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House of Lords

Wednesday, 9 January 2013.

3 pm

Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Liverpool.

Participation of Arabs in Public Life


3.06 pm

Asked by Lord Lea of Crondall

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, in the light of the recent census results in which 240,000 respondents described themselves as “Arab”, what plans they have to promote the wider participation of Arabs in public life in the United Kingdom.

The Senior Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government & Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Warsi): My Lords, we warmly welcome the contribution of Arabs to public life in the United Kingdom and the formal recognition of this group in the 2011 census. The Government’s integration policy document, Creating the Conditions for Integration, sets out our approach to successfully bringing together local communities. We will continue to support the integration of Arabs and all other groups into mainstream communities and their participation in local life.

Lord Lea of Crondall: My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply. She is particularly well qualified, if I may say so, to help take this sort of issue forward. Perhaps she will comment on two further aspects. First, can local authorities with substantial Arab communities benefit from experiences in different parts of the country of holding seminars and cultural events where Arab participants play a specific part in taking projects forward and generally help to break the ice? Secondly, there are no Arabs in this House. Given the two very special relationships that we have in the Middle East—a topic that we debate endlessly—is not the lack of Arab participation here in very sharp contrast to the strong and indeed excellent contribution made by noble Lords with more affinity with Israel? Both communities in Britain are roughly the same size.

Baroness Warsi: I know that the noble Lord has had an interest in this matter for a number of years, and indeed pushed hard for Arabs to be included as an individual category in the 2011 census. He will be aware from the census data that the majority—just over 50%—of those who self-identity as Arabs reside in the south. The Government do not have a specific policy of engaging with groups purely on the basis of their race or religion. However, the Government do have a policy of creating conditions—both shared spaces and shared experiences—where communities from different backgrounds can come together. In relation to the noble Lord’s second question, I would welcome a member of the Arab community becoming a Member of this House.

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Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Lea of Crondall, that the noble Baroness is really an excellent Minister to answer this Question. However, does the fact that it is for the Department for Communities and Local Government and she is a Foreign Office Minister indicate that there is some difficulty in recruiting people from the Back Benches to serve as Ministers in the House of Lords? Can she explain to the House why there is such difficulty and when we might expect to see some brave men and women step forward to the front line to defend the indefensible?

Baroness Warsi: The noble Lord clearly does not know me as well as perhaps other noble Lords do. I am a Minister in both the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for Communities and Local Government, so I am simply doing my job.

Lord Tomlinson: Going back to the serious part of the original Question, would the noble Baroness agree with me if I suggest that the best way for the 240,000 people who describe themselves as being Arab to participate in public life is to go through the normal procedures for gaining citizenship of this country and then participate on the same basis as any other citizen?

Baroness Warsi: The noble Lord will be aware, as will other noble Lords, that there are many people from the Arab community—people who identify themselves as Arab—resident in this country who were born here or are British citizens. Many are extremely successful, such as Dr Hany El-Banna, the co-founder of Islamic Relief; a rower from the Arab community took part in the Olympics. I go back to the approach that this Government have, which is not to engage with communities purely on the basis of their race and religion. It is right for the Government to create the conditions by ensuring that there are no barriers to integration and equipping people with the appropriate language, opportunities and spaces to meet people of different communities and achieve their full potential.

Lord Soley: As chairman of the Arab-Jewish Forum, I think the Minister might agree with me—and I hope she does—that there are a large number of Arabs who participate as local councillors or school governors, and on a range of other issues, but they do not always get recognised. A few years ago, I very nearly got an Arab to be a Member of this House but unfortunately he got squeezed out, as people do given the vast numbers coming in these days. My noble friend, who raised this question, is absolutely right. It would be sensible. There are a lot of Arabs in this country who are full citizens and take part very fully, and it should not be impossible for one of them to be a Member of this House. Even bearing in mind that I go around saying this House is far too big in number, the principle is right.

Baroness Warsi: I agree with the noble Lord that there are many Arabs playing a hugely influential role in large parts of society, including as councillors. I think the noble Lord will also agree that those who identify themselves as Arabs have many different countries of origin, backgrounds and, indeed, religions—there

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are many people who are Arab and Christian or Arab and Muslim, for example. I agree with him. Another hugely successful Arab is Sir Magdi Habib Yacoub, whom many will know as a world-leading transplant surgeon.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: Is the Minister aware that under our constitution, only British and Commonwealth citizens can sit in this House? We almost lost the latter but at the last hour of the last Government we managed to reinstate the right of Commonwealth citizens and those of the Irish Republic. Do these questions about Arabs in this House relate to people who still look on their origins as Arab but are now British citizens?

Baroness Warsi: We are talking about people who self-identify on the census as Arab. People identify themselves in relation to nationality, ethnicity and religion. When I filled in the census data, I identified myself as British, of Pakistani origin and Muslim. These are people who are very much integrated into British society.

Taxation: Tax Havens


3.14 pm

Asked by Lord Dubs

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what further discussions they have had with European Union member states and other countries about the issue of tax havens.

Lord Newby: My Lords, the Government are fully committed to tackling tax avoidance and evasion wherever it occurs. This is an issue of international concern on which we work closely with European Union member states and other countries, in particular through the G20. The G20 focus has been on increasing international tax transparency and identifying gaps in the international tax standard to help better address profit shifting and erosion of the corporate tax base at the global level.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I have a terrible suspicion that the Minister is saying, in effect, that nothing is happening. Perhaps I may ask him this. If the Government fail to get international agreement quickly, could we as a country at least move forward by doing two things? First, could we take action in those territories where we have power or influence? Secondly, could we change the basis of taxation of those companies that do not claim any profits in this country by basing the tax on turnover rather than on bogus low-profit figures?

Lord Newby: My Lords, the accounting rules are internationally based and it makes sense to change them on an international basis. That is why we, France and Germany, between us, have given €450,000 over recent months to the OECD to come forward with proposals to deal with this issue. Those proposals will come forward and there will be a progress report in

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February. There is a strong head of steam in this country and in France, Germany and the US to tackle this issue.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: My Lords, could my noble friend just remind us what action was taken by the last Labour Government between 1997 and 2010—over those 13 years—on tax havens? Is it not extraordinary that we now have such enthusiasm from the Benches opposite to do something, when they had that opportunity and, I believe, did nothing?

Lord Newby: My Lords, the Government greatly welcome the enthusiasm from the Benches opposite for the initiatives which we are now taking.

Lord Barnett: My Lords, global agreement is clearly important and I am glad that the noble Lord and the Government are seeking it. However, that will take a very long time. Would it not be better to do as I think my noble friend Lord Dubs was saying—to seek agreement among some of the smaller areas where countries are doing these things, such as the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man? Are we doing anything there?

Lord Newby: My Lords, there has been a lot of activity to increase transparency in relation to the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man so that we can now request information about an individual’s tax affairs. A major change is that we are moving towards what is called an enhanced automatic tax information exchange, the first of which was signed with the Isle of Man. This means that every year we will automatically get details of the tax affairs of UK-based individuals with accounts in those countries. We will find out what payments have been made into bank accounts in those countries so that we can make sure that those people are paying adequate amounts of tax. That deals with individuals, however, whereas the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, deals more with corporates.

Baroness Kramer: My Lords, perhaps I may pick up on the Minister’s comment. On 1 January the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, commonly known as FATCA, came into force in the United States. This Act requires all foreign financial institutions—banks, credit unions, pension managers and insurance companies—to find out which of their clients are liable for US tax and to send details of their account balances and transactions to the US authorities. When can we have our own FATCA—and I do not mind if we call it FATCAT—in the UK?

Lord Newby: My Lords, we signed the first agreement based on the FATCA principles with the Isle of Man in December. What is very significant about that Act is that places such as the Cayman Islands will be required to provide automatic information directly to the US about US citizens. We are now in negotiations with all Crown dependencies and overseas territories to see whether we can put in place equivalent provisions with them. If we do, it will revolutionise the amount of information that we get about the affairs of British citizens who are due to pay tax here and who have bank accounts in those territories.

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Lord Phillips of Sudbury: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the root of the problem, beyond discussion and consensus, is a grotesque disparity between the tax authorities and the taxpayers in this country? It is not David and Goliath but David without a sling and Goliath. Unless we do something about that disparity between the numbers and quality of advisers available to unscrupulous taxpayers, on the one hand, and those available to HMRC, on the other, we can forget about the rest.

Lord Newby: Absolutely, my Lords. That is why the Government agreed to put another £900 million during the lifetime of this Parliament into this kind of activity and why we announced in the Autumn Statement that we would add to that another £77 million, which we reckon will bring in £2 billion. The other important thing, in addition to this equalisation of technical expertise, if you like, is that consumers should continue to shine a spotlight on companies that may not be paying the amount of tax that most people would think is reasonable.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, although I welcome the progress made with the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, perhaps I may ask the noble Lord on what basis Crown dependencies and overseas territories could refuse information to the Government on this crucial issue.

Lord Newby: As the noble Lord knows, my Lords, any arrangement with any overseas territory or Crown dependency has to be a formal arrangement and agreement. We are not a dictator going into these countries. We are negotiating agreements with them on the FATCA principles and I hope very much that we will conclude those agreements relatively soon.

Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe: My Lords, although the additional £900 million being allocated to HMRC for tax investigations is to be welcomed, will the Minister confirm that the department is also being required to effect very substantial savings which will in fact lead to several thousand staff leaving over the next three years and that this, in turn, could interfere with its means of operating? Is not the root of the issue really about transparency? We should not simply call on consumer groups to seek to get transparency on tax issues—the Government themselves should give a lead to the whole of society in moving towards greater transparency on tax issues. Although my party may not have done that when it was in power, one hopes that some of us may be able to persuade it to do so in future if the present Government will not.

Lord Newby: My Lords, on the latter point, we are doing a lot to try to improve the way in which the system operates. As I said, however, much of the required change in law has to be based on international agreement. As for the resources available to HMRC, it is true that there is a reduction in staff at HMRC. One of the principal drivers for this has been that the way in which HMRC does its business has changed fundamentally given electronic communications—for example, large numbers of people now submit tax returns electronically. The resource needed to deal

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with that, in terms of numbers, is very significantly less. We are trying to make sure that we beef up those parts of HMRC that collect tax and go after those who have been seeking to avoid it. I think that we are achieving considerable success in that.

Homosexuality in Nigeria and Uganda


3.22 pm

Asked by Lord Lexden

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what representations they have made to the governments of Uganda and Nigeria about legislation regarding the treatment of homosexuals in those countries.

The Senior Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government & Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Warsi): My Lords, the British Government are strongly committed to upholding lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights bilaterally and with international partners. We have raised concerns about the proposed anti-homosexuality Bill being considered by the Ugandan Parliament at very senior levels. Most recently, the Minister for Africa raised the issue with President Museveni during a visit to Uganda on 21 November. We have made clear our objection to the Nigerian same-sex marriage prohibition Bill at all levels of government through our High Commission in Abuja and through the European Union Working Group on Human Rights, most recently in December 2012.

Lord Lexden: My noble friend’s strong expression of concern about the treatment of homosexuals in Uganda and Nigeria will be widely welcomed and appreciated. What measures are in place to ensure that violations of the human rights of homosexuals in those two countries are carefully monitored and raised with their Governments? What steps have been taken to ensure that asylum is available here for those fleeing persecution? Given the commitment in the coalition agreement to use our relationships with other countries to push for unequivocal support for gay rights, what success are the Government having, in association with other member states, in encouraging the Commonwealth to work collectively in accordance with its own public commitments for the dismantling of the laws that violate so grossly the human rights of homosexuals?

Baroness Warsi: My noble friend raises a number of important issues. We take LGBT rights very seriously. The matter has been raised publicly and privately by both the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary. We also support a number of NGOs on the ground, in both Uganda and Nigeria, that work to support the LGBT community and do work in relation to HIV/AIDS support and information, which relates to those communities as well as others. Asylum applications are considered, as are any other asylum applications, under the convention.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, would the Government consider amending Section 94 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act to provide that gay men

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from Nigeria have an in-country right of appeal against refusal of an asylum application, as gay women from Nigeria already do? Before making any further representations to the Government of Uganda, will the Government consult Sexual Minorities Uganda, the umbrella NGO that campaigns for legal and social equality for LGBT people in that country?

Baroness Warsi: As my noble friend is aware from previous Questions, unsuccessful asylum claimants have a right of appeal to the UK courts. Designation under Section 94(5) does not deny a right of appeal to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual applicants from designated countries, including Nigeria. However, claims from nationals of designated countries for non-suspensive appeals that are clearly unfounded must be certified as such and therefore can be appealed only from outside the United Kingdom. There are no plans at this stage to change this.

On my noble friend’s second question, the British High Commission in Kampala is in regular contact with the NGO that he mentioned—Sexual Minorities Uganda—and other Ugandan civil society groups that are campaigning for improved human rights in Uganda. We have in the past provided funding for organisations, including Sexual Minorities Uganda, for training, advocacy and the cost of legal cases related to the protection of LGBT communities and human rights.

The Lord Bishop of Ripon and Leeds: My Lords, will the Minister consult with Lambeth Palace and the incoming most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury on these issues, since Lambeth has considerable experience of relating to these two countries in particular, and of challenging their human rights records?

Baroness Warsi: We know that the church has networks in both Uganda and Nigeria. Indeed, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has called upon those networks in discussions in order to use them as influence and opinion-formers in those countries. We will continue to make sure that that contact remains strong.

Lord Pannick: My Lords, at the next Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, will the Government support the recommendation of the Eminent Persons Group to the 2011 meeting that all Commonwealth nations should now be required to respect the rights of homosexuals?

Baroness Warsi: The noble Lord will of course be aware of the Commonwealth charter, which specifically talks about the importance of non-discrimination on any grounds, including homosexuality.

Lord Triesman: My Lords, I have now read two reports that indicate that a majority of Commonwealth countries have laws in one form or another that are oppressive towards gay men and, in many of those cases, towards women as well. Supplementing the question of the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, might the Government have it in mind to see significant revisions

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of the Harare principles so that there is absolute clarity that equality of status is a key principle for all oppressed groups in the Commonwealth?

Baroness Warsi: The noble Lord will be aware that homosexuality is already illegal in Uganda, as are same-sex relationships in Nigeria. We take the position that we do and we make our submissions very clear, but it is important to note that, unfortunately, at present the positions of those two countries are supported by a large number of their parliamentarians and public.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill: Is it useful for the Minister to know that the Joint Committee on Human Rights, of which I am a member, met the recently formed Joint Committee on Human Rights in Uganda last month and we seemed to get somewhere in emphasising that anti-sodomy laws are a most undesirable colonial legacy that an independent African country should move beyond?

Baroness Warsi: My noble friend presents us with an alternative line of argument but I assure him, as I assure other noble Lords, that we use all avenues, appropriate measures and opportunities to make our views clear.



3.30 pm

Asked by Lord Avebury

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the decision by the highest court in Bahrain on 7 January to uphold life sentences imposed on eight opposition figures and human rights activists.

The Senior Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government & Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Warsi): My Lords, we are deeply dismayed by the decision to uphold sentences against this group of political activists. We have previously commented that at the time that these individuals were originally convicted, reports acknowledged by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry suggested that some defendants had been abused in detention, denied access to legal counsel and coerced into confessing.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness and to the Minister Mr Alistair Burt for the expression of concern. My noble friend will recall that the Bassiouni commission of inquiry said that the sentences of political detainees should be commuted and that they should be compensated for the tortures that they endured, and the King said that he accepted those recommendations. Why are we not pressing the King to honour his promises? Do the Government recognise that there is not the faintest possibility of dialogue, reconciliation or peace on the streets as long as the martyrs remain in custody?

Baroness Warsi: My noble friend raises an important point. He will be aware that the BICI—the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry—did not consider the National Safety Courts, the special military courts set up to try people arrested during the disturbances,

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to be the correct method, and therefore recommended a retrial. The current prisoners that my noble friend speaks about were subsequently retried and sentenced. They appealed that sentence but unfortunately it has been upheld. He is right to say that not all the BICI recommendations have been implemented. I met the Foreign Minister in November last year and I can assure my noble friend and other noble Lords that our conversation was frank, robust and honest. I made it very clear that we expect progress to be made in relation to both the BICI recommendations and the recommendations of the Universal Periodic Review.

Lord Campbell-Savours: Will the Minister make it clear to the Bahraini ambassador in London that the sending of hampers from Fortnum & Mason to Members of the British Parliament will have no influence on our judgments on human rights matters? It is not the way that we do business in this country.

Baroness Warsi: These issues are far too serious for anyone—Members of this House, Members of the other place or, indeed, the Bahraini embassy—to consider that matters can be brushed under the carpet or under a hamper.

Lord Deben: Is the Minister sure that the Bahraini Government understand just how seriously we take this? I have a feeling that it will be seen as merely the sort of thing that we do and say because we are that kind of country. I hope that she will enable Bahrain to understand that the future of our relationship depends on its behaving in a civilised way. If it does not, there really must be an understanding that that will change entirely the way that we deal with Bahrain.

Baroness Warsi: My noble friend makes an important point. We have a strong relationship—a strong friendship—with Bahrain. It is because that friendship is so strong that we can have very honest conversations. I assure him that, from the Prime Minister through to the Foreign Secretary and the Minister responsible for Bahrain, and in the discussions that I have had, we do not lose any opportunity to raise these concerns. We get real support from the other side: there is a willingness to move these matters forward. As I said in my recent discussions with the Foreign Minister, the more that can be achieved and the more progress that can be shown in terms of these recommendations from the BICI and the UPR, the better this relationship will become.

Lord Judd: In the Government’s negotiations or conversations with the Government of Bahrain, do they take the opportunity not only to raise this issue in human rights terms but to point out forcefully to the Bahrain Government that to indulge in disproportionate action of this kind is to play into the hands of extremists who seek to capture the desire of countless ordinary people for progress and human rights developments within that country, and that the way to ensure security for their country is to avoid like the plague counterproductive action?

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Baroness Warsi: The noble Lord is right that whenever you close down the space for legitimate protest, you start increasing the space where extremism can thrive. Those are the points that we make. But noble Lords may take some comfort from the fact that in the Universal Periodic Review to which Bahrain submitted itself last year, of the 176 international recommendations that came back, 143 were adopted in full and 13 partially. Therefore, progress was made by international concerted action.

The Lord Bishop of Hereford: My Lords, will the Minister give assurances that the strength of the Government’s ongoing protest at these decisions of Bahrain’s highest court will not be compromised or weakened by any other considerations? I am sure that she would agree that it is vital that we are consistent in our speaking up for those suffering injustice, and that we uphold individual freedoms of speech and expression of that, as well as, as has been referred to already, their protection from abuse in detention or anywhere else.

Baroness Warsi: I can give the right reverend Prelate that assurance.

Baroness Falkner of Margravine: My Lords, my noble friend is probably not aware that I raised this matter of Bahraini human rights with the Foreign Secretary as long ago as September 2010, and he assured me that, due to our excellent relations with the Government of Bahrain, these at that point relatively minor human rights transgressions would be sorted out. The situation has only got worse since then. Will my noble friend please go back and suggest that the matter also be taken up with the Saudi Interior Minister, who I understand is visiting the United Kingdom at the moment, and indeed the whole of the Gulf Cooperation Council, because simply talking to Bahrain and hoping that good relations will solve the issue will not do so?

Baroness Warsi: I assure my noble friend that we are not simply talking and hoping, and that some specifics have been put in place. The BICI recommendations are a starting point, and the UPR built on that. We have had some recent progress, in that legislation will be introduced to reduce the ban on associations and assembly. There have also been some specific incidents whereby permits have been given for those protests to take place. So progress is constantly being made; it is not simply a question of our talking and hoping.

Parliamentary Privilege

Membership Motion

3.38 pm

Moved by The Chairman of Committees

That the Commons message of 4 December be considered and that a Committee of six Lords be appointed to join with the Committee appointed by the Commons to consider and report on the Green Paper on Parliamentary Privilege presented

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to both Houses on 26 April (Cm 8318) and that, notwithstanding the resolution of the House of 28 May, the committee should report by 25 April 2013;

That, as proposed by the Committee of Selection, the following members be appointed to the Committee:

L Bew, L Brabazon of Tara, L Davies of Stamford, B Healy of Primrose Hill, L Shutt of Greetland, B Stedman-Scott.

That the Committee have power to agree with the Committee appointed by the Commons in the appointment of a Chairman;

That the Committee have power to send for persons, papers and records;

That the Committee have power to appoint specialist advisers;

That the Committee have leave to report from time to time;

That the Committee have power to adjourn from place to place within the United Kingdom;

That the reports of the Committee from time to time shall be printed, regardless of any adjournment of the House; and

That the evidence taken by the Committee shall, if the Committee so wishes, be published.

Motion agreed, and a message was sent to the Commons.

Select Committees

Membership Motion

Moved by The Chairman of Committees

That Lord Hill of Oareford be appointed a member of the following Committees, in the place of Lord Strathclyde: House, Liaison, Privileges and Conduct, Procedure and Selection.

Lord Tyler: I enthusiastically welcome my noble friend the new Leader of the House as an addition to all these committees, and particularly to the Procedure Committee on which I serve. However, can the Chairman of Committees confirm that, as presently scheduled, the Procedure Committee is not due to meet again until 18 March? Would it not be appropriate to ask the new Leader of the House whether he would be prepared to come to a special meeting of the Procedure Committee? I am well aware that a large number of issues are outstanding from the report of the Leader’s Group on Working Practices of your Lordships’ House. It is time, after nearly two years, that we took stock of what progress we have or have not made on those issues. No doubt, the new Leader of the House would wish to make sure that the committee was made aware of his own personal approach to these issues and that we should take an early opportunity to do so.

The report from the Procedure Committee which is coming up later in your Lordships’ House deals only very peripherally with some of these important outstanding issues. I am sure that the Chairman of

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Committees would agree that after nearly two years and some very important work undertaken by that Leader’s Group we should give them the attention that they demand. The input of the new Leader of the House would be very welcome in that respect. Will he please consider a special meeting of the Procedure Committee?

The Chairman of Committees (Lord Sewel): The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, is, as always, ingenious in the way that he brings matters before your Lordships’ House. I can certainly agree with him that there are matters still outstanding from the Goodlad report that have not been addressed in detail. I should have thought that it would be better to allow the new Leader time to study and reflect before we have a meeting. On balance I think it would be better if we stuck to the scheduled meeting and did not have a special meeting.

Motion agreed.

Public Bodies (Water Supply and Water Quality Fees) Order 2012

Motion to Approve

3.40 pm

Moved by Lord De Mauley

That the draft order laid before the House on 22 October 2012 be approved.

Relevant documents: 13th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, 9th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, considered in Grand Committee on 13 December.

Motion agreed.

Transforming Rehabilitation


3.41 pm

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord McNally): My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice.

“This Government are committed to an ambitious programme of social reform, even at a time of financial constraints. Major changes have already been delivered in welfare and education to tackle the challenge of endemic welfare dependence and educational underperformance, particularly in deprived areas. In the coalition agreement, the Government also promised to introduce a ‘rehabilitation revolution’ to tackle the unacceptable cycle of reoffending, and today I am publishing a consultation paper entitled Transforming Rehabilitation: a revolution in the way we manage offenders. We need a tough but intelligent criminal justice system that both punishes people properly when they break the law and also supports them to get their lives back on track so that they do not commit crime again in the future.

Despite significant increases in government spending on offender management during the past decade, reoffending remains consistently and unacceptably high. In 2010 nearly half of prisoners were reconvicted

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within a year of release. This rate is even higher for short-sentenced prisoners, the great majority of whom currently receive little or no support.

Failing to divert offenders away from crime has a wide impact. The Ministry of Justice alone spent more than £4 billion on prisons and offender management in 2011-12 and the wider cost of this failure is considerable. The National Audit Office estimated that the economic cost of reoffending by recent ex-prisoners was as much as £13 billion in 2007-8. I am clear that we cannot continue as before. In difficult economic times, delivering real reform requires a dramatically different approach. We cannot afford not to do this.

My proposals seek a new emphasis on life management and mentoring support for offenders in order to address the problems that lead them to turn to crime again and again. For the first time, all offenders, including those serving less than 12 months, will be subject to mandatory supervision and tailored rehabilitation on release from prison. These offenders have some of the highest reoffending rates but currently no statutory provision after the halfway point of their sentence. I want to ensure that persistent offenders do not walk out of the prison gates with £46 in their pockets and little or nothing else.

My vision is very simple. When someone leaves prison, I want them already to have a mentor in place. I want them to be met at the prison gate, have a place to live sorted out and to have a package of support set up, be it training or drug treatment or an employability course. I also want them to have someone they can turn to as a wise friend as they try to turn their lives around.

I intend to open up the market for probation services so that we can combine the expertise that exists within the public sector probation service with the innovation and dynamism of private and voluntary providers. These radical reforms are underpinned by the principles of the big society. Enabling voluntary sector organisations fully to participate in transforming rehabilitation, harnessing their expertise and making the most of existing local links will be vital to delivering the reoffending reductions we need to see.

Providers will be commissioned to deliver community orders and licence requirements for the majority of offenders and will be paid by results to reduce reoffending. They will be expected to tackle the causes of reoffending and help offenders to turn their lives around. And through the introduction of payment by results, providers from all sectors will have a clear incentive to rehabilitate offenders. We will pay in full only for services that successfully reduce reoffending.

Services will be commissioned nationally and delivered across broader geographical areas. I am committed that the new system will continue to make best use of local expertise and to integrate into existing local structures. Potential providers will have to be clear as to how they would sustain local partnerships in contracts and commissioning which will be informed by local intelligence.

Extending rehabilitation to more offenders will introduce new costs to the system and I believe that these can be balanced by drawing more providers into the system. Through increased use of competition we

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can generate efficiency savings and drive down unit costs across the system, allowing our funding to go further.

The public sector probation service does an important job in protecting the public and the Government are very clear about the value and expertise it brings. We want to use that expertise as we transform our approach to rehabilitation. There will be a continuing critical role for the public sector, which will include advising the courts and assessing the risk an offender poses to the public. Offenders who pose the highest risk of serious harm to the public will continue to be managed directly by the public sector and the public sector will retain ultimate responsibility for public protection.

These proposals will make a significant change to the system, delivering the Government’s commitment to real reform. They will fulfil the coalition commitment to introduce a ‘rehabilitation revolution’ and will realise our ambition to apply payment by results across offender rehabilitation services by the end of 2015.

Transforming rehabilitation will help to ensure that all those sentenced to prison or community sentences are properly punished while being supported to turn their backs on crime for good, meaning lower crime, fewer victims and safer communities. I commend this Statement to the House”.

3.48 pm

Lord Rosser: I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made in the other place by the Secretary of State and offer him my congratulations that he has not apparently joined the current exodus from the government Front Bench. Clearly, he does not yet feel in need of rehabilitation outside this House.

I am also grateful for having had prior sight of the Statement repeated by the Minister, which is more than the courtesy that was extended to my colleague, the shadow Minister of Justice in the House of Commons.

The Government have issued a consultation document but today appear to have made clear their chosen method of achieving what I am sure we would all agree is an important objective: namely, further reductions in the rate of reoffending. The crime rate fell throughout the period of office of the previous Government, which suggests, first, that that Government were effective in addressing the incidence of crime; and that the agencies involved, including the probation service, were doing a good job. The probation service is staffed by committed professionals who help to keep our communities safe. This was recognised by the fact that, in 2011, it was awarded the British Quality Foundation gold medal for excellence and in that year the performance of every single probation trust was rated by the Government as either good or exceptional.

Can the Minister clear up one point? It has been suggested to me that, earlier today, the Secretary of State made the statement that he wanted to professionalise the probation service. On the face of it, that would seem an extraordinary thing to say and I would be very grateful if, when he comes to respond, the Minister could confirm that the Secretary of State made no such statement.

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The Minister is a great admirer of the probation service. On 30 October, he told us:

“I am a lifelong admirer of the probation service and am in awe of the responsibilities that our probation officers take on. I cannot imagine that any future structure would not draw on the experience and ethos that makes it such an excellent service”. —[Official Report, 30/10/12; col. 549.]

In the light of the Minister’s statement just over two and a half months ago that the probation service is excellent and that he is in awe of the responsibilities that probation officers take on, do the Government’s intentions involve taking any work currently undertaken by probation officers and probation support officers away from them? Or do the Government’s proposals represent an extension of rehabilitation work involving the private and voluntary sectors which will not lead to any noticeable reduction in the number of probation officers and probation support officers?

For some time now, the probation service has been working in partnership with the private sector and voluntary groups. There is already excellent work taking place in partnership around the country. Bringing in outside experience and innovation and working together in partnership to reduce reoffending is not something new. However, to what extent do the Government intend that true partnership continues? To what extent do they envisage the wholesale transfer of key areas of probation service work to the private and voluntary sectors—in other words, straight outsourcing? If the latter is the case, is it the Government’s view that the private and voluntary sectors are more effective and efficient than the probation service—which the Minister so rightly admires and respects—or do the Government believe that it can be done more cheaply outside the probation service, perhaps because those involved in the rehabilitation work will be paid less?

It was with a view to looking for new ways to address the issue of reoffending that the previous Government began a pilot of a payment-by-results model in Peterborough. This was presumably why the previous Secretary of State launched two payment-by-results pilots in probation trusts. It is, of course, right to test properly and try out fundamentally new ways of working, because there is no history in criminal justice of payment by results. Interestingly, however, the Secretary of State chose to cancel the two payment-by-results pilots set up by his predecessor. Can the Minister tell us why? To the best of my knowledge, no proper evaluation has been carried out of the success, or otherwise, of those two pilots. Indeed, no proper evaluation has yet been carried out of the Peterborough pilot. What is the hard, evaluated, published evidence on which the Government are basing their intentions?

The current Secretary of State has form when it comes to introducing payment-by-results schemes that have not been properly tested and evaluated. He clearly prefers gut instinct or ideology over hard evidence. The current Secretary of State was responsible for the Work Programme, which involves payment by results. Payment by results is precisely what we are seeing: a lot of payment and few results. According to the National Audit Office, which presumably has a fair idea of what it is talking about, of the 800,000 people who started the Work Programme, only 3.5% were still

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in work after six months and not a single provider had hit their target. Indeed, there seems to have been a lot of subcontracting going on in the Work Programme which makes it much more difficult to identify where the responsibility lies for failing to perform. This is a factor that needs to be looked at when assessing the Government’s intentions for payment by results in our criminal justice system. It is also no secret that increasing numbers of smaller companies are walking away from involvement in the Work Programme, and that factor ought also to be borne in mind when considering the Government’s proposals on probation and rehabilitation and an intention to have greater involvement of smaller organisations including those in the voluntary sector. Where will accountability lie under the Government’s stated intentions, particularly in a situation where there may be considerable subcontracting?

The Secretary of State is proposing that only low and medium-risk offenders will be dealt with by private companies. Can the Minister confirm that medium-risk offenders include those who have committed domestic violence and burglary? Why is it that if the Secretary of State has confidence in probation retaining supervision of high-risk offenders, he does not have confidence in it to supervise low and medium-risk offenders? Is it, in reality, all about reducing costs rather than rehabilitation and further reducing reoffending?

Given that one in four offenders’ risk level fluctuates during their term on licence, is the Minister satisfied that the payment-by-results model will be able to take that into account? In that regard, how does he propose that the police and other public bodies share with the private sector their sensitive information about offenders with whom they have dealings?

The Secretary of State is seeking to increase the level and extent of supervisions and rehabilitation of offenders, and no one would disagree with that as an objective. However, is this all to be done within existing budgeted and planned levels of resources, not least financial resources? Or is it the intention at some later date to provide an increase in resources? If it is the intention that there will be no extra resources, what will happen if existing resources prove to be insufficient to achieve the Government’s intentions?

Finally, if the Government move significant chunks of rehabilitation work and reoffending reduction work currently carried out by the public sector probation service into the private and voluntary sector, will that work continue to be subject to the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act, or will the changes that the Government clearly intend to make mean, as far as this part of the criminal justice system is concerned, that we will be moving to a more secretive and less transparent operation, with less information being available in the public domain? Can the Minister give a cast-iron guarantee that in the Government’s proposals there will be no reduction in the areas or extent of activity covered by the Freedom of Information Act?

We support the objective of seeking further to reduce reoffending. However, the devil is in the detail and the means. We will look carefully at the consultation document and hope that it provides reassurances that have been sadly missing from the Secretary of State’s Statement.

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3.56 pm

Lord McNally: My Lords, first, I thank the noble Lord for those closing remarks of welcome for the initiative. As he quite rightly said, the devil will be in the detail and it is quite right that now and subsequently the House and the public will probe and test these proposals.

The word “professionalise” was in no way a pejorative statement by my right honourable friend—quite the contrary. I think I have mentioned before in the House that I would like the probation service and its work to be recognised as a profession, perhaps ultimately by a chartered institute of probation. It was in that context that the Secretary of State was talking about a professionalised service—the recognition of probation work as a proper profession, which indeed it is.

I took on board points that should be recognised: we are building on existing patterns of partnership that were first established by the previous Government, both in the legislation that we are using—the 2007 Act—and the various pilots that they initiated in their closing years. This question of pilots is very difficult. On my first day in office in 2010, I was told about the Peterborough and Doncaster pilots. Two years later, whenever one was asked about progress in these areas, one would say: “Well, we are still piloting”. There is a danger in policy development that you pilot for ever. You learn lessons as they go along, but at some time there is a need for Ministers to take a decision and develop a policy, and that is what we are doing here.

There is always a kind of elephant trap in any programme of reform. If you claim that there is a need for reform, are you being condemnatory about those who are carrying out the existing policy? The answer is no, as the noble Lord said, and I have been on record in this House about my admiration for the probation service as it is and the work that it does. My noble friend has proposed changes that we believe will bring a combination of greater efficiency and effectiveness and new ideas into the treatment of offenders. That is the thrust of the policy. Whether offenders who are taken under the wing of private and voluntary sector providers have committed “burglary and domestic violence” or something else, what is certain is that whoever comes within that assessment, their risk assessment will have been carefully carried out by professionals before they move into that sector. That risk assessment will be part of the ongoing role of the professional probation service and will be taken into account when it is decided whether a person is suitable for rehabilitation work that involves payment by results.

The noble Lord also asked whether existing resources would be used. The answer is yes; this is the plan, this is the whole point. As I pointed out, we are spending £4 billion—no small amount—per year on keeping people in prison and in keeping people supervised by probation. What the document suggests—and we hope that the debate that it initiates will develop this—that the £4 billion will be spent a lot more effectively than at the moment. We can do so more effectively within prisons and more effectively outside prisons.

One of the things that the Secretary of State was very much influenced by was his work at the DWP—the noble Lord referred to that experience. The DWP was

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one of the first government departments to take the initiative of going into prisons to enable prisoners to prepare for release and to go on to the Work Programme. That certainly convinced my noble friend that what are termed “through the gate” policies are extremely effective in making rehabilitation possible.

I remember talking to a young ex-offender on her rehabilitation programme in Birmingham, who said to me, “Lord McNally, you cannot imagine the feeling of fear and foreboding when you stand at the prison gates, the gates close behind you, and you have £46 in your pocket and nowhere to go and no friends and you don’t know what to do next”. It is not surprising that we get this high rate of offending.

One thing that has struck me in the two and a half years that I have been in this job is that, when you go around prisons, you find lots of initiatives and ideas that work—for example, a small charity going into prison and helping prisoners to find accommodation before their release, banks being willing to help prisoners to get their finances right, and private sector employers who are willing to put training programmes into place in prisons and then offer work when prisoners are released. It has been put to me before that the best guarantees against reoffending are somewhere to live, a job and a relationship. In a way, what we are trying to do in a holistic way is to bring in other departments to meet those needs and to make sure that there are alternatives.

On freedom of information, the Secretary of State made it clear in answering questions that it will be the providers’ responsibility to set out in contracts a clear commitment to transparency, but this will be considered as part of the consultation. In that respect, the noble Lord made a very valid point.

As I have said before, I hope that the probation service remains intact as a key part of our offender management arrangements, with responsibility for the most serious offenders and with oversight of the performance of those from the private and voluntary sectors who will be involved in this. I hope that the service will see it not as a threat but as an opportunity for it to play an important role in rehabilitation and to work in the kind of partnerships that the noble Lord referred to, bringing out the best of both the voluntary and private sectors and the qualities that already exist within our public sector.

I hope that the House and indeed the country will take this document as an invitation to have a serious debate about a serious problem. I have always believed that prison works but so do a lot of other things, and it is ridiculous for us as a country to spend £40,000 a year on keeping people in prison and for that to be a revolving door process whereby they go back into prison time and again. That is what this document and this debate will be about.

4.07 pm

Lord Morgan: My Lords—

Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames: My Lords—

Noble Lords: This side.

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Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames: My Lords, a major contributor to reoffending in the past has been the lack of support for prisoners on release, who at present often come out with very little money, as my noble friend has pointed out, nowhere to go and usually no work to do. Will the Minister ensure that the really welcome new commitment to mentoring and support for all prisoners on release is quickly implemented, properly resourced and thoroughly monitored by government?

Lord McNally: Yes, I hope so. I hope that one thing that is seen as a real breakthrough in these proposals is that we will be extending support services to those sentenced to less than 12 months. As many studies have shown, those short sentences have often been the source of most reoffending. Again, to make the point that there is a more holistic approach than that, in the Crime and Courts Bill we are trying to make community sentencing more acceptable to the public by putting a kind of punishment element into them so that they are not seen as the soft option to prison. That is another part of what we are trying to do, as is involving other departments such as the DWP and those dealing with health and social services. It is clear that a more holistic approach to rehabilitation is going to get the most results.

Lord Morgan: The statement very properly deals with some very important issues in our society, such as the high rate of reoffending. The great bulk of offences are committed by people who have already offended and this is adding to the pressure in our prisons; there is also the absence of an integrated system to deal with offenders who, as the noble Lord has said, are immediately thrust back into the community with £46 and no other help and very often no hope. The proposals have important merits which we should recognise right across the House. There is a programme for the rehabilitation of prisoners when they are released; they are not just thrown into the community. There is also an integrated proposal for mentoring them in relation to their problems and particular needs; for example, dealing with drugs or alcohol. There are already examples of this kind of approach, notably the Parc prison in Bridgend, south Wales, and this is very welcome.

I would like to ask the Minister two general questions. The policy of payments by results by private institutions is not one, as my noble friend said, that has been universally successful or indeed effective. Perhaps we could be told a bit more about these geographical regions which will be used to assess whether or not the policy of rehabilitation has been successful. Will there be any uniformity of definition about these regions? What will be deemed a successful result? If someone committing a very serious crime is then back in prison for committing a somewhat lesser crime, is that a successful result or not? I would also ask for reassurance for the probation service at a time when it is experiencing great dislocation and demoralisation. Thank you.

Lord McNally: I thank the noble Lord for those questions. He is quite right: of the three parts of this initiative that attract me most, one is the idea of a

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proper mentoring programme; another is a real acceptance of “through the gate” as a concept of dealing with prisoners; and the other relates to how to deal with prisoners with less than one year’s sentence. This is a consultation; the actual size and shape of the geographic regions have still to be determined, and will be determined in part by the outcome of the consultation. I suspect that my right honourable friend has in mind some fairly large regions to ensure that we get the kind of benefits of scale that large regions can provide. I cannot be firmer on that but we already have some experience of commissioning in London, where a community services contract has recently been signed that is over a four-year period and £20 million less than the existing contract. I think that they will be largish regions but we are open to consultation.

What is success? This is partly a testing of the market to see what kind of organisations are interested and what problems they foresee. It is not easy; is it one year free from reoffending, is it never reoffending and how do you prove that? It is not so simple but that is part of what the consultation process is about.

The Lord Bishop of Liverpool: My Lords, we on these Benches very much welcome the engagement of what is described in the Statement as the voluntary and community services. As the Minister knows, faith groups are already very involved in the rehabilitation of offenders, both inside and outside prison. Can the Minister tell us how the Government will ensure that, by opening up the probation services to the market, the local, voluntary and community sectors will not be eclipsed by the private sector with its much greater resources?

Lord McNally: First, I pay tribute to the right relevant Prelat for both the leadership and the contribution that the churches make to prison chaplaincies and for their support in the wider community. In previous debates I have referred to visits I have made to St Albans and Norwich, where the cathedrals are the centre of community efforts in rehabilitation. He makes a very relevant point about the voluntary sector. A new commitment within the group is that we will make available £500,000 of seed corn to help voluntary groups prepare proper business cases for participation. We will also build into the system for awarding contracts that organisations which include voluntary and local groups, and can clearly demonstrate that they are making full use of their expertise, will probably have a much better chance of winning contracts.

I hope that those two parts of the package—help in preparing a proper business case and a contractual advantage if they are included in bids by larger groupings—will ensure that local and voluntary organisations have a proper participation. Indeed, we would be disappointed if this was not one of the results of what we are doing. We want the ideas, initiatives and commitment that voluntary and local groups can bring to this as part of what we have termed a revolution.

Lord Ramsbotham: My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, I welcome the commitment to reducing the dreadful rate of reoffending. As an aside, I notice

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that the Minister did not add to his list of the factors that prevent reoffending the one that is said to mean most—a 30th birthday.

I would like to take up two points; first, the point that the Minister made at the end of the Statement—namely, that this is a very serious subject and needs a very serious debate. Will the Government be prepared to allow that debate? So far, we have not had an opportunity to debate the previous consultation which is swept up in this one. There is so much involved that it is terribly important that the issues contained in this should be properly debated in the House, whether at the end of this consultation period or not. I ask him for that.

Secondly, this business of “through the gate” and picking people up is not new. The previous Government introduced a programme called custody plus which was designed to do exactly that, but it was dropped because of fears that it would result in too many people being given short sentences which would be accompanied by this sort of follow-up. I wonder whether that same sum has been done here. The figures at present show an 8.3% success rate above the short sentence in prison rate being achieved by the probation service with short-sentence prisoners, but what we are seeing is a proposal for a complete change, not the reinforcement of success.

My second question to the Minister is this. We are dealing with offenders and offenders are dealt with by people, so offender management must be made the responsibility of someone. We have talked about responsibility for high-risk offenders and the fact that the probation service will be responsible for the initial risk assessment, but we have not had any indication of what will happen during the sentence if a medium or low-risk offender changes the level of risk. Who will be responsible for that? Will the probation service remain responsible throughout this process for the overall management of offenders on community sentences?

Lord McNally: I thank the noble Lord for those questions. I will certainly have a look at what he refers to as the “through the gate” experience and if the Minister responsible is now in this House, I might ask him or her about their experience. Nevertheless, there is overwhelming evidence that through-the-gate help and preparation before prison, along with being met at the gate and helped afterwards, has an impact.

The probation service will continue to have oversight across the piece. Part of the consultation will be about how light-touch that will be in terms of the day-to-day management of offenders, but we are conscious of the evidence that risk can change during the process of supervision and that there may well be a need to move certain individuals from the areas being managed by the private and voluntary sectors back into the public sector. However, that will be built into the oversight provisions that are to be part of the outcome of these consultations.

On the question of a debate, it is a matter for the usual channels, but if the Government prove difficult to persuade, I am sure that my noble friend Lord Dholakia will be able to persuade the Liberal Democrats

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to give one of their debate days to such a discussion. One way or another, we will have a debate in this House on this matter.

Lord Faulks: My Lords—

Baroness Corston: My Lords—

Lord Phillips of Sudbury: My Lords—

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon: My Lords, we have yet to hear from the Conservative Benches.

Lord Faulks: I welcome this Statement, particularly its focus on those with sentences of less than 12 months and its identification of that period of vulnerability as young offenders leave prison. One of the particular areas of vulnerability is those offenders who have a previous history of drug addiction who are then prone to taking large doses of drugs which can result in death. I therefore welcome the role of a mentor, although I recognise what the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, has said about the perception of custody plus because I was sitting as a recorder at the time. However, the role of a mentor seems to me to be potentially very important. Can the Minister help the House by identifying who exactly is going to perform this mentoring role and what its scope might be so as to assist in avoiding those traps that I have attempted to identify?

Lord McNally: My Lords, as part of the consultation, we will be looking at the structure of mentoring. However, in the specific terms that my noble friend has referred to—in relation to those who leave prison with problems still associated with drug addiction—one thing we are trying to do, with the co-operation of the health service, is to make sure that people who are on programmes in prison continue to receive those programmes when they leave. One of the barmier aspects of the current system is that people who have been on treatment leave prison and, surprise, surprise, their addiction returns. Part of the programme of release will be to continue programmes like that.

As for mentoring, we will just have to wait to see the response, what kind of organisations come forward with suggestions, and where we build into any mentoring programme the proper training that will enable mentors to be effective in their work.

Baroness Corston: My Lords, given that we are in nearly the third year of this Government and still have no published strategy for women offenders and those at risk of offending, I ask the Minister a short question and hope that his answer will be both short and positive. Will he confirm that the current network of women’s centres, which have done such splendid work in turning women’s lives around and which have spectacular results in reducing reoffending as well as working well with probation trusts, will be an acknowledged part of the new system which he is describing today?

Lord McNally: I sincerely hope so, yes.

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The Earl of Listowel: My Lords, in relation to the question of the right reverend Prelate and also regarding mentors, will the Minister recognise the concern about the continuity of care for these people, and consider whether in his consultation there might be preferred providers? For instance, if a small voluntary body proves to have a good track record, they would not have to renegotiate after three years and spend a lot of money and time to keep that ability. The mentors that they develop would also be kept on and not left in suspense as to whether their contract will be renewed in a year or so. Certainly, in my experience, good mentors can be undermined by the lack of certainty about their future and the future contract for their organisation.

Lord McNally: I take that very wise advice and will do my best to ensure that there is continuity.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury: My Lords, will my noble friend give an assurance to the House that in the consultation—for which we are all very grateful—the Government will be open-minded about the issue of the private sector, and the notion that it is appropriate that this extremely difficult task be dealt with by competition and the profit motive? Are the Government open-minded to the prospect that after the consultation this be omitted from the new scheme?

Lord McNally: That is always a possibility. In a way, we are all on payment by results, even Ministers—fortunately, we have to wait until 2015. Obviously, we are bringing forward a programme which builds on initiatives from the last Government and which suggests that some kind of payment-by-results incentive programme encourages efficiency and innovation. We do not bring forward proposals with the anticipation that they are either going to be rejected or are going to fail. I hope that they will bring forward really constructive responses. There has been a good and constructive response from the Opposition today. I am sorry that we squeezed out the noble Lord, Lord Myners, because I am delighted that he is the new chairman of the Howard League and I look forward to working with him on this and other areas. As always, almost by default as a Liberal Democrat, I enter this period of consultation with optimism.

Procedure of the House

Motion to Agree

4.30 pm

Moved by The Chairman of Committees

That the 3rd Report from the Select Committee (HL Paper 81) be agreed to.

The Chairman of Committees (Lord Sewel): My Lords, it may be helpful if I say a word about the structure of the debate. When I finish my opening speech, the Question will be put on my Motion for the first time and then the noble Lord, Lord Lea of Crondall, will be called to speak to his amendment. At the end of his speech, the Question is put on his amendment for the first time, at which point it would

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be appropriate for all the other amendments to be debated as well as that of the noble Lord, Lord Lea. At the end of the debate, I shall respond to the whole debate and then the noble Lord, Lord Lea, will reply and decide what to do with his amendment. Each of the other amendments will then be called in turn and can be moved formally, to enable your Lordships to decide on any of them, should any of their proponents so wish. After all the amendments have been disposed of, the Question is then put on my Motion, or my Motion as amended. I trust that that is clear.

The report covers various matters but given that five amendments have been tabled to the committee’s recommendation on the tabling of Oral Questions, I hope the House will forgive me if I focus on this point and set out the reasoning behind the committee’s recommendations in some detail.

It may help the House if I explain how we have got to this position. Last October, at the request of the committee, the Clerk of the Parliaments brought forward a paper covering a wide range of issues around Oral Questions, Topical Questions and Private Notice Questions. The paper touched on the option of moving to a ballot for Oral Questions, and the committee unanimously supported the principle of a ballot. At the same time, the Clerk of the Parliaments was asked to prepare a further paper setting out in greater detail how a ballot might work. The committee considered this second paper in December. At that meeting, two members of the committee, quite justifiably and rightly, asked that their reservations about the detailed implementation of the proposal be minuted, but there was no challenge to the principle of a ballot. So the committee has had two full discussions on these issues, during both of which there was unanimous support for the principle of a ballot.

So why a ballot? We all know that the House is too big. However, the size is compounded by the fact that the House—or rather individual Members—are much busier once they get here. That generally must be welcomed, but it causes some problems. A House that numbered well over 1,000 in the 1990s did not cause any difficulty because the rate of attendance was so much lower. In 1990, the average daily attendance, out of a House of more than 1,200 Members, was 321; last year, out of a House of 800, it was 490.

We also work a lot harder. In 1990, just under 1,200 Written Questions were asked, almost exactly one per Member; in 2012, the figure was approaching 7,000, or nine per member. With Oral Questions, unlike Written Questions, the number available does not increase in response to Member demand: we are limited to a maximum of four a day. In 1990 there were 577 Oral Questions; in 2012, with fewer sitting days, the number had actually fallen to 503. What has happened is that noble Lords wishing to table Oral Questions have often found themselves queueing for longer and longer outside the Table Office. I am told that recently one noble Lord sat in the corridor outside the Table Office for no less than three hours in order to secure an Oral Question. On most days one or more Members queue for more than an hour. It is not surprising, therefore, that a number of complaints have been made to me and my predecessor as Chairman of Committees.

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The truth is that the current system favours those who do not have outside jobs or other commitments, who live in London, are here every day and are sufficiently determined, as well as physically robust enough, to spend their lunch hour sitting on a not very comfortable chair in the corridor.

The facts tell their own story. If we discount balloted Topical Questions, 410 Oral Questions were tabled in 2012. Of these, no fewer than 111—or 27%—were tabled by just 15 Members of the House. Those Members each tabled between six and 10 Oral Questions—10 being, in effect, the maximum, given that Members are allowed to have only one Oral Question in House of Lords business at any one time. On the other hand, Members with outside employment or other commitments, including the Lords Spiritual, have found it difficult—sometimes impossible—to table two Oral Questions. Just two Oral Questions were tabled by Lords Spiritual in 2012, both by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Wakefield.

The committee feels that the time has come to try—I emphasise “to try”—a different approach: a daily ballot for Oral Questions. Instead of being required to queue for a two o’clock start time, Members would have a six-hour window, from 10 till four, in which to enter Questions in the ballot. We hope that this will encourage diversity, increase the number of new voices at Question Time and encourage noble Lords with outside commitments, who cannot afford to spend an hour or more queueing four weeks ahead of time, to table Oral Questions.

Ballots are familiar in both Houses. They are used in the Commons for allocating Oral Questions and at this end they have been used for decades to allocate Back-Bench Thursday debates. We also have a ballot for topical Oral Questions. Ballots work well and are fair to all. I accept that a ballot for Oral Questions raises slightly different issues and I am conscious, as I have indicated, that some members of the Procedure Committee, while supporting the principle, have expressed reservations about the detailed working of the proposed new system. However, I emphasise that we are proposing a trial, and only a trial. The report proposes that this trial should start on 8 January—indeed, it should have started on 8 January, but time has moved on. So if the report is agreed, I propose that the trial should begin with the submission of Questions from Monday 14 January and run until the Summer Recess. That will give all noble Lords ample opportunity to try out the new system, to make their views known, and for any wrinkles to be ironed out.

Let me make it absolutely clear: if the ballot is unpopular, if it turns out to be a failure, or if it leads to abuse, then we will revert to the current system with effect from the autumn. The ballot will not become permanent unless the House agrees a further recommendation from the Procedure Committee to that effect. There is a guarantee on the process.

I sense that there is dissatisfaction across the House with elements of our working practices, particularly given the increase in numbers since 2010. Our Code of Conduct states that Members of the House are not full-time professional politicians and that we,

“draw substantially on experience and expertise gained outside Parliament”.

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We should encourage new and fresh voices to contribute to Question Time. This report is a small step in that direction.

Before concluding, I will touch on the five amendments. The noble Lord, Lord Lea of Crondall, whom, in passing, I congratulate on securing the first Oral Question on today’s Order Paper, proposed that the first Oral Question on any given day should continue to be allocated on a first-come, first-served basis but the remainder allocated by ballot. The noble Lord, Lord Naseby, wishes to increase that to the first two such Questions. I cannot support either amendment on two grounds. First, they would mean that the four Oral Questions on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday were tabled by three different methods and I fear that that would produce confusion. Secondly, if we have Members queuing for up to three hours when three or four Questions are available, how long will they have to queue if there are only one or two Questions available? I cannot support these amendments.

The amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, is more straightforward. It would delete the relevant recommendation from the report, thereby leaving the system of allocating Oral Questions unchanged. I accept that not all noble Lords welcome the change we are proposing. Not surprisingly, some of those who have made their opposition clearest, including some noble Lords who have tabled amendments today, are those who thrive under the current arrangements—those here every day and willing and able to queue on a regular basis. If the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, presses his amendment, the House will have a straight choice. I have tried to explain why I personally support the recommendation and believe it will help encourage diversity and allow us to hear from a wider range of voices during Question Time. Because of this, I will not support the noble Lord’s amendment but of course that is a decision for the House.

The amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, would have the same effect as that tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, but add an instruction to the committee to reconsider and report again on the procedure for tabling Oral Questions before Easter. As I said in my opening remarks, the committee has twice discussed this issue in the past six months. Both times, the committee unanimously supported the principle of these proposals, although in December two Members expressed reservations about the detailed working. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, seeks to be helpful in trying to find a way through the difficulty but I do not see much benefit at this stage in instructing the committee to look again at the issue. In order to justify taking it back, it would be necessary for the House to give some fairly clear indication of the direction in which it wants the new proposals to be developed. We have made a recommendation for a trial period to be followed by a review. Surely that is the time to reconsider the issues. If noble Lords are adamant on a matter on principle that they oppose a ballot, the sensible thing is to support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy. A vote for his amendment will at least give us a clear decision, one way or another, so that we can then move on knowing the view of the House.

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Finally, the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, would instruct the committee to consider increasing the time allowed for Oral Questions from 30 to 40 minutes and increasing the number of Questions from four to five. The House experimented with five Oral Questions lasting 40 minutes in 2002—that is but yesterday in House of Lords terms. The experiment was not felt to be a success and was discontinued in 2004. I recognise that things have changed since 2002 and 2004. There now might well be an appetite for a longer Question Time and more Questions. I am quite prepared and happy to take on board that suggestion and make sure that the Procedure Committee discusses that at its next meeting. That does not require the moving of a specific amendment: we will go back and look at it.

There is more to the report than Oral Questions, but they have generated the most interest in the report, which is why I have confined my remarks to this one issue; I have not mentioned collects or Prayers. I heartily commend the report to the House. I beg to move.

4.45 pm

Amendment to the Motion

Moved by Lord Lea of Crondall

At end to insert “except that on any day on which oral questions are asked the first such question shall be allocated according to the procedure currently in place”.

Lord Lea of Crondall: My Lords, the House will wish to thank the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees for his report. My remarks are addressed to the written report before us, which is astonishingly short; indeed, I submit that it is inadequate. It is ostensibly a report to the hugely experienced Members of this House, but actually it does not appear to be addressed to the House for discussion; it seems almost to inform us of a decision which they would wish us to take or leave. That is in sharp contrast to the careful exposition that other committees take care to engage in when presenting reports to the House. We have two sentences on this matter. I wonder whether the procedures of the Procedure Committee need to be looked at side by side with the procedures for tabling Oral Questions.

Leaving aside the culture of the Procedure Committee and its transparency, or lack of it, if the six-month trial period survives this afternoon’s debate and votes, there will at least be an opportunity with my amendment, or that of the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, to have some retention of the first-come-first-served principle, the merits of which I will touch on in a moment. Indeed, it would have the advantage of the Procedure Committee being able in this six-month period to see the two systems side by side and asses their merits and demerits.

I am not arguing that the three points in paragraph 1 are not perfectly arguable, but so are three or more points on the other side of the equation. The noble Lord the Chairman of Committees says that this has all been presented to the House before. That may be but we are not psychic and it is not easy, unless these

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points are consolidated, to know what the rationale is for some of the things that are proposed. It is certainly not clear in this report.

On the rationale for my own amendment, I will obviously be influenced by speeches from around the House in the next hour or so before deciding whether to request that the House divide. No one knows at this point how much support there will be for other propositions, including the general reference back of my noble friend Lord Grenfell, which has just come on to the Order Paper. However, I hope that if it does come to that, colleagues will think about the advantages of voting for my amendment. If it is carried, at least there will be a chance of this element in the mix being considered. Those wanting to support the general reference back will at least have some engagement with the various alternatives, even if the general reference back is lost and other amendments are carried.

Another feature of the report is that some of the reasons given have the strange quality of a throwaway line to them. I refer, for example, to the first sentence in paragraph 2 about queuing. Of course we do not form a queue in the usual sense, snaking out across the Palace of Westminster on to Westminster Bridge. People cannot be long in this House before they know the score. There are three seats outside the door of the Minute Room and you are out of luck if all three seats are occupied. The worst that can happen is that you must come back a little earlier the next day. As soon as you go to the Minute Room and find all three seats occupied, that is it, you have not been successful. If you are successful, you sit down for three hours in a corridor. It has the same central heating system as the rest of this building and you can catch up on your e-mails, read the Financial Times, catch up on Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire or read the speeches of the noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson, which on occasion I find even more contradictory than my own.

The second point relates to Members finding it difficult to come to the Palace at lunchtime, but that is already what we do on Thursdays or Fridays, including those people with outside jobs. As a matter of fact, I think that most of us now are working Peers and it is a strange argument that the tail of people with interests in the City is going to wag this dog.

On this question of the balance of convenience for Members, one might add that there will be frustrations with the new system, which could potentially be far more frustrating than the present system. One such frustration will obviously be that day after day after day you can fail to win a place in the ballot. It follows, as night follows day, that you have no way of ever being able to put down a particular Question on a day chosen in advance. This is one of the great strengths of the current procedure. Those colleagues who have been in the House of Commons can all see that this is a unique feature of the House of Lords—that you can put down a particular Question in advance, even two months ahead. You can tell people that you will table a Question on women’s rights, for example, on 1 May or whatever day is appropriate, and you can guarantee

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that you will do that. I do not know why that point has been presented so ambiguously.

The lucky dip system is intended, I trust, to ensure that no one should have any anxieties about the merits of the content of a Question being scrutinised. But surely the criterion should be, to use an American expression, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. The only things that seem to be broken at the moment are the present procedures of the Procedure Committee. There has been no Green Paper or feedback from Members about this that I recall; it is all coming from within the arcane world of the Procedure Committee. I find the details of how it works quite obscure.

Let me finally—

Noble Lords: Oh!

Lord Lea of Crondall: This is less than 10 minutes to introduce an amendment, which is quite in order. I am on my last point, if Members would be courteous enough to shut up for a minute and let me make my point.

Finally, let me give a defence of even a partial retention of the current system. People in the rest of the country looking at our agendas can know well in advance that something will be coming up. It would have been very much to the credit of the Procedure Committee if it had recognised in terms in its report that there is no perfect system in the sense of fulfilling all conceivable objectives. But it is surely axiomatic that we need a careful analysis of the pros and cons of each system, and one would expect that from a senior committee of this House. I beg to move.

Lord Naseby: My Lords, the purpose of my amendment is to have two Questions balloted and two as tabled at the moment—and, frankly, the chair is perfectly comfortable. The purpose of Questions is for the Back Benchers in your Lordships’ House to try to bring the Government of the day to account. To do that, they need to think a little bit and plan ahead, as my noble friend opposite said. I shall give two examples. I have asked a number of Questions on the pirates in Somalia, and slowly but successfully the policy has changed. It is my belief that not just my contribution but those from all over the House, not least from the noble Lord, Lord West, and others, who have detailed experience, have put pressure on the Government to change our policy. Secondly, I started a hare running just before Christmas on the National Lottery and the challenge that it faces from the Health Lottery. It would be my intention to table a further Question to see what progress has been made in three or four months’ time, but if it is done on a ballot there is absolutely no hope of that happening.

I do not live in London; I live 50 miles out of London, and I commute. If I can make the effort on one day a month—and that is all we are talking about—to get here at an earlier hour than two o’clock, I do not think that that is asking too much of anyone. I recognise that my noble friends from all over the House who come from Scotland and the north of England face a huge problem on a Monday, so a second balloted Question on that sort of day is entirely appropriate. I recognise that other noble Lords, also

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from Scotland—when I look around the Chamber I see that there are a number here—understandably leave on a Wednesday night if there is minor business on a Thursday, so a second balloted Question would be entirely appropriate there.

Therefore, my amendment offers some equality on both sides. I do not have any concern for those who have outside interests. I have some outside interests and, at some times of the year, they are very exacting. Again, though, all I have to do is organise my diary for one day to get here. If I am unlucky that day, as the noble Lord, Lord Lea, says, I will look at who was there and what time I guess they got there and be a little more astute the next day, or the day after. That is what we are here for. We are here to question the Executive and service the nation. We are not here to accommodate people’s outside interests and whether or not they think that they can get here

I also say to the Chairman of Committees that there should be no way at all that any party other than a Member can table a Question—no researchers of any sort, approved or otherwise. It has to be the individual Member who makes the effort and produces a Question that makes the Minister of the day think and thereby enhances our nation and this Parliament.

5 pm

Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, I rise now because I was particularly taken by the point just made by the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, about who else can table Questions. The reality is that, although a great deal of effort has obviously gone into this paper from the Procedure Committee, it is extremely obscure as to how the system would operate.

I have no brief either way on whether we should go down the road of balloting or not balloting. I would simply like to understand the rules. I rather thought that when proposals were brought before this House it would be clear how they would work. Under paragraph 3 we have a series of bullet points that set out how this system is supposed to work. The first tells us that there would continue to be four weeks’ notice. Did the Procedure Committee not wonder whether four weeks’ notice was necessary? At present, when you table a Written Question, the expectation is that you will get an answer within two weeks, so why is four weeks being retained?

The second bullet point is more substantive. It says:

“Members will be able to submit an oral question to the Table Office, in person or by telephone”.

I am not, personally, a good mimic, but I have a number of colleagues who are. How do we—and the Table Office and the clerks there—know who they are speaking to? I appreciate that arrangements are in place which permit this to happen, but when we talk about what could be quite a controversial process in the future, I wonder whether this is something that should be examined.

However, it does not stop there. The report goes on to say:

“Questions will not be accepted by post, email, fax, or via third parties such as researchers, unless the text is also confirmed by the member in person or by telephone”.

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This raises several questions. When will the Member be asked to confirm it—after they have been successful in the ballot or before the Question goes into the ballot? If it is after the ballot has been concluded, then you would get a phone call from the clerks telling you, “You have been successful in the ballot”. “Oh”, you reply, “I didn’t know I had put one in—oh yes, that’s fine. Thank you very much indeed. I am delighted”. Again, this raises some serious issues. I hope that the Procedure Committee will look at that issue again, as to what in fact that sentence is intended to mean.

The next bullet point is the clearest of all of them. However, we then go on to read:

“As is already the case for balloted topical questions, no more than one question on a subject will be accepted for inclusion in the ballot”.

Let us assume that 40 Questions arrive. The clerks are organising this ballot, and they have to go through them and decide whether any are on the same subject. How will they decide this? Suppose that I tabled a Question on cycling lanes in London—although it is unlikely—and my noble friend Lord Berkeley had tabled a Question on Crossrail in London, and another noble Lord had tabled a Question on airports on London. They are all about transport in London. Is this then about one subject or three? Somebody over there says “three”. However, on a good day, we can have a Question about cycling in London and some of the more ingenious Members of your Lordships’ House would manage to get on to the subject of airports without any difficulty at all.

Let us say, therefore, that it is one topic. However, is it one topic or two, if one Question is about cycle lanes in London, and another is about whether or not you can take bicycles on commuter trains in London? They are, in fact, two very different topics. Are they one Question or two? How will those decisions be made, who will make them, and who is accountable for making them? If these decisions are inherently difficult to make, why do we say that they should be made before inclusion in the ballot rather than after it? I understand that if three or four Questions emerge which are on very similar subjects there might be some negotiation, but why bother doing that in advance of having the ballot itself?

Members will not be able to roll Questions over—I can see the point of that. However, in the final bullet point you have:

“If, by 4 pm, fewer questions have been submitted than there are slots available, from that point the remaining slots will be allocated … on a first-come-first-served basis”—

even if they are on the same topic. So I am not successful in getting my Question down on bicycling in London because a cycling Question has already been put down, but because not all the Questions have been tabled that day it is possible to put one down about another aspect of cycling.

The point I am trying to make is that this is very unclearly drafted and that there will be all sorts of problems and complications. I hope that before we start an experiment we have some clarity as to how it is intended to work.

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Lord Kennedy of Southwark: My Lords, I wish to speak to the amendment in my name. I am disappointed in the Procedure Committee’s report. I thought long and hard about it, the issues raised and what Questions are for. Ever since I came into your Lordships’ House two and a half years ago, on most occasions I have had to queue to table Questions. That is a symptom of the House having expanded and the number of Members wishing to table Questions having increased. I am disappointed that the Procedure Committee’s report has not looked for a cure to that problem.

The Companionto the Standing Orders is quite clear. It states that the purpose of Questions is to,

“elicit information from the government of the day, and thus to assist members of both Houses in holding the government to account”.

In recent times, we have on many occasions discussed the role of this House in advising the Government, scrutinising their actions, challenging them, approving or rejecting Motions in respect of delegated legislation and participating in the legislative process. I fail to see how introducing a ballot for every Question enhances our ability to fulfil our role as a second Chamber in this respect. If the problem is the pressure on people wanting to ask Oral Questions, that is what needs to be addressed. This report does not do that. The amendment of my noble friend Lord Berkeley tries to address that issue.

There could be other ways to deal with the pressure for Members to ask Questions of the Government. Perhaps we should seek to do something that is a bit different or radical. One thing I have thought of is having themed Question sessions in the Moses Room on a particular subject for an hour a week whereby Members could table a Question and ask a supplementary question. It would not ping-pong round the House and in that way we would get 20 Questions on a particular subject answered each week with no problem at all. That is one idea only, but one that attempts to deal with the pressure on Question slots which the Procedure Committee’s report fails to address. If we approve the report in its present format, we are just shuffling the chairs, the pressure will not have gone away and noble Lords will not be satisfied with the situation in which we find ourselves. We will be no further forward.

Lord Grenfell: My Lords, I wish to explain very briefly why I have tabled my amendment. Many years ago, a young Italian opera singer made his debut at the Naples opera house. At the end of his first aria there was very loud applause and shouts for an encore, which he obliged. After his second rendition there was even louder applause and even more cries for an encore. However, seeing the conductor shaking his head, the young opera singer stepped forward and said to the audience, “Thank you very much indeed but I think that we must now get on with the opera”, at which there came a loud shout from the gods, “You don’t understand us; we want you to go on until you get it right”.

I have not so far had the pleasure of hearing the Lord Chairman of Committees in full operatic flow and I certainly left the Procedure Committee far too

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long ago to recall whether we closed our meetings with a live version of the “Toreador Song” or anything like that. However, we have to get this matter right. Oral Questions are the oxygen that enables the Back Benches to participate in the day-to-day business of holding the Government to account. I do not think that at present we have a perfect system. The discussion we have had so far this afternoon makes that perfectly clear.

The present system is not perfect in many ways. I am not going to go through that again because we have heard plenty of it already. I will mention one obvious point in relation to queuing. I always thought that the British were a nation much inclined to queuing and regarded it as an honourable tradition; I was a wartime baby. I spend much of my time in a country where queuing is regarded as an assault on the Darwinian principle, and it may be that I have not kept up with changing sentiments. However, I sense that the House is uneasy, to say the least, with this report and about the proposals that have emerged from the Procedure Committee, and that unease has been apparent in the discussions this afternoon. Can the Lord Chairman tell us whether any of that unease was apparent within the committee itself?

The Lord Chairman has reminded the House that all that is being sought is a trial run of these proposals up to the Summer Recess. I am not against trial runs, but it depends on how credible and potentially acceptable the process being tested is. If, at the end of a trial run based on the proposals before us, the House is minded to find them not fit for purpose—which I feel is quite a strong likelihood—then I would rate rather high the chances of further consideration being consigned to the long grass for a very long time, if not forever.

Would it not be better for the Procedure Committee, between now and Easter, to have one more try, aided by wider consultation within the House, at finding a more acceptable process for tabling Oral Questions than the one that has been put before us today? This could then form the basis for a trial run with a stronger prospect of acceptance by the House and, above all, by the Back Benches.

Lord Berkeley: My Lords, I will be as brief as I can. I congratulate the Chairman of Committees. Although I do not necessarily agree with what is in the report, I think he presented it very clearly. As other noble Lords have said, it is for a trial period and we will hold the committee to that. My worry is that, as the noble Lords, Lord Naseby, Lord Kennedy of Southwark and Lord Grenfell, have said, the purpose of these Questions is to hold the Government to account. We need the certainty of timing of the Question as part of that process; other noble Lords have given examples. If an event is coming that one knows could be a problem for the Government, it is nice to have a Question on that day.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, it is my understanding that the Chairman of Committees was prepared to accept the noble Lord’s request and has said that there was no need for an amendment. Unless the noble Lord wishes to proceed with it, would he accept what the Chairman of Committees has said?

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Lord Berkeley: With respect to the noble Countess, I was not sure whether it was in the Chairman’s gift to accept it or whether it was for the Committee. May I carry on for a little bit longer and then we can debate that?

Timing is very important. We started this debate an hour later than most of us thought would happen and we have had to spend an hour doing something else. We are all good at time management. Queuing in a nice soft chair once a month is not a big problem compared with the time management of all the other things happening in here. As my noble friend Lord Harris said, balloting could be a problem. Perhaps the solution is to trial going back to five Questions a day. The Chairman of Committees said that this was tried in 2002, and I remember it well. He said it was a failure, but if there are not enough Questions to fill the five, you have four Questions and you carry on with other business.

I do not know what the statistics are for the 10 years between 2002 and now, but I suspect that it would not be difficult to fill five Questions on most days when we have Questions. That would be a reasonable way to go forward. Before making massive changes to balloting or part-balloting, let us try five Questions over 40 minutes for a period and see how Members react to it. If they have to queue for half an hour rather than an hour, so be it. I do not think it is a problem, which is why I propose this amendment.

Baroness Butler-Sloss: My Lords, perhaps I may give an opposite point of view. I have been in this House since 2006 and have not yet put down an Oral Question. The main reason was that the procedure of queuing, whereby I might not get there in time and there were all these other noble Lords who wanted to table Questions, led me to the view that perhaps mine was not so important and I had better let other people table them. I would be likely to put down a Question and take my chance if there were a ballot. I am perhaps a lone voice but I support the Chairman of Committees and the Procedure Committee’s proposal.

5.15 pm

Lord Richard: My Lords, I take the opposite view to the one just expressed by the noble and learned Baroness. The evil that the Procedure Committee is trying to redress in its proposal is that there are now too many people in this House, Question Time is more interesting than it used to be, more people want to ask Questions and there is therefore a blockage in the way in which the Questions get on to the Floor. I accept that. I do not accept that the Procedure Committee’s proposal is the right way of dealing with the problem.

There are various ways in which the problem could be dealt with. An extension of the length of Question Time is a desirable proposal that we ought to consider. The issue of whether there should be 40 minutes for five Questions or three-quarters of an hour for six is a matter of detail that we can no doubt talk about at some future date. However, the fact of the matter is that if you extend Question Time, there is an opportunity for more people to put down Questions and for more people to participate in the process of Question Time.

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The disadvantages of the ballot have been expressed primarily by the noble Lord, Lord Naseby. You need a degree of certainty when it comes to Question Time. Back-Benchers need some degree of certainty that what they want to ask the Government and to hold them to account for, if Members are prepared to make the effort to put down the Question, will actually be tabled, and provide them with an opportunity to put the Question and demand an explanation from a government Minister. If you have a ballot, the chances are that that certainty will go. That will disadvantage this House and diminish the value and effectiveness of Question Time.

As my noble friend Lord Harris said, there are various uncertainties—to put it mildly—on the details of how the ballot would be conducted, which again makes me slightly dubious about it. A third alternative is that suggested by my noble friend Lord Kennedy, whereby it may be possible, using the Moses Room procedure, to have ways of questioning the Government in relation to specific ministries on specific days—ways that are not available at Question Time but that would nevertheless fulfil the responsibilities of this House in holding Ministers and the Government to account on specific matters that Members of this House think are important.

There are a number of ways in which this problem may be dealt with. My difficulty with the Procedure Committee’s report is that it has considered only one option—an option that is dignified by the name “ballot” but that is, in fact, a good old honest raffle. You dip into the hat, and with any luck your name is pulled out and you get the opportunity to ask a Question. That process in itself will diminish the way in which Questions are put in this House. On the whole, Question Time is a plus for this House. The Questions that are put down are, on the whole, relevant, and the way in which they are dealt with is, on the whole, equally relevant.

My view is that this is not the way in which we necessarily have to proceed. I do not say that it is the way in which we necessarily do not have to proceed, but before we go down this particular route, even for a limited period, there are a number of alternative ways of approaching this problem that the Procedure Committee has not considered, and which, I say with great respect, it should consider.

Lord Greaves: My Lords, the first thing that has to be said is that Question Time is a very important part of the functioning of this House. It is the time on most days when the House sits when there are a lot of people here and when the House has an identity. It is full, over-full nowadays, and it is very important indeed that we do not go ahead with a pilot of more than six months that might get things wrong. Six months is a long period of time. We have to be quite sure, even for an experiment of over six months, that it is right.

The second point is that enough points have been put forward this afternoon to show that even if an experiment with a ballot is the right way forward, not enough of the detail has been worked out. There is certainly not enough consensus in the House to go ahead with this for six months.

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It is unfortunate that the noble Baroness has not put forward questions, and she should do so straightaway, whatever system we have now, because they will be good questions. The problem of queuing has occurred only in the last two years or so because of the increased size of the House. It is not a problem of the system as such; it is the problem that the House is now too big for the system that we now have to work efficiently.

Thinking about the detail, one point that I picked up is the suggestion that there should be a ballot, and that if not enough questions are put forward for a ballot on a particular day, it should then be put out to first come first served. That is not a sensible system. I can see that one or two of the fanatics among the people who attend Question Time—I include myself at various times, and perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Lea of Crondall, and others—might be hovering around every day to see whether there are enough Questions and pouncing like vultures. Then what do we do if there is only one? This does not seem to be a sensible way to go ahead. Who will know, who will be told, and how will they be told?

I was here in 2002 when the experiment took place. I think, from memory, that it was only one day a week—I think it was Wednesdays, but I am not certain about that. It was abandoned because it was felt that Question Time on that day was running out of steam and did not have the sense of people jumping up and down and trying to compete or the atmosphere of today’s Question Time because of the numbers of Members at that time. In the present circumstances, there are a lot more people at Question Time who would like to get in but are unable to. Once a person has asked the Question and someone from the opposition Front Bench, someone from the Liberal Democrats and someone from the Cross Benches has asked a question, no one else is able to get in. The way in which it has gone is unfortunate.

One advantage of going to five Questions of eight minutes is that it is easier to time them. One of the problems at the moment is that the Clock does not measure half minutes, it only measures full minutes. If all the Questions are in demand, we tend to get a Question of eight minutes and a bit more and then one of less than seven minutes, because it is coming up against 15 minutes, and another longer one of eight minutes and a bit. The last Question is very often squeezed to five or six minutes. At least if every Question ended on a full minute, it would be easier for the House to time itself by the magic of the self-regulation that takes place.

Lord Laming: My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the Procedure Committee that has presented this report to your Lordships, and congratulate, if I may, the Chairman of the Committees on the very thoughtful way in which he presented it. The way in which he handled this left no doubt that the committee gave a great deal of detailed thought to this matter over a number of meetings and received advice on various possibilities at each one.

It is important to recognise that the committee did not come upon this matter by chance or in any way to be mischievous. In fact, it was responding to concerns

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of your Lordships. It came on to the agenda because concern was expressed to the committee about how the current arrangements work.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: I should just like to ask the noble Lord a question. At any time during the committee’s considerations, was any thought given to consulting Members of the House before the Procedure Committee came to a conclusion?

Lord Laming: Yes, my Lords. There was consideration of consulting Members of the House. I urge your Lordships to look at the front sheet of the report and at the membership of the committee that considered this matter. Leaving me aside, if noble Lords wish, the membership represents a remarkable degree of experience in this House. The committee considered a number of issues and not only of the kind mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt. Therefore, this matter was taken—

Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe: I have seen the names of the people who participated in the Procedure Committee and I wonder whether my noble friend Lord Hunt’s question can be answered. Was thought given to a survey among Members?

Lord Laming: The answer that I gave the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, which I shall repeat, is that the committee considered a number of possibilities and decided that each one of them had considerable flaws and was time-consuming. The committee therefore went ahead and produced a thoughtful document, which is now before your Lordships. The reason—

Lord Naseby: The point that the noble Lord does not seem to have taken on board is: what consultation was there with Back-Benchers? Questions are put down by Back-Benchers. The vast majority of members of the Procedure Committee are not Back-Benchers and they do not put down Questions. On the whole, I question whether they really know what the procedure is and what really happens.

Lord Laming: The committee considered the representations that had been made to them by Back-Benchers and those representations fell into three clear and unambiguous categories as far as the committee was concerned. One is to simplify the procedure; the second is to recognise that not all Members are free to form a queue at two o’clock and not all Members find it a dignified process; and the third and most important point is whether it is possible to arrive at a recommendation that enables a wider range of Members to table Oral Questions.

The committee made these recommendations in the belief that it had addressed the objectives set for it. The committee not only made the recommendations on that basis but recognised that any change has its advantages and disadvantages, many of which have been aired today, and those were considered by the committee. It therefore decided that, if there is going to be a change, which is clearly a matter for the House, why not introduce it on an experimental basis, as set out in the report, so that we can all learn from experience?

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In the light of that experience, we can either modify what has been recommended or it can be scrapped and we can go back to what is presently in operation.

This House has demonstrated its willingness to look at its procedures. It has demonstrated through the Leader’s Group and other means that it is willing to consider changes in its procedures if it seems that they can be in keeping with the current pressures on the House. As I am sure all noble Lords will agree, it is not a dramatic change to introduce a ballot for matters of this kind. However, I urge the House to consider that, if we accept the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Lea, we will end up with three different procedures to determine four Questions. I have to say that that is not a system that would appeal to me; nor do I believe that it would simplify the matter.

Lord Lea of Crondall: I must clarify what I said, which was not what the noble Lord attributed to me. A comparison could certainly be made during this six-month period but it would not be a permanent arrangement of having three different systems.

Lord Laming: It is a matter for the House. I warmly commend the report to the House and I hope the House will take it as seriously as the committee did.

5.30 pm

Baroness Knight of Collingtree: As I understand it, this is an occasion on which we can express our views on the changes suggested. I am particularly worried that the new system, as proposed, would mean us losing the opportunity of asking a well-timed Question. I do not know whether we would have to put our names down for a Question at any time, but it may not be a time when we have in mind a very relevant and important Question that needs to be answered. I do not see how you get around that. We currently have a system which allows us to do that. I would also say, with the greatest respect, that it is wrong to talk about three-hour waits. I do not put down Questions all that often but when I have done I have never waited for more than an hour. You know perfectly well that if you get there at 1.55 pm and the wait finishes at 2 pm then you have lost. We all understand that. All of us have our difficulties but there are chairs provided and if we really want to put down a very important Question then we can do it. We can do it easily and it is no real problem. It is not a three-hour wait every time you put down a Question. To say that this new system would encourage diversity is an argument I cannot follow. We have great diversity at the moment. In the Commons they deal with one subject on one day whereas we pop from one subject to another with alacrity and great ingenuity. I am extremely worried about a system which would rob us of a very good and timely ability to question the Government.

Lord Barnett: My Lords, I declare an interest. I have occasionally put down Questions. Much of what has been said I entirely agree with. I certainly agree with the noble Baroness. I have never had to wait for three hours to put down a Question and I have put down a fair number of Questions. I have also been

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very interested to hear that it is all a matter for Back Benchers. Perhaps my noble friends on our Front Bench would note that.

My noble friend Lord Harris made the very important point that if we were to accept this it would not be a fair trial. It is totally confusing. I congratulate the Chairman of Committees on what he said. The present situation is not ideal. There is not an ideal situation available and it is going to get worse. If the rumours I hear are correct—that the Prime Minister is going to introduce another 100 Peers because having lost Lords reform they are now going to destroy us by numbers—it will make the situation even worse and is another reason for the committee to rethink. I hope that the Chairman of Committees will have listened to what has been said today. We cannot expect an ideal solution and I do not expect the committee to come up with one. However, I do expect it to reconsider this. I hope the Chairman of Committees will think very carefully and not press this to a vote. He should take it back for reconsideration. That would be the ideal solution today and I ask him to do just that.

Lord Touhig: My Lords, if I can be forgiven for telling the House, Aneurin Bevan once said that our principles remain constant but our policies have to be reinvented with every generation because policies, like tools, get worn out with use. I want to get across the point that I am not against the idea that we should look at how we table Questions. I am just not sure that this is the right way to be going about it. The work of the House committees is so wrapped up that most of us do not know what is and is not discussed. Some very good ideas have come across the Chamber today but we do not know whether the Procedure Committee has actually considered them. The Chairman of Committees said that two reports were prepared by the Clerks on this matter. Where are they? Are they not available to Members? If we are not members of the Procedure Committee, we are not allowed to go in to listen and see what happens, so we do not quite know what has been discussed.

In my brief remarks I shall confine myself to a few questions. Paragraph 3 states:

“Members will, as at present, be able to submit oral questions four weeks before the sitting day on which they are to be asked”.

Why four weeks? Why not five weeks, or six weeks, or the first Monday after the next full moon? What is the logic about four weeks? Why can we not table Questions for next week? Has this been considered? I do not know.

Following on from the point made by my noble friend Lord Harris, the second bullet point in paragraph 3 states:

“Members will be able to submit an oral question to the Table Office, in person or by telephone, at any time between 10 am and 4 pm on that day. Questions will not be accepted by post, email, fax, or via third parties such as researchers, unless the text is also confirmed by the member in person or by telephone”.

So researchers can table Questions on behalf of Members—it says so here. It is quite confusing. How on earth are we going to resolve the problem if researchers and others are able to phone in or send in fax or text messages? How do you check whether or not a text

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message is from a Member? I know many colleagues who allow staff to access their own e-mail addresses. How will you know? This causes me some concern.

I assume the Clerks will conduct the ballot. Will we be able to observe the ballot? Will the list of the ballot be published immediately afterwards? These questions might have been considered by the Procedure Committee, but I do not know and I do not know whether other Members of the House know. This is why I am inclined to support the amendment of my noble friend Lord Grenfell and say, “Go back and have another look at this”. I do not know whether the idea of themed Questions suggested by my noble friend Lord Kennedy and others, and the suggestions of the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, have been considered, but they are all worth considering.

Coming back to the point I made at the beginning, I am not against the change. However, I want to know how we have arrived at this position because I am somewhat doubtful that this is the right way to go about changing the procedure for submitting a Question.

Lord Scott of Foscote: My Lords, the attraction of the scheme put forward by the Chairman of Committees is that, on the one hand, it would do away with the need for queueing—on that I have nothing to say because I have never tried to put down a Question and so I have never had to queue—and, on the other hand, the balloting alternative would be fair to all Members who wished to ask a Question. It is that part of the recommendation that I have been considering while the debate has been going on.

It would be fair only if there were a strictly enforced rule that no Member could put into the ballot more than one Question at a time. If a Member drafted 10 different Questions and popped them all into the ballot box, he or she would increase by a factor of 10 his or her chance of success. You can multiply that: if you put in 100 Questions the factor would be 100. There would need to be a strictly enforced rule that only one Question per Member could be put in. How that would be done and enforced, I really do not know.

Lord Howarth of Newport: My Lords, the existing system of first come, first served involves some minor inconvenience and frustration but, on the whole, it works fairly well, certainly if you judge by results. Our Question Time is, by general acceptance, a good occasion: the Government are held to account, there are lively debates and it is a collective occasion for the House as a whole. Therefore the onus is on those who want to change the present system to make the case that it is so unsatisfactory that it needs to be altered.

I am not, however, necessarily opposed to experimentation with an alternative system with a ballot, but I have some anxieties about it. One of my anxieties is that if the process of tabling a Question becomes easier and if, at the same time, the statistical odds that your Question will be successful in the ballot are remote, I fear that the quality of questioning may deteriorate—that people will not take the same trouble to formulate their Questions and we will lose the more forensic and purposeful Questions of the kind that the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, referred to. It is very important

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for the performance and reputation of this House that we continue to table Questions that are of genuine and broad interest to the generality of noble Lords, that open up important issues and that probe the Government. On the whole, the House at the moment does those things rather well.

Another concern I have was dealt with engagingly by my noble friend Lord Harris. How is the definition of a single subject to be arrived at and who will determine whether a subject is a single subject? I fear that, because of the uncertainty about this, noble Lords will be tempted to game the system and table Questions that are intentionally somewhat vague, highly generalised and lacking in specificity. Again, that will not be good for the House and it will make things unreasonably difficult for Ministers. We need to be sure that we have a proper solution to that issue.

My main concern is that a balloting system in which it is easy for people to put down Questions will be almost irresistibly tempting to the Whips of all the parties. I am not aware, and I have certainly not been subject to blandishments and importunings, that the Whips seek to organise and control Question Time in this House as they do in the House of Commons. That is one reason why the character of Question Time in this House is, to my taste, more satisfactory than the character of Question Time in the House of Commons. What goes on in the House of Commons suits them and is part of the daily drama of the nation, but we have a different culture and style. Personally, I think it would be better for us to continue to conduct the party politics that there inevitably will be in this House sotto voce and in a relatively restrained style, as is our custom and practice, and not seek to emulate the customs and practices of Question Time in the other place. We should be wary of anything that allows the character of Question Time here to drift away from the way it is at the moment and more towards how it is in the other place.

I favour the amendment tabled by my noble friend Lord Grenfell. Before this experiment is initiated, further thought ought to go into it, and I am delighted that the Chairman of Committees has spoken favourably of the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Berkeley.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: Perhaps I may contribute briefly to the debate. Although the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, referred to some of us as fanatics, I would rather think of those of us who ask Questions as enthusiasts. If I had to choose one amendment, I would go for that tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, which retains the status quo, but I am impressed by the arguments we have heard about the different problems. One which sounds quite fair is: why on earth should Questions be tabled at 2 pm? If people really cannot get here from Scotland or wherever, they could be considered at some other time.

The question of the ballot is not at all clear. I am opposed to a ballot because it is, as has been said, a raffle or a lottery. The other difficulty with it is that when we ballot for topical questions, we are limited in how many we can ask in a year. There is no clarity as to whether, if we ballot for these Questions, we would be limited in that way. It has been said that the most

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Questions anyone has tabled is 10 in the past year, so that person must have been pretty conscientious. The idea that it is easy to secure a Question is quite wrong. You have to be there bright and early and you have to queue; you are making an effort and a personal sacrifice. It is better when the next two people arrive. I have found it to be one of the most wonderful places to have a cross-party conversation. When you are waiting there, you may be one of three representative groups, each asking a Question. I find that the present system is excellent.

In his very good presentation of the report, the Chairman of Committees said that we want to encourage new voices. I am all for that, but tabling a Question is only part of the process, and the opportunity to ask supplementary questions is available to any new voice who wants to join in. I know that I am at an advantage because I sit quite far forward and no one behind can disturb me if I stand up. It is a great advantage not to know if someone is trying hard behind you, but there are opportunities to join in. In fact, over the years, many of the questions I have asked have been about things that I had not thought about until I came in. You listen to the exchanges and suddenly you think, “That is something I’d be interested to know about”, and I believe that the new voices can intervene in that way, as well as queueing up for a balloted Question.

I favour the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, because this House’s one big reputation is for thinking again. There is no disgrace whatever in taking this report back for thinking again: that is in full consideration of the traditions of this House. Improvements could be made that must be fair to all Members. A six-month trial would be an appalling waste of time and would not be helpful. That is a personal view, and I know that some people are in favour of the balloted system; I am not. I am, however, in favour of the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, and I hope that it will be carried by the House.

5.45 pm

Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe: My Lords, I will speak on the same theme. As a previous member of a Leader’s Group, I want first to make a plea to the Chairman of Committees, who made an excellent presentation in the circumstances. I plead with him to reflect on his decision not to call an earlier meeting of the Procedure Committee and leave it as presently scheduled. We should have an earlier meeting, and he should reflect on that.

Secondly, through the noble Lord, I would like to make an appeal to the new Leader of the House, too, to take into account what has been said today and to have the guts to take it away, to have a look at it, and see if we cannot come back and get the whole House moving together as one. Thirdly, I appeal to those Peers who are perhaps inclined just to vote with the report to see that there have been a number of points made today that really need further examination.

It also reflects to a degree some of the frustrations in the House about the slow progress in implementation of a fair number of the recommendations in the previous Leader’s report. I was one of those who

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argued for a Leader’s report and for changes in the way that we run Questions. Under the previous Government, we experimented with Questions on particular subjects. That has now gone; it has just been ditched. Previously, we had recommendations that the Leader of the House should present himself, maybe once a week, to answer Questions. That, again, was in the evidence that went to the previous Leader’s Group and nothing has happened on it.

As the noble Lord, Lord Laming, has said, while the committee has given a good deal of attention to the subject already, there are two or three other topics related to it, both directly and indirectly, that need to be brought together and examined in one go. We can then come up with something that will be acceptable to the House overall. I support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, for a reference back to the committee and for a fairly early response to the House in the spring.

Lord Reid of Cardowan: My Lords, having listened to and participated in Questions in the other House for almost a quarter of a century, please allow me to inform your Lordships that Question Time in this House is more interesting, more varied, usually more relevant, certainly much more of a discourse, and provides more information than what so often turns into a tennis match in the other House, with most Members cheering either one side or the other. The most disconcerting thing that I found on coming to this Chamber was that people actually listen to what one says. If they miss it, they read it in Hansard. This diminishes the rhetoric and contributes much more to the discussion.

My only advice is to be very careful before proceeding to a ballot. Inevitably, it would enhance the partisan nature, and the Whips, being Whips—like the scorpion, it is what they do—would circulate Questions. There would therefore not be the fairness expected, because there would be pro forma circulated Questions that 40 people, rather than one, would be asking. It would be less informative and a backward step for this House. The discourse here is one of the advantages that we have over the other House.

I have one other comment on one of the points made. The idea that queueing is somehow undignified is an intriguing and novel suggestion. I wonder if there is a committee that will consider our voting in light of this new animosity towards queueing.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, I have a very brief question. I have sat through the whole of this debate and must say that, except for one contribution, there has been no support at all for the committee. Given the absence of support, I would like to know exactly how many people made representations to the committee and how many of them did it in writing.

Lord Empey: My Lords, I thank the committee for at least trying to address some of the issues that some of us have over this. I am a relatively new Member—although if the information given by the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, is correct, I may very well soon be able to describe myself as a veteran Member. The Chairman

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of Committees raised a point about distance. Whether people perhaps realise it or not, the House is very London-centric. The noble Lord, Lord Naseby, was able to say that he is 50 miles away but, as far as I am concerned, that is down the road. It takes me at least four hours door to door, plus the time before that to get up and so on. On a Monday, I find it extremely helpful to have a morning at home when I can work. That means that it is virtually impossible for me, without a lot of effort, to put a Question down then. However, I have tabled some Oral Questions and do not have an antipathy to queuing, as the noble Lord, Lord Reid, has said.

We have heard several Members here today say that they have not put Questions down because they do not particularly like the system. Those who said it are noble Lords of very great standing in your Lordships’ House, and I personally would like to see Questions coming from them. One statistic that the Chairman of Committees gave us was that a significant number of the Questions were asked by a very small number of noble Lords. Enthusiasm is a great thing but, whether we like it or not, the risk highlighted by the noble Lord, Lord Reid—of the Whips becoming involved in the Questions—has to be offset against not many people having a kind of a cartel that corners the Oral Question market. It is a question of getting a balance between those different things, and the committee has tried.

There are many more experienced Members here than me and I do not want to do anything that would make government less accountable. Question Time is one of the very good things in this House, but the proposal from the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, is one that should be revisited. All the suggestions—such as that the Leader of the House should answer Questions, whether that is here or in a committee—are perfectly valid, and there is a whole range of things that we could look at. However, what we have now is not the perfect solution and it may not even be the best. One has to take account of why so many Members are prepared to participate in debates and become involved in legislation, and yet suddenly there is a very significant number who do not participate in Oral Questions. There is a whole reservoir of skill and ability out there that clearly does not seem to be content with the system. I presume that that is one of the reasons why the committee took the decisions and made the recommendations that it did.

We are making a bit too much heavy weather about a ballot. We already run ballots in this place. The other place and the devolved Administrations run ballots. Indeed, I spent quite a number of years, as have other noble Lords, answering and writing questions on the basis of ballots. It is not impossible to find a mechanism that will work. It is important that there is a consensus on the value and importance of the questioning process, but there appears to be a reticence among those who have participated in this debate to consent to the proposal of a trial. If we are going to change the system, it will inevitably have to be trialled—you would run a trial to iron out the gremlins. I thank the committee for making the attempt to take account of the concerns of some of us who travel from a distance.

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Lord Northbourne: My Lords, I will speak just for a moment from the point of view of a Back-Bencher on the Cross Benches without political commitment. Many noble Lords in my position—other colleagues, although perhaps not all—believe that the best way that we can serve the House is to have a specialist interest which we take a deep concern in and spend a great deal of time studying and following. Mine happens to be disadvantaged children and parenting, but there are others. If I come across a situation in which I believe a Question needs to be asked of the Government, all I have to do is give up my lunch, go in an hour earlier and I will be at the front of the queue. If we had a system of ballots there would just be a pot of Questions there and people would put down a Question on the odd chance of it coming through. The value of the Questions would not be so good because they would not be pressed by the deep interest and commitment of the noble Lords asking them. I would plead for a continuation, if necessary, of queuing, but not for a ballot.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I am sure that the House will be anxious to come to a conclusion. This is of course a matter for the whole House and not for the Opposition or the Government. I have attended Oral Questions regularly for 15 years now and I echo the point raised by my noble friend Lord Reid—that the quality of Question Time at the moment is of a very high order. It is the focal point of our day: Ministers are held to account, the House is full and Members are attentive. I believe that one should be very wary of changing a part of our daily life that is so successful. I wonder whether the Chairman of Committees—having heard the debate today and that there is some disquiet, to say the least, about this change—would agree for his committee to be asked to give further consideration to this matter.

I carefully intervened on the noble Lord, Lord Laming, whom I respect enormously, on the question of whether this has been subject to a consultation with Members of the House. I think his answer was that the members of the committee are broadly representative of the House. However, given today’s debate, surely it would be entirely appropriate for the committee not only to set out its proposals but to pick up some of the very useful suggestions that noble Lords have made about how Question Time could be enhanced in the future and to engage in a proper consultation with Members of the House. At the end of that process the committee would be well able to reach conclusions, come back to the House with suggestions and arrange for a trial period. We would then see that this process has had the ownership of all Members of the House. I am very wary of a situation where a major change is made to the way we are allowed to table Questions but which clearly does not have ownership among a significant number of Members of the House. On that basis, it would surely be appropriate for the committee to be asked to think again.

The current quality of Questions is particularly high. Looking through the list of Questions, one sees that they are almost all of a very high order and on key issues of the day. As a number of noble Lords—such as the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, and the noble Baroness, Lady Knight—have suggested, there is a

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clear pathway to asking Questions on a certain day. On International Women’s Day, World AIDS Day or similar occasions, it is entirely possible for there to be a Question that was put down four weeks before. We will lose any way of doing that in the future. Choosing Questions out of a hat is no guarantee that we will have high-quality Questions and the House may well end up debating second-order issues of little interest to members of the public or your Lordships’ House. I will not go through all the questions that have been raised about the practicalities of balloting but will just make three points.

First, it is not at all clear why research assistants should have any role to play in this matter—I see the shaking of heads. However, it is clearly set out that Questions will be accepted from researchers if the text is also confirmed by the Member in person or by telephone. Why does a research assistant have anything to do with this at all? My understanding is that in December, when the committee discussed this matter, it was stated clearly that Questions would not be accepted from third parties.

The second area, which my noble friend Lord Harris raised, is that of no more than one Question on a subject being accepted for inclusion in the ballot. This follows the current practice for topical Questions. However, the topical Question is different: a bar is set that it has to be topical. We are talking here about all Questions being subject to this test, presumably set by officials in the Table Office, as to whether the Question is a general one which can be accepted—

Lord Barnett: Has my noble friend also thought about the problems this would give the clerks, who would have to choose? I assume that the clerks have other work to do; this complex arrangement would give them rather a lot more work.

6 pm

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: More than that, I suspect that it would involve the clerks in judgments which might lead to questions about the way in which they conduct themselves. It would be very unfortunate. We uphold and admire the clerks and I do not think that they should be asked to make those kinds of judgments.

As for queuing, my noble friend Lord Barnett kindly mentioned to the House that I am occasionally able to have a Question on the Order Paper. It is true that I do not mind queuing: I do not understand what the problem is with it. It is a bit much for some of the distinguished Members who have spoken today to say that they do not feel able to put a Question down. I have queued, and I have recently had some very enjoyable conversations with the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes. It is not a three-hour queue; very often it can be half an hour. Frankly, those of us who put Questions down accept the system and it is not a problem. It seems that a few people have complained and that the Procedure Committee has suddenly said, “This is a major problem which concerns many Members of the House”. That is not the case.

However, the most substantive point to be made to the Chairman of Committees, whom we all respect and admire, is that there is not a consensus view in your Lordships’ House. To change Questions—the

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most important focal point of our daily activity—without consensus, seems to me to be an unfortunate way to go about things. I hope that the noble Lord, with all his wisdom and experience, will agree to take this matter back.

The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, it is customary on occasions like this to say what a good debate it has been. I would like to say what a supportive debate it has been, but that would be somewhat inaccurate. It is clear that there are deeply held and different views on how we should go forward with Question Time. I detect a common view that something needs to be done; that is generally recognised throughout the House. The proposals before the House today were produced by the Procedure Committee in a context not of a sustained campaign from anyone to complain about or change Question Time; it was just a drip, drip, drip of comments made that the whole conduct of Question Time was a matter for complaint. When I have held my fortnightly drop-in sessions, every week someone mentioned something wrong with Question Time. It is not the great, wonderful occasion that we like to think it is. Many Members feel that they are excluded from taking part in Question Time because of the way in which it proceeds, and that is a pity.

I shall get one thing out of the way straight away. First, I assure noble Lords that the proposal by the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, to extend the number of Questions and lengthen Question Time will be addressed by the Procedure Committee within the next one or two meetings, so there is no need to progress that at this stage.

Secondly, a lot has been said about the consultation. That is something that I take very seriously. It is very important that a gap does not develop between Members, particularly Back-Bench Members, and the domestic committees of this House, and I have tried my best to narrow that gap. I have not completely succeeded in closing it, but I hope that it has been narrowed to an extent. In passing, it should be said that no one has come to me to complain about the proposals in the Procedure Committee report, but never mind; let it be.