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Business of the House

6.27 p.m.

The Earl of Onslow: Before the Committee proceeds, I want to point out that 67 groups of amendments have been tabled. Your Lordships' House decided by a vote that, on the whole, we should tend to end our sittings at 10 o'clock. I concede that governments of every colour always get in a muddle towards the end of a Session, but 67 groups of amendments on an extremely important Bill means that, with only 10 minutes of discussion on each amendment, excluding Divisions and so forth, the debate will amount to 670 minutes. It is intolerable to be asked to go on talking and making intelligent decisions into the morning hours, when we shall all be groggy and tired.

I hope sincerely that we can be given an explanation by the Government business managers of how this has happened. It is completely at variance with the changed rules of the House. In the old days, there were occasionally all-night sittings, but this is not very satisfactory.

I shall be tempted to move that the House do adjourn at one o'clock tomorrow morning. I believe that normally one moves that the House do now adjourn, but I would not dream of doing that. It would be impertinent, wrong and unfair to Her Majesty's Government. However, I see no reason why we should not say that the House should adjourn at one o'clock. That hour is quite late enough for elderly gentlemen to talk about serious matters.

I want to hear from the Government what they intend to do because, as the Americans put it, I believe that there is an abuse of due process taking place in your Lordships' House.

6.30 p.m.

Earl Ferrers: Perhaps I may advise my noble friend that the House cannot "now" adjourn at one o'clock if it is not now one o'clock.

The Earl of Onslow: I was trying very hard not to say "do 'now' adjourn", only that the House should adjourn at one o'clock. Obviously the Government have a duty to get some of their business through.

Lord Grocott: I wish I had thought of that response first. I simply say to the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, that I am anxious to make quick progress on this important Bill. We are now on the fifth day in Committee. I know that there is good will on all sides to deal with the issues as expeditiously as we sensibly can. I suggest that we get on with it and see where we get to. As the noble Earl rightly said—he was generous enough to make the point—at this stage in the Session it is always difficult; we are always thinking about quarts and pint pots.

It is particularly important to complete the Committee stage because of the minimum intervals. The noble Earl knows that there will be more flexibility

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when we get to Report stage. I hope that noble Lords will bear that in mind and that we can get on with the business as rapidly as we can.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour: I know how the Back-Benchers feel but I wonder whether there has been any agreement between the Front Benches that we should not have another day for discussion of the Bill.

Lord Grocott: It was signalled on future business that we would go beyond 10 o'clock tonight. We have to do that some time in advance and, on that basis, you always hope that you will be able to conclude the Bill. Certainly that was the intention at the beginning of the five days. Admittedly there have been days when business has not progressed as quickly as one would have hoped.

I am sure that all noble Lords will agree that the House has a responsibility to complete its consideration and amendment of government legislation, as necessary, in an orderly way. I freely admit that sometimes we do not go at the pace I would wish and hope for, but, with good will, we are capable of completing this stage today. It may be that this will be the last time this Session that we have to press these late nights in quite the same way.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour: Is the noble Lord saying that this procedure has not been agreed by the usual channels?

Lord Grocott: The usual channels operate in agreement wherever it is humanly possible. It was always assumed that this would be long enough to deal with the Committee stage. No representations have been made. I do not want to go any further because it could endanger the normal confidentiality of the way in which the usual channels operate. The expectation certainly is that it would finish today.

We have spent four minutes discussing this issue. It makes my job very difficult if we constantly have these kinds of reviews during the course of progress of legislation.

Lord Elton: I do not in any way suggest that we should withhold good will, but I remind the Government Chief Whip that the Companion to the Standing Orders states:

    "It is a firm convention that the House normally rises by"—

not "at" or "around" but "by"—

    "about 10 p.m. on Mondays to Wednesdays".

It is quite a long time until prorogation next month. Therefore, to say that it is normal for this kind of pressure to exist at this time is not in accord with my memory. It may be that we have had too long a Recess or the business has not been arranged as it should have been, but I drag a little comfort from the noble Lord's remark that he hoped that it would not be necessary to do this again in this Session. I can assure him that he will be reminded of that if it is necessary.

Lord Grocott: It is a hope. That does not necessarily mean that it is an expectation. It is what I work for. I

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would not like the myth to get around that, of some 700 Peers, 699 want to get home by 10 o'clock and one does not—and that is the Government Chief Whip. Believe me, that is not the situation. I am probably more anxious to finish in sensible time than anyone else because, along with the other Chief Whips, I am here every day, whereas, quite naturally, Peers take more interest in some Bills than in others. That is the nature of the place.

We expect to finish within five days. That was discussed in the usual channels and I very much hope that it will be possible.

Baroness Blatch: Everyone understands the position in which the Government Chief Whip finds himself in trying to get business completed and the House up in time for State Opening on 26th November. However, without divulging anything that may have been said between the Front Benches and the usual channels, it is right to say that the discussions are as yet inconclusive and therefore the debate continues.

But the Government Chief Whip said that he hoped to finish today. In my book, "today" finishes at midnight tonight. The 24 hours started at midnight last night and finish at midnight tonight. Any reasonable person looking at today's groupings list would have seen amendments on two sides of A4 paper, and no one would have expected us to complete all of those amendments today.

I understand, and the Government Chief Whip understands, the anxiety felt, not by the usual channels—which are very close to the debate—but by our noble friends on the Back Benches. They seek an answer from the Government Chief Whip, not as to the time the House will rise but whether it is the intention that the House will rise only when the last amendment in the Marshalled List has been dealt with. The noble Lord has not made that clear.

Lord Grocott: Let me make it clear. It is my wish, desire and intention that we should complete the Committee stage of the Bill today, after five days. As I am sure the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, knows as well as anyone else, in parliamentary terms one of the many myths of our operation is that "today" is today. Monday continues into Tuesday if the House is still sitting, and we refer to it in that way.

The clock started late and we have probably spent 10 minutes now on this discussion. We could have dealt with another group of amendments in that time. It would help us all if we could proceed with the Bill. I must repeat that if the Bill does not finish its Committee stage today it will have quite serious ramifications for this or another piece of legislation reaching the statute book. That decision is out of my control.

The House appears to be asking me each day to finish by a set time—in other words, to use a guillotine on time—but not to have any agreement with the House as a whole as to the amount of business that can be completed in that time. I exclude the usual channels from that. From where I am sitting, that sounds very

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much like having your cake and eating it. I should spell out the dilemma to the House. If you have to finish at a certain time but you do not have the faintest idea of how much business can be concluded during that set period of time, it is an extraordinarily difficult position to be in. I am happy to be in that position, but not if I have to have this same conversation each day.

The Earl of Onslow: The phrase "cake and eating it" came from the noble Lord, Lord Grocott. But he said that we have spent 12 minutes on this issue, so let us not discuss it further because it is cutting into the time that we have allowed for discussion on the Bill. He then said to those noble Lords who said they thought the agreement was that everyone should shut up by 10 o'clock and go home—obviously allowing some leeway—that they cannot have their cake and eat it. There seem to be hordes of cakes and great numbers of scoffers around here.

That makes it very difficult if you have a genuine complaint. Only last week exactly the same problem arose. The noble Countess, Lady Mar, was tempted to make this complaint before.

If the Government had got their act together and produced Bills earlier, we would not be in this position. It is the Government's business managers' fault. In the 30 years that I have been in this House—I thoroughly enjoy saying that, it is a great, bang-on statement—I have never known this House to waste time or filibuster. It is not in its nature. We are basically reasonable.

Having made my complaint—and I hope I have made it stick—I will not do anything, but if this happens again next week or the week after, I sincerely hope that the rest of your Lordships will back me in complaining strongly about the Government's misuse of the procedures of this House, as laid down in Standing Orders.

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