I have a brief statement to make to the House about today's debate. There will be a joint debate on the three motions in the name of the Leader of the House on sitting hours, connecting Parliament with the public and car mileage allowance. Mr. Speaker has selected all the amendments that have been tabled to the motion on sitting hours. A list has been distributed that also shows the order in which Questions will be put.
Under the order of the House on
The Questions will then be put on the motions on connecting Parliament with the public and on car mileage allowance.
I beg to move,
That the following Amendments to Standing Orders be made with effect from the beginning of the next Parliament:
Line 1, at beginning insert 'Subject to the provisions of
Line 1, leave out from 'Mondays' to 'o'clock' in line 3 and insert 'at half-past two o'clock, on Tuesdays and Wednesdays at half-past eleven o'clock and on Thursdays at half-past ten'.
Line 5, at end insert 'Provided that, when the House sits on a Tuesday or Wednesday which immediately follows a periodic adjournment of more than two days or is the first day of a Session, references to specific times in the Standing Orders of this House shall apply as if that day were a Monday'.
Line 16, leave out 'Tuesdays and Wednesdays and at seven' and insert 'at seven o'clock on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and at six'.
Line 4, after 'Wednesdays', insert 'beginning at half-past nine o'clock, which shall be suspended from half-past eleven o'clock until half-past two o'clock and may then continue for up to a further two and a half hours; except that if the Tuesday or Wednesday immediately follows a periodic adjournment of the House of more than two days, the sitting shall be'.
Line 8, leave out 'that period' and insert 'the periods of two and a half or three hours'.
Line 1, at beginning insert 'Subject to
Line 1, leave out paragraphs (1) and (2) and insert
'(1) Unless the House otherwise orders, the House shall not sit on any Friday other than those on which private Members' bills have precedence.'.
Line 7, leave out 'each of the Fridays so appointed' and insert 'a Friday on which the House is not sitting'.
Line 13, leave out 'so appointed' and insert 'on which the House does not sit'.
Line 20, leave out 'Tuesday or Wednesday or four' and insert ', four o'clock on Tuesday or Wednesday or three'.
Line 23, leave out from 'at' to 'and' in line 25 and insert 'the hour specified in sub-paragraph (i) above'.
Line 32, leave out 'or four' and insert ', four o'clock or three'.
Line 23, leave out 'Tuesday or Wednesday or eight' and insert 'eight o'clock on Tuesday or Wednesday or seven'.
Line 3, leave out 'Tuesday or Wednesday or half-past eight' and insert 'half-past eight o'clock on Tuesday or Wednesday or half-past seven'.
Line 5, leave out from 'at' to 'the' in line 7 and insert 'that hour'.
Line 20, leave out from 'resumed' to 'but' in line 22 and insert 'less than half an hour before the time specified in paragraph (1) of this order,',
Line 28, leave out 'Tuesday or Wednesday or four' and insert 'four o'clock on any specified Tuesday or Wednesday or three'.
Line 38, leave out 'or four' and insert ', four o'clock or three'.
Line 24, leave out 'Tuesday or Wednesday or four' and insert 'four o'clock if it is a Tuesday or Wednesday or three'.
Line 29, leave out 'Tuesday or Wednesday or half-past ten' and insert 'half-past ten o'clock on a Tuesday or Wednesday or half-past nine'.
Line 55, leave out 'or four' and insert ', four o'clock or three'.
Lines 38 and 45, leave out 'three' and insert 'twelve'.
Line 18, leave out 'Tuesday or Wednesday or four' and insert 'four o'clock on Tuesday or Wednesday or three'.
Line 23, leave out from 'at' to 'and' in line 25 and insert 'the hour specified in sub-paragraph (a) above'.
Line 27, leave out 'or four' and insert ', four o'clock or three'.
Line 5, leave out 'ten o'clock (or on Thursday, seven o'clock)' and insert 'the moment of interruption'.
Line 15, at end insert ', four o'clock or three o'clock'.
Line 13, leave out from 'Mondays' to second 'in' in line 15 and insert 'between the hours of twenty-five minutes past eleven o'clock in the morning and half-past one o'clock in the afternoon on Tuesdays or Wednesdays or between the hours of twenty-five minutes past ten o'clock in the morning and half-past twelve o'clock'.
Line 20, leave out 'or'.
Line 21, after 'o'clock', insert 'or twenty-five minutes past ten o'clock'.
Line 45, leave out from 'at' to the end of line 48 and insert 'the time specified in paragraph (2) of
Line 44, leave out from 'at' to the end of line 47 and insert 'the time specified in paragraph (2) of
Line 57, leave out from 'at' to end of line 60 and insert 'the time specified in paragraph (2) of
We have three motions before us: on sitting hours, connecting Parliament with the public and phasing in the lower car mileage allowance, tabled at the request of the Members Estimate Committee.
First, I shall deal with sitting hours. The House agreed to our current hours in October 2002 by a narrow margin. Many Members have always been strongly opposed to the change and others have not liked how it has worked in practice. It was my aim as Leader of the Commons to try to find a consensus, and in the past 18 months the Modernisation Committee has taken extensive evidence from Members of Parliament, parliamentary staff and other interested groups such as the Lobby journalists. We were also helped by the Procedure Committee's survey last spring and I am grateful for that. However, no consensus was achievable. Opinion remains divided, with the principal point of difference being the hours on Tuesday.
The motion is in line with the Modernisation Committee's recommendation. It looks discouragingly complex, but its purpose is simple: to make permanent our current hours on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday, to bring forward the start of the sitting to 10.30 am on Thursday and to allow Standing Committees to sit an hour earlier in the afternoon. An explanatory memorandum, which sets out exactly how Standing Orders would be changed, has been made available.
My hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House has tabled amendments to the motion, which would return Tuesday to the old hours—2.30 pm to 10 pm—as on Monday. Those amendments have been tabled to assist the House to come to a clear decision, but both the Deputy Leader and I shall vote against them.
I believe strongly that the package recommended by the Modernisation Committee represents the best way forward. It maintains our new hours, while addressing the widespread concerns about the compression of the working week.
I am most grateful to the Leader of the House for giving way at this early state. I hope that, in the course of his remarks, he will give us his assessment of how he believes the new hours have enhanced the role of Parliament and the House of Commons, especially vis-à-vis the Government. Those assessments would be useful.
I shall happily give the right hon. Gentleman my assessment now, since he has asked me. The House has worked harder since the new hours were introduced. More scrutiny takes place.
Let me give him the figures. In 2002, the last year of the old hours, the House sat for 1,176 hours in 150 days. In 2003, the first year of the new hours, the House sat for 1,206 hours in 153 days. It sat for longer and there was more time to hold the Government to account. In 2004, the House sat for even longer—1,239 hours.
No, I should like to finish the point because Mr. Forth has asked for the facts and I am providing them.
In addition, Select Committees also worked harder. Their meetings increased from 1,037 to 1,312 in the period that I outlined. The number of Committee reports increased from 201 to 232. Hansard shows Commons activity increasing under the new hours. Its length increased from 159 to 165 pages per day after the new hours were introduced. The new sitting hours therefore provide more opportunity for scrutiny and for the House to hold the Government to account.
Does the Leader of the House realise that what matters is the time available to cover the amount of legislation that the Government introduce? Although there may have been a few extra hours here and there, there has been a tidal wave of legislation. I do not necessarily mean the number of Acts of Parliament; I mean the number of pages in legislation, as the House of Lords Committee made clear last year.
I agree with my hon. Friend. If Mr. Heald is making a point about programming, as he habitually does, I point out that we held a debate on that late last year and decided the matter. We are now debating sitting hours.
The opponents of the new hours are confounded by the facts. The House sat for longer and had more chance to question Ministers and hold the Government to account under the new hours.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the robust case that he is making. Will he spell out to the House that we have the flexibility to sit for longer precisely because of the earlier hours? I understand that we are unlikely to finish voting today until between 8.30 pm and 9 pm. Would my right hon. Friend care to remind hon. Members that, under the old hours, that would mean finishing voting between 11.30 pm and midnight, which is an unattractive time to go home by public transport in London?
I agree with my right hon. Friend, whose distinguished period as Leader of the Commons saw the major reform of moving towards more modern hours. He is right that if we added an extra couple of hours to a 10 o'clock finish this evening, we would be up until midnight and perhaps beyond. Is that a good time for Members of Parliament to decide the laws of the land?
I do not believe that our constituents think that we should make the laws of the land when absolutely knackered in the middle of the night.
A question arises about the quality of activity during the sitting hours. I have just had to make a hard choice. I was in the Chamber for the statement and so I have had to choose between having lunch and listening to the Leader of the House. I believe that I made the right choice, but I put my head in the Tea Room and saw that scores of his colleagues and mine had decided to have lunch rather than listen to him. Would not it be nice if we could both eat and listen to the opening speeches in major debates?
I hear mutters of "Bring a packed lunch", but I believe that that is against the rules of the House. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman made the right choice. He would have a far healthier existence if he had lunch rather than listened to me. We are considering a substantive point, not when one can grab lunch. Members of Parliament always find it difficult to grab lunch if they are busy.
I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman, but I want to make progress because there is a time limit on speeches and I therefore want to limit mine so that others can get in.
May I ask the Leader of the House for clarification? He has quoted a statistic relating to Hansard—the Official Report—stating that it now contains more pages. Was he including reports of the sittings in Westminster Hall in those calculations? It is important to accept that we now have a complementary Chamber that often holds debates at the same time as those in this House. Hansard will therefore inevitably have more pages, because it records Westminster Hall as well as the Chamber of the House.
Westminster Hall is part of the scrutiny to which we subject Ministers—[Hon. Members: "Ah!"] It is. However, I can say to the hon. Gentleman that the figures that I gave the House exclude written questions. This is about the debating time on the Floor of the House.
Surely the answer that the Leader of the House gave to my hon. Friend Sir Nicholas Winterton was slightly disingenuous. After all, there are no votes in Westminster Hall on any matter at any time, and all the debates there are either Adjournment debates or examinations of Select Committee reports. That is not holding the Government to account. This is a smokescreen that the Government have put up to disguise their contempt for this Chamber.
I am sorry, but, distinguished parliamentarian though the hon. Gentleman is, I have to refute that fully.
The truth is that, under this Government and under the new sitting hours, we have seen increased sitting times, a greater opportunity for Back-Bench Members to make their case to a Minister in Westminster Hall, and greater Select Committee activity. Furthermore, the Prime Minister has made more statements to the House, thereby being held accountable to it, than his predecessor, and we have established a procedure whereby he can be questioned regularly by the Liaison Committee. That all adds up to considerably more scrutiny. However, the issue that we are discussing today is the opportunity for the House to have more modern sitting hours.
May I endorse what the Leader of the House said about Westminster Hall? The important thing is that Select Committee reports are now debated, and Members—not only those on the Committee in question—are able to take part in those debates. Under the previous Conservative Administration, those reports simply gathered dust on shelves.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for endorsing the central point that I am making. Over the past few years, we have had the great advantage of sitting in more modern conditions and—as I want to discuss in a moment, if I am allowed to get there—implementing the modernisation of the House, in common with the modernisation of the conditions of other public sector workers and others elsewhere, that the House has voted for. In addition, as my right hon. Friend points out, there is now a greater opportunity for Select Committee reports to be debated in Westminster Hall and for Ministers to be present at those debates. That enhances the scrutiny and the excellent work of the Select Committees.
Does the Leader of the House agree that attempts to ridicule his figures by citing Westminster Hall carry no weight whatever? The figures show an increase in activity from 2002 to 2003 to 2004—this spans a period before the change in hours and the period after it—but Westminster Hall has been successfully in existence since 1999, so the arguments from the Conservative Benches carry no weight whatever, either in logic or in fact.
My hon. Friend makes his point very well. The right hon. and hon. Gentlemen on the Conservative Benches seem to be saying, "Don't confuse us with the facts". I am presenting the facts. They might take a different view from mine on sitting on Tuesday evenings, and they are entitled to do so. I respect their sincerity and their different view of how this Chamber should operate. However, they cannot advocate a change back to the old hours by saying that the Commons has worked less hard under the new ones. On the contrary, we are working harder.
I am sorry, but on this matter I am a traditionalist. The present system has its advantages. For example, as a Cabinet Minister, colleagues bump into me regularly in the Lobby during Divisions, which provides me with an opportunity to be nobbled and for representations to be made to me.
By sitting an hour earlier on Thursday, we will make it again a day on which major business can be scheduled, re-balancing the working week while ensuring that whipped business ends early enough for Members to get to their constituencies on Thursday night. The amendment tabled by my hon. Friend Mr. Donohoe would have the effect of deferring almost all divisions after 6 pm on a Thursday. I understand the reasons for this, and I have discussed the matter with him. Members, particularly those with distant constituencies such as his should be able to get away promptly after 6 o'clock. I am very sympathetic to that, which is why we brought forward the finishing time on a Thursday to 6 o'clock in the first place. As a business manager, I shall be mindful of this issue when planning the business for a Thursday, and I am grateful to him for reminding me of it.
However, the amendment would mean that decisions on major business—including Second Reading debates on Bills—could be unresolved for almost a week. I am sure that none of us would find that satisfactory. Let us take as an example a key debate of the kind that has dominated the House over the past couple of years, such as that on Iraq or that on student fees. Under my hon. Friend's proposal, we could have had a situation in which a reasoned amendment was decided on, but nobody knew the outcome, because that amendment might not have attracted the same vote that had gone into the Lobby on the main motion. It would not be right for the House to leave a major decision such as that unresolved. I hope that my hon. Friend will not press his amendment to a vote today but, if he does, I must urge the House to reject it.
Surely it is for the Leader of the House and the business managers to ensure that business of that nature is not taken on a Thursday. In that way, what I propose could well take place. This would allow people to get away at 6 o'clock. It would also allow meetings to take place and people would know that they could attend them.
I understand my hon. Friend's point. I am with him in not wanting delays long after 6 o'clock that would prevent people from catching trains or planes to get them back to the north of England, Scotland, the far west of England or wherever. As business managers, we shall endeavour to stop that happening, but his request would leave me unable to table major legislative business or to take Opposition day debates on a Thursday. Effectively, that would mean that the House was not working a full working week. I am seeking, with widespread support from across the House, to have not only Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday but Thursday as a day on which most, if not all, Members can be present to deal with what is invariably whipped business. My hon. Friend's point is a powerful one, but in scheduling that business, we need to be aware of the need of many Members to get away.
The amendments tabled by Sir Patrick Cormack would have the effect of keeping the starting time on Thursday at 11.30. However, it was the central recommendation in the Modernisation Committee's report that Thursday should be restored to a full sitting day, ensuring that we have a full four-day parliamentary week. I urge the House to reject those amendments.
I understand and respect the strong feelings of Members who want to change back to the old hours; I know that those views are sincerely held. However, this House has consistently voted for the modernisation of working practices right across the public sector, and we would look very odd if, after only a two-year trial, we reverted to hours designed to suit the lifestyles of our Victorian predecessors, when Members of Parliament were unpaid and could attend only in the evenings because they were earning a living during the day. I would find it difficult to explain to my constituents why we had gone back to making law in the middle of the night. Everybody knows that a Parliament of today would not have started with the sitting hours of yesterday. The House is already competing for attention in an era of 24-hour news and instant communication. It would look old-fashioned if we were to go back to the pattern of evening working that existed before radio and television.
Given that we now have 24-hour news, which we did not have when the old sitting arrangements applied, surely it does not matter if we debate all through the night. The 24-hour news gatherers will be there to receive what we have to offer.
On that logic, we would be sitting on Christmas day as well.
Be my guest!
I strongly urge Members on both sides of the House to join me in voting against the amendments and for the sitting hours motion as it stands.
The next motion before us, on connecting Parliament with the public, is also intended to address the lack of engagement with the parliamentary process felt by many of our constituents. The House should make itself more accessible, make it easier for people to understand the work of Parliament and do much more to communicate its activity to the general public. Much good work goes on already, but much more needs to be done.
I hope that the House will agree to give authority to the House of Commons Commission to take forward some key recommendations made in the Modernisation Committee report last year, in particular the proposal for a guide for first-time voters from the House to provide information about Parliament, why it matters, how to vote and so on.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that one area of good work is that being done by our own parliamentary education unit and that the challenge that we face is to replicate in the rest of the country what it does so well in the House? That means improving the website and the unit's relationship with local education authorities so that that same work can be done away from Westminster.
I very much endorse my hon. Friend's point. The evidence that we took on the matter in the Modernisation Committee made it absolutely clear to us that not enough is being done, despite the new citizenship element in the school curriculum, to explain how parliamentary democracy works and make it part of youngsters' education. The LEAs were simply not being linked to the work of the excellent education unit. We want to address that.
We also went to the National Assembly for Wales and found not only that its education unit is doing much more imaginative work with young people coming into the Assembly—we saw some of that work in action—but that it has a roadshow that goes out of the Assembly and into schools, making regular efforts to try to connect with young people and educate them about the Assembly. If that can be done in Wales, we should do it across the United Kingdom.
I voted against the change when it was introduced by a previous Leader of the House, but I have changed my mind and will today support the motions tabled by this Leader of the House. One of the downsides of the new sitting hours is that our constituents no longer get the opportunity to come down and do a tour of the House of Commons on Tuesday or Wednesday mornings because the House is sitting, which makes it more difficult. Has he therefore taken any further forward the possibility of ensuring that the building is open at weekends so that visitors can see the place then?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point—I, too, have a constituency remote from Westminster—which I have discussed with the Officer of the House who leads on these matters. He has an imaginative strategy for attracting more visitors, including from schools, to the House. We shall consider the hon. Gentleman's point.
I echo the point made by Mr. McLoughlin. My constituents in Wrexham used to be able to come down, have a tour of the House, see it working in the afternoon and go back home, all on the same day. The 2001 changes have prevented that from happening, substantially diminishing my constituents' contact with the House.
My hon. Friend's constituents, like mine, still have the opportunity to do that on Mondays. That is an important point. One point that I have discussed with Officers of the House—I think there is an understanding about this; I certainly hope so—is the fact that Members of Parliament such as my hon. Friend and, as it happens, me who are in the same situation should be given at least some priority on Mondays. Those who live nearer Westminster should perhaps be encouraged to apply to undertake such visits on Tuesdays, Wednesdays or Thursdays.
Done seriously and done effectively, I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman, as a good parliamentary democrat, would welcome young people seeing at first hand through our excellent officials in the education unit how Parliament works, why it is so important and what their rights and duties are.
I have tabled the motion on the car mileage allowance at the request of the Members Estimate Committee, with the support of members of the Committee from all parties. The report of the Members Estimate Committee sets out the background and an explanatory memorandum has been made available.
The Committee is very conscious of the considerable concern among Members about the abrupt implementation of the sharp reduction in the car mileage allowance, which we agreed last November. As Chairman, Mr. Speaker therefore wrote to me to ask that I table a motion before the House to enable Members to determine whether they favour not altering the decision, but phasing in the new arrangements over the next Parliament—an opportunity that they did not have in November—and to decide the appropriate mileage threshold used in determining the rate payable. I have done so. This is a House matter and it is right that the House should have an opportunity to decide.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are already making a considerable saving for the taxpayer, given the decision we made last November. That saving will start from the original implementation date of
I return to the principal motion. I urge Members to join me in voting for the motion on the sitting hours to implement the proposals recommended by the Modernisation Committee. I hope that Members will not vote for the Tuesday amendments, as I believe that that would be, and would be seen to be in the country, a significant step backwards. It is for the House to decide. Whatever the decision this afternoon, we must accept it as the settled will of the House. I commend the motion.
As the Leader of the House said, today's debate is not about the most important issue we face involving sitting hours, which is the lack of time given for the scrutiny of legislation as a result of the Government's routine guillotining of our business and the fact that they now expect the Opposition to play the role of humble supplicants begging them for sufficient time to do our job of scrutinising their Bills and opposing their policies. The so-called programming of legislation is not done by agreement. It is imposed, and it is wrong.
Although I am about to express views about our sitting times, I think it only right to set the debate in its proper context. What the Government have done in rationing and starving us of the time needed to do our most important job of making the law is a disgrace. Today's proposals will not affect the overall time available to consider Bills and hold the Government to account.
The House will decide on the question of the sitting hours on a free vote. I accept that, for some Members, this is totemic—a battle involving modernity and family-friendly hours. Those of us who take a different view are sometimes portrayed as traditionalists, longing for a return to jolly times in the Strangers Bar or the Smoking Room in the evening, but the truth is that that caricature is untrue and for most of us the issue is how to do the job well and fit everything into the limited time that is now available.
In Britain today, there are no normal working hours. Only about a third of people work nine-to-five and most professional people expect to have to work in the evening at least a couple of times a week: lawyers expect to prepare their cases and teachers expect to do their marking. It is not unusual to have to work in the evenings. In fact, it is quite hard to think of a professional job in which someone can expect their evenings off.
With the House sitting in the morning every day except Monday, there is increased pressure on time as we try to fit everything into a shorter period. That is particularly bad on Tuesdays, which is a day full of Committee sittings, all-party group meetings, lobbies and constituents' visits. At the same time, the House and Westminster Hall are sitting. I shall give some examples involving what happened yesterday.
Is it not the case that the House is sitting not shorter hours, but different hours? The day has been pulled forward by three hours, so we can do the same amount of work. If the hon. Gentleman is about to complain about bunching on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, the solution is in the report of the Modernisation Committee, on which he sat. It is that there should be a full day for debates on Thursdays.
As the hon. Lady knows, I am very supportive of the change on Thursdays, which I will come to in a moment, but she is missing a point. I fully accept that the hours of sitting are the same and there is no disagreement between us on that. The point is, however, that whereas under the old hours it was possible to complete one's Committee work and still be in the Chamber for most of the debate, under the current hours it is not. That is why the Chamber is empty on Tuesdays, as I am about to explain.
If we take yesterday as an example, in the morning, 200 Members from all parties were involved in Standing Committees, Select Committees, all-party groups and the busy programme in Westminster Hall. In the afternoon, 350 Members were engaged in Committee activities and all-party groups. In addition, MPs' private meetings were booked in the W Rooms and elsewhere in the Buildings. We know that there are 59 Cabinet Committees, although we are never told when they sit, but I bet that some of them are on Tuesdays. If we add to that external meetings, launches by all parties, particularly in this busy period, lobbies, constituents visiting Members, constituency correspondence, necessary telephone calls and all the rest, the fact is that there is a great deal of bunching, clashing and difficulty on a Tuesday. At one time, one could finish Committee, hope to have lunch and still go to the debate, or finish Committee in the afternoon and hope to catch most of the debate in the main Chamber, now one cannot.
The Procedure Committee questionnaire prompted a good response. It showed that less than a third of Members, 31 per cent., said that they wanted to keep the current Tuesday hours. More than half, 52 per cent., wanted to return to 2.30 to 10. Thirteen per cent. wanted a very long day starting at 11.30 and ending with business after 7. Overall, 65 per cent. wanted the House to sit on Tuesday evenings. The same was not true for Wednesdays and Thursdays, when morning sittings were considered more useful, and of course, normally, no Standing Committees sit on Wednesdays.
To request three days of the week when the House sits in the mornings, and two days when it does not, is not unreasonable. It is not a request for a return to old hours but a call for a balanced week.
Surely what the hon. Gentleman's list demonstrates is that all MPs have many demands on their time. To suggest that all MPs want to be in the Chamber all the time is complete nonsense. Most MPs follow particular issues and come into the Chamber at the relevant time. The real issue is how MPs manage their time. The fact is that lots of MPs do not feel that they should have to stay here till 10 o'clock at night because other MPs cannot manage their time.
Of course, all Members have the opportunity to say what they want in relation to their week. It may well be that different Members of Parliament run their lives in different ways, and that is entirely legitimate. My view, however, is that there is a great deal of clashing of commitments on Tuesdays, which makes life difficult for colleagues. Many people would like to be able to attend more of the main debate in the Chamber on a Tuesday. After all, some of the most important business is often taken on a Tuesday, as it is one of the days that attracts the main debates.
The other point is that the times at which we have votes as a result of the Tuesday hours also interfere with the work of Committees.
The hon. Gentleman gave statistics a few moments ago about people who wanted a return to the old hours on Tuesdays. Will he accept that one statistic that he did not mention is that quite a large number of Members said that they would like to take unwhipped business after 7 o'clock on a Tuesday, such as private Member's Bills? I know that the report clearly identifies that the issue of private Members' Bills will have to be considered in the next Parliament, which I fully accept. That is different, however, from saying that we want to return to the old system of taking three-line Whip business until 10 o'clock. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said, on some occasions, particularly near the end of the Session, people moan because we go on after 7 o'clock
If, as the hon. Gentleman says, Members take the view that they want to take unwhipped business after 7 o'clock, they ought to vote for the Deputy Leader of the House's motion. The reason for that is that if one votes for the Leader of the House's motion, one is stuck with a firm cut-off at 7 o'clock.
If I may continue on the Procedure Committee's responses to the questionnaires, the reasons that were given by Members for favouring evening sittings on Tuesday were well thought-through. They were not just, "Let's return to jolly evenings in the Smoking Room". The first and foremost reason was that there would be fewer clashes between House, Committee and other meetings, which was raised by 165 Members. The second reason was that there should be more time during office hours for constituency work and to respond to telephone calls, which was raised by 156 Members. The third was that there should be less concentration of meetings, which was raised by 132 Members. The fourth was that it would make more effective use of the parliamentary day and allow more visitors' tours. Other reasons given included improving the collegiate atmosphere, but those attracted little support. The main reasons related to how to do this difficult job well.
Is not the main issue that Members of Parliament now have increased resources to manage their constituency and parliamentary business, with secretaries in their offices to answer the telephone and pagers to receive those telephone messages, and what they are asking for is the choice to manage their parliamentary and constituency life successfully within normal working hours, so that they have the evenings to work, not work, or attend other meetings, political or otherwise, as they see fit? That choice will allow them to become real people and to manage their working lives like other professionals that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned.
The hon. Lady has her viewpoint, but I remember talking to my right hon. Friend Mr. Forth about how useful the telephone can be, and how one can use it to speak to constituents who have a difficult problem. One can solve a lot of problems on the telephone. I recommend it to the hon. Lady—it is good to talk.
Some of the best evidence that the Modernisation Committee heard on this issue was striking. I have never supported anything other than the return of the Tuesday hours, and some of us were not keen for the Modernisation Committee to lecture the House about what ought to happen on Tuesdays. Some votes were taken, which were recorded in the report and which my hon. Friend will have seen, to the effect that the House should not be lectured, particularly in circumstances in which two thirds of the House want to sit on Tuesday evenings. To have the Modernisation Committee telling us that we are all wrong, as if we are children or foolish, is just not right. As my hon. Friend Sir Patrick Cormack said, however, there is no one quite like the Foreign Secretary when it comes to explaining why Tuesday evenings should return.
Will the hon. Gentleman agree that apart from the surprise of hearing that Mr. Forth has embraced new technology, this debate is not helped by trying to determine whether there are clashes, whichever shape of hours we get? I remember finding—when, some time ago, the House sat late every night—that I had to be in four places at once, dealing with official business.
Unfortunately she was not a Member at the time, so she could not have helped me out.
Clashes are not the issue, especially as we have introduced Westminster Hall sittings, and more events that improve ministerial accountability to Parliament are going on at the same time. Clashes will occur regardless of the shape of our sitting hours. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that they do not provide a good enough reason for us to return to late-night sittings?
I believe that it used to be possible to spread out the day better, especially on Tuesday, which I think is the busiest day. All the most difficult debates take place on Tuesday or Wednesday, and Tuesdays attract a great many Committee meetings. [Interruption.] The Leader of the House asks, sotto voce, why we do not want to return to the old hours on Wednesdays. Wednesdays do not involve the Standing Committee work load. Yesterday was an example of a day with a very heavy Standing Committee work load.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, the parliamentary Labour party switched its meetings from Wednesday mornings to Monday evenings for a variety of reasons. One was because it wanted to encourage Select Committees to make more use of Wednesday mornings, so that members of both Select and Standing Committees would not find that their meetings clashed as they sometimes do now. I would encourage Select Committees to take that Wednesday morning opportunity, and in that case the hon. Gentleman's argument would not stand.
May I pray in aid the Procedure Committee's questionnaire? It shows that Members did not feel the same about Wednesdays as they did about Tuesdays. Perhaps the Leader of the House sees no difference between Tuesdays and Wednesdays, but a wide trawl of Members of Parliament revealed that for them it was a serious issue. Tuesdays were different.
I would like to lay the myth that everyone who comes here has always worked from nine till five before. My constituents keep the public services going by the 24-hour clock. I worked two nights a week when my children were little, and I thought that those were normal hours.
In fact, the parliamentary Labour party's committee stopped meeting on Wednesdays because no one was attending. Attendance is much better since we started meeting on Mondays.
A PLP meeting is such an exciting event that it must have been the clashes that stopped Members attending.
I agree that we should start at 10.30 am on Thursdays. That would enable us to have a full day's business, which is not currently possible on Thursdays. We would be able to have Opposition days, as the Leader of the House pointed out, and also Second Reading debates. What this debate boils down to, however, is whether we should return to our former hours on Tuesdays.
I do not think that we should deliberately try to create a stressful pattern of life for Members of Parliament. I am not necessarily one to pray in aid the views of psychologists, but it has been suggested that the new hours on Tuesdays are more psychologically stressful than the old hours. [Laughter.] No, no, this is true. In April, in a paper to the annual conference of the British Psychological Society, a Dr. Weinberg reported that a serious study by psychologists at Salford and Lancaster universities had found an increase in symptoms of stress among Members following the introduction of the reforms, and had concluded that the reforms were not working. The amount of stress reported was related to the amount of work that we had to do, and the difficulty involved in juggling demands. On
"the researchers now think the way to make most MPs happy may be a compromise between the new and old rules".
That is what I support.
It is not, of course, up to psychologists to tell us how to lead our lives, but surely new Labour would listen to the British Psychological Society.
Unless Members live very close to London, if they leave the House at 7.15 or 7.30 pm on a Tuesday or a Wednesday, by the time they arrive home—unless their journeys are very short—young children are asleep in bed. Then in the morning they must leave too early to do the school run. The "family-friendly" argument does not hold water. Does my hon. Friend agree with that?
Yes, I do. Obviously how serious that is depends on where Members live. It would never be possible for Members based in the north of England, in Scotland or further west to get home in the evenings anyway. My children are all grown up, but if they were young it would not be possible for me to get home to north Hertfordshire in time to see them before bed—or even in the mornings, because I would have to get up too early in order to be here for my 8 am meetings.
Before he leaves the point about psychologists, could the hon. Gentleman tell us precisely how the causal connection is established? Might it not be that some Members find life more stressful because when they are in their constituencies they recognise that they no longer have safe seats?
"there is an increase in anxiety and fatigue and a tendency to perspire because of nervousness."
Let me respond to the hon. Gentleman's point. Of course we cannot make an exact causal connection, and I would never claim to be a psychologist or to know much about the subject; but I thought it right to present the House with evidence from a serious paper from the British Psychological Society, because I think that we should take account of stress and similar issues. There is a big demonstration in Portcullis House today. It is to do with body mass, stress and so forth, so obviously such matters are important.
May I return to the subject of family-friendly hours? Many Members live much too far away to visit their families, whatever our sitting hours, but is it right to deny those who live near London the option of doing so?
That is why we are having a free vote. If the hon. Lady and I got on a train at 8.45 pm to return to Royston and Cambridge, we would not arrive home in time to see our children, if they were young. Indeed, it would make life very difficult to do that every night, as I am sure the hon. Lady does not. Of course she would become much fitter, because she would be cycling home every day rather than twice a week.
I think that I had better make some progress.
The change to the old hours on Tuesdays would give Members more time to spend on constituents and their problems, by means of both correspondence and telephone, and when lobby groups visited they would have more opportunities to meet Members. Another non-sitting morning on Tuesday would allow more school parties to visit the House, particularly from further away.
I think that many Members do value the social contacts that still take place on Monday evenings, and which ensure that a Member knows other Members in both his or her parties. That has always facilitated the work of the House. The Whips probably worry about it, because it has led to many an all-party campaign, but a number of us would welcome the extension of the Monday hours to Tuesdays.
Whatever the future of Tuesday sittings, I hope that the decision will be made on the basis of what is in the national interest—allowing Members to do the job as well as possible—rather than what is convenient for individual Members. I believe that it would be better to allow more time on Tuesdays for all the tasks that are now required in the lives of busy Members of Parliament.
I rise to support amendment (a), which stands in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House. I will try to stay within the 10-minute rule, rather than be pulled up at the end, so I will make just a few remarks.
It seems that we have set out on a journey. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House on a genuine effort to see whether consensus could be forged. The only criticism I make is that, having found out where that consensus was, the Modernisation Committee made a recommendation locating it somewhere else entirely. There is a consensus—it is just not one that the Committee agrees with. The Procedure Committee report more fully and accurately reflected where the consensus lies. I have signed the amendments that, with lead amendment (a), would restore Tuesday sittings to a 10 o'clock finish.
I have made it clear that I will not give way to my hon. Friend. The reason is—I hope that she will have the opportunity to catch your eye later, Mr. Deputy Speaker—that when one has only 10 minutes to make a serious case, there is not time to give way. Although whenever I speak I try to be generous, on this occasion, I am not going to be.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Can you confirm for the benefit of the House and the hon. Gentleman that we now have provision for what we call injury time, which allows and indeed encourages the taking of interventions, even during time-limited speeches?
The right hon. Gentleman is perfectly correct, but equally, it is up to each hon. Member whether to give way, mindful of the fact that a 10-minute limit can become an 11, 12 or 13-minute limit.
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend, with whom I have discussed this issue on many occasions. Does he agree that many of the hon. Members who will vote to revert to the old hours on Tuesday—particularly Opposition Members perhaps, but also many Labour Members—would never have supported the setting up of the Modernisation Committee to instigate the many reforms that it has instigated in Parliament since I have been here?
I have discussed these matters with my hon. Friend on many occasions, as she says, and we have been friends for many years. However, that intervention only confirms me in my view that I should not have bothered to allow an intervention in the first place.
My hon. Friend Mrs. Campbell intervened on Mr. Heald on the issue of family-friendly hours. For someone such as me, whose family is 200 miles away, these are not family-friendly hours. It would be impossible for me to commute back home to Knowsley from Westminster regularly. Hours could never have been family-friendly for me. However, I accept her point. It is not for me to decide what is family-friendly for someone else. Those who choose to base themselves in London will have a different take on what is family-friendly. It is a neutral argument whether the hours are or are not family-friendly. It depends on individual circumstances. We should be working towards what is in the best interests of conducting the business of the House in the best way possible. We should not be bothering ourselves too much with the argument about family-friendly hours, because those will vary from family to family and Member to Member.
The original report that brought about change argued that the reforms would bring us closer to the public. Like most hon. Members, I keep a fairly careful eye on opinion polls. I do not necessarily change my views in accordance with the polls but it is important to know what people are thinking. In the two years or so since these reforms have been implemented, I have not noticed a huge outpouring of public affection for the people's elected representatives, whichever party they represent. If anything, if I am to judge by opinion polls and what we read in the newspapers, all of us—some more than others—are more unpopular than we were two years ago. If that was the objective, it seems that we have not satisfactorily met it.
The other argument, which I have always found a bit strange, was that our constituents expect us, like them, to work normal hours. My hon. Friend Mrs. Mahon, for whom I have huge affection, not only because of her contribution in the House but because of the wisdom that she brings to almost all arguments, made the point that in her working life that never was the case. When I do surgeries on Friday evenings, as I am sure many other hon. Members do, never once has a constituent said to me, "What are you doing here at 9 o'clock at night doing a surgery with us? We expect you to work normal hours." In fact, sometimes they queue up until half-past 9 to see me. Never once do they say, "We don't think it's very good that you are working these long hours to try to resolve our problems."
The same applies to Saturday mornings. When I help to open the new Northwood community centre on Saturday—the money was provided by a Labour Government—no one will be coming up to me and saying, "You shouldn't be here at the opening of this community centre. We expect you to be at home having a good rest after your efforts in Westminster on our behalf last week." So that argument does not stack up either.
I want to finish on the point about what is modernisation and what is not. I was in the House in the 1980s, and used to sit up all night. In fact I once made a speech of two hours and 12 minutes on an amendment concerning the Durham Aged Miners housing association. What I found to say for two hours and 12 minutes I have no idea, but I can guarantee that it did not make the legislation under consideration any better. I accept that those days are gone and should remain in the past. Such filibustering—not that filibustering could ever take place in the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker—should not form any part of our proceedings. I do not want to go back to that.
Many of our modernisation measures have been for the benefit of the way in which we conduct our business. I support them for that reason. What I do object to, however, is those who say they are modernisers then defining what modernisation is. If some of my hon. Friends—I will not single anyone out—declare that such and such is modernisation, then by definition it must be modernisation. I think I am a moderniser, but because I do not agree with them, I am branded as some northern male dinosaur who wants to spend all his time in the bars and thinks that is what it is all about. That is the subtext of what many of my hon. Friends have said, and the subtext of what they consider to be modernisation.
I will be watching football in the Strangers Bar tonight, hoping that it is a draw because I do not like either Manchester United or Chelsea. But that is not what motivates me. How we conduct the business of the House and how we conduct ourselves as a House of Commons motivates me. Therefore, let us not have any more hon. Members saying, "We are the modernisers, everyone else is a dinosaur." It is not like that.
I started by saying that the Leader of the House made a genuine effort to find consensus. We now know where that consensus is. The argument about modernisation should be about that. It should not be about modernisation as defined by someone else simply because that is what they want.
A few moments ago, Mr. Heald described himself as a traditionalist. He should take note that one of my constituents—Sir Goldsworthy Gurney, of Bude in north Cornwall—invented and installed the first gas lights in the Chamber. That, of course, made the major difference; until then, the House sat until the daylight hours ceased, when candles had to be lit. If the hon. Gentleman is a true traditionalist, he should propose that we end the sittings of the Chamber when candles have to be lit.
The advent of those gas lights made it possible for the Members in those days to go off and make their living up the road, in the Inns of Court and the courts, and then to come here after lunch. Those days have gone; one or two Conservative Members may still treat Parliament in that way, but very few. Traditionalists be warned; there is always a precedent for everything, which does not mean that the past is a better place.
I hope that all Members will approach the subject as Mr. Howarth did just now. There are three key objectives for the compromise that we are seeking to attain. First, surely we should be trying to improve the product of this place. Anyone who has attended and participated in late evening sittings, let alone late night sittings—I remember 1974, when I had to sit up all night as the swing vote on every Committee on which I served, because the Government had no majority—knows that we are not at our best late in the evening and therefore that we do not give legislation or the Executive action of the Government of the day the careful scrutiny and informed votes that it should have.
The second objective surely must be to communicate better with those who send us here, and to do so at a time and in a form that enables them readily to understand what Parliament is doing on their behalf. I disagree with the hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East, who said that we were less popular now because of the change in hours; that is nonsense. The reason why some Members are less popular is because the electorate have been seeing what line they took on, for example, Iraq; I cannot remember which way the hon. Gentleman voted. We have had a better assessment of what the House is doing since the new hours came in because the late night television news, and the overnight early editions that go to his constituency and mine, are much better informed.
Only thirdly should today's objective be to try to make this place more convenient for those who work here. Every different—and, one might say, difficult—MP has different needs, which is why it is important for us all to recognise that the other two objectives come before the differences that we may have in terms of our work needs.
As for people being jaded and tired when important votes are taking place, I put a serious point to the hon. Gentleman. With the previous hours, and those that we still have on Mondays, the main speeches of the debate—the opening speeches, in which the main cases for and against the motion are stated—happened at a time when people were relatively fresh, and they did not clash with the hours when people would normally be having lunch. Also, people had dinner at a stage of the debate when there were only a small number of people in the Chamber—those who were waiting to speak. With the new hours, people have to choose constantly between starvation and participation at lunchtime, which does not improve their judgment. In addition, does the hon. Gentleman have any hard data on whether the electorate even know what hours we keep and what hours we stop? I do not think they have the faintest idea.
Let me take the last point first. It is clear from the evidence that the Modernisation Committee has taken, and from the discussions that we have all had with those who represent the broadcast and written media, that those concerned find it much easier to interpret the work of Parliament with the present hours, particularly when the divisions in the evening take place around 7 pm or 7.30 pm.
The hon. Gentleman will not remember—he was not a Member—but Trevor McDonald, or whoever presented "News at Ten", used to say, "Something is going on in the House of Commons. The Government have a very small majority. The Government of Mr. Major may indeed be defeated this evening. I may be able to tell you before the weather forecast, but probably not." If that is the way to communicate with the electorate, take it away, my friends.
The hon. Gentleman was not in the House when we had a great many late evening and late night sittings. I can tell him that the quality of response by most Members to the wind-up speeches, and the degree to which those responses were well informed about the issues at stake at 10 o'clock, left a great deal to be desired. He was not here and he does not have that experience, so I must take his evidence as not particularly persuasive.
I have the same priorities as the hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East. The first is a better parliamentary product, and the second is better interaction with the electorate. We are not a commercial company; we are here as representatives of the people. We are not just having an internal discussion this afternoon; what we do is important for those who send us here. Thirdly, but only thirdly, do I believe that we should be looking at family-friendly or MP-friendly hours. We should really be looking at voter-friendly hours.
We should also be looking at the hours that are kept by the people apart from ourselves who work in this House. When the Modernisation Committee, on which the hon. Gentleman serves with me, took evidence from the staff side and from unions, we heard that they were quite adamant that a move back on Tuesday or Wednesday night would be retrograde, and that we should take that into account.
The hon. Lady is quite right; not only would it be retrograde, it would cause huge staffing problems and would be costly.
As the Leader of the House rightly indicated, there are some rough edges in the present arrangements, as I am the first to acknowledge. We need to address them, and the Modernisation Committee heard evidence of, and recommended solutions to, those problems. The first is obviously the impact on the work of Committees; a lot of the oral and written evidence that we took—the best evidence—concerned the impact on the work of Committees.
Here, the Select Committee has made two crucial suggestions to assist. The first is that Standing Committees should have the same freedom and flexibility as Select Committees to decide precisely when they sit and how they work. In particular, the former need no longer keep up to three hours to have lunch. That is an absurd anachronism. Some Members clearly have an obsession with the precise time at which they feed themselves. The way in which the House operates should make it as—
The hon. Gentleman is making light of something that is rather serious. It is not just a question of our feeding ourselves, although that is an essential process for everybody on the planet. There is a much more serious point. As the Foreign Secretary pointed out in his submission, lunchtime provides an opportunity to meet constituents and people who have points to make to us. As a Front-Bench spokesman, it provides me with an opportunity to meet people involved with defence. Lunch was an important component, but lunch has been destroyed for three days of the week. If Members want to participate in a debate or hear an important issue being debated in this House, lunch has been completely rubbed out, which substantially impairs our effectiveness in this House.
That is the hon. Gentleman's view. When I had a real job outside this House, I used to advise clients that any MP who had time for lunch was not worth talking to. That may put the hon. Gentleman in his proper category.
We can all meet constituents at any time of the day, over a cup of coffee or tea. I encourage anyone who wants a substantial discussion with me to catch me at the end of the day, after my parliamentary duties are completed in this place. Many of us can do that; I recommend it to the hon. Gentleman, who may get a much better dinner than lunch.
The important issue is that Committees should be in charge of their own timetable and be able to plan the way in which they operate. The other change for which there is broad support is that we should seek to take away the bunching of Committee work, all-party work and all the groups in this building from Tuesday and Wednesday. We should extend that work more into Thursdays and encourage it more on Mondays.
The Select Committee's proposal that we bring forward the start time of the main business in the Chamber on Thursday to make it possible for there to be some substantial business, such as Second Reading or Opposition day debates, would mean more whipped business on Thursdays. That will mean more people being here, and more people being prepared, able and willing to take part in all forms of Committee activity. There is wide acceptance of the idea that avoiding the present midweek bulge on Tuesday and Wednesday is crucial to improving the balance of our workload through the parliamentary week. I hope that all hon. Members will support that proposal. I cannot see how any conscientious Member of Parliament could possibly oppose making Thursday a full parliamentary day again, and I hope that we will have support for that.
As Mr. Pike mentioned, the Committee took much evidence and spent much time trying to find a practical way to take private Members' Bills on Tuesday evenings, after the moment of interruption. There were considerable difficulties and, reluctantly, we came to the conclusion that the way in which private Members' Bills are handled will have to await fuller and deeper consideration. That is not least because there is a trade-off. If the Government give more time for private Members' Bills—and I hope that the Government will take them more seriously—private Members may have to reduce the number that have a serious prospect of reaching the statute book. I would be in favour of that trade-off. I came 16th in the ballot one year, and apart from having to appear every Friday to see what might happen, it was simply an opportunity for some contact with the press. If we had only 10 Bills, but all of them serious candidates for the statute book, that would be a good deal to make.
I hope that in due course the Modernisation Committee will address the whole issue. In the meantime, however, simply to transfer private Members' Bills from Friday to Tuesday evening would be enormously complicated. For example, it would mean that staff would be on parade from early in the morning until very late at night on Tuesday. That would have staffing resource and financial consequences.
I agree with the Leader of the House about deferring all Divisions after the first on a Thursday. Imagine if we had voted on a reasoned amendment to a Second Reading on a Thursday, but could not vote on the Bill itself. Though it would be attractive to ensure that we could all get away after the first Division on a Thursday evening, it would be absurd to restrict the House by saying that the second and any subsequent Divisions had to be deferred until the following Wednesday. I hope that the House will recognise that. I accept the assurances given by the Leader of the House that he would seek to avoid having a succession of Divisions at 6 pm on a Thursday.
Before I leave the subject of the Standing Orders, I wish to address
I strongly endorse the recommendations of the report from the Modernisation Committee on reconnecting Parliament with the public. We decided in the course of our inquiry that we should place much more emphasis on electronic accessibility. I understand the concerns that were expressed earlier about visiting groups, especially schools. We all like to take schools round this building and to show them a parliamentary democracy at work. However, if students in my constituency happen to come here once in their school lifetime, they are lucky; coming from Cornwall is an expensive business for a low-income area. If they do come, the likelihood that the visit will coincide with a time when they are really interested in what is going on here is limited. It is far more likely that they will want to go online to see what we are doing and to interact with the work of our Standing and Select Committees. Therefore, the emphasis given in the report to online accessibility is the true value-for-money option. In due course, we will no doubt have a wonderful new visitor centre, but that will be many years, and many millions of pounds, hence.
The right hon. Gentleman and I have a common interest in trying to make Parliament more lively for those who are interested in our work, and more accessible, in a way that also makes it more interactive. People need to see what we are doing and feel that their input is appreciated at an appropriate time.
The hon. Gentleman mentions making the Chamber more lively. Does he agree that this debate should have taken place after the election, when hon. Members who are retiring will not have a vote on matters that will affect all of us in the next Parliament?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, but the difficulty is that the new Parliament would not know how to start, because the Standing Orders under which we operate at present are only temporary. We have to have some in place. I also suspect that had incoming MPs been asked to take this decision shortly after getting here, their limited experience might mean that the changes did not receive the measured consideration required. This is the right moment to take this decision.
I endorse the sensible transitional arrangements to take account of existing contractual and other commitments in relation to the car mileage allowance, which includes an element for the purchase of a vehicle, not just its running costs—that is the difference with the private sector.
We will have a free vote, like all the other parties, and I am sure that the majority of my colleagues will be in favour of making this place more relevant to our electorate and ensuring that we communicate better with them. Above all, I hope that we will all agree that the purpose of this afternoon's decisions is not to make our working conditions more convenient for us, but to make our work more relevant, more effective and more productive for those whom we serve.
I congratulate the Modernisation Committee and the Leader of the House on their proposals on connecting with the public. I strongly believe that the biggest challenge that we face is the large and growing number of the public who do not feel ownership of the political process and are dropping out of participation in it. Over the next three or four months, all of us will spend much of our time working hard to try to ensure that as many people as possible vote for our parties. That is a proper and legitimate concern of party politicians, but we should also find a modicum of time to reflect on the other major test of the forthcoming election, which will be how many people vote at all. Anything that we can do to improve education, information and knowledge about what Parliament does and how it works has to be welcome and I therefore commend the useful and valuable proposals of the Modernisation Committee.
As the guilty party who introduced the modernisation package, I always regarded the proposals on hours as being among its less important items. Some of our other proposals have made the House more effective and were therefore accepted as consensual. I do not think that anybody would wish to go back to the previous requirement of a fortnight's notice for oral questions, for instance. Question Time is now that bit more topical and up to date. There was a bit of a battle to reach an agreement to circulate the text of statements in the Chamber the moment the Minister sat down, but I think that all Members welcome that innovation. It has helped the exchanges that follow and the scrutiny of the Minister over the statement.
I am a realistic politician and I understand that what makes debate is not what is important, but what is controversial. The changes on the hours have certainly been controversial. I agree with my hon. Friend Mr. Howarth that there is no consensus on the matter. All I can suggest is that, as we have strongly divided views on the matter, we should proceed with respect for each other's views.
I deprecate those who have suggested that those who want the new hours do not have an appetite for the job. I have proved my enthusiasm for long hours. I was here in the 1974 Parliament when—at least every second week, if not more often—we would have an all-night sitting.
I was young in those days and it may surprise the House to hear that I was opinionated. I took a perverse pride in working those long hours and sitting up all night building socialism. I imagined that my electors back home admired what I was doing. With the wisdom of maturity, I can understand that they thought that I was daft to work those hours. Of course, they were right: it was no way to carry through proper business.
One or two people have referred to the question of shorter hours, but the change did not shorten the hours of the House. Before I examine that, I would say in parenthesis that I am not entirely sure that we are wise to equate length of sitting hours with quality of scrutiny. This Chamber sits much more often than nearly any other Parliament in the world. For every two days that continental Parliaments sit, we sit for three, and it is not immediately evident that the quality of our legislation is that much better as a result.
Nevertheless, the fact is that the changes in our hours have not reduced the debating time in the Chamber. In the first year after the change, the amount of debating time rose by 30 hours, and in the second year it rose by 60 hours, in part because of the earlier finishing time at 7 pm.
The shadow Leader of the House said that that was a firm cut-off time, but it is not. What we are debating is the curious notion of what is called, in parliamentary jargon, the moment of interruption. It has always been possible for business to continue after the moment of interruption, and that used to be routine. However, carrying on a debate after the moment of interruption if that comes at 10 pm makes it certain that the House will sit until midnight. I gently counsel those who want to revert to that practice, and the hours that we used to have, that we will find that we have reduced and not increased the sitting hours of the House because Ministers and Whips will not wish to continue until midnight.
I have been tremendously impressed to hear in this debate about the frustration experienced by colleagues who serve on Committees. They have said that they wished that Committees did not sit at the same time as the Chamber because they want to be able to attend debates here. They long for a return to the hours when the Chamber sat in the evening so that they could spend happy evenings sitting here.
I love this place, but it is important that we are honest about it. When I was a junior Back Bencher in the 1970s, I was invariably called to speak between 7 pm and 9 pm, when other hon. Members had dinner. I was therefore able to make my speeches in near-total privacy. The idea that changing the finishing time back to 10 pm will allow excited debate with full Benches is not one that I recognise from my experience.
The reality is that hon. Members are asked to do an impossible job. Most of us work at least 60 hours a week, if not more but, however long we work, we cannot do all that we are expected to do. We are all familiar with the problem of having to juggle with being in at least two places at the same time, and that will be the case whatever hours we adopt for the Chamber. However, I am encouraged by the fact that Select Committees had 300 more sittings last year than was the case three years ago. That suggests to me that, at the very least, the difficulties and problems that we face are not insuperable.
I make one plea in respect of this debate. I am distressed that it focuses on the question of whether we should sit into the late evening. For me, the debate has always been about why we should not sit in the morning. That is the crucial issue. I am all in favour of this House exercising proper scrutiny of the Government, but the whole point is to do so when people outside are listening and noticing.
A very important statement was made earlier today. It has led on all the lunchtime news bulletins and it will dominate the media agenda for the rest of the day. Under the previous hours, that statement would not have been made until the middle of the afternoon, long after the lunchtime bulletins had finished. There would not have been time for the newspapers to analyse it properly the next day.
Decisions of this House are much better reported the next day if they are taken at 7 pm rather than 10 pm. I had the opportunity to see that at first hand when I was still Leader of the House. Shortly after we changed the hours, we had the debacle over the amendments proposing a change in the composition of the House of Lords.
I was the Minister in charge of those proceedings and the House will remember that we failed to agree to a single proposal or option on offer. We had the relevant votes comparatively early in the evening, which enabled every newspaper to carry an editorial the next day saying what a cod we had made of the matter.
As a Minister, I should probably have preferred the vote to have taken place at 2 am, so that no one noticed the result but, as a parliamentarian, I had to welcome the fact that the public knew about what had happened and had time to comment on it and analyse it. When we voted on tuition fees at 7 pm, for the first time ever, more people watched the parliamentary channel than either Sky television or BBC News 24. That has to be the ultimate test of whether we are connecting with the public.
I want to end with one final thought. I fully agree with some colleagues who say—Mr. Forth has said it often—that what we say and do is far more important than when we say and do it. However, there is no law that says that the quality of our speeches improves the later in the day that we make them.
Those hon. Members who entered the House by St. Stephen's entrance will have passed Fox, Burke and Pitt frozen for all time in attitudes of declamation against each other. Their great debates on human rights, the French revolution and Britain's place in Europe all took place in the morning and in the afternoon. None of them complained that scrutiny of those issues would have been better had it carried on until 10 pm.
As Mr. Tyler pointed out, the House sat into the evening only after the introduction of gas lighting in the 19th century. It sat in the afternoon and evening precisely so hon. Members could earn their living at the Bar or in the City.
We are all professionals now and quite well paid. We should adopt hours that reflect that professional status and our full-time commitment to the job. That might put us a little more in touch with the modern world in which our constituents live and work.
I am pleased to follow Mr. Cook. He was a distinguished Leader of the House, which he led with and by example. In addition, he chaired the Modernisation Committee exceedingly well. I was delighted to work with him then, as I am delighted to work with the current Leader of the House.
The right hon. Member for Livingston referred to parliamentary questions. The change in our practices in that respect was the initiative of the Procedure Committee rather than the Modernisation Committee. I hope that he will accept that modest correction to what was otherwise a splendid speech. He and I are both parliamentarians, although the conclusion that I reached is slightly different from his. In my short speech, I hope to explain my reasoning.
Hon. Members will know that I have the honour to chair the Procedure Committee, which circulated a questionnaire about sitting hours last January. We published the results in our second report last March. In paragraph 13 of that report, we made some points for the Modernisation Committee and the House to take into account. I shall go through some of them briefly this afternoon.
As my hon. Friend Mr. Heald stated earlier, the questionnaire found a slight overall preference for a reversion to the old hours on Tuesdays. I am glad that the Government have tabled amendments to allow the House to decide on that, and I pay tribute to them for doing so.
I have had many discussions with hon. Members who take very different positions on these matters and I know that many are not in favour of taking what they consider a backward step. However, some of the arguments that I have read in the past few days are, to say the least, a little exaggerated. I have also read editorials and articles in newspapers such as the Evening Standard and others, written by people whose knowledge of this place I expected to be greater. They have made statements that are very far from the truth. Those of us who want a modest change back to the old hours, particularly on a Tuesday, are not trying to work less—we are actually trying to work longer and to do a better job. The question is how time is allocated. That said, I respect the sincerity of the case put by the Leader of the House.
Reverting to the old times on a Tuesday would not mean voting, as some have said, into the small hours. The moment of interruption—that technical phrase to which the right hon. Member for Livingston referred—would be 10 o'clock, so it would not mean going back to Victorian timings, which were bound to be unsuitable anyway. In fact, as historical statistics show, the moment of interruption was midnight from 1888, when it was introduced, to 1906 and it was not changed to 10 o'clock, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, until 1946. If the old Tuesday hours are so unacceptable, I have to ask the rhetorical question why there is no pressure to change the Monday hours as well. [Interruption.] Well, I do not think that there is.
I shall support amendments (a) to (l), which would enable us to revert to the old Tuesday hours. Members who want to go back to the old hours on Wednesdays as well can achieve that by voting against the entire motion. I should point out to the Leader of the House and the Deputy Leader of the House that I shall be voting merely to restore the old Tuesday hours. I shall not try to restore the old hours on Wednesdays. I shall also vote for bringing forward the start of business on a Thursday to 10.30 am.
The Procedure Committee pointed out that Standing and Select Committee sittings have to be taken into consideration, as well as the sittings of this House. I am glad that the Modernisation Committee paid considerable attention to that issue. The proposed earlier start on Thursdays—which would restore Thursday sittings to the same length as those on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays—would of course result in very short sittings of Committees in the morning and, presumably, correspondingly longer ones in the afternoon. Despite that, it is important that we ensure that Thursday is a full day, so I shall support that proposition.
A number of colleagues still seem to think that we can run the House of Commons as if it were an ordinary commercial office, with us all arriving at, say, 9 o'clock and leaving at 5 o'clock. The Procedure Committee pointed out that we all work in at least two places—our constituencies and here—and we might even claim to have duties overseas as well. For many Members, the House and their constituency are many hundreds of miles apart. We surely need, therefore, to choose hours that will work for us as Members of Parliament, rather than just copying those in use elsewhere. In any event, nine-to-five jobs are perhaps becoming less commonplace.
The Procedure Committee recommended that decisions should be made in full knowledge of the effects on staff of the House and their working patterns. Barbara Follett raised that issue in an intervention and it certainly was important that, this time, we consider the impact on staff. The report that gave rise to our current sittings did not really do that. I am delighted that we have put that right, and that the Modernisation Committee took the hint—I think—from the Procedure Committee. Indeed, there is detailed evidence to justify this recommendation.
It is important to realise that those of us who are deeply committed to and involved in this House do a tremendous amount of work here during the week—be it as members of the Speaker's Panel of Chairmen, as Chairmen of Westminster Hall, as members of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and the Inter-Parliamentary Union or as members of other Committees of the House, including the all-party groups. Such work does seem to be rather heavily concentrated on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and the House needs to take that into account. Perhaps the Government will win the day and the House will decide to stick with the current hours, but I hope that this issue will be kept under review. It is important that Committee work, which in my view is as important as what goes on in this Chamber, is in no way prejudiced and disadvantaged. I want us to get rid of some of the bunching of Standing and Select Committee sittings.
In my view—it is shared by Mr. Williams, who chairs the Liaison Committee with great distinction—I see a time when the Modernisation Committee might be terminated and I hope that the Leader of the House will give some attention to this issue. What remains of modernisation—if there is any modernisation to do in future—might be assumed by the Procedure Committee. There is some danger in a Committee that dictates how this House deals with its business being chaired by a Cabinet Minister. It would be perceived as much fairer and more democratic if it were chaired, as other Select Committees are, by an experienced Back Bencher.
I am obviously very happy with "Connecting Parliament with the Public". This Friday, I shall attend the Cheshire UK Youth Parliament election day at Chester county hall. It is important that we educate young people and seek to make them more interested in what goes on in this House.
The Leader of the House has acted very responsibly in tabling the car mileage allowance motion. It does not change the decision that was taken in the latter half of last year, but it makes the situation much fairer. It treats those who represent very large constituencies with much more justice, and I hope that it will be passed.
I commend the Leader of the House and the Deputy Leader of the House on tabling these motions. I hope that Members will vote on them entirely freely and exercise their right as Members of Parliament to judge the work that we seek to do, which is to work hard and, if necessary, long in the interests of our constituents.
I was among those who suggested to the Leader of the House some months ago that this debate should be postponed. I did so partly because many of the Members who decide on this issue today will not be in a position to experience any changes that are made. I understand why such a postponement has not been possible, but as a result, this debate is likely to continue, regardless of the decision reached today. New Members entering the House may want to debate this issue again; indeed, I doubt whether it will ever be possible to decide that it will never again be debated.
I am one of the Members of this House who are fortunate enough to represent a constituency within travelling distance of the House. That does not enable me, however, to get home in time to attend evening meetings, but last night I was able to go home in order to attend a job fair that was held in my constituency today. It was an interesting fair, which was attended by a number of employers. I took the opportunity to talk to them about what they were doing, and several asked me about today's business of the House. I told them what we would be debating and the issues. Every single one of them was horrified at the thought that we might revert to the old sitting hours on a Tuesday; not one could understand the reasoning behind such a change.
I ask Members to think about the effect of any decision taken today on opinion in the outside world. We shall look extremely foolish if, having adopted what I think of as normal business hours, we reverse that decision after only two years and go back—it would be going back—to a dark age. Most people simply would not understand that decision.
I would like to come back to whole question of how we can make Parliament more efficient and businesslike. One reason why the Government have spent a good deal of time debating family-friendly issues or the work-life balance—whatever one wants to call them—is the large amount of stress that people experience in the workplace. I do not think that hon. Members are different from people who work in business. We have found that people who are able to make some choice about their working hours and are thus able to be flexible, to have a good relationship with their families and to arrange their domestic affairs as they would wish suffer from less stress than those who are fixed to rigid hours and have less contact with their families. That is important for us, because if we put ourselves in less stressful situations, we make better decisions. We are also then better able to debate and analyse matters, and to represent our constituents.
I think that I am one of the few people to speak in the debate with a young family, so I suffer from such stress. As has been said before, what is family friendly for those who live in London is not family friendly for those who live a long way from London.
If we were to move towards a situation in which we had very family-friendly hours for those who live in London—more so than they are now—it could make the House more representative in one way, but it would become less representative geographically. Such very family-friendly hours would make it more likely that Members with families would locate to and live in London, whatever constituency they represented.
I do not think that there is conflict between family-friendly hours in the House for Members who live in London and those who live away from London. A main driver for Members who live away from London must be starting late on a Monday so that they can travel here easily on a Monday morning, and finishing early on a Thursday afternoon so that they can get back to their constituencies on a Thursday evening. The Modernisation Committee's proposals achieve exactly that. They give us an optimum time period in which we can satisfy the needs of both Members who live outside London and those who live in London. There is not necessarily a conflict between the two.
I shall continue for a moment, although I might take an intervention later.
We now know about the use of the telephone by Mr. Forth and the modern technology that he has perhaps espoused for some time, although I am not sure. I, too, use the telephone to contact my constituents, but I find that they are much more likely to be available in the evening than during the day. That means that there is an argument for Members being free in the evening so that they can use that time to contact constituents, rather than attending debates in the Chamber or Select Committee sittings.
I turn to the matter of reconnecting people with Parliament. The all-party group on parliamentary reform, which I chair, recently sent out a notice to hon. Members about a meeting that we are holding in March. We are asking them to invite two young people from their constituencies to come to Westminster one day in March—on
I hope that we will decide to keep the current hours. Two years is a short time in which to arrive at a definitive decision on whether to return to the old hours, so I hope that hon. Members will vote to keep the new hours on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and to adopt the earlier hour on Thursdays.
I have been worried right from the start of this so-called modernisation process that it only ever seems to move the relationship between the House and the Government in one direction, which can be summed up by the word "convenience". Everything that the Modernisation Committee has asked us to do can easily and readily be seen as convenient for Members and, even more importantly, for the Government. That has radically, and perhaps irrevocably, altered the relationship between the Government and the House of Commons. I regret that, because it is bad constitutionally and bad for Parliament. Although I would like the situation to be reversed, I do not know whether that will happen.
I feel very comfortable in that position and I am not deterred in the slightest.
Let us consider public perceptions of what we do here. I think that we are saying to the public, "We want what is convenient to us, because some of us found it rather unacceptable to be working into the evenings and we really want to go off to the cinema in the evenings rather than doing our parliamentary work". Given that and the fact that the Government have such tight control over the guillotining of Committees and the work that we do—many debates and votes on such things as money and Ways and Means resolutions that were held before have been entirely eliminated—we are being taken in only one direction. The motion represents yet another such movement. It might not be especially important in itself, but it is part of a general move that Members themselves have made to say, "We do not want to be inconvenienced; we want to do what is comfortable". Of course the Government benefit from that, which is a negative factor.
It is ironic to compare what we do and how we do it with the situation in the House of Lords. It is now true to say that their lordships meet more often and sit longer than us, and it is generally accepted that the quality of their scrutiny of legislation and work to hold the Government to account is far superior to anything that we do here.
The right hon. Gentleman is not comparing like with like. We elected Members have a duty to our constituents, and a great deal of time has to be devoted to that. So there is no comparison with the amount of time that can be spent in the Chambers.
Of course that is true. However, I hope that the hon. Lady recognises that, as elected Members, our primary duty is here in the House. In the hon. Lady's case, she is here to support the Government but hold them to account—in my case, I am here to oppose the Government and hold them to account—and to legislate. What we do for our constituents we do in our different ways, and that is right and proper. For the hon. Lady to suggest that her constituents, in some mysterious way, should come before her work at Westminster strikes me as a rather odd interpretation of her duties. I would not accept that as a conclusion.
If we accept the proposition—I hope that most Members will do so—that their lordships now do more valuable parliamentary work than we do, that must, at least in some way, be because the Government have less control over what happens in the House of Lords and because their lordships sit during the hours that they believe are appropriate for doing their job as parliamentarians.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the essential difference when it comes to the scrutiny of legislation is that in the House of Lords there are no timetables and no guillotines, whereas in this place a guillotine is uniformly imposed—for example, on Monday, when we considered the Gambling Bill, the Government provided four and a half hours on the Floor of the House.
I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend. If he wanted to, he could tempt me into saying that perhaps we would do a better job if, as in the good old days, every Bill were considered in Committee on the Floor of the House. That would have the valuable effect of slowing down the progress of legislation, which I am sure we would all consider to be highly beneficial.
The problem with the Parliament-office block analysis that we are being offered more and more by the so-called "modernisers" is the implication that underlies it, which is that we are here to process legislation as quickly and conveniently as possible. For a legislating Government, that is manna from heaven, but it does not make parliamentary sense.
I admire colleagues who tell me that their constituents are hanging on our every word and gazing laser-like upon what we do in this place. Admire my constituents as I do, few of them spend much time talking to me about the hours that the House of Commons works, or the way in which it is structured. They prefer to trust me and to leave that to me, and they are right to do so.
If we are talking about perceptions, we must be careful about the analysis. That leads me to say a few words about nonsensical motion 3, under the heading "Connecting Parliament with the Public". It contains a lot of vacuous and gratuitous nonsense. It is self-serving, self-delusional and rather sad. At the very same time that many Members have complained that because of the changes we have made, which we are now discussing, our constituents have fewer opportunities to come to the House, we produce nonsense about parliamentary roadshows, which would involve some nonsensical bus puffing out what we do to a hapless public, as if that would make them any more impressed with what we do.
I asked the Leader of the House earlier whether he thought that the much-vaunted euro roadshow, on which huge amounts of public money were spent a short time ago, would be an exemplar for what the parliamentary roadshow will do. He was unable to give an answer. We know well, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that this is another boondoggle, another piece of nonsense and something that will cost a lot of money and have no effect.
The same ridiculous motion continues,
"authorises the House of Commons Commission to fund the publication and distribution of a new voters' guide".
That would involve more money, more nonsense and more material going through letterboxes that would hardly ever be read.
If we want to be serious about a new voters' guide, I would want it to be linked back—this is something that the House will hardly ever hear me say but I will say it this once; it is a novelty and I offer it for what it is worth—to the website so that young people who come to our website could access the guide without it being printed, distributed and put through letterboxes, only to be put in waste bins throughout the land. The proactivity that is mentioned in the next ridiculous line of this absurd motion would not be by us at taxpayers' expense but by the voters or the young people, if they wanted to access information about us and what we do. Why do we not turn the proposal on its head and save the hapless taxpayer some money, so he or she is not asked to spend money on a guide that they will almost certainly never read?
I hope that I will have an opportunity to vote against the motion. It rather pathetically exemplifies how we look through the wrong end of the telescope when we engage in this sort of exercise over and again. We talk at great length about the hours that we work and the perceptions that people have. We regret that the public take less and less interest in what we do, and then we wonder why that may be.
I would offer as a simple solution the fact that what we say is often desperately boring and uninteresting. What we do in the Chamber is often so consensual these days that people cannot tell the difference between any of us. As for whether they should turn up for the next election to vote, I suspect that that will be determined by people's perceptions of whether what we are offering is of relevance to them, whether they have a real choice and whether they think that the outcome of the next election is so obvious and pre-determined that their turning out will make no difference.
Those are entirely different matters from the hours that we work or people thinking that if we work late into the night we are all slightly potty and not worth voting for. My analysis would be completely at odds with what we have been offered up to now. I shall vote for a restoration of the Tuesday hours, which would be a small step in signalling that the House wishes to take more seriously its responsibilities vis-à-vis the Government. I expect no more than that.
I will not vote, sadly, for the motion tabled by Mr. Donohoe, because it, too, suggests that we believe that the proceedings of the House should be compromised, in this case, so that people can catch their train or aeroplane to go home, which is utterly the wrong message to give. We should tell people that we are prepared to work in Parliament as long as necessary to do our job properly. If that causes us the odd inconvenience, we should be prepared to accept it.
The new hours have been a great improvement. The Leader of the House said that activity has increased and that the House has sat longer, as have Select Committees. I believe that the work of those Committees is a vital part of the work of the House. It is not desirable to conduct business late at night, and a move backwards would create a bad impression among the public, as Members have already said. Many Members have said that the issue is of no interest to their constituents, but people in my constituency are concerned about the way in which the House conducts its business, and have asked me whether the House is still sitting long hours. Whatever the reasons for reversing the decision on Tuesday hours, the public would view it as a return to the jolly hours in the Smoking Room, as Mr. Heald said.
We should make greater attempts to make contact with the public and encourage people to stand for public office. That important issue is relevant to our debate. We have not debated at great length the fact that many groups are under-represented in Parliament, particularly women, who make up over 50 per cent. of the population but only 18 per cent. of the House of Commons. One reason for that discrepancy is that women have not been attracted to a place with awkward sitting hours that has the reputation of being a men's club. All constituency parties, of whatever political persuasion, have been reluctant to select women, because they caricature Members of Parliament as middle-aged men in grey suits. The clubby portrayal of life in Westminster makes them think that they should select male candidates, so our reputation plays into the unconscious sexism of many constituency parties. Restoring late-night Tuesday sittings would be a big setback to efforts to attract a more representative group of parliamentarians.
The newer institutions that we have set up have reasonable sitting hours, and have much more representative Members. The Welsh Assembly, for example, has 50 per cent. men and 50 per cent. women, and women account for more than 40 per cent. of Members in the Scottish Parliament. Reasonable sitting hours and good gender-balanced representation go together, and more normal hours would bring a more representative group of MPs. The current sitting hours were introduced for a limited period, but many candidates who hope to be selected as MPs at the election expect to serve in a House with reasonable sitting hours. In Wales, we are likely to have five extra women MPs, and those candidates put themselves forward in the expectation of working reasonable hours. There is a bigger issue here—we are not just changing the hours of the House. We are discussing what sort of Parliament we want.
Has the hon. Lady alerted those candidates to the fact that the kind of Parliament very much depends on the electorate's decision as to the balance between parties? In a Parliament like the present one, where there is a large majority, life is not so difficult for Back Benchers, but a Parliament with no overall majority or a very tight majority will involve Members in much more work in this place, whatever the hours.
The candidates are aware of that.
It is important to consider what sort of Parliament we want. Do we want a modern democracy that is seen to be trying to connect with the people, or do we want what the public see as an historic club, inward and backward-looking? That is what the public will think we are deciding today. I accept that that is not the reason for all hon. Members' decision, but that is the impression that the public will gain. We want Parliament to be seen as taking everybody's views into account. We want Members to be representative of all sections of society. We must therefore have the sort of Parliament that seems to be in touch with people's everyday lives.
Others have pointed out that people in some professions and some jobs have to work long hours and in the evenings, but we do not have to do that here. We are not working less. We are moving the hours forward in the day. We are working longer, as the Leader of the House said.
I certainly think that there is a case for using Tuesday evenings for other activities. If that is the point that the hon. Gentleman was making, I agree with him. We want to make this place appealing to the public. Our decisions tonight will affect the way in which the public see Parliament.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is up to Select Committees to choose to sit whenever they want to sit, including on Tuesday or Wednesday evenings? It is up to Standing Committees to choose, within the rules, to sit later on Tuesday evenings, if Members feel they must occupy their time in that way.
The hon. Lady has been generous in taking interventions. What she has described is her perception of how the world should be. However, there are many of us who think it is not important how we see who should be here and what they should be doing. What matters is how our constituents see it. It is they who will make the choice. I have never had anyone say anything about the hours that we sit, other than an occasional comment. The substance of who comes here and what they represent is determined not by us, but by our constituents.
I agree. The public determine who comes here, but the hon. Gentleman must surely accept that the public's perception of what happens here influences how they choose candidates and sometimes how they vote. The debate is much wider than whether or not we move our hours forward.
I hope that the House will not vote to reverse the sitting hours on a Tuesday. I congratulate the Modernisation Committee on its report and give it my wholehearted support.
We have heard a lot of talk about connecting Parliament with the people. Parliament connects with the people in a variety of ways, including the quality of individual representation provided by Members of Parliament, which includes welcoming constituents to this House, showing them how it works and taking them round—something that has become well nigh impossible since we changed our hours.
The connection also depends on the quality of press and media reporting of this place. One of the scandals of modern times is the way in which the Chamber is ignored by all but the sketch writers and those who occasionally report speeches by Front Benchers. I remember the day when all the quality papers, and some of the others too, in effect carried a précis of Hansard. People knew what was said here, which connected them with Parliament. The papers are awash with political news and speculation, but very little of that is direct reporting of Parliament. I say that to Mr. Cook, who is no longer present and who made much of the fact that the new hours are more media friendly.
When I entered this House in 1970, the hours and the place were very different. When we considered the ill-fated Industrial Relations Act 1971, which was introduced by the Conservative Government, we sat through the night on many occasions. I am not arguing that that improved the quality of the legislation, but it gave the Opposition an opportunity to hold us to account in a way in which no guillotine motion ever does these days. I would not necessary return to open-ended hours, although I remember a certain firebrand, the right hon. Member for Livingston, coming here in 1974. I was told, "You must watch that young man. He's going to do marvellous things in Parliament." In many ways, he has done marvellous things in Parliament, and I am sorry that he is not here now to hear the compliment.
After a two-year experimental period, we are deciding how we can best do our jobs. Every Member of Parliament—those who are here and those who are not—brings different qualities and attributes to this most peculiar of jobs. It is not really a job; it is a way of life, and we all approach it slightly differently. The longer Members are in the House, the more they become involved with a range of issues, some of which touch on foreign affairs—for instance, I have done a fair amount for the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. Some hon. Members are involved in all-party groups, and I have chaired the largest of those, the all-party arts and heritage group, for many years. All those commitments involve keeping in touch with people outside the House.
Hon. Members must also deal with their constituency commitments and correspondence. I rarely receive fewer than 30 letters a day and frequently receive many more than that. I have always been one of those Members who is in their office very early in the morning, and Monday is the only morning of the week that I can spend wholeheartedly working on my parliamentary and constituency duties without neglecting this Chamber. Much to my wife's anger and chagrin, I invariably come to London on a Sunday, so that I can be in my office by half-past 7 on a Monday morning to work. The new hours have made it impossible for me to maintain the same connection and service with the individuals and bodies outside this House with which and with whom I am connected. [Interruption.] I wish that Mr. Tyler would shut up for a moment.
It is sad that the camaraderie that existed in this place for evening after evening in the Smoking Room and the Dining Room is a thing of the past. I frequently dine in the House on Tuesday or Wednesday, but rarely more than a handful of hon. Members are present to exchange views, discuss the issues of the day and talk about the problems and conflicts with which we are all involved. We are not here for our personal convenience, but as public servants to do a job for our constituents by representing them here at Westminster and playing a full part in helping to hold the Government of the day to account.
I believe that the combination of the change of hours and the imposition of the automatic guillotine on every Bill has emasculated this place. That is extremely dangerous, especially when we have a Government with an overwhelming majority, as we do at the moment—although I trust that we will put that right at the next general election by electing a Government, albeit with a smaller majority, comprising Members from this side of the House.
Unless we have a degree of flexibility in hours that is not allowed for in the motion, we will not fulfil the full role of an adult Parliament. I have tabled an amendment about Thursdays. I did so not because I wish to truncate business on Thursdays but because I do not want to see another morning eaten into and further bunching and clashing as regards Committees. My ideal solution—although I am happy to accept the compromise that is before us today in a spirit of conciliation—would be to go back to the normal hours on Wednesdays and Thursdays, although I realise that that is unlikely to earn the approbation of the House. On Thursdays, it would be a very small concession to sit from 11.30 am until 7 pm; we could then have a full day's business, which the Leader of the House was anxious to commend to us.
Whatever Members think about the Thursday amendment, I very much hope that those on both sides of the House will carefully consider a reversion to Tuesday hours. That is not to suggest going back to the dark ages and sitting beyond 10 o'clock. I am not one for all-night sittings, as I said, although I like to have a more open-ended timetable. It is a very modest proposal, and I was glad that it received the enthusiastic support of my right hon. Friend Mr. Forth, because it goes nowhere near as far as he would ideally like to go. However, it would restore something of the spirit and atmosphere of Parliament as those of us who have been here a long time know it and love it, give Members more opportunity to do things in the morning in response to the many demands that are made on their time, and restore a breath of sanity to our proceedings that has gone over the past two years.
I entirely accept the good faith of the Leader of the House, who of course sees things from a different perspective. When one sits on the Government side of the House, it is inevitable that one's prime interest, particularly if one is a Minister or a Cabinet Minister, is to get the business of the Government whom one serves through the House. When the right hon. Gentleman sits on this side of the House again, his perspective will change, just as my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst changed from a remarkably fierce gamekeeper into a wonderfully free-ranging poacher after 1997.
This is an opportunity for us to make a modest change before the general election so that those who are elected here on
I speak as a member of the Modernisation Committee, and although I want to concentrate on the sitting hours, I commend to hon. Members the motion on connecting the public with Parliament.
The debate is nominally about the hours that we work, and of course we all have a personal preference. However, it is also about the culture of this place, outside perceptions of this place and, most importantly, how well Parliament does its work of holding the Government to account and communicating with our electorate.
Let me deal with the culture first. When we changed the hours two years ago, a majority of those of us who had been Members of Parliament for more than 10 years voted to retain the old hours. A majority of those who had become Members of Parliament in the past 10 years voted for the earlier starts and finishes, as I did. However, as one of those who was elected more than 10 years ago, let me tell it like it was.
In my first year, we sat for 218 days. On 166 of them—76 per cent.—the House sat between 10 pm and 2 am. On 26 days the House sat after 2 am. Those were the good old days of the thriving parliamentary culture that Sir Patrick Cormack remembers so fondly. For me, a woman who had worked all her working life for long hours in pressured jobs, it was none the less a huge culture shock to come to this place.
Although I was used to working long hours, I was not used to dining for long hours or to going from dining to the Strangers Bar or the Tea Room or the Smoking Room. Of course, it was an age of extraordinary, and occasionally great, oratory in the House, but part of the long-hours culture was built around one that was already disappearing from everyday life. As The Times reported:
"When there were votes at 10 pm, the bars and restaurants teemed with MPs gossiping and plotting."
The Strangers Bar was the heart of that culture and, as Chris Moncrieff reported in the same article, the Strangers
"used to get very rowdy— I've seen fisticuffs in there."
I never saw a fight, but I recall seeing more than one hon. Member swaying on his feet as he addressed the Chamber.
Was that a Parliament of which we could all be proud? Was it a Parliament of people who were in step with their constituents? Was it a Parliament dedicated to holding the Government to account? Not in my judgment. I do not suggest, and I know that others have not suggested, that those who want to revert to late hours on Tuesday wish to return to that boozy old boys' culture, but we need to recognise it for what it was and acknowledge that, progressively, as new people have come into this place, there has been a change in the culture that predated the change in the hours.
People spend less time in the Chamber because they are in Westminster Hall, on Select Committees or dealing with their constituents, who make increasingly onerous demands on all of us. The experimental new hours have been difficult for some people because they have required change in working hours and all change is difficult. However, as the Modernisation Committee acknowledged, those of us who pressed for change have listened to people's complaints, looked at the whole week and made proposals accordingly.
Sir Nicholas Winterton asked why nobody proposed moving to early hours on Mondays. There is a good reason for that. We recognise that people must have time to travel on Monday from their constituencies and it is therefore logical to have a late night on a Monday. The same logic cannot and does not apply to any other day of the week.
Many Labour Members who support the hon. Lady's argument have tried to draw parallels between us and the commercial world. She will be familiar with many people, perhaps friends, who live a long way from London but work there and who, to fulfil their duties, do not take up Monday morning in travelling to their office. They travel to London on a Sunday night.
Perhaps with the exception of Mr. Forth, it is reasonable that people should spend time in their constituencies and with their families on Saturday and Sunday. Travelling on a Monday is logical and appropriate for the good workings of this place and for some balance in one's private life. But there is no argument for returning to a late night on a Tuesday for those reasons.
People have said that they have difficulty coping with all that they have to do on a Tuesday morning, and the Modernisation Committee agrees that there has been a bunching of activities on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. However, the solution to that is in our own hands and available to us today. It is to move to a slightly earlier starting time on Thursdays, so that we have a proper day with the five-hour space that we need for a Second Reading debate. More change, not less, is required to make the House a functioning institution in which we can be effective in our jobs.
People have said that Select Committees keep being interrupted by Divisions in the House. However, the Committees often chose to work at times at which they would be interrupted in that way. This is not a new phenomenon. If Chairs and members of Select Committees do not wish to have those interruptions, they can sit in the mornings. Wednesday morning in particular has been made available to enable Select Committees to sit at that time. I sit on two Select Committees. I know how much work we do, and I know that we have been effective in holding the Government to account. I also know that the Select Committees as a whole have produced more reports under the new hours than under the old ones.
The solution is in our hands. The working week under the new hours has not proved to be a full four-day week, and that has brought this place into disrepute. The former Prime Minister, John Major, said of MPs:
"A lot don't come in Monday, are around on Tuesday and go home Wednesday afternoon."
That is unacceptable. We need to put it right, and we can do so. We can work a proper four-day week in reasonable hours.
The shadow Leader of the House talked about the psychologist's report and the stress that MPs have experienced under the new hours. I recall that, with the old hours that I have described, seven of our Members died in office. I cannot make a causal connection between those hours and those deaths, but I suggest to the hon. Gentleman—I am sorry that he is not in his place—that he cannot make the causal connection to which he referred either.
As we have all said, we need to communicate the work that we do here via the media. There is not a shadow of doubt in my mind that enabling the media to digest the votes properly, to hear the debates and to communicate them to our constituents at a time when they are not in their beds, is an important aspect of the modernisation that we have enjoyed.
I want to make a brief comment on what a return to a 10 pm finish on Tuesdays would mean. In the past two years, when business and votes have been required beyond the cut-off time of 7 pm, this has resulted in our being able to leave at about 8.30 in the evening. A return to late nights on a Tuesday would end all that.
Perhaps we should be drawing not only commercial parallels but international parallels in this debate. I am not opposing late night sittings on Mondays, for the very sensible reasons that my hon. Friend has given. However, not a single legislature on the list that I have here sits until 10 pm even on one night, let alone two, three or four. That list includes the legislatures of France, Germany, Japan, Canada and New Zealand. Yet we still manage to sit for more hours than any of them, and on more days.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely telling point.
Let me return to what late night sittings on Tuesdays would mean. In the year before we moved to the new hours, the House sat on 201 days. On 78 of those days it sat beyond 10.30 pm. Sometimes it was closer to midnight; very occasionally it was after midnight. That is what people will be voting for today if they vote for a return to the old hours on a Tuesday—[Interruption.] That is a fact. If hon. Members vote for a return to such hours, that will be up to all of us. However, I ask Members of the House to think about all the hundreds of people who support us in a huge variety of ways in the service of the House of Commons. Those people do not want to return to the old hours.
"I think the way we did business in the 70s and early 80s was, frankly, absurd. I think if Members look back on those days, a few may look back with nostalgia but, equally, there were times when Members were walking around like zombies during the Consolidated Fund and that was not a sensible way to conduct the business of a great nation. The more we approximate to normal working hours, I think the more effective we will eventually be."
I do indeed; my hon. Friend makes a good point. Two members of staff of the House have been mugged leaving here late at night. They left in the hour before they could have had a free taxi.
I want to conclude; others want to speak.
We have a solution to rebalancing the working week, making us more effective Members of the House, holding the Government to account, enabling us to identify with our constituents ensure that the business of the House can be communicated to them at a reasonable time of day. I commend the motion.
I am delighted to follow Joan Ruddock, who is always extremely courteous in giving way and in presenting her arguments. As she knows, I have a particularly personal interest in so far as my son-in-law, James Cartlidge, is the prospective Conservative parliamentary candidate for her constituency of Lewisham, Deptford. All I will say to her on James's behalf is that if she is finding it too stressful here, all she has to do is to give way to my son-in-law. Then she will be able to enjoy a more leisurely time.
May I also say to the hon. Lady that in response to my intervention, she acknowledged what I think is an important point that shows a slight difference of view between two different camps in the debate? I agree that this is a different job. I do not believe that there are parallels between what we do here and the commercial world. Indeed, I do not believe this to be a job; it is a vocation.
Every day that I come into this place I pinch myself, because I have been accorded such a privilege by my fellow citizens, who have sent me to this, the oldest Parliament in the world. Indeed, despite all the brickbats, it is respected throughout the world. I therefore do not believe in making parallels between the honour of serving the people of this country in this great Parliament and serving in the commercial world. They are two entirely different activities, which cannot be equated.
I also take the view, which was advanced by Mr. Howarth, that modernisation should not be considered synonymous with progress. Most Conservative Members, and many Labour Members too, regard the Government's use of the word "modernisation" as simply an attempt to close down the debate. All people need to do is advance a case on the ground that it is modernising, and that is the end of the argument. Apparently, no one can possibly be considered to have an argument worth listening to unless it involves modernisation. I take a totally different view.
I am pleased that the Foreign Secretary, too, took that view in his evidence to the Committee. I hope that the former Foreign Secretary, Mr. Cook, who takes a very different view, has read the submission of his successor, because it encapsulates many of our arguments. The compression of our time brought about by the new hours has made life very difficult for us all.
It is a loss, because as my hon. Friend Sir Patrick Cormack said, so many other things could previously be encompassed during the morning, such as visits from constituents. Yesterday, for example, I had visitors from the Pegasus Bridge museum in Normandy. I could show them the House of Lords, but I could not bring them here. We are not serving our constituents by denying them the opportunity of visits, although that is only one small part of it—constituency work, meeting people, undertaking telephone calls, all of which go on in the morning, are now increasingly denied to us.
The e-mail system has now imposed even more burdens on us. Every constituent who has access to this new technology feels not only that they have instant access to us, which is of course entirely their right, but expects an instant answer, too.
As my right hon. Friend says, in his case, they are not getting one. On one occasion, a constituent sent me an e-mail saying, "I saw you open my previous e-mail" at such and such a time, and that I had not yet replied. I responded, "I am not an automaton sitting in front of a computer screen. I am a Member of Parliament and I have different duties."
The Foreign Secretary also mentioned in his submission the effect that consolidation of Prime Minister's Question Time into a single day has had on attendance in the House and on the whole ambience of the House and the way in which it is treated. He is absolutely right to say that taking away that quarter of an hour of Prime Minister's Question Time on Thursday has made Thursday into a "come if you can" day; otherwise, Members go off and do something else. That has reduced this place to at best a three-day week, but as far as most of us are concerned, it is more like a two-and-a-half-day week.
I support the amendment of my namesake, Mr. Howarth. It is an entirely sensible and modest proposition. It is not a return to what Julie Morgan called the dark old days. It is a sensible and modest proposal, and it should commend itself to all Members of the House.
Yes, and that is why it will not get reported, but I will come on to that in a minute.
No one is suggesting that we return to all-night sittings. There was something mediaeval about all-night sittings, and I have no desire to return to them. A return to a 10 o'clock finish on Tuesday night has been represented, however, as somehow a return to all-night sittings. That is simply absurd. This is a compromise that therefore ought to commend itself to the House.
The right hon. Member for Livingston made two points to which I want to refer. First, he said that the changes that we have instituted would bring us into line with others. I have tried to deal with that argument by saying that I do not believe that we are like others. If one works in the City these days, however, one is sometimes there all night and all weekend. My son is a trainee lawyer working in the City, and during the Marks and Spencer business, he was there from Friday until Monday morning. We should not therefore delude ourselves that we are somehow exceptional in that respect.
What the right hon. Member for Livingston said about the convenience of the new hours for the media tells us an awful lot about this Government's desire to manipulate and to manage the news. The idea that a statement made at 4 o'clock in the afternoon will not get through to the people is simply ridiculous. It gets through to them on the 6 o'clock news, or on the 10 o'clock news, which most people watch. The hours are not in Parliament's interests, but they are unquestionably in the Government's interests. As I hope to be on the Government side of the House on
As always, my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire spoke about this place with vigour and passion. He spoke of the failure of the press to report the House. Perhaps we are not as well perceived now as we have been in the past, but whereas the newspapers—especially what used to be called the broadsheets—used to feature an extensive report of comments made by individual Members, the only report now is the parliamentary sketch. Although it is often very amusing, the sketch is invariably trivial, and it invariably writes down this place and pokes fun at it. That is the purpose of the sketch. In the old days, the sketch sat alongside the objective serious report. Now there is no objective serious report, only the poking fun. Is it any wonder that the public thinks that this place is just fun, when that is the only way in which those who command the media are prepared to broadcast it to the nation?
I too, to my shame, have worked City hours in the past, and I do not want to return to them. I have also been a journalist. The point that the hon. Gentleman is making now, however, has nothing to do with sitting hours. Logically, bringing forward our sitting hours means that newspapers are better able to meet their deadlines.
I accept the hon. Gentleman's point, but my point, which has already featured in the debate, concerns how this place is perceived. The press are not reporting this place, although the hours have been made easier for them. Perhaps their reporting was better when much of the activity took place when the sun was over the yard-arm than it is at a more abstemious time of day. I do not know; what I do know is that they are not reporting this place seriously.
This afternoon we have a real opportunity to make a modest change that commands support throughout the House, which would even out our week a little, and which would not greatly inconvenience Members with young families who live in London and want to do things on weekday evenings. They would still have Wednesday and Thursday evenings. I think that in the interests of Parliament, in the interests of holding the Government to account and in the interests of managing our time in this place, a move to a 10 pm finish on Tuesdays is the very least we could do.
Given the time constraint, I shall be fairly brief.
My amendment (m) makes a fairly modest proposal. It has been obvious to me since I came here in 1992, as I am sure it is to all Members, that our diaries are becoming fuller. We are busier not just here but in our constituencies. The aim of my amendment is to ensure that, on Thursday evening, there is just one vote, and we know when we will be leaving. We would finish our business at 6 pm, or if other amendments are carried, at 5 pm. That is desirable for many reasons.
The hon. Gentleman says that he has been here since 1992 and has never been busier. I have been here since 1983 and I have never been busier, but I have experienced two outright clashes between Select Committee and Standing Committee sittings during this week alone. Will he say something about that? We have a very compressed working week now: everything seems to pile on to Tuesday or Wednesday.
Order. The hon. Gentleman will know Mr. Speaker's views about electrical devices that go off in the Chamber. The hon. Gentleman has done nothing more than disturb his own speech on this occasion.
I apologise unreservedly. It is these newfangled ones. It has never done that before. It must have a mind of its own and known that I was on my feet in the Chamber. Someone may have paged me to tell me that I should shut up, but I do not intend to do so.
I was talking about hon. Members being able to get to meetings. Hon. Members have mentioned that they make use of Monday mornings. We know when we are coming and we know when every day's business starts. The problem is that, every day of the week, we do not have a clue when the business will end.
I am one of the Members who has to travel fair distances on a Thursday night. This week, for example, I have had to book three different flights. There is not much sense in that. Because of the uncertainty about travel arrangements, as well as the other points, the amendment has a lot of merit. My point should be considered.
From some discussions that have taken place, I know that there is a fair strength of feeling in the House about the matter. During just a couple of Divisions, I managed to secure some 52 names. It may not be enough to get a majority, but I appeal to all to consider what I have asked for on the basis of what it will entail.
The Leader of the House mentioned the amendment, as did others. I am satisfied in part with what he said because it went some way towards what I am asking for. However, on the basis of the record over the past few weeks, I would still want to press the amendment to a vote. In the past few weeks, on the Tuesday and the Wednesday, the business has collapsed early without any vote. If the business managers of this place are worth their salt, and I presume that they are, they should be able to order the business of the week so that, on a Thursday, we did not have the kind of business that he mentioned—debates on Iraq, on Second Readings and on the Railways Bill, which takes place this Thursday. Because of that fact more than any other, I believe that what I am proposing is sensible. I ask right hon. and hon. Members to support me.
When I was first elected just over 25 years ago, I was conscious that I was sent here with the ability to express on behalf of the community that gave me a majority some of its fears and views on the way in which public and Government business was conducted. Along with that went a vote. If there is a scandal between a generation ago and today, it is that there is a great diminution in the consideration of public business on this Floor. That is detailed in the Modernisation Committee report of last year. It is detailed in the Procedure Committee report.
The scandal of the current House of Commons is that it is no longer discussing, or even considering vast chunks of important public legislation. That is a fact. We have had legislation that goes to the heart of our freedoms and the Government's obsession with a security and police state, but we have not been able to discuss it on the Floor of the House of Commons until it comes back from the Lords.
I ask myself: is that a consequence of the hours that we sit or of other rules that we impose on ourselves? Is that because we no longer consistently start business at 2.30pm, but do so earlier? I do not think that it is a question of the hours that we sit, whether morning or afternoon. Something else has happened. One has only to look at the Order Paper: "No vote"; "No debate"; "No debate"; "No debate". The very essence and vitality of this House is being sucked out. But do I believe that that is because we sit at 11.30 am? In truth, I do not, which is why I am indifferent to the motion. I will come to express the views of Aldridge-Brownhills as best as I am able, whether it is 9 o'clock at night or 9 o'clock in the morning.
If I am being truthful, this House is looking to its own convenience. That is what this debate is about. It is much more convenient for modern people with young families in a modern world to go off home at 7.30 pm. I hope that the worm will turn in this House on the Standing Orders that mute our voice. The only war debate that we have had that was important in terms of our vote was limited, and by whom? By the Government, and to one day. There were hundreds of us who wanted to speak in that debate.
The heart of this place is being sucked out, not because of the hours but because of ourselves and the rules that we have constructed. In truth, the report of the Modernisation Committee, of which I am an inadequate member, shames me. The quality of work that comes out of Select Committee reports across a wide range of areas is not the detailed scholarship that we used to see.
I wanted to see from this debate that the House believed in its function, which is to look at the law. We have that one vote that we were sent with, to say aye or no. I wanted the House to understand that every one of us must be able to speak on the Floor of the House of Commons. That is what I wanted to see from the debate.
I realise that time is against me, but I wish to support the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend Mr. Howarth to bring back Tuesday evenings. When I was elected to this House 18 years ago, I was acutely aware of the privilege that the people of Halifax had bestowed upon me. This is not like any other job in the world. In this House, we have a voice and we can speak for our constituents. We are not here to do a nine-to-five office job.
When the hours were changed, we were told that it would make Parliament more effective, but I think that the change is destroying Parliament. The place is dead and the truth is that our work is now compressed into two and a half days a week. The conflict between what a normal MP does and attending the Chamber is growing. One need only look at the poor attendance at main speeches to see that.
The second point is that public access has been seriously restricted. I have taken great pride in inviting schools, particularly sixth forms, down to the House of Commons. I usually book a room for a question and answer session and try to take them into the Chamber. That has paid off over the years. I have had volunteers from university in my office who say that that they visited here 14 years ago. We cannot do that now unless we come down on a Sunday night for a Monday morning.
Lunchtime meetings have been dismissed as long lunches, but I meet a variety of people then and I have to choose between doing that or coming here for questions. I am also enthusiastic about all-party groups because my experience of them has been good. Many years ago, I helped to set up the all-party breast cancer group, which has influenced Government policy and been a huge success. Since the advent of the new hours, I have had to step down as one of the joint chairs and I have also had to stand down from other groups close to my heart. That is a shame.
Does my hon. Friend agree that this is not an argument about modernisation of the House, but a discussion about whether we can do our jobs properly? The present hours prevent us from doing so.
I could not agree more. I also wish to reject the notion that women do not want to enter Parliament because of the hours. We have just had a selection procedure in Halifax, at which brilliant women from John O'Groats to Land's End queued up. Not one of them asked about the hours in this place. In 18 years, I have never had an e-mail, letter or message that has said, "I would vote for you, but you work silly hours." No one at any surgery has ever said that either. It is nonsense to claim that our hours affect whether people vote.
The new hours have severely damaged Parliament and its effectiveness. The Chamber is half empty and the scrutiny of the Executive does not happen as it should. Committee sittings have been disrupted. We invite expert witnesses, but have to leave them when the Division bell goes. What is the response of the so-called Modernisation Committee? It advises us to meet in the evenings or on a Saturday morning. It is nonsense. Nor have I have ever seen before so many vacancies on popular Select Committees on the Labour party Whip.
Members no longer get to see Ministers. They used to have to eat here at least a couple of nights a week. They now go off to some fashionable restaurant or club. They come here in a chauffeur-driven car and live in a little elite bubble, and we cannot get at them. I used to get at Ministers regularly when we worked late. Ministers no longer have as much contact with Back Benchers and that removes them from the real world. Many of my constituents work on a 24-hour clock. I did it myself when my children were younger and it is nonsense to say that people do not.
Outside meetings are also suffering. Somebody has already mentioned the fact that we had only one day to debate the war, which was possibly the most important vote in my 18 years in Parliament. I have held meetings in Westminster Hall and other parts of the Palace and the security people have come in and said, "It's half-past 8 and we need you to empty the place." It is sad that such meetings should be shut down.
The new hours have shrunk the parliamentary week, interfered with MPs' activities, undermined public access, made no difference to women wanting to come here and reduced contact between MPs and Ministers, not to mention contact among MPs. The new hours have destroyed one of the greatest debating chambers in the world and the Modernisation Committee should vote for the change back.
We set out to achieve consensus and it seems we have done so in some parts of the House.
This has been an important debate. The decisions that we are about to make will affect the way the House operates and the way it is perceived outside. I have been asked for two commitments on behalf of the Government, so I shall deal with those now. Mr. Tyler asked for a commitment that, if we were in government after the general election, we would review the allocation of Opposition days on the basis of proportionality of representation. That would be our policy, and the allocation would be reviewed. I appreciate that he understands that that is not part of our debate today.
The second request was from Sir Nicholas Winterton, who asked about the Procedure and Modernisation Committees. As he knows, that is a matter for the next Parliament and is not directly related to this debate. However, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has heard the points that he made.
The Modernisation Committee has considered carefully the options for future sittings of the House and produced a package of proposals that it considers the best way forward. The package means that we would keep our current hours on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday, but that the start of Thursday's sitting would be brought forward to 10.30 am. Maintaining the moment of interruption at 6 pm would mean that Thursday would be restored as a full sitting day. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has tabled a motion—the main motion under consideration—that would implement the package.
The Modernisation Committee also recommended that the House should be able to express a clear view on Tuesday sittings—a matter on which the House was unfortunately unable to reach a consensus. To facilitate that expression, I have tabled amendments that would return Tuesday to the old hours of 2.30 pm to 10 pm—the same hours that obtain on a Monday. I do not personally support those amendments, to which my hon. Friend Mr. Howarth spoke with his usual clarity and elegance. Instead, I urge the House to join me and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House in voting against them.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the help that he has given on this matter, if not for the way that he will vote this evening. Does he accept that the problem was that the Modernisation Committee declined to accept the consensus that was achieved?
I understand my hon. Friend's point and I am grateful for the thanks that he expressed to me and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House in respect of trying to reach a consensus. I always thought that it would be a difficult job, but my right hon. Friend has to reach across the spectrum of the whole House, as I hope that my hon. Friend acknowledges.
Hon. Members on all sides of the argument would be well advised to listen to my next point, which I want to emphasise. If the motion in the name of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House were to fall, in the next Parliament we would have to revert to the hours of 2.30 pm to 10 pm on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and to the hours of 11.30 am to 7 pm on Thursdays.
I do not think that even Mr. Forth went that far in his speech.
Some people outside the House have suggested that we would revert to sittings lasting all night. They were abolished by previous Standing Orders, but we would push votes and debates after the moment of interruption up to midnight and even beyond. I am grateful to my hon. Friend Mr. Salter for analysing what happened in previous Sessions. The results show that we went beyond the moment of interruption 78 times in 2003, and that debates often finished after midnight, even before votes were held. [Interruption.]
Order. The general conversation in the Chamber means that I am having difficulty hearing the Minister. The House must listen to the Minister.
Those who support the amendment in the name of my hon. Friend Mr. Donohoe may wish to bear in mind the commitment given by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House regarding whipped business on a Thursday. I hope that they will bear in mind also that delaying votes by deferred Division on major business—currently, deferred Divisions are used in respect of secondary business—would have a significant impact on the timing of business in the other place. My right hon. Friend and I are also concerned about that.
Furthermore, the House should bear in mind another point raised in the debate—that delaying votes would mean that we would not be able to reach a conclusion on a Thursday night. I also urge the House to reject the amendments tabled by Sir Patrick Cormack, as they would undermine the objective of the Modernisation Committee's central recommendation that Thursday should be restored to a full sitting day.
This has been an excellent debate. Unfortunately, we have been unable to reach the consensus that we set out to reach, but we have certainly narrowed the area of disagreement. Greater consensus exists now than existed during the debate in October 2002, which has been to the benefit of the whole House. I urge Members to join the Leader of the House in voting against the amendments and for the main motion as it stands, and for the motions on connecting Parliament with the public and the car mileage allowance. We must now come to a firm decision, so that Members and staff can plan with certainty for the Parliament ahead.
Order. I remind the House that, if an amendment is agreed to the motion on sitting hours, the Question will immediately thereafter be put on any consequential amendments. When the amendments have been disposed of, the Question will be put on the main Question on sitting hours, amended or not, as the case may be. The Questions will then be put forthwith on the motions on connecting Parliament with the public and on the car mileage allowance. The first amendment relates to the time of Tuesday sittings.
Amendment proposed: (a), in line 6, leave out "at half-past two o'clock, on Tuesdays and" and insert "and Tuesdays at half-past two o'clock, on".—[Mr. George Howarth.]
Question accordingly agreed to.
It being more than three hours after the commencement of proceedings, Mr. Deputy Speaker proceeded to put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of business to be concluded at that hour, pursuant to Order [
Consequential amendments made: (b), in line 9, leave out 'Tuesday or'.
(c), in line 14, leave out
'at seven o'clock on Tuesdays and'
'and Tuesdays, at seven o'clock on'.
(d), in line 17, leave out from 'after' to 'Wednesday' in line 20 and insert—
Tuesdays' insert 'between half-past nine o'clock and two o'clock;
(aa) on Wednesdays beginning at half-past nine o'clock, which shall be suspended from half-past eleven o'clock until half-past two o'clock and may then continue for up to a further two and a half hours; except that if the'.
(e), in line 39, leave out ', four o'clock on Tuesday or' and insert—
'or Tuesday, four o'clock on'.
(f), in line 45, leave out
', eight o'clock on Tuesday or'
'or Tuesday, eight o'clock on'.
(g), in line 48, leave out
', half-past eight o'clock on Tuesday or'
'or Tuesday, half past eight o'clock on'.
(h), in line 54, leave out
'four o'clock on any specified Tuesday or'
'or Tuesday, four o'clock on any specified'.
(i), in line 59, leave out
'four o'clock if it is a Tuesday or'
'or Tuesday, four o'clock if it is a'.
(j), in line 61, leave out
'half-past ten o'clock on a Tuesday or'
'or Tuesday, half-past ten o'clock on a'
(k), in line 67, leave out
'four o'clock on Tuesday or'
'or Tuesday, four o'clock on'.
(l), in line 77, leave out from 'insert' to 'Wednesdays' in line 80 and insert—
'or Tuesdays, between the hours of twenty-five minutes past eleven o'clock in the morning and half-past one o'clock in the afternoon on'.—[Mr. Donohoe.]
Amendment proposed: (m), in line 64, at end insert—
'Line 6, at beginning insert "Subject to paragraph (2A) below,".
Line 28, at end insert—
"(2A) Sub-paragraphs (a), (c), (d) and (e) of paragraph (2) above shall not apply to sittings of the House on Thursdays.".'.—[Mr. Donohoe.]
Question put, That the amendment be made:—
The House divided: Ayes 80, Noes 388.