday debates. I have yet to make up my mind. I have served for nearly 25 years in your Lordships' House. I cannot believe I am the only one who recalls the time when we sat only on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. We used to have a three-day week. Therefore, that argument is spurious. However, as I said, I have yet to make up my mind which way I shall vote when we come to a Division.
Lord Hacking: My Lords, I wish to make a brief intervention. This is not a Whipped matter on my side of the House. It is a free vote. I rise to say, first, that, regrettably, I will be unable to support my noble friend Lord Graham if he puts his amendment to the House in a Division. I very much hope that my noble friend will not put his amendment to a vote. It seems to me that the proposal is premature and that it would be better considered in the new House which will form after the end of this Session.
Secondly, it is important that there should be a real consensus on this issue. Clearly, from this afternoon's debate there has not been. Thirdly, as far as concerns the carrying out of experiments, it does not seem to be a very good time to carry out an experiment in April and May when the Government's business is welling up and when the House is under unusual pressure. If the experiment is to be carried out, the appropriate time will be when there is a reconstituted House and at an earlier time in our proceedings.
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton of Eggardon, and congratulate her on the quality of her report. I was initially rather suspicious about the setting up of this group. I shared those suspicions with the noble Baroness. However, she and her team have done a very good job. This resulting debate has demonstrated that there is, on the whole, little disagreement with the proposals of the Procedure Committee.
On the matter of Divisions, I initially did not feel strongly about the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, on changing the Division time from six to eight minutes; and therefore, if we were to keep the egg timer idea, it would also mean that the first stage would be four minutes. But having heard the debate, and in particular the persuasive words of my noble friend Lord Burnham, I wonder whether it might not be better either to have two egg timers or to use a stopwatch for the first three minutes.
My final point on the noble Baroness's report relates to the working group's proposals for training. Like my noble friend Lady Carnegy, I prefer the term "information", or at least "advice", on the procedures of the House. Since the general election an enormous number of new Peers have entered this House. The overwhelming majority have taken to its customs and traditions extremely well. They have made a tremendous effort to understand exactly how we operate. There are normally very good reasons why the House operates as it does. But I think that there has also been recognition that we need to find better ways of giving that advice to new Peers. I hope that we shall not allow this proposal to be dropped entirely, and that the Procedure Committee will be advised as to how it will be advanced.
The noble Baroness's report is very much in contrast to Part 2, dealing with the general debate day. The noble Baroness dealt with some extremely controversial issues. She carried out wide consultation with various parts of the House and asked for evidence from the Front Benches. That information was turned into a report which was debated through the usual channels before being presented to the Procedure Committee. I suspect that that is one of the reasons why there has been so little debate over that part of the report.
The issue of the general debate day has been dealt with in a different way. This proposal was put forward to the Procedure Committee by the Government Chief Whip. Not a great deal of consultation took place. During the course of the Procedure Committee's work, it became increasingly obvious that there was no consensus whatever. That is why the committee made no recommendation.
The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, was absolutely right. The point is that the House should proceed on agreement. It is one of the great traditions of this House, where there is no Speaker, that on procedural matters every effort is taken to reach a broad consensus on these kinds of matters. That is why I rather regret the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, has tabled his amendment. I hope that the noble Lord will not press it to a Division--first, because I believe that he will lose, but also, this debate having taken place, it may be better for the proposal to be put back into the usual channels for wider consultation.
I am in a slightly difficult position. When I was Government Chief Whip I recommended this change to my own Front Bench. At that time my Front Bench said that they did not want to undertake such change for some of the reasons that have been given. They saw no advantage in it, as well as the principled argument. I withdrew my recommendation--in fact I do not think I even discussed it with the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, who was then my opposite number as Opposition Chief Whip.
If the noble Lord, Lord Graham, presses his amendment to a Division and wins, then we should agree certain principles in relation to this House. The first is that a Bill should not be taken on three consecutive days in the same week. Secondly, there should be an understanding that it will make business on Fridays--especially controversial business--considerably more difficult than has been the case up until now. Thirdly, if Thursday is to become the general debate day, secondary legislation on Thursday evening following those debates will also be much more difficult. I should like a recognition from the Government that they will not seek to do that. That is not for the convenience of Front-Benchers; it is because of the great interest that Back-Benchers have in secondary legislation. Therefore we should not be obliged to do that.
One of the reasons that this has gone wrong is that Peers did not have enough warning that this experimental stage might take place. I was approached last week by one of my noble friends who is on the boards of various charities and other organisations. He said that he had made appointments for every Wednesday purely because that fitted in with the way the House arranged its business, and that if this proposal were to be accepted he would have to change them all.
The most important point of principle and practice is that this is an experiment at a time when the whole House is about to undergo a massive experiment if and when the reform Bill that is before this House goes through. For that reason, if there is a Division, I shall support my noble friend Lady Young.
This has been a useful debate. I conclude from it that, if we are to make these procedural changes in the future, it would be far better for it to be done in the way suggested by the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton, rather than as presently suggested.
Lord Carter: My Lords, I had not intended to take part in this debate because it is a matter for the House. However, the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition asked about specific matters. I shall certainly agree that, if the debate day is switched from Wednesday to Thursday, we shall do exactly the same on Thursdays as we now do on Wednesdays in relation to debates and Unstarred Questions. I will undertake that, for the six weeks of the experiment--we are only talking about six weeks--from the beginning of May until the middle of June, there will be no week in which we take three days
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