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29 Oct 2002 : Column 789—continued

Sir Peter Tapsell: If the Leader of the House was present when his hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) made his excellent speech, he will know that he was repeatedly interrupted by his hon. Friends. The hon. Gentleman, in his usual skilful debating way, would have given way and replied to interventions and there would have been a proper debate, but, as he rightly said, under a 12-minute time limit he could not do so, so the interventions were never made and he was unable to reply to them.

Mr. Cook: It is a matter of regret to me that I was able to intervene only once during the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), rather than the 15 times that I would have liked to intervene. I shall deal with his speech later in my reply.

Mr. Mullin: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Cook: Perhaps my hon. Friend will wait until I get round to his speech.

I cannot commend to my hon. Friends the amendment in the name of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), although I was strongly tempted by the colleague who suggested that we should all vote for that amendment, if only to enjoy the looks of consternation on the faces of Conservative Members when they won.

I very much welcome the generous spirit in which the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) spoke and his recognition that the Government's response to his Committee's very interesting report was overwhelmingly positive. There is only one major difference between us—that the Government do not accept the recommendation for topical questions—but I believe that the recommendations we do accept and the changes that we will make tonight will result in a dramatic reduction in the notice for Question Time and

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will make all Question Times more topical. In those circumstances, we are not persuaded of the case for introducing a new category of topical questions. However, as the hon. Gentleman fairly said, the overall thrust of his Committee's report has been accepted.

The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) asked me in my winding-up speech to address carry-over and its impact on Bills that are before the House of Lords. He is right in the inference behind his question. This House, through the Standing Orders that we are adopting tonight, can provide carry-over only for Bills that are solely before this House. Once Bills go to the Lords, we have no power, and we will have no power, under Standing Orders to decide for ourselves to carry them over to another Session. In other words, once a Bill has reached the Lords, or if we are involved in ping-pong with the Lords at the end of a Session, we cannot use carry-over to pull open the trapdoor and make the Bill disappear into the following Session. Those who want to retain that power in the Lords need have no anxiety about the Standing Order removing it.

Most of the debate has been about the sitting hours of the House. Many of those who spoke on hours were keen to express that they did not regard that as the most important issue. I agree with them. Indeed, I fully agree with what the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst has just said. What we do is much more important than when we do it. Most of the debate has been about the question of sitting hours because that is the most divisive issue before the House. I hope that the debate and subsequent votes will enable us to put the issue behind us, one way or another, for the rest of this Parliament. At least in that event the debate will have been cathartic.

The debate has certainly been entertaining, and I found most entertaining of all the speech of the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle, who is a hardcore traditionalist. He gave a magnificent soaring parody of the case against change. I can assume only that he was put up to it by those who want us to sit earlier hours to discredit the case against it. I say to the hon. Gentleman that I have no argument with those who want to work elsewhere in the mornings rather than come to the House. That is their choice and I would not dream of interfering with it. However, those who choose to do so surely cannot argue if those of us who are full time in our commitment to the House want to adopt hours that are appropriate to a modern and effective Parliament.

The hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle referred to my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin). I thought that my hon. Friend made the best speech for earlier sittings. He stressed the value in terms of public attention of meeting in the morning rather than the afternoon. He stressed the gains to the Home Affairs Select Committee from meeting in the morning rather than the afternoon. I think that he rather lost the Chamber when he suggested that those gains should be confined to that Select Committee and not shared with the Chamber. If morning sittings are such an encouraging success for his Select Committee, surely he should not stop the Chamber sharing the same benefit.

Mr. Mullin: My only point, which I repeat, is that there is more to life than what goes on in the Chamber

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in terms of calling the Executive to account. Although we are not whipped on the Government side of the Chamber—at least I do not think that we are—my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office is handing out a bit of paper telling everybody how to vote. I see that it describes my amendment as wrecking amendment. In fact it is an honest attempt to allow a vote to take place on sitting hours on Wednesdays, about which there is honourable disagreement on both sides of the Chamber. Will my right hon. Friend explain how my amendment comes to be a wrecking amendment and why he is describing it as such.

Mr. Cook: This is a matter for a free vote on both sides of the Chamber, as I understand it. I would not think that my hon. Friend would resile from the simple fact that his amendment is devised to stop the House sitting earlier on Wednesdays. To that extent, those who want to see the House change its hours and sit earlier in the morning would be entitled to describe it as a wrecking amendment that is intended to prevent that from happening. I do not think that my hon. Friend is in any position to deny that that would be precisely the effect of his amendment.

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North): Does my right hon. Friend accept that many of us, while voting for the package, would not share the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin)? Indeed, many of us feel that the package does not go far enough. The various compromises that have had to be made may well be acceptable to those who feel like me. This may be the end of the issue after the votes have taken place tonight, but I hope that my right hon. Friend is not closing the book on further reforms emanating from his office and from the Modernisation and Procedure Committees, so that Members can once again discuss, debate and vote upon further reforms that are needed in this place.

Mr. Cook: We have only five minutes before the House divides on the proposed reforms. It might be unwise of me to embark on a programme of further reform that comes after tonight. Obviously what my hon. Friend says has some merit to it. Modernisation is necessarily a continuous process. It is not an episode and it will not stop tonight, but how much further we can go after tonight will entirely depend on the extent of support for the measures now before the House.

Michael Fabricant: On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Will it be an instance of contempt of the House if, while the Leader of the House says that this is to be a free vote for the Government, it turns out that Government Whips are issuing a note referring to a wrecking amendment and saying—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. The point that the hon. Gentleman is making has nothing to do with the Chair.

Mr. Cook: I think that I can help the hon. Gentleman, because, perfectly understandably, I have wanted to keep in close contact and make sure that I know what the Government Whips are doing. With the authority of

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that close interest, I can assure him that any paper from which my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South was quoting did not come from the Government Whips.

It might be helpful for the House to remember when we talk about the 7 o'clock closures proposed in the Standing Orders for earlier sittings that that will not necessarily be the hour at which all business ends. Technically, what we are voting for in relation to the 7 o'clock closure is the moment of interruption that currently takes place at 10 o'clock. I cannot guarantee to the House that I will always be able in the forthcoming Session to avoid business after that moment of interruption. We have been able to avoid that for most of the past year because we have had a very long Session. The next Session will be shorter. I hope that when hon. Members come to vote, they will also bear in mind that, if they stick with 10 pm as the moment of interruption, it is possible that they will find on occasion in the next Session that they are present not until 10 o'clock, but until midnight.

I wholly agree with the interesting point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle), who said that most of us on the Labour Benches are at our desks and in our offices before 9 o'clock in the morning. All the Ministers on the Front Bench are in their offices by 8 o'clock in the morning. In those circumstances, I do not think that it is unreasonable for hon. Members to expect to be allowed to be free to go home and prepare for the next morning from 7.30 at night.

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