Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, I would like to apologise to the House for my previous intervention—

Lord Carter: My Lords, I welcome this report, particularly item 2 on the attendance by speakers in debates. Noble Lords will be aware that, early in the previous Parliament, the usual channels agreed that a note should be placed at the top of the speakers' list, which states:

Unfortunately, we did not realise that noble Lords would treat the word "normally" as a term of art. I am afraid that the Procedure Committee has fallen into the same mistake, because the Companion clearly says:

    "Members who become aware in advance that they are unlikely to be able to stay until the end of a debate should remove their names from the list of speakers".

However, the report goes on to use the words,

    "should normally withdraw their names".

That allows noble Lords to misinterpret the clear guidance in the Companion, which states that if noble Lords cannot be present at the beginning and end and for a reasonable amount of the debate, they should not put their names down to speak, however important they believe their contribution might be.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, it was on the same point that I endeavoured to intervene on two occasions—one wrongly, I fear. I apologise to the House for my premature entry into the debate.

I wished to speak on the same point as was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Carter. It is most annoying to noble Lords who sit here for many hours listening to a debate to be told at the beginning of the debate, often by very senior Members of the House, that they cannot stay until the end of the debate. Nobody is so great that they should not obey the Standing Orders and rules of this House. What is more, whatever they have to say and however important it is, it can be left for another occasion when they can be present to hear the debate, or certainly the opening and closing speeches.

15 Jan 2003 : Column 215

I say that advisedly, but there may be some excuse for them, because some of them may be a little short-sighted and may not read the list of speakers properly. Therefore, I suggest that the notice should be placed at the very top of the speakers' list in bold red, blue or even black type, so there can be no mistaking the Standing Order. I am sure that all Members, when they see the Standing Order boldly printed, will obey it.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, from time to time, Members of the House who have not been here very long ask advice. When I have been asked advice about whether they have to stay to the end of the debate, I say absolutely that if they cannot stay to the end of a debate, they should not take part in it. I only wish that we could drop the word "normally" from the extract from the Companion that is given at the top of the speakers' list. Would the Chairman of Committees agree that the word "normally" should be dropped?

I make one other comment on paragraph 3 and the length of interventions on Statements. I agree with what it says. On occasions, we have heard enormously long speeches that deny many noble Lords the chance to intervene on Statements. However—and here I look at the two Front Benches opposite—I am not sure whether 20 minutes for what are allegedly only two questions is not a bit long and out of proportion. I say that with all due respect for the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Front Benches. I wonder whether there is any way in which to balance the time better and give Back-Benchers more of the 40 minutes, if Front-Benchers would willingly take a little less time, or if they were compelled to do so.

Lord Geddes: My Lords, I intervene both as a member of the Procedure Committee and as a member of the panel of Deputy Chairmen to endorse wholeheartedly what the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees said. It is rare that someone from this side of the House can totally endorse the comments of the noble Lords, Lord Carter, Lord Stoddart and Lord Dubs. All I would say is that those of us on the panel of Deputy Chairmen are watching the point raised in item 2 most closely. I give advance warning to the 21 Back-Bench speakers in the two debates this afternoon that I am on the Woolsack from 5.30 to 7 p.m. and shall be marking the card.

Lord Trefgarne: My Lords, I have a different point for the Chairman of Committees. Am I right in thinking that just before the meeting of the Procedure Committee on this issue, the noble and learned Lord the Lord Privy Seal—or it may have been the Government Chief Whip—circulated a private memorandum to certain members of the committee seeking to suppress discussion on a certain part of the committee's agenda? I hope that that is not the reason why, on that occasion, I had a little difficulty attracting the noble Lord's attention when I wished to speak.

Lord McNally: My Lords, I associate these Benches with many of the remarks that have been made. Will the committee look at the possibility of some sanctions

15 Jan 2003 : Column 216

being applied on those who break the rule? For example, they could be put lower down the list the next time one is drawn up for interventions. When we have discussions of this sort, everyone denies that they have ever done it and all promise best behaviour for the future, yet the practice goes on. On coming into this place, having had a short experience in another place, I found that one of the joys of this place was to take part in debates to which people listened, in which they participated and for which they stayed. I must say to the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, that I have noticed over the past few years that the main offenders are not senior people in this House, but people who were senior in another place and who still seem to think that their Privy Councillorship or their previous office give them special privileges and rights in this place, which simply do not exist.

Baroness Sharples: My Lords, does the Chairman of Committees agree that the problem with some supplementary questions is not just that they are wide of the mark, but that they are often too long and are read?

Lord Mishcon: My Lords, I should like to utter a few words in defence of the word "normally". The spirit of this is clear to the House. People who know before a debate starts that they will not be present throughout the opening and closing speeches should not participate and should withdraw their name. That is the normal situation. An abnormal situation—which makes the use of "normally" possibly apposite—is when you think that you are going to be available at the time when the closing speeches are to be made, but you get an urgent telephone call just before those speeches occur. You rush out and try awfully hard to make the person at the other end somewhat brief in their observations over the telephone, but it could be urgent. Should that person, rushing back into the Chamber, be debarred from speaking? That might be an abnormal situation, so "normally" is possibly correct.

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, I have two points. The first point, which was also made by my noble friend Lady Sharples, is that questions and answers are almost always too long. It would be a great help if Ministers could be encouraged—I am sure that the Government Chief Whip could do this—to make their answers as short as possible. People asking supplementary questions should also be prevailed upon to make them shorter. They both go on too long and it is a bore for everyone else who is trying to get in and finds that they cannot.

Secondly, does the Chairman of Committees agree that one important aspect of item 2, which he did not emphasise so strongly, is that noble Lords should be present for the opening speeches and for at least the speech before and that following their own? Noble Lords frequently make speeches and then buzz off. A very senior noble Lord did that the other day. Within two minutes of making his speech he had gone. Admittedly, he was discovered talking in another part of the House. Noble Lords should remain in their seats to listen to the following speech.

15 Jan 2003 : Column 217

Lord Tordoff: My Lords, do we not have a problem in that the major offenders in relation to paragraph 2 are not in the House today?

Lord Howie of Troon: My Lords, I am a little worried about the debate. I have been nearly 25 years in the House. The system seemed to work quite well 20 or so years ago, when I first came here. That is when I used to make speeches. Noble Lords will be glad to know that I seldom do so nowadays. It is quite feasible for someone to have an appropriate contribution to make to a debate, if only from that expertise that we continually claim to possess. It has also often happened that such a person has been in a position to contribute that expertise and yet, because of outside engagements and other eventualities, including phone calls, as the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, said, has been unable to wait until the end. We should not be too severe in this matter. "Normally" is quite reasonable. I have my suspicions, but I would not go so far as to say that this is an attempt to stifle debate. It is not. However, in a sense it has tinges of an attempt to stifle opinion, which is just as bad.

Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, next week we have a debate that will extend for two days. I ask this question because I do not know the answer. Is it imperative that the people who are down for the second day should be present on the first day?

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page