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29 Oct 2002 : Column 747—continued

Mr. Hoyle: That is right. It is always interesting to see that we do represent one another and to note the views that are expressed. There is a widely held view that we shall be putting pressure on Ministers as well if we are not careful. If we contain the hours, some constituencies will lose the benefits of ministerial visits because Ministers will be under constraints forcing them to be in the House. That is a weakness. In ministerial terms, Lancashire seems to be the colonies of this country; it is rare for Ministers to come that far north. It will become impossible, I stress, to persuade Ministers to come that far north in future unless we have a conference there.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien: I associate myself with the hon. Gentleman's remarks and include Cheshire with Lancashire in that respect. I have just taken a straw poll in the Tea Room, of the staff, and they are all very much hoping that they will be able to retain the current hours, for precisely the reasons that the hon. Gentleman has so ably outlined.

Mr. Hoyle: I welcome that intervention. It is important that we ensure that the jobs of those people, who look after us so well, are not under threat. There is a great danger that if these proposals are approved tonight, those jobs will be under threat, and I certainly do not want to be associated with people losing their jobs.

7.8 pm

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle). Many of us can concur with the common sense with which he makes his case. There is much in the proposals presented by the Leader of the House with which I can agree. I should like to mention those before coming to the ones that cause me more concern.

Pre-legislative scrutiny is most welcome, and I think that we would all like to see that extended as much as possible. The Leader of the House mentioned the tabling of questions, possibly using electronic methods. I support that, given the necessary safeguards. Technically, I cannot see why those safeguards cannot be introduced. I do not agree with the proposal that came from my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield

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(Sir Nicholas Winterton) about fingerprinting. I would not be very comfortable about handing over my fingerprints to the Conservative Whips Office. However, if we might use electronic signatures, as would happen in a business environment, to protect our security, I am sure that electronic tabling would be feasible.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: It was not our proposal.

Mrs. Browning: I am relieved to hear that.

A test should be applied: does each of the proposals before us tonight strengthen the opportunity for Back Benchers to scrutinise and challenge what the Executive is bringing forward? Some of the proposals not only do not advance that cause, but take it further back, so I oppose them.

The first of those proposals is that on the general change to the sitting hours of the House. Many people have given reasons why they do not believe that that should take place. I do not subscribe to the idea that, somehow, out there among the wider electorate, there is the belief that changing the fact that the House of Commons sits until 10 o'clock at night will enhance turnout figures at elections or people's perception of us.

It is indicative that, in the opening statements and elsewhere, the impression has somehow already been given to people on the outside who may have no idea of parliamentary procedures that we do not have that much of importance to do in the mornings, yet we all know that we may be attending Select Committee or Standing Committee sittings, or just doing our constituency work or other work that interests us in the House.

I particularly like to use mornings to see people on a one-to-one basis. I am not a great believer in the working lunch; I would rather people came in for an hour and made their case over a cup of coffee. I prefer information to be brought to me in that way, yet the opportunity to do that would be curtailed if the House were to sit earlier. I certainly would not expect many of the organisations, charities and people who come to see me to make their case to do so in the evening after the House had risen at 7 o'clock, and I am concerned about that restriction.

I am also concerned about written statements unless they represent a genuine alternative to the planted written question. Many hon. Members have experienced the anomaly of raising with a Minister something particular to their own constituency only to find that the issue is dealt with in a planted written answer to a question asked by a Member whose constituency is hundreds of miles away and who cannot possibly have a constituency interest in the matter. If the proposal were intended to tidy that up, I would have no problem with it. That would be a very sensible move forward. However, I would be concerned if the proposal were intended to let Ministers off the hook by allowing them not to appear at the Dispatch Box to answer questions from Members of Parliament.

My hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield expanded on written questions to Ministers during his work with the Procedure Committee, and they are of genuine concern to all of us. I table named day questions, but not more than five a day. I do so because it is becoming more and more difficult to get a timely

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response to letters sent to Ministers on important constituency matters. One would expect the Cabinet Office rules to apply. They state that Members should receive replies from most Departments in 21 days, but I am sure that the Leader of the House will have noticed that many of us are forced to table written questions simply to chase up answers to letters sent to Departments.

I had to table such a question only last week, seeking a response to a very straightforward letter that I first sent in May to the Department of Health. I had chased that letter in June and again on 1 September, but I had to table a named day question as soon as the House returned after the summer recess to receive an answer.

I hope that the Leader of the House will take account of that in any change to tabling questions and the way in which we can question Ministers in a written format and orally, because there is huge frustration, certainly among the Opposition, at the rather sluggardly way in which Departments respond to questions and correspondence from Members of Parliament.

Although I support in principle the changes to the sitting hours, particularly those involving the summer recess and the House returning in September—I hope that we will know whether it will be for two or three weeks—one of the reasons given for those changes is that, if there were a need to recall Parliament, there would be an obvious window of opportunity to debate urgent matters that occur during the long summer recess. However, we should look much more seriously not only at the summer recess, particularly in relation to Departments being able to handle written questions, but at the need to recall Parliament.

The proposed war against Iraq arose almost immediately at the end of the summer term this year, but I have absolutely no doubt that the House would not have been recalled if it had not been for the actions of the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) and many other colleagues who arranged for Members of the House to convene outside the House under the chairmanship of former Speaker Weatherill to debate a matter of great importance to them. I agreed to participate, and I am told that 50 per cent. of all hon. Members indicated that they would attend that meeting in Church House. That would have been a great embarrassment to the Government, as I am sure the Leader of the House would agree. Back Benchers should not be forced to go to those lengths to get the Prime Minister to ask the Speaker to reconvene the House when a matter of such national importance is before us.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: Would it reassure my hon. Friend to know that the Procedure Committee may well undertake an inquiry into that matter during the next Session? We have received a number of representations, and I hope that it does not frighten the Leader of the House in any way to say that we believe that it falls within our terms of reference.

Mrs. Browning: I am comforted by that information, and I hope that the Leader of the House will be as receptive to the Procedure Committee's recommendations as he has been to other matters.

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I wish to move on to matters in which I was involved in a previous incarnation that are before us again tonight: guillotines, programme motions and deferred voting. I must tell the Leader of the House that I am very concerned to hear flexibility in programme motions used as a bargaining chip. I stood at the Dispatch Box opposite the right hon. Member for Derby, South (Margaret Beckett) when she forced programme motions and deferred voting on the House, and my clear understanding was that there would be flexibility.

We were given many assurances—they are all in the record of the House—and the Government promised in introducing those proposals that there would be automatic flexibility and that they would listen to the official Opposition in arranging programme motions for each Bill. So it is a matter of concern that, somehow, that flexibility is promised only if others are prepared to go along with other proposals before the House tonight, and I ask the Leader of the House to reflect very seriously on that. I shall regard it as a broken promise if the promise that he is now making, which was not honoured by his predecessor, is used as a bargaining chip for other matters.

I have reservations about the carry-over of incomplete Bills, and I am waiting for the Leader of the House to reassure me during his winding-up speech that that proposal will not be used just to enable the Government to push through controversial legislation that has been blocked in another place.

I do not think that the work of the House will be enhanced, or made more effective or more popular simply by changing the sitting hours of the House. It is not my intention to support the right hon. Gentleman's motion to bring forward the work of the House during the week to 11.30, but equally, for the same reason, I cannot support it beginning at 9.30 in the morning either, so I warn my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) that I shall not support his proposal.

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