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The noble Lord said: My Lords, I tabled this amendment in order to enable the House to make a clear decision regarding the arrangements for Thursday sittings. Perhaps I may briefly remind the House how we have reached the present position. In April last year, the Leader's Group on working practices recommended:
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, the recommendation was that the House should sit for government legislation until 7 o'clock but the House would not adjourn until 9 o'clock so that an Unstarred Question could be taken.
Lord Carter: My Lords, I quoted directly from the report. That is all that it said. I believe that the noble Lord is mixing up the point that I am about to make. The report of the Leader's Group was referred to the Procedure Committee for implementation. The committee interpreted the recommendation of the working group to sit from 11 a.m. until 7 p.m., with the arrangements that we have had for the past year whereby the House sits from 11 a.m. until 1.30 p.m., there is a break from 1.30 to 3 p.m., Starred Questions take place at 3 p.m. and whipped business finishes at 7.30 p.m., followed by an Unstarred Question and the House rising at 9 p.m.
That arrangement was clearly unsatisfactory. In June this year, I tabled a Starred Question on the subject and suggested that the views of the House should be sought through a questionnaire. The noble Lord the Chairman of Committees may remember that, in the exchanges at Question Time, he said that a majority of the Deputy Speakers preferred:
I mention that because of the clear understanding at the time that something resembling the pre-Recess Thursday arrangement would apply if option three in the questionnaire were accepted. As we have heard, the response to the questionnaire was quite clear: 368 Peers voted and there was a majority of 54.3 per cent for starting at 11 a.m. with Questions and for going through until 7 p.m. I have spoken to a number of Peers from all parties who have supported that option. They clearly thought that their vote was for something similar to the pre-Recess Thursday arrangements with no lunch break.
Once again the Procedure Committee has decided to interpret that result with, in my view, the very confusing recommendation, which is now before the House, that the House should sit on Thursdays without a break when there is a Second Reading, a general debate or a number of short items of business, which are undefined, but that there should be a break if the House is in Committee or is considering a Bill in its later stages. As we have heard, Unstarred Questions will be taken in the lunch break on those occasions.
Clearly the Procedure Committee was uneasy about its own recommendation as it helpfully indicated how to amend its report if the House did not want a lunch break on certain Thursdays. Equally helpfully, I have tabled the amendment that the Procedure Committee suggested to enable the House to reach a clear decision. I cannot help wondering why the Procedure Committee suggested such an amendment if it were confident that it was properly reflecting the wishes of the clear majority in response to the questionnaire.
My amendment enables the House, if it wishes, to approve an arrangement that on every Thursday the House will start at 11 a.m. with Questions, go straight through until 5.30 p.m. when whipped business will finish, conclude with an Unstarred Question and rise at 7 p.m. That was the original recommendation of the Leader's Group on working practices. From the questionnaire it was found that that group strongly supported an early start and finish on Thursdays.
I feel that the proposal of the Procedure Committee is something of a muddle. In my view it goes against the clear wishes of the majority of Peers who responded to the questionnaire. What happens on a Thursday if there is a Statement? The House will have to take the Statement and have a lunch break; it will have to do so because an Unstarred Question will have been tabled for the lunch break. So we shall have a Statement and a lunch break.
If the Procedure Committee's proposals are accepted on some Thursdays the House will break and on others it will not; on some Thursdays when government business is tabled the House will break and on other Thursdays when government business is tabled the House will not break. If it is a pre-Recess Thursday, the House will go straight through anyway, whatever the business. What a muddle.
If my amendment is accepted, the Government gain nothing. They will lose half an hour of government business compared with our present arrangements. We have to consider the clear advantage to the House of the whole arrangement that will apply to all Thursdays, with whipped business always finishing at 5.30 p.m. I have spoken to a number of colleagues who have to travel from the north or from Scotland, and such an arrangement would be to their advantage. It would give them a chance to get home on Thursday evenings. However, it is an arrangement which, in my view, a clear majority of the House supported when opinions were sought. I beg to move.
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I thank the Chairman of Committees for introducing his Motion. I hope that we shall not have a long debate on it. There is a great deal of serious business to do, including an important Statement. I regret the amendment that has been moved by the noble Lord, Lord Carter. I hope that he withdraws it. If he puts it to a vote I hope that the House will support the conclusions of the Procedure Committee which has made its recommendation, as outlined by the Chairman of Committees.
The committee report accepts a very substantial change to the way in which we have always carried out business; namely, that Questions should be taken every Thursday at 11 a.m. Many noble Lords are not
The issue before the House is whether there should be a break on Thursdays as there is on every other day when we deal with government legislation. In itself it is not an issue of earth-shattering importance, except to those who are most affected by it; in other words, those on the Front and the Back Benches who actively consider legislation, which is not the majority of the House.
My view is that that is precisely the kind of matter that should be left to the usual channels to decide, as appropriate. As a former member of the usual channels, I would have hoped that the noble Lord, Lord Carter, would have agreed with that. Of course, there should be no break when there are Second Readings. There is no dinner break for Second Readings on any other day and there is no muddle and no confusion, so there is absolutely no reason for there to be any confusion on Thursdays. There is nothing complex about it. Likewise Statements will be taken in due course as they are on any other day of the week. But legislation is difficult, it is hard, and those on the Front Bench dealing with amendment after amendment need and deserve some time off, as do Back-Benchers who play a part.
The questionnaire that was sent out was originally drafted to pose questions about an hour off during the course of the day, but it was deemed by the Procedure Committee to involve far too many options and to be too complicated. Therefore, it was brought down to a minimal and simple level that we could all understand and detailed consideration was left to the Procedure Committee. That is what was done.
I do not quite understand the motivation of the noble Lord, Lord Carter. Does his amendment just concern finishing at 5.30 in the afternoon rather than 7 p.m. or 6.30 p.m.? I cannot believe that it does. As the noble Lord has just said, accepting his amendment reduces the amount of time available for scrutiny of government legislation by half an hour every Thursday. We sit roughly 30 Thursdays a year so we are talking about 15 hours and that is about two-and-a-half days. Will the Government find a way of making up that time or are they embarrassed about the House scrutinising their legislation on the Floor of the House in the way that we do?
I have long championed the obvious solution to this whole problem of Thursdays, which is to swap Wednesdays and Thursdays. Thursdays could be a general debating day, so we would not have to worry about whether there is a break or not, but in the past that has not found favour. I believe it is a solution to which we should return. I think the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, thinks it is a good idea as well. Surely
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