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22 Oct 2002 : Column 119—continued


The President of the Council was asked—


42. Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough): To ask the President of the Council what plans he has to implement reforms of the sittings of the House. [73618]

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Robin Cook): The Select Committee on Modernisation recommended that the House sit at 11.30 am on Tuesdays and Wednesdays so that questions, statements and opening speeches could take place earlier in the day and there would be a better opportunity to set the agenda on public debate. The Committee's report will be debated in the House next week, and I look forward to receiving my hon. Friend's support then.

Helen Jackson : I am one of those Labour Members who are immensely proud that it was this Government who established the Modernisation Committee and are driving forward a programme for change not just for our own convenience, but for the better working of Parliament and better linking of Parliament with the public. Would it not be a pity if, despite their natural inclinations, Conservative Members who might be inclined to support our modernisation agenda were prevented from doing so next Tuesday?

Mr. Cook: I entirely agree that sitting hours should be changed not for the convenience of Members, but to enable us to do a better job on behalf of Parliament and to enable this place to be more objective. At present we take ministerial statements at 4 pm. They constitute major announcements of Government policy. No Member on either side of the House would voluntarily plan a press conference to take place at 4 pm, which in itself is a case for our meeting earlier.

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The other issue raised by my hon. Friend is more a matter for the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth). I recall that on Thursday, when I asked him whether there would be a free vote on sitting hours for Conservative Members, he nodded.

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

Mr. Cook: He has now done so again. Regrettably, however, Hansard has problems recording a nod, so it would be helpful if the right hon. Gentleman put his assent on the record from the Dispatch Box today.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): Is it the President's understanding that should we decide, sensibly, to revert to a more intelligent method of dealing with our business at a more intelligent time of day—that was the arrangement at many times in the past—the earliest that the BBC could broadcast our proceedings would be January, because otherwise Prime Minister's Question Time would appear in the middle of children's programmes? Some Members would think that entirely appropriate; but can the right hon. Gentleman assure us that if the House votes for these important and useful changes they can be in place by the new year, at least?

Mr. Cook: I am happy to give that assurance. It is important that those substantial changes, if we vote for them on Tuesday, should be introduced properly. I understand that the Table Office does not feel confident about handling the shortening of the period of notice for oral questions, which we will also discuss on Tuesday, before January. I think it right for us to introduce that at a time when it can be dealt with competently.

As for the earlier sittings, the hon. Gentleman is right. The BBC has assured us that it can accommodate Prime Minister's Question Time at noon from January, and I therefore propose that we sit earlier from January. I personally believe that that will not just assist the BBC, but will be of wider assistance in ensuring that the media have no excuse for not reporting what goes on in Parliament.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge): Assuming that the House approves the reforms next week, as I sincerely hope will be the case, can my right hon. Friend explain what implications his proposals on the carry-over of Bills will have for private Members' Bills, possibly giving them more time to get through?

Mr. Cook: My hon. Friend makes a large assumption about the House agreeing to the proposals. The House will agree to them only if those who support them turn out and vote for them on Tuesday, and that would be my message to those who wish them well. On the question of carry-over, perhaps I should clarify that we are proposing carry-over only for Government legislation, not for private Members' Bills, for which there is a separate specific allocation within our Standing Orders. On the issue of principle, I have never understood why we have a sudden death for every Bill at the end of each Session. We are elected for a four-year Parliament, so it seems quite wrong—[Interruption.] Perhaps I have given away a secret and I should retract that. We are elected

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for a potential five-year Parliament, so I have never understood why we then carve it up into one-year lumps. If we want to carry out a better job of scrutinising legislation, we need more time and we will get more time only if we escape from the sessional straitjacket.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): Does the President of the Council accept that we are elected here to serve our constituents and not the media? Will he tell the House how many people responded to the survey that he conducted during the recent recess and what percentage of those Members were not seduced by his proposals for these ridiculous new hours?

Mr. Cook: Of course we are here to serve our constituents. Certainly many of my constituents think that we are rather odd and eccentric when we sit here until 10 o'clock and occasionally until midnight, whereas we could be working normal, reasonable hours. Of course, our constituents know about us through the media and it is therefore perfectly proper that we should operate in a way that enables us to communicate with them.

On the survey, I am pleased to say that five sixths of the House responded. I shall be sharing the figures with the Select Committee when we meet tomorrow, but in the meantime I can inform the House that there is a narrow majority in favour of change. Whether that narrow majority succeeds on Tuesday depends entirely on whether those who support change turn up to vote for change.


43. Fiona Mactaggart (Slough): To ask the President of the Council what plans he has to make proposals to the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons on the experimental seating arrangements in Westminster Hall. [73619]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): The Modernisation Committee recommended in its recent report that Westminster Hall be made permanent, but made no recommendations on the seating arrangements. My right hon. Friend has no plans to propose a change to the current seating arrangements, but he is aware that my hon. Friend preferred the original layout.

Fiona Mactaggart : I am very disappointed by that reply, as I feel that Parliament has been perhaps inadvertently misled on this matter—[Hon. Members: XOh!"] When the original seating arrangement was changed, we were informed that it was an experiment, just as the original seating arrangement had been. I would have expected some assessment of the preferred outcome of the experiment. May I therefore urge the Minister to ensure that such an assessment is conducted if the Modernisation Committee's recommendation that Westminster Hall sittings be put on a permanent basis is pursued?

Mr. Bradshaw: Just because the arrangement for sittings in Westminster Hall is to be put on a permanent basis, it does not mean to say that the configuration of the seating is being made permanent. My hon. Friend is

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absolutely right that the current configuration, although it is continuing, is still experimental and she is as free as any other hon. Member to make representations to the Modernisation Committee. However, I would say to her that, as things stand at the moment, she is the only hon. Member who has expressed that view.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): The Minister will confirm, I am sure, that the original design of the semicircular seating based on the Assemblee Nationale was to try to bring a spirit of co-operation between the parties. Has it worked?

Mr. Bradshaw: The hon. Member knows that the original configuration was changed because a number of hon. Members, including those who chair meetings in Westminster Hall, complained that it sometimes made it extremely difficult to identify hon. Members who wanted to speak when large crowds of the public were coming in and out. I am not aware that the change to the configuration that my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) is not so fond of has resulted in a less consensual atmosphere in Westminster Hall, but if I am wrong I am happy to hear from hon. Members that that is the case.

Written Questions

44. Mr. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South): To ask the President of the Council if he will make a statement on plans to allow hon. Members to table written questions during the recess. [73620]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): If the House agrees to a parliamentary calendar without a three-month summer recess, there will be less need for questions to be tabled and answered during the recess. The Government and the House authorities have already co-operated this year to ensure that questions tabled shortly before the House rose for the summer were answered during the recess.

Mr. Chapman : If one effect of the modernisation proposals is to shorten the period in which we are not permitted to ask questions, to that extent I welcome them. I accept that, hitherto, it has been axiomatic that the House needs to be sitting for us to ask questions, but I wonder whether that is necessarily always so in relation to written questions. In recesses, Departments remain Departments and continue to function, and Ministers remain Ministers. Is it possible to find some mechanism whereby we can ask written questions, at least, when Parliament is in recess? Writing letters does not have the same effect as asking parliamentary questions. Could the Minister consider at least a weekly bulletin of questions during recesses that could be tabled and answered?

Mr. Bradshaw: I shall certainly take away my hon. Friend's suggestion, but I ask him to acknowledge that the Government have made significant improvements in the way that the system operates. As he himself says,

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Members are still free to write letters to Ministers during the recess, and it is expected that those Ministers will reply within 15 working days.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): Has the Minister read the report of the House of Commons Procedure Committee on parliamentary questions? As he will agree, it has a majority of Government Members, as have all Committees. In particular, has he read paragraph 101, which states:

The view of the Procedure Committee is perfectly plain. It has looked at this matter on our behalf and has recommended very strongly that there should not be a blanket ban on the asking of questions throughout the summer recess, whatever its length might be. Why is the Minister apparently ignorant of the contents of that report, and if he is not ignorant of them, will he please tell us that he is going to do something about it?

Mr. Bradshaw: I am not ignorant of what is in the report, which I have read, and I think that the right hon. Gentleman will be pleasantly surprised when he sees the Government's official response to it tomorrow. However, it is also within the Government's prerogative not to accept all the recommendations of a report from a Committee such as the Procedure Committee. For the reasons that I have already given, we believe that the most sensible way forward is for the House to approve the changes in respect of September sittings, so that we can halve the time during which Members are unable to table questions.

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