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Lord Denham : My Lords, first I thank the noble Lord the Captain of the Gentlemen-at-Arms for his very fair exposition of the events which led up to the Motion today.

Perhaps I should start by giving a brief explanation of the "next business" Motion itself. When I first came to your Lordships' House there was a delightful and highly valuable procedure known as "the previous Question". The definitive Question of course is the one before the House, and "the previous Question" was whether or not that Question should be put to the House, which would take the form, if carried, that the Question be not now put. It was used on very rare occasions when the matter under discussion was of such a delicate nature that it was thought to be inappropriate for the House to express an opinion on it by voice or in the Division Lobby. Its appearance on the Order Paper, and even on the Floor of the House, was rarer still, because the very threat to use it was often enough.

Some 30 years ago the Procedure Committee went through one of its phases of doing away with old and valued traditions, simply on the grounds that they had been around for some time. It decided that this procedure was difficult to understand and should, therefore, be changed. It was changed in name only to the "next business" Motion. As one of the self-appointed guardians of your Lordships' procedure, I must have been nodding at the time. The main difference between the old procedure and the new was that, while only dedicated aficionados of your Lordships' House understood "the previous Question", nobody at all understood the "next business" Motion. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time that it has been used. I remember one occasion when it might have been, but the matter concerned was not only of very great delicacy but also of supreme importance. It was felt that while the old name would work all right, the "next business" Motion would give the impression to the outside world that your Lordships just could not be bothered to discuss it.

With regard to the Motion in the name of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, it is generally accepted that this House works by consent. This is tempered by the equally important principle that it is the duty of an Opposition to enable the Government to get their business through--not through

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unamended, but through. It is a matter of supreme importance that these two principles should not be lost.

The Motion in the name of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, was tabled by the Captain of the Gentlemen-at-Arms without having obtained that consent from the usual channels. Furthermore, it was tabled last Friday, the day after the weekly party Whips had gone out. Of course, I wholly acquit the noble Lord, Lord Carter, of any discourtesy, let alone malice. Time was short and Chief Whips are busy people--even sometimes former Chief Whips--but I felt that it was of the utmost importance to signal it up in some way so that this could never be regarded as a precedent. In my view, simply to have voted against the Motion would have been inappropriate; first, because in itself it was not objectionable. Incidentally, I notice that since last night the all-important words,

    "and that, thereafter, the Bill be recommitted to a Committee of the Whole House",

have been inserted at the end. Secondly, such an action might have prejudiced one of the possible ways to allow your Lordships the opportunity equal to that of another place which has been guaranteed by Her Majesty's Government to consider each of the options on the Hunting Bill and make their own choice. Last night, therefore, I tabled this "next business" Motion to have the required effect. I beg to move.

Moved, on the Motion of the Lord Falconer of Thoroton, That the House do proceed to the next business.--(Lord Denham.)

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I am sure that the House will agree that there is no need for a long debate on this matter. I, like many noble Lords, am keen to move on to our critical debate on the plight of the countryside. This is not a debate about hunting or the Hunting Bill. There will be ample time within the next 10 days to determine how to proceed on the Hunting Bill.

I invite the House to support my noble friend's Motion and to dispense with the Motion of the Government for two reasons. The first reason, as my noble friend explained, is that the government Motion was set down without the agreement of the usual channels and at the shortest possible notice--on a Friday after the Whip had been sent out. It is a Motion accompanied by a statement that discussion of the options will be limited to one day only. That was made plain by the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, yesterday at col. 519 of Hansard. It may not exactly be a guillotine, but it certainly sounds like one to me.

I join with my noble friend in accepting that Ministers say that they want to be helpful to the House. In particular, I accept the Government Chief Whip's motives; I know that he sought to come to this conclusion in the best interests of the House. But I wonder how helpful it was to do so without first agreeing it through the usual channels.

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My second reason for urging the House to support my noble friend is the unprecedented nature of the Government's Motion; that is, that a normal Committee should not proceed except under the terms laid down by the Government, with only those amendments selected by the Government. That is not a course of action a House concerned to guard its freedom should take. The decision is therefore not about the merits of the Bill but about how we do business. It is about whether we keep the free and open procedures that are the unique strength of the House and the right of every Back-Bencher to put down an amendment and to be heard.

If we agree to the Motion, it will not mean that we cannot go into Committee on the Bill on 26th March; or to vote on amendments to the Bill; or, indeed, to vote on the options. If we agree to my noble friend's Motion, we will be able to see what amendments are tabled. I pledge to the House that, over the next week, we will come forward, together with other parties, to determine the best way forward, as we always have, by agreement.

The Government Chief Whip prayed in aid the example set by my noble friend Lord Ferrers in 1994. He quite rightly read out the Motion moved by my noble friend. However, the Government Chief Whip failed to examine the words of the debate itself, where my noble friend Lord Ferrers said:

    "It is, of course, open to noble Lords to bring forward any other amendments that they may wish, and they could include any other options for reform towards which your Lordships may feel disposed. I would only add, with a certain degree of humility"--

Remember, this is my noble friend speaking--

    "that there is considerable advantage in making sure that any option is simple and understandable and that the fewer amendments on the Marshalled List, the greater is the concentration of the mind".--[Official Report, 8/3/94; col. 1343.]

That is the example that we should have followed in this sorry matter.

Furthermore, it is quite wrong and unnecessary that we should need to take this decision now. The House has not had time to digest the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, last Friday, and how his ideas relate to the Bill before us. It has not had time to reflect on the Second Reading debate yesterday. Indeed, the response to the debate of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, has not yet been printed in Hansard, and we have not had the opportunity to see the amendments to the Bill and to gauge the concerns and doubts that there may be about the various options.

When we have had time to reflect on these issues, and to discuss and seek agreement in the time-honoured way of the House, then we should decide how to go forward. But it would be quite premature to accept now, without reflection, a model laid down by the Government without notice and in a form devised, I fear, as some have suggested, for their private political purposes. I urge noble Lords to deal swiftly and firmly with this Motion. We can then proceed with

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the real business of today, which is to debate the appalling problems of the countryside. I support my noble friend.

Lord Harris of Greenwich: My Lords, perhaps I may say a few words as part of the usual channels. So far as we on these Benches are concerned, if there is a vote today, there will be a free vote. My noble friend Lord Rodgers and I will be voting in one Lobby, of course, but we do not ask our colleagues necessarily to support us. They must listen to what is said and come to their own conclusions.

This has not been an easy matter to deal with. I believe that the Government made an error at the end of last week by tabling this business Motion. The noble Lord, Lord Carter, has apologised for any unintended discourtesy. I do not think any discourtesy was involved last week; if I may say so, it was an error of judgment rather than a deliberate attempt to be difficult and unreasonable.

One of the reasons why we believed an error had been committed was that we had pressed for a tripartite meeting of the usual channels. We secured that last evening. The noble Lord, Lord Carter, said that the Government were prepared to have the debate that we are having now tomorrow. For understandable reasons, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, came to the conclusion that that was not what he wanted; he preferred today if the choice was between Tuesday and Wednesday.

I believe that the House now wants the right to make a decision on the three choices set out in the Motion. It would be wrong to underestimate the strength of feeling of many noble Lords on all sides of the House that they want a brisk decision on which of the choices to adopt, and then, if need be, to consider any amendments which may be put down after that choice has been made. That would be a businesslike way of proceeding and is one of the reasons why my noble friend Lord Rodgers and I will be voting for the Motion.

We have one particular point to answer--that made by the noble Lord, Lord Denham, when he said that the Government must get their business through by consent of the usual channels. Let me make it quite clear that I believe that the Government have an obligation to attempt to secure the agreement of the usual channels--indeed, if they do not try to get such agreement they will find themselves constantly in the minority in the Division Lobbies of the House--but no one party can impose a veto on government business. The implication of the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Denham, is a great mistake. It seemed to me--although I may be doing him an injustice--that he was implying that if there was not agreement in the usual channels, that if one party in the usual channels dissented strongly, that would be the end of the matter. I do not think that any government would accept a formula along those lines; it is, in fact, entirely unacceptable.

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However, I am aware that the House now wishes to engage in the very important debate on the crisis facing British agriculture. I very much hope that we shall be in a position to make a decision in this matter as briskly as possible.

3.30 p.m.

The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, perhaps I may make just one point to the noble Lord, Lord Carter. I am certain that the cock-up theory applies here rather than the plot theory, because the world is much more frequented by the former theory. I have not discussed the matter with my noble friend; however, perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Carter, could offer to withdraw the Motion until Thursday this week and then do all he can to obtain agreement through the usual channels along the line that any Motion will be nearer to what was said originally by the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers. Surely the difference is not that great. There are dangers in what my noble friend on the Front Bench said and I accept the attitude of the noble Lord, Lord Carter. Surely it is possible to move together on this matter without breaking with precedent or establishing a new precedent. I put that suggestion to the House in the hope that it will be viewed with a certain amount of sympathy.

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