A self-regulating House

Lord Norton

445891.jpg I will be speaking in a debate in Grand Committee in the Lords later today.  How do I know I will be speaking?  Don’t I have to catch the eye of the Speaker or whoever is presiding, as in the Commons?  The answer is no.  Unlike the Commons, the Lords is a self-regulating chamber.  The Lord Speaker has no powers: she does not call people to speak, she does not maintain order, and she does not select which amendments will be debated.

 The House collectively is responsible for maintaining order and what goes on.  In what are generally referred to as set-piece debates, such as on the second reading of Bills, general debates and questions for short debate, peers sign up in advance to speak.  Having signed up to speak, you are then included on the speakers’ list for the debate: this is published on the morning of the debate.  Those on the list speak in the order they appear on it.  Where debates are time limited, the time is allocated among the speakers according to how many are speaking.  You might have only a few minutes (and no more than fifteen).   This may sound artificial, but it actually works: you normally have a series of short, informed contributions.  You know you will be speaking, so you can prepare accordingly, but a time limit concentrates the mind wonderfully, so you make sure you concentrate on your key points. 

 Where there is no speakers’ list, as when debating amendments to Bills or in Question Time (for supplementary questions), it is a case of simply getting to your feet to speak.  If two peers rise at the same time, one normally gives way.   It is generally accepted that if a peer from one grouping in the House has just spoken, it is the turn of a peer from another grouping to speak next.   If there is any confusion, the Leader of the House or a government whip normally intervenes to suggest that it is the turn of such-and-such. 

On the whole, the procedures facilitate informed debate and a dialogue with ministers, and when the House made the switch from having the Lord Chancellor to an elected Lord Speaker as presiding officer, one thing that was clear was that it wished to remain a self-regulating body.  The Lord Speaker is very conscious of that and recognises that her major role is an ambassadorial one for the House.

12 comments for “A self-regulating House

  1. Bedd Gelert
    27/03/2008 at 9:45 am

    This sounds eminently sensible and civilised. No flannel, soft soap and obsequious grovelling to the Speaker, or filibustering of Parliamentary time. Perhaps since the Lord Speaker has an ‘ambassadorial role’ she might be persuaded to do a ‘guest spot’ on this blog ?

    http://www.parliament.uk/about/how/principal/lord_speaker/lordspeaker.cfm

  2. lordnorton
    27/03/2008 at 10:06 am

    It certainly means that time is not taken up with bogus points of order. There is no authority figure to push against, as we are collectively the authority.

    I don’t know if the Lord Speaker would like to do a guest spot, given that – as you recognise from providing the link – she already has her own website. I do encourage people to follow the link to read about the work of the Lord Speaker.

  3. ladytizzy
    28/03/2008 at 3:00 am

    Would you please distinguish between general, set-piece, and short debates?

    Thanks, Tiz

  4. lordnorton
    28/03/2008 at 10:16 am

    In response to ladytizzy, Thursdays are normally given over to debates on motions (rather than discussing legislation) and the normal pattern is to have two debates, each of two-and-a-half hours, though this may be varied (e.g. a three-hour and a two-hour debate or even one five-hour debate). The motion will be of the ‘to call attention to….’ variety. (See, for example, the debate on voting systems referred to in an earlier post by Lord Tyler.)

    We also have what are termed Questions for Short Debate (QSDs). These used to be known as Unstarred Questions, but few people outside the House really understood what this meant, so the name was changed to reflect what they actually are. QSDs are questions and are considered for either an hour or ninety-minutes (an hour if taken as dinner-time business, usually around 7.30 p.m., giving a chance for the main business to be interrupted and resumed at 8.30 p.m., or ninety minutes if taken as the very last business of the day). There is also now the possibility to have QSDs taken in Grand Committee (i.e. off the floor of the House): yesterday, for example, there were four debated in Grand Committee in the Moses Room. I spoke in the last one, which was a question raised by Lord Butler of Brockwell on the preparation of legislation.

    Basically, set-piece debates are those where it is possible to sign up to speak in advance: so second reading debates, general debates (i.e. the sort we have on Thursdays), Questions for Short Debate, and also debates on Select Commitee reports.

  5. What goes around...
    28/03/2008 at 10:46 am

    “Basically, set-piece debates are those where it is possible to sign up to speak in advance: so second reading debates, general debates (i.e. the sort we have on Thursdays), Questions for Short Debate, and also debates on Select Commitee reports.”

    Oh, oh, hold your horses for just a moment there, as I’m getting ever so slightly confused.

    * “Thursdays are normally given over to debates on motions (rather than discussing legislation)” … “Basically, set-piece debates are those where it is possible to sign up to speak in advance: so second reading debates, general debates (i.e. the sort we have on Thursdays), Questions for Short Debate, and also debates on Select Commitee reports.”

    You did, I think, mention earlier that in discussing legislation you are ‘self-regulating’ and people just stand up for 15 minutes, and defer to others, rather than relying on the Lord Speaker.

    You say in this post that it is possible to sign up to ‘set-piece’ debates in advance. I concede that these are ‘motions’, but isn’t a ‘second reading’ debate ‘discussing legislation’ ?? Or is ‘discussing legislation’ more about a form of ‘quality control’ amendments ??

    I’m not really trying to be pedantic here [for a change] but this is the first time I’ve really had this explained to me, and it is still confusing. Or maybe I’m just being a bit thick or haven’t read the earlier posts properly.

    Perhaps the best way for us to understand this is for you and the other Lords to just give a ‘what I did today’ type Diary throughout a ‘typical week’, and maybe it will all become clear.

  6. lordnorton
    28/03/2008 at 11:30 am

    Second readings are indeed part of legislation, but as it is one debate on a motion (that the Bill be read a second time) one can sign up in advance. Once one gets beyond second reading (committee, report, third reading), one is discussing amendments: the amendments appear in a marshalled list and the mover speaks to the amendment in moving it; other peers can then contribute. Debate on amendments is more spontaneous – there needs to be the opportunity (especially in committee) to interject and query and to press a minister.

    I agree, though, that a diary type contribution can be helpful in showing what we do. I will post the occasional diary piece. For understanding procedure, though, it is also useful to browse through Lords Hansard (available online) to see what happens. Looking at Hansard can be valuable also simply for gleaning information about a whole range of topics. Answers to written question provide some fascinating (and some not so fascinating) information.

  7. lordnorton
    28/03/2008 at 12:06 pm

    I should perhaps add, as I realise it is not apparent from what I have written, that typically a second reading debate is scheduled for a whole day. Occasionally, other business may be scheduled, but the main item is the second reading. There may be a great many speakers – though the 71 signed up for the EU (Amendment) Bill next Tuesday is exceptional.

    In committee, one is debating amendments and there may a large number (not unusually, a three-figure number) tabled. Committee thus takes the form of a series of short discussions; once one amendment (or group of amendments) has been discussed and then agreed, defeated or withdrawn, one moves to the next amendment, and so on. Some amendments are dealt with in a matter of a few minutes, more substative or contentious amendments may take up half an hour or even an hour or more. As a result, estimating how long a Bill will need in committee is rather an art than a science.

  8. Jonathan Boot
    28/03/2008 at 7:44 pm

    From somebody who is very well informed about parliamentary proceedings, and has done work experience in parliament. I think it is ridiculous that the Lords Speaker does not have more power. If she did the house would be stronger, as the Lords Speaker, with power could make the government more accountable to the house. If she were able to keep order and call people to speak the current sham of question time would be a lot more orderly, and a lot less time taken over peers shouting “this side.” I also believe that the Lords Speaker should have the power to ask peers to leave the chamber quietly because I listen to proceedings regularly and after question time when everyone troops out it is hard to hear the next business due to the noise of those leaving the chamber. If points of order were allowed to the Lords Speaker it would make the govt more accountable, i.e. sloppy answers to question may be stopped, as would the provision of not providing enough detail in committee on certain amendments. It would also make the house stronger in carrying out its work. I do of course understand the wish of the house to remain self regulating, but if it wants to be a stronger house it should implement the above changes with regards to the Lords Speaker.

  9. Marcus
    31/03/2008 at 4:01 pm

    Er… in the same way the Speaker in the House of Commons makes the government more accountable…?

  10. lordnorton
    31/03/2008 at 8:54 pm

    I must confess that agree with Marcus. The Speaker serves essentially as a referee. He can not actually ensure that ministers are called to account. As long as minister stay within order, they can say as little of substance as they wish. I think that the ethos and practice in the Lords – and the time we give to each question – puts more pressure on a minister than would be the case with a Speaker. If a minister does not provide a clear and substantive answer. this soon becomes clear from the supplementary questions, often from peers who are expert of highly experienced on the subject. The procedure can look a bit messy (and at times is!) but it delivers.

  11. Senex
    01/04/2008 at 5:44 pm

    May I congratulate the noble Lords on this high tech initiative?

    On my PVR I record the Parliament Channel’s Record Review highlights on a Friday evening for viewing over the weekend. One thing that strikes me over and over again is how very well attended the debates are in the House of Lords. Members I believe are unsalaried but can claim expenses.

    This is in stark contrast with the Commons were attendance is poor and MPs’ are salaried. They are being paid not to attend. Perception is everything!

    I do not know whether this is the right medium for robust debate?

    But is there a case for the House of Lords to have its full constitutional powers as amended by the Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949 restored? A mechanism should be considered to resolve deadlock between the Houses without prejudice to either House.

    For example people who by design do not vote in a general election should forfeit their vote to the Monarchy who will act for them in resolving deadlock between the two houses.

  12. lordnorton
    01/04/2008 at 6:10 pm

    Attendance at debates in the Lords can be very good indeed. When we are dealing with fairly detailed amendments to legislation, and there are only a few peers who are really expert in the subject, there may be only a handful of peers in the chamber, but for more general debates there can be an extremely healthy attendance. Question Time tends to generate a full House. Over recent decades, the daily attendance has increased substantially. In 1962-3, for example, the average daily attendance was 140, in 1972-3 it was 240, and in 2003-04 it was 368. In 2005-06, it exceeded 400.

    We are indeed able only to claim expenses. There are no salaries. I claim to have two full-time jobs (as a professor and as a lord) but only one salary! We have our travel expenses covered, and we can claim (up to a specified maximum) for daily subsistence, overnight accommodation, and secretarial and research support. (Being fairly frugal, I don’t think I have ever claimed the maximum on any occasion.) One consequence is that it keeps the costs of the House low. The cost per member of the Lords in 2005-06, for example, was less than a quarter of the cost of an MP.

    In terms of powers, given that the House is not elected, the current position seems about right. Most amendments accepted in the Lords are accepted by agreement – there is no vote – and on occasions when the Government resists an amendment and is defeated it still accepts about forty per cent of the defeats. If there is persistent disagreement between the two Houses, there is usually negotiation that leads to it being resolved. Since the passage of the 1949 Parliament Act, the Government has only resorted to use of its provisions on four occasions.

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