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29 Oct 2002 : Column 773—continued

Helen Jackson: I thank my hon. Friend, but he needs to recognise that the money was spent on Westminster Hall and that debates have been taking place there. Proceedings now finish at 10 o'clock, and there have been many other changes. This package is a continuation of the process.

I draw hon. Members' attention to something that has not yet been mentioned. Public opinion is still in favour of our reforming the sitting hours of the House. The figures in the YouGov survey show that 90 per cent. of Labour voters and 82 per cent. of Conservative voters are in favour of these reforms.

I stress that hon. Members who argue that these reforms are nothing to do with improving scrutiny are barking up the wrong tree. They have everything to do with improving scrutiny. It is a mistake to believe that scrutiny is achieved only through Select Committees. There are countless ways in which Back Benchers can scrutinise the Executive. Day in day out, we ask questions of Ministers during statements, we write letters to Ministers, we complain to the press, we use the media, we hold meetings, and we bring constituents to see Ministers. Some of the toughest scrutiny that I have participated in was through the all-party parliamentary group on water. When my party was in opposition, Members from both sides of the House piled in to support what that all-party group argued for. It was not a Select Committee, but we got changes to the legislation when the Labour Government came to power. It held its meetings in the evenings so that the public who cared about that issue could discuss it with Members.

That brings me to the question of the sitting hours of the House, which should be put in its historical context.

Mr. Peter Duncan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale): The hon. Lady seems to be advocating that the only route to respect for this Parliament is through reform and modernisation. Would she accept the lesson that can be learned from Scotland? Members of the Scottish Parliament can submit parliamentary questions by e-mail, it sits for less than two days a week, and its longest sitting went to just beyond 6 o'clock, but esteem for that Parliament is the lowest in the United Kingdom.

Helen Jackson: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution. He makes a point about the devolved

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Assemblies, which must win the support of the electorate in those areas. I believe that they will work hard to do that.

The sittings issue has caused the most dispute. It has been said that starting Question Time and statements earlier, with the possibility of further statements in the middle of the day, will have a negative effect on MPs' ability to scrutinise the Executive. I cannot see that. I believe that altering the sitting hours will, within a number of years, be acceptable to everyone in the House and outside. People will wonder why on earth Parliament took so long to change.

The historical context is that MPs were part-timers who earned their money in the mornings. Some Opposition Members, such as the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman), have been honest enough to admit that. He thinks that it is a good idea for Members of Parliament to be part-timers who earn money in the morning and come here to do their business in the afternoon. I do not think that that is what the public expect of Members of Parliament. The House will be improved and the public will give us more credit if we start our serious business in the Chamber in the morning.

Mr. McCabe: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Helen Jackson: No.

Some of the arguments about Select Committees are somewhat spurious. It has been said that Select Committees that meet in the afternoon will no longer be able to do so and will have to meet at 9.30 in the morning. There will be three clear afternoons a week for the deliberations of Standing Committees, Select Committees and other Committees, added to the possibility of two hours in the mornings. That will increase the potential for scrutiny in the House rather than removing it.

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Helen Jackson: If I get injury time.

Mr. Williams: May I clarify the position of Select Committee Chairmen? When the modernisation proposals were first presented, we made no recommendations about sitting hours. When I discussed the matter with the Liaison Committee on Thursday morning, it was evenly divided: as many Chairmen favoured the change as opposed it. There is no unanimous view that Select Committees will be damaged—and the Public Accounts Committee, of which I am a member, meets at 4 pm.

Helen Jackson: I believe that there is a difference of view. I refer to my side of the House, the other side of the House, the Commission and the Liaison Committee.

I think that when something that has existed for a long time is changed it is a bit scary, but people settle down and arrange how to do their work as well as possible remarkably quickly. I think that that will apply to Select Committees and scrutiny, and also to other aspects of the House's business.

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Some people are worried about starting at 11.30 am because they do not know what they will do with their evenings. I would like to think that the House of Commons, indeed the Palace of Westminster, will continue to be a thriving, vibrant place in the evenings. Members of the public who work during the day will have an opportunity to come here for political meetings. We MPs are politico-nutcases: if a really useful political discussion is taking place in the evening with members of the public, we would want to meet them and hear their views. This is where that should happen. Indeed, I am sure that the Leader of the House will find new ways of using the Chamber after 7 pm, and of using Westminster Hall. I am sure that this will remain one place where we can spend useful evenings.

We will have a choice, however. Occasionally we may well want to eat outside with friends, because we are not tied to this place. It will become a good, grown-up Parliament.

8.53 pm

Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West): There is more than a hint of fantasy in some of the rumours and bluster that have been flying around this place over the past few weeks, as traditionalists struggle to find coherent arguments against the sensible reforms proposed by my right hon. Friend's Committee. As a member of that Committee, I want to explain how we tried to construct a package that would benefit Members across the political spectrum and throughout the country. It was not an easy task.

These proposals represent modest progress towards a 21st-century Parliament, but they are hardly revolutionary. They include measures to ensure better scrutiny of legislation: more Bills would be published in draft, and more legislation would be carried over. The current archaic procedures create legislative logjam, and often result in the cutting off of proper scrutiny of Bills. That means that bad legislation finds its way on to the statute book too often. Question Time would become more topical and relevant. Parliament as a whole should aspire to that. Notice for the tabling of questions would be reduced from 14 days to three.

Some have fully embraced the conspiracy theory that our proposals for a limit of 10 or 12 minutes on speeches is part of some obscure Government plot to shut up awkward Back Benchers. I can assure them that the very opposite is the case. The limited opportunity for Members to speak—particularly for those from the 1997 and 2001 intakes—is a source of continuing irritation to those on both sides of the House. We have all seen stooges be occasionally wheeled out by those on both Front Benches to shut up a particularly awkward Back Bencher. That has certainly happened to me [Hon. Members: XYou are a stooge."] No, it is the other way around. I asked for that, Madam Deputy Speaker. I can see a Whip smiling, so it is clear that they put their hands up to that one. More Members of Parliament speaking means a wider representation of views in this House, which could make life more awkward for the Government, rather than easier.

Long-serving Members should also understand the frustration of newly elected MPs at the fact that the time available for them to speak is often used up by 25-minute dirges from long-serving Members of a House in

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which seniority triumphs over brevity. It is high time that we dispensed with the Buggins' turn principle in this place. All our constituents should be treated equally; all have a right to an equal level of representation, however geriatric their Member of Parliament is, or is not.

The Commons is at its best when its arguments are short and to the point, and when as wide a cross-section of views as possible is expressed. I defy all but the most paranoid to conclude that these proposals are anything other than entirely sensible and fundamentally democratic. They will enhance the workings of Parliament for both Opposition and Government Members.

The opponents of reform have concocted all sorts of spurious objections to the modernisation package. The proposal on sitting hours was subjected to an incredible campaign of misrepresentation by those who oppose change for whatever reason. If adopted, the new hours will be exactly the same in number as the current hours, but they will be more civilised and more sensible. The proposal to begin the summer recess earlier in July, but for Parliament to reassemble for part of September, does not represent a single day's less work for any MP in this place. Whatever else these reforms are designed to do, they are not designed to make us work less hard or less often.

I do not have children myself, but I sympathise with my Scottish colleagues, who, due to differences in the school calendar, sometimes have only two weeks at home with their children in the school holidays.

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