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House of Lords

Tuesday, 8th April 2003.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The PRINCIPAL DEPUTY CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Portsmouth.

Royal Assent

The Principal Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Grenfell): My Lords, I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that the Queen has signified her Royal Assent to the following Acts:

Health (Wales) Act,

Community Care (Delayed Discharges etc.) Act,

Police (Northern Ireland) Act.

Select Committee Reports

2.36 p.m.

Lord Barnett asked the Leader of the House:

What would be a reasonable time between publication of a Select Committee report and a debate on the report on the Floor of the House.

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Williams of Mostyn): My Lords, what is a reasonable interval varies case by case. It depends on various factors, including when the Government's written response is issued, whether the debate is to take place before or after that response and the point in the Session at which the report is published. It also depends on chairmen's requirements, including whether they try to insist on prime time.

Lord Barnett: My Lords, not being chairman of any particular committee, I am not sure what my noble and learned friend is talking about. I know his interest is at the heart of all this and government priorities obviously matter. On the other hand, is he aware that the Select Committee on Economic Affairs has produced a major report on globalisation that was published on 18th November and no date has yet even been proposed? Will my noble and learned friend accept—knowing what an agreeable man he is, I am sure that he will—that the work of Select Committees is effectively destroyed if there is such a long delay between the publication of a report and its debate? If he agrees with that, as I am sure he will, what does he propose to do about it?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, my noble friend said that I am always agreeable and that is, in fact, true. I am about to demonstrate that by partly agreeing with him. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, will wish me to recount the facts. The EAC published that report on globalisation on 17th January. The

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Government responded on 21st March. We offered a debate in prime time on Monday 17th March. That was not acceptable. We offered a three-and-a-half-hour debate on Thursday 10th April. That was not acceptable. If the esteemed chairman of the Economic Affairs Committee wished to have a debate on a Friday, we could have accommodated him at very short notice.

Lord Hannay of Chiswick: My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House agree that it is slightly ironic that this House has probably the most respected system of reporting on European Union affairs in the form of written reports, and probably the most dilatory provisions for debating them?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, and I have been in contact on this. We are looking forward to the debate on 9th May. His committee may have the answer to the problem, which is to have debates in prime time in Grand Committee—that is one possibility—or to have debates in the Unstarred Question time for an hour and a half.

Lord Peston: My Lords, as the esteemed chairman of the Economic Affairs Committee—although, unlike my noble and learned friend, I am extremely disagreeable—I ask him to recognise that for once he has not quite got his facts right. I was offered four or five dates at different times. What they all had in common was that every time I accepted one it was then taken away from me, including the two that my noble and learned friend mentioned.

To be constructive, will my noble and learned friend bear two things in mind? First, some reports, such as another one from the committee that I chair to do with the present state of the economy, have value only if they are debated fairly soon after they appear. Otherwise, it is a complete waste of time. The second thought that noble Lords generally might like to consider is whether we could add your Lordships' Select Committees to the group who can have debates on Wednesday afternoons. We could also expand the capacity of Wednesday afternoons by having three two-and-a-half-hour debates that day. One could take one's chances on whether one was first, second or third. That way, we could increase our ability to debate these topics and allow the Select Committees to have as good a chance as the political parties and others.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, the esteemed chairman of the Economic Affairs Committee said that he was disagreeable. He was offered three hours' prime time on Monday 17th March, but he did not wish to accept that. We offered three and a half hours on Thursday 10th April and he did not want to accept that. As far as Wednesday is concerned, subject to the recommendations of the Procedure Committee, I would be very content to try to accommodate. However, we have a heavy legislative programme—an appropriately heavy one—and we have legitimate

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demands for Statements on Iraq, for instance, which rightly take up our time. There is the alternative, which we shall look at on 9th May, of having debates in Grand Committee. There is no reason apart from inertia and the fact that it has never been done before—neither of which qualifies as a reason—why we should not do it.

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord not think that there is every reason why we should not do it? The whole purpose of a debate is to have the whole House. We do not want to go into a little committee room and have a debate there.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, it is not a little committee room. It is the Moses Room, which has been admirably refurbished under the direction of Black Rod. It is hardly a lurch from the Chamber. In fact, if one actually comes to debates very often, as I frequently do, one will know that the House is by no means filled to over-capacity.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House is to be congratulated on his suggestion of the Moses Room. It shows his skills. If we did have any debate there it could not possibly do any harm because no one can hear a word that is said there.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I therefore understand the merits of the Moses Room. The noble Lord is for once quite wrong. Had he been to the Moses Room recently, he would know that it is perfectly easy to hear what all the contributions have to offer. Whether that is an advance I leave to your Lordships. However, it is perfectly easy to understand everyone.

Lord Jopling: My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House understand that very many noble Lords feel that if these reports are shuffled off to a Grand Committee and downgraded in that way the press, who take little enough interest in our affairs anyway, will take even less interest?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, what we have done on this particular report on globalisation is to offer two periods of prime time—Fridays in the Chamber where all noble Lords who have an interest can attend. What I am trying to do is to accommodate the reasonable request of the noble Lord, Lord Peston, to have debates reasonably promptly after the reports are published. With the best will in the world, if your Lordships are not willing to sit in the morning—

Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, perhaps I may ask the noble and learned Lord about his rather bizarre suggestion that these debates on Select Committees should take place on Wednesdays, which are days set

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aside for debates for the different political parties? I hope that he will not assume that his suggestion would be generally acceptable.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, the suggestion may or may not have been bizarre, but I was not its father. The paternity belongs to my noble friend Lord Peston.

Lord Barnett: My Lords, my noble and learned friend is being very generous with time, which is not generally welcome. Is he flexible enough to agree that better use could be made of the time that is available to us? For example, I understand that, next week, we shall debate North Atlantic salmon—

Noble Lords: No.

Lord Barnett: Perhaps the debate is tomorrow, my Lords. I am sure that noble Lords are fascinated with the subject.

Noble Lords: Yes!

Lord Barnett: I am sure that they are, my Lords. However, I hope that my noble and learned friend will accept that globalisation is a rather bigger issue than Atlantic salmon.

Noble Lords: No!

Lord Barnett: My Lords, have we spent only six minutes on this Question or has the clock stopped? May we have a few minutes more to discuss Atlantic salmon or globalisation?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, if we are having a debate on North Atlantic salmon next week, I think that the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, will be the only one present.

Your Lordships cannot endlessly have the penny and the bun. If we wish to sit truncated hours, as we do, then something has to give. There is no real reason why we should not work on Fridays or in the morning.

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