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29 Oct 2002 : Column 723continued
Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South): I shall speak mainly against the proposed changes to the sitting times on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. The amendment to motion 6, which is in my name and those of other right hon. and hon. Members, will give Members an opportunity to vote against earlier sitting times on Wednesdays without denying them the opportunity to go home an hour earlier on Thursdays, which I support.
I am a moderniserbut not at any price. I am in favour of measures designed to improve the quality of scrutiny but opposed to any that diminish it. I am especially keen that Parliament should sit for at least two weeks in September. First, it has always seemed wrong that the Government should enjoy a three-month holiday from scrutiny each summer and, secondly, however hard we try, it is not possible to explain to our constituents that we are all hard at work in our constituencies during September. If we care about the esteem in which this place is held by people outside, the issue of the summer recess is a bullet that had to be bitten. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House on doing so.
As my right hon. Friend said, the big prize if we are to make this place more effective is prior scrutiny of legislation while it is still in draft and before it becomes set in stone. I know that there have been some successful experiments, but I look forward to seeing such scrutiny happen as a matter of course. I welcome what he said
Indeed, I shall support all the proposals except those that would allow the House to knock off at 7 o'clock on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. My right hon. Friend said in his opening remarks that his sole purpose was to make Parliament more effective. I cannot for the life of me see how cutting three hours off the parliamentary day will make us more effective. [Interruption.] I realise that hon. Members will suggest that we are not reducing the time, but simply moving it backwards.
Mr. Mullin: To save my hon. Friend the trouble of having to intervene, let me say that, for me, the parliamentary day does not consist merely of what goes on in the Chamber. That is the difference between us.
Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I am aware that we are on opposite sides of the argument, but on the question of the number of hours in a day, does he recognise that the majority of us are conscientious MPs? We arrive here at 9 o'clock or 8 o'clock, but the different hours, in addition to the events, parliamentary functions and discussions that will continue throughout the eveningwe are all politicoswill make our active day longer.
I accept that all hon. Membersor just about allare conscientious. I do not question that for a moment, but I repeat that I believe that a parliamentary day does not consist only of what goes on in the Chamber. That is my only point and I propose to move on.
Mr. Mullin: I have heard it said, perhaps not by my right hon. Friend this afternoon, but many times. The proposal might make this place more family friendly for those who are lucky enough to live within commuting distance of Westminster, but what are the 500 or so of us who live beyond commuting distance supposed to dowander around this place in twilight?
Are we supposed to go on cultural outings? Perhaps the theatres and art galleries of the west end will be full of newly liberated Scots and Welsh Members. Somehow I doubt it. If I were a spouse living several hundred miles away, I would prefer to know that my other half was snug in the warm bosom of the mother of Parliaments[Interruption.] I am sorry if hon. Members do not like what I am saying, but I would be grateful if they at least did me the honour of listening. I would prefer to know that my other half was snug in Parliament, instead of roaming the streets of the west end with too much time on their hands and too much money in their pockets.
That, however, is not my main objection. My main point is that what my right hon. Friend is proposing will inflict damage on the Select Committees at a time when we are doing all that we can to enhance their status. Like many, though by no means all Select Committees, the Home Affairs Committee meets in the morning so that we do not have to compete with the business in the Chamber and in the hope
My Select Committee meets in the morning so that we do not have to compete with the business in the Chamber and in the hope that our deliberations will attract the attention of the outside world from time to time. That is more likely if meetings take place in good time for media deadlines and if we are not competing with the Chamber.
My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said earlier that no one in their right mind would organise a press conference at 4 pm, to which I would add, Xor a Select Committee". I chair the Home Affairs Committee, which used to meet at 4.30 pm on Wednesdays for the convenience of the practising lawyers. Soon after I became Chairman, I received a letter from the home affairs correspondents of The Times, The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian. It states:
Can we urge you to consider moving the time of your meetings?"
Mr. Robin Cook: Five Select Committees met last week at 9.30 am. There is enough time for a two-hour meeting before the House sits at 11.30. There is no reason why Select Committees cannot meet before the House if they wish. However, it is extraordinary that my hon. Friend argues that the House should construct its hours around the Committee rather than vice versa.
Mr. Mullin: I accept that different Select Committees have differing experiences. The problem with the Home Affairs Committee applies to some of the other big Committees: a great deal of the business in the Chamber is within our remit. In some weeks, that applies to perhaps a third of the business. The proposed change will therefore prove difficult. I do not make too much of it, because I acknowledge that different Select Committee members will have different experiences. However, the problem exists, and changing the time will not improve scrutiny one iota.
I want to make another point that some hon. Members may consider minor, but is worth factoring in. A strength of our system is that Ministers are obliged to mix with the poor bloody infantry. Anyone who visits the Tea Room on any Tuesday or Wednesday evening after 7 pm will find Ministers, from the Deputy Prime Minister down, dining and socialising with Back Benchers. A good deal of informal business is done in that way. If Ministers are no longer obliged to come here after 7 pm because there is no vote, they will simply stay in their Departments until they finish their boxes. Those who live in Londonmost of the main movers and shakers dowill then go home, and the relationship between Back Benchers and Front Benchers will be damaged. I simply mention that minor point in passing in case no one else considers it. Perhaps those who care about the relationship between Parliament and the Executive will wish to bear it in mind when they vote.
I urge hon. Members to vote against motion 7, which provides for earlier sittings on Tuesday, and in favour of amendment (a) to motion 6. In supporting amendment (a), hon. Members would vote against earlier sittings on Wednesday without jeopardising the proposed new arrangements for Thursday and Friday, which I support. I shall press the amendment at the appropriate time.