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Baroness Faithfull: My Lords, perhaps I may ask my noble friend on what basis the usual channels decided that the parliamentary time would be only two days. We all know that it is a contentious Bill. We all know that it will take time. How did the usual channels decide that the Bill would take only two days?

Lord Graham of Edmonton: My Lords, from our experience, one looks carefully at the amount of time that has been taken in another place. The noble Baroness shakes her head; she either indicates that we do not do so, or that we should not do so. I simply tell the House the procedure. When considering an estimate of how long is required in this House, we consider the length of parliamentary time that has been taken in another place. We look at the level of controversy that has arisen in another place. We consider the estimate that has been put to us, perhaps two days or three days, and we simply accept it, or say that we can do the job in two days. If we had insisted on three days, there may have been a problem. I speak only for our Benches. The Government have their own timetable to keep. We try to accept our responsibility in Opposition. It is our job to expose defects in a Bill as often as possible. At the same time, we are not in the business of filibustering needlessly.

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, although the questions were posed to my noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, who moved the Motion to resolve the House into Committee, perhaps I may be given the opportunity of replying to this brief debate as I do in part bear some responsibility as to the conduct of business in this House.

I can assure all noble Lords who spoke that I am always deeply concerned when Back-Benchers complain about the lack of time made available to discuss Bills on the Floor of the House. It is of particular concern when senior Back-Benchers, like the noble and learned Lord, Lord

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Simon of Glaisdale, and my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter raise their questions in the way in which they have.

It is not only my desire but also the desire, I am sure, of the whole House that we should rise regularly as early as possible. However, we do not live in a perfect world where we can organise everything in the way that we would necessarily like.

There are a number of alternatives. Some have been raised in the report to the previous Leader of the House from senior Back-Benchers. The report discussed the case for Friday sittings as well as early rising—up until 10 o'clock. That was all part of a package which included many other aspects, such as the Moses Room procedure for Committees of the Whole House off the Floor of the House, and informal committees between Second Readings and Committee stages. Those ideas are at but an experimental stage. No sooner than the end of the current Session we shall be able to tell whether we can move in the requested direction so as to reduce the amount of time during which the House has to sit late.

As for this Bill, I am happy to admit that maybe in this instance the usual channels got it wrong. Perhaps I may follow the Opposition Chief Whip in explaining the discussions that take place and the considerations that are taken into account before reaching a decision. None of that is arbitrary; it is all carefully worked out. We naturally take into account the discussions in another place, the controversy of the Bill and the debate that took place at Second Reading in this House. In all those cases the discussions indicated that the Bill should be dealt with perfectly well in two days. However, between making that decision and the Committee stage, a great many amendments were put down and it was still uncertain how long it would take to deal with them. As it was, last night's proceedings went far later than any of us would like.

There is another consideration: the overall time in the parliamentary year. I suspect that it is the desire of most noble Lords that this important Bill should receive Royal Assent before the Summer Recess so that its provisions can be put into place. Given that and the minimum timings that we have between the different stages of Bills, it is imperative that the Bill complete its Committee stage this evening.

I hope that there is no doctrine in the House that we should not vote after nine o'clock in the evening. I am sure that the Opposition Chief Whip would disagree with that doctrine, and I am not sure that I should like to be bound to a new convention if that were the case. I entirely agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, said about last night, that although the Chamber may not have been full, in a number of places around the House small groups of Peers were discussing and debating a variety of issues.

I also hope that the House recognises that this year has not been unusual in the number of late night sittings. I hope it agrees that there have been a number of evenings when we adjourned far earlier than was originally predicted.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, asked a straight question about this evening. I am always in the hands of those who have put down amendments for

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today, but I hope that tonight we shall not go much beyond 10 or 11 o'clock. However, I repeat that I am very much in the hands of the House on the matter.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter: My Lords, before my noble friend sits down, will he answer this? If, as he said, it is imperative that the Committee stage should be concluded soon, is it imperative that it should be concluded before Friday? Would it not be possible to meet the general timetable for the Bill by finishing the Committee stage on Friday?

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, the usual channels always find themselves in the hands of Back-Benchers. But the anecdotal evidence I have is that, although some people may be keen to sit on Fridays, overwhelmingly the response I receive when I suggest that the House should do so is, "That's all very well, but not on my business". There may be an inevitability about sitting on Fridays on this Bill. That depends on the progress that we make this evening.

3.30 p.m.

Earl Russell: My Lords, perhaps I may ask a question of the noble Lord. Will he bear in mind on the allocation of time for future business that time taken in another place may be a misleading guide on Bills such as this, where much of the criticism comes from the Cross-Benches and from our own Benches?

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I hope that I indicated, as did the Opposition Chief Whip, that what happened in another place was but one consideration taken into account before the usual channels came to a conclusion on the allocated time.

Lord Simon of Glaisdale: My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords who have contributed to the discussion. I confess that I was not surprised to hear the words "the usual channels"; indeed, I would have been astonished if they had not come up. We owe a great deal to the usual channels. Although, no doubt, their primary concern is government business, they have regard to our convenience and we are grateful to them. Moreover, we have learnt to admire the individuals who compose the usual channels.

However, we should not be beguiled by their general charm and efficiency, for several reasons. First, the usual channels do not flow through the Cross-Benches. There are now 300 Members on those Benches and so far as I know none was consulted; certainly no one who took an interest in the Bill was consulted.

The second reason is that, on experience, the usual channels seem to have primary regard to putting through government legislation. That is the fundamental problem. There is a tendency to regard your Lordships' House merely as a machine for churning through a mass of legislation. Let us not forget that this piece of legislation is only required because, despite your Lordships' protests, the 1991 Act was defective.

There is a tendency to regard any amendment as something to be rejected, as was summarily done last night. The only amendments to be favourably considered are those embodying the draftsman's second thoughts.

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There is also this to be said about the usual channels. I venture to adopt what the noble Lord, Lord Cockfield, once said, that the usual channels are regarded as a conspiracy against the Back Benches. I only add, "and the Cross-Benches". However, in the end we shall find ourselves time and again in this kind of trouble if we have a mass of legislation, much of it ill-digested, some of it quite unnecessary and most of which would have been unnecessary if proper attention had been paid to the criticisms of previous legislation. In the end I hope that that fundamental lesson will have been learnt.

The Chief Whip answered one of my questions directly by saying that we were to try to finish the Committee stage tonight. He answered the other question indirectly by saying that he hoped that we would finish by 10 or 11 o'clock. I cannot conceive of it being possible, with proper discussion, for us to reach the end of the Committee stage of the Bill by that time. I hope that the Chief Whip will be in his place at 10 o'clock tonight to take cognizance of the situation.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.


3.39 p.m.

Earl Russell had given notice of his intention to move Amendment No. 58:

Before Clause 18, insert the following new clause:
(". In Schedule 1 to the 1991 Act, leave out paragraph 11 and insert—

Effective date of assessment

"11.—(1) Subject to sub-paragraph (2), a maintenance assessment shall take effect on such date as may be determined in accordance with regulations made by the Secretary of State, and that date may be earlier than the date on which the assessment is made.
(2) Where no maintenance assessment is in force with respect to the person with care and the absent parent, the effective date of a new assessment shall not be earlier than the date on which the assessment is made or, where a notice threatening an interim assessment has been issued under section 12(4) of this Act, the date on which such notice was sent to the absent parent.
(3) This paragraph shall have effect from 5th April 1993.".").

The noble Earl said: I have been listening. Not moved.

[Amendment No. 58 not moved.]

[Amendments Nos. 59 and 60 not moved.]

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