In a moment, we will resume consideration of Mr Efford’s sittings motion and amendments (a) to (c). As joint Chairman, I have had the pleasure of reading the Hansard report of the first meeting of the Committee; it may be helpful if I make the following observations.
I am expecting Mr Nuttall, who tabled amendment (a), to conclude sooner rather than later, to allow me to open the debate to all members of the Committee. I note that my co-Chairman requested that Mr Nuttall address the specifics of the amendment on a number of occasions, and eventually drew his attention to the terms of Standing Order No. 42. I further expect other participants in the debate to avoid ground already covered by Mr Nuttall in his remarks; I remind hon. Members that Standing Order No. 42 is aimed at tackling repetition and irrelevance within individual speeches, but also across the debate as a whole.
It may be helpful to Committee members in thinking about their diaries if I give notice that now the Committee is in its second day I am minded to name 2 o’clock this afternoon for its next meeting if we reach 11.25 am without having settled on a timetable by other means.
I remind the Committee that with this we are discussing the following:
Amendment (a), leave out from “on” to “when” and insert—
“Tuesday 10th February at 10.00am, and thereafter on Tuesdays at 10.00am”.
Amendment (b), leave out from “meet” to end and insert—
“at 9.25am on the following days—
(a) Tuesday 10 February 2015;
(b) Tuesday 24 February 2015;
(c) Tuesday 3 March 2015; and
(d) Tuesday 10 March 2015”.
Amendment (c) leave out from “on” to “when” and insert
“Thursday 12th February at 11.30am, and thereafter on Thursdays at 12.00 noon”.
On a point of order, Mr Bone. I welcome you to the Chair; it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. We are a Committee of the British House of Commons, established to scrutinise a Bill and authorised to do so by the Committee of Selection. We should therefore take precedence over private meetings and room bookings by Members and by other ad hoc organisations that have taken our rooms over. I notice that we have been shuttled from Room 14 to Room 11. Can you give us some assurance that there will be some consistency to any future meetings, so that we can at least stay in one set room?
On a point of order, Mr Bone. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship; we much enjoyed serving under Mr Hood a few days ago, but the privilege will be just as great today. I want to ask for a point of clarification on Standing Order No. 42 and the issue of “tedious repetition”. May I take it that if the repetition is amusing, that is allowed, but if it is tedious, it is not?
That is an important point of order and I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising it. It will be entirely for the Chair to decide whether Standing Order No. 42 is relevant.
On a point of order, Mr Bone. Again, may I say what a pleasure and honour it is to serve under your chairmanship? As it happens, at the end of our previous sitting, I was on my feet intervening on my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North. Since I am conscious that interventions should be short and that this one has gone on for nearly six days, I think I should resume my seat.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Bone, to continue this debate on the sittings motion for this important Committee. I will begin by confirming that I have almost concluded my remarks, so I will not detain the Committee for very much longer.
It has been proposed that the sittings motion tabled by the hon. Member for Eltham be amended in three separate ways. As the amendments are grouped, I seek your permission, Mr Bone—having dealt with my own amendment, as you will have read in Hansard—to deal briefly with the amendments tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire and by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset. Like me, other members of the Committee have spent the past six days wondering what was troubling our right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire, but we now know that we will never know what is still troubling him. Therein lies a mystery which we can all consider for the rest of time.
Without making any criticism of any Member who is not present, as you will again have read in Hansard, Mr Bone, one of the issues before us is whether the sitting time should be 9.25 am or 10 am. I have proposed that it should be 10 am. On the first day of the Committee, not every member—for whatever reason—was able to be present at the appointed hour for the start of the meeting. I appreciate that there may well be very good reasons for that.
Amendment (b), tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire, is slightly different from mine, as it proposes a start time of 9.25 am, providing an extra 35 minutes for every sitting. The amendment also sets out specific dates so that there can be no doubt about when the Committee would meet. The first of those dates is today, and so that requirement is superfluous. The second date is Tuesday 24 February, the third is Tuesday 3 March, and the final date is Tuesday 10 March. I admit to the Committee that the fourth sitting is superfluous too, given that the House has already resolved that private Members’ business should be considered only on two further sitting Fridays—Friday 27 February and Friday 6 March. It therefore seems that there is not a great deal of merit in the Committee sitting on that date.
It is worth noting that, if there were some emergency that led the Prime Minister to use his powers to issue a statutory instrument and it was approved by the House, the election could be delayed by two months. It would then be normal for the House authorities to allow a pro rata number of sitting Fridays. It is not impossible that there may be another sitting Friday to consider private Members’ Bills.
That is indeed true. It is perhaps a remote possibility, but it is certainly a matter to which this Committee should give consideration. Indeed, it perhaps gives some explanation of why amendment (b) contains a provision citing Tuesday 10 March. Perhaps we will hear more about that from my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire. Other than the change in sitting times, there is little difference between amendments (b) and (a). Obviously, for the reasons which I have set out, I submit to the Committee that my amendment is preferable. Perhaps we have seen some evidence today of why that is the case.
Having spent only a couple of minutes on amendment (b), I turn to amendment (c), which was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset, whose views I look forward to hearing. The amendment brings a new day into consideration, as it proposes that the Committee sit on Thursday 12 February at 11.30 am and thereafter on Thursdays at 12 noon. We have not previously considered that option; I have certainly not considered or discussed it. The Committee will be aware that it is the practice of the authorities and the Leader of the House for the House to consider on Thursdays business set down by the Backbench Business Committee. We will find out whether that was behind my hon. Friend’s thinking in suggesting that the Committee meet on a Thursday.
It is worth noting that my amendment has the advantage of not drawing Members away from the Chamber, whereas my hon. Friend’s amendment would do so, albeit on a day when Government business is not often considered, as we usually deal with business set out by the Backbench Business Committee. I noticed that my hon. Friend has astutely proposed that our Committee meet at 11.30 am. That would give Members an opportunity to attend daily Question Time. Provided no urgent question is being considered, they would have the opportunity to listen to business questions in the Chamber.
In that case, perhaps I have ascribed wisdom to him to which on this rare occasion he is not entitled. Perhaps the wisdom of those who laid down Standing Orders took into consideration the matters to which I referred. As with amendment (b), I look forward to hearing more from my hon. Friend about the merits of his amendment.
I will conclude by reminding the Committee of the salient points I have made. This is no ordinary private Member’s Bill. It is not tidying up lacunae in legislation; it is not a matter of conscience or a measure that has cross-party support. It is a matter of great political significance and would be more properly dealt with by a Government Bill. I have proposed Tuesday, because Members’ diary commitments mean that we are more likely to achieve full attendance on Tuesdays rather than Wednesdays. Tuesday is still a day when, unlike Monday and Thursday, Members are coming and going from the Palace of Westminster. I have proposed 10 o’clock because that will give Members an opportunity to deal with their paperwork before they come to Committee.
On a point of order, Mr Bone. Is there a way of bringing to the Committee’s attention your presence of genius, as you noticed that my hon. Friend was coming to the end of his speech?
I rise to speak to amendment (b), which is in my name and in the names of my right hon. Friends the Members for North East Hampshire and for Chelmsford. The amendment seeks to change the original motion moved by the promoter of the Bill so that we sit on Tuesdays at 9.25 am: today, on 24 February, 3 March and 10 March. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury North and I are both qualified solicitors. I believe that he used to be paid by the hour when he was in practice. I, on the other hand, used to do mainly set-fee work, so I am not going to be as lengthy in arguing for my amendment (b).
At the previous sitting a number of Members discussed whether they should declare an interest. I have no interest to declare except as an occasional—which I hope remains the case—or even non-existent user of the NHS. I have no other interests to declare in respect of this matter. It is a pleasure to serve on a Committee with the hon. Member for Eltham. A little while ago he and I fought together on another campaign. Unfortunately that endeavour was not successful, though we were right to do what we did. However, I do not agree with his remarks at our last sitting, when he drew attention to those Members who were not present at the Second Reading debate and did not take part in the Second Reading vote, and argued that it was therefore strange that they were members of this Committee and now seek to take an interest in the matter. Nothing in “Erskine May” prevents a Member from taking an interest or taking part at any stage in our proceedings. The fact that some of us were in our constituencies on the date of Second Reading and were unable to take part in no way invalidates our interest in or ability to scrutinise the Bill. If it did—if there were a rule that Members have to be present and vote on Second Reading and could not otherwise take part—his right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) would never be able to make a speech again in this building.
There are a number of alternatives before us. It is not a case of which is right or wrong: it is a matter of personal preference. It so happens that I prefer to attend Committee meetings on Tuesdays. I do not think that we should tamper with the time: Committees generally meet at 9.25 am. That is why I am not with my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North in suggesting that we meet at a later hour. To suggest that we meet at 10 am seems odd. Some could even argue that it would be spiteful to the supporters of the Bill to seek to shave 35 minutes off what is traditionally a two-hour sitting.
I remind my right hon. Friend that in the Public Bill Office note about when Committees should meet in the morning there are two possible times given:
“A morning sitting usually starts at 9.30 am or 10 am”.
Therefore, it was not entirely unreasonable of me to suggest 10 am.
It was not unreasonable, but Labour Members of the Committee would have regarded it as unhelpful to them, as it would mean that the morning sitting had 35 minutes less scrutiny time. I do not see that there is a case for doing that. If we are going to meet, we might as well have a good, solid two-hour sitting in the morning to deal with matters before us.
The right hon. Gentleman proposes that we commence the debate at 9.25 am. Given that it has taken us so long to get to the point we have reached so far, does he agree that if necessary the Committee should sit again in the afternoon, if it is proceeding as slowly as it appears to be? He is proposing that we sit on a Tuesday, which I would prefer, but if it is simply to truncate the debate into a morning sitting, I cannot support his amendment. We need to have sufficient time to deal with all the business, particularly if the Committee is going to proceed as slowly as it has so far.
That is a fair intervention and I take on board what the hon. Gentleman says. Mr Bone, you will not remember, because you were not here, but in the 1980s and 1990s in this place, before we had programming up-front, Committees would normally sit in the morning on a motion moved either by the Minister or, if it were a private Member’s Bill, by the Member in charge. Then, later, if progress on the Bill had not been as speedily accomplished as had been hoped, the Minister would bring forward a supplementary motion to move, “that the Committee do sit” in addition in the afternoon. My amendment would only provide for us to sit on Tuesday mornings. It seemed to me that that was a reasonable starting point.
The point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives, as a supporter of the Bill, is that if progress remains very slow he would wish the Committee to have afternoon sittings. There would be nothing to stop him, if the Committee today approves my amendment (b), tabling a motion that we sit also during the afternoon. That is a decision he could make later today, depending on our progress. I said to him in the margins of the Committee earlier that I do not intend to take all the time that is available to me today to move my amendment. I want to make my case as cogently and speedily as I can and then sit down.
On a point of order, Mr Bone. An interesting debate has opened up over there about afternoon sittings. Can you clarify that a majority of the Committee would be required to amend the sittings motion to allow afternoon sittings? Therefore, agreement would be required across this Committee to amend the motion in such a way.
Further to that point of order, Mr Bone. I seek clarity on when a supplementary sittings motion may be moved. The right hon. Member for East Yorkshire is suggesting that if, during a debate on a clause or an amendment, we consider that progress is so slow that we need additional time to dispose of the business before us, we may move a supplementary sittings motion in Committee at any stage in order to ensure that we can sit in the afternoon.
Further to that point of order, Mr Bone. Does that mean that a supplementary sittings motion would then be open to debate and that we would be back to where we are right now?
I would have thought that the point made by the Bill’s promoter, the hon. Member for Eltham, is self-evident: if someone wants to change something, in any arena, they need a majority. That stands to reason, does it not? In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives, I have made no decision on afternoon sittings. I am open to being won over to supporting afternoon sittings should I feel that they are needed. When I tabled my amendment before the Committee’s first sitting, I was not aware of our likely rate of progress. It seemed to be the normal practice in the initial stages to move to morning sittings only and then to reflect on the matter if further sittings were needed. As I said a few moments ago, it is a matter for the Committee, and it is a matter of personal choice. I just happen to prefer dealing with Committee work on a Tuesday. That is the way I tend to try to deal with my parliamentary work—on a day-to-day basis.
My right hon. Friend is right. I do, too. The objection I had previously to the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North and by my right hon. Friend, in relation to the Committee considering the Armed Forces (Service Complaints and Financial Assistance) Bill, has fallen away because that Committee is sitting now, so I will serve on this Committee and not on that Committee.
I am grateful for that information. From time to time, the press make great play of attendance in the Chamber and at this place, but every Member of Parliament would accept that we have a twin-track duty. We have a duty to scrutinise what the Government or, in this case, a Back-Bench Member wants to achieve in Parliament, but we also have a duty to look after our constituents, which means that Members of Parliament must try to be in two places, albeit not at the same time, during the working week. What I find objectionable about amendment (c), tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset, is that it seeks to move Committee sittings to a Thursday. By common consent on both sides of the House, Thursday is the day when many Members like to be back in their constituency to discharge their duty.
May I remind my right hon. Friend that, more often than not at the moment, on Thursdays there are important Back-Bench debates, which our constituents are often most anxious that we attend in order to listen to whatever the subject might be? We would be precluded from taking part in those debates if this Committee were to sit on a Thursday.
That is another argument against Thursday sittings. Most Members are used to multitasking, and at some time in our career we all have a difficult decision to make about which venue we attend, which debates we support and which debates we have to let slip by because of our other commitments. Where they should be at any one point in time is a daily matter of agonising over for many Members.
I am against the motion, for the same reason, because it seeks to take us into the realms of afternoon and perhaps evening sittings on a Wednesday. When there is no whipped business on a Thursday and no business to which they are attracted or that needs their attention because of a constituency interest, I know many Members like to start their journey north, or south—or wherever their constituency is—on a Wednesday evening. The risk of accepting the motion unamended is that we could find this Committee sitting morning, afternoon and evening on a Wednesday, thereby impeding, on occasion, journeys back to the constituency, if that is what a Member wants.
It seems to me quite reasonable that, if we accept my amendment (b) and, at our next meeting, my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives wants to bring forward an amendment seeking to draw us into afternoon sittings on a Tuesday, no one could possibly complain if this Committee moved into evening sittings on a Tuesday. Tuesday is a day of the week when Members expect to be here and do not make other arrangements. However, if we were to accept amendment (c) to sit on a Thursday, it could prove very disruptive to constituency work. Indeed, the original motion could have the same effect, although I admit not on as many occasions.
I hope that the Committee, whether or not it wants to add afternoon sittings at a later stage, will agree that the best option for us is my amendment (b). I commend it to the Committee.
May I reiterate the great pleasure it brings me to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone, and to follow my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire and my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North to consider the issue of time?
We are with Job who—you will recall from the Old Testament, Mr Bone—ruminates on the question of time:
“Is there not an appointed time to man upon earth? Are not his days also like the days of an hireling?”
We look back over many centuries to see how time should be allocated. Job complains that when he is sleeping or waking he wonders whether the night will ever end; and when he is awake he wonders whether the day will ever end, so that he may go back to sleep.
I can see that members of the Committee may feel exactly the same as they discuss the intricacies of this important Bill and look at the fundamental question of time and how it should be allocated. How should time be divided between the many duties that Members have in their constituencies, in the Chamber, and in Committee to ensure that they are completed in a way that is becoming to a Member of Parliament, is satisfactory to the electorate and is supported by their party Whips? All of those duties have a role, although I would say that our electorate are the most important and the people to whom we should look for guidance, instruction and thoughtfulness as to where we should spread ourselves.
I notice, talking of spreading ourselves, that we can now spread lots of butter on our bread once again, because it turns out to be wonderfully healthy, which is a nice note in a health service Bill. I hope we can come back to that later. We have to spread ourselves in various ways.
The question today is do we spread ourselves at 9.25 am on a Tuesday, 10 o’clock on a Tuesday, 9.25 am on a Wednesday and at 2 pm. Or, should we consider, re-evaluate, be brave, bold and modernising and look to Thursday? Thursday is the great day named in honour of a Norse god, Thor, who is the god of thunder and lightening, but also of oak trees. He is a god we can claim for our own in England as the symbol of our nation and, as it happens, of the Conservative party. A rather wishy-washy oak tree is used for the Conservative party, but none the less, that symbol is associated with a Norse divinity, although not one I believe in. That does not mean that the stories about him are not interesting or relevant to the question of whether 11.30 am and 12 o’clock on Thursdays might be not only the best time but the ideal time, the perfect time—that ethereal concept which many of us have been seeking throughout our lives—where time is used to its greatest efficiency.
We often think of Rudyard Kipling and his “unforgiving minute”. Will those unforgiving minutes on a Thursday be more forgiving on a Tuesday or a Wednesday? I think they would; there is more latitude on a Thursday for a thorough examination of a Bill, and we can consider it in the round. I have looked at debates that are coming up. On Thursday we will miss important debates—there is a debate this coming Thursday on public houses and, representing a rural constituency where cider is particularly popular, that is something that I would wish to be involved in, but there not be a substantive vote at the end of that debate. It will come to a conclusion with a motion to take note, so my absence will not unduly discombobulate my constituents. They will feel that it is reasonable that I should attend to the health of the nation on a Thursday rather than consider public houses.
This Thursday, there is also an important debate—undoubtedly, unquestioningly, indubitably—on the destruction of antiquities in Syria and Iraq—a very serious problem and one that many of us would be interested in, but I fear that the powers of the House in this respect are limited. The days of empire, when Mesopotamia was a British protectorate of which we had charge, are gone. That has all changed. What this House decides on Syria and Iraq in relation to antiquities, although an important subject and an interesting debate, is something that we would miss if we were present in this Committee Room, or in the Committee Room that we were in last week. I am sorry, along with my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire, that we have been downgraded. I think of Committee Room 14 as the crème de la crème of Committee rooms: a fine, large room where members of the public can come in their hordes to watch our deliberations and where there is a special pen, a much bigger pen, for the press. This Thursday, if we are in a Committee Room, it would be a fine thing for our constituents to know that we are working assiduously on their behalf.
The third debate that is coming up this Thursday—it has not been mentioned, you will be relieved to know, Mr Bone—is on mental health in London. That is another important subject, and it is right that the House should debate it, but it would be hard for me to intervene unduly in such a debate, as I represent a rural constituency in Somerset. I ought to leave that to others.
Well, we can go to church before coming to Parliament. We can go to church every day; we just have to be up early with the lark and go to church or to chapel. It is interesting to note that, although we begin our day with prayers in the main Chamber, the Chairman did not start off with a little prayer this morning. That would be a fine tradition at the start and would be helpful to us.
I am not a Sabbatarian. I would have been happy with Sundays, or indeed Saturdays or Fridays, but I thought it would be an unduly onerous burden to place on my fellow hon. and right hon. Members, who have constituencies that are more far-flung than mine. For Members for Yorkshire constituencies and constituencies in Cornwall, such as St Ives, the travel times make it hard to interrupt the weekend for parliamentary business; to go back and forth like a ping-pong ball, or like legislation between this House and another place. I therefore ruled out the proposal that we should sit on Friday, Saturday or Sunday for the general convenience of hon. Members, right hon. Members and—not that there are any at the moment—most honourable Members. I focused on Thursday because that is a proper parliamentary day when we should be at our desks—our stalls, so to speak—champing at the bit like racehorses ready for the off, to scrutinise legislation, although racehorses are known for their scrutiny of legislation; I was speaking metaphorically. We may model ourselves on them in our enthusiasm and urgency in attending to the business at hand.
Fridays are reserved for sittings of the main Chamber, but sadly it is not well attended. Mr Bone, you are one of the most assiduous attenders on Fridays. Unfortunately, if you were to chair this Committee at the same time that would be a loss to the Chamber and to the progress of debate, as the main Chamber considered other urgent and important private Members’ Bills, legislation on Report, and Lords amendments to Bills that have wended their way through intricacies of the legislative sausage machine, as I believe Bismarck did not say, although that comment is widely attributed to him. That was part of the reason for ruling out Fridays.
It is unusual for the House to sit on a Saturday, although it would be interesting to table a motion to discover Members’ views on the subject. The last time we met on a Saturday was in 1982 to consider the urgent matter of the invasion of the Falkland Islands. That day must be held special for the most urgent business of the nation, it feels that something so important and profound has happened, Parliament must be recalled to debate what is to the fore on that day. We can therefore set aside Saturday.
If my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives is worried about slow progress and he tabled a motion to suggest an extra Saturday sitting, I would be open to such a proposal, although I might be a lone voice crying in the wilderness. As I have already mentioned, I am not a Sabbatarian, but I accept that some hon. Members are, and I would not like to trespass on their religious feelings. They would be most upset to attend to the business of the House on a Sunday.
I am taken aback—I am shocked—by the suggestion that the Committee would not welcome my amendment with open arms. That was the impression I was gaining; that this was the amendment of the day—the amendment du jour, as they might say in France, although I am not sure they use the word, “amendment”. Better French speakers than me might be able to advise.
Where would I go next? I am between Scylla and Charybdis, between the pressures of Tuesday and Wednesday. I must weigh it up as though I were a judge sitting in court. We are the high court of Parliament. We must examine the pros, the arguments in favour, and the cons, those against. That which pushes me one way towards a Tuesday then pulls me back towards a Wednesday. I am torn in the manner of those ancient punishments when horses were tied to people’s limbs and they were dragged apart. That is the position that we find ourselves in.
What a fine amendment my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North brought forth to the Committee, with such extraordinary brevity. He did so in a way that Gladstone would have thought half-formed, embryonic in the oratory required. Lord Palmerston who spoke on the great issue of Don Pacifico would have thought my hon. Friend had barely scraped the surface of the topic under consideration with an amendment substituting 10 o’clock for 9.25 am, and Tuesday for Wednesday.
Wednesday mornings are perhaps convenient for Bill Committees, because the House does not sit then. However, I find Wednesday afternoons particularly difficult, because the European Scrutiny Committee sits at 2 pm, and it covers a great deal of legislative material that changes our laws and feeds through to become the fundamental law of this country under the European Communities Act 1972. It provides a degree of scrutiny that, compared with the scrutiny that we are giving this Bill, is as nothing. However, laws become laws via European regulations or directives, without any fine discussions on how they should be debated, how they should be looked at and how they should be considered. Instead, they wend their way through, with only the ESC standing between us and that awful state of affairs of being governed by Brussels.
My right hon. Friend is a genius; I think we all knew that, given his reputation, not only in this House but in the country. That would certainly be a wise manuscript amendment, because if we were to move to 4.30 pm I would be able to attend not only the ESC but the Procedure Committee.
Not everybody finds procedure fascinating, Mr Bone. You will be shocked by that, alert and hawk-like as you are to Standing Orders, sitting there, watching them carefully and ensuring that everything follows the Blue Book, which lays down how we should behave, not to mention that which is set out clearly in “Erskine May”. However, these procedures govern so much of what we do and how we legislate. To miss a Procedure Committee meeting—particularly as my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North serves on that Committee too—could allow things to get through and change to happen. Change can be a very dangerous thing unless it is thought through very carefully. If the manuscript amendment proposed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford to move to 4.30 pm were considered and approved, how could I complain? We would be able to begin sittings of this Committee at 4.30 pm.
My hon. Friend mentions change and, not surprisingly, he seems, by and large, to be against it. If he studied the record of the last 30 years of Parliament, would he not discover that most private Members’ Bills sit in Committee on a Wednesday, and to move them to a Tuesday or Thursday is to make a change?
My right hon. Friend makes a very good point. I recall what a former Liberal Prime Minister said. Lord Palmerston, one of the best Liberal Prime Ministers, if not the only good Liberal Prime Minister that one can call to mind, said:
“Change? Change? Aren’t things bad enough already?”
There has been so much change that the change from Wednesday to Tuesday, or indeed to Thursday, in the grand scheme of things, is almost a continuity, if you follow the logic of that, Mr Bone. Because our sitting hours have been thrown up in the air and have fallen down where they will, the traditions that we have had have become somewhat abeyant, if that is a word. They have lost the force of continuity that they once had and we find that some things have changed, but others have not altered with them, so that we have an incongruity, which means we need to make further adjustments to keep the sense—the coherence—that used to be present.
As they say in the fashion world, some colour is the new black, so I wonder whether Tuesdays are in fact the new Wednesdays, and that if we looked at things in that way the tradition would now be to look at a Tuesday rather than a Wednesday. However, that discussion has slightly distracted me from the joy I was coming on to, which is having a 4.30 pm session on a Wednesday if a manuscript amendment were tabled. Then—what could be finer than this?—we could sit through until about 9.30 the following morning. That would allow time for the proper consideration of the Bill and for speeches to be made that would not be cut off in their prime, so that we would not lose that energy possessed by speeches that provide a full and rounded view of all the matters that need to be discussed by the Committee.
If we began at 4.30 pm on a Wednesday how many hours would that give us? It would give us a whole swathe of time. Even Job would be happy, and no one would be sitting here thinking, “When will it end?” Instead, they would be on the edge of their seats thinking, “Can this go on a bit more? Can we hear more arguments in the time that has been allotted to us?” However, if we were to sit at 2 o’clock instead of 4.30, not only would it make it very difficult for hon. and right hon. Members to be here because of their other Committee duties—
I am but a poor Whips’ lackey. I think that programme motions are a great disappointment, but that is how business is now dealt with. That came in before I was elected to Parliament. Therefore, I thought that to make a stand against it would not be so much “Horatius at the Bridge” as “The boy stood on the burning deck”. Members will recall that,
“all but he had fled”.
It was a sad end for the boy on the burning deck; he died. I did not want to put myself in that position. I thought that the boy who stood on the burning deck was noble and heroic, yet ultimately it was a sad heroism that did not work. I thought that, were I to do that as I came into the House and as programme motions had become almost an accepted part of our procedure, I would look—horror of horrors—pedantic.
Thank you, Mr Bone. You are quite right that the subject is of great importance. I was referring to my apparent inconsistency in being broadly cautious about change but favouring programme motions. That, of course, is part of how time is allocated. If we sit at 2 o’clock on a Wednesday, rather than 4.30, have we not made time too elastic because, as I said, we could go on all through the night? From 4.30 to 9.30 would be a reasonable and suitable amount of time, in spite of and irrespective of the inconvenience caused to Members because they would not be able to attend their Committees—a point that I made earlier, but that is worth reiterating. That extra two and a half hours really would make all the difference. It would turn us from sprinters into marathon runners, and surely that is not what we want. We need the right amount of time; not too little and not too much. One recalls Goldilocks and her porridge. She did not want it to be too hot or too cold; she wanted it to be just right. I want the time that we allocate to this debate to be just right. We are getting there.
It has been so helpful spending a little time considering the various options so that we can work through what we ought to be doing and how we should be considering it. We have listened to a variety of arguments. On my own motion on Thursdays—why do I choose Thursdays and why have I put forward this amendment? The nub of the matter is that there is the least contentious parliamentary business on that day.
I have a genuine difference of opinion with some other right hon. and hon. Members inasmuch as I think that on days when this House is sitting, it is the duty of Members to be here. That is not to underestimate the importance of constituency work. The House sits for around 35 weeks a year, which leaves 17 weeks in which we can devote ourselves to activities in our constituencies, not to mention 52 weekends—there is a slight double counting in that, but there are 35 weekends when the House is sitting and the Fridays when the House is not sitting. That provides an enormous amount of time to attend to constituency business when the House is not in session. When the House is in session, who would want to be absent? What a strange thing; it is a great honour to be Members of what is, undoubtedly, the greatest Parliament in the world, and surely we want to be here.
One has heard rumours of socialist MPs being sent off to Scotland to campaign on Thursdays when the House is sitting. I was shocked to hear that. Indeed, I think it might conceivably even be a breach of privilege to tell—[Interruption.] Good heavens, I hear, from a sedentary position, that they are even sent there on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays as well. That is shocking. It is a breach of privilege to tell people that they should be away from the House when we are sent here and have a writ that is issued to bring us here.
Indeed, there is a great deal in “Erskine May” about how, in the old days, it was insisted upon that Members had to be present: they had to get leaves of absence. That is a good system. There is too much wandering away from Parliament; we should bring people back on Thursdays to attend the legislative business that we are here for. That is why I have tabled my amendment. We are a legislature, not a grandiloquent talking shop, although some Members may believe otherwise. We are here to scrutinise legislation and decide whether to pass it or not. That requires attendance in this House. This trend for Thursdays to become a second-tier day—a voluntary day, which does not necessarily require people’s presence—worries me. I tend to be here almost without fail on Thursdays.
I am listening intently to the hon. Gentleman’s speech on his commitment to the House. Could he explain where he was when we debated the Second Reading of this Bill? He did not vote.
I have voted since elected on 95%—or fractionally under, by less than a percentage point—of Divisions. I was away on the day in question because I had to attend a funeral, which I am sorry to say was out of the country. I hope that that was a good enough reason, and that the hon. Gentleman will not criticise me for it. I am always reluctant to miss the House when it is sitting, and do so extremely rarely. It was a funeral of a colleague of mine, which is enough detail for the time being.
I reiterate that one’s job is to be here, and that absences need to be for good reason. The modern trend of thinking of Thursday as a day for campaigning is wrong and should be rebuffed. One of the ways of reversing it is to ensure that people are called here for Committee, because there is a great pressure and incentive to be here. The turnout on this Committee is splendid; it is encouraging that there is so much enthusiasm for attending legislative Committees. I am particularly impressed by the turnout on the Opposition Benches. We had a European Scrutiny Committee yesterday at which only two or three Opposition Members were present, so attendance is declining. Yet here, on a proper legislative issue, we see a very good turnout: that is to be encouraged. If it were on a Thursday we would begin to re-establish that right-standing position of the House as the centre of the nation’s political life which, when it is sitting, Members have an urge to attend because they feel that anything else is a distraction. We come back to Job and his ruminations on time when misfortune had befallen him—
My hon. Friend is making a very persuasive speech about the importance of Thursday. He had just got to the commitment of time and the pull it has upon us. While I have great sympathy with his argument, I also feel that I need to balance my time in the House with time with my constituents, to communicate the important activities that go on here. I know that he has been asked this previously, but if his amendment were not approved, which of the others would he support?
My hon. Friend’s intervention is almost perfectly timed, because as I have been talking, I have been thinking. That is one of the great things about multi-tasking: can people in this House talk and think at the same time? At times it might seem that that is not so. Some people seem to talk without any thinking before, during or afterwards; but on this happy occasion I have been both talking and thinking and giving due consideration to the many balancing factors there are and the hard decision that must be made. I have found that ultimately I must turn my face against Wednesdays and I do so with sorrow, because of the risk that it might be seen as a change, a modernisation, a move towards socialism. It is not: I do it because I feel that the manuscript amendment suggested by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford to move to 4.30 may not get the approval of the Chairman or the support of the Committee. Therefore, to go with that would be taking a risk or a gamble. It would be like betting on the horses and I have never been a gambler. I am one of those boring Johnnies who prefers safety first, along with Stanley Baldwin. That was a very good election slogan, which I am thinking of using in the next few months.
The risk is that we should be caught up at 2 o’clock on a Wednesday when the European Scrutiny Committee has its work to attend to. We have a great avalanche of legislation coming from our friends in Brussels with just us—the St Bernards of the legislative system, with our little bottles of brandy round our necks—to try and rescue British sovereignty from the perils of Brussels. I would miss that if we were to meet at 2 o’clock on a Wednesday. Had the hon. Member for Eltham tabled a motion for half past 4, I should have been like a lamb in springtime in my support of it. I should have been gambolling around the room in joy if he had tabled that, but alas he did not. He did not take us down that happy route. Therefore, the risk that I would take is too great. It would not well serve my constituents, who I know are concerned about what is going on in Europe, want to ensure that it is kept in order, is kept down, and that we are able to scrutinise it properly and send reports to Ministers for proper debate and scrutiny. That 2 o’clock time is therefore precious and that moves me against Wednesday.
My right hon. Friend’s powers of persuasion are so remarkable that in those few words, those fine words plucked from the dictionary, words that Dr Johnson himself must have described when he put together that great dictionary of us, a work that took him 10 years—and I believe that 100 Frenchman could not do in 150 years, for a dictionary of their own language—those few words have persuaded me. After due consideration and thought on his impassioned oratory, I have decided not to press my amendment, but will support the amendment that we sit at 9.25 am on a Tuesday.
I will be brief for the sake of the Committee. We have had a very informative debate on the sittings motion and have learned a lot about parliamentary protocol. I am sure we are all very grateful to my right hon. and hon. Friends for that debate. We talked about whether we should sit on a Tuesday morning, on Wednesdays, on Thursdays or at weekends. On this side of the Committee a general consensus has been reached, balancing the need for hon. Members to attend other Committees, including the important European Scrutiny Committee, and to return to their constituencies in a prompt manner. Amendment (b) tabled in the names of my right hon. Friends the Members for East Yorkshire, for Chelmsford and for North East Hampshire is the amendment which achieves the right balance, noting of course the very important points of information and the replies that were given about the potential for extended sittings as may be appropriate.
I will be very brief because we have had a very extensive debate on how long we should sit to debate the Bill. All of the amendments tabled to my sitting motion would curtail the debate because they would cut out afternoon sittings and the freedom of the Committee to sit longer if it felt that it was necessary in order to make progress. We would be guillotined at 11.25 am in all of these amendments, save the one that bizarrely suggests that we should meet at 12 noon.
We have now spent more than three and a half hours debating how long and when we should debate the Bill, rather than getting on with dealing with the Bill. We have heard nothing substantial from the hon. Members opposite. All I point out is that if we were to go for any of these amendments we would lose the opportunity to sit in the afternoon and make progress on the Bill. We would require a majority of this Committee in order to amend a sittings motion that limited us to just morning sittings, if we wanted to amend the motion so that we could sit in the afternoon.
Quite frankly, the performance of the Members of the majority party opposite has shown that they would not be sympathetic to such a motion and we would not get a majority, so the status quo would apply. That would mean that we would be limited to morning sittings only, particularly if we were to go for amendment (b). Nothing that has been said in this debate has convinced me to accept any of the amendments. I reject all the amendments and will stick with my original sittings motion.
Further to the concluding remarks of the hon. Member for Eltham, I simply say that I came to this part of the debate in Committee on the sittings motion with the intention of supporting amendment (b), that we sit on a Tuesday. That is simply from the point of view of my own diary. To be selfish about it, that would be more convenient than sitting on a Wednesday. I have been persuaded against that simply by the length of the contributions made by the hon. Member for Bury North in particular and by the hon. Member for North East Somerset. To take three and a half hours to get to this point is reprehensible.
The fact is that this was really an opportunity to judge whether hon. Members on the Conservative Benches had the responsibility and the maturity to engage in this debate in a proper manner. They have failed that test in the past three and a half hours. I fully intended to support amendment (b), but I regret to say that the antics of the hon. Members on the Conservative Benches have strongly persuaded me to support the motion in the name of the hon. Member for Eltham.
I would like to confirm that. I have had some discussions with the hon. Member for St Ives about the amendments, and he has consistently told me that he intended to support amendment (b). I hope that this is a lesson to the Conservative members of the Committee: they have actually lost this vote because of their appalling behaviour.
I think we can allow that comment to stand. If I may, I will finish with a point of order or a question to you, Mr Chairman. Is there a possibility of now introducing a manuscript amendment to amendment (b) that would enable us to sit on a Tuesday afternoon? That would give us what we clearly need in order for the Bill to proceed and to be given proper scrutiny, rather than simply an opportunity to talk it out by filibustering. If it were possible now to introduce a manuscript amendment to amendment (b) that would enable us to sit this afternoon if necessary, and certainly on future Tuesday afternoons, in order to give the Bill the proper scrutiny that it deserves, then I might be persuaded to support amendment (b). I would only support amendment (b) if it were possible to introduce that amendment to it before we proceed any further. If that is not possible, then I shall support the motion before us today.
I have listened carefully to what all members of the Committee have said. The points I made were valid. I responded to a number of interventions, and I point out to the hon. Member for St Ives that you, Mr Bone, have made it clear that if either amendment (a) or amendment (b) were adopted today, it would be perfectly possible for either the hon. Member for St Ives or any other member of the Committee to table an amendment at any time to the sittings hours motion. I suggest that that is the correct way to proceed.
To emphasise the point that my hon. Friend makes, is it not the case that if the hon. Member for St Ives wants to sit on Tuesday afternoons, he could table a sittings motion later today which it would be in order for us to debate here and to approve at our very next sitting?
That certainly would be one way forward, Mr Bone. This issue of Tuesday afternoons was not raised previously and it is important to note that there is no amendment before us that includes sitting on Tuesday afternoons. It would have been perfectly possible for anybody who felt so strongly about it to table one. We have heard that it would be possible to do that in the future. I therefore commend amendment (a) to the Committee.
On a point of order, Mr Bone. I need advice as to whether it is possible now to introduce a manuscript amendment to amendment (b) such that we will have a vote on amendment (b) with an addendum enabling this Committee to sit on Tuesday afternoons. I would propose a 2.30 pm sitting time for Tuesday afternoons. Could we do that now? My fear is that by leaving it to a later date—indeed, until next Tuesday—that would be too late. It would not give this Committee sufficient time to scrutinise the Bill properly in time for a Friday sitting.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point of order, which probably actually was a point of order. The situation is, as he rightly says, that he can move, without notice, any amendment he wishes relating to this, but we will have to dispose of amendment (a) first. Of course, if amendment (a) is carried, the other amendments fall.
Further to that point of order, Mr Bone. Could the hon. Gentleman clarify what he is proposing? Is he proposing that we start sitting on Tuesday afternoons from today or from our next sitting?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that. I propose to to read the motion back with the proposed amendments to make sure every Member knows what we are talking about, and then we will debate it.
Amendment (b) would now read, ‘leave out from “meet” to end and insert “at 9.25am and 2.30pm on the following days”’, and those days are as on the amendment paper. The whole motion would read: “That the National Health Service (Amended Duties and Powers) Bill Committee do meet at 9.25am and 2.30pm on the following days”, and it then lists the Tuesdays, from (a) to (d).
Further to that point of order, Mr Bone. So that there is absolutely no doubt, will you clarify whether this manuscript amendment, if approved by the Committee, would bite with effect from today, meaning that we would, with very little notice, be sitting this afternoon? [Hon. Members: “That is what it says.”] I am asking him to confirm that.
On a point of order, Mr Bone. May I also propose a manuscript amendment to amendment (b), in addition to the manuscript amendment from the hon. Member for St Ives proposing that the Committee sit in the afternoons at 2.30 pm? I propose that we also have a manuscript amendment saying that the Committee finishes at 6 o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon.
On a point of order, Mr Bone. May I formally propose that there is a manuscript amendment? If amendment (b) is accepted with the manuscript amendment of the hon. Member for St Ives proposing that the Committee sit at 2.30 pm on a Tuesday afternoon, my amendment would be that the Committee should finish at 6 pm on a Tuesday afternoon.
I beg to move a manuscript amendment to amendment (b), after the word “9.25 am”, insert “and 2.30 pm”.
I am grateful to you, Mr Bone. I intend to be very brief. As I have already said, it is clear that we need sufficient time to scrutinise the Bill, to which a large number of amendments have been tabled. The Bill and all the issues in it have been thoroughly debated by the House on many occasions, even before Second Reading. We must ensure that we give the hon. Member for Eltham sufficient time to allow his Bill to proceed to Report and Third Reading.
In my view, the Bill needs amending, and we must have time to enable that to happen so that it can be reported to the House. We need to take this matter seriously, and I fear that that is not the climate in which the Committee has proceeded thus far. Therefore, allowing sufficient time for afternoon sittings will help to concentrate Committee members’ minds. As the hon. Member for North East Somerset said, time is extremely precious, and we need to recognise that there are consequences to the time that we allocate. I therefore strongly recommend that the Committee accepts my amendment on sitting on Tuesday afternoons.
I neglected to say earlier that it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Bone. I am very impressed with the way in which you are conducting these proceedings. It is obviously challenging for the Chair.
I appreciate the way in which the hon. Member for St Ives has approached the Bill. Clearly, he has concerns about sittings on Wednesday afternoons, and he has been frank and had discussions with me. He is seeking a way forward so that he can play a full and active part in these proceedings, and I would like to accommodate him as much as I can. My colleagues and I are minded to support his manuscript amendment on afternoon sittings.
We have been discussing the amount of time that we are going to allocate to discussing the Bill for nearly four hours, which is an absolute disgrace. The hon. Member for Bury North spoke for nearly three hours and took about 90 interventions in that time, nearly 40 of which were from the hon. Member for North East Somerset. We have been subjected to the most incredible filibustering.
I am not going to give way. The hon. Gentleman has spoken far too much.
The hon. Member for St Ives is absolutely right that we need to make time in the afternoons for discussing the Bill. Hon. Members have made eloquent speeches about how much time they like to commit to the proceedings of this House, but they have been speaking in favour of motions that would curtail the amount of time we would have to discuss the Bill. The manuscript amendment of the right hon. Member for Chelmsford says that we should cut off at 6 pm, regardless of how much progress we have made.
Order. I really am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman. I think there might be some confusion. I am not entirely sure that the right hon. Member for Chelmsford will be able to move his amendment, on the basis that you cannot curtail an afternoon sitting. It will not be in order, so we will not have to deal with that problem.
I am very grateful, Mr Bone. May I seek guidance in light of your ruling? As one is not able to move a manuscript amendment that curtails debate while the House is sitting, if I changed my manuscript amendment to “half-past 7,” when the House rises on a Tuesday, would that be caught by your ruling, or is it exempt?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that point of order. The situation is quite clear, but I will give an example. If we sit this afternoon and are still discussing the business before us, the sitting will continue after the House rises, so we could be here continuing our discussions at 3 am, if that is the wish of the Committee—the Committee does not get shut down. The only way that the Committee can be shut down this afternoon is if the majority supports a motion to adjourn.
On a point of order, Mr Bone. The sittings motion says:
“2.00pm when the House is sitting.”
Does that mean when the main Chamber is actually in session, or does it mean on days when the House has been sitting?
On a point of order, Mr Bone. Is it the case that this Committee, which ought normally to be in charge of its own proceedings, is unable to take a decision that it will sit, say, this afternoon between the hours of 2.30 pm and 6 pm? It would be a bit odd if we were incapable of doing that.
Perhaps I have not made it clear. It is entirely the Committee that will decide its hours. If the Committee wishes to adjourn for the day at 6.30 pm, that is exactly what happens—a motion will be proposed, the Committee will vote and, if there is a majority, the Committee will adjourn. That is the procedure. You cannot programme the afternoon sitting of a Committee. You cannot say that a Committee shuts down at a particular time.
I will be brief because, as you and the Committee are aware, Mr Bone, I suggested a manuscript amendment to define the amount of time that the Committee will sit during an afternoon sitting. You have cogently and coherently explained to us that that is not possible, which means that it would be irrelevant if I were to persist in pursuing my manuscript amendment, so, in order not to waste the Committee’s time, I will not do so.
I appreciate the support of the hon. Member for Eltham for my manuscript amendment. We know the origin of this proposal, which was a significant own goal by Conservative Back Benchers. I reassure the right hon. Member for Chelmsford, who proposed a 6 pm finish time, that in light of the Chair’s advice in relation to moving a motion to finish at any time of the Committee’s choosing, such a motion would clearly address that matter. There is therefore no need for a further amendment to define a guillotine time at the end of a sitting day.
On a point of order, Mr Bone. Amendment (b) is now in a form that I did not table or envisage being asked to support. Can you tell me whether, as I moved it earlier, the amendment is now the property of the Committee? If it is, I would prefer someone else to move it because it is not what I was urging on the Committee.
On a point of order, Mr Bone. I wonder if yesterday’s answer to my question given by the Secretary of State for Health has been brought to your attention. It sets out some of the costs associated with the Bill. Would it be possible to review that in light of the absence of a money resolution, as specific costs have now been identified for a number of parts of the Bill? Under the normal proceedings of the House, it will not be possible to put those clauses to the Committee. Is the Chairman at this stage in a position to rule on that or looking into it with the advice of the Clerks, because it does not affect clause 1?
On a point of order, Mr Bone. Will you please be a little more specific on when the House authorities will report back to us? My understanding is that if a Committee considers a Bill that should have a money resolution but does not, the House has the power to refer the Bill back to that Committee at a later stage. I would hate it if we were to scrutinise the Bill in detail and report to the House, only to find at a later date that we had to start our proceedings all over again.
On a point of order, Mr Bone. May I ask your guidance on your selection of amendments and the order of debate? Although your selection is of course, ipso facto, correct and right, I see that under clause 2 we will discuss clause 5 stand part, but later in the order of consideration we come to clause 5, to which it is possible that amendments may be tabled. How can we debate under clause 2 the issue of clause 5 stand part when we will not at that stage know whether clause 5 will be amended at a later stage?
Further to that point of order, Mr Bone. I raised the point because when discussing clause 5 stand part under clause 2, we will not know what it is we are discussing should stand part of the Bill; if we amend clause 5 to say that the mayor of Canterbury has turned green—to take an example at random—we will have discussed clause 5 stand part without being aware of the involvement of the mayor of Canterbury. I think that would be a mistake.
Further to that point of order, Mr Bone. Would we then be able to have a reprise—under your discretion—of whether clause 5 should stand part of the Bill?
On a point of order, Mr Bone. Will you clarify something about the grouping of amendments to clause 1? If I am looking at the selection correctly—and I stand to be corrected—amendments 50, 51 and 52, which are in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset, are grouped under clause 1, but they appear to relate to clause 2. Am I reading things right?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. The groupings are as have been selected. I hope he is not challenging the Chairs.
If there are no further points of order, we come to discussion of the Bill itself.