Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons Second Report


54. There is nothing sacrosanct about the times of sitting of the House. They have changed over history to accommodate shifts in social custom and business practice. In the past decade there have been a number of amendments at the margins in response to the Jopling Report[12] and subsequent proposals.

55. In reforming the hours of Parliament, the important consideration is not whether they will be more convenient for MPs but whether they will enable MPs to do their job more effectively. The package we propose will broadly maintain the present volume of sitting hours from Monday to Thursday. The objective is not that MPs should do any less but that they should be able to do their job better.

56. The House of Commons does not sit until well into the afternoon. The major debate of the day is in effect an evening debate often not starting until half-past four and sometimes even later. Historically this was convenient in an era when MPs were unpaid and Members could do a day's work in the City or in the courts and still be present for the start of main business in the House. Overwhelmingly the modern House consists of full-time MPs who are on the precincts from early morning and are often at work in Standing or Select Committees. But the hours of Parliament have not changed to reflect that substantial change for the better in the character of parliamentary representation.

57. The problem with the traditional times of sitting is that major events such as statements, Prime Minister's Questions, or opening speeches come quite late in the normal working day. As a result parliamentary events do not set the day's agenda of public debate as often as they should, but frequently respond to an agenda that has already been set before the House meets. At the other end of the day the principal vote in the Commons comes at night. The consequence is that the key votes in the House of Commons cannot be adequately reported on the same day or be covered in most editions of the morning papers on the next day.

58. The proposals on sitting hours in the Leader's Memorandum on Modernisation[13] attracted more responses from Members than any other section. The views expressed reflected a wide range of opinion from complete support to total opposition. We have had to conclude that there is no prospect of securing consensus to any arrangement of sitting hours, including the status quo.

59. In approaching our proposals for modernisation of sitting times we have been guided by two objectives—to make the sitting hours of the Commons effective and consistent. To be effective it is necessary for the House of Commons to make more use of the earlier part of the day. To be consistent it is desirable for each day to follow, as much as is practical, the same pattern of hours.

60. We recommend that on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday the House should sit at 11.30 a.m. for oral questions. Any statement would therefore be taken at 12.30 pm and we hope would normally last for around an hour, enabling opening speeches to commence around 2.00 pm. As a result, the principal events in the parliamentary day would take place earlier and would have a better opportunity to set the agenda of public debate and media reporting. This would include the opening speeches of the day which would be rescued from the relatively late hour of the day in which they are made. We discussed the desirability of sitting at 9.30 am from Tuesday to Friday but this view did not find favour with the majority on the Committee.

61. Strictly speaking, it is not necessary for the Commons to rise earlier in the evening if it is to sit earlier in the morning. It would be possible for the House to sit even longer hours and retain the present closing time. Yet the Commons already sits on more days and for longer hours than nearly every other chamber in the democratic world. Its sitting hours are the longest of any chamber in the European Union. There is no compelling reason why a more efficient Commons should sit still longer hours.

62. Nor would it reflect the changing composition of the modern Parliament. Parliament now attracts MPs at a younger age and with a better, although inadequate, balance between the genders. This is a welcome improvement in Parliament's representation of the diversity of our nation. However, if this trend is to continue, Parliament must join other modern workplaces in seeking to ensure that its working practices allow people a healthier work-life balance. As the Equal Opportunities Commission observed in their evidence to us, "While recognising the unique responsibilities MPs carry, it is unhelpful in engaging voters in the democratic process if the impression is given that becoming an MP is incompatible with family responsibilities".[14]

63. The timing of sittings should be selected to make Parliament effective, not to make life easier for MPs. However, there is no reason why sitting hours should be more inconvenient or more disruptive of family life than absolutely necessary. We recommend that main business should end on Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7.00 pm. On Thursdays main business should end at 6.00 pm which would better enable Members to travel that evening to their constituencies. We recommend that sitting hours on Mondays remain as at present in order that Members have good time in which to travel down from their constituencies and that the same sitting hours should apply on the first day back after a recess if that should be a Tuesday or Wednesday. These new hours do not represent any change to the total number of hours of sitting on the four main days of business which would remain broadly constant. The majority of British MPs turn in a working week of over sixty hours and will continue to do so whatever times are chosen for sittings of the House.

64. Changes to the sitting hours in the Chamber will require consequential changes for other parliamentary procedures, such as meetings of Select Committees, Standing Committees and Westminster Hall. It is already established practice for all of these to meet during sitting hours in the Chamber and the problem of overlap need not be exaggerated. Apart from exceptional moments such as Prime Minister's Questions most MPs are already engaged in parliamentary work outside the Chamber for most sitting hours. Indeed both Westminster Hall and committees already accommodate the earlier sitting hours on Thursdays.

65. We recommend that committees and Westminster Hall should not meet during Question Time or statements. We can see a positive benefit in the new sitting hours for committees, as their members will be able to attend Question Time, statements and even opening speeches and still be able to commence a committee sitting earlier in the afternoon than at present. We attach a schedule which provides an example of possible sitting hours for committees and Westminster Hall.

66. Just as most Members are on the precincts in the morning before the Chamber sits under its present hours, we recognise that many Members will remain on the precincts after the House has risen under the new hours. We recommend that the facilities of the House, such as the library and the catering services, should continue to be available in the evenings for Members.


67. The increased demands of constituency work on Members have made it even more difficult for Members from outside London to be present at Westminster on Fridays. Most Members typically work a six-day week with four days in Parliament and the equivalent of two days in their constituency over the weekend. The experience and opinion which Members gain from their representational work in their constituency bring an authority to their contributions to debate in Parliament. We recommend that constituency work should take precedence on Fridays and the practice of Government motions on the adjournment on Fridays should be discontinued. The introduction of Government debates in Westminster Hall has provided an alternative forum for the class of topics which might previously have been reserved for such Friday debates.

68. This will leave Private Members' Bills as the sole business to be conducted on Fridays. In the next Session we will want to review Private Members' Bills, including the possibility of whether they could be transferred to another slot in the week which might be more convenient for Members.

69. We are concerned that the present arrangements require the attendance of the Speaker for the start of every Friday sitting, even though there is often no role for him other than to be present at Prayers. Mr Speaker also has a constituency role to fulfil, and is ably supported by a team of three deputies who normally preside over the remainder of each Friday sitting. We recommend that Standing Orders be amended to permit the same freedom to the Speaker as other Members to be present in his constituency on Friday. We recognise that from time to time there will be major business on a Friday where the Speaker himself will judge it appropriate to be present.

12   Report from the Select Committee on Sittings of the House, Session 1991-92, HC 20-I (1991-92). Back

13   Modernisation of the House of Commons: A Reform Programme for Consultation, December 2001, HC 440. Back

14   Ev 58. Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 5 September 2002