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Lord Harris of Greenwich: My Lords, I hope that we shall not have a Second Reading debate on this Bill today. The noble Lord, Lord Henley, referred twice to Holy Week. From my recollection over a number of years in this House, I can remember many controversial pieces of legislation being debated in Holy Week without any complaint from any part of the House. It is a bit rich to say that this Bill is being steamrollered through the House. It has been subject to lengthy debate, properly so, in the House of Commons and it will have lengthy debate, very properly, here as well. I can see no argument whatever against the proposal of the Government Chief Whip to hold this debate beginning Monday week. It will be a prolonged debate, as will be the Committee and Report stages. Let us get on with the business as soon as we can.
The Lord Bishop of Norwich: My Lords, I am very impressed by the expressions of devotion from the Opposition Front Bench. I can spot at least four noble Lords from my own diocese. We look forward to seeing them in church on the Monday and Tuesday of Holy Week.
First, I should like to express my gratitude to the Government Chief Whip for his kindness in seeing me privately yesterday and for his courtesy in writing to the Archbishop of Canterbury to explain the decision about the timing of the debate, which he much appreciated.
Whatever our interest or lack of it in the particular subject of this Bill, it is nevertheless a constitutional issue of considerable importance. Because of the historic role of bishops in this House and their long corporate memory, they are sometimes able to offer advice to the House on constitutional matters. It is therefore a pity that the timing of this debate--at the beginning of Holy Week--makes it extremely difficult for all of us to attend and impossible for most. This has nothing to do with party issues. We on these Benches have no interest in delay for its own sake. We might or might not have supported the Government. That is not for me to say. We are rather proud of our tradition of unpredictable independence. But it is a pity that we shall not be given the chance to express our opinion one way or the other. The House might have been interested to hear what we had to say.
Lord Renton: My Lords, in view of the very serious situation that occurred yesterday with regard to the European Commission, which affects the whole life and future of the European Union, are we to be given an early opportunity to debate that matter?
Baroness Goudie: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the Jewish Passover starts on the Wednesday before Easter and that Holy Week in the Christian Church is at the same time? Holy Week in the Orthodox
Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, following the comments just made by the noble Baroness, I am absolutely shocked that a matter of such constitutional importance is to be debated in this House during Holy Week. I am even more shocked by the comments of noble Lords on the other side whom I highly regard. I do not believe this to be a laughing matter or that there should be chit-chat while noble Lords on this side of the House seek to make a serious point.
Invariably the Passover holidays coincide with Holy Week. For the past 10 years I have taken my mother to Israel to visit my brother to share the Seder Night together on Wednesday 31st March. When I knew there was a possibility that this might arise, despite the fact that I intended to travel with my mother and husband, I asked the airline to hold a ticket for a flight late on Tuesday night. I believe that this particular debate is far too important to miss.
I do not believe that the noble Baroness the Leader of the House can possibly be responsible for such an insensitive decision. I must believe that somehow or other this is a directive from one of her honourable colleagues in the other place who have not appreciated the sensitivity of this matter to many in this House. From the comments made on the other side, perhaps it applies only to noble Lords on this side of the House. I beg the noble Baroness to appreciate--as I am sure she does--that she is not just the leader of Peers who take the Labour Whip but is Leader of the House. She should do her best to speak for all Peers and send that message to the other place. This is an extraordinarily important matter.
Lord Richard: My Lords, I am sorry that the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, does not feel that we are treating this subject with the seriousness that she obviously believes it deserves. She may be right. I shall tell her why I say that. We do not treat it with seriousness because we do not feel that the party opposite believes what it is saying.
I spent six-and-a-half years as a fairly fluid part of the usual channels. Some of that time was spent in opposition and some in government. Not once in those years was the question raised of the quality of legislation and debate in this House during Holy Week. When the other party was in government I did not detect a great deal of restraint on its part as to the legislation that it proposed to debate in that particular week. Certainly, at no time did the party opposite come to us and say it was terribly sorry but it could not put in Bill X because it was Holy Week and therefore it had to put in Bill Y.
When I was in government at no stage did the party opposite come to me and ask that we should not deal with a particular piece of business during Holy Week. I just do not believe that the Opposition are sincere in
Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, following what the noble Lord, Lord Richard, said, perhaps your Lordships will take it from me, as an equally fluid member of the same usual channels at an almost identical period, that, whatever the religious feelings being expressed today in your Lordships' House, I well remember a number of occasions--I do not wish to be ad hominem about it, but in particular one in which the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, was much involved--on which a sense of total outrage was expressed at the idea of important legislation being taken either at the very beginning of a Session after a break or at the very end of a Session before a break.
I hope and believe that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, and I, who were then responsible for those matters, met noble Lords opposite in their objections. I am sorry to find that that honourable tradition is being broken in this case.
Lord Pilkington of Oxenford: My Lords, I hope that without controversy I may escape religious devotion and underline what the right reverend Prelate said. The bishops of this House have sat in this House for longer than almost anyone else. It seems unfortunate that the Government did not consult the Archbishop before the decision was made. It is not a question of whether we attend church in Holy Week. There are 26 bishops in this House. Before the Reformation the clerics were in a majority. We are making a massive constitutional change. It seems to me insensitive, to say the least, that the Leader of the House did not pick up her telephone and ring Lambeth Palace and ask. It seems unfortunate that the right reverend Prelate had to raise the matter at this stage.
Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, I do not feel qualified to pontificate on Holy Week and whether we should have any particular form of business then. However, during his remarks, the noble Lord, Lord Henley, raised the question of the debate next Monday on the future financing of the European Union. I wish to address myself to that issue.
Since the report was published only yesterday, and there has been no government response, why on earth should we debate that report from Sub-Committee A of the Select Committee next Monday? I understand that the chairman of the Select Committee wanted the matter debated before the heads of government meeting. But, with respect, the report is to this House. It is not to the heads of government meeting. Nor is it to the Government. Members of this House will not have had time to read and assimilate the report, consult and formulate their own views in the short time available. Many will not know that the report has been published.
The contents of the report--I shall not go into them--are hardly likely to be helpful to the British Government, although they may be helpful to those who want to get rid of our rebate. I hope, therefore, that my noble friend will reconsider the timing of that debate and put it back further so that Members of this House can properly consider what has been said by Sub-Committee A of the Select Committee.
Lord Tordoff: My Lords, perhaps I may make a brief response. I understand the problem that Members of your Lordships' House will have in dealing with an important report at short notice. However, Sub-Committee A worked extremely hard on the report in order to get it out in time for it to be debated before the European Council meeting.
One of the problems for the Select Committee is the timing of our activities. If we begin too soon the proposals may be in such an embryonic state as to be useless when they are finally agreed. On the other hand, if we leave things too long the amount of influence that a report from your Lordships' House can have once the decision has been set in concrete makes the whole exercise useless.
On this occasion we felt that it would be sensible to have the report out in good time before the meeting of the Council on, I think, 25th March. To that end, Sub-Committee A speeded up its inquiry and produced the report. I believe that it was announced in forthcoming business on Thursday of last week.
I recognise the difficulties with which noble Lords may be faced, but I believe that it is more sensible to have something before your Lordships' House at a time when it can do some good, not after the matter has become dead.
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