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29 Oct 2002 : Column 776—continued

Mr. Pike: The same is true in Burnley.

Mr. Salter: I am given to understand that the same applies in Burnley. I believe that the Leader of the House has been slightly remiss in not consulting Conservative Members on the exact calendar for school holidays for Eton, Harrow and other such places. In any case, as has been said in many other more eloquent contributions, three months is far too long for any Government of any political persuasion to escape the scrutiny of Parliament.

It was the devil's own job to produce a package that could appeal to a cross-House consensus. Obviously, the hour off on Thursdays will benefit people who have some distance to travel, and I welcome that. As the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) said, the proposed hours for Tuesdays and Wednesdays could prove beneficial to people like him and me, who live some 40 miles from London. However, the flip-side is that those who, like me, travel home most nights will have less time to spend in their constituencies in the morning. As my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) said, there is no one-size-fits-all package. There is no perfect solution.

Mr. McCabe: I accept that there is no one-size-fits-all package, but given that there is no conspiracy here, what is the rationale for coupling the popular proposal for a 6 o'clock finish on a Thursday with the contentious change in hours? Where is the logic in that?

Mr. Salter: That is a question best directed to the Leader of the House, but I say to my hon. Friend in all comradeship that he will do himself no favours if he

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cherry-picks elements of the package for purely personal reasons. We are putting together a package of reform for the House as a whole, not for individual Members.

Some Conservative Members have argued for consistency in the times that we start and finish. It is wholly ridiculous to assume that this House could meet before 2.30 on a Monday, given the distance that many colleagues have to travel. There is little scope to alter those arrangements, and no alterations have been proposed.

However, there is precious little justification for Parliament waiting to begin its business until 2.30 pm on a Tuesday and Wednesday. Conservative Members and sections of the press like to try and focus attention on the time that Parliament will finish its business, but the real question has to do with the time that we start. The earlier start is the key. When there are votes to be counted, the House will likely finish at 7.30 or 8 pm, but I fail to see how that is at the cutting edge of family friendly policies.

On Fridays, most hon. Members will have a full day of constituency business, advice surgeries and other engagements. That will eat into what the rest of the human race laughingly calls the weekend. Starting early will give the Commons more chance to set the news agenda for the day and allow greater coverage of our deliberations. The proposed earlier start will enhance Parliament, not diminish it.

Mr. Goodman: If we are to start early, why not start at 9 am rather than 11?

Mr. Salter: That question will be put to the vote. However, it is incongruous that the Conservatives, who oppose a start at 11.30 and propose one at 9.30, should be prepared to vote for the status quo if their proposal is not accepted. The Conservative proposal is a smokescreen to hide the party's real agenda, which is to disguise the fact that 66 per cent. of all Conservative Members have business interests outside the House. The hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell) said that morning sittings would not work because they would interfere with his stockbroking activities. That is the priority that two thirds of Conservative Members give to serving their constituents. They would rather sit in the courts or on company boards than in the House of Commons.

I am warming to my theme—the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) has inspired me. One Conservative Front Bencher has no fewer than 16 directorships to nurture. It is no wonder that he wants the mornings off. He is not here now, and I wonder why.

There is a Conservative Chairman of a Select Committee who, as well as being a practising barrister, moonlights as a director of eight companies while at the same time being a partner in another company and an adviser to two more. We should not be surprised to learn that that hon. Gentleman opposes the reform of the House's hours of sitting. One wonders when he has time to sleep.

I commend the research that has been done into the reasons for and against reform, but the matter gets even more absurd when one hears that hon. Members are

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worried about what they will do with themselves between 8 pm and 11 pm, two nights a week. I assure them that it will be OK. The bars and restaurants will still be open; drinking, eating and working will not be banned under the proposals.

I expect the pattern of the House and its activities to change. There is no reason why the meetings that we have in the morning at present cannot be held in the evening. I look forward to having dinner with constituents without being interrupted by the Division bell. I do not need my pager to buzz or a Division bell to ring to tell me when to work and when not to. As Members of Parliament, we define the scope of our responsibilities in our own individual ways.

There is little that I can say to provide succour and support to any MP convinced that a change in hours will cause his wife to accuse him of having torrid affairs. The recently revealed activities of Mrs. Edwina Currie and Mr. John Major demonstrate that afternoons are as good a time as any for illicit love-making.

We have reached the depths of ridiculousness, but the opponents of reform have no shame. Only last week, I heard of a former Whip putting it around that the proposals are merely a plot to abolish the overnight allowance. That would have a particular effect on south-eastern MPs from my region. I invite my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to stamp on that piece of nonsense when he responds to the debate.

Concern has been expressed about conditions for staff. I learned my politics representing staff in the workplace The proposal has been out to consultation since December last year. Any trade union official who did not represent his members' views in that time is not worth his salt and should look for another job.

It is easy for us to tell other public service workers such as firefighters, health service workers and teachers that they must modernise, but surely we should be setting an example. Why is it right for other people to modernise and change the way in which they do business while we hang on to some notion of tradition, as if the way that we have done things for 100 years is somehow right?

This debate is turning into a battle royal between the radicals and the reactionaries. It will determine the fate of our programme to modernise and make more relevant and effective our creaking democratic institutions. If this Parliament, with its huge new intake in 1997 and 2001, cannot reform this place, an opportunity will be lost for a generation.

9.5 pm

Mr. Stephen McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green): It is an enormous pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter). I agree with him on one point—this is no Great Reform Act 1832. When we find ourselves comparing the abolition of the property qualification, the extension of the franchise and the abolition of rotten boroughs with Members of Parliament who are concerned with looking after their narrow self-interest and getting home a bit earlier at night, we are in some difficulty.

There is some merit in the package of proposals before us. A lot of the measures are welcome—the revised line of route, conducted tours, pre-legislative

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scrutiny, the attempt to avoid the clash between Westminster Hall and Committees, provisions for the Speaker on a Friday, and support for the production of a calendar are all excellent proposals, and I will happily support them. However, we are told that the proposed change in hours is a reform that will make Parliament more accessible and raise our esteem in the eyes of the public. I do not think that it will make Parliament more accessible. My hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) said in an intervention on the Leader of the House that that is fine for tourists who want to come here at 9.30 in the morning for the line of route tour or for people who live within 30 miles of London. However, for people who live in Birmingham, Wales or any other region, it means that the day out they could have had coming to Parliament, seeing Prime Minister's Questions and meeting their MP will disappear. The alternative is to get up at about 6.30 in the morning, pay the expensive train fare to come, and then have less of a day here. MPs will have a compressed day, with more business and less time to spend with their constituents. I am extremely dubious about how this proposal will make the place more accessible.

If the proposals are to raise our esteem, why is the question about hours framed in terms of setting the agenda for the news? In the past few years, all we have talked about is the culture of spin doctors and how we are against it, yet we are saying here that we want to change the hours so that we can set the news agenda. We know that people will be on brief and on the breakfast news to get in first. It is nonsense and will do nothing to raise our esteem.

Since I have been in this place, no constituent has yet come to me and said, XI am really worried about the hours you work." No one has ever raised that with me, but they will say how crazy it is that we have spent a whole day debating how we can narrow our hours so that a proportion of us will get home early. That defies any logic and judgment.

I have doubts about the carry-over. I believe that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is sincere when he says that it is not the intention to have more legislation. However, it is the tendency of all Governments to legislate as much as possible, and if we create conditions in which there is more opportunity, I bet my bottom dollar that we will have more legislation. It will stack up at the other end, so although the proposal looks attractive on the surface, I have doubts about whether it will make sense.

In an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West, I pointed out that the proposal to finish at 6 o'clock on Thursday night is popular—there is little dissent about that. However, what is the logic of coupling that proposal with the one about hours? There is to be a free vote. The process will be open. No one is trying to manage or railroad us, so why have we unnecessarily coupled together those two things?

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