Legislative Process

Deferred Divisions – in the House of Commons at 4:56 pm on 1st November 2006.

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Question again proposed.

Photo of Nick Harvey Nick Harvey Shadow Secretary of State for Defence 5:11 pm, 1st November 2006

My purpose in rising in this debate is to address some remarks to motion 6 in respect of the proposed communications allowance, but I shall begin by throwing in my tuppence worth on September sittings. In 2002 I voted enthusiastically in favour of the experiment, but I do not believe that returning here for two weeks and then clearing off for another three or four has proved a sensible or useful way to conduct our business. I have a lot of sympathy with those who have said that we should come back here by mid or late September, and that that should be the start of the new parliamentary calendar.

In this day and age, children are not taken on holiday during the school term. Schools go back at the start of September, and I do not see why party conferences, if they are going to take place in that month, cannot be rattled through pretty quickly. That would mean that the House could be back here well before the end of the month to begin our autumn's work. Anyhow, I shall vote for the motion tonight and hope that we will make progress on the matter that I have set out.

Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Conservative, Broxbourne

We could rattle through the party conferences in a week, but all parties want their own week in the sun. The three main parties currently occupy successive weeks in September, but to achieve what the hon. Gentleman wants we would have to persuade them to hold their conferences at the same time. That would be a difficult challenge.

Photo of Nick Harvey Nick Harvey Shadow Secretary of State for Defence

I do not think that holding the conferences at the same time would be the solution, but all the parties seem to be making an effort to make them shorter. Therefore, even if they took place consecutively, the period devoted to them could be over more speedily.

As has been noted several times today, the widely observed problem of disconnect between Parliament and the public might be a contributory factor to lower turnouts at elections. The Hansard Society published a report that challenged Parliament to up its game in its relations with the public. We have started to do that. Our Select Committees, and the House itself, employ press officers to explain our work to the public. More outreach officers go into constituencies and local education authorities to explain the work of Parliament. The education unit has expanded its programme of school visits and produced new films about our work, while its work books are part of the national curriculum. In addition, a major overhaul of the parliamentary website is under way, although it is still very much a work in progress.

I welcome the efforts that the House as a body corporate—if I might use the phrase in this context—has made to up its game. However, if those communications are to work we have to recognise that the work of the House is the work of its Members. It is ridiculous for us to think that we can sit back and let the House and its Officials explain what is going on and that we do not have a greater part to play in the process, not least because opinion polls and, I think, the report of the Hansard Society note that when the public are asked what they think about MPs in general they have rather a derogatory view, but they usually take quite a benign view of their own MP. There is a challenge for MPs to take more of a role in their constituencies in explaining their own work and the work of the House. There is nothing illegitimate in an MP making a report, in non-partisan terms, about what the MP is doing and about what Parliament is doing.

The existing arrangements are profoundly unsatisfactory, however. As the House knows, during this Session I have been serving on both the Members Estimate Committee and the Committee on Standards and Privileges, so I have seen the issue from both ends. Concerns about the current arrangements have been knocking around for a long time—certainly longer than I have been involved—and it has taken two or three years for a constructive proposal to be put on the table. We have one before us today, in the shape of the recommendation from the Leader of the House for a communications allowance. I commend him on having taken the initiative in trying to address such a tricky issue.

Members have already touched on the anomalies in the existing regulations. I will start with pre-paid post and House stationery, to which Members have unlimited access at present. In the year running up to the election, we reached a ridiculous situation: Members' average spend on those two items put together was about £3,500, but in one or two cases there were some outrageous expenditure totals, one of which stretched to more than £50,000. The system cannot be working properly when some Members, seemingly within the regulations, can spend up to 15 times the average. Clearly, that has to be addressed.

Photo of Andrew Pelling Andrew Pelling Conservative, Croydon Central

It was in fact my predecessor who spent that amount. Does not the concrete proposal that has been made offer us the opportunity to put a cap on that type of expenditure? It is too easy to dismiss the proposed allowance as extra money for Members of Parliament, when it is actually an initiative that would put a cap on irresponsible behaviour.

Photo of Nick Harvey Nick Harvey Shadow Secretary of State for Defence

I agree entirely. The hon. Gentleman has correctly discerned the motivation of the Leader of the House in tabling the motion.

The situation regarding envelopes and stationery is curious, as Members have already observed. The rules say, in principle, that Members are not supposed to use those facilities to send out unsolicited mailings. The Committee on Standards and Privileges, the Serjeant at Arms and the commissioner found some difficulty—I choose my words carefully—in picking their way through the regulation. It is absurd that if a post office were due to close in a village of 100 houses in a Member's constituency, he or she could not write about the closure to the 200 residents who live in those houses—yet if the Member received a petition on the future of the planet signed by 30,000 people, it would be perfectly in order to use the crested stationery and pre-paid envelopes to correspond with them. That is clearly nonsense. Whatever else happens, if we leave in place a system that allows unlimited use of post and stationery, we need far clearer and more definite rules than we have at present. If anything, the rules are rather over-prescriptive; I should prefer a more sensible regime, but with a clear cap on the expenditure. We cannot have our cake and eat it—it must be one way or the other.

I come now to annual reports and similar communications sent out by Members that can be funded by the IEP, where there are also some strange rules. For example, the content of those reports is rightly supposed to be non-partisan, but if we include a direct quote of something said in Parliament, it becomes possible to refer to our own speeches in Westminster Hall, during which the most scandalously partisan points may have been raised. Such comments could be passported straight into the report with no infringement of the rules. That is clearly absolute nonsense, which makes a complete mockery of the system, and it needs to be tightened up.

The motion before the House invites us to consider the communications allowance and the Members Estimate Committee is invited to bring forward regulations that would allow us to address all the anomalies to which I have referred. Some have asked why we need a communications allowance and why we are not simply allowed greater use of envelopes and stationery. For one thing, that is an incredibly expensive way for MPs to take proactive communication out to the constituency. Each item sent will incur the full postage rate whereas there are, as hon. Members will know, much more economically viable ways of communicating with large numbers of people. Rather than use ordinary postage of the Royal Mail, it is far better to have a communications allowance through which Members can use their own ingenuity and ability to manage a budget—to refer back to an earlier point—in order to get the best solution that best suits the communications that they want within the rules that are rightly understood as necessary to exclude party political purposes.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

It is the ingenuity point that worries me because it leaves great scope for misunderstanding and avoidance. The US Congress allows mailings, but they are all in the same format. If we are to go down this road, we should opt for parity of treatment, similar format and minimal scope for innovation. We should all have the same degree of communication.

Photo of Nick Harvey Nick Harvey Shadow Secretary of State for Defence

I certainly agree with the objective of trying to put Members on an equal footing. As I have said, it cannot be right that some are spending 15 times more public money than average on communications. We could go down the route of having a precisely equal format, but I do not welcome the hon. Gentleman's suggestion of trying to stamp out innovation. In the modern era, there are many different ways of communicating and there could be generation gaps between different Members in how they proceed. We need a certain amount of flexibility. The motion calls for the rules to be worked out, so it would be perfectly in order for the hon. Gentleman to make his recommendations to the Committee.

I was dismayed to hear Mrs. May imply that she intended to vote against the motion simply because she would prefer our usage of envelopes and crested stationery to be paid for out of the communications allowance. I agree with her—she is entirely right—about how it should operate, but it seems to me to be within the scope of the motion for that sort of detail to be dealt with by the Members Estimate Committee, as it draws up the detailed regulations to accompany the allowance. The right hon. Lady will have a further opportunity to make her point at that stage, and if it came back to the House later she could pick it up again. I honestly do not believe that her preference for operating the scheme, which I share, provides any reason at all to vote against the motion.

I also listened carefully to the Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee, who accurately described some of the difficulties experienced in implementing the rules as they stand, and I rather shared his point of view that the new regime should not give rise to a big increase in the total spend. Again, that issue can be hammered out when the details are formulated, but the motion today establishes a principle. I believe that it is a good and right principle.

Communicating with our electorate what Members and Parliament are doing is an entirely legitimate right. It happens in many other countries and it is important to undertake that work if we are to improve the House's reputation. However, everybody must be on an equal footing, and there must be a cap and better and more logical rules. The communications allowance proposal represents the best opportunity to try to create such a regime that we have had for a long time. When I consider how long it has taken to get to that point, I shudder to think how long it will take to get back here if we blow the chance today and reject the proposals. I therefore urge hon. Members to support motion 6.

Photo of Stuart Bell Stuart Bell Second Church Estates Commissioner 5:25 pm, 1st November 2006

It is a pleasure to follow Nick Harvey, who serves on the House of Commons Commission and the Members Estimate Committee, as I do. His words are interesting and he is right to refer us to the text of the motion on the communications allowance. It states:

"That this House welcomes the principle of establishing, from 1st April 2007, a separate Allowance for Members of Parliament to assist in the work of communicating with the public on parliamentary business and instructs the Members Estimate Committee to prepare a detailed proposal for such an allowance."

I agree with the hon. Gentleman's last point that, if we miss the opportunity today, we will not get to grips with the problem, which has been aired fully, with many hon. Members explaining their circumstances and how they relate to their constituents.

I apologise for not being present earlier because of the national health service lobby in Central Lobby and elsewhere. I cannot refer to some of the earlier points that were made, but I am glad that Mr. Walker remains in his place because he explained that he felt disadvantaged as a Member of Parliament who has not been here long when compared with those who have been here for some 20 years. I assure him that, after 20 years, he will find a way of filling those Wednesday evenings that currently leave him at a loose end.

I am glad that you are in the Chair, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because I became a Member of Parliament 23 years ago and you followed my maiden speech—we all remember the occasion of our maiden speeches. When I first became a Member of Parliament, we left the premises in July and did not return for 12 weeks. It never entered our minds to come back for very simple reasons: we had a locker, not an office, and we had no reason to be here. As the years passed, the facilities changed and one can do as much work here as elsewhere in those three months.

I was interested to hear the speech of my hon. Friend Mr. Mullin, who urged September sittings. I work here throughout September as Second Church Estates Commissioner and I assure hon. Members that it is no joke. The place is a building site, there are no facilities and it is difficult to get anything done.

I refer hon. Members to the written answer that my hon. Friend Martin Salter mentioned about the cost of coming back in September. We are always told to take the ratepayer and the taxpayer into account and how much we are costing them. One figure that my hon. Friend did not provide was the cost of the two-day emergency recall in September 1998, which was estimated to be £375,000 in work costs. There were other staff costs, mainly for security and some overtime, which amounted to £33,200. That was for an emergency recall, the reasons for which we all understand. However, having a September sitting when the place is a building site costs much more.

The place becomes a building site because the Houses of Parliament are about 150 years old. I estimate that it would take 14 years to put the building right through repairs, yet they can be carried out only in the 12-week summer recess. If we consider value for money for the taxpayer, there is no great benefit in coming back in September.

When I came into the Chamber, Sir Nicholas Winterton was making an intervention about foreign trips in September. I had the honour, through the Inter-Parliamentary Union, of leading a parliamentary delegation to Algeria in September. It was the first delegation of its kind, and it had the blessing of the President of Algeria and our Prime Minister. It was an important trip for the purposes of opening up our democracy to the democracy of Algeria, a strategic partner in the Mediterranean and in Africa. It would have been a tremendous blow if that delegation had not been allowed to go ahead because of a September sitting. When we were in Algeria, we were told that a Minister of the Crown was due to visit the country in October and that people were looking forward to that visit. However, there was some hesitation about whether it would go ahead because the business of the House might result in the Minister not being allowed to go. Cancelling such trips at the last moment would diminish the prestige of the House of Commons and of this Parliament.

Sir George Young made an eloquent and profound speech earlier, in which he said that the Members Estimate Committee would be in charge of determining how the communications allowance is to be worked out. That could be a challenge for the Committee, but it is a challenge that we are quite happy and willing to take up.

My hon. Friends the Members for Reading, West and for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) referred to their relationships with their constituencies. We all find that difficult in this day and age because the bridge between civil society and political society is the media. We are generally able to communicate with our constituents only through the media. The media have changed, however, and they now have a different analysis of the situation. I do not wish to comment on particular instances, but there are newspapers around the country that have cancelled the contracts of their parliamentary reporters. They no longer have a parliamentary reporter here. How are the Members of Parliament in such constituencies to communicate with the electorate? Regardless of what people may think about the various allowances and expenses—I should say "allowances", rather than "expenses"—every allowance is fully approved by the House authorities. However, there are distortions within those allowances that we need to take into account. The communications allowance will provide a way of doing that, which is why I give it my full support.

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Conservative, Castle Point

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that compelling argument about the media. Does he also accept that some parts of the media, even the local media, can take a dislike to a politician and play politics—

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Conservative, Castle Point

Oh, yes—not that that happens in Castle Point. However, those sections of the media can become political and influence the way in which an MP's message goes out, both visually and in the way in which they print what the MP says. We must empower MPs to overcome that phenomenon.

Photo of Stuart Bell Stuart Bell Second Church Estates Commissioner

I fully agree with the hon. Gentleman. During the Cleveland child abuse crisis some 20 years ago, certain newspapers decided, for the sake of it, to mount personal attacks on me. I was personally attacked by some sections of the media for no reason other than that they wanted to be controversial. When that happens at local level, it can distort the way in which a Member of Parliament goes about his business and how his constituents will see him. In society, it is a fact that mud sticks.

It is important that we give the motion on the communications allowance our full support. I should also like to reiterate my full support for the motion that there should be no September sittings. They are not conducive to the House of Commons. Having listened to the interventions of my hon. Friend Andrew Mackinlay, I sometimes think that we take ourselves too seriously. We think that we have greater powers than we actually have. Our role here is to hold the Executive to account, as the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire and others have said. That is the great challenge that the House of Commons faces. We are a sovereign Parliament for a sovereign people, and we should be able to communicate with our electorate without the distortions of the press. The communications allowance will represent a step forward in that regard. Furthermore, there is no need to have September sittings in order to fulfil our functions.

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough 5:34 pm, 1st November 2006

It is a pleasure to follow Sir Stuart Bell, who made a powerful and important speech. Unfortunately, I think that I will disagree with him on several points.

I support the amendment tabled by Mr. Winnick to the motion on September sittings. I am disappointed that the Leader of the House has tabled a motion that would increase the power of the Executive and decrease the power of Parliament. I would have thought that the Leader of the House should be the champion of parliamentary democracy, but the motion would do nothing to strengthen the power of Parliament—in fact, it would take that away.

It is a great honour and privilege to be a Member of Parliament. As parliamentarians, our primary duty is to hold the Executive to account. However, year after year, the Government are taking more power and bypassing Parliament at every level. One of the few weapons that MPs have left in their battle with the Executive is oral questions—bringing Ministers to the Dispatch Box and questioning them on important issues of the day, thus making the Government explain their actions.

To most people outside the House, the idea that Parliament shuts down for 12 weeks in the summer and autumn is unacceptable. They believe that MPs swan off for extra-long holidays and that the Government get off scot-free, and that reinforces their perception of us. Everyone here knows that the first part of that statement is untrue. Members spend the recess in their constituencies attending meetings and events and doing constituency work. However, the second part of the statement is correct: the Government are given a free rein.

Last summer, Parliament did not sit for 76 days, despite the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the situation in the middle east, the collapse of the immigration system, law and order issues, terrorism and the cuts in the health service. Not once in 76 days were Members able to question a Minister at the Dispatch Box. Not once were Ministers able to make statements in the House before Members could quiz them over their actions. Not once were MPs allowed to ask oral questions on one of the 100 or so written ministerial statements that were rushed out just before the summer recess, and at no time did the Prime Minister come to the House to explain his and the Government's actions. It is not right for democracy that the Government are immune to scrutiny by Parliament for 76 days in the summer.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman's argument. If he is suggesting that the House should sit during those 76 days, for how many days does he think that the House should sit throughout the year?

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I will come on to that point later in my speech.

Members of Parliament have many roles to fulfil, but the most important is holding the Executive to account. This democratic right has been denied to us during the summer recess. That is extremely damaging for democracy. It is damaging that so much power is given to the Executive, who escape scrutiny.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick Labour, Walsall North

I certainly do not wish to antagonise the hon. Gentleman, given that he supports my amendment. I have obviously advocated his argument. However, not sitting in the summer has been the situation for a long time—for centuries, I suppose. In 1996, for example, which was the last year of the Conservative Government, the House rose on 25 July and went back on 14 October. In 1992, it rose on 16 July and went back on 19 October. The situation has thus been continuous.

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

The hon. Gentleman makes my point for me. For years and years, the Executive have eroded the power of Parliament. We have the opportunity today to put the balance back a little further towards where it should be.

It is not right that during the summer recess the only scrutineers of the Government are the media. The media have a role to play in scrutinising the Government but they are not elected, they do not have to respond to constituents, and many in the media have their own agenda. I have made clear in the House on several occasions my views in favour of September sittings. However, I am not suggesting that the House sits for two weeks in September and then reconvenes in October after the conference season. It is absurd and a waste of time and money to reconvene for a short period, only to break up again for a short period before Parliament starts properly in October.

The new parliamentary term should commence in September and follow through until the Christmas recess. I see no problem in keeping the conference dates as they are. Not all Members go to the conferences anyway, and under my proposals Members would have the choice of attending the party's conference or being present in Parliament. I am not suggesting that parliamentary time in September should be used to create new legislation or to force Divisions. I want to use September for innovation and to free up time for scrutiny.

If Parliament sits in September, that month should be used for in-depth reviews of Government Departments. It is right that a Minister should come to the House in September and answer Members' questions about a particular Department. Why not have a whole week's review of the Department of Health? Time should also be set aside for parliamentary questions to be asked in the House and answered by the various Departments. The Prime Minister or his Deputy should come to the House each week and explain his actions. There would not need to be votes on matters brought before the House during this period, but it would provide much needed time for debate and to review and scrutinise the Government's running of our country. That would give right hon. and hon. Members the chance to question Ministers on matters of importance to them and their constituents.

Several reasons have been given as to why it would be impossible to begin the parliamentary term in September, and a deal of opposition has been expressed. Let us consider the objections. As a recent parliamentary answer by Nick Harvey suggests, the building works programme is planned to fit in with the expected parliamentary timetable, and by changing the timetable it would cost more because building works would have to be carried out in a shorter space of time. What a ridiculous excuse to use. There is no reason why works could not be planned around a new parliamentary timetable. I refuse to believe that that would cost taxpayers more money in the long run. Quite the reverse—if during September we were to properly scrutinise the Executive and Government Departments, we could perhaps save taxpayers millions upon millions of pounds. Are we really saying that building works should determine when the mother of Parliaments sits?

Photo of Mark Lazarowicz Mark Lazarowicz Labour, Edinburgh North and Leith

Is it not worth pointing out that the assumption always was that if at some time September sittings were to take place, Parliament would rise a little earlier in July? So it is not a case of there being no time at all for works in the summer. There would be some time at the beginning to make up for time lost at the end.

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

I entirely agree. I am arguing that there should not be an 11-week gap when the Government are not scrutinised. September sittings would give the opportunity to introduce new ideas and innovations.

I do not buy the excuse that it would cost a huge amount of money for the Commons Chamber and the rest of the parliamentary estate to be open. It is open anyway during the recess, with thousands of staff and visitors using the site every day. The cost of running the Chamber would be a marginal extra cost. Are we really saying that cost should be placed before democracy?

Above all, I do not buy the excuse that parliamentary sittings in September would prevent Members from spending time in their constituencies, for two reasons. First, the September sittings would be a period of debate, scrutiny and review, in which there would be no Divisions, and in which no new legislation would be introduced.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

The hon. Gentleman has still not answered my first question on how long Parliament should sit throughout the year. However, on another point, I know that he is new to the House, and he is obviously very enthusiastic, but is he seriously suggesting that, if there were no Divisions during such a period, there would be mass attendance in the Chamber?

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

I have never seen mass attendance in the Chamber, except during parliamentary questions. As I shall make clear later, my proposal will give hon. Members who want to stay in their constituencies in September the opportunity to do so, and will allow Members who want to question Ministers in the House to attend Parliament. There will be no onus on those Members who wish to remain in their constituency to attend Parliament during that period, but other Members will have the opportunity to hold the Government to account.

Secondly, and most importantly, it is not the case that a Member of Parliament can either be in his constituency or attend Parliament—it is the role of Members to do both. It is not the case that, when Parliament is sitting, hon. Members do not visit their constituencies. When Parliament is sitting, I am not prevented from seeing constituents, holding weekly advice surgeries, or continuing with my rolling survey of constituents through my "Listening to Wellingborough and Rushden" campaign. I attend meetings, events and functions, yet I am still present in Parliament for questions, debates and Divisions. The situation would be no different if Parliament met in September. If Members wished to remain in their constituencies for the whole of September, there would be nothing to prevent them from doing so, but September sittings would give Members who wanted it parliamentary time for genuine debate and scrutiny. September sittings would allow us to fulfil both of our major roles as Members of Parliament. If Parliament reconvenes in September, we will have a real opportunity to be innovative in how we use the parliamentary time.

Photo of Dawn Butler Dawn Butler Labour, Brent South

On a point of clarification, I understand that the hon. Gentleman supports the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend Mr. Winnick. I followed my hon. Friend's arguments, but I find it a little difficult to follow the hon. Gentleman's argument. Is he suggesting that the House should sit in September, but that Members should be able to choose whether to attend, depending on whether it is a commutable distance for them?

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

I have not made my point clear, so I shall try again. I am saying that in September, there would be no Divisions and no new legislation would be introduced, so Members would not have to attend, as they must in the rest of the year. It would give us a period in which we could do things differently.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

It would be a little naive not to recognise that the hon. Gentleman's proposals would result in a feeding frenzy for the press, as they could track down who attended which debate, at a time when MPs might well want to do valuable work in their constituency, instead of attending a debate in the House that might be of very little relevance to their constituents.

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

It would be an appalling state of affairs if the House made its decisions according to what the media considered right.

I suggest that we use September sittings to hold in-depth reviews of particular Departments, in which Members would have the opportunity to ask more than one question to the Minister in charge. The time would also give us the opportunity to hold more Adjournment debates on subjects that are of great interest, but that cannot otherwise fit into the parliamentary timetable. Even if we had September sittings, Members would still have a recess of at least six weeks, and in those six weeks, if Parliament needed to be recalled to discuss urgent business, Parliament should make that decision, and not the Executive.

Motion 7 argues that September sittings should be abolished, due to the introduction of a procedure for the tabling and answering of written questions during the summer recess. That is an interesting idea, and I participated fully in the experiment that took place in the summer recess. Named day questions were delayed, some Ministers did not even attempt to answer the questions that I put to them, and some responses were incorrect. I have expressed concern about such problems many times in points of order, parliamentary questions, Westminster Hall debates and letters to Ministers. To use an example that I have used several times in the House—I shall continue to use it until a member of the Government admits misleading the House—since November 2005, the Prime Minister and several of his colleagues have stood at the Dispatch Box and told the House that no one waits more than six months for an NHS operation. In fact, Ministers have made that assertion no fewer than 14 times in ministerial statements and answers to parliamentary questions.

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. In his enthusiasm to pursue the argument about September sittings the hon. Gentleman is going rather wide, so I must rule him out of order.

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

I was trying to make the point that if those statements were made immediately before the recess, they could not be challenged in the 11 weeks in which Parliament does not sit. If the House adopted my proposal of in-depth reviews of Parliament, the hypocrisy of those statements could be exposed.

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. The hon. Gentleman is perhaps spoiling his argument with the use of immoderate language, which we generally deplore in the House. He might rephrase what he has just said.

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. If the House sat in September, hon. Members would not have to worry about the pressure of voting. They would have more time for scrutiny, and we could correct inconsistent facts in statements. Ministers seem to be able to say certain things, but there is not enough time for Back-Bench Members to correct them. In conclusion, if we do not vote for the amendment, we will close off the opportunity for September sittings, whether or not we wish to reschedule the parliamentary year. In my opinion, it is quite wrong that for 11 weeks this Government, or any other Government, should not face parliamentary scrutiny.

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Conservative, Castle Point 5:52 pm, 1st November 2006

There are great benefits in being called early or late in a debate, as one can make a speech to many more excellent colleagues in the Chamber, although that may well give me more pleasure that it gives them.

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Mr. Bone. I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Walker, who made an excellent speech that was only five minutes long. He made his points better for his brevity, and I believe that he shared my amusement and amazement that many right hon. and hon. Members spoke for 20 or 30 minutes in a debate partly dedicated to shorter speeches. As my right hon. Friend Mrs. May said, it is desirable to restrict speeches, but three minutes is too extreme a limit and would frustrate good debate in the Chamber. I shall therefore vote against that measure.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

As the hon. Gentleman was one of several Members who intervened on me, would he prefer me not to accept his interventions in future?

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Conservative, Castle Point

As usual, the hon. Gentleman makes a compelling point, and he has disabused me of that notion.

I oppose motion 7, as I support September sittings. Politics is changing fast—in an increasingly globalised and uncertain world, there are more threats and opportunities. We have experienced major problems such as wars, terrorism, extreme weather events and disasters, and serious events have occurred in the UK. Parliament must deal with those events, and speed of response is often of the essence.

September sittings would allow more time to scrutinise the Executive. That does not mean more legislation—we need less legislation—but we need better to scrutinise legislation and the Executive.

The press and public opinion is not the only issue or even the main issue in this debate, but it is a concern. The public are increasingly sceptical about politics and political structures. There is a serious disconnect, because the public—I believe incorrectly—do not think that we are doing the job how they want to see it done. The public interest and democracy are best served by this House tackling public cynicism, which, whether we like it or not, is caused in part by our very long recess. We need to be seen to be more responsive and more in touch with the real world as events unfold.

We should not organise the activities of this House for the convenience of political parties and their conferences, which are outdated and which can be counter-productive. I believe that party conferences are part of the problem of public disengagement and not part of the solution. My hon. Friends know that I have not been to my party conference for some years, and I am the better for it and so are my constituents, whom I serve better because I am in my constituency rather than playing politics at a seaside resort.

Parliament must retake more power and control over the Executive and hold the Executive better to account if democracy is to be saved and rehabilitated, and stopping the Government's 80-day scrutiny holiday would be a good start.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Conservative, Scarborough and Whitby

Is my hon. Friend aware that it is not only the Government who are escaping scrutiny? The European Parliament returns on August bank holiday Monday, so there are five weeks when this House cannot scrutinise and comment on what goes on there.

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Conservative, Castle Point

My hon. Friend has made a characteristically excellent point, and I congratulate him on it.

We must re-examine the powers that enable us to recall Parliament. It must be in the gift of MPs rather than parties or the Executive to force the recall of Parliament.

The bottom line is that this House should sit in September, perhaps at the end of September, to avoid the stop-start situation, which is difficult to explain. As Andrew Mackinlay has said, perhaps we should use light sittings, or, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough has explained, perhaps we should use innovative approaches. We should certainly be here; we should be better holding the Executive to account; and MPs should be given powers to recall Parliament, as and when it is necessary to do so.

Photo of Malcolm Bruce Malcolm Bruce Chair, International Development Committee, Chair, International Development Committee 5:58 pm, 1st November 2006

I commend the Leader of the House for motion 4, on Standing Orders, which will take forward how we deal with legislation in the House.

In an earlier intervention, I said that I had heard comments from public and private agencies in Scotland—British organisations that deal with both the Scottish Parliament and Westminster, and can make comparisons. They have concluded that the way in which legislation is handled in Scotland, whether or not it involves a partnership or shared responsibility between Westminster and the Scottish Parliament, is much more efficient and effective and that the quality of the legislation is much higher. That is not because the calibre of the political animal in Scotland is necessarily better, but because the process ensures that evidence is taken and that committees help to shape legislation through their deliberations. Problems of the kind that we have here, whereby legislation is ill prepared and there are lots of late Government amendments, do not happen to anything like the same extent. The Leader of the House's proposal seems to give us a much better chance of achieving that quality, which would benefit the House, outside agencies wishing to influence legislation, and, ultimately, the Government, who will end up with better laws.

There is a demarcation dispute as to who should chair the evidence-taking element of the Committee. John Bercow, who is not in his place, declared his interest as a member of the Speaker's Panel. I am surprised that relatively few members of the Liaison Committee have taken part in the debate, because they said at a meeting last week that they were somewhat unhappy with some of the proposals, and I would have thought that some might come here to say so. The process of taking evidence is different from that of deliberating on a Bill. It is no disrespect to the excellent members of the Chairman's Panel to suggest that it is not necessarily where their experience lies, although of course if their job changes their competence will change.

It is argued that members of Select Committees who specialise in a particular Department have particular expertise, so the quality and depth of their inquisition is therefore likely to be that much more effective. My hon. Friend Nick Harvey told me informally that when he sat on the "Puttnam Committee"—a Committee of both Houses that took evidence on the Ofcom legislation—his expertise hugely helped the process of the deliberations and improved the quality of the Bill.

I hope that the House will consider and accept the recommendations made by the Modernisation Committee in this respect. I also hope that the Leader of the House, who implied in his response to the hon. Member for Buckingham that he was rather more in favour of the Chairman's Panel approach, will reflect on the matter, and that we may even have the opportunity to discuss it more fully.

I want to speak against motion 7, on September sittings, and in favour of the amendment tabled by Mr. Winnick. Indeed, an amendment of a somewhat similar character stands in my name. It is worth recalling that before the introduction of September sittings, the House was recalled during the summer recess in 1992, 1998, 2001 and 2002. In 2003, when Mr. Hain was Leader of the House, he said:

"The hon. Gentleman should note that there was no demand for the House to be recalled over the summer recess. Why? Because everyone knew that we were coming back at the earliest opportunity in September. Year after year, however, there have been almost ritual demands for a recall...The public do not understand how we can be in recess for 13 weeks, as happened with the old model."—[ Hansard, 18 September 2003; Vol. 410, c. 1077.]

Mark Lazarowicz gave examples of years in which the recess lasted for 13 weeks.

I am not interested in what the media think about what we are doing during those 13 weeks—I am interested in how we can possibly stand up in front of our constituents and say that the important business of questioning Ministers and calling Parliament to account goes on week in, week out, except for 13 weeks when it does not go on at all. I think that most people understand that there is a period in August when hardly any other Parliament in the world sits, other than in extremis. As the then Leader of the House said, Members can hold back for a few weeks if we know that the House is going to be sitting and that we can marshal our arguments before we make our case. It is not credible to suggest that we can do the job that we are elected to do effectively when the House does not sit for 13 weeks at a time. Frankly, I found some of the contrary arguments breathtakingly unbelievable.

Photo of Mark Pritchard Mark Pritchard Conservative, The Wrekin

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is, by definition, likely that he would see less of his constituents as a result of sitting in this place in September, and that as a result, he would be less well advised about issues in his constituency?

Photo of Malcolm Bruce Malcolm Bruce Chair, International Development Committee, Chair, International Development Committee

The answer is simple. The House needs to sit regularly, with regular breaks. We should neither sit for too long nor be away for too long. That ensures that we get the balance right between time spent in the constituency and time spent dealing with matters in the House. It is the distribution of our work load that is inefficient and ineffective, in that the job we are supposed to do simply cannot proceed.

Mr. Bone made some suggestions that I found interesting, although they were somewhat derided.

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What are those suggestions?

Submitted by john franklyn Read 1 more annotation

Photo of Malcolm Bruce Malcolm Bruce Chair, International Development Committee, Chair, International Development Committee

Not by the Leader of the House, but by some other Members. There were suggestions about how we might organise the time. Martin Salter is not present, and I am not being ironic when I refer to the proposition that we turn up here only when there is a Division and the Whips require us to do so. It is true that there may well be occasions when only 30 or 40 of the 645 Members feel the need to be here, but the fact is that every Member has the opportunity to be here. Ministers have to be here, the exchange of information is here, and the public can observe what is going on and what is being said. That is what matters. Each of us—all 645 Members—must account to our constituents for where we were and why we were there, and I think most of us are big enough and ugly enough to be able to handle that reasonably competently. I believe that we are in danger of making a complacent and serious error if we vote for the recommendation by the Leader of the House.

Joan Ruddock said that she used to be in favour of September sittings, but would vote against them tonight. She made some pertinent comments about the need to rebalance the whole year along the lines that I have suggested, and said that although she would vote for the motion, she hoped that we would revisit it. I heard what the Leader of the House had to say, but my honest view is that if the House votes for his motion, that is the last we shall hear of it until pressure and embarrassment build up again, and the House comes to its senses and concludes that not sitting for 12 or 13 weeks is an unacceptable way in which to conduct our business in modern times. I believe that the Leader of the House, who used to be in favour of September sittings, has made an error of judgment in this case.

Some Members have expressed the view that our September sittings were not very effective. I agree. They were not very well organised. It was, I recall, well known that many Ministers did not really approve of them, feeling that they were a nuisance and a pain. The Government business managers, of course, control what goes into those two weeks. It is very easy to look back and say that it was not very much, but there were Second Reading debates and Report stages. There was legislative progress, which may have reduced the ping-pong pressure at the end of the parliamentary year.

In an intervention, the hon. Member for Buckingham sensibly advanced the case for a business Committee. That would help to resolve the issues of the pattern of business, the pattern of sittings, and how business can be managed effectively. I think that those who say, "The September sittings did not work very well and we should revert to the status quo ante", should instead be asking how we can arrange September sittings in a better and more effective way.

The following is on the record, so no one should be surprised when I mention it now; nor is it the main part of my argument: we have had debates, on which the whole modernisation process hinged, about making the House a family friendly institution. That "family-friendly" institution was designed mostly for London Members. I am not saying that it is perfect for them, but if the House rises at about 7.30—as it will tonight—presumably they can be at home with their families by 8 pm, and even earlier on Thursdays. Indeed, they can nip home between votes on Mondays and Tuesdays, unless there is a running whip. This is not special pleading from a Scottish Member. Any Member whose constituency is significantly out of town will be either in London or in the constituency, not running between the two—with the possible exception of Mr. Joyce.

The serious issue is to do with the fact that most people come to Parliament for the three or four days in the week that the House is sitting to conduct their parliamentary business and they then leave, and squash in whatever they can in consultations and visits in their constituencies, which they get back to on Thursday night if they are lucky, although in some cases not until Friday morning. Mark Lazarowicz again made some sensible suggestions on whether we could have shorter weeks, but more of them, to allow for a better balance: That might work, but the House needs to take on board the fact that we are in danger of completely ignoring the family considerations of out-of-town Members, in terms of considerations such as school holidays.

On a personal basis, when I analysed the situation as of two years ago, I found that the only times when my children and I were off together were Christmas and the first two weeks of August; there was no other time when the children were off and the House was not sitting. I am not suggesting that we can accommodate all variations to do with school holidays, given that they are changing, but I got the impression that almost every Member liked the idea of rising earlier in July—that that suited most of us, throughout the United Kingdom. That is the case not least because in recent years we have found that the hottest and most uncomfortable weeks tend to be the last two weeks in July, and the Leader of the House will know that the weather at that time is not only uncomfortable, but it makes life worse for him, as hot and bad-tempered Members who wish they were with their families or abroad are not the most compliant and helpful of legislators.

The original proposal was that we rise earlier in July and go back in September. I completely agree with those Members who have suggested that having a two-week sitting in September and then another break for several weeks does not work. That is why, although I am happy to support the amendment of the hon. Member for Walsall, North my amendment suggested that we required further consultation to try to work out a pattern and balance of sittings of the House that meets the various considerations. I wrote to the Leader of the House on this matter, and he courteously wrote back acknowledging the content of my letter, and I honestly thought that that was what he was engaged in—that he was involved in a discussion to see how we could review our sittings and come up with an alternative proposition that met the objectives originally set out. I certainly did not expect us to go back to having a long 12-week recess.

I was as disappointed as other Members when I saw what the Leader of the House was proposing. I can only say to Members who do not feel satisfied with the length of the recess but are prepared to vote for the motion that I am with the hon. Member for Walsall, North. I believe that the motion will leave us with long recesses for the foreseeable future, or until such time as a head of steam for change builds up again—and anybody who has been a Member of this House for quite some time, as I have, knows that it takes quite a long time for a head of steam for change to build up.

Even at this late stage, I plead with the Leader of the House to go further than he has done in this debate. On the basis of the way that the vote is likely to go, he should say to the House that he takes on board the idea that we must think hard about how we manage the business process during the year, that he acknowledges that a 12-week recess without a break is not acceptable, and that he genuinely intends to consult more widely to see whether we can come up with a way of working that meets the needs of the House itself, our constituents, Members' families and the effective working of our democracy. If he does that, he will be welcomed as a Leader who is engaging the House in good faith. But my gut feeling is that the Government never liked the September sittings, and that they want to bury them once and for all. That would be an extremely regrettable development.

Debates such as this are unusual, but we have had an interesting discussion and the balance of the argument has been much more even than the hon. Member for Walsall, North suggested in his initial speech. Most of the Members who vote will not have listened to the debate. But the Leader of the House has listened to the debate, and I give him credit for having been here for a very substantial part of it. I hope that he will take seriously the representations that have been made. If we simply abandon September sittings, or any reform of the pattern of sittings of the House, at this stage, we will be seriously out of touch with what our constituents expect.

Photo of Dawn Butler Dawn Butler Labour, Brent South 6:15 pm, 1st November 2006

As a member of the Modernisation Committee, I felt it important that I should contribute to the debate, if only briefly. At times it seemed as if some members of the Committee were there to ensure that we did not take modernisation too far.

I want to discuss an issue that has not been dealt with so far—the section of the report dealing with information technology—but before doing so I want to stress the importance of evidence-based Committees and pre-legislative work. There has been a lot of talk today about engaging with the public. Such Committees and such work ensure that this House is effective, that we engage constructively with the public and that everybody—not just lobby groups—gets a say in how we produce legislation. A good example is the "Youth Matters" document. More than 20,000 people contributed to that debate—notably young people— and in the end we produced a very good document. Indeed, the youth opportunity fund and the youth capital fund are working very well in my constituency.

Whether Members like it or not, IT will play an important role in engaging the public with Parliament. I am talking not about websites such as YouTube, but effective communication. MPs and the public should be able to follow legislative debates in Committee online—the report states clearly how this would work—and have hyperlinks to explanatory notes, and so on. People who watch our proceedings in Parliament and in Committee are amazed to discover that it is necessary to have three different sets of paperwork to try to follow the argument, which complicates matters and means that in fact, they lose the flow of the argument.

I welcome the forthcoming pilot in Parliament. I should tell those who have doubts about technology that the Modernisation Committee took plenty of evidence on that issue. Although it was noted that Parliament's website has improved in terms of connecting with the community, we still have a long way to go. I welcome the move toward the integration of technology and the use of laptops and personal digital assistants in the House, and not only because it will increase efficiency. This House is renowned for using a lot of paper, and if we are serious about saving our planet, such a move will ensure that we use less.

In line with the nature of this debate, I will keep my contribution very short. I hope that Members in all parts of the House will try to give the move towards the integration of technology a fair trial, because it is important that we modernise and use technology to its fullest capability. I thank the Leader of the House for helping to move forward the modernisation agenda, and I hope that it will be a success.

Photo of Sally Keeble Sally Keeble Labour, Northampton North 6:18 pm, 1st November 2006

I am grateful for the chance to make a brief contribution to this debate; I am very sorry that I was not here earlier.

I associate myself completely with the remarks of Mr. Maples—I will not repeat his arguments—and I very much appreciated the comments of Mr. Knight and Sir Nicholas Winterton. Both chaired Committees to which I gave evidence, and both were extremely generous in their handling of those proceedings. However, it will probably come as no surprise to the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire that I do not agree with the Committee's conclusions about the application of the sub judice rule.

Although, as I said, I will not pick up on all the comments of the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon, I will touch on three particular issues that I hope my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will deal with when he winds up.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Chair, Procedure Committee

Does the hon. Lady not welcome, however, the letter that I received, and from which I quoted, from the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional affairs? It makes it clear that we now have an opportunity to reduce the long delays that have occurred, which were the source of the hon. Lady's major complaint, in cases where an inquest is opened.

Photo of Sally Keeble Sally Keeble Labour, Northampton North

I was going to deal with that as one of the three points. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for drawing attention to the matter.

First, it is important that there be clarification about issues of national importance. The case that my right hon. Friend Mr. Denham raised was of national importance; it was about security. The case that I brought was about the death of a boy. The death of a boy in a secure training centre is an enormous tragedy. In this case, it had implications for the types of holds that are used for such children in secure training centres up and down the country. They had to make changes, and there are still outstanding issues. Therefore, it was of national importance in that it affected national policy on secure training centres.

The death of a boy in the custody of the state is sufficiently important for the Home Office to be called to account on the Floor of the House to explain why that happened and what was being done to put it right. Therefore, the definition of "issues of national importance" must be clearly spelled out. It must be clearly spelled out why the death of a 14-year-old boy in custody may not be regarded as an issue of national importance. In the interim, there has been a complaint to me that another boy was substantially injured while he was being held in restraint in a secure training centre, so there was a similar episode, albeit that the outcome was different.

The second point is about the guidance to Mr. Speaker. There has been much discussion about the difference between our sub judice rule here and the sub judice rule that applies to the media. One of the big things with the media is that they break the rule first and are then tried for contempt, but here if we ask in advance whether we can raise something and we are told no, that is the end of the matter. There are no means of effective challenge. I ask my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to answer that point. He may want to set out exactly how he envisages the guidance being applied.

The third point was raised by Mr. Knight, and is about the letter from the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs about the changes to coroners courts, which are going to have investigations, instead of opening and adjourning inquests. We need to know when that is going to happen, and to be clear exactly how that will interrelate with the sub judice rule as we apply it to ourselves. It has to be made clear that the coroners are going to be consistent in what they do, and that we are going to be consistent, in that we are going to regard investigations as not being judicial legal proceedings.

I am grateful for the chance to speak in the debate. The inquest on the case about which I was concerned is not going to be until next February. Some preliminary hearings have taken place, but the inquest will not actually be until next February. That is just short of three years since the boy was killed, during which time there has been a general election. It is completely wrong that, although it has been possible to have discussions with colleagues in their office about that case, to do work with the media about it, to visit that secure training centre and another secure training centre and to talk to all kinds of people about it, it has not been possible to hold the Government to account in this Chamber, to ask questions here and to have the discussion here. That is one of the key functions that we were elected here for. If we cannot do that, there have to be cogent reasons why not.

That matter has not been pursued flippantly. I intend to continue to pursue it until we finally get the debate about what happened to that boy and get the answers on the Floor of the House, so that people can be confident about what happens to young people in those circumstances.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal 6:25 pm, 1st November 2006

This has been an excellent day's debate. It has covered the ground comprehensively, and it is striking that one of the consistent themes expressed on both sides of the House is that Members are anxious better to serve their constituents.

I want to make two points, not least to Mr. Bone and others. I do not think that he was in his place when I opened my remarks— [Interruption.] If he was, I apologise. In my opening remarks, I was spelling out factual evidence suggesting that the House has become more effective, not less, in scrutinising the work of Ministers. I do not dispute that we still have a long way to go. The 27 years that I have been in the House, however, have seen the crucial introduction of departmental Select Committees by the then Leader of the House, Norman St. John-Stevas, in the 1979-80 Session, and their considerable strengthening over the years. We have seen the introduction of Westminster Hall. In relation to the intelligence and security agencies, of which not only was no parliamentary scrutiny allowed but Governments' official position was not to aver their existence, we now have the Intelligence and Security Committee. Legislative changes that we have made, such as the Modernisation Committee agenda and also the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Freedom of Information Act 2000, have opened up government to an extent undreamt of a generation or so ago.

My second point is on the issue of trust and the media. If we go outside and ask people whom they most and least trust, the most trusted include ministers of religion, doctors, teachers and nurses. Competing at the bottom for the wooden spoon, depending on which day one asks such questions, are estate agents, journalists and politicians, with a special place reserved for those estate agents who are also journalists and politicians. Generally, we get low scores. But if we ask members of the public to say what they think about their own Member of Parliament, or a Member of Parliament they reckon they know, the scores rise rapidly. If they not only know their Member of Parliament but have respect for them, the scores are high and, these days, rising. I see part of my task as Leader of the House to increase those scores for everybody, in order better to facilitate the work of Members.

Let me deal with the main issues in turn. I am grateful to the House, and I know that all members of the Modernisation Committee will be, for the overwhelming welcome for the changes proposed to the way in which Bills are scrutinised in Committee, and for the changes proposed for greater flexibility on Report. As Mr. Heath has pointed out, Report has been up to now among the most important stages. We want Committee to be of equal importance. Additional scrutiny in Committee, provided that we introduce it carefully with improved resources available and commitments on all sides, should help to achieve that. I also commend my hon. Friend Ms Butler who, in relation to the use of technology, has been committed to trying to bring the House into the 21st century at the beginning rather than the middle or end of the century. She has not only made important points but proposals that have fed their way into pages 32 and 33 of the report.

On the communications allowance, it is fair to say that the principle of it has received general but certainly not universal support. I emphasise, however, that if colleagues read the motion, they will see that it asks them to welcome the principle of the proposal without committing themselves at this stage to its final introduction, which will have to await the recommendations of the Members Estimate Committee. The matter will then come back to the House. Of course, the Members Estimate Committee—the Commission under a different title—will take full account of the observations made. Mrs. May raised the issue of whether there should be one allowance or two, and it depends how we construct the rules.

To pick up a point made by Mr. Pelling, the one thing that is certain is that once the allowance is introduced, there will be caps on spending on communication, both on stationery and envelopes and on wider communications. Whether we have one allowance or two, the aggregate amount will be less than the sums currently being spent by some hon. Members on both sides. This should not be seen as Members having the chance to spend even more money: it should be seen as a way of responding to the changing expectations and increasing demands of constituents. It is also a way to improve probity, rather than undermine it.

Sir George Young formally opposed the proposal, but when he reads his speech in Hansard tomorrow I hope that he will see that he made a very good case for change, and the introduction of a rules-based communications allowance. That was the gravamen of our report.

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons)

I am grateful to the Leader of the House for giving way and I am sorry that I missed his earlier speech. Can he confirm that if we had a communications allowance it would definitely put a cap on the amount of postage Members could use and can he give us some idea of what it might be?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal

That is ultimately a matter for you, Mr. Speaker, but if I may speak for you for a moment, I can confirm that there would be a cap. The aggregate will depend on the final recommendations—which are not a matter for me, but for you and the Commission— but the total amount for envelopes and other communication will be less than some Members currently claim for envelopes.

The third matter is that of September sittings. Malcolm Bruce is right. When the proposal was made originally, in 2002, I was strongly in favour of them, as a member of the Government who had been in the hot seat, in different jobs, for several summers. In 1998, a recall was requested because of the Omagh bombing, and I was Home Secretary. In 2001, the recall was for 9/11 and I was Foreign Secretary, as I was in 2002, when it was for Iraq. My view was that given that we had calls for a recall every summer—and we responded to three out of six of those calls between 1997 and 2002—it was better to schedule sittings in September, instead of having to respond to a silly season summer story. In retrospect, the judgments look straightforward, but they were quite difficult at the time, and had to be made in consultation with the Leader of the Opposition and with you, Mr. Speaker.

The second reason I supported September sittings was that, like many others, I had been embarrassed by the charge that we were away for 11 weeks and the ridiculous notion that we were all sunning ourselves in warmer climes for almost all that time—and if we were not abroad, we were in our gardens. That is nonsense, and every journalist knows it. Whatever other criticism there may be of Members of Parliament, the charge that we are slacking and not doing our work is not one that can be made. All the evidence shows—it is there to be published—that MPs work very hard for very long hours. There may be an issue with how productively we work, but there is no doubt about how hard we work. There is also no doubt that the demands on us have risen exponentially. Overall, therefore, I used to think that it was better for us to come back.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South spoke about evidence, but we have to rely on our own experience. In 2005, as I said, we could not have sittings here because of the installation of the security screen. Leaving that aside, most hon. Members to whom I have spoken believe that, on balance, the experience of September sittings has not worked as intended.

The hon. Member for Wellingborough said that we can dismiss the costs involved, and he is right, but they need to be weighed in the balance. It is not an overriding argument to say that it may cost anything up to £12 million to interrupt the progress of major maintenance work for two or three weeks, but it is certainly a factor that needs to be considered.

I listened to the speech of the right hon. Member for Gordon with great care, and I agree that we should take account of the Scottish Parliament's experience. Recently, I met a delegation from that body's equivalent of our Procedure Committee and we talked about how that Parliament progressed legislation. We need to share best practice with all comparable Parliaments, and especially those in the UK, and we also need to take account of what they do in September. In the end, though, we must make our own decisions about what is suitable.

Neither the Scottish Parliament nor the Welsh Assembly have to navigate around the fact that, in September, we have the conferences for the TUC, the Liberal Democrats, the Labour party and then the Conservative party. Were it not for those conferences, it would be relatively simple for us to come back in September, and stay back. However, they remain a difficulty.

Meanwhile, I hope that the discussions taking place will make progress in determining whether the party conferences, which are very expensive for all the parties, can be held at different times of the year. The Labour party conference used to meet at other dates, so September is not set in stone. However, changing dates would take a long time to achieve, as conference venues are booked for years ahead. Following the recommendation from the previous Modernisation Committee, I have introduced having written questions and written ministerial statements in September. If the House approves it, the relevant motion before us will strengthen that system for the future.

Photo of Robert Key Robert Key Conservative, Salisbury

Does the Leader of the House agree that another feature that has evolved in very recent years is the increasing regularity with which Select Committees meet and produce reports in September? For example, I am a member of the Defence Committee, and we went on four trips in September to take evidence in the UK. That was not done in previous years. September gives Select Committees a clear run to do serious work.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal

I do accept that. Whether or not we sit in September, we need to remind the public of the incontrovertible evidence that this House sits for longer than any other European Parliament, apart from Greece. We sit for longer than most comparable Commonwealth Parliaments, and for longer hours.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick Labour, Walsall North

The argument is not that we sit for shorter periods than other Parliaments. We probably sit for as long, or longer. The crux of the matter for the House to decide tonight—and it seems that those of us who favour September sittings are in the minority—is that we should not be away on what is called a recess for 12 weeks, or a quarter of the year. In my view, and in the view of those who agree with me, that is totally unacceptable.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal

I understand that that is the crux of the matter, and it is why I strongly supported September sittings when they were first proposed. However, they did not work out as intended. Other factors have intervened, including the party conferences. Furthermore, I was determined that the House should decide the matter on a free vote and that it should not be imposed by the Government, so I hope that my hon. Friend will concede that point. It is important to establish that principle. I promise that before the end of this Parliament the Modernisation Committee will review progress and the further experience of not sitting in September and will make any further recommendations that it deems fit.

Two matters gave rise to rather more debate than I thought they would. The first was in respect of coroners proceedings and the sub judice rule. I am grateful to Mr. Maples and to my hon. Friend Ms Keeble for their remarks and to the Procedure Committee, chaired by Mr. Knight. These matters are tricky, because we do not want to pre-empt or prejudice court proceedings, but I accept what the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon said: there is a real difference between civil and criminal proceedings. I also accept the case made by my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North that delays can sometimes be unconscionable and mean that a Member who is desperate properly to represent the concerns of his or her constituent is unable to do so in the very place designed for that purpose—the House of Commons.

My hon. Friend asked how the new rules will work. They will be a matter for the Chair, operating under the new Standing Orders and the guidance proposed by the Table Office. However, as I said in the explanatory memorandum,

"delay in inquest proceedings should be a factor for the Speaker in deciding whether to exercise his discretion".

I know that Mr. Speaker was listening with care to my hon. Friend, as was I, and I shall certainly pursue the matter on her behalf.

Photo of John Maples John Maples Deputy Chair, Conservative Party

I think that those who discussed the sub judice question during the debate agreed that we would like to see how the system works from now on and whether it will be necessary to revisit it. Can the Leader of the House devise a way for him to be kept informed when questions or issues in Select Committees or elsewhere are ruled out of order as sub judice? Perhaps in a year's time we could look at the question again to decide whether it is necessary to amend the rule.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal

I shall ask my office and the Clerk's Department to keep me informed and shall discuss the matter with Mr. Speaker.

The hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon raised the final matter to which I want to refer: the length of Ministers' speeches—[Hon. Members: "Too long."]—That was a Whip, Mr. Speaker—

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

They never speak at all.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal

They should indeed be seen and not heard at all times.

Mr. Speaker, we are making decisions today about giving you wider discretion to set the length of speeches in popular debates. The hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon said that consideration should be given to setting rules for the length of Ministers' opening and closing speeches in debates, with time added for interventions. I shall discuss the suggestion with colleagues, but personally I think that there is much to be said for it, as it would ensure that debates go with a better zip than some do at present. However, as I said to the hon. Gentleman earlier, it is of profound importance to the House that Members on both sides should be able to intervene in everybody's speeches, but above all in a Minister's speech, to put the Minister on the spot—

Hon. Members:

Hooray.

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald

I am grateful to the Leader of the House for giving way at such an opportune moment. I am about to call a Division on an issue that is, I suspect, doomed to failure, so if the restriction of Back-Bench speeches to as little as three minutes—which could happen—is seen to give rise to problems, will the right hon. Gentleman undertake to carry out a review and return to the House on the matter?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal

Yes is my answer to that intervention. The right hon. Lady makes a point about the importance of interventions on Ministers. I spent many happy hours when in opposition, sitting on the Back Benches waiting to be called to speak in debates, and I always used to think that three minutes was better than no minutes. She may not agree and there may well have been people on the other side who thought that no minutes were, for me, better than three!

I commend all the motions to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House welcomes the First Report from the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons on the Legislative Process (HC 1097); approves in particular the proposals for the committal of bills to committees with powers to take evidence to become the normal practice for programmed government bills which start in this House; agrees that this be achieved by Standing Orders through the programming process, with such committees having freedom to decide how many evidence sessions should be held; agrees that the notice period for amendments to bills to be selected for debate in standing committee should, subject to the discretion of the Chair, be extended from two days to three days; supports the renaming of the various kinds of standing committee along the lines proposed by the Committee; and endorses the proposals for the gradual development of improved documentation and explanatory processes relating to bills.