Adjournment (Easter and Monday 2nd May)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 11:42 am on 25th March 1988.

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Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen , Nottingham North 11:42 am, 25th March 1988

The House of Commons is the most sophisticated political prison in the world. It makes strong men and determined women impotent with the minimum of brutality yet with the maximum of effectiveness. Such is the confidence of the system that even the doors are not locked. Indeed, for most of the working day there is no obligation to attend—if the usual channels will permit me that indiscretion.

Parliamentary democracy and the holding to account of Government and the Executive is now little more than a sham as practised in this Chamber. The anarchic and archaic procedures that dominate our proceedings seem to give a few perks to buy off individual Members, but fail to direct the efforts of either Government or Opposition Members in the job that Parliament was set up to do.

One of the most obvious and striking examples of that failure relates to the hours of sitting of this place and it is that to which I wish refer to today. There are many other examples that could be drawn, notably the length of the parliamentary sessions. The House of Commons meets for more days than any other legislature in the civilised world. Our recesses—today we are debating the Easter recess—seem to bear no rhyme or reason to contemporary politics. Certainly the summer recess is far too long for the purpose for which it was originally intended. I believe that a system of proper holidays, which any self-respecting trade unionist would certainly support, could be arrived at by negotiations with the relevant parties, perhaps even through Mr. Speaker's Office. Such holidays could then become a normal part of our environment instead of the current practice.

My major argument relates to the length of the sitting that we have each day. On average we sit beyond 12 o'clock at night twice a week. It need not always be like that; indeed it was not always like that. The great reforming Government of 1945–50, as I understand it from the record books, had only three sittings after 12 o'clock. There has developed, however, for no reason — an organic growth—a series of sittings well into the night. Therefore, the House now has an average of two sittings per week that go beyond 12 o'clock.

The answer to the problem rests with Members of Parliament. The Economist stated: MPs, though individually they had succeeded in becoming more independent of party whips, have not yet learnt to act collectively in their own interest against the interests of the frontbenchers of both major parties. If ever a man has suffered through not belonging to a trade union it has been the modern British MP. That comment, made over a decade ago, is just as true today. The power of the Government and in particular the Front Benches, as exemplified by the whipping system, has meant that we have been lumbered with a system without any forethought or planning. That system imposes upon hon. Members a great many burdens. Such burdens are self-inflicted because, until the Back Benchers of both parties realise their self-interest, the system will continue.

It would be idle to waste too much sympathy on Members of Parliament, but there are others who must be taken into account, notably the families—the husbands, wives, children, girl friends or whatever. They suffer because of the idiocy of the system under which we attempt to work. There is a great deal of statistical evidence about the divorce rate among hon. Members, and those statistics need not be repeated.

I hope that we would all wish to encourage more women to become Members of Parliament, but added to all the burdens that male Members of Parliament face are the burdens that families and society place upon women as mothers and, in a sense, home makers. Those burdens are in excess of those that we should reasonably place on Members of Parliament. Such burdens could be removed if we had the will.

Other disadvantages in our present system include the effect on the decision-making process. How can Ministers effectively perform their duties the next day if they have been at the Dispatch Box or sitting on the Front Bench into the small hours? There is a great deal of anecdotal and written evidence from Members of all parties—whatever shade of Government have been in power—that has outlined how performance has been impaired because this place has taken its toll of Ministers.

Members of Parliament have a macho tendency to prove their toughness by sitting through the night, but that is also a costly exercise in terms of keeping staff on duty and awake when any self-respecting person would be at home with his or her family and relaxing for the day ahead.

I have tabled a motion referring to that problem in which I suggest that the House should rise automatically at 10 pm, thus returning to the system which existed just after the war when business appeared to be conducted as expeditiously and efficiently as it is today, perhaps even more so. If there were a national crisis, there would be a fallback provision under which a given number of Members of Parliament could request the sitting to continue, but that would occur only in extreme and emergency cases. To compensate for any loss of time, the House would meet at 1 pm every day, except Friday.

Given that the television age is about to come to this place—not before time—the Adjournment debate would not take place at the last knockings of the parliamentary day, but would begin the day. The superstars on the Front Bench, who will no doubt monopolise the television cameras, would experience competition from any hon. Members who are allocated an Adjournment debate and would therefore earn a place in the public eye. Between 1 pm and 1.30 pm, they could speak about an important issue during prime time television.

I do not anticipate instant acceptance of that proposal by the House, but, having looked through the press files, I am encouraged to see that many highly respected and distinguished parliamentarians from both sides of the House, including former Prime Ministers, but unfortunately not yet including the Leader of the House, have suggested that the way in which we work is unplanned and unco-ordinated and suits only the Government, not Parliament.

A major restructuring of our work needs to take place under the auspices of the Select Committee on Procedure. I hope that the Leader of the House will make the necessary arrangements so that the Procedure Committee can consider that matter again. It has discussed the matter in the recent past, but there are many new Members of Parliament who are keen and fired with antagonism towards the way this place works. I hope that that strengthens the feeling that we must put our own house in order by ensuring that we sit at proper times of day and that the business of Parliament, which is to hold the Executive to account, can take place on a far more sensible basis than at present.