`Ill-mannered Lords needs Speaker'

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PEERS WHO put their feet on the table in the Lords' chamber and read newspapers during speeches should be kept in order by a figure in the mould of Betty Boothroyd, a former House of Commons Speaker suggested yesterday.

Lord Weatherill, who preceded Ms Boothroyd in the role, suggested that rowdy and ill-mannered new peers, in particular, needed to be reminded of the rules.

The House of Lords has no speaker, and until recently most peers felt the system worked well. Members waited politely as colleagues spoke and there was none of the rowdy atmosphere of the House of Commons.

An influx of new life peers since the general election led to changes, however. A report published last month by the Lords' Procedure Committee complained of peers talking privately to one another during debates and complained that question time often degenerated into "bad manners, posturing and frivolity". It said: "Courtesy should not be seen as an optional extra."

Many of the new peers were unaware of the rules. Some forgot to bow when the mace was carried past them, read their speeches instead of speaking without notes and addressed one another as "you" instead of as "the noble Lord".

"The sight of frontbenchers putting their feet on the table gives a poor impression to other members and to the public. We recommend that this practice should cease," the report said.

Lord Weatherill, a member of the Procedure Committee and convener of the crossbench peers, said a lack of rules had led to some problems creeping in. "I wouldn't be surprised if we didn't have a Speaker here in five years' time," he said. But the 78-year-old former MP, who retired from the Commons in 1992, did not see himself taking on the role. "Before anyone asks, I am too old."

His suggestion drew a mixed response from other peers. Lord Walker of Doncaster, a former deputy speaker of the House of Commons, said he too had called for such a reform. A great deal of time was wasted because peers wandered off the point during debates and there was no one to pull them up, he said.

"Those peers who don't want a speaker in the House of Lords or any kind of chairman would not dream of attending a meeting elsewhere unless there was someone in the chair," he said.

However, Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne, formerly a Conservative MP and now a Liberal Democrat, thought the introduction of a speaker would be "disastrous". Compared with Members in the Commons, the peers were "angelic", she said. "I would like to send our rules down to the House of Commons. They work because of self- regulation - it is sixth form as opposed to primary school," she said.

Earl Russell, a Liberal Democrat peer and historian, invoked a 500-year- old order last year to rebuke the former Labour general secretary Larry Whitty, now Lord Whitty, for accusing him of "posing as the students' friend" during an education debate.

"He apologised, I bought him a drink and we became firm friends," he said. "If there was a speaker, people would devolve responsibility for things they have to do themselves at the moment."

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