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The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett): I understand that hon. Members would prefer to have a greater degree of certainty about Parliament's timetable, and recognise that that would contribute to efficient management in the House and for individual Members. However, it is not possible to predict the progress of business with sufficient accuracy to give so far in advance dates as precise as those sought by my hon. Friend.
Mr. MacShane: I find my right hon. Friend's answer disappointing. I realise that she has inherited a ramshackle system for running this place--probably one that William Rufus would have recognised--but if we are to modernise and to have joined-up government, we need a modernised Parliament and a modernised parliamentary calendar. No other Parliament in the world has a system as absurd as ours, in which we do not set dates. The system is unfair on Members with families, and on Members who want to plan things in their constituencies and to undertake other political and parliamentary business outside the House. Can we consider the matter again and try to institute a parliamentary calendar that stands for a year, allowing for emergencies and special exceptions? That would be welcomed by all Members of the House.
Mrs. Beckett: I understand the attractions of a more fixed calendar. However, my hon. Friend will be aware that, broadly speaking, the House has a pattern of sittings with which hon. Members are familiar. We try to give as much notice as we can. For example, on 4 February, I gave notice of the weeks that would be included in the Easter and Whitsun recesses. In recent years, the warning for the spring recess has been 67 days on average. In one year, notice was only seven days; I gave 116 days' notice, so I think that we are moving in the direction that my hon. Friend wants.
Mrs. Beckett: I understand that for the past 10 years the dates of the summer recess have not been announced before the middle of June. I take the right hon. Gentleman's point about giving greater notice, but I fear that the progress of business is sufficiently uncertain that at present I am not able to give him the extra dates for which he has asked. I shall do so as soon as I possibly can.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Paddy Tipping): On 16 March, my right hon. Friend the President of the Council announced the results of the fifth quarterly review of progress in tackling the millennium bug in Government Departments, agencies and key parts of the wider public sector. The Government continue to make good progress on tackling the bug and the majority of bodies have nearly completed work on business critical systems. Encouraging progress has been made across the wider public sector. However, a concerted effort is necessary in some areas, and is being made, to ensure that the remaining work is finished on time.
Maria Eagle: This Government have done far more than most Governments throughout the world, and certainly more than the previous Conservative Government, to ensure that we shall be ready for 2000. However, does my hon. Friend agree that there is a patchy picture across local government, and will he explain what central Government are doing to encourage colleagues in local government to ensure that they are ready in time?
Mr. Tipping: By any international standard, the United Kingdom is in the top handful of Governments who are taking matters forward. However, it is important to recognise that the bug problem is everyone's problem--private sector and public sector together. Good progress has been made in the public sector, but, as my hon. Friend rightly says, there are problems in some of the smaller councils. Several initiatives have been taken, including the setting up of small groups of teams in Government offices to work with local authorities.
The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett): Five Bills have been published in draft and I expect at least two more later this Session. Three such Bills have been considered by Select Committees of this House, and one by a Joint Committee with the Lords.
Fiona Mactaggart: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the opportunity to provide early scrutiny of Bills helps to avoid poor drafting? Has she noticed that, in the back of today's Order Paper, there are more than 100 amendments to the Employment Relations Bill tabled by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry? Does she share my hope that pre-legislative scrutiny of a wider range of Bills will obviate the need to table so many amendments at a later stage in the Bill's passage?
Mrs. Beckett: My hon. Friend will recognise that, because we are at a relatively early stage in this Parliament, it is more likely that such problems will arise. However, I strongly share her views, first, that it is undesirable in principle for there to be many amendments to Bills and that it would be better if they could be avoided; and, secondly, that they are more likely to be avoided if Bills are published in draft and there is greater scrutiny of legislation before it comes before the House.
Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): Does the right hon. Lady agree that, in pursuit of her objective of ensuring better scrutiny of Bills, it would be good to look back on the policy initiative of my right hon. and noble Friend Lord St. John of Fawsley and the concept of the Special Standing Committee, which enables the Standing Committee in question to take evidence before Committee stage? Will she consider reviving that practice and committing Bills to such Standing Committees?
Mrs. Beckett: The Immigration and Asylum Bill is currently before a Special Standing Committee, and I endorse that practice. During this Session, we are exploring several options to try to determine which are likely to be the most fruitful. However, I believe that having a variety of measures available is the best way forward.
Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase): A Bill that is soon to appear in draft form is the freedom of information Bill. Has my right hon. Friend read the observations on that legislation contained in the Macpherson report on the Stephen Lawrence inquiry; and can she give the House an assurance that Macpherson's comments will be incorporated into the draft Bill?
Mrs. Beckett: I am not in a position to pre-empt the drafting of the Bill. As we debate the Stephen Lawrence inquiry report later today, such matters can be explored, but I am confident that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will have taken careful note of that report.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Paddy Tipping): I asked that our exchange on 1 March be drawn to the attention of the relevant Foreign Office Ministers. However, the Government's position remains the same: that there is no need to set up a specific Select Committee on Iraq, when the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs and the Select Committee on Defence are already able to examine issues relating to the Government's policies toward that country.
The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett): Last Session, the House sat for 2,117 hours and 36 minutes. In the 1992-93 Session, the figure was 1,985 hours and six minutes, and in the 1987-88 Session, 1,978 hours and 40 minutes. In 1983-84, the first Session of that Parliament, the House sat for 1,909 hours and 29 minutes. In other words, I confirm that the House sat for longer last Session than in the past.
Sir Teddy Taylor: In view of those worrying figures, does it not concern the Leader of the House that the Government are not subject to daily scrutiny for long periods during recesses? In view of Members' increased work load, might there not be a case for reducing the length of recesses and, perhaps, adjourning the House earlier than the normal 10 pm?
Mrs. Beckett: The parliamentary calendar and timing of the parliamentary day are kept under continual review by this Government, as they have been by many Governments. The hon. Gentleman will know that, up to now, although we have made some improvements following the Jopling reforms and in this Parliament, all the complications that arise from making major changes have led to their being incremental and experimental. I suspect that that will continue.
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): My right hon. Friend will be aware that, luckily, the common sense of the House of Commons is such that most Standing Committees are ignoring the suggestion that they should meet at 9 o'clock on Thursday morning. So far, modernisation has not caused too much difficulty. I trust that she will consult very widely with those who operate in Committee--Standing and Select Committees--before she makes any changes. On a personal note, since I am working longer hours than I was when I came here in 1966, and still spending Fridays in my constituency, I hope that she will not modernise our practices any more--otherwise I shall find myself working 24-hour sessions.
Mr. Ronnie Fearn (Southport): Is the right hon. Lady aware that, owing to the hours that we now work, particularly on Wednesdays and Thursdays, members of the public cannot see the House of Commons as they used to be able to? Has she any idea about how to facilitate members of the public seeing the House at various other times?
Mrs. Beckett: The House has considered these problems. Of course, it can be something of a moot point; some members of the public would rather see the House working than merely its facilities. People can always, of course, see the facilities of the House during recesses. We keep under review the degree of access that the public have to the House, and take it into account.