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29 Oct 2002 : Column 695—continued

Mr. Cook: I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for clarifying that he is not acting in collusion with his Front Benchers, even though I sometimes think that they could do with his collusion—they might wish to consider that.

The Modernisation Committee's report is clear about carry-over. It states explicitly that the argument for carry-over is not to provide opportunity for more legislation, but to provide more time for current legislation. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman wants to rest on the House of Lords—I anticipate from his comments that he has some respect for that House—he should reflect on this point. Within the past year, the House of Lords has adopted proposals for carry-over of legislation. If the Lords can adopt such proposals, surely we in the Commons should not be left behind as the other House modernises its procedures faster than we do.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed): Will the Leader of the House confirm that, in the case of any individual Bill, carry-over could not take place unless the Lords agreed to it?

Mr. Cook: We can carry over a Bill for our House, but we cannot do so once it has been through both Houses. I stress that under the Standing Order we are proposing, a Bill can be carried over only from one Session to the next, that it cannot thereafter be carried over, and that there will be a separate opportunity for the House to reconsider the matter if the Bill remains before Parliament for more than 12 months.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): What would be the extent of consultation with Her Majesty's official Opposition and other Opposition parties prior to the Government deciding to carry over a Bill?

Mr. Cook: The hon. Gentleman highlights an important part of the motion before the House. As he will be aware, in the Modernisation Committee report we have committed ourselves to consultation with the other parties in the House—both the official Opposition

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and the other parties—on the broad shape of the legislative year, including consultation on which Bills might be introduced in draft, what the broad order of Bills coming before the House might be, whether a Bill begins in the Lords or in the Commons, and which Bills might prove to be appropriate for carry-over. That is wide-ranging consultation—much wider than any collective consultation that has previously been attempted in this House—and I hope that it will assist in developing consensus on the shape of the parliamentary year.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): Will the Leader of the House confirm that nothing currently prevents pre-legislative scrutiny, and that none of his proposals on carry-over adds anything to pre-legislative scrutiny? If the Government were serious, they could introduce pre-legislative scrutiny without making any of the changes that are proposed today.

Mr. Cook: There are before us no Standing Orders on pre-legislative scrutiny, but there is a motion, the contents of which would ensure that there was a mandate from the House for those matters in respect of which there is no requirement for a change of Standing Order. That is why the motion deals with several issues, such as September sittings, for which no change of Standing Order is required. We could indeed call September sittings without a Standing Order, but we want a mandate from the House. I would find it helpful to have a mandate from the House with a clear instruction that hon. Members want to see more Bills in draft, and that is why I hope that the House will support it.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Cook: Of course I will give way to my right hon. Friend, but then—if the House will indulge me—I should like to go back to making a speech.

Mr. Kaufman: Consequent on his response to the intervention by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), will my right hon. Friend clarify the implications of carry-over in relation to the House of Lords? It is an attraction to me, and perhaps to other Labour Members, that the provision on carry-over could mean that—to pluck an example out of the air—a Bill to ban hunting with dogs would be sure to pass through the House of Commons; but if the House of Lords were not to carry over in that Chamber, it might provide an opportunity for the Lords to find another way of blocking the will of the Commons.

Mr. Cook: My experience of the hunting issue is that offering any comment on it will not assist me in building a consensus on the proposals that I am putting to the House. However, we in the Commons could carry over Bills that started here. In effect, that really means that carry-over will be relevant to Bills introduced late in the Session, say after Easter. I do not anticipate the Bill to which my right hon. Friend refers being one of those that will wait until Easter. I suspect that I shall be hearing from him regularly during business statements if it is not in this place before Easter.

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I shall continue with my argument. I was about to say that there are two distinct parts to the job of a Member. So far, I have dealt with our role of providing scrutiny at Westminster. The other equally important task is our representative function in our constituencies. The two complement each other. It is an immense strength of this place that Members can bring to it their direct contact with the opinions and the interests of the communities that they represent, among whom most of them live, and all of them work. The package before the House will help colleagues to be more effective in their work for their constituencies. The motion provides a mandate for an annual calendar of the sitting dates and the recess dates for Parliament for a year ahead. It will help Members immensely to make more effective use of their time in their constituencies if they can plan their engagements a year ahead.

I have been in the House for almost 30 years without ever being able to plan from one recess to the next when I can count on being away from Westminster. The motion will enable Members to make sensible arrangements more than two months ahead. If the House carries the motion, it will be my intention to announce in the business statement on Thursday the provisional dates of recesses up to October next year.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): Outrageous.

Mr. Cook: I rather think that that would be welcome to many Members. I do not know what is outrageous about it. If the hon. Gentleman really objects, I shall try to make an exception for his constituency.

Michael Fabricant: Does the right hon. Gentleman say that if the motion is not passed, he will not give out the information at business questions? Is he saying that the information is available to him now but he will not divulge it if the motion is not passed, knowing full well that he could do so even if the motion is not passed tonight?

Mr. Cook: I must correct the hon. Gentleman. I am merely the servant of the House. I cannot possibly proceed with a course of action that the House has just rejected. If the House votes down the motion, it would not expect me to ignore its view on the matter.

I say to the hon. Gentleman and to all Opposition Members that I should underline Xprovisional". It will be our intention to stick to the dates, but our success in doing so must depend on progress. There will be an obligation also on the Opposition to make it possible for the House to rise on the announced dates.

Members' constituency work will also benefit from the commitment to an additional constituency week to be added to either the Easter or the Whitsun recess.

Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Cook: I will finish this point.

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As a result of a holiday period, there is a limit to the number of meetings that can be undertaken with constituency businesses during these holiday periods. An additional week will enable Members to be in their constituency for a full working week.

Lynne Jones: Will my right hon. Friend ensure that parliamentary recesses coincide, as far as is possible, with school holidays, so that Members can be working in their constituencies at the same time as their children may be off school?

Mr. Cook: I will obviously seek to do so. I anticipate that consultation with the other parties will reinforce that message. However, I cannot guarantee that it will always be the case. The important point of constituency weeks is that they should be spent in the constituency.

We recall that the Leader of the Opposition, to the entertainment of my right hon. and hon. Friends, has called on all Conservative Members to spend a week with the vulnerable in their constituencies. I am not sure whether the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst has been able to find time for his week with the vulnerable in Bromley and Chislehurst. I hope that he will find my proposal useful to him in seeking out the vulnerable in his constituency.

The earlier sitting hours on Thursday have assisted Members in their constituency duties by enabling most Members to return to their constituencies that same evening. We propose one adjustment to the hours on Thursday. We recommend that the House should rise one hour earlier at 6 pm, which would make it easier for many hon. Members from distant constituencies to travel back that same evening.

That naturally brings me to the interesting issue of the sitting hours on Tuesday and Wednesday, on which there are divided views on both sides of the Chamber. From many conversations over the past six months, I know that the only comment on the issue on which I can carry the whole House with me is that there is no prospect of consensus. I put the matter before the House in order that hon. Members can resolve it themselves. The Standing Order is a temporary one that will automatically lapse at the end of this Parliament if there is no positive decision to make it permanent. If it is carried tonight, it will come into effect from January.

On the Labour Benches, this will be a free vote. I am delighted to inform Conservative Members that twice when I have asked the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst whether he will permit a free vote, he has nodded in assent. I invite him to put that commitment on the record when he speaks, so that the quarter of Conservative Members who have expressed support for earlier sittings will be free to follow their own judgment.

There is nothing hallowed about our sitting hours. Our predecessors changed the sitting hours many times in response to changing social circumstances. The right hon. Gentleman might want to reflect that it was customary for the House to sit in the mornings and afternoons until the 19th century. It was only the invention of gas lighting that brought about what we now think of as the traditional hours of the House.

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Perhaps it might help him to come to terms with earlier sittings if he were to think of them not as modernisation, but as a reversion to tradition.

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