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Equally, we should not resist any reasonable--I stress the word "reasonable"--cause for change that did not advantage the Government. That is why we have agreed to matters as varied as a change in the dress of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, or even the movements of the noble and learned Lord, who is now allowed to sit not only on the Woolsack but also on occasions on the Front Bench at the Report stage of various Bills.
We have not resisted the use of the Moses Room for legislation. During this Session, we have already agreed with the Government Chief Whip that it should be used for two important and major Bills: the Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill, and, I understand, the Common and Leasehold Reform Bill.
We believe that, on occasions, changes should be made and experiments should take place. I do not believe that this proposed experiment is part of any sinister plot by the Government to make life easier for them or to erode the powers of the House. I do not believe that such a change would assist the Government that much.
I understand that many colleagues believe that this change will disadvantage the House by detracting from the Wednesday debates--moving them to the Thursday, reducing attendance on those days, and reducing the attention that is given to them. I am not sure that that would be the effect. We have seen, for example, that moving Prime Minister's Question Time to Wednesdays--it used to take place on Tuesdays and Thursdays--takes away from the coverage that we receive for debates that take place in this House on Wednesdays. It may be that moving our debates to Thursdays would increase that coverage. However brief such an experiment might be--we might hear from the Government Chief Whip as to how long the experiment might last, because he may be able to assist us as to when the election might take place--it is certainly worth having.
I am grateful for the statement by the Government in the Procedure Committee that, as part of this experiment, they will give time for more general debates on major topics on Tuesdays, and possibly occasionally on Mondays or Wednesdays. That would be a matter for the House to decide. However, I should like a categorical assurance and undertaking from the Government that that will be the case. I should like an assurance also that, if this experiment is to take place, on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays there will be no occasion, either in this Chamber or in the Moses Room, when the Government insist on the same Bill being taken on all three days.
A further point was taken up by my noble friend Lord Ferrers. He referred to an occasion when he was Home Office Minister and the Home Office introduced six Bills; and I understand that last year the Home Office had something like nine Bills. If, for example, the Home Office has that number of Bills every year, we do not want to see Home Office Bills scheduled for Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. It might be easy for the government spokesmen, with all the support behind them, but it is certainly not easy for those on the Back Benches and the Opposition Benches who take an interest in these matters. Therefore, I hope that we can have an assurance from the Government on both those matters.
I return to what I said at the beginning of my remarks. This is an important matter. It is one to which all Members of this House should give serious thought. It is not a minor change, but it is merely an experiment. I hope that all will recognise that it is a matter for the House. I hope that any pressure that has come from the Whips--certainly there has been none on this side of the House--will be resisted by all the independent Back-Benchers on all sides of the House.
Earl Ferrers: My Lords, before my noble friend sits down, will he be kind enough to clarify one point? I understood him to say that the Wednesday debates would take place on the Thursday, but did he say that there might also be other debates on Mondays and Tuesdays? If so, what is the point of the change? A great deal of the time that would have been used for Committee stages would have gone.
Lord Henley: My Lords, the reason I have asked for a proper undertaking from the noble Lord the Government Chief Whip is that there will be a general change from Wednesdays to Thursdays, but on other occasions during the year the Government will allow debates, particularly on Select Committee reports--something that this House does very well--or on White Papers, on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday; that is, on days that are generally thought to be left for government business.
Perhaps I may deal with a point made by a number of noble Lords which, frankly, completely baffles me. I refer to the suggestion that this will somehow change the timetable of legislation. There will be three days a week for legislation from Queen's Speech until June; then there will be four days a week. The three days will be Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, if the House accepts the change; and there will be Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, as is the case now. So there is no change in the number of days that will be available for legislation. One day will change: the Wednesday debate will take place on Thursday, and we shall have Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday for legislation. The number of days in the Session available for legislation will remain exactly the same.
Lord Elton: My Lords, because the days for government business will be consecutive, the noble Lord will be faced with the awful temptation, when he needs to get an item of business through in a particular week, to give it three days rather than two in Committee.
Lord Carter: My Lords, I said in the Procedure Committee that I should not seek to have three consecutive days on legislation. I would point out that not once during the course of this Parliament has that happened. I have been responsible for three over-spills, in 1998, 1999 and 2000, when the House dealt with legislation for four days a week. Not once in that period were there three days on the same Bill. I take the point of the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, regarding the Food Standards Bill being taken in the Moses Room. It was a special case agreed with the Opposition. Frankly, it was a part of the Weatherill arrangement to get the Food Standards Bill through in the over-spill. It is as simple as that.
Baroness Byford: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. Surely one of the problems is that if the Government have a great weight of legislation to get through, obviously there is greater pressure to get more of the business through--if not in this Chamber, in the Moses Room. That never happened before. I raise the example because it was less than two years ago that that Bill went through.
Lord Carter: My Lords, on occasions there have been three consecutive days of debate on Bills in the Moses Room; but the procedure is different, the day is shorter and the weight is less. I give an absolute undertaking that there will be no attempt to arrange three consecutive days on a particular piece of legislation in the Chamber. The number of Bills means that there is no need to have three consecutive days on the same Bill. I certainly take the point made by the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, about the load on Ministers.
I am afraid that the noble Lord, Lord Denham, is just wrong in regard to what may happen when the House is prorogued. As I understand it, the Prime Minister goes to the Palace and asks the Queen's permission to dissolve Parliament, an announcement is made, and there are a few days left--just a week or so, which I believe is called a "wash up" period--in which there is a tidying up of the legislation when we might lose one such day. If, hypothetically, an election takes place perhaps on 3rd May--and I have no more knowledge than anybody else about whether that will happen--this experiment would last for eight or nine Wednesdays. That is a reasonable number of days in which to experiment until the end of this Session. The matter will have to come back to the House to be renewed. If it does not work, the House will quickly make its views known. Only one day would be lost in the event of an election being called. In fact, as Chief Whip, I am planning a full Session lasting until October.
With regard to the point about three consecutive days being spent on a Bill, I was on the Front Bench for over 10 years in opposition and have now been in government for over four years. While I was the spokesman on agriculture and on health and social security, I cannot remember a single occasion on which I was ever required to spend three days together on the same Bill.
An important point was made by my noble friend Lord Grenfell. I am pleased to repeat the undertaking that I gave in the Procedure Committee that I would occasionally attempt to find a Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday for general debate. We always used to do that. It was not possible in the last Session. I can tell the House that we are already looking for such a day in February.
The noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, made an extraordinary point about deferred Divisions in the House of Commons. That has nothing to do with this debate. I think that the chance of that being agreed to by this House is very slim. However, I have some good news for the noble Lord. He referred to the business of proxies. I can tell him that the ancient habit of proxies it was decided should not be revived in the House of Lords on 13th March 1868--yet another experiment. Of course, in the timescale of some of your Lordships, it is perhaps a little too early to say!
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