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I beg to move,
That this House
approves the Second Report from the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons, and endorses its proposals, in particular for more effective law making by more routine publication of bills in draft for pre-legislative scrutiny, for consultation with Opposition parties on the broad shape of the legislative year and more flexibility in programming, for an annual House of Commons calendar which would allow honourable Members to plan work in their constituencies more effectively and provide sittings in September balanced by an earlier recess in July, for more effective use of the Chamber including more regular use of time limits on speeches, and a Parliament that is more accessible to the public that it serves.
This is a Parliament with a long history stretching back over eight centuries. That history can be a strength of this place. Our very antiquity is one of the reasons for the legitimacy of this place in the nation's constitution. It can also be a trap, however, if we become too attached to our procedures because that is the way in which we have always done things, or if we resist change that is necessary to be representative of a rapidly changing society outside.
The day of our debate sees publication of a poll that underlines the challenge facing the House if it is to retain public respect. Most of the public believe that we are not effective at our job. A majority believe that we are
Xold fashioned and out of date", and that majority has got bigger over the past year. The best case for modernisation is that this House will lose its authority if it is seen by the nation to be out of date.
I have just begun. I will, of course, give way to hon. Members as I proceed with my speech, and I am conscious that many Members will wish to intervene. It might be helpful if I am allowed to proceed a little further, and the hon. Gentleman can intervene at the appropriate moment in the speech, in which I will cover several different issues.
First, however, I want to say that the sole purpose of the measures before the House tonight is to produce a more effective Parliament. Since the publication of my memorandum on modernisation a year ago, I have rejected the notion that there is some kind of conflict between Government and the House of Commons on the need for an effective Parliament. Good scrutiny makes for good government
I am glad that on at least one point I carry the right hon. Gentleman with me. I live in hope.
At the heart of the package, therefore, are a number of proposals to improve scrutiny. I want to start with the measures to make Question Time more relevant and more topical. I congratulate the members of the Procedure Committee, and particularly its Chairman, Sir Nicholas Winterton, on a thorough investigation and a radical set of proposals, nearly all of which have been accepted by the Government—[Laughter.] Mr. Forth laughs at that point. May I commend to him the fascinating historical account of Question Time at the opening of the Procedure Committee report? I was intrigued to note from that account that in 1991 the Conservative Government rejected the shorter notice for Question Time that this Government are accepting. I hope, therefore, that the right hon. Gentleman will spare us any extravagant claims about Conservative commitment to parliamentary scrutiny, which was never borne out when the Conservative party was in office.
We welcome the proposal for a radical reduction in the period of notice for oral questions. The present period of notice is a clear fortnight, which is a ludicrously long period. Events in the real world have a tendency to move faster than the leisurely pace of our Standing Orders. The Standing Order before us today cuts the period of notice dramatically from 10 sitting days to three sitting days.
The Government also accept the recommendation for electronic tabling of questions. Traditionalists will be relieved to hear that they can continue to table questions with a pencil and a buff form. However, the Standing Order gives authority to Mr. Speaker to introduce electronic tabling for those Members who wish to use modern information technology, and who will welcome the convenience of being able to table questions direct from their constituency or while on parliamentary delegations. No business starting out today would adopt our present manual procedures, which are more in keeping with the period architecture of this Palace than the high-tech economy in which our constituents work.
Does the right hon. Gentleman not share my concern that the opportunity for Members to table questions from their constituencies will simply lead to many Labour Members failing to attend the Chamber at all? They are more interested in being absentee MPs than in doing the job of parliamentary scrutiny here.
I only have to look around the Chamber to be encouraged by the fact that my hon. Friends are here to take a full part in the debate. The hon. Gentleman makes an unfair and unreasonable slur on the commitment of my colleagues. One reason why there is a majority among Labour Members in favour of earlier sitting hours is the fact that we are full-time professional MPs who are in the precincts in the morning anyway.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that, of the 146 Members who vote in more than 80 per cent. of Divisions, 134 are Labour Members and that only six are Conservatives? Does that not show that we on the Labour Benches take parliamentary scrutiny seriously? Of those Members, 34 are Labour women.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for quoting figures that were, of course, on the tip of my tongue. They demonstrate beyond argument Labour Members' commitment to making this an effective Chamber.
I very much welcome the right hon. Gentleman's comments about the tabling of questions and give the proposals my full support. However, will he explain why an extra day has been allowed for the Wales Office? Has he seen its postbag since devolution was introduced? It has diminished considerably, so why should an extra day be allowed for the territorial offices? Should not the arrangements be the same as for other Departments?
I warmly support devolution and I rather thought that the hon. Gentleman's party did too. However, the consequence of devolution is that the execution of policy and, indeed, decisions on policy are now taken in Edinburgh, Cardiff and, when the Northern Ireland Assembly is restored, Belfast. The territorial offices have very small staffs and depend on consultation with the devolved bodies for consultation on answers. I would have thought that he would want us to introduce a change that would enable those Departments to consult the devolved bodies before coming to Parliament with an answer. That is why they will have an additional day in which to prepare the answers.
Before leaving the issue of electronic tabling, I wish to point out that we attach great importance to the principle that any question tabled in the British Parliament must be put down by an elected Member. It is important that we guard against parliamentary questions being initiated by staff without the approval of a Member. We will therefore seek a robust system of authentication that will show that the Member concerned has given specific approval to the question. We fully agree with the Procedure Committee that Mr. Speaker should keep the new system under review and be ready to intervene if there is evidence that it produces a sharp increase in the total volume of questions, as that might indicate abuse.
At the request of the Table Office, the new procedures for questions will not come into effect until January so that thorough preparations can be made. Before I turn from the Procedure Committee's report on questions, I hope that I will carry the whole House with me in recording our appreciation of the Clerks in the Table Office who always work under pressure and in circumstances that, on occasions, require a fine line in diplomacy.
These are matters for the House authorities, whom we will consult. Indeed, we have offered them the services of the e-Envoy so that we introduce—[Interruption.] I am not sure what the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst finds objectionable in that. The e-Envoy has a large, well-staffed and well-resourced office that contains expertise on electronic operations in government. Surely it is right for the Government to make that expertise available to the House to make sure that we get a robust system of authentication.
I am sure the Leader of the House carries us all with him when he proposes to reduce the length of time for tabling oral questions from 14 days to three. That would obviously improve scrutiny. In the same mode, I assume he agrees with my hon. Friend, whose constituency I cannot remember—[Hon. Members: XMacclesfield."] How could I forget? I assume the right hon. Gentleman agrees with my hon. Friend Sir Nicholas Winterton, the Chairman of the Procedure Committee, and supports the essential amendment on topical questions.
I suspect that I am slightly more familiar with the report and the hon. Member for Macclesfield than the right hon. Gentleman appears to be.
By accepting a dramatic reduction in the period of notice to three days, we expect Question Time to be more topical in general. If an urgent question needs to be addressed by someone other than the Department that is answering questions, it is open to the Speaker to accept a private notice question, which we propose should be renamed urgent question so that it is intelligible to the wider public.
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I must make progress.
I want to mention one other aspect of questions. Another improvement to scrutiny will come from the proposal by the Modernisation Committee to introduce a question session on cross-cutting issues. Increasingly, Whitehall Departments are adopting a cross-cutting approach. If Westminster wishes to provide effective monitoring, we must also adopt new forms of scrutiny to match those developments. If the House approves the package tonight, we will consult the Chairman of Ways and Means on the best way to introduce such sessions in Westminster Hall. I would envisage the first such question session to be on youth policy, to a team of Ministers from the Home Office, the Department for Education and Skills and the Department of Health.
Better scrutiny is also why I believe that the Commons should be prepared to return as a matter of routine for September sittings. It is not healthy for the elected representatives of the British people to be absent for three months at a stretch. Too much happens while we are away, and too many decisions necessarily have to be taken by Government in our absence, for which there is no opportunity for Ministers to give an account to the Commons.
I was struck at the last two business questions by the number of hon. Members who demanded a statement on events that took place during the recess. If we had routine September sittings, there would have been statements on many of those issues. I am confident, for instance, that the House would have heard, and would have welcomed, a major statement on the outcome of the important Johannesburg summit on sustainable development. Recent experience is that we have to make emergency arrangements to come back in September anyway. If every Member who demanded the recall of Parliament some time this summer votes for September sittings, I am confident of a comfortable majority.
I stress that this is not a proposition covertly to cheat Members out of the total length of their summer recess. The deal is that the House will rise two weeks earlier in July, which will be for the convenience of those Members with children at schools that go back in August. In return, Members will be expected to come back for two weeks in September. I understand the concerns of those Members with young children who wish to be at home when the children go back to school in the first week of September. In the event of the House agreeing to September sittings, I propose that we return in the second week of September.
I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman has not committed an inadvertent slip of the tongue, because he never does. We were led to believe that the House would sit for three weeks in September, which we fully and enthusiastically support. Has that mysteriously slipped back to two weeks in September, and if so, why?
There is no sudden change. On the contrary, if the right hon. Gentleman looks at the report he will see that we discussed the possibility of two or three weeks. I have announced that we will return for two weeks in the coming year. We are open to consultation and have made it clear in the report that we will consult. If the right hon. Gentleman wishes to press us to meet in the first week of September, we will listen to those representations, but I think he will find them at variance with the wishes of many hon. Members, especially those with young children who attend schools that start in that week. It is only reasonable that we take account of the pressures on them.
I have stressed that the package will improve Parliament's ability to question Ministers and to scrutinise Government policy. The other major role of this Chamber is to scrutinise and test Government legislation. The package of measures before the House makes a number of proposals to improve the scrutiny of Government Bills. The first of these is the recommendation in the resolution before the House that there should be more routine publication of draft Bills for pre-legislative scrutiny. If we want better laws, Parliament should be consulted before the texts are set in stone. Pre-legislative scrutiny can be carried out through Select Committees or through Joint Committees of both Houses. Either way it gives the MPs who are most specialised in the subject the opportunity to comment on the draft and to explore any problems in it with Ministers.
The reality is that by the time we reach the Second Reading of a Bill, battle lines have been drawn up on party lines. If the House wants to influence the shape of legislation, it has to get in on the act when those Bills are still in draft. The key to more effective scrutiny of official Bills is to provide more time for their proceedings through Parliament. I readily admit to the House that, as Leader of the House, I would like Bills to lie for a longer period before Parliament. I am sorry that only one Bill this Session has had enough time to be committed to a Special Standing Committee with the power to call witnesses.
The reason that I am compelled to hurry Bills through the House is the convention that any Bill that is not completed by the end of the Session faces sudden death. As far as we can discover, no other Parliament in the democratic world has such an eccentric rule. Our constituents imagine that they have elected us for a four or five-year term, and most of them would be surprised to hear that in truth they have elected us for a succession of four single years.
The official Opposition cannot have it both ways. Of course I understand that they will try to have it both ways, but they cannot really hope to have it both ways and keep a straight face at the same time.
I have to tell the right hon. Gentleman that he is very bad at keeping a straight face, which makes proceedings very entertaining.
The Opposition cannot demand more time for Bills and simultaneously insist that every Bill drives into a brick wall at the end of the Session. In the last Parliament, the Conservative party commission, chaired by the distinguished constitutional expert, Lord Norton, came down in favour of carry-over. In its report to the last leader of the Conservative Party it recommended:
XWe believe carry-over should be the norm, not the exception. This will permit more structured scrutiny and more efficient distribution of the parliamentary workload."
If the right hon. Gentleman proposes to treat us to a display of indignation at the effrontery of the Modernisation Committee in recommending carry-over, perhaps he could also explain why his party's commission on the same topic came to the same conclusion.
I accept the Modernisation Committee's recommendation that if carry-over is adopted by the House, the longer timetable that it will permit should be used by the Government to provide more flexibility in the programming of Bills. I ask the official Opposition if they will accept the parallel recommendation: that if the Government demonstrate such flexibility, the Opposition should be willing to engage constructively in agreeing to programming motions.
May I assure the right hon. Gentleman that I am not acting in collusion with my Front-Bench colleagues? He knows that I am concerned about this issue, and it is a little disingenuous to suggest that the arrangement is being made only to give us more time to discuss legislation in the House.
Does the Leader of the House agree that the main constraint on the quantity of legislation at the moment is not the time available in the House of Commons but the time available in the House of Lords before Parliament is prorogued? Every year, the Leader of the House has to tell colleagues to turn away Bills because he cannot get them through the House of Lords, where he cannot programme legislation, before the end of the Session. Does he also agree that the other place is at its most powerful at the end of the Session when Prorogation is approaching and the Government are given the choice, at least in theory, of losing their Bill or making modest concessions on the most important amendments? This disingenuous offering of more time will provide the opportunity, in a few years, to produce a conveyor belt of legislation through the House and greatly reduce the power of the House of Lords, sometimes assisted by this House, to modify Bills at the end of the Session.
I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for clarifying that he is not acting in collusion with his Front Benchers, even though I sometimes think that they could do with his collusion—they might wish to consider that.
The Modernisation Committee's report is clear about carry-over. It states explicitly that the argument for carry-over is not to provide opportunity for more legislation, but to provide more time for current legislation. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman wants to rest on the House of Lords—I anticipate from his comments that he has some respect for that House—he should reflect on this point. Within the past year, the House of Lords has adopted proposals for carry-over of legislation. If the Lords can adopt such proposals, surely we in the Commons should not be left behind as the other House modernises its procedures faster than we do.
We can carry over a Bill for our House, but we cannot do so once it has been through both Houses. I stress that under the Standing Order we are proposing, a Bill can be carried over only from one Session to the next, that it cannot thereafter be carried over, and that there will be a separate opportunity for the House to reconsider the matter if the Bill remains before Parliament for more than 12 months.
The hon. Gentleman highlights an important part of the motion before the House. As he will be aware, in the Modernisation Committee report we have committed ourselves to consultation with the other parties in the House—both the official Opposition and the other parties—on the broad shape of the legislative year, including consultation on which Bills might be introduced in draft, what the broad order of Bills coming before the House might be, whether a Bill begins in the Lords or in the Commons, and which Bills might prove to be appropriate for carry-over. That is wide-ranging consultation—much wider than any collective consultation that has previously been attempted in this House—and I hope that it will assist in developing consensus on the shape of the parliamentary year.
Will the Leader of the House confirm that nothing currently prevents pre-legislative scrutiny, and that none of his proposals on carry-over adds anything to pre-legislative scrutiny? If the Government were serious, they could introduce pre-legislative scrutiny without making any of the changes that are proposed today.
There are before us no Standing Orders on pre-legislative scrutiny, but there is a motion, the contents of which would ensure that there was a mandate from the House for those matters in respect of which there is no requirement for a change of Standing Order. That is why the motion deals with several issues, such as September sittings, for which no change of Standing Order is required. We could indeed call September sittings without a Standing Order, but we want a mandate from the House. I would find it helpful to have a mandate from the House with a clear instruction that hon. Members want to see more Bills in draft, and that is why I hope that the House will support it.
Consequent on his response to the intervention by Mr. Beith, will my right hon. Friend clarify the implications of carry-over in relation to the House of Lords? It is an attraction to me, and perhaps to other Labour Members, that the provision on carry-over could mean that—to pluck an example out of the air—a Bill to ban hunting with dogs would be sure to pass through the House of Commons; but if the House of Lords were not to carry over in that Chamber, it might provide an opportunity for the Lords to find another way of blocking the will of the Commons.
My experience of the hunting issue is that offering any comment on it will not assist me in building a consensus on the proposals that I am putting to the House. However, we in the Commons could carry over Bills that started here. In effect, that really means that carry-over will be relevant to Bills introduced late in the Session, say after Easter. I do not anticipate the Bill to which my right hon. Friend refers being one of those that will wait until Easter. I suspect that I shall be hearing from him regularly during business statements if it is not in this place before Easter.
I shall continue with my argument. I was about to say that there are two distinct parts to the job of a Member. So far, I have dealt with our role of providing scrutiny at Westminster. The other equally important task is our representative function in our constituencies. The two complement each other. It is an immense strength of this place that Members can bring to it their direct contact with the opinions and the interests of the communities that they represent, among whom most of them live, and all of them work. The package before the House will help colleagues to be more effective in their work for their constituencies. The motion provides a mandate for an annual calendar of the sitting dates and the recess dates for Parliament for a year ahead. It will help Members immensely to make more effective use of their time in their constituencies if they can plan their engagements a year ahead.
I have been in the House for almost 30 years without ever being able to plan from one recess to the next when I can count on being away from Westminster. The motion will enable Members to make sensible arrangements more than two months ahead. If the House carries the motion, it will be my intention to announce in the business statement on Thursday the provisional dates of recesses up to October next year.
Does the right hon. Gentleman say that if the motion is not passed, he will not give out the information at business questions? Is he saying that the information is available to him now but he will not divulge it if the motion is not passed, knowing full well that he could do so even if the motion is not passed tonight?
I must correct the hon. Gentleman. I am merely the servant of the House. I cannot possibly proceed with a course of action that the House has just rejected. If the House votes down the motion, it would not expect me to ignore its view on the matter.
I say to the hon. Gentleman and to all Opposition Members that I should underline Xprovisional". It will be our intention to stick to the dates, but our success in doing so must depend on progress. There will be an obligation also on the Opposition to make it possible for the House to rise on the announced dates.
Members' constituency work will also benefit from the commitment to an additional constituency week to be added to either the Easter or the Whitsun recess.
I will finish this point.
As a result of a holiday period, there is a limit to the number of meetings that can be undertaken with constituency businesses during these holiday periods. An additional week will enable Members to be in their constituency for a full working week.
Will my right hon. Friend ensure that parliamentary recesses coincide, as far as is possible, with school holidays, so that Members can be working in their constituencies at the same time as their children may be off school?
I will obviously seek to do so. I anticipate that consultation with the other parties will reinforce that message. However, I cannot guarantee that it will always be the case. The important point of constituency weeks is that they should be spent in the constituency.
We recall that the Leader of the Opposition, to the entertainment of my right hon. and hon. Friends, has called on all Conservative Members to spend a week with the vulnerable in their constituencies. I am not sure whether the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst has been able to find time for his week with the vulnerable in Bromley and Chislehurst. I hope that he will find my proposal useful to him in seeking out the vulnerable in his constituency.
The earlier sitting hours on Thursday have assisted Members in their constituency duties by enabling most Members to return to their constituencies that same evening. We propose one adjustment to the hours on Thursday. We recommend that the House should rise one hour earlier at 6 pm, which would make it easier for many hon. Members from distant constituencies to travel back that same evening.
That naturally brings me to the interesting issue of the sitting hours on Tuesday and Wednesday, on which there are divided views on both sides of the Chamber. From many conversations over the past six months, I know that the only comment on the issue on which I can carry the whole House with me is that there is no prospect of consensus. I put the matter before the House in order that hon. Members can resolve it themselves. The Standing Order is a temporary one that will automatically lapse at the end of this Parliament if there is no positive decision to make it permanent. If it is carried tonight, it will come into effect from January.
On the Labour Benches, this will be a free vote. I am delighted to inform Conservative Members that twice when I have asked the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst whether he will permit a free vote, he has nodded in assent. I invite him to put that commitment on the record when he speaks, so that the quarter of Conservative Members who have expressed support for earlier sittings will be free to follow their own judgment.
There is nothing hallowed about our sitting hours. Our predecessors changed the sitting hours many times in response to changing social circumstances. The right hon. Gentleman might want to reflect that it was customary for the House to sit in the mornings and afternoons until the 19th century. It was only the invention of gas lighting that brought about what we now think of as the traditional hours of the House. Perhaps it might help him to come to terms with earlier sittings if he were to think of them not as modernisation, but as a reversion to tradition.
I am glad to have carried the right hon. Gentleman with me on that point.
The present late start in the day dates from an era when MPs were unpaid. The hours were convenient for MPs who could do a day's work in the law courts or the City and still be at the House in time for the main debate. Today, the vast majority of MPs, certainly on the Labour Benches, are full-time professionals. We are paid enough by our constituents for them to expect us to work full-time. Most MPs are now on the precincts in the morning and there is no reason why our sitting hours should not change to reflect that reality.
I have read the Modernisation Committee reports very carefully and I cannot find any reference to consultation with the staff, who would undoubtedly be affected by changes in sitting hours, or with their trade unions. If I have missed such a reference, will my right hon. Friend point it out?
My hon. Friend raises a very important and fair issue. Indeed, the House of Commons Commission discussed it last week. If the Chairman of the Finance and Services Committee catches your eye, Mr. Speaker, he will wish to address the issue. He will be able to assure the House that the Commission has given an undertaking that there will be consultation with the staff on how we go about the changes and that we will want to ensure that no member of staff is disadvantaged.
I want the House to be a responsible employer. Personally, I do not take pride as an employer in hours that require many members of staff to be here late at night and some of them to be here for a number of hours after we have gone home in order that they may complete the day's business.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for mentioning me in dispatches. In the event that I do not catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, may I assure him and the House that the prospects for the staff are of the utmost concern not only to the Commission, but to Members of the House overall? I hope to make a very important contribution on their behalf if I do indeed catch your eye.
I speak as one who also hopes to make an important contribution to the debate. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that, although Mr. Bell certainly articulates the unanimity of the Commission in wishing to protect the interests of the staff, there is real division in the Commission, as elsewhere, about what best protects those interests?
I fully understand that the hon. Gentleman has views on the matter, and I do not expect to find him in my Lobby at the end of today. It is fair to say that the Commission is divided, and I do not believe that I represented it as reaching a common position on the hours. However, we have a common position that if the House votes for change, we must ensure that our staff are consulted and not disadvantaged.
The most important consideration on sitting hours must be what will make the House most effective. It cannot be most effective for Parliament to make no use of Tuesday or Wednesday mornings.
Let me continue a little further. Under current arrangements, exchanges in Parliament on major policy take place in the afternoon. We are all professional communicators; no one in the Chamber would plan a press conference for 4 pm. If we are serious about the elected Parliament of the people setting the agenda for public debate, we need to start earlier in the day so that questions, statements and opening speeches are made in the middle of the day rather than when many of our constituents approach the end of their working day.
Every week, I field complaints from the Opposition that the broadcasting media have speculated about the content of a forthcoming statement in the lunchtime bulletins. I agree that Parliament should be the first to hear policy announcements. Such announcements should be made to Parliament at a time when the lunchtime bulletins can report what has been said rather than speculating about what might be said.
My hon. Friend makes a fair point, and I join him in deprecating any early release of information. [Interruption.] I have done that repeatedly. The earlier statements are made, the better the chance of ensuring that they are rightly heard first in the Chamber.
The Leader of the House makes a strong point, but not in favour of the proposal on the Order Paper. Surely the matter would best be tackled through morning sittings rather than starting at 11.30 am, as on Thursdays, and having announcements during the lunch break when most of the press are having lunch.
I am deeply distressed by the suggestion that my proposal might interrupt press lunches. Given that weighty argument, I shall reflect on whether I should proceed with it. Of course, the hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to vote for a 9.30 am start, which the Conservative amendment proposes. I regret that there are practical problems with that, not least for the Speaker's team, which must reach a view about the procedural matters on which they may have to rule when the House sits. I cannot therefore commend the amendment to my colleagues. That is perhaps a pity for the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, because I doubt whether he will receive much support for the proposal.
In view of my right hon. Friend's points, I want to ask him about two matters. First, will he assure us that Ministers will not make all their public statements before 9 am on the various media? My second point relates to my right hon. Friend's proposal about Ministers' ability to make written statements, which deprives us of the right to question them. Will he assure us that Ministers will not make public statements on the media and then put their statements to the House of Commons in writing?
I disagree with my hon. Friend's last point. Our proposal on written statements accepts one of the Procedure Committee's recommendations. If she examines its report, she will read that the Committee commends the proposal because it makes such statements more transparent and more convenient for hon. Members. Every week, several written statements are published in Hansard. They are currently disguised as responses to planted questions. Frankly, it is much more open, grown-up, dignified and transparent to be open about their being written statements, and separately identifying them in Hansard, where we could all read them the following day. I regard that as progress.
I must make some progress, but I am sure that there will be an opportunity to intervene later.
I understand that many Members will want to continue to work in the precincts in the evenings, long after the House has risen. For their benefit, the Modernisation Committee has recommended that the Library, the Dining Room and other refreshment facilities should continue to be available in the evenings, as at present. I speak as one who once was locked in the Library by a security guard who assumed that all sane Members had gone to bed and was startled to be phoned up by a Member he had taken prisoner. I would not wish any colleague to be locked out of the Library or, for that matter, locked in.
The Modernisation Committee has also recommended that Committees should not meet during Question Time or the first statement. The Standing Order before the House would prevent Standing Committees from meeting between 11.30 am and 2 pm while the House is sitting. However, I want to stress, as there appears to have been some misapprehension on this point, that there is no bar in the proposed Standing Order on when Select Committees may meet. That will remain entirely a matter for the members of those Select Committees. They could, if they wanted, meet during Prime Minister's Question Time, although I would not recommend that they miss such entertaining exchanges.
In practice, the majority of Select Committees already meet during sitting hours of the Chamber. Last week, 20 Select Committee meetings were held while the House was sitting, most at a time that would have prevented the members from hearing any statement in the House. I believe that the new hours will be for the convenience of the members of those Committees, because they may use any part of the afternoon after 2 pm, secure in the knowledge that they will also have been able to attend Question Time and the first statement of the day.
I understand and sympathise with the concern of Members that the new sitting hours should not result in restricted access for the public. The Modernisation Committee wants more, not less, access for the public. We do not believe that the Chamber should be shut to the visiting public while we are sitting. That is why we have recommended that the line of route should be adapted so that it can operate while the House is sitting as well as when we are absent. Other Parliaments successfully provide glass-fronted galleries, which enable conducted groups to see the Chamber at work and to listen to guides or MPs without disrupting proceedings. Planning for such an innovation is in hand. Seeing the House while it is sitting, rather than an empty Chamber, will be of much greater educational value to the public and to school children.
The right hon. Gentleman's motion, if the House passes it, will introduce these changes in January. When will the procedures to allow visitors to view the Chamber come into operation? Obviously, there will be a long delay. When does he expect a glass-fronted gallery to be built so that visitors can see the Chamber?
The hon. Gentleman is correct that it will take time to put the changes in place—I would not deny that—but planning has begun, and he is aware of some of the discussions that are taking place. I hope that we will see progress during next year.
A great advantage of the current Tuesday and Thursday sitting hours is that people from constituencies such as Wrexham can travel down the same day, see the House before it sits, visit stunning parts of the House that I was not aware of before I became a Member, such as the other place and the Robing Room, and then see the House at work at a later hour. My concern about the proposals for Tuesdays and Wednesdays is that all those people who live outside the metropolitan area will have that ability removed from them.
I am well aware of the immense attraction of this place as somewhere to visit. Indeed, visitor numbers have increased with each passing year, and I believe that they can continue to do so. I would have thought that the ability to take constituents round the Chamber while we are sitting in circumstances in which what is happening may be explained to them has serious attractions for my hon. Friend. After all, we want this place to be valued not as a piece of architecture or as a place with an interesting museum history, but as the beating heart of a working democratic constitution.
Parties of visitors may be taken round when the House is sitting, but whatever glass menagerie is put up, it will not be possible to take them into the Division Lobby or through the Members' Lobby in the same numbers as now, and the present line of route will have to be changed considerably. As Ian Lucas said, if the House of Lords sits at similar hours, parties would not be able to go into the Robing Room and other such places.
The House of Lords will have to make its own decision. I believe that there are many ways in which we can make a visit to the House more meaningful and more educational. It is extraordinary that we still have no interpretative visitor centre for people who come here, and one of our key proposals is to ensure that we provide such a service.
If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I must make progress.
We should not be frightened from change by being apologetic about the hours we work. The British Parliament sits on more days than any of the major European Parliaments. Typically, we sit for 150 days each year compared with an average across Europe of about 100 days. We sit longer than any of the Parliaments in the major commonwealth countries. Whatever the sitting hours of the Chamber, most Members of the House will continue to put in 60 hours of work in most weeks.
For me, the important question is why the Commons should not sit in the morning. I attach much more importance to that question than to the question of when we stop in the evening. I do not think it unreasonable that MPs should be free to leave the building, if they wish, around 7.30 pm after voting. We are all busy people, and most of us will be back at our desks early the next morning. Against that background, stopping at 7.30 pm can hardly be regarded as some kind of half day.
We should not kid ourselves that the public respect us for our commitment to public service when we stay up well into the night. On the contrary, they often think that it is daft. They see it as further proof that politicians live in a world of their own, and certainly are not representative of normal people.
In its statement of policy, the Conservative party states:
XWe see no reason why the hours of the House should not more closely resemble the normal hours that most people work."
I warmly welcome that outbreak of robust common sense, but it will read rather oddly if the majority of Conservative MPs vote to keep our present abnormal hours. Perhaps they should listen to the views of Conservative voters. Today's poll found that, by a thumping majority of nine to one, voters think that Parliament should sit for the hours that we have proposed. Even among Conservative voters, support for stopping in the evening at 7 pm ran at more than 80 per cent.
The final verdict on the reforms must rest with the public who sent us here. There cannot be a responsible Member of the House who is not concerned about the decline in public respect and esteem for Parliament. At the last election, three out of five voters under 35 failed to vote for any Member in this Chamber. Unless we increase the voting habit of that generation as it grows older, we will be faced with a long-term challenge to the legitimacy of the House.
Many different issues must be tackled if we are to restore faith in party politics as relevant to people's lives. The media could assist by factual reporting of the serious substance of our debates rather than portraying politics as a celebrity-driven soap opera. However, we need to accept responsibility ourselves. Part of the difficulty in engaging those younger voters is that they see our procedures as quaint, our lack of new technology as out of touch, and our working conditions as eccentric. The package before the House will make the Chamber more effective at scrutiny, our proceedings more relevant, and our working conditions more normal.
Of course I recognise that all Members have a deep affection for this place. It is because of that genuine affection for the traditions of the Commons that some Members find it difficult to give up the way in which we have always done business. Those of us who support change do so because of our love of this place. I love the Commons, but I do not want it to dwindle gently into a museum attracting visitors on the strength of its heroic history. I want the Commons to remain the great forum of our nation, in which the views of the public find voice and in which their opinions are heard. I want the Commons to derive its authority from the respect and trust of the public, and because of that authority to remain the crucible in which Governments are forged and are broken. To retain that public support, the Commons must accept reform. I ask all those who share my love of this place to demonstrate it tonight by voting to bring the House into the 21st century. 4.35 pm
I am happy immediately to echo and endorse the sentiments expressed by the Leader of the House. It should be understood that there is no difference across the House—nor could there or should there be—in that we all share an interest and commitment in ensuring that this place plays its full and proper part in the parliamentary process. That much we share.
I have not been in the House for as long as the Leader of the House, but I have been around for about 19 years. Indeed, there are those who occasionally accuse me of spending too much time here; I cannot imagine why. That is my commitment to the House. All that I say today will be predicated on my judgment, and that of my right hon. and hon. Friends, as to whether or not the proposed changes enhance the role of the House of Commons vis-á-vis Government. Our principal criterion will be that. It will not be the convenience of Members of Parliament, or even the response to opinion polls. I know how wedded the Government are to opinion polls, focus groups and so on, but however important a role those may play in many people's minds, I do not think that some judgment about the Government's perception of this place should be the definitive factor.
If we consider parliamentary democracies around the world—if we look to the North American continent, to continental Europe and to the continental Parliaments that have chosen to emulate our proceedings and history—we realise the sad truth. No matter how differently those democracies approach their politics in terms of consensus or confrontation, in terms of sitting hours and in terms of behavioural pattern, all around the world electorates are losing faith in the political process.
I do not accept the analysis so often presented to us—the suggestion that if only we can change the image of the House, the electors will come flocking back to the polling booth. I think we can dismiss straight away any notion that if we turn up at 11.30 am instead of 2.30 pm, or 9.30 am, and install glass corridors along which people can walk and see what we are doing, the electorate will be enthused and turn out to vote more often. We must find some other solution.
I want first to draw attention to some of the key phrases in the Select Committee's report. I shall then consider the motion in the name of the Leader of the House and say a few words about the important proposals tabled in my name and those of some of my right hon. and hon. Friends.
Paragraph 7 states:
XOur proposals are based on the sound principle that good scrutiny makes good government."
There is no argument there. We believe that: we believe in the most effective possible parliamentary scrutiny of what the Government of the day are doing, and we seek to strengthen the power of scrutiny.
The report continues—what the Leader of the House has just said echoes this—
XThe rights of every citizen would be diminished if Parliament lost its authority as the legitimate expression of our representative democracy, or if the decisions of Government are not effectively scrutinised by Parliament."
I am sure that Members throughout the Chamber can heartily endorse that proposition too. Where we may differ is in our view on whether what the Government—thinly cloaked as the Modernisation Committee on this occasion—propose will make the House of Commons more effective in scrutinising the Government and holding them to account.
According to paragraph 35,
XThe prime problem in securing better scrutiny of legislation is the pressure on parliamentary time."
The Leader of the House made much play of that, in support of his proposal for what has come to be known as carry-over or roll-over. I challenge what he has said, at its most fundamental level. He has said that there is a lack of legislative time, meaning that the Government must be able to carry over their Bills from one Session to another. There are a number of flaws in that argument, the most obvious of which is that the Government are actually reducing the amount of time that the House sits. They want to do away with many Friday sittings, and they have already done away with the time after 10 o'clock in the evening, which the Leader of the House and his supporters much derided. The Government have systematically reduced the time available to this legislature for scrutinising legislation and holding the Government to account.
Worse than that, due to the systematic and ruthless programming of Bills—in other words, automatic guillotining—the Government have given themselves lots of time in which to legislate. So the argument that the Government are somehow pressed for time within a Session simply cannot be sustained. Time is freely available to the Government, and if they wanted more time within a Session, they could restore it by reversing all the things that they have already done. The analysis of the Leader of the House therefore holds no water at all.
The current end-of-Session buffer provides some form of discipline on the Government of the day. It forces them to prioritise their legislation, and to propose only those Bills that they believe are important. The Leader of the House wants to remove that discipline, so that the Government can legislate as much as they want, unconstrained by the end-of-Session buffer. That is our principal objection to the idea of roll-over. That good example shows that the right hon. Gentleman's argument—that this proposal will somehow enhance the role of the House simply—cannot be sustained.
In my view, the Leader of the House gave a very firm assurance during Modernisation Committee debates that it was the Government's intention not to introduce more legislation, but to provide better scrutiny of the same amount of legislation. Will my right hon. Friend challenge the Leader of the House now to give that assurance not just to the Committee, but to the House?
My hon. Friend has done a very effective job in challenging the Leader of the House, and I am more than happy to pick up that challenge. In the end, I suspect that the acid test will be whether, over a very brief period, the Government start to increase the number of Bills that they introduce, unconstrained by the end-of-Session limitation, and facilitated by continuing, ruthless and routine guillotining and timetabling of Bills.
Does my right hon. Friend share my concern about a tendency that is developing? There is pre-legislative scrutiny of Bills and scrutiny of them in Committee, but the Government are tending to introduce a lot of new clauses in another place. Because of guillotining, we are unable to look at such provisions at all, and the same point will apply to the terms of the proposal before us.
Sadly, that has proved to be the case. As recent experience shows—it is one reason why we voted against the timetabling of Bills—evidence abounds of our being unable properly to discharge our responsibility, as one House of the legislature, in scrutinising Bills. As a result, we are passing that responsibility to those in another place. I yield to none in my admiration for what the House of Lords does; I just wish that we were still able properly to discharge our responsibilities, in the way that our colleagues at the other end of the Building are able to do.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for allowing Sir Nicholas Winterton and I to pass messages to each other through his speech. I respond to the challenge by saying that I fully stand by the commitment in the Modernisation Committee report that the purpose of carry-over is not to increase Government legislation. There would be no point in the Government's seeking such an increase, because it would be self-defeating. In the second year, one would run into even greater congestion if the total volume were increased. That is why carry-over—taking the two years together—cannot increase the total volume of legislation.
Does the right hon. Gentleman not accept the belief of many that—as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said—because we elect a five-year Parliament, the phased introduction of legislation during that period would be much more sensible? When the right hon. Gentleman was a Minister and he introduced legislation late on in a Session, did he ever feel that it might not be properly scrutinised? On the other hand, did he ever have to withhold legislation that he wanted to introduce until the new Session? I ask him to recall his feelings as a former Minister.
My recollection is that I was always reluctant to bring legislation to the House and that when I did it was always well planned and well executed. I recall that in the 1991-92 Session I took through the House what was at that time the largest Education Bill ever introduced. We probably spent some 120 to 150 hours in Standing Committee before there was any thought of bringing in a guillotine. It is interesting to reflect on the approach to legislation in the 1980s and early 1990s, and compare it with the approach taken by the Government now. I have no difficulty with my memory of the rosy days that were my time as a Minister as they compare with the approach suggested by the Government.
The Modernisation Committee report contends:
XTo be effective it is necessary for the House of Commons to make more use of the earlier part of the day."
I could not agree more. The Opposition are fully signed up to that proposition. What mystifies us is why the Government are making the odd, hybrid suggestion that the parliamentary day start at 11.30. In some ways, it is the worst of all worlds. We have picked the argument up and taken it to its logical conclusion: we propose that, to make the fullest use of the parliamentary day, it would make sense for the House to meet at 9.30 in the morning, and to allocate that morning session to the very important matters of departmental questions, topical questions, ministerial statements and all the other vehicles by means of which hon. Members of all parties can seek to hold the Government to account and question Ministers.
Earlier, I invited the Leader of the House to comment on my right hon. Friend's excellent proposal. Did my right hon. Friend notice that the only objection that the right hon. Gentleman was able to raise was the technical one that it would somehow interfere with Mr. Speaker's ability to select amendments and so on? Is not that a bizarre argument, as such work could presumably be done on the preceding evening?
I have the utmost faith that you, Mr. Speaker, your colleagues and the Clerks of the House would be able to respond if the House wished to sit at 9.30 in the morning. I agree that the Leader of the House's objection to our proposal was rather spurious.
Having set aside the early part of the day to giving hon. Members the opportunity to question the Government and hold them to account, we want to be able to guarantee that the afternoon period between 2 pm and 7 pm would protect the House in its legislative role, which is when it considers the Second Reading and Report stages of Bills, for instance. The Opposition are mystified as to why the Government and the Modernisation Committee should have produced what is a rather half-baked proposal. What they propose is neither what we do now nor, as we see it, is it a proper use of the parliamentary day.
Will my right hon. Friend make it clear that, when he uses the royal Xwe", he is not referring to everyone on the Opposition Benches? Further, will he also answer the point raised by the Leader of the House by making it plain that the vote on the motion before us is totally unfettered and free and that, when I vote against a start time of 9.30 am—as I undoubtedly shall—I shall be exercising that privilege with his total approval?
I assure my hon. Friend that I would never dream of attempting to speak on his behalf, and that I shall not do so on this occasion. The Leader of the House has teased me about this a couple of times now. The right hon. Gentleman is a student of Hansard, and will know that once or twice I have been reported as having nodded assent. The Opposition have asked colleagues to be present for this very important set of votes but, beyond that, we expect all hon. Members to exercise their individual judgment on the merits of the matters before them. My role is simply to set out my views, the views of those of my colleagues with whom I have discussed these matters, and the views of those in whose name the amendments have been tabled.
In that regard, Mr. Deputy Speaker, may I tender the apologies for absence of my right hon. Friend Mr. Knight? He has been on parliamentary business abroad and has been unavoidably detained. He has asked me to convey his apologies to the House, and I hope that they will be accepted.
I do not want to get bogged down or diverted by the argument about hours, which I think reflects what the Leader of the House said. The hours that we sit have an importance, of course, and we must all make our own judgment about how best we think the House can discharge its responsibilities in the hours that it sits. However, that cannot be seen as the main issue. If we look back far enough in history, in its very early days the House sat at 8.30 am, for quite some time. Whether we choose to start at 9.30 or 11.30 in the morning or whether we continue with the current hours, we will consider the options and make our various judgments, but we must not become too distracted. We must focus on how we use those hours—that is the key to the matter. We must consider the way in which the changes will reflect that.
Paragraph 63 of the report recommends:
XOn Thursdays main business should end at 6.00 pm which would better enable Members to travel that evening to their constituencies."
That is true, which is why we shall not oppose the recommendation. However, I know that many Members on both sides of the House find the argument about so-called family friendly hours a bit bizarre, when many families live in constituencies very far from Westminster. The sad truth is that this is rather an Islington argument. It has a certain appeal to those fortunate enough to have homes near the House. Even Mrs. Forth occasionally expresses enthusiasm for the idea that she might see me in the evenings. [Laughter.] I knew that I was pushing my luck with that remark. However, there is a serious point here—we must not become carried away with the idea that all Members of this House can go home, put on their slippers and cuddle the cat, or whatever else they cuddle in the evenings, because very many, almost certainly the majority, do not have that privilege. It is with that in mind that we, in our own ways, will be looking at the proposal on hours.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way, and I hope to catch your eye on this point later, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I represent a seat in south Yorkshire and live there with my family as well. One of the difficulties in the debate is that we all have different types of family: some of us have children, some do not; some of us live in London, some do not and some of us have constituencies nearby while some do not. It is not possible to have Xone size fits all", but we can give greater meaning to the parliamentary week. If, when I go home at the end of the week, I am not tired because of sitting here until 10 or 11 o'clock at night, but have had a reasonable working day instead, I can better be a good mother to my family as well as a good MP to my constituents.
Far be it from me to comment on the hon. Lady's stamina. [Interruption.] I do not believe that such a consideration should be a principal determinant of the hours that we sit. When I came here in the 1980s as an obscure Government Back Bencher—admittedly as a much younger man—I was here very late a lot of the time, and I adapted and adjusted to that. [Interruption.] It has made me what I am today. Although that is a factor—indeed, all these matters are factors that we must consider—I do not believe that it should be the main determinant in deciding how we sit or work.
I recognise that that is not the main or determinant factor, but does the right hon. Gentleman concur that if Members have responsibility for families, working from 9 am to 11pm or midnight precludes having a life of any description? Of the 30 Members of Parliament on the Benches directly behind him, only two are women. We know of one Member who resigned recently because of this issue, so making our democracy more representative should be a factor that flits across colleagues' minds when they vote.
Of course that is a factor and each Member will decide how important it is to them in the context of their parliamentary work and their parliamentary duties. I have no difficulty with that proposition.
I will, but I really want to move on. I said that I did not want to get too bogged down in this issue and I meant it; but it is obvious that it is very much on the minds of Members, so I shall give way to my hon. Friend. However, I want to make progress.
I have three young children, who live in the constituency with my wife. I do not know what time Labour Members put their children to bed, but if we do not finish voting until 7.30, what time during a school week could we go home to see our children even if they lived in London? It is complete nonsense to say that the proposals are family friendly; they are about slacking off to go to the theatre or do whatever else Members might want to do, rather than being in this place holding the Government to account as our constituents expect of us.
Gregory Barker said that if changes were made it would be easier for us to go to the theatre, so I am rapidly being converted to new hours for the House.
However, does Mr. Forth agree that it is bizarre to the point of being ultra-ludicrous to suggest that there is any way whatever that we can reform the hours or procedures of this place so as to turn being a Member of Parliament into a job comparable with any other job?
I am most grateful to the right hon. Gentleman.
I want to wrap up this part of my speech and move on. One of the conceptual difficulties that I have with the debate is that many Members seem to want to compare both our role and our environment with those in an office block or a factory. They see the House as a place where we clock in, pass as much legislation as possible and clock off.
I shall give way in a moment, but I want to move on.
The debate illustrates—as it needs to do—our approach to our role in this place and, equally important, how we see the role of Parliament and of the House of Commons vis-á-vis the Government of the day. I do not see this place as a legislative factory and I do not believe that we should measure ourselves by the ease with which the Government get their way—quite the opposite. My avowed intention in this place is to make life as difficult as possible for the Government in order to try to ensure that what they do is properly scrutinised and that they are properly held to account.
I want to try to be helpful. In the real world, people outside this place work nights; they work shifts. Factories work 24 hours a day. Dare I mention firefighters, nurses, the police and local authority workers? May I also kill the myth about people not wanting to work in this place until 10 pm? I am sure that hon. Members will agree that for many women that is the only time that they can work. When my children were small, I worked at nights—12 hours a night—for many, many years.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady; she brings a rounded perspective to the matter. Many people outside would find this debate bizarre. People are often forced to work unsocial hours—sometimes through choice, but not always. In a funny way, if we work the occasional unsocial hour, we reflect the life style of many people outside. The idea that everybody Xout there" works a neat nine-to-five day and thinks that we are a bit odd for working in the evening strikes me as strange.
Surely one of the incomparable differences about the unsocial hours that the House works is the fact that it is unusual in other workplaces to find subsidised drink, subsidised food and television sets that are almost invariably tuned to sports programmes—almost exclusively football. If the right hon. Gentleman and, indeed, my hon. Friend Mrs. Mahon are confusing work with waiting until the Division bell sounds, I have to say, as a woman, that that is the antithesis of work.
The hon. Lady gives a very interesting description of the lifestyle of her colleagues. I, for one, will not intrude at all on that analysis, but it stands on the record and will return to haunt her—and them, I have no doubt—in future.
I want to move on as rapidly—
I really do want to move on, because I want to go quickly through the resolution in the name of the Leader of the House, which sets the framework for today's debate. At this point I can switch to positive mode, which we are urged to do these days, and present the smiling face of the Opposition, because I want to stress that we agree with a number of factors, and many of the phrases, in the resolution.
Of course we welcome
Xmore routine publication of bills in draft for pre-legislative scrutiny".
The only thing that I regret is the cautious tone. I should have preferred it if the Leader of the House had said, XWe will publish all Bills in advance for pre-legislative scrutiny unless, as an exception, some sort of unusual or emergency circumstances preclude that". I would prefer it to be done in that way, but we will take at face value what the Leader is saying here and we welcome it, because we want more pre-legislative scrutiny and we believe that that will help us in our duties.
I wish that I could believe that there will be Xmore flexibility in programming" of Bills. If the Leader of the House is prepared to have discussions with us in the usual way about the proper scrutiny of Bills in Committee, we shall be more than willing to participate in those discussions. The difficulty that we have with what has happened recently is with the ruthless, routine timetabling and guillotining of Bills, so that, as my hon. Friend Mrs. Browning said a short time ago, so many of them are not properly scrutinised.
We also enthusiastically endorse sittings in September because it will give the House more opportunity to hold the Government to account instead of giving the Government the free ride that they have traditionally had for two and a half months during the summer. I am still intrigued, although I will not press the point at this stage, as to why what we thought was three weeks of Government agony in September has suddenly slipped to two, but that perhaps is too obvious to need further comment or analysis.
We will be proposing that the House meets at 9.30; I have given my rationale for that. We will seek to oppose the idea of written ministerial statements, which, although it appears to be a technicality, seems to give some sort of endorsement to the idea that Ministers should do more and more by written statement instead of coming to the House and being accountable by giving oral statements. We will oppose the carrying over of Bills, for the reasons that I gave, and we will oppose the absurdity of deferred Divisions, which again we are being asked to endorse this evening, and programming, because we want to continue to make the point that we believe that these matters are wrong and diminish the effectiveness of the House and of parliamentary scrutiny.
I do not know how often I have to say this, but I will say it again because it is obvious that some Labour Members require three or four repetitions before they understand. We are not whipping this business. What I have said is what I and my colleagues on the Front Bench believe to be the appropriate response to these very important matters, but we are telling our hon. and right hon. Friends that this is a House of Commons matter, and it is for them to judge, as they will in their different ways, and they will vote in different ways. If any proof is needed of that, following conversations with my colleagues I can assure the hon. Gentleman and others that, on many of these matters, there will not be unanimity among the Opposition. We shall demonstrate by the diversity of our views the mature approach that we take to these matters.
I hope that those who perhaps took a different view before I stood up will now be so persuaded with what I have said that nearly all of them will join me in the Lobbies tonight, but I suspect that that may be over-optimistic. I give way for the last time; then I will conclude.
I should be interested to know whether the shadow Leader of the House has any views on the future of private Members' Bills, because that is the great lacuna in the document. On Fridays, private Members can introduce their own legislation, or putative legislation, which can get on the statute book, but the document merely refers us to a review in the new Session, about a possible slot for private Members' Bills. Does the shadow Leader of the House have any views on this issue?
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has given me the opportunity to do something that I like to do on these occasions: quote no less a person than Sir Winston Churchill. In giving evidence to the Select Committee on Procedure in 1931, he said:
XI am not very anxious to help private Members' Bills. I have seen a great many of them brought forward, and in most cases it was a very good thing that they did not pass. I think there ought to be a very effective procedure for making it difficult for all sorts of happy thoughts to be carried on to the Statute Book."
I could not and would not attempt to put it better myself. I believe that the present procedure for private Members' Bills is absolutely appropriate and that it gives a balance between the rights of private Members and the difficulty that should always be placed in the way of legislation, so my own personal answer to the hon. Gentleman's very reasonable question is that there is no need to change the procedure for private Members' Bills, and I am sure that Sir Winston would agree with me if he were here today.
I hope that the House will accept that our approach and response to these proposals is measured. We are not against change in all cases. I hope that I have demonstrated that, where we believe that change is beneficial to the House and where it enhances the role of the House vis-á-vis the Government, we are prepared to accept and endorse it, but where we think that it is yet another step in the diminution of the role of the House and in the reduction in the possibility for Members to hold the Government to account, we will oppose it. That is why we have tabled amendments perhaps to eliminate some items and to change others. I hope that Members will look at them and judge them on their merits, and I invite not only my colleagues—my right hon. and hon. Friends—but Labour Members to judge them in that respect and to vote appropriately later this evening.
I am glad to have the opportunity to speak at this early stage in this important debate. As a member of the Modernisation Committee—I am the only Labour Member who has served on it since it was established following the 1997 general election—I recognise that this is a compromise package. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has tried for almost a year to reach consensus and to achieve as much support as possible to move forward the procedures of the House, and I congratulate him on his efforts. He will know that I would have wished to go further on one or two issues, but we have to go forward one step at a time, and I assure him that I shall vote with him 100 per cent. in the divisions later tonight.
My hon. Friend describes these measures as a compromise package, but does he not agree that, although it is right for the House to take the decision, it would have been better to consult the people who work here and whose working hours will be affected by these changes before taking a decision?
I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will reply to that point at the end of the debate. The various House Committees—that on catering and others—have tried to take account of such views. Let us make it absolutely clear that if the main votes are taken at 7 o'clock, the House will not shut down; the catering department, the Library and other facilities will remain open and many Members, including me, will continue to work at our desks until 10 o'clock. I stayed here until gone half-past 11 last night, although the House rose earlier than that. I have no doubt that that will not change as a result of the proposals.
Following the point made by Kevin Brennan, does not the hon. Gentleman agree that conventional, modern employment practice involves people putting a proposal to their staff, asking the staff for their view—not assuming their view, as the Government have done—and coming to a conclusion on the basis of the staff's view, as expressed by their representatives? This process seems entirely topsy-turvy.
I do not accept that at all. My right hon. Friend issued a memorandum almost a year ago, outlining his thoughts on the way forward in the House, and I believe that people, including employees and the staff, have had opportunities to express their views.
I would have had sympathy with the Procedure Committee on a couple of issues in relation to questions. Members will know that I have long held the view that we should be able to ask questions in the recess, and I still believe that. I accept that we will not be able to do so at the moment, but I hope that we will return to the matter at a future date. I also sympathise with the Procedure Committee with regard to topical questions, but I accept that we will not address that issue at this stage, although we may return to it.
As the shadow Leader of the House indicated, overwhelming support exists for the proposed 6 pm finish on a Thursday. I remember that the Conservatives put up quite a lot of opposition when we originally proposed a 7 pm finish for Thursday nights. It is now accepted and recognised that that finishing time does not solve the problem for those who live in the north and other parts of the country. The move with regard to Fridays is also sensible. I welcome the fact that the Government will forgo all Government Fridays, and that there will be only private Members' Bills on Fridays in future.
In respect of the point made by my hon. Friend Mr. Prentice, he and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House know my view that one of the gaps that we will create should be used for private Member's Bills—I would suggest 7 pm on Wednesdays. Again, we must have a full inquiry on that issue, and I hope that, at a future date, we may be able to move in that direction. When we gave up Wednesday morning sittings in favour of Westminster Hall, I believed that that time slot could have been used for private Members' Bills. We will need to return to that issue.
Given the number of different proposals and views put forward by Members, I recognise that we will not get a consensus on Tuesday and Wednesday sitting times. I worked in a factory in which shifts changed every three days in a continuous glass-making process. Everybody used to say that they did not like the system, as they had to do three eight-hour shifts and then change and do another three eight-hour shifts before moving on. Management used to say to me, as the shop steward, XFind a system that the workers prefer, and we will accept it and implement it," but we could never find a system to which everybody wanted to change. Every Member will have a different view on the way forward. I believe that the proposals for Tuesdays and Wednesdays are sensible, and, as I said, it has already been indicated that overwhelming support exists for the proposal for Thursday.
I think that we will adjust to the new system in terms of our Committee and other work. As for the suggestion that it will cause problems for Committees, many Committees already meet at half past nine in the morning. The Regulatory Reform Committee, of which I am Chairman, sat at 9.30 this morning, as we have done consistently. I shall sit on the Modernisation Committee at 9.30 tomorrow morning. Some of the problems to which people are drawing attention are not insurmountable.
In my view, the most important change is carry-over, and I am very sorry to hear the Opposition's comments on the matter. Let us be absolutely clear—carry-over of legislation is crucial. I support it because I genuinely believe that people elect a five-year Parliament. At a general election, people vote for a Government to have a four-year or five-year programme, not four one-year programmes. There should be a sensible flow of legislation; it should not be restricted by an artificial cut-off, as will happen on Thursday next week. That is nonsense, and we must be sensible.
I link with that the introduction of more draft legislation, which will ensure better legislation, as carry-over will ensure better scrutiny of legislation. Many years ago, the shadow Leader of the House served on the Bill that became the Transport Act 1985. He will remember that that Bill was guillotined. Hardly any of it had been debated in the House of Commons, and many sections of it were not scrutinised in the other place. What an absolute nonsense for a Bill that has had tremendous implications for bus transport in the whole country since then.
Can I test the hon. Gentleman's memory a little further? Does he remember roughly how many hours my Government allowed that Bill in Committee before they guillotined it? Will he confess that one of the reasons why it was not properly scrutinised in the time allocated was that the then Opposition—I have no problem with this in those circumstances—filibustered the Bill so that it could not be scrutinised? Will he tell us how many hours the Bill was allowed in Committee?
I cannot remember the exact number of hours, but I can remember saying to the right hon. Gentleman in an intervention on one of his speeches that he made Margaret Thatcher seem a moderate. He said that that was a compliment and that he accepted it. That puts his position into perspective.
That style of debating and of dealing with legislation—the Opposition thought that their role in delaying proceedings and provoking a guillotine showed that they had opposed a measure—was nonsense. It was not constructive for the country and a 10-minute—or something like it—limit on speeches will ensure better scrutiny. It is nonsense to believe that what we did in 1984 and 1985 is how people want Parliament to operate in the 21st century. I accept that there was filibustering, but I do not defend it.
I remember that when we considered the Gas Act 1986, the then Member for Rhondda spoke for two and a half hours about Wales having a national mistletoe planting day. At the end of that time, he had convinced me of the importance of the issue. However, debating in that way is nonsense, and that is what modernisation is trying to prevent. That is why we want time limits on speeches and better scrutiny.
The thrust behind the proposals for modernisation is not to make our job easier or to allow us to take hours off. That is not what I want. I want to ensure that we have better legislation and better scrutiny. I will not be here, but I accept that, in the years ahead, we will once again be on the Opposition Benches. That may be in 20 or 30 years, and Mr. Forth may be in government again if he is not too old or past it. He will then view some of the changes that we are announcing today as very sensible. Draft Bills are important and carry-over is essential.
We also need an annual calendar. How stupid we all seem when constituents ask us whether we can do something in our constituencies and we have to say that we do not know. They sometimes ask us, XCan we come and lobby you on this issue in Parliament?", but we have to say that we do not know whether it will be debated. They tell us that they know that it will be because they have received notification. What nonsense that is. We should know and be able to plan the use of our time in our constituencies. If I accept a commitment in Burnley, I should know with 100 per cent. certainty that I will be able to fulfil it. The proposal is sensible.
Time limits on speeches are important. Many people will argue that it is wrong to impose such limits, but I believe that they are right. I do not have a right to speak at length if that means that I will prevent some of my colleagues from having an opportunity to express their views. We are all elected as equal Members, and we should have the same opportunities to debate the issues. The type of filibustering that the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst has carried out when he has opposed legislation has done the House a disservice. I hope that the proposals will be carried tonight.
I agree with much of what Mr. Pike said. However, he paid tribute to the Leader of the House, and I hope that the Leader of the House will forgive me if I do not follow the hon. Gentleman down that path. The media and Members of the House seem to treat the proposals as though they are Government proposals. They are not. They are the proposals of a Select Committee, just as the proposals of the Procedure Committee, of which Sir Nicholas Winterton is the distinguished Chairman, are from an all-party Committee. It is important to recognise that.
Will the hon. Gentleman concede, however, that the so-called Modernisation Committee, like all Committees of the House, has a large Government majority and that in this case—unusually and wrongly—it is chaired by a member of the Government and, indeed, a Cabinet Minister? Does that not make the Committee rather different?
The right hon. Gentleman is not a Committee member. I very much regret that Mr. Knight is not here. I pay tribute to his role in Committee. He was helpful, sensible and level headed, and we attempted to produce proposals that would benefit the whole House in its relationship to Government.
I know that Mr. Forth has read the report, but he did not sit through the Committee's sittings. There was no minority report. The Conservatives did not vote against the report. Indeed, they made a number of suggestions to improve and strengthen it, some of which my colleague and I supported. It is a grave pity if the right hon. Gentleman has not had the benefit of the advice of the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire. The Committee reached an important consensus on strengthening the role of the House in relation to Government. I pay tribute to the Leader of the House for accepting that suggestion. I dare say he did not play it up at great length in Cabinet discussions, but it is an important part of the report.
The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst plays a wonderful duet with the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire, who takes a level-headed, low-key approach. We have got used to the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst playing a more doom-laden, bloodcurdling role, as he did today. I see him nodding, so he agrees with my description. It is Dracula and Scooby-Doo.
Whichever one the right hon. Gentleman thinks best displays his tendencies.
People who approach the problem with a conservative frame of mind—either big C or little c—must address the central issue. Unless the House does something to improve its working methods, we are in danger of becoming increasingly irrelevant and being bypassed by the Government.
Let me give an example. The right hon. Gentleman said that his colleagues have a free vote. I accept what he tells us because he is an honourable man. Last week, however, he and his colleagues briefed the Financial Times as follows:
XIt had been assumed that all MPs would be given a free vote. But modernisers now fear that the Conservatives may not be, since Mr Forth last week set out what he called 'the policy of the official opposition on sitting hours'."
So they have a policy, but they also have a free vote. Even more indicative of their frame of mind is what the article went on to say:
XThis would involve the House sitting at 9.30am midweek—rather than 11.30am as proposed—and breaking for lunch."
That is the real issue. If we have an hour for questions at 9.30 and perhaps another hour for statements, that would take us to 11.30. So the official approach of the Conservative Front Bench is that the House takes from 11.30 to 2 pm for lunch. That is what their policy is all about.
Some Members who contributed to the debates on modernisation and the work of the two Select Committees, and who also responded to the questionnaire about how best to manage our affairs, took a much more practical attitude than that displayed by the right hon. Gentleman on behalf of his party. We have a real opportunity to gain, or in some people's minds to regain, more control of the management of our business. It is an attempt to wrest back from the business managers and the usual channels greater control of our affairs. That might explain the rumours of the past few weeks, which also circulated in May. Perhaps the Government Whips are unhappy with some of the proposals. Opposition Members must think carefully about that. I hope that Back Benchers will not be bamboozled as they were in May.
I was struck by the hon. Gentleman's idea that any doubt about the proposals makes one a conservative with either a small c or a large C. Does he think that the whole package must be adopted by everyone and that there is no space for critical examination of elements of it? Surely the view of the House is that there is much merit in some of the package, but that there is much doubt about other parts of it.
I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. This is a package, but I am not suggesting that every part is essential. Indeed, I agree with the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst that hours are not the only or even the predominant issue; there are other good parts to the package. My party has no whip on this matter, but I think that the majority of my hon. Friends agree that the proposals hold together as a good package.
The issues that we must address this evening are important and, if approached positively by all parties, they could make a major change to what I would call the balance of trade between the House and the Government. One example is the Procedure Committee's recommendations on questions. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Macclesfield and his colleagues on that Committee for their thorough job of investigating how we can improve our ability to put topical questions. I agree with the amendments on that subject tabled by several members of the Procedure Committee.
We should have topical questions, and I regret that the Government have apparently shut the door on that proposal. If it is not passed this evening, I hope that through the appropriate channels we may tactfully suggest to the Speaker that we would like more private notice questions to be permitted, particularly from Back Benchers. The extent to which private notice questions are dominated by Front-Bench Members, including, on rare occasions, my colleagues, is a pity. There should be more opportunities for private notice questions or, as we suggest in our report they should be renamed, urgent questions.
The purpose of the changes in hours is not to make the House and its procedures more Member friendly or even more family friendly; it is to make them more voter friendly. That is why the report places great emphasis on the fact that we have, through the various media, to address an audience that is quite different from the audience of 100 or 200 years ago. Parliament, if it is to be effective and relevant, has to be accessible, in the full sense of the word, and visible. It has to be shown to be setting the daily media agenda rather than simply reacting to it much later.
I want to make it clear to the hon. Gentleman that what I am about to say is coloured by the fact that I support at least 80 per cent. of the proposals. Is he not aware of recent moves by media companies such as the BBC to devote less broadcasting time to this place? For example, some reporters are going out, away from institutions such as Westminster, to set the political agenda elsewhere in the United Kingdom. We will not attract media attention and, therefore, voter interest back to this place until it does its job, which is to hold the Government to account. The hon. Gentleman has not yet proved that the changes, apart from being an improvement for the Members, will improve the scrutiny of the Government.
That is a matter for individual Members to decide. The BBC gave evidence to the Modernisation Committee in which it welcomed the fact that Parliament would be seen to be taking the initiative earlier in the day. During the 1992–97 Parliament, when the hon. Gentleman was not here, there was a succession of evenings when we were voting at 10 o'clock and, on occasion, defeating the Government, but our electors had no idea of what we were doing. Commentators on the television and radio news repeatedly stated that something was going on in the House of Commons but they could not tell the public what was going on because the House was still voting—what a ridiculous situation.
There are still some members of the press who will sit through our proceedings all evening and attempt to get something about them in the broadsheets the next morning. The Press Association is the exception that proves the rule. However, the majority of those who, in a former age, sat in the Gallery and wrote screeds to be read by an elite in the broadsheets have long since gone. We must use the modern media to communicate with the people who send us here. That is what these proposals are about. Their aim is not to make life easier for us but to make Parliament more accessible to those who voted for us.
I have some sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's arguments. The truth is that, apart from breaking news, the modern media will not report anything much after 5 pm. In my view, the proposals are not about protecting families or anything else, but about Parliament doing its job and speaking to the nation. There is no point in having long, drawn out speeches at 8 or 9 o'clock in the evening, when no one is listening to us.
I have a great deal of sympathy with that view, and I hope that all hon. Members will therefore support shorter speeches. I shall try to speak briefly, so perhaps I should take no more interventions.
As the Leader of the House pointed out, the House sitting in the evening is a comparatively recent phenomenon. I have to take indirect responsibility for that, in that it was a notable constituent, Sir Goldsworthy Gurney of Bude, North Cornwall, who invented a gas light that made it possible for Members of Parliament to see what they were doing in the evening, thus making it possible for the House of Commons to sit then. That happened in the early 19th century; before then, our predecessors found it impossible to see what they were doing, dependent as they were on candlelight. I therefore think that there is a strong case for adjusting our business to the current technological position.
I agree with Mr. Pike about carry-over. There is an extraordinary degree of misunderstanding about carry-over. The absurdity of Second Reading debates and divisions coming along like London buses, three or four at a time, before Christmas, followed by a great dearth as the Bills go to the other place, and then a rush as they come back here for final stages, does not lend itself to intelligent scrutiny. It is similarly absurd that Governments introduce Bills that have not been properly prepared because they have to do so immediately after the Queen's Speech. Carry-over offers opportunities to spread the business, but safeguards are important.
There are two important safeguards, the first of which has already been mentioned. My hon. Friend Mr. Stunell raised the issue in the Committee. If a measure is carried over and a bit more time is spent on it, less legislation is possible in the second year. There is a natural rate of throughput. I cannot accept the suggestion that carry-over means that a lot more legislation can be pushed through the pipeline—there simply is not the capacity to do that. More important still, as Lord Norton, an important constitutional expert, made clear, the House of Lords has also built in a highly effective safeguard to ensure that that House is not steamrollered into accepting carry-over, except in suitable circumstances.
What is important is the interaction on carry-over between the Lords and this place. Some Members on both sides of the House feel a degree of disquiet about that power, which we see as fettering our own. Will my hon. Friend confirm that there will be individual votes on each Bill to be carried over—it is a once-only thing—and individual votes by both Houses; and that failure in one House means that the Bill fails? Is that correct?
It would be wrong of me to pretend any great expertise in how the other place will manage its business, but I think that the safeguard is critical. There is no way in which the carry-over can extend beyond the second Session—in effect, there is a 12-month envelope. Secondly, there is no way in which the Government can push an extension through the House of Commons without a debate. Of course, the Lords have to abide by their own rules and we cannot constrain them, but I am persuaded by the Conservatives' constitutional specialist, who gave evidence on that issue, that there are effective safeguards.
It is also worth mentioning that since all parties are now apparently devoted to the principle that the second Chamber, once reformed, will never again have a majority from any one party, the likelihood of the Lords proving to be irresponsible in applying the safeguards is extremely limited.
Westminster Hall has proved a considerable success, not least because the different and more consensual layout enables Labour Members to cross-question Ministers without feeling in any way disloyal. The result is extremely interesting. I have participated in a number of debates at Westminster Hall, and Ministers have to answer to all Members in a way that is less party political but more effective.
I accept the point that the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst made about deferred divisions. We need to look at that matter again. It is notable—I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman is not present to hear my compliment—that under the leadership of the Leader of the House there has been a great reduction in the number of deferred Divisions.
The issue of programming motions is also with us. I believe that it requires a great deal more attention. We have an explicit assurance that if the package before us makes some real progress, programming will be one of the subjects that has to be debated, not only with those who occupy the Front Benches of both Opposition parties, but with Members generally. I believe that those who will undertake a particular stage of scrutiny, as members of a Standing Committee or when a Bill returns to the whole House, should have the greatest say in how that exercise will be undertaken. That has begun to happen embryonically with some Bills and in respect of some Committees. The hon. Member for Macclesfield has given us a lead on the extent to which the Chair of a Committee can assist in that process. That is extremely important.
Finally, there is the issue of short speeches. Clearly, I should try to complete my remarks as soon as I can to meet the requirement. I shall take advantage of a quotation that was handed to me by my hon. Friend Mr. Foster. Members may know that in former time reports of the proceedings of this place were sometimes illegal and sometimes very constrained. Very often the only people who could tell the outside world what was really going on in the House were the Doorkeepers. I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has told me of a Mr. William White, a former Head Doorkeeper. In 1870, he wrote:
XIf all useless verbiage could be strained out of our parliamentary speeches, their force would be increased, the morning papers might diminish their reporting staff and the House might rise every night at 12, and many a valuable life would be prolonged."
I intend to prolong my life by coming to a conclusion.
First, I believe that this place works best when we adopt an evolutionary approach to the way in which we operate, not a revolutionary one. To the extent to which we have achieved consensus in the Modernisation Committee, that is much to the credit of all members of it, not least to the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire, who has played a constructive role.
Secondly, I believe that we must increase the topicality and relevance of our proceedings. Thirdly, we must try to ensure that our proceedings are more visible and accessible to those who send us to this place; otherwise we are in great danger of becoming increasingly irrelevant and giving too much power to the Government, who will then have literally the whip hand.
As I have said, I believe that the proposals are voter friendly, which is what gives them their strength. If we can both improve scrutiny and have more control over the management of our own business in the House, we shall be doing a very good turn for Parliament this evening.
I shall speak mainly against the proposed changes to the sitting times on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. The amendment to motion 6, which is in my name and those of other right hon. and hon. Members, will give Members an opportunity to vote against earlier sitting times on Wednesdays without denying them the opportunity to go home an hour earlier on Thursdays, which I support.
I am a moderniser—but not at any price. I am in favour of measures designed to improve the quality of scrutiny but opposed to any that diminish it. I am especially keen that Parliament should sit for at least two weeks in September. First, it has always seemed wrong that the Government should enjoy a three-month holiday from scrutiny each summer and, secondly, however hard we try, it is not possible to explain to our constituents that we are all hard at work in our constituencies during September. If we care about the esteem in which this place is held by people outside, the issue of the summer recess is a bullet that had to be bitten. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House on doing so.
As my right hon. Friend said, the big prize if we are to make this place more effective is prior scrutiny of legislation while it is still in draft and before it becomes set in stone. I know that there have been some successful experiments, but I look forward to seeing such scrutiny happen as a matter of course. I welcome what he said about the subject and I hope that I live long enough to see the day when it comes to pass. Some of the measures that we are considering—notably the ability to carry forward legislation from one Session to another—will make that easier, and I shall vote with enthusiasm for them.
Indeed, I shall support all the proposals except those that would allow the House to knock off at 7 o'clock on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. My right hon. Friend said in his opening remarks that his sole purpose was to make Parliament more effective. I cannot for the life of me see how cutting three hours off the parliamentary day will make us more effective. [Interruption.] I realise that hon. Members will suggest that we are not reducing the time, but simply moving it backwards.
To save my hon. Friend the trouble of having to intervene, let me say that, for me, the parliamentary day does not consist merely of what goes on in the Chamber. That is the difference between us.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I am aware that we are on opposite sides of the argument, but on the question of the number of hours in a day, does he recognise that the majority of us are conscientious MPs? We arrive here at 9 o'clock or 8 o'clock, but the different hours, in addition to the events, parliamentary functions and discussions that will continue throughout the evening—we are all politicos—will make our active day longer.
I accept that all hon. Members—or just about all—are conscientious. I do not question that for a moment, but I repeat that I believe that a parliamentary day does not consist only of what goes on in the Chamber. That is my only point and I propose to move on.
We are told that the change is part of a drive to make this place more family friendly, but for those with young families—
I have heard it said, perhaps not by my right hon. Friend this afternoon, but many times. The proposal might make this place more family friendly for those who are lucky enough to live within commuting distance of Westminster, but what are the 500 or so of us who live beyond commuting distance supposed to do—wander around this place in twilight?
I have a life, actually.
Are we supposed to go on cultural outings? Perhaps the theatres and art galleries of the west end will be full of newly liberated Scots and Welsh Members. Somehow I doubt it. If I were a spouse living several hundred miles away, I would prefer to know that my other half was snug in the warm bosom of the mother of Parliaments—[Interruption.] I am sorry if hon. Members do not like what I am saying, but I would be grateful if they at least did me the honour of listening. I would prefer to know that my other half was snug in Parliament, instead of roaming the streets of the west end with too much time on their hands and too much money in their pockets.
That, however, is not my main objection. My main point is that what my right hon. Friend is proposing will inflict damage on the Select Committees at a time when we are doing all that we can to enhance their status. Like many, though by no means all Select Committees, the Home Affairs Committee meets in the morning so that we do not have to compete with the business in the Chamber and in the hope—
I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me, but I am anxious to make my speech and our time is limited.
My Select Committee meets in the morning so that we do not have to compete with the business in the Chamber and in the hope that our deliberations will attract the attention of the outside world from time to time. That is more likely if meetings take place in good time for media deadlines and if we are not competing with the Chamber.
I have made my position on interventions clear.
My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said earlier that no one in their right mind would organise a press conference at 4 pm, to which I would add, Xor a Select Committee". I chair the Home Affairs Committee, which used to meet at 4.30 pm on Wednesdays for the convenience of the practising lawyers. Soon after I became Chairman, I received a letter from the home affairs correspondents of The Times, The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian. It states:
XCan we press you to make one small reform in the way your committee is run? The previous chairman, for reasons of which we are not aware, insisted that the committee's hearings did not start until 4.45 pm. This timing made giving any media coverage to all but the most sensational proceedings of the committee very difficult as often the hearings did not end until 6.30 or 7.00 which is far too late for routine stories to be filed and used prominently in the next day's papers"—
[Interruption.] I am determined to get to the end of my speech, with the House's permission—[Interruption.]
The letter continues:
XConsequently much of the valuable and interesting work done by the committee was undertaken in complete darkness as far as the public were concerned . . .
Can we urge you to consider moving the time of your meetings?"
We solved the problem by moving the meetings to Tuesday mornings. However, if my right hon. Friend has his way, we will be forced back into afternoon or early evening sittings. Far from improving the quality of scrutiny, the proposal will diminish it.
Five Select Committees met last week at 9.30 am. There is enough time for a two-hour meeting before the House sits at 11.30. There is no reason why Select Committees cannot meet before the House if they wish. However, it is extraordinary that my hon. Friend argues that the House should construct its hours around the Committee rather than vice versa.
I accept that different Select Committees have differing experiences. The problem with the Home Affairs Committee applies to some of the other big Committees: a great deal of the business in the Chamber is within our remit. In some weeks, that applies to perhaps a third of the business. The proposed change will therefore prove difficult. I do not make too much of it, because I acknowledge that different Select Committee members will have different experiences. However, the problem exists, and changing the time will not improve scrutiny one iota.
I want to make another point that some hon. Members may consider minor, but is worth factoring in. A strength of our system is that Ministers are obliged to mix with the poor bloody infantry. Anyone who visits the Tea Room on any Tuesday or Wednesday evening after 7 pm will find Ministers, from the Deputy Prime Minister down, dining and socialising with Back Benchers. A good deal of informal business is done in that way. If Ministers are no longer obliged to come here after 7 pm because there is no vote, they will simply stay in their Departments until they finish their boxes. Those who live in London—most of the main movers and shakers do—will then go home, and the relationship between Back Benchers and Front Benchers will be damaged. I simply mention that minor point in passing in case no one else considers it. Perhaps those who care about the relationship between Parliament and the Executive will wish to bear it in mind when they vote.
I urge hon. Members to vote against motion 7, which provides for earlier sittings on Tuesday, and in favour of amendment (a) to motion 6. In supporting amendment (a), hon. Members would vote against earlier sittings on Wednesday without jeopardising the proposed new arrangements for Thursday and Friday, which I support. I shall press the amendment at the appropriate time. 5.49 pm
I begin by thanking and paying tribute to all the members of the Procedure Committee from all political parties, who showed tremendous commitment and hard work in producing this very important report. The Committee's report on parliamentary questions is the first major review of the subject for over 10 years. We say that the system of parliamentary questions is
Xan essential part of the process by which Parliament exercises its authority and holds the Government to account".
However, there are major flaws in the way the system works.
We began our inquiry by seeking the views of all Members of the House through a questionnaire. I believe that it was important to do so, because the composition of the House has changed so much since the last major inquiry.
My right hon. and learned Friend is entitled to his view.
There is a new generation of Members, and we wanted to know how they use questions and whether they think the system is working as well as it might. The clear answer to the questionnaire was no, at least in some respects. We have put together a package of recommendations that attempts to redress the deficiencies that our survey clearly identified. I am pleased that the Government's reply to our report accepts most of those recommendations.
At this stage, I wish to pay tribute to the Leader of the House, who gave very stimulating evidence to our inquiry and has engaged constructively with the Committee at all stages. In a moment, I shall deal with a small number of recommendations that the Government have rejected, but that should not in any way detract from the fact that, overall, their response has been very positive.
The biggest single criticism of the oral questions system is that it lacks topicality and relevance. That is because the deadline for tabling questions is still 10 sitting days, or two calendar weeks. As a result, it is often impossible for Members to raise in the Chamber the issues that the rest of the country is talking about. The Chamber therefore appears to be out of touch and irrelevant. The real questioning of Ministers, as has already been said in the debate, takes place on XNewsnight" or the XToday" programme.
As part of our inquiry, we researched the history of the questions system. We found that the House never intended that the notice period should be so long. As we say,
Xthe present deadline arose as the unintended consequence of rules designed for other purposes".
We also point out that very short deadlines were the norm 100 years ago. Before 1902, a question could be tabled for answer the following day, and from 1902 to 1947, only two days' notice was required. The current two-week deadline is absurd. We have recommended that it be replaced by a deadline of three working days. We accept that the deadline should not be shorter than that, because I believe that it is reasonable for Departments to have two working days to prepare the briefing for their Ministers.
The Government's response to our report broadly accepts our recommendation, but proposes that the three territorial Departments—Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—should have a slightly longer notice period and that our proposal should be further modified by discounting sitting as well as non-sitting Fridays from the calculations. It is worth making the latter point to the House.
The Procedure Committee discussed the Government's response at its meeting last week. We were slightly sceptical about the need for the territorial Departments to be given several extra days' notice, which may conjure up the image of relays of horsemen galloping off to those far-flung places, Edinburgh and Cardiff, or people rowing across to Belfast. We concluded, however, that the Government propose relatively minor modifications of our proposals, which we are content to accept.
The overall thrust of our recommendations has been accepted by the Government, and is embodied in the Standing Order changes that the House is invited to approve tonight. I believe that if the changes are approved they will have a major impact on Question Time. They will make it much more incisive and much more relevant. We made several connected recommendations, which the Government have also accepted. In particular, we recommended that Members should be allowed to table oral questions on any day after their last Question Time and before the minimum notice period—that is, generally up to four weeks before the day for answer. That represents a major relaxation of existing rules, which would be much appreciated by all Members.
In general, Members who responded to our questionnaire are much happier with the written questions system than that for oral questions. However, there is concern about the distinction—I say this with emphasis—between named-day questions and ordinary written questions. About half of all written questions tabled are for a named day, and a third are for the earliest possible day. Frankly, the members of the Procedure Committee simply do not believe that such a high proportion of questions can legitimately be described as urgent. We believe that this is an abuse of the system. It is counter-productive, because it leads to a proliferation of holding replies and makes it less likely that the genuinely urgent questions will receive a rapid response.
I have limited time, so, as Chairman of the Committee, it is difficult to do so. If I can, I shall give way to the hon. Lady.
We have therefore recommended that the House should impose a daily quota per Member of five named-day questions. However, we rejected the Government's suggestion that the minimum period for a reply to a named-day question should be extended from three to four working days. As we say in our report,
Xthis seems to us wrong in principle: the object of a reform should be to reduce the total number of named-day questions to a sensible level, not to introduce greater delay in replying to questions that are genuinely urgent".
We make another major recommendation in relation to the use of technology; I know that this is both controversial and sensitive. We considered the implications of allowing questions to be tabled electronically. The big problem is ensuring that electronic tabling does not encourage abuse, with Members giving carte blanche either to their researchers or, even worse, to outside organisations and lobbying groups to table questions on their behalf.
It would be ridiculous to ignore the potential benefits of new technology and refuse to allow electronic tabling. We considered whether we should recommend that the House insist on what we called Xstrong authentication" of the identity of Members. We could employ a system using what are called biometric techniques, such as fingerprint or iris recognition, which would ensure that questions were submitted only by a Member in person rather than by anyone else acting on his or her behalf. However, such systems would be expensive, complicated and, we suspect, liable to extensive teething problems. Members might also find it rather undignified to have to submit their fingerprints or squint into an iris recognition device every time they want to table a question.
We have therefore recommended that, in the first instance, the House should conduct an experiment in electronic tabling of questions using a Xweak authentication" system. It would be similar to the system already in operation in the Scottish Parliament and the House of Lords. There would be added safeguards—for instance, questions would be accepted only from addresses in the Parliamentary Data and Video Network, not just from any e-mail address. None the less, we recognise that there would still be potential for abuse with that option.
We have therefore recommended that Mr. Speaker should have power to abort the experiment if it became clear that large-scale abuse were taking place or if the number of questions tabled rose steeply and ran the risk of overloading the questions system. If that were to happen, we would have to cut our losses and revert to the more expensive option of strong authentication. I very much hope that that would not be necessary.
The Government have accepted all the recommendations that I have mentioned, sometimes with minor modifications. I shall conclude by dealing with the one major recommendation that they have rejected, which is that there should be a twice weekly session of topical questions in the Chamber. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, following departmental questions, there should be a 30-minute period in which questions would be asked on a single, topical subject. Mr. Speaker would choose the subject on the basis of applications made by Members the previous day.
In making his choice, Mr. Speaker would be guided by specified criteria, including
Xtopicality, urgency, the public importance of the subject, suitability in terms of potential for supplementary questions, party balance, and balance between Opposition parties and"— this is even more even important to Government Members—
Xbackbenchers on both sides of the House."
I am looking particularly at the Father of the House, Mr. Dalyell, when I say that. Mr. Speaker would aim to achieve an overall balance between those criteria over a period of time. He would also have discretion, if he thought fit, occasionally to substitute two 15-minute sessions for one 30-minute session.
I am sorry that the Government have decided to reject that recommendation. In my view, it would be an effective way of restoring to the House some control over the use of its time, and that is important. At present, the Executive have total control over when statements are made to the House and on what subject. The system of private notice questions gives the official Opposition some scope to take the initiative, but only very occasionally, and Back Benchers have no equivalent opportunities.
I intervene in the debate as a member of the House of Commons Commission. Under statute, the Commission is responsible for the House's finances and employs almost all its staff. We do not take any collective view on the merits of the Modernisation Committee's recommendations. I know that right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House are interested in the effects that the proposals will have on the House administration and on the services that the House provides. I am also aware of some concerns expressed by Members and by staff, which have been reflected in the questions put by my hon. Friends and responded to by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House.
The implications of the motions before us are obviously of great importance to the Commission, and we and the Board of Management, chaired by the Clerk of the House, have given them considerable thought. It is extremely difficult to assess the full implications of the changes at this stage, mainly because there are so many variables. I shall give four brief examples.
First, I noted the comments of my hon. Friend Mr. Mullin on when Select Committees may meet. Select Committees may decide to meet much earlier in the day. If they do, there may be difficulties for staff who would have longer journeys to work, and possibly a longer working day. As my right hon. Friend has said, it is up to Committees to decide when they meet. The Commission cannot anticipate: we have to react.
Secondly, many House staff are not allowed to take leave when the House is sitting. If the windows for leave narrow, that rule may have to be changed. In turn, that may require additional staff to provide cover.
Thirdly, at the moment the summer recess is a key period for major works with minimum disruption. All of us who happened to be here over the summer will have seen one of the largest building sites in Europe. September sittings will reduce that period, so there may be a cost premium, which in any year will depend on the nature and extent of the works. However, if we have a calendar for the year ahead, the ability to make firm plans will offset that perceived disadvantage.
Lastly, the earlier finish on Tuesdays and Wednesdays will probably affect the need for catering services in the evenings, but by how much will depend on how many Members, their staff and the staff of the House eat here after the rising. September sittings may redress the balance somewhat.
It will be clear to the House that the effect of these proposals will depend crucially on how the House, Committees and Members adapt to any new arrangements. The House is not just an organisation: it is also a living organism and, because of its nature, is not easily predictable. However, I can assure the House that we, as Commissioners, and the Clerk and his colleagues are on the case, if I may use the jargon from the television—which we do not always watch in the evenings between votes.
On finance, the Commission will try to meet any additional requirements in the current financial year from resources already allocated. In December, we will consider the House's estimate for 2003–04, and will have the opportunity to make financial adjustments then. In the longer term, we will make any necessary provision in the three-year financial plans, which will be approved next summer.
As for the staff, we must ensure that we remain good employers. That is a matter of concern, and my right hon. Friend referred to the Commission's strong involvement in that. If the House approves the motions before us, the proposals may well make life easier for many staff. If they do not, we must ensure that those staff are not disadvantaged or demotivated, and that services continue to be delivered to the present high standards. That is a priority for the Commission and the Board. If problems arise, they will be discussed with the staff affected and with the trade union side.
Does the hon. Gentleman think that the new arrangements will reduce or increase the running costs of the House, bearing in mind the fact that the Leader of the House has said that the facilities that are currently open until 10 pm or 11 pm will remain open in the future?
I have already said that we will make any necessary provision in the three-year financial plans, which will be approved next summer, in the light of the decisions that the House makes tonight. If additional resources or staff are shown to be required in particular areas, we will provide them.
My right hon. Friend also raised the question of how we can become more accessible to our constituents. He mentioned a glass-fronted gallery that would enable constituents to see hon. Members in action. Sir Patrick Cormack called it a glass menagerie. However we describe such a proposal, the fact is that earlier sittings of the House will limit constituents' tours on those days. Hon. Members will know—my right hon. Friend has confirmed this—that one of the Commission's announced strategic aims is to increase public access to the House and knowledge of its work. Non-sitting Fridays will make up some of the shortfall, but we are also costing Saturday opening for visitors, and we are discussing those matters with the authorities of the House of Lords.
The long-term parliamentary calendar recommended in paragraph 74 of the Modernisation Committee's report would greatly help our long-term planning. I am sure that the House is pleased to hear my right hon. Friend's statement that provisional dates for recesses up to October next year will be announced in his business statement on Thursday. I know my right hon. Friend is well aware of the importance of ensuring that that is rolled forward every two months or so.
I hope I have made clear the strong concern felt by the Commission and the House about the effects on staff, facilities and amenities of any decisions that we make today. That concern will continue in the light of any such decisions. I commend the views of the Commission to the House.
Two of the most misleading words in the political dictionary are Xreform" and Xmodernisation". They are nearly always used to camouflage proposed changes with ulterior and concealed motives, and both therefore feature prominently on the cover of the report that we are debating.
We do not need to agree with the grand old Duke of York that any change at any time is always for the worse to know for a fact that some changes are not for the better. As our constituents find in their personal lives, changes are indeed often for the worse.
The House of Commons has been continually reforming and modernising its procedures and perquisites since Dick Crossman was Leader of the House in the 1960s. I remember listening to debates almost identical to this 40 years ago. When morning sittings were introduced they were a total flop: not only lawyers and stockbrokers like me but a great many Labour trade unionists and the like did not attend in the mornings. The Wilson Government quickly dumped the whole idea, and everyone agreed that Dick had been too clever by half. I hope that these proposals will have the same fate—although I do not think there is anyone quite as clever as Dick Crossman in the present Government.
As Mr. Mullin pointed out, the object of the exercise should be to improve scrutiny of the Government by Back Benchers. These proposals will have the opposite result. When I first arrived here, Ministers of all parties were genuinely in awe of the House of Commons. I am bound to say that I have never grown out of that myself.
In his retirement, Harold Macmillan told me that he was seldom able to lunch before the then twice-weekly Prime Minister's Question Time, so tense did he always feel at the prospect of facing questions from the House. It would be encouraging to think that the proposal to take parliamentary questions before lunch was motivated by kindly considerations of that sort, but I very much doubt it. I am told that Ministers eat only sandwiches nowadays; moreover, their general behaviour demonstrates a complete contempt for the House and an absolute preoccupation with the media. That, in fact, is what lies behind all these proposals. Ministers have no great love of Parliament as an institution.
The proposed batch of so-called reforms will undoubtedly make things worse. The imposition of a permanent maximum 10-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches will greatly increase the influence of the Executive and reduce the power of the Chamber.
It is a mistake to assume, as someone did earlier, that all parliamentarians are equal. We are all equal in the sight of God, but we are not equal as parliamentarians. Some parliamentarians are very much abler and more experienced than others, as well as being better speakers. They are the ones whom the House and the country want to hear. The modern development whereby speakers are selected—largely by a computer, I understand—on the mathematical basis of how often they happen to have spoken during the current Session, rather than on the basis of whether they have a special contribution to make, is not desirable, and is one reason why the House is usually almost empty of all but those who think they will be called to speak.
If we want to improve the standing of Parliament, we should understand that the hours during which we sit have almost nothing to do with it. What will determine Parliament's status are the personalities of those elected to this place: their distinction, their experience, their character, their independence and their capacity for oratory—heart-moving oratory. Since Tony Benn left the House, there is hardly anyone capable of producing that.
As a matter of fact, I do think we must represent our constituents, but we do not do so by being dreary, ignorant bores.
A rigid, universal 10-minute limit on speeches would have destroyed our parliamentary heritage. I know we will be reminded—it is astonishing that we have not been reminded already—of the sermon on the mount and the Gettysburg address; but although Abraham Lincoln and Jesus Christ could move the world in 10 minutes, most of us need a little longer.
A great parliamentary speech is a work of art. It resembles a symphony: it has a beginning, a middle and an end. It must have light and shade, variations in tempo and tone, passion and wit, and sustained, serious intellectual content. It must concern an important issue on which there are strong, competing views in the House and in the country. I think of Wilberforce evangelising for the abolition of slavery, John Bright crusading for cheap food and free trade, Churchill pleading for rearmament, and Sydney Silverman, in my parliamentary youth, calling tirelessly for an end to hanging. All spoke from the Back Benches, and at length.
There were many, many others—a whole great galaxy of parliamentary heroes, some of whom never reached the Government Bench, but whose voices still echo across the centuries. If they had been confined to 10-minute speeches we would never have heard of them, and Britain would long ago have gone down the plughole.
Is my hon. Friend aware that he would also be allowed to respond to no more than two interventions during his speeches? As he has taken one from Anne Picking and one from me, I have now denied others—including Mr. Bryant, who I see wants to make a comment—the right to intervene. What does my hon. Friend think about that?
I think that I could have done even better without a second intervention.
Let me now turn to the proposals for sitting hours. New Labour seems set on turning the House into a safe haven for nursing mothers and geriatrics like me. I do not presume to speak for the mothers, but I suppose I should be grateful: if we are never to sit after 7 pm, I see no obstacle—the Almighty and my electors permitting—to my remaining here for several more Parliaments. I may, like Lord Randolph Churchill, die by inches in public, but at least I will not—unlike Caroline Flint—ever be tired.
The proposed new working arrangements are rather nicely judged to be unsatisfactory for effective opposition, but inconvenient enough to prevent Back Benchers from pursuing a profession and gaining experience of what is rather slightingly called Xthe real world", or acquiring honestly—rather than by brown envelopes—that financial independence that can be such a bulwark of independent thought, speech and voting integrity. The proposed new hours are, in short, a charter for party political hacks.
To develop the sensible point made by Anne Picking, who intervened on my speech, the greatest merit of outside interests is that they enable a Member to maintain inside this House a proper perspective on the lives of the people whom he or she has been elected to represent. An MP cannot spend all weekend simply wandering around supermarkets in his or her constituency, much as I enjoy doing that. A competent MP needs to be able to put the interests of his or her constituents to the fore, in the context of the national scheme of things, and of the ever-growing international pressures of the modern world. To do that, he or she needs a great deal of experience that cannot be acquired just in this House, in its Corridors, or in the Rooms that used to be smoke filled.
Ideally, we would all have much more experience than we have at the moment. However, for a whole variety of reasons that are inevitable in the modern world, many of us come into this place without the sort of experience that people had when I entered the House. A holder of the Victoria Cross, commanders of cruisers and brigades, major trade union leaders, chairmen of great companies and editors of great newspapers then sat in this House. All that has gone, and it is not going to come back, but we must not produce a way of life in this place that is attractive only to retired polytechnic lecturers.
What are we all going to do after 7pm? [Hon. Members: XAh!"] Ideally, we would all return to the bosom of our family, but many of those bosoms are far away. The prospect of 650 parliamentarians suddenly released, like the prisoners in XFidelio", tramping the streets of London looking for vulnerable people to help, is one to which only a Hogarth could do full justice.
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak after Sir Peter Tapsell. What an abysmal contribution that was; it has set us back mega. It is great to be able to stand up, posture, pontificate, show off and make a wonderful speech, but, as I said in my intervention, we are here to represent our constituents.
The fact that I am even on my feet and speaking is overwhelming for me. Because of the pecking order and the current system, which is unfair, the opportunities for new Members to make contributions in this Chamber are very limited. I should be able to represent my constituents in East Lothian in the same fair and equal way that my hon. Friend the Father of the House is able to represent his constituents in West Lothian. If speeches are time limited, I and the other new Members who are trying to find their way and make a difference in this place—a place that we, too, are in awe of and respect—will be able to do that.
The reason I ended up on the Modernisation Committee is a story in itself. My hon. Friend Mrs. Dunwoody was my replacement on the Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions after its vote last July. My reward for doing the honourable thing by falling on my sword was membership of the Modernisation Committee. I doubt whether a new MP would normally have that honour, and I have thoroughly enjoyed serving on it under the leadership of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House.
The Modernisation Committee seeks to make this Parliament relevant and engaging, and to increase the level of participation among elected Members of the House. What on earth is wrong with that? Rather than repeating what others have said, or trying to ensure that our speeches are heard back at the ranch or included in a press release, we should make disciplined contributions, and engage in meaningful debate and wholly proper and efficient democracy.
I intend to be unique. I intend to make the shortest speech because I want to set an example, but before I finish I want to point out that the argument concerning carry-over versus genuine scrutiny does not make sense. If we want more genuine scrutiny, we must adopt carry-over. It is absolute nonsense to argue that legislation will be rushed through and that we will run out of time. I want far more time, so that there is proper scrutiny to ensure effective and efficient legislation.
I hope that all other Members will adopt my policy of making short, sharp contributions. We should remember that this is an experiment—we do not have to get too worried about protecting the status quo. Let us try to do things differently. If the new method proves more effective, let us adopt it; if it does not, we can ditch it or change it. Nothing is set in stone. Just because the way in which we have worked over the years has been okay—just because we have eventually got there by dilly-dallying—that does not make it right. We have a duty to try to do our work more effectively. If we expect the firefighters to modernise in order to promote and provide better public services, what is wrong with us modernising to promote and provide better services for our constituents?
I agree with Anne Picking on the subject of carry-over, and I do not agree with my right hon. Friend Mr. Forth. I say that because I was the spokesman on constitutional affairs when Lord Norton produced his report, which I thought a wholly convincing document. It made admirable sense on that subject, and I shall certainly exercise my free vote in favour of the Leader of the House's proposal in this regard. Much of the report is refreshing, attractive and acceptable. For instance, I have no difficulty in supporting the proposal for September sittings. It is extremely difficult to make a logical case against that proposal, so I shall vote for it.
I am not against so-called modernisation in all particulars. However, I do believe that if we are to change, it must be for the better, and I am troubled by a number of issues. I do not like the way in which the Government are going to abandon Fridays. We have little enough time in this House to debate issues on the Adjournment. Such issues may not be hugely contentious in political terms, but they are of great national importance and need discussing. To sacrifice Friday upon Friday is a profound mistake. Of course, I want a large number of Fridays to be devoted to private Member's legislation, but to get rid of all the others is, frankly, wrong.
Nor do I like the arbitrary 10-minute limit on speeches. Here, I join forces with my hon. Friend Sir Peter Tapsell, who made a marvellous, rumbustious speech. Would that he could have gone on for another 12 minutes. Mr. Speaker and his colleagues in the Chair—including you, Mr. Deputy Speaker—have the wonderful facility of decreeing time limits. Mr. Speaker decided on a 12-minute limit for today's speeches. Last week, he decided on an eight-minute limit. Sometimes he decides on a 10-minute limit, and on others he opts for a 15-minute limit. That seems the right, flexible approach. When a vast number of Members want to speak, we have to be cut down, but when they do not, it is entirely appropriate to allow us to develop our cases at rather greater length.
I come to my principal argument against the recommendation on length of speeches. I am one of those Members who like to speak without notes. I like the spontaneity of debate, but when we are time limited it is impossible to maintain that spontaneity and to give way when one likes to do so.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman, with his usual fairness, has read the recommendations. A standard 10-minute limit on speeches is not proposed. The proposal is more elastic. It gives discretion to the Chair, but provides that the norm should be 10 minutes when there is pressure of time on a debate.
The recommendations give very little discretion to the Chair. Frankly, the hon. Gentleman is one to talk: he rabbited on for 20 minutes today and finds it very difficult to keep to a limit.
No, as I want to develop my arguments and deal with the main point, which is my reason for opposing this recommendation. Those hon. Members who have been here for a long time know that I like to give way. I enjoy the cut and thrust of debate, and like to be able to answer interventions. That is a good thing to be able to do, but it is very difficult when one labours under a limit.
I want to finish my speech in less than 12 minutes, so that other hon. Members can contribute. In the time left, I want to concentrate on the recommendation with regard to hours. It is true that, in the past, the House has sat at different times. It used to begin early in the morning in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, but in those days the Chamber was paramount. There were Committees, but nowhere near as many as now. In those days, hon. Members did not suffer from anything like as many conflicts, and their constituency work load was nowhere near as great as it is today.
I enter my office never later than eight in the morning, but even then I find it difficult to cope with all the demands on my time so that I can get to the Chamber at 2.30 pm. The hon. Member for East Lothian, as she spends more time in the House, will find that she becomes more involved in a variety of matters. My work in the House has caused me to be involved with heritage bodies and other organisations, and I have found that people—reasonably and properly—want to see me. They want to discuss with me the issues in which they are involved, and I need to have time for them to do so.
Moreover, I like to sit on Select Committees. At the moment, I am a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, but I had to say that I could not attend this afternoon's sitting. I consider the Chamber to be of paramount importance, and I felt that I had to be here for this debate. If we move to the new hours, that conflict of loyalties will be increased by factors of 10 or 100 for some hon. Members.
There is nothing to be said in favour of moving to the proposed new hours on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. I was not terribly happy about the change made to Thursdays, but it is now part of the parliamentary calendar and I accept it. I shall vote for the proposal that the House finish its business at 6 pm on Thursdays because I reluctantly accept that the House will not do away with the experiment.
The hon. Gentleman is fair minded and independent, but the shadow Leader of the House has proposed that it is logical to start proceedings at 9.30 in the morning. Several hon. Members have cast aspersions on the motives of Mr. Forth in apparently wishing to out-modernise the modernisers. Does the hon. Gentleman think that the right hon. Gentleman really believes that the House should sit at 9.30 am?
I would no more seek to answer for my right hon. Friend than he would seek to answer for me. He must answer for himself. As I said during his speech, I disagree with him. I believe the proposal to start at 9.30 in the morning is profoundly wrong. I shall not support it, and I would not do so even if a three-line Whip were imposed.
I believe that being a Member of Parliament is not a job. It is a way of life and a vocation to public service. We are not here to serve our personal convenience or to pander to the media's every demand. We are here to be the tribune of the people, and must serve at whatever hours are reasonable. I do not object to the move by the Leader of the House towards ending the practice of sitting very late into the night, but we are here to serve our constituents, as the hon. Member for East Lothian said, and to debate the great issues of the day. Most of all, we are here to hold the Government to account and to scrutinise legislation. We shall reduce our ability to do those things if we accept these recommendations.
Some hon. Members have said that parliamentarians are not the flavour of the month, and that people do not attach to the Chamber the same importance that they once did. One reason for that is that hon. Members have become increasingly toothless over the years.
I have made many speeches in the House—from the Opposition Dispatch Box and from both Opposition and Government Benches. I have criticised Governments of both parties. My right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House is the best example in history of a gamekeeper turning poacher, but as a Minister he did not like to be held to account much. He was as brilliant on his feet as a Minister as he is as an Opposition spokesman, but circumstances change cases.
I have been in the House for more than 30 years—not as long as my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle—and in that time Parliament has become increasingly subject to the whims and caprices of the Executive. If we approve the proposed changes, we shall be giving up many of our freedoms as Back Benchers. We shall reduce still further the Chamber's influence on the nation's affairs.
Earlier, I mentioned the need to meet and talk to people from outside the House. I see nothing wrong with the possibility that some of those conversations might take place over lunch. Under the proposals, there will be no lunch hour. Those hon. Members who, like, me, want to be here on a Thursday, when the House sits at 11.30 am, have breakfast at about 11 and go through the day without a break. That happened last Thursday: many of us sat in the Chamber through the whole day as the House debated local government finance. The proposed hours will deprive many people outside the House of the opportunity to talk to and influence hon. Members. If we are truly to serve the people of the nation, we must be available much more readily than the proposals will allow.
The Modernisation Committee's report is like the famous curate's egg—good in parts. Several of the proposals will improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the parliamentary institution. I support those proposals wholeheartedly. However, if adopted, the limit on speeches and, more importantly, the change in hours would make Parliament much less influential in a relatively short period of time.
There will be also knock-on effects for those who serve us here. They will not have quite the life that they have now. Mr. Bell was right to speak about the unanimity of the Commission in wanting to do everything possible to cushion staff from the effects of change, but effects there will be and they will not be to those people's advantage. I urge hon. Members not to support those proposals.
Mr. Tyler spoke about the House making greater contact with the electorate. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House spoke about how the House needed to reflect a rapidly changing society. Sir Nicholas Winterton said that the electorate should not feel that we were out of touch with people and that what we did was irrelevant.
If our constituents heard this debate, they would be amazed at its self-absorption and introversion. They want hon. Members to debate and decide the issues of the day. Some Labour Members will disagree with me but, regardless of what they and Opposition Members think, I believe that it is not our working practices that fail to engage with people or cause reduced polls in elections, it is what we in this House do and fail to do.
People are worried about the legislation that we pass and the issues that we discuss. They do not care about amendments to Standing Orders that might turn one set of gobbledegook to another. They care about what we do. I stay in this House because I want to participate in changing the lives of my constituents for the better and to participate with colleagues in debating the issues of the day. That does not mean that I necessarily agree with my colleagues. In addition to being a legislature, this House is a forum. If it is a forum, it has to have proper debate. My hon. Friend Mr. Dalyell may say many things with which I disagree; my hon. Friend Mr. Galloway, who is not here at the moment, may say many things with which I disagree; but it is essential that they have the chance to say them—and it is essential that they have the chance to say them in a way that could change minds in the House, but also communicate with people outside.
I support many of the proposals, but I am worried that some will make a genuine exchange of ideas in the House less possible. My hon. Friend Anne Picking spoke about the need for meaningful debate. She is absolutely right about that. Indeed, what is happening this very evening has given us an opportunity to witness the way in which meaningful debate in the House is being eroded and damaged. My hon. Friend Mr. Mullin did not take interventions; other Members did not take interventions, even with compensatory time, because they cannot look at the digital clock the whole time. That being so, genuine debate in the House obviously calls for self-discipline. We do not necessarily want Members making speeches of 20, 30 or 40 minutes, but to confine them to an arbitrary time limit on the basis of a mandatory time limit, as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House proposes, will damage genuine debate.
No, I will not give way for the very reason that I am giving.
We have in the Leader of the House one of the finest debaters I have listened to in the 32 years in which I have sat in the House of Commons. He would not have developed that reputation if there had been mandatory time limits when he was developing his skills as a speaker. My right hon. Friend knows the high regard in which I hold him, but it does look as though he is pulling up the ladder that he climbed and that others will be unable to climb it.
Genuine debate requires an exchange of ideas. Genuine debate means that when I listen to an hon. Member, I may have my mind changed. If I cannot do that because I am looking at the digital clock the whole time, wondering about the length of the intervention and the length of my response, I am hobbled. I do not claim for a moment that my contributions to debates in the House are necessarily of any great value, but my constituents send me here to represent them. That means that I have things to say, whether or not those things are good or valid. That is for me to decide and for me to have a chance of trying. That is why I believe that the House will be making a serious error if it votes for mandatory time limits.
Let us imagine it is 1938. Winston Churchill gets up: he inveighs against Chamberlain, he inveighs against appeasement, he inveighs against Hitler and he inveighs against Mussolini. He says that we must be prepared for a second world war. While he is developing his argument, Mr. Deputy Speaker says, XOrder. The right hon. Gentleman has come to the end of his 12 minutes." We cannot know when a speech is necessary and we cannot know when a speech may not be prolix but essential to the way the country operates. That is why I hope that the House will not vote for these mandatory time limits, but leave it instead to the discretion of the Speaker, although I would actually prefer even that not to happen.
There is no way in which we will ever turn this House of Commons into a rational organisation comparable to other workplaces and activities in which people are employed. This place is sui generis—a large room in which people speak, listen to each other, change the laws of the country and revolutionise the country, as the Attlee Government did between 1945 and 1950. There is nothing like it—we cannot compare the way in which we conduct our activities with the very important work done in a motor car or computer factory. This is different. This is a House of Parliament. It is not a sausage machine or a conveyor belt. It is not here to be efficient. A Parliament is not about time and motion studies; it is about listening to views, perhaps conflicting, and, out of the clash of views, changing the way in which the country works and reflecting the views of its people. This is a Parliament, not a factory. It is not a debating society. That is where the former leader of the Conservative party went wrong—he thought that it was just a debating society, but that was not enough.
If we lose sight of what we are here for, and believe that by having time limits we can hear more speeches and that by working from 9 to 5, or whatever it is, we will persuade our constituents that we are like them, we will fail. The very fact that we are here is because we want to represent our constituents, but we are not like them. If we were like them, we would not be here. If we were like them, we would not have fought to get here; we would not have done the things that got us here. We are sui generis—we are the British House of Commons. Although I support many of the proposals that my right hon. Friend makes and shall vote for them, I fear that the proposals on time limits and the change in hours will damage us as a House of Parliament, and I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will reflect on that.
It is a pleasure to follow Mr. Kaufman. I agree with his theme that culture is more important than procedure, and I hope to return to that point in a moment.
One needs to put the debate in the slightly broader context of the modernising agenda since 1997. The balance of the reforms so far have, in my view, made life easier for the Government. The automatic programming of every Bill, the introduction of deferred Divisions and the cut off at 10 o'clock may, incidentally, have made life more congenial for individual MPs as well, and I am not against that. However, the consequence has been to tilt what I call the terms of trade away from Parliament towards the Executive. We now need to tilt them back.
I strongly believe that in the last Parliament the terms of trade shifted away from Parliament towards the Executive and made it easier for the Government to get their business through the House. The criteria by which I judge the reforms before us is what they do to those terms of trade.
I find this a much more balanced package. There has been a genuine attempt to find and build a consensus, unlike what happened in the last Parliament, when the reforms were forced through using a parliamentary majority. I welcome the new tone and am able to support most of the proposals, with one exception.
The most radical proposal has not been mentioned once in the debate. I refer to paragraph 44 of the report in which collective consultation with other parties is proposed on the Queen's Speech. That represents, or could represent, the first tentative steps towards prising the Government's fingers off the programme of the House. Many people believe that ownership of that programme ought to be here and not with the Government. So I welcome that proposal, and would like to know more about it. Will there be a Committee? Will Back Benchers be on it? Will the Executive have a built-in majority on that Committee? If this proposal represents the first step towards the House repatriating the ability to control its own business, I believe that it could be more important than many of the others.
In principle, I am not opposed to carry-over. Like my hon. Friend Sir Patrick Cormack, I accept the arguments in the Norton report that carry-over is a more sensible approach to the scrutiny of Bills and that we would get a better flow of legislation. When the Leader of the House winds up the debate, it would be helpful if he would confirm what I think was said in an exchange during the opening speeches: if there is disagreement between the two Houses at the end of a Session, this House cannot unilaterally carry over the disputed measure. As long as we have that safeguard, I shall be happy with the proposals for carry-over.
I approached the question of an early start with an entirely open mind, but when I read that section of the Committee's report I found it one-dimensional and almost blinkered. Paragraphs 54 to 63 are nearly all about the Chamber—as if MPs did nothing else. In his introductory speech, the Leader of the House made the same mistake: he tended to discount what takes place in the morning. Only in paragraph 64 of the report is there an acknowledgement of life outside the Chamber. Then we hit this sentence:
There are no real concessions there—no thinking through of the impact on the rest of the House.
I shall briefly quote from appendix 1 of the first report of the Modernisation Committee's first report in December 1998. Paragraph 12 states that
Xthe Government is not persuaded that a change of sitting hours to normal office hours is in the best interests of the House, individual Members or the Government."
That was the evidence of Ann Taylor, who was Leader of the House only four years ago—an unequivocal finding against the decision to move the times of sittings. There are some powerful paragraphs in that annexe whose impact has not faded.
Mention was made of the impact on Ministers, who normally spend the mornings in their Departments or making contact with the real world. The report refers to the impact on constituency work—a point touched on by hon. Members in this debate. It states that morning sittings would be Xbound to detract" from Standing Committee and Select Committee meetings. It is unclear what has happened during the intervening four years to overturn those unequivocal recommendations from a former Leader of the House.
A further, albeit subsidiary, point is that much of the business for Thursdays is unwhipped. On Thursday, we shall debate defence on a motion for the Adjournment of the House. Last Thursday, we debated local government finance on the Adjournment. If we stopped at 7 pm on Wednesdays and there was a tendency to schedule unwhipped business for Thursdays, some colleagues would be tempted to go home, compressing yet more business into two parliamentary days and generating unhelpful media comment.
I am not unsympathetic to the case, but the consequences have not been fully thought through, nor has the case been fully made. I am not minded to support the option for a 9.30 start either.
I welcome the move to greater topicality for departmental questions. I should have gone further and proposed a ten-minute period at the end of departmental questions for completely open questions. The Prime Minister tries to answer open questions about the Government for about half an hour each week so there is no reason that a Secretary of State, too, should not be expected to answer open questions for about ten minutes about the management of his or her Department. That would make the question session even more topical.
A reform that I should have liked is alluded to in paragraph 80. Opposition parties should be able to trade in Opposition days for the right to demand a statement on a subject about which the Government are reticent. The report's proposals ensure prime time—in fact, even more time—for Government statements, although I question the assumption that such statements should last an hour, but it would have been fairer to balance that reform with the right of Opposition parties to demand a statement, also in prime time. That would have been consistent with holding the Government to account. Traditional Opposition days, even if they are taken as half days, do not represent the best use of Opposition time. We need a more flexible approach.
I am unequivocally in favour of shorter speeches although I am open to persuasion as to how we would achieve them. Speech limits work well in the upper House where contributions tend to be focused. This Chamber should strive to be less like Radio 3 and more like Classic FM—a recommendation that may not find its way on to the BBC's XYesterday in Parliament" programme.
The question is not whether a 15-minute speech is better than a 10-minute speech, but whether three 10-minute speeches add more value to the debate than two 15-minute speeches. The marginal utility of the last five minutes of a speech that could be shortened to 10 minutes is less than that of a fresh contribution that might otherwise be lost.
There is a risk involved. We see it already. Members who realise that they will not get in will clamber aboard the opening speeches, which are not time-limited. Some Front-Bench speeches are far too long and if Back-Bench speeches are to be compulsorily, or voluntarily, shortened, we must have discipline from the Front Benches.
Having spoken in favour of short speeches, I plan this to be one. The reforms will not dramatically change how we are perceived unless they are associated with what has been called Xcultural change"; it is not when we meet, but what we do when meet. Prime Minister's questions, for example, represent not the best but the worst of the House. Until we can change that event from a ridiculous alternation of the obsequious and the over-aggressive to a more focused exchange on one or two serious subjects, the public will say that it does not matter when we are in the Chamber but how we spend our time.
Yes, procedural change is important, but it will not alter things of itself; cultural change is also necessary.
It is a privilege to be a Member of Parliament and to be able to speak in the House. The debate is important, because we ought to set out where we stand on these issues. Many hon. Members want to put their case and it is important that we all have the chance to do so.
I shall support my hon. Friend Mr. Mullin. It is essential that we put the facts as we see them.
As we have the privilege to be Members of Parliament and to represent the voters who put us here, we should not be in this place out of self-interest. The problem with this debate, however, is that it is about self-interest, whatever we decide.
We ought not to abuse the privilege that people have given us, but that will occur if we continue to reduce our hours. No doubt, I shall hear later that the proposals do not mean a reduction in our hours, but merely a change. I disagree. The reduction in hours will come. If we start earlier in the morning, instead of in the afternoon, something will have to be squeezed somewhere. That will be either a Select Committee or a House Committee. Some of us are members of both; we make up the numbers because other Members do not want to serve on Committees.
What will the problems be? I am usually in the House before 9 am. Other Members have pointed out that they are in before 8. That is important because of our staff. The debate seems to have been all about us. Well, it should not be only about us; it should be about the people who work in this place and the people who work with us—the forgotten people. We find it easy to forget them, yet we make many demands on their time.
When we come in at 9 o'clock, there is mail to go through. We have to check the questions for that day, read the Order Paper and the newspapers. We have to consider what is relevant to the constituents we represent and what the people who work with us do for the rest of the day. There is work to be done first thing in the morning.
Then we might go on to a meeting of the Catering Committee, which begins at 9.30, or to a Select Committee that starts at 10. Those meetings are held in the mornings. It is important not to squeeze time, so that we continue to have the choice to take part in such meetings without giving up something else.
We were rightly told that Westminster Hall was a privilege when it was instituted. It is right that we can decide to speak in Westminster Hall in the morning without missing something in this Chamber, but if the reforms go ahead, we shall face challenges. Where will our time be spent?
It is wrong to say that we shall not lose time due to the proposals. We shall obviously lose time. That is what worries me.
There were several occasions when I took part in debates in my hon. Friend's name in Westminster Hall, on issues such as Gibraltar, when I had to choose between attending a Select Committee sitting or Westminster Hall. Do not all of us spend a great deal of our time choosing between different elements of our parliamentary responsibilities? Of course the day will not get shorter or longer as a result of these changes, but the important thing is to try to make it possible for the public to understand what we do in this place, and continuing until 10 o'clock at night makes little sense to them.
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point, because some might argue that it was not his choice to go to Westminster Hall but that he was instructed to go there, and that is what we all remember about those debates; so I do not think that he should get away with that quite so easily.
We do make choices as to how we allocate our time, and this debate is about those choices. We have made major changes in the House, and they have made it easier for Members. I think that 10 o'clock is the right time to end on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. There are genuine reasons for finishing earlier on a Thursday. I represent a constituency in the north-west. Whatever form of transport one chooses to take—the Virgin west coast main line, the motorways or whatever—the north-west is not the easiest place to get to in the British Isles. In fact it seems to be one of the hardest journeys to make at the moment. But it is important that we are seen to be working hard in the House on behalf of our constituents. That is so relevant and so important to them and we should not lose sight of it.
Many Members will wish to push their case and I respect every Member's views because they are all based on valid reasons, but I remind them that we represent those who work in the police and the health service, and others, who are on call 24 hours a day and work unusual hours. Have they the right to change their hours? No. They are on a contract; they are expected to work to it. They are expected to work to the hours that they are given on the rota. Surely we should respect the hours that we have put into the House, not change them to make things easier for ourselves.
We should be considering the people that work with us and the people that work in the House. I have not noticed anyone putting the case on behalf of the people who work with us and I certainly have not heard many people make a strong case about the staff that work in the House, who are very important as well. What do they wish to see coming out of this modernisation? Surely case studies of the people that work in this place should have been brought to us first instead of being presented after we have taken the decision.
I am not sure how well the hon. Gentleman treats his own staff, who work with him. I think of people as working with me, not for me; I believe that it is a team that works together, so I always find it interesting when people say Xwho work for us". We should say, Xthe team that work with me". I meet them at 9 in the morning. They go off. They do not work until 10 o'clock at night; far from it.
The danger is that pressure will be brought to bear on the staff that work with us. If Members are in Committee at 9 in the morning, when will they meet their staff? Will it be at 7, 8 or 9 o'clock at night? That is the weakness of the case that has been made by the hon. Gentleman; I should have thought better of him. Those are the people that we should start looking to. The problem is that we are always looking to what we want.
I repeat the commitment that I gave as Commissioner: that we will of course take great interest in the future of the staff, whatever decisions are taken by the House tonight.
Surely it is better to take the views of the staff first, rather than what we decide in the House tonight. At least we should be taking a more enlightened decision if we began to understand what the staff views are, because they are important. I should have expected the trade unions to submit a paper to the Leader of the House. The GMB represents some workers in the House. I do not know whether it has sent a paper to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House stating those workers' views, but I should have thought that it would have been beneficial to know what the people who make the House tick think. The great danger is that it is always about us, and the self-centredness of MPs becomes very apparent.
I did not say that; let me explain more slowly. I am serious about this, because the staff are important. There are many letters in the report, expressing many views, but they are from Members of Parliament. What I do not see is the opportunity for staff in the House to send a letter and for that to be reproduced, like our correspondence. It is a shame that we do not have the views of the staff that work here and of the unions that represent them. Those views have not become apparent to us; they certainly have not been given to us. It would have been beneficial if they had been.
Surely my hon. Friend is not arguing that members of staff should be working long hours. Surely the argument should be that we should be paying them decent wages and giving them a decent contract to work for us. It is argued that we should be pushing staff towards longer hours along with us. That is wrong, surely.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right; that is why I have raised that point. I am making the opposite argument to the one that he supposes; let me explain it in a way that we should all understand. At the moment, people who work in the House have split shifts. The great temptation will be to move to one shift. We shall then be putting pressure on staff to stay a little bit longer to accommodate the Members of the House. The danger is that we shall be extending their hours, not reducing them.
My hon. Friend is very generous in giving way. I wonder whether, among the views that he has read in the report, he read a submission by the Equal Opportunities Commission, which comments that business and industry leaders have in the past pointed out the irony of the situation whereby Ministers and other MPs speak to them about the advantages of work-life balance while current parliamentary practices make it impossible for Ministers to practise that themselves.
That is right. It is always interesting to see that we do represent one another and to note the views that are expressed. There is a widely held view that we shall be putting pressure on Ministers as well if we are not careful. If we contain the hours, some constituencies will lose the benefits of ministerial visits because Ministers will be under constraints forcing them to be in the House. That is a weakness. In ministerial terms, Lancashire seems to be the colonies of this country; it is rare for Ministers to come that far north. It will become impossible, I stress, to persuade Ministers to come that far north in future unless we have a conference there.
I associate myself with the hon. Gentleman's remarks and include Cheshire with Lancashire in that respect. I have just taken a straw poll in the Tea Room, of the staff, and they are all very much hoping that they will be able to retain the current hours, for precisely the reasons that the hon. Gentleman has so ably outlined.
I welcome that intervention. It is important that we ensure that the jobs of those people, who look after us so well, are not under threat. There is a great danger that if these proposals are approved tonight, those jobs will be under threat, and I certainly do not want to be associated with people losing their jobs.
It is always a pleasure to follow Mr. Hoyle. Many of us can concur with the common sense with which he makes his case. There is much in the proposals presented by the Leader of the House with which I can agree. I should like to mention those before coming to the ones that cause me more concern.
Pre-legislative scrutiny is most welcome, and I think that we would all like to see that extended as much as possible. The Leader of the House mentioned the tabling of questions, possibly using electronic methods. I support that, given the necessary safeguards. Technically, I cannot see why those safeguards cannot be introduced. I do not agree with the proposal that came from my hon. Friend Sir Nicholas Winterton about fingerprinting. I would not be very comfortable about handing over my fingerprints to the Conservative Whips Office. However, if we might use electronic signatures, as would happen in a business environment, to protect our security, I am sure that electronic tabling would be feasible.
I am relieved to hear that.
A test should be applied: does each of the proposals before us tonight strengthen the opportunity for Back Benchers to scrutinise and challenge what the Executive is bringing forward? Some of the proposals not only do not advance that cause, but take it further back, so I oppose them.
The first of those proposals is that on the general change to the sitting hours of the House. Many people have given reasons why they do not believe that that should take place. I do not subscribe to the idea that, somehow, out there among the wider electorate, there is the belief that changing the fact that the House of Commons sits until 10 o'clock at night will enhance turnout figures at elections or people's perception of us.
It is indicative that, in the opening statements and elsewhere, the impression has somehow already been given to people on the outside who may have no idea of parliamentary procedures that we do not have that much of importance to do in the mornings, yet we all know that we may be attending Select Committee or Standing Committee sittings, or just doing our constituency work or other work that interests us in the House.
I particularly like to use mornings to see people on a one-to-one basis. I am not a great believer in the working lunch; I would rather people came in for an hour and made their case over a cup of coffee. I prefer information to be brought to me in that way, yet the opportunity to do that would be curtailed if the House were to sit earlier. I certainly would not expect many of the organisations, charities and people who come to see me to make their case to do so in the evening after the House had risen at 7 o'clock, and I am concerned about that restriction.
I am also concerned about written statements unless they represent a genuine alternative to the planted written question. Many hon. Members have experienced the anomaly of raising with a Minister something particular to their own constituency only to find that the issue is dealt with in a planted written answer to a question asked by a Member whose constituency is hundreds of miles away and who cannot possibly have a constituency interest in the matter. If the proposal were intended to tidy that up, I would have no problem with it. That would be a very sensible move forward. However, I would be concerned if the proposal were intended to let Ministers off the hook by allowing them not to appear at the Dispatch Box to answer questions from Members of Parliament.
My hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield expanded on written questions to Ministers during his work with the Procedure Committee, and they are of genuine concern to all of us. I table named day questions, but not more than five a day. I do so because it is becoming more and more difficult to get a timely response to letters sent to Ministers on important constituency matters. One would expect the Cabinet Office rules to apply. They state that Members should receive replies from most Departments in 21 days, but I am sure that the Leader of the House will have noticed that many of us are forced to table written questions simply to chase up answers to letters sent to Departments.
I had to table such a question only last week, seeking a response to a very straightforward letter that I first sent in May to the Department of Health. I had chased that letter in June and again on
I hope that the Leader of the House will take account of that in any change to tabling questions and the way in which we can question Ministers in a written format and orally, because there is huge frustration, certainly among the Opposition, at the rather sluggardly way in which Departments respond to questions and correspondence from Members of Parliament.
Although I support in principle the changes to the sitting hours, particularly those involving the summer recess and the House returning in September—I hope that we will know whether it will be for two or three weeks—one of the reasons given for those changes is that, if there were a need to recall Parliament, there would be an obvious window of opportunity to debate urgent matters that occur during the long summer recess. However, we should look much more seriously not only at the summer recess, particularly in relation to Departments being able to handle written questions, but at the need to recall Parliament.
The proposed war against Iraq arose almost immediately at the end of the summer term this year, but I have absolutely no doubt that the House would not have been recalled if it had not been for the actions of Mr. Allen and many other colleagues who arranged for Members of the House to convene outside the House under the chairmanship of former Speaker Weatherill to debate a matter of great importance to them. I agreed to participate, and I am told that 50 per cent. of all hon. Members indicated that they would attend that meeting in Church House. That would have been a great embarrassment to the Government, as I am sure the Leader of the House would agree. Back Benchers should not be forced to go to those lengths to get the Prime Minister to ask the Speaker to reconvene the House when a matter of such national importance is before us.
Would it reassure my hon. Friend to know that the Procedure Committee may well undertake an inquiry into that matter during the next Session? We have received a number of representations, and I hope that it does not frighten the Leader of the House in any way to say that we believe that it falls within our terms of reference.
I wish to move on to matters in which I was involved in a previous incarnation that are before us again tonight: guillotines, programme motions and deferred voting. I must tell the Leader of the House that I am very concerned to hear flexibility in programme motions used as a bargaining chip. I stood at the Dispatch Box opposite Margaret Beckett when she forced programme motions and deferred voting on the House, and my clear understanding was that there would be flexibility.
We were given many assurances—they are all in the record of the House—and the Government promised in introducing those proposals that there would be automatic flexibility and that they would listen to the official Opposition in arranging programme motions for each Bill. So it is a matter of concern that, somehow, that flexibility is promised only if others are prepared to go along with other proposals before the House tonight, and I ask the Leader of the House to reflect very seriously on that. I shall regard it as a broken promise if the promise that he is now making, which was not honoured by his predecessor, is used as a bargaining chip for other matters.
I have reservations about the carry-over of incomplete Bills, and I am waiting for the Leader of the House to reassure me during his winding-up speech that that proposal will not be used just to enable the Government to push through controversial legislation that has been blocked in another place.
I do not think that the work of the House will be enhanced, or made more effective or more popular simply by changing the sitting hours of the House. It is not my intention to support the right hon. Gentleman's motion to bring forward the work of the House during the week to 11.30, but equally, for the same reason, I cannot support it beginning at 9.30 in the morning either, so I warn my right hon. Friend Mr. Forth that I shall not support his proposal.
May I begin what I hope is a short speech by referring to what was said by my hon. Friend Anne Picking, who is not in her place now, as she suggested the way forward? My hon. Friend Mr. Hoyle said that there was an element of self-indulgence in some of this, and I agree, having listened to some of the contributions so far. However, I am open to doubt about whether it is self-indulgence for the reasons that he mentioned or whether it is a question of self-importance. Should we not focus on what is effective, relevant and representative?
Listening to the views of some of my constituents, I do not believe that defending some of the traditions of the House speaks for them. When they come up to me at constituency meetings, they ask, XStephen, how often are you down there? You work through the night, do you? You are there till 10 o'clock." They do not mean, XYou're my hero, you're fantastic, what stamina you must have, I voted for you because you're a muscle man"—[Laughter.] The House has reformed its procedures over the years, as has been mentioned. My right hon. Friend Mr. Kaufman, who is no longer in his place, said that changing the practices in this place would not make us more representative. I disagree. It would make us more recognisable to the people out there whom we represent.
Some of the major changes in Parliament, such as guillotining of business, were made in the 19th century. I am sure that, in debates at the time, Members claimed that an ancient tradition of Parliament was being taken away. The then Liberal Government introduced programming motions and guillotines to deal with Irish Members—Parnell and others—who were filibustering simply to gum up business. It cannot be right that the House cannot reform itself. That is the purpose of the proposals, and I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and all those involved on bringing them forward. This may never have been a popular subject in the House, certainly among those who have served here for many years, perhaps for a good reason—perhaps a feeling of loss, because it is what they knew as lads—but I say, XGet a life, move on, let's modernise ourselves."
Sir Peter Tapsell made what was, in some senses, an entertaining speech, but it did not entertain me; nor did it entertain some of my hon. Friends. He talked about Members who spoke with distinction, and he named three people, all of whom were men.
The hon. Gentleman says that that is sexist, but sadly, the speech of the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle, which might otherwise have been considered entertaining, contained an element of sexism. It was an old-fashioned lads' speech about a lads' club that should not be changed.
The hon. Gentleman will recall that I had the privilege of listening to his extensive contribution on the Mersey Tunnels Bill recently. It was an example of a particular type of speech, which, I am glad to say, is not overused in this House. He nearly persuaded me to join him in the Lobbies on the issue of very short speeches.
I am not sure what the relevance of that intervention was.
I want to pick up on two other matters, and I shall not repeat what other Members have said. One is from personal experience—mention was made of me going to the gym. As Members may know, I broke my leg earlier this year while playing for the parliamentary football team—
The hon. Lady may be surprised to know that there are several women in the squad.
In terms of notice for oral questions, I agree that the time limit of 10 working days or two weeks should be shortened. When I was incapacitated and had to rest in my constituency, my constituents were saying seriously, XStephen, you can't go down there, you can't travel, you can't move. How can you take part?" The answer, even in the 21st century, was that I could not take part, although I could table written questions. I suggest that in these days of video links, telephone conferencing and so on—this goes beyond the recommendations, so, in some ways, I am saying that the recommendations do not go far enough—
My main point is that if we do not reform ourselves, we do not make ourselves relevant to members of the public outside. I want to argue that point particularly in relation to female representation—[Interruption.] Mrs. Browning says from a sedentary position that that is rubbish. Would she like to intervene and explain why?
Will my hon. Friend tell me how many seats there are in which the Labour party has difficulty in assembling a shortlist of candidates when there are vacancies?
Is my hon. Friend suggesting that female Members do not want to work long hours? When I became a Member of Parliament, I realised that it was much more than a job—it was a way of life. My constituents come first. We should not be trying to cram all our business into shorter hours, as we will lose out, particularly if we go ahead with the proposals for Tuesday and Wednesday nights.
Why does the right hon. Gentleman make a male chauvinist representation on all these issues? [Interruption.] I am sure that he will regard that as a compliment. The letter, from Julie Mellor, says that Members' attendance for the debate could mean
Xthe difference between allowing these important changes to take place or leaving Parliament where it is, with 19th century patterns of business and membership."
That would be a great lost opportunity to expand the representation in this Parliament.
It is a great pleasure to follow Stephen Hesford, who, I suppose, has proved why we need a time limit on speeches. I do not understand what he was going on about when he said that he was not able to speak in this place. I broke my leg in two places last week, and I am still managing to speak. It is not that difficult. I agree that the Opposition Benches are not exactly filled with retired VCs and major-generals, but we can still hop along and make a speech.
May I say to the Leader of the House that his appointment was a brilliant one? He is proving to be one of the best Leaders of the House that we have ever had. He is totally committed to this place. He loves it, as we all do. I have been here for only 19 years compared to his 30, and I will surprise him by saying that I agreed with much of what he said.
Quite a lot of myths have been expressed in the debate. We have heard some very good and amusing speeches. For example, we heard from Mr. Kaufman, and it is true that Winston Churchill made some truly tremendous speeches, but most of them were delivered when he was Prime Minister or the Leader of the Opposition, so they would not have been affected by the proposed time limit. Let us be realistic. In the 1930s, when he spoke on the Government of India Act 1935 and on other matters, he spoke to a House that was nine tenths empty.
However, I accept the right hon. Gentleman's point—I hope that the House will take it on board—that there will be occasions when a limit should not apply. For example, in a defence debate on a matter of national security it would be absurd to limit a Back-Bench speech from a former Defence Secretary to eight or 10 minutes and perhaps prevent him from making a valuable contribution based on his personal experience. Mr. Speaker and his Deputies must have discretion to allow some Members to speak at greater length.
That is a fair point. At that stage, Winston Churchill already had enormous experience, and the example underlines the point that I am making. There will be occasions when Members of particular experience should be allowed latitude.
We have all sat through debates in which the Whips have run out of the doors of the Chamber to look for people to speak to deliberately fill out the debate. Let us not delude ourselves: Parliament is not working—most of the time the Chamber is empty. There has been a flight of interest from the Chamber—and not just from the general public, but from Members of Parliament. That might be the result of our procedures or may be to do with the fact that we all have offices and televisions and many of us sit on Select Committees. That is the reality, but let us at least try to get debates that are topical and to the point and in which Members give brief résumés of what they believe. One can give a great speech in 10 minutes. How long was the Gettysburg address—three, four or five minutes? If one chooses one's language carefully, one can make a great speech.
Does the hon. Gentleman not think that in today's conditions Churchill would have been able to rise to the challenge of giving a short speech on the important topics of the day?
That is what I said. I am sure that Churchill would have done so.
I believe that the Leader of the House has generally got it right. On most occasions, for most speeches, from most Back Benchers, 10 minutes is enough. If that gives younger Members more chance to get in, that is all to the good. It is frustrating for hundreds of them—mainly those on the Government side—who can hardly ever take part in a debate.
I certainly accept the hon. Gentleman's point about short speeches, but would not time-limited speeches tend to reduce Members' willingness to take interventions? That, in itself, would limit debate. Instead of debate, we would have a series of 10-minute statements.
I have already given way three times in my speech, because I notice that the Clerk stops the clock each time that I do so. If we pass the reforms, there is the suggestion that speakers will have injury time. We should speak for 10 minutes, and the more interventions we take, the more interesting our speeches will be. If we are given injury time, that is all to the good. That suggestion is in the proposals, so I do not accept the point that time limits will lead to sterile debate.
I am normally a great admirer of the Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs—he is a superlative parliamentarian—but I did not understand his argument on sitting hours. It was not one of his better speeches. What was the point that he was trying to make? He said that, as Chairman of the Committee, he was approached by members of the press who told him that there was no point in the Committee meeting after 4 o'clock because it would not be reported. It now meets in the morning, but he suggests that the Chamber should meet in the afternoon. There is no logic to his point.
David Hencke of The Guardian came to the Public Accounts Committee and told us that, since Gladstone's time, the Committee had always met at 4 o'clock on Monday and Wednesday. Our hearings are virtually never reported, and that is the honest truth. We get plenty of reportage about our reports on the National Audit Office and of some of my comments, but our hearings are very rarely reported, because they are at 4 o'clock. David Hencke said that there was no point in our meeting at that time in the afternoon. The modern deadlines of the modern press world dictate that, unless one deals with a real item of news, what one says after 4 o'clock will never be reported.
What is the point of our being here and pretending that what we say at this time—7.36 pm—will be reported in tomorrow's national newspapers? How many Back Benchers now present have had their speeches reported recently, even in the broadsheets? The answer is precious few. It may be that even if they speak at 11 am, they will not be reported—that is probably true—but there is at least a chance that they will be.
My hon. Friend Sir Peter Tapsell gave one of his marvellously entertaining speeches. He said that we must go out and work during the day as barristers, trade union leaders, members of the regular armed forces and that sort of thing. That is great, but how many former regular Army officers, with one great exception whom we all know, sit on the Opposition Benches? How many distinguished lawyers are on our Benches? There are very few. I see a lot of retired special advisers on these Benches. I am not criticising them, but that is the reality.
There is the myth that, if we can only keep our current hours, we will draw in great talent such as captains of industry, trade union leaders and distinguished barristers. However, they are not coming here, because we do not pay them enough. They earn too much outside and do too big a job. The reason that they do not come here has nothing to do with our hours. Let us leave aside the myth, because the truth of the matter is that, sadly, the House is primarily composed of full-time professional politicians. We must dispense with the illusion that we live in the Victorian age and that we all go out during the day to get to know the real world. I wish that were true, but it is not.
Can my hon. Friend give an example of what he thinks is a model legislature or Parliament that attracts the attention, support and enthusiasm of its voters?
My right hon. Friend makes a very wise point. He is right. All over the world, interest is flying away from elected Parliaments. Whether one considers the Senate, which is non-confrontational, or the Australian Parliament, which is very confrontational, one sees that there is less and less interest. That is to do with the fact that our societies are very affluent. Certainly in the House, the two political parties are drawing closer together and there is not the great divide of class or the huge areas of poverty that there were in the past. All that is true, but it has nothing to do with the question of whether we meet at 9.30 am, 11.30 am or 2.30 pm. They are facts of life. Let us, at least, try to fight back.
We can live in the past and say that the procedures that we adopt now should remain the same as they have been for 100 years. We can give speeches of 20 or 30 minutes of very little relevance and delivered by people who do not understand the subject, who have been tapped on the shoulder by a friendly Whip and who speak in the hope that they will be promoted. We can make those speeches at 7.30 in the evening. It is all very cosy, but what does it achieve?
My hon. Friend makes it clear that he is saddened by the move to an increasing number of professional politicians, which is reflected in the proposal to sit earlier. Bearing in mind the fact that some of us have a manufacturing background, does he think that his approach will help to widen the composition of the House or merely to enshrine it, which would be the result of adopting the proposals that he seems to advocate?
That is a fair point. As someone who had a real career outside the House, my hon. Friend is an exception to the rule. I wish we were encouraging more people like him, but we are not and we must live with that reality.
I have one last point to make on Committees. There is a great myth that we used to have wonderful Standing Committees. What we actually had was loads of filibustering. We wasted 100 hours in the early weeks of a Committee. In 18 years of Labour opposition, how many Bills did they stop by using that great parliamentary power of delaying legislation? Labour Members can intervene if they like.
We used to debate Cromwell's statue. It was meaningless. We need timetabling if we are to move with the real world. However, if I support the Leader of the House to that extent, will he at least acknowledge that much of the timetabling has been draconian and that we need co-operation between the two Front Benches so that we get a decent debate? In the last Parliament, a Bill's Committee stage, Second Reading, Report and Third Reading were held on one day, which was absurd.
The Leader of the House is a genuine parliamentarian. He is trying to change the approach and to get agreement, and he is broadly doing the right thing. I support him on limiting speeches generally, on timetabling and on Parliament meeting early in the day so that there is a chance that when we speak the nation will listen.
I have been sitting here feeling deeply deprived. I go through my correspondence during the day and sit in my constituency surgeries at the weekend, and it is obvious that I have a unique, special and different electorate. I have always known that, but it has now been demonstrated. They talk to me about the laws on social security, education, housing and immigration, but somehow or other, and I cannot understand why, over the past 30 years no one has come to me and said, XI will not vote for you if you stay in the House of Commons after 10 o'clock at night." I have obviously been desperately deprived because what they say to me is, XThis is a bad law. It affects me in this way. Go and do something about it", and they expect me to go and do something about it.
I am sorry that the Leader of the House is not in the Chamber. I am sure that that has nothing to do with the fact that I have just risen to speak. I have read some of his suggestions carefully. They include:
XModernisation is about enabling MPs to do a more effective job for their constituency and for the country" and that the new Thursday working hours were a success because they enabled
Xstatements to take place in the morning when parliamentary scrutiny is more likely to influence the media agenda."
Not Members of Parliament, just the media agenda.
I have carefully scrutinised some of the gifts on offer from the Leader of the House. Sadly, I begin to detect that some of them come with slightly dubious origins and even more dubious benefits. For example, a number of radical and important changes were made in the last Parliament, every one of which had the direct effect of limiting something. Timetabling limits the opportunity of the Opposition to comment on legislation in an effective way. Timetabling of speeches limits the opportunity of Back Benchers to intervene and comment.
All those suggestions have to be considered carefully, and I ask myself one question: who benefits from the changes? Is it the House of Commons? Will we get better legislation? Where in the suggestions is there a drive to give Select Committees the right to debate their reports on the Floor of the House? Where is it suggested that Members of Parliament should have the opportunity to initiate legislation?
Members who have not been here for long—I used to hate people who said that—might not know that we had the right to initiate not just private Members' Bills, but motions to debate political subjects and to get a vote on them. Perhaps they do not understand the terrible power that has been taken away from them. On Friday we could debate important subjects and get a vote of the House. If 300 or 400 Members managed to stay here on Friday, as they did, and register their opinion on abortion, reform of the laws on homosexuality and other contentious issues important to their constituents, it was guaranteed that the Government of the day would take that seriously. They might not like it and go around exercising considerable pressure on the Members of Parliament who had registered their votes and views, but they took note of them. Now we do not have that opportunity.
Motions are not voted on. Everything that is contentious can be discussed in a debate on the Adjournment of the House. I have never worked out the socialist position on the Adjournment of the House, but I am happy to debate it at inordinate length. What I do know, however, is that that procedural change means that Members of Parliament who once had the opportunity to influence the Government have not got that chance today.
If I thought that tinkering with the hours would give Back Benchers a new power that would reinvigorate the Chamber and debate within Parliament, I would not only support my right hon. Friend but would be well ahead of him. I would be out there, drawing people into the Lobby, saying, XThis is the best thing that's ever happened." But I will not be doing that because we have to judge the suggestions against what has already happened.
When my Select Committee was grandiose and large, one half of it used the pre-selective system to look carefully at local government finance. Much detailed work went into that. Committee members spent many hours of considerable importance reading documents and talking to members of local authorities and taking evidence from them. Her Majesty's Government took about as much notice of that work as if it had been written in Greek, and I do not think that many speak Greek even in this Cabinet.
It is suggested that all legislation will be in a form that will allow us to assess its importance. We will have a huge impact and be able to change it before it comes before us as a Bill. I have to say that I am slightly unsure whether that is the case. I have also considered other suggestions and applied them to my Select Committee. The Leader of the House watched with some interest what happened when the Committee wanted to take evidence from Lord Birt and others who not only had important parts to play in the legislation that we were examining, but had influenced matters. For example, Treasury Ministers were negotiating the contracts that my Committee was considering, but we were told that we did not have the power to insist on them appearing in front of us. We were told that they were simply advisers and outwith the parliamentary system. If the motion reformed that practice, I would be way ahead of the Leader of the House.
Let us get rid of the idea that these proposals are intended to benefit the female of the species. Nothing proposed by male parliamentarians is for the benefit of the female of the species, no matter which political party those males represent. Changing the hours will do nothing to change the representation of women in this place; no artificial means will do that. We belong to a voluntary party, and the only way to get good female candidates is to persuade the people whom they want to represent that they are capable of doing the job. They have had no difficulty doing so in the past, and they will have no difficulty in future.
People say, of the change to the hours, that after seven o'clock we will be able to have a life of our own. I have never had any difficulty in having a life of my own. There are those who say, XOf course, you would be able to stay here, in the Dining Room." I remember Barbara Castle, when she retired, saying to all the assembled members of the parliamentary Labour party, XI am not going to thank you for the friendship because, to be perfectly honest, it's been a bit uneven."
The people who vote for us do so because they think that we can have an effect. It would be nice if they voted for us because of the size of our hips or the kind of accent that we have, but they do not. They vote for us because we put before them a programme with which they identify, and they expect us to keep to it and to demonstrate that any law passed in this House is workable, is responsible, is not unfair and is properly drafted. When we understand that and we prove to the people of the United Kingdom that that is really what we are doing, we will not lack support for our political institutions and we will not have difficulty finding people who want to listen to what we say.
Mr. Leigh says that Select Committees do not get any publicity if they sit in the afternoon, so they cannot do so. I have to tell him that I chair a Select Committee that has managed to get quite a lot of coverage, and it meets at half-past 4 in the afternoon. It gets publicity because we talk to people about matters that they want to know about, and we put those matters into the public domain.
I came here to create laws, not to create a nice little timetable that would enable me to try to find a hairdresser after seven o'clock at night. I came here to influence political views. If we are really serious, my Government, of all Governments, should be saying to Labour Back Benchers that in future they will give every one of us much more power to question Ministers and to insist on statements—the things that are not in these proposals. If the Government were serious about that, every Labour Member would be in the Lobby behind them.
There probably is no better example of why speeches should not be time-limited than the contribution by Mrs. Dunwoody, the Chairman of what was the Transport, Local Government and the Regions Committee when I was a member. On the other hand, having heard the efforts of Stephen Hesford, I can see that 10 minutes can be too long, and having a time limit may keep people on their feet for longer than they should be.
I wanted to speak today because I am an extraordinary person: I am somebody whose father was a Member of the House, so I speak on behalf of the children of Members. That is why I believe that there is great validity in the proposals put forward by the Leader of the House. When people accuse us of being stupid for sitting here late into the night, we have a duty to our electors to defend ourselves against those accusations and to live in the real world—I must say that I find it difficult to live in any other world. Why are we not talking about sitting until 7 o'clock on a Monday as well? We should have consistency, and I rather fear that despite all the sanctimonious comments to which I have been forced to listen throughout this debate, the congestion charge will have far more of an effect on the timetable kept to by Members than anything that is decided today.
One serious proposal is the extra day for Departments to prepare answers to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland questions so that the Government can discuss those answers with the Assemblies and the Scottish Parliament. My problem with the proposal is that, as one knows if one has ever tabled a question on a devolved matter, such questions are rejected. I am therefore curious as to why an extra day is needed for Ministers to decide whether a question is out of order and whether they will answer it. If questions on devolved issues are to be answered, I welcome the proposal, because at the end of the day it is British tax that is divided up under the Barnett formula.
May I respectfully suggest that the hon. Gentleman consider his drafting of questions? I regularly table questions on devolved matters, and I have never had a question rejected.
I suggest that the hon. Gentleman ask real questions about real issues in the Principality because he will find that it is extremely difficult to get a straight answer.
Yes it is. However, I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman can ask questions about devolved issues, and I wonder what Assembly Members think of his skills because I am sure that they fiercely defend their right to discuss devolved issues.
It is important to alter the summer recess, and I welcome the Government's suggestions for change. One of the most difficult tasks is to explain to electors why, for two and a half months in the summer, we are unable to put points to the Executive.
One criticism that I have of the proposals concerns the e-mailing of questions. The ability to table questions electronically would be a positive step, but it appears that it will not be possible to table them by e-mail. Instead there will be a special web-based formula. Why cannot we have e-mailing of questions? That is the format that most people would prefer, and we ought to have the most sensible and practical means of sending questions to the Table Office. I am also unhappy about the proposal for a fixed number of written questions for a named day because it would be constructive to have as much flexibility as we can muster.
One aspect of the operation of the House that I find most unpleasant is not tackled. I refer to the Speaker's list and the fact that one does not know when one is to be called or who will speak beforehand. The arrangements in the other House are sensible, and I wish that we would adopt them.
I shall not take my full quota of time because it is important that as many people as possible get to speak. If we could have more practical, positive and flexible opportunities, not only for Back-Bench Members but for all those who seek actively to represent their electors in the way highlighted by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich, we would do something sensible today. Unfortunately we are only tweaking the arrangements, but at least let us change them for our families.
If you will allow me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I will go straight for the jugular and tackle some of the most controversial issues.
This is not an attack on tradition—we all value tradition—and it is not change for change's sake. This debate should not be called XModernisation of the House of Commons"; its title should refer to efficiency or effectiveness. Modernisation for modernisation's sake is nothing. As parliamentarians, we should be trying to ensure that we have the culture, the environment and the framework to enable us to pass effective legislation on behalf of our constituents.
In contrast to what was said earlier by a speaker whom I greatly admire, my right hon. Friend Mr. Kaufman, I do not regard myself, in this place, as somebody who is different from others. I have always maintained that we are exactly the same as the constituents who send us here. We are here doing a job, a privileged job, as their representatives and as part of them—not as a glorified, strange species that exists in a rarefied environment—and that is how we should present ourselves.
I turn first to one of the most contentious issues: whether we should start earlier and finish at 7 pm on Tuesday and Wednesday. If amendments (a) and (c) to motion No. 6 were agreed to, that proposal would be dead in the water. Efficiency is not about how many hours in the day one works. The macho concept that the more hours one works, the more productive one is, is outdated. The Government have led the way in tackling that attitude in industry. Surely it is not beyond the skills of those in this Chamber and of the administrative and support staff to organise our day in such a way that we can effectively carry out our work and still have a home life and be rounded human beings.
Let me restate the example already given of an MP who comes in at 8 o'clock in the morning and starts by opening her mail. At 9 o'clock or 9.30, she proceeds to a Select Committee or a Standing Committee sitting. Around midday, she breaks to meet someone for a cup of coffee—albeit a working cup of coffee—followed by a working lunch with the Church Commissioners. She comes into the Chamber to listen to ministerial statements—she is working very hard indeed—then away she goes for another tranche of Committee sittings. In the evening, she has the superpower to return to the Chamber to listen to the debate, to sit on the Bench for two, three or four hours, and then to contribute a superb speech displaying an intellect that is alive and an energy that is still going after 14 hours. She will not do this on only one day; she will do it on three days. I admire her. She is an example to us all—an example of the most ludicrous way of working I have ever heard of.
The organisation, no matter how busy or self-important it is, should be able to organise its working day more efficiently. The diligent MP I mentioned might be able to boast of the long hours to her constituents and the media, but surely it would be better if she were able to justify her existence by saying XI helped to pass first-class legislation, with a clear head, unclouded by a 14-hour shift—and, by the way, I also have a balanced family life which helps me to make fully rounded decisions."
I am trying to follow the flow of my hon. Friend's argument about a balanced family life, but take my situation: my family lives in Nottinghamshire. How will the changes enhance my balanced family life?
That is a very good point, which highlights my lack of self-interest as a MP for Ogmore in Wales, a little further down the M4. I will not benefit from those changes either, but I would not deny the benefits to other MPs, and I think that their contribution will be more effective for the changes.
We must be aware that many members of the public do not believe in the fable of the hard-working MP. Instead, they believe in the fable of the old boys club, whose members include the MP who arrives late after his day job in the City.
So persuasive has my hon. Friend been that as an MP for a far-flung constituency who started her day by representing the interests of her local airport in an Adjournment debate this morning, who wants to take part in the Adjournment debate on fireworks, and who has sat here for five and a half hours waiting to be called—making one or two interventions in the meantime—I now intend to listen to his speech, but then leave the Chamber to work on preparation in my office rather than remain here to speak.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Perhaps I will answer some of the points she raises during the rest of my speech.
As I was saying, many people do not believe the fable of the hard-working MP, expecting Parliament to be an old boys club, in which the MP turns up late in the day after working in the City, shows his face in the Chamber, perhaps contributes to the debate, and then disappears. We know that that is not the truth, do we not? None the less, that is how we are perceived outside. The House of Commons has many fine traditions, but blind adherence to nonsensical long hours is not one of them. What about the tradition before 1570, when Parliament met from 8 am to noon; or the tradition dating from 1650 to 1700, when the House met at 8, 9 or 10 o'clock in the morning; or the tradition of sitting on Saturdays, which came to an end only in the 1730s, so that Sir Robert Walpole could have at least one day's hunting a week? Fine traditions all, but I am glad that we have got rid of some of them.
A survey showed that over the summer—the long summer recess—the Houses of Parliament were the No. 1 visitor attraction in the whole of the United Kingdom. I therefore welcome making Parliament more visitor friendly—a place in which my constituents might learn about the workings of the House, not just about the long tradition and the pageantry. We must change the emphasis from ancient to contemporary, from pageant to working government, and from the past to at least the present.
The hours must be changed to reflect modern working practices. That does not mean that we will clock out at 7 o'clock in the evening. I urge the Government to propose ways in which after 7 o'clock we could make constructive use of the Chamber, Westminster Hall and elsewhere in the Palace. There should be no compulsion on MPs to participate into the evening—that would fly in the face of everything I have said—but there should be scope to make use of these fine buildings and the facilities, to argue more in Adjournment debates and to bring Ministers to the House. We could win the PR battle about the old boys club operating here, but be in danger of losing the next one, which starts when the media turn around and say that the changes are all about letting MPs clock off at 7 o'clock. We need to counter that with effective proposals on how to make use of the evening.
Am I right in thinking that my hon. Friend wants to constrain the normal working day, but then create extra space for new activities? What is the value of that?
I will tell my hon. Friend what the value is. It is unbelievable to me that our organisation is supposed to represent the best in democracy, yet we cannot organise our core business to happen at times that other people recognise as the core working day. What else can we do in the evening? I can give one fine example—youth activities, with youth parliaments and young people getting involved in our democratic processes—and I am sure that our talented Ministers can produce others.
The changes will allow Parliament better to set the news agenda for the day, and I do not rubbish that, but that will not be of benefit only to the Government. It will be of benefit to the Opposition if the press have more time to digest and analyse their responses—okay, perhaps there is a flaw in my argument and that is not such a good idea, but it will give more time for the quiet man to be heard.
Amendment (d) to motion 3 suggests a more radical option of commencing at 9.30 am. I am sympathetic to that proposal, but in this tradition, at this stage, I think it is a step too far. Many hon. Members, myself included, find that the initial part of the day is useful for preparation for speeches. However, I believe that the case for an earlier start will become clear in the near future, especially if we have the evenings in which to prepare.
Amendment (b) to motion 4 proposes a twice-weekly session of topical questions. My name is on that amendment, and I welcome the fact that it is being debated on the Floor of the House, but my colleagues will excuse me if I do not support it. The Procedure Committee unanimously agreed that it should be debated, and that is right and proper, but allowing questions to be submitted with three days' notice will guarantee a far greater element of topicality than we currently have.
I am running out of time, so I will skip part of my speech. The production of a calendar a year in advance is so obviously needed that I am surprised that we are discussing it only now, in 2002. An earlier finish on Thursday would be most useful to MPs who serve constituencies further afield than the home counties—I would certainly welcome the opportunity to get back to my family a little earlier. The additional week at Christmas or Easter that I can use in my constituency will be a tremendous advantage to any modern-day MP.
The change to the summer recess has considerable advantages in terms of media and public perception. It is right that we should return earlier, then break for the conference season. It is also right that we should break a little earlier for the summer recess, which will enable me to visit schools and talk to youngsters about how my role is important to them.
I close by paying tribute to the members of the Modernisation Committee and the Procedure Committee and to all those who have contributed to the debate. To vote against the proposals would be to send a message to our constituents and the public at large that we are more concerned with tradition than with good government. To support the changes shows that the House is moving from the medieval to the modern. I commend the proposals.
Huw Irranca-Davies has given one of the most illogical speeches that I have heard this evening. He prays in aid of modernisation the practices of the past, yet in the past there was very little legislation. It is the sheer volume of legislation that we have to deal with today that dictates the hours that I believe we have to sit. With a 12-minute allowance, he said that he had to skip a number of pages of his lengthy speech, yet he argues in favour of a 10-minute allowance for speeches, which would ensure that there would be almost no debate at all.
Tonight we have heard some tremendous examples of what the House of Commons can provide. We have heard bravura performances from my hon. Friend Sir Peter Tapsell and, in his own and different way, from Mr. Hoyle, who was robust in dealing with interventions. However, we will not have any interventions if we are to have only 10-minute speeches.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the first-class speech of my hon. Friend Huw Irranca-Davies may well never have been delivered if it was not for the 12-minute limit on Back-Bench Members' speeches? That is the fact that surely every Back-Bench Member should welcome.