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The Leader of the House was asked—

Westminster Hall

44. Fiona Mactaggart (Slough): If he will encourage the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons to review the layout of the Chamber in Westminster Hall. [32381]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Stephen Twigg): The Modernisation Committee has to consider the Westminster Hall experiment in the course of this Session, and will gladly consider any representations that hon. Members wish to make about the layout of the Chamber, or any other matter.

Fiona Mactaggart: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply, but I wish to encourage the Committee to consult more widely among Members. Other people may have shared my sense of surprise when, following an intervention from a Member—admittedly, a very senior one—the layout of Westminster Hall was suddenly changed. Many of us felt that the original layout was greatly preferable, and I want to ensure that there is proper consultation before we get stuck with the present arrangements.

Mr. Twigg: I understand that many Members preferred the original arrangement, on the grounds that it provided for a more consensual approach to debate—[Hon. Members: "No."] Many other Members clearly prefer the current arrangements. Both the original and the present arrangements were part of an experiment and, through the Modernisation Committee, we shall have the opportunity to review both parts of that experiment before deciding how to take things forward.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): Does the Minister accept that, partly because of its layout, Westminster Hall has been a triumphant success? [Interruption.] That is true despite the misgivings of a tiny minority of Conservatives—in fact I think that it is now a minority of one. The success is largely due to the more consensual atmosphere that has developed, and the fact that all Members can hold Ministers to account in Westminster Hall. Does the Minister think that there may be some lesson to be learned about the layout of this Chamber, which is clearly out of date and presents the entirely anachronistic fiction of a two-party confrontational conflict, which is no longer the case in the 21st century?

Mr. Twigg: I shall tread carefully in answering that question; I do not know whether the Liberal Democrats are offering to sit in the Gallery, but we do not have a great deal of spare space in this Chamber at the moment. I welcome the fact that the Conservative party appears to have changed its mind about Westminster Hall; I understand from press reports today that it now accepts the idea. When Westminster Hall was first proposed,

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the shadow Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), described it as a godforsaken sideshow.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) indicated assent.

Mr. Twigg: The right hon. Gentleman is nodding. He appears not to have changed his mind, but I understand that many other Conservative Members have changed theirs.

Mr. Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith): As the number of requests from Back-Bench Members for Adjournment debates in Westminster Hall is now much larger than the number of available slots, will my hon. Friend also consider the possibility of recommending an increase in the time available there, to reflect the clear popularity of the innovation among Members?

Mr. Twigg: In the memorandum that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House submitted to the Modernisation Committee shortly before Christmas, he set out plans for providing more opportunities for shorter debates, both on the Floor of the House and elsewhere. I am sure that the Select Committee will bear my hon. Friend's representations in mind as its work proceeds.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): It is extremely dangerous to disagree with the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), but may I do so? As one of those who has the duty of chairing sittings in Westminster Hall, I believe that the current layout is extremely satisfactory, not only for Members but also for the many visitors, the staff and the Government advisers who serve Ministers. Will the Minister accept it from me that with the current layout it is much easier to identify Members, which is important to ensure that Members of all parties have the opportunity to participate in the excellent debates in Westminster Hall, which has been a great success?

Mr. Twigg: I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his work in chairing debates in Westminster Hall. Certainly the intervention that he has made today, drawing on his experience, will be taken into account, along with what my hon. Friends have said.

Information and Communications Technology

45. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire): What plans he has for a fuller utilisation of information and communications technology in processes of the House of Commons. [32382]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Stephen Twigg): I hope that the House will make full use of ICT in its work. I understand that the Information Committee is to undertake an inquiry into the use of ICT, and I hope that we can draw upon its work.

David Taylor: Does the Minister agree that the wholesale abstention by younger voters in June 2001 was at least partly rooted in their sense of detachment from an institution widely seen as mired in an era of quill pens and hansom cabs? Does he believe that there is potential

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for e-democracy to reconnect this place with the electorate, by promoting and improving the consultation with them on the matters that we debate?

Mr. Twigg: I very much agree with my hon. Friend, although I suspect that he has not yet persuaded the shadow Leader of the House. Clearly, we face a serious challenge in reconnecting young people with politics. As my hon. Friend may be aware, there is now a Cabinet committee on e-democracy. It will address many of the issues that have been raised. I am delighted to say that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House chairs that committee.

Electronic Voting

46. Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): What proposals he plans to make to the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons on electronic voting in Divisions. [32383]

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Robin Cook): In my memorandum on modernisation, I posed the question whether views in the House on electronic voting had changed since hon. Members were consulted in the previous Parliament. I stressed in the memorandum that any acceptable form of electronic voting must require hon. Members to attend the Division in person, but that electronic voting could have the advantage of removing the need for multiple Divisions.

Dr. Lewis: I thank the Leader of the House for that reply. Does he agree that one reason why Opposition Members value voting in person is that it is the one time of day when we can be sure of meeting as many of our colleagues and senior spokesmen as possible? Much can be carried out when we all know that we will meet at one place and one time. Does the right hon. Gentleman think that that view is shared by Labour Members, or are Government Back Benchers and Ministers rather more reluctant to meet than their shadow counterparts?

Mr. Cook: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that insight into why Opposition Members prefer the present voting system. Given the present size of the official Opposition, I think that there are a number of halls in the building that could now accommodate them.

Of course, the fact that hon. Members all come together at Division time is very important and valuable for the cohesion of the House, and for the parties represented here. I respect that, and that is why electronic voting would have to be introduced on the basis that hon. Members would vote in person. However, are Opposition Members really content with a system whereby three or four Divisions during a debate that is subject to a programme motion can mean that more than an hour is lost that could otherwise be used for debate and scrutiny?

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley): I accept all the important points that my right hon. Friend has made about electronic

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voting. Even though party Whips might not like the idea, does he also accept that we should consider whether any electronic system should be able to record an abstention?

Mr. Cook: My hon. Friend raises an important element of the debate. Indeed, the Modernisation Committee examined the subject in the previous Parliament and posed the same question. Plainly, the more modern and flexible the House is when it comes to voting systems, the more options are available. I still have an open mind on the question, but I believe that the House should be willing to explore ways in which we might make a modest advance in the way that we vote, which at present is based on the principle of the sheepfold.

Prime Minister's Question Time

47. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): What representations he has received on the alteration of timing of questions to the Prime Minister. [32384]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Stephen Twigg): My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has had many discussions on his proposals for reforming the hours of this House, and those consultations will continue.

Miss McIntosh: I am most grateful for that elegant reply. I wish to make a plea on behalf of those hon. Members who represent constituencies in the north of country. Will the Government oppose any proposal to move Prime Minister's Question Time to a slot before lunch, such as 12 noon or earlier? Many constituents have to travel a long way to attend Prime Minister's Question Time, which is now held on only one day each week. It would be extremely regrettable if further obstacles were put in their way in that respect.

Mr. Twigg: The aim of the proposed reforms is to increase the effectiveness of the House as a whole, and to ensure that all hon. Members benefit, irrespective of the location of their constituencies. I understand the hon. Lady's concerns as they might apply to the start time on a Monday, which we are not proposing to change, or to our finish time on a Thursday or Friday. [Hon. Members: "For visitors."] I understand that the hon. Lady's question had to do with constituents. Constituents will want to visit the House at many different times during the week, and that is a factor that must be borne in mind. We propose that the House's hours on Wednesday mirror those on Thursday. It is fair to say that constituents are still able to visit the House on a Thursday, and that the experiment

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with the hours on Thursday has proved to be very successful. [Interruption.] Clearly, not all hon. Members share that view. The debate will continue in the Modernisation Committee, and it will come back to the House once that Committee has reached a view.

The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire was asked—

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