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9 Jan 2003 : Column 374

Lords Bills

Motion made, and Question proposed,

3.56 pm

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): I apologise for bringing back to the House a matter that I raised earlier on a point of order. In apologising to the Minister, I should perhaps explain that we were made fully aware of the potential defect in the motion only this afternoon.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell), our Chief Whip, has been seeking enlightenment from various parts of the House for the past 48 hours or so, and he has had considerable difficulty in finding the author of the motion. We understand that it has been at the bottom of a drawer for some time, but its original author has, at long last, been discovered today. He—I think the author is a he—has acknowledged that there is a potential lacuna, which my hon. Friend will refer to in more detail in a moment.

I have been a Member of the House long enough to be immediately suspicious whenever anybody from the Government Whips Office tells me that something is a mere technicality and that we need take no notice whatever of it. In such circumstances, we thought that we should look carefully at the issue. Initially, we thought that there was a potential relevance to the issue of ping-pong between the two Houses, but that does not seem to be the real problem. Nevertheless, there is a defect.

It seems to me that a point of principle is involved. If any Member, whether a Back Bencher or a Front Bencher, identifies a possible problem with any motion brought before the House, it is their responsibility to

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raise it in the House before that motion goes through so that we can deal with it there and then, rather than wait for another occasion on which to try to correct it.

I hope that the Minister's response to this brief debate indicates that he is prepared to take the motion back for further consideration in the light of the issues that we have raised with the House this afternoon and the misgiving of the author in the Clerk's Department that it may not be as watertight as he originally intended. If he does so, there will be no need to divide the House. If not, we must deal with the point of principle. We shall listen carefully to his assurances to see whether a Division is necessary.

I must tell the Conservative spokesman, the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), who remains on the Front Bench, that the shadow deputy Leader of the House has indicated that he shares our misgivings, so no doubt he would join us in the Lobby if that became necessary. Following those few words, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove may catch your eye.

3.58 pm

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove): The context for the debate is the change to the sitting hours of the House, as there will be more occasions on which a sitting of the House of Lords continues beyond a sitting of this House. It has therefore been thought fit to introduce a change to our Standing Orders such that when a Bill has completed its passage through the House of Lords and is returning to this House, it would not be necessary for this House to remain sitting to receive it at the close of business.

The motion, apart from continuing the existing procedure, albeit with a different numbering, would introduce a new procedure to, in effect, allow the House to be deemed to be sitting so that a Bill coming from the House of Lords could be carried straightforwardly and picked up by a Member of this House.

We have no problem with the principle or the theory of a change in our Standing Orders that we consider practical and sensible in the light of the change in our arrangements generally, but we see a difficulty in the proposed process. Normally, when a Bill has completed its progress in the House of Lords it is physically brought to this House and laid on the Table, at which point a Member can take it up. If this House is not sitting, however, there is no point at which a Member can take up a Bill.

Paragraph (2) of the proposed new Standing Order, in paragraph (2) of the motion, states:

and so forth. The key words are:

That seems perfectly sensible, until we ask when the Clerks can be notified of that intention. There is no start date, and no end date. In the case of our normal procedures, the start date is clear: it is the day on which the Bill has been laid on the Table when the House of Commons is in session.

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Today I asked the motion's original author whether there would be anything to prevent me from submitting to the Clerk of the House some 36 letters covering each of the Bills that the Government are taking through the House of Lords and declaring my intention of taking them up when they reach this House. If I wrote the letters today or tomorrow, I would be the first person to submit such a request and, according to the motion, would therefore appear to have absolute priority. He quite properly told me that all Standing Orders are subject to interpretation by Mr. Speaker; he also told me that such matters must be interpreted with common sense.

I fully accept both those points. Clearly our business could not proceed solely on the basis of the literal interpretation of every Standing Order, and common sense must indeed be brought to bear. Let us suppose, however, that I did not write my 36 letters tonight. Later in the Session, also on a Thursday and perhaps at about this time of day, it might become clear that our business would end before 6 pm, and also that a Bill would emerge from the Lords later than 6 pm. Would it be in order for me to give a letter to the Clerk at this point, in anticipation of that Bill's arrival, or would I have to wait for the moment at which the Bill was passed in the Lords? Or is there some other start date?

I have told the draftsmen, and the Clerk of Legislation—with whom I had a discussion today—that we are faced with the possibility of a race without a starting line or a starting time.

It could be argued that we can leave all these matters to the rulings of Mr. Speaker, and the common sense and good judgment of the House. Although I have no objection to that in principle, I think it unfortunate that, in changing our Standing Orders positively and introducing a new procedure, we may also introduce a gap—a hole—in the evidence needed for an interpretation.

In the light of this debate, the Minister may want to agree to withdrawing the motion, and to taking a second look at the two lines in paragraph 2(2) stating

We need a starting moment for such submissions.

This is not an entirely academic point. The House will undoubtedly be aware that there have been occasions when it has been a matter of contention as to who should pick up a Bill from the other place and who should proceed with it. Indeed, it has sometimes been a matter of competition as to who gets to the Table first to take the Bill up. Well, we understand the procedures of this place, and earlier this week there was an example of that kind of competitive approach to the Clerks at the Table which has yet to be fully resolved. I want to make it clear that that process is understood and is acceptable when the House is sitting, but when it is not, how does that competition find effect? How is priority given to one Member over another, where such competition exists?

In the light of advice that I received from the Clerk of Legislation, of discussions with the original drafter of this motion, and of points that have been made in the House, I hope that the Government will agree to withdrawing this motion, so that a second look can be taken and a simple and straightforward tweaking of the wording can be made, which would be for the good order and best conduct of this House.

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