Oral questions to Secretaries of State. Committee for Privileges and Standing Order 78. Personal Bills Committee - Procedure of the House Committee Contents

First report of session 2009-10 from the procedure committee

Oral questions to Secretaries of State

1.  We have considered a proposal by the Leader of the House that, in addition to normal oral questions, time should be allotted for oral questions specifically addressed to Secretaries of State[1] sitting in the House of Lords. We support this proposal, which will enhance parliamentary scrutiny of the departments concerned. There are currently two Secretaries of State sitting in this House: Lord Mandelson (Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills) and Lord Adonis (Secretary of State for Transport).

2.  We therefore recommend that, on one Thursday each month when the House is sitting, 15 minutes should be set aside for three oral questions addressed to the Secretary of State, immediately following the existing 30 minutes for oral questions. Where there is more than one Secretary of State in the House of Lords, as at present, they would answer questions on different Thursdays within any given month. Only the Secretary of State would answer the questions—there would be no substitution by another Government minister or Whip.

3.  Questions would be addressed to "the Secretary of State for [department]", and would be required to address matters for which the Secretary of State was responsible. In accordance with current practice, the advice of the Clerks on departmental responsibility should be accepted.

4.  The three questions would be chosen by a ballot held at 2pm on the preceding Monday. Each Member would be entitled to enter one question into the ballot, which would be opened in the Table Office one week earlier. Although we hope that this approach will bring about a degree of topicality, we do not propose any formal requirement for topicality. Notice of the dates and of the opening and closing of the ballot would be given in House of Lords Business.

5.  No more than one question on a particular subject would be accepted for the ballot; priority would be given to the question tabled first. We do not at this stage propose to limit the number of questions that individual Members can ask over a session.

6.  We emphasise that this would be an additional opportunity for scrutiny, with no impact upon existing procedures for oral questions. Members would be eligible to enter the ballot in addition to having up to one oral question and one topical question in House of Lords Business. There would be no restriction on the subject-matter of the oral questions immediately preceding Secretary of State's questions. We expect no reduction in the readiness of Secretaries of State to come to the House in person to answer normal oral questions and private notice questions.

7.  The Leader of the House has undertaken to schedule questions to the Secretaries of State from January to the end of the current Parliament. We propose that it should in the first instance be for the Usual Channels to decide whether or not to continue with the arrangements in the first months of the new Parliament, pending a formal review by this Committee before the 2010 summer recess. This would enable the House at that point to decide whether to put the arrangements on a more permanent footing. If there were to be no Secretary of State sitting in the House of Lords, we expect that the arrangements would fall into abeyance, to be revived when necessary.

Committee for Privileges and Standing Order 78

8.  The present text of Standing Order 78, which governs the appointment of the Committee for Privileges, is as follows:

78. A Committee for Privileges shall be appointed at the beginning of every session; sixteen Lords shall be named of the Committee, together with any four Lords of Appeal; in any claim of Peerage, the Committee shall not sit unless three Lords of Appeal be present.

9.  The coming into force of relevant provisions[2] of the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, on 1 October 2009, has resulted in both the disqualification of the serving Justices of the Supreme Court from taking any part in the proceedings of the House, and, by virtue of the repeal of the Appellate Jurisdiction Act 1876, the abolition of the term "Lord of Appeal". Standing Order 78 thus requires amendment.

10.  We have therefore considered two related issues: the composition of the Committee for Privileges for the purposes of its normal work (that is to say, the consideration of questions of privilege and of matters relating to the Code of Conduct); and the future conduct of peerage claims.

11.  On the first of these points, we consider it essential that, in its normal work, the Committee for Privileges should be able to call upon the expertise of retired senior judges as named Members of the Committee[3]. We believe that this requirement should be reflected in the wording of Standing Order 78.

12.  On the second point, it is clear to us that the responsibility of the Committee for Privileges for deciding peerage claims was in its origins a component part of the wider judicature of the House of Lords. That residual element of the House's judicature was unaffected by the passage of the Constitutional Reform Act 2005. Peerage claims are, and have always been, essentially judicial proceedings, and it is essential that they should continue to be decided by an appropriately constituted body. We therefore believe that the requirement in Standing Order 78 that three senior judges should be present should be retained, even though this will require the House to call upon the services of non-Members.

13.  To give effect to these two conclusions, we recommend the following new wording for Standing Order 78:

78. A Committee for Privileges shall be appointed at the beginning of every session; sixteen Lords shall be named of the Committee, of whom two shall be former holders of high judicial office[4]. In any claim of peerage, the Committee for Privileges shall sit with three holders of high judicial office, who shall have the same speaking and voting rights as the members of the Committee.

14.  The Lord Chief Justice and Master of the Rolls have confirmed their willingness to nominate senior judges to assist the Committee for Privileges in the event of any peerage claim arising. We are most grateful to them for this assurance. Our Chairman has also written to the Lord President of the Court of Session to seek the assistance of the Scottish judiciary.

The Personal Bills Committee

15.  Personal bills are private bills which relate to the estate, property, status, or style, or otherwise to the personal affairs, of an individual. Under Private Business Standing Order 154 a Personal Bills Committee is appointed each session to perform preliminary scrutiny of personal bills—a task corresponding closely to that undertaken with regard to other private bills by the Chairman of Committees assisted by Counsel.

16.  Personal bills, once common, are now extremely rare: the last personal act was passed in 1987, and the last time the Personal Bills Committee actually met to conduct scrutiny was in 1992. Nor is there any good reason why, in the event that a petition for a personal bill were to be presented, preliminary scrutiny could not be conducted by the Chairman of Committees assisted by Counsel; the bill would then be referred, as at present, to an opposed or unopposed bill committee for more detailed scrutiny.

17.  We therefore recommend the abolition of the Personal Bills Committee. Implementing this recommendation will require several changes to the Standing Orders relating to Private Business; these changes are set out in the annex.

1   We understand this term to mean cabinet ministers in charge of Government departments. Back

2   See the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 (Commencement No. 11) Order 2009. Section 137 of the Act provides for parliamentary disqualification; part 5 of schedule 18 repeals the Appellate Jurisdiction Act 1876, which defined the term "Lord of Appeal". Back

3   The Committee currently includes two former Lords of Appeal in Ordinary among its named Members: Lord Mackay of Clashfern and Lord Scott of Foscote. Back

4   The term "high judicial office" is used in the sense defined in section 60(2) of the Constitutional Reform Act 2005. Back

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