Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Whose turn to speak?

On Monday the House of Lords returned from its summer break. The first question highlighted a problem for the House - it doesn't have anyone to decide who can speak. "The House is self-regulating: The Lord Speaker has no power to rule on matters of order. In practice this means that the preservation of order and the maintenance of the rules of debate are the responsibility of the House itself, that is, of all the members who are present...." (Companion to the Standing Orders 4.01)

Can that work? Well like so many things in the British Constitution, it shouldn't work - but it does. Often two or more Peers will rise to ask a supplementary question. It never comes to blows. There are unwritten rules about the 'turn' each party has - and occasionally the Leader of the House, her Deputy or a government whip will assist the House by suggesting the next questioner. Of course this advice does not need to be heeded - but a Peer who presses on is usually drowned out by obvious diapproval of their colleagues.

On Monday this exchange occured -

Lord Thomas of Gresford: My Lords, would the Government—

Lord Trimble: My Lords, are there not lessons to be learnt—

Lord Thomas of Gresford: My Lords, Front Bench, please.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, we do not accept the precedence of Front Bench, but it is certainly the turn of the Liberal Democrats.

Both Lord Thomas (Liberal Democrat) and Lord Trimble (Conservative) sought to put a supplementary - for a couple of moments both were trying to get in, and neither would give way. The Deputy Leader "assisted" the House. The turns of the parties was recognised (and Lord Trimble did not persist), but Lord Hunt was adamant that there is no basis for any claim that front benchers have the right to speak before backbenchers.