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The noble Lord said: My Lords, as is clear from the Order Paper, and made doubly clear by the Chairman of Committees, my amendment relates only to paragraph 1 of the report of the Procedure Committee which deals with the general debate day. I have tabled my amendment for two reasons: first, to draw attention to a proposal of major consequence, which might have been overlooked by the House given the bland item on the Order Paper, following normal precedent; secondly, to enable the House to take a view of an important matter without prejudicing the remaining paragraphs of the report. So often in this House we have a report from the committee, part of which noble Lords want to contest. That often involves a difficult debate and a muddled outcome. I hope that my amendment enables the matter to be made plain and decided upon accordingly.
The Procedure Committee met on 19th December on the eve of the Christmas Recess and its report was revealed for the first time in the Minute on the morning of Wednesday last, which is less than a week ago. Following precedent, there was no signpost to indicate the importance or character of any of the items to be debated today. That I became aware of it when I did I owe to the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley. I simply draw attention to how easily these things may slip by. Following precedent, the fact that we might have such a debate today was not indicated in the weekly schedule of forthcoming business.
This is too important an issue to be passed by the House through half-closed eyes. We should be particularly alert when both the Government and Opposition Chief Whips agree any course of action. Admirable though the noble Lords, Lord Carter and Lord Henley, are, there is always a whiff of sulphur about any suggestion made when they get together. I would have preferred this amendment not to stand in my name because it may confuse noble Lords into believing that it is a peculiarly Liberal Democrat initiative. That is not so. Members on my Benches will have as much freedom as, I believe, all noble Lords to vote whichever way they prefer entirely on the merits of the issue. This should be treated today as a cross-party issue.
A very similar Motion to switch Wednesdays and Thursdays was debated less than two years ago on 22nd March 1999. On that occasion the outcome was decisive: 87 Members voted for change and 224 voted against. I say in parenthesis, in case the issue arises, that on that occasion the Motion for change was not defeated by the hereditary Peers. Among those life Peers present and voting there was a clear majority against change. However, I accept the decision of the Procedure Committee to place the issue before the House today. Nearly 80 of those who voted in 1999 have left the House and over 80 new colleagues have joined us. It is right that the House should look at the matter again, and for my part I have no complaint on that account.
I also acknowledge that, on the face of it, there are substantial arguments on either side. On 22nd March 1999 the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, was eloquent for change, as he often is. There was also a fair but forceful speech by the noble Lord, Lord Gordon of Strathblane. One particular phrase in his speech that I recall is "proportionate inconvenience", by which he meant that it was necessary to balance the inconvenience caused to Members who lived far from London against the inconvenience to those who lived in or near London if a change took place.
I recognise the argument of inconvenience and balance. I also understand the problems faced by colleagues who live in Scotland, or a hundred miles or more from Westminster, if there are late Thursday sittings. Although I am not in that category, many of my colleagues on these Benches live a distance from the House. Were that the issue I would have concluded that the balance of proportionate inconvenience favoured a change. But the crux of the matter before your Lordships' House is, on the one hand, the
Since the debate on 22nd March 1992 most of our hereditary colleagues have gone. Following election, 92 stayed from choice and there were about 10 others. They have opted to serve in your Lordships' House. In addition, some 80 new Members have joined us. They have opted to serve in this House not under duress and aware of the demands that it will make on their time and the level of inconvenience that they will be caused. With the greatest respect, personal convenience and an easier working week should not be in the forefront of our minds at any time in this House.
I am aware of the particular problem of Back-Benchers on the government side. To be Back-Benchers on the government side, whether in your Lordships' House or elsewhere, is the worst of all fates. One has the rather thankless task of attending day after day with very little to do except support the Government when asked. But that is a price that all of us have paid from time to time in order to sustain our government in power. On behalf of these Benches, that would be a small price to pay for such an opportunity. I shed no tears for those government Back-Benchers who find it a hardship to support the Government and would rather retire earlier to the country, their homes or other jobs outside.
What does the change mean if it occurs? It means that the House will begin to move, perhaps imperceptibly at first, towards a three-day week. Members are quite open about it; they want to be here on Monday afternoon and away on Wednesday evening or Thursday morning. The Chairman of Committees put the point very fairly: Members want to have fewer days when their parliamentary attendance is expected. Therefore, if we make the switch there will be poorer attendance on Thursdays for both general debates and Questions, and, although I do not have time to develop the point, the timetable for legislation will be cramped. That will not happen overnight. It will not happen during a short experiment. But ultimately there will be a diminution in the role of this House and thus in the effectiveness of Parliament. This decision should not be taken lightly, hence the amendment I have laid before the House. I hope that it will not be taken at all. I beg to move.
Lord Denham: My Lords, I rise in support of the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers. I have always taken it as a rule that one never changes the procedures in this House until one gets genuine cross-party agreement so to do. My worry is that Wednesdays have always been the prerogative of private Members of this House, a day when they have their debates. They have always been in total charge of Wednesdays. This Motion will alter that. Many very important Wednesday debates have taken place that have led to major legislation and reform, some of which your Lordships would not
There is another issue. By having a general debate on a Wednesday, the government of the day--whichever colour--can only have two Committee days running, either Monday and Tuesday or Thursday and Friday. The idea of having three consecutive days on a major Bill when the Opposition parties and indeed, more importantly, the Back-Benchers do not have the back-up that Her Majesty's Government have, is intolerable. I hope that the Government do not press this issue. If they do, it will not be a proper test at all. We are almost at the start of February with the possibility--I say no more than that--of an early general election. If there is an early election, the certainty is that Private Members' days will be the first casualties in order to get the government business through. Therefore, can we not put this on one side and bring the matter back after the election, whenever that is? It is a terribly important issue.
Lord Waddington: My Lords, we should not ignore what has happened in another place. As a result of a change in the time for Prime Minister's Questions, I am told that there has been a great change in attendance in the House of Commons. People tend to be absent on Thursday and Friday. There are repeated allegations that the other place has become a part-time House. I am afraid that could happen here. That is why I support the arguments advanced by the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, and my noble friend Lord Denham.
Lord Lipsey: My Lords, one cannot be long in this House before realising that there are two sides to every question. I had no intention of speaking today, but having heard three successive speeches on one side I felt that I should make a few quiet observations. First, it is a rather poor view to hold of Members of the House that they would not bother to stay around for a debate on a subject in which they had a keen interest if it was held on Thursday instead of Wednesday. That seems to me completely false. The debating days will be just as good. There will not be other people hanging around simply waiting for Thursday. It is the participation in those important debates that matters, not the number of people who are around the precincts of the House.
Secondly, with regard to Thursday night, it is not really about whether or not one is away on Thursday. It is that the present procedure involves many Members of the House staying, not until 7 o'clock or 8 o'clock, which might be tolerable, but until 10 o'clock, 11 o'clock or midnight by which time their trains may have left. That is not good for this House. It is particularly bad. If we are frank, we are rather London-oriented, and we could do with keeping up the numbers of people attending the House from outside London.
There has been a reference to Back-Benchers. But noble Lords on the Opposition Benches may all be Government Back-Benchers one day, may they not? If, when one agrees to come into this House one is agreeing that one will be forced to stay until midnight, or 1 or 2 o'clock on a Friday morning after one's train has gone, one may think twice about coming here. We shall become a more London-centred organisation.
This is a brief experiment. I should be surprised if Wednesday debates die during the experiment. I believe they will flourish. If I am wrong, we can go back with the greatest of ease. Unless we try the experiment, how will we ever know if it could be successful? I have been in this House long enough to know how often it supports the argument that nothing must change, nothing must be experimented with--the doctrine of unripe time. I believe that the time is ripe to try what is proposed for the brief period until the election. If it goes wrong I shall be the first to support returning to our present arrangements.
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