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9 Jan 2003 : Column 373continued
(1) Standing Order No. 57 (Presentation and first reading) be amended, by leaving out paragraph (3);
(2) The following Standing Order (Bills brought from the Lords) be made:
'57A.(1) If a Member informs the Clerks at the Table of his intention to take charge of a bill which has been brought from the Lords, the bill shall be deemed to have been read the first time on the day on which the Member so informs the Clerks, and to have been ordered to be read a second time on such day as he shall appoint, and shall be recorded in the Journal of the House as having been read the first time and ordered to be read a second time on the day so appointed, and shall be ordered to be printed.
(2) If a public bill is passed by the Lords and carried to the office of the Clerk of the House at a time when this House is not sitting, then, provided that a Member shall have notified the Clerks at the Table, in writing, of his intention to take charge of the bill
(a) the Clerk of the House shall arrange for the printing and circulation of copies of the bill, and
(b) the bill shall be recorded in the Journal of the House as having been read the first time on the next sitting day and as having been ordered to be printed pursuant to this standing order and to be read a second time on such day as the Member shall have appointed.'; and
(3) Standing Order No. 78 (Lords amendments) be amended as follows:
Line 1, after 'bills', insert 'and Lords reasons';
Line 3, at end insert 'and the provisions of S.O. No. 57A (Bills brought from the Lords) shall apply to the appointment of consideration and the printing of Lords amendments and reasons as they apply to the appointment of second reading and the printing of bills brought from the House of Lords'; and
Line 5, after 'bills', insert 'or Lords reasons'.[Mr. Caplin.]
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. HeI think the author is a hehas 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
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.
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.
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?
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 gapa holein the evidence needed for an interpretation.
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.