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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. Christopher Leslie): As my hon. Friend knows, the Select Committee on Public Administration is currently conducting an inquiry into the exercise of prerogative powers. The Government will respond to any recommendations it makes in the usual way.
Kevin Brennan : I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, but does he agree that what we actually have in this country is not an unwritten constitution, but a constitution written in invisible ink? That includes the power to make warperhaps my hon. Friend can tell us whether the vote in this Parliament has changed that by precedent. Does he agree that it is time to hold a candle to that paper, so that the citizens of this country, and also this Parliament, can know the rules under which we are governed?
The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Peter Hain): No. In October last year, a majority of Members voted to alter the sitting hours so that the House now sits from 11.30 am on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. The Standing Orders were changed for the rest of this Parliament, which will allow us a sufficient period to make a considered judgment on the effect of the changes.
Mr. Dismore : The new hours really are not working as they were originally intended to. On a personal level, I find that I cannot do anything like as many constituency visits to schools and community groups as I used to do. In my Select Committee, we find that our evidence sessions are badly squeezed so that we cannot properly scrutinise experts or Ministers. Even the public cannot visit the Chamber as frequently as they could before. Hon. Members are very good at being in two places at once, but now we find on Tuesdays and Wednesdays that we have to be in three, four or five at once, and we simply cannot do it. Many of those who voted
Mr. Hain: My hon. Friend has made the point to me as well, in forceful terms. I understand the issues that he raises. There is a problem with constituency visits. Some Members have complained that the Chamber is locked in the evening, so they cannot bring visitors who may be dining with them into the Chamber. Such teething problems should be sorted out.
Bob Spink: My concern is not constituency visits but the House properly holding the Government to account, and the Tuesday hours simply prevent us from doing that. They inhibit Back-Bench contributions in debate in particular. Given that the mood of the House has changed since that very tight vote on Tuesday hours, is it not time to revisit this questionor are the Government running scared of increased scrutiny?
Mr. Hain: We know who is running scared at this particular time, do we not? All the Conservative Members are chasing each other, running scared around the place. On the point that the hon. Gentleman raisesI respect his point of view on this and he is right to raise itthe fact is that there is now more scrutiny of the Executive and the Government than ever before. [Hon. Members: "Rubbish."] Oh, indeed there is. We have the Prime Minister answering questions at the Liaison Committee, topical questions are now allowed in the Chamber, and we have cross-cutting questions in Westminster Hall. The truth is that the number of hours that we sit now is exactly the same as before, so there is the same opportunity to hold the Government to account and to question Ministers. The hon. Gentleman may wish to make a point about the hoursfair enoughbut he cannot defend his position by saying there is less scrutiny; there is not.
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): Is it not clear that the change in hours is bringing the House of Commons into disrepute? It is very important that we are aware of how the general public regard a House that has so little respect for itself. The House is now prepared to sit only in the middle of the week and to ignore the views of its own Members. If the Leader of the House is following the interests of elected Members, he should bring to the House a simple device to get another vote to make clear what we really think.
Mr. Hain: My hon. Friend is one of the most doughty defenders of the House's independence and of its vital role in our constitution. I acknowledge that very freely, but this is not a question of how the public relate to the Chamber. The House sits for exactly the same number of days as before. We do not sit only in the middle of the week. We sit on Monday and Thursday, and on some Fridays[Interruption.] Yes, sometimes we do sit on a Friday. However, the real issue is whether the public understand why it is that when the rest of the population work normal hours, we do not. Another element is how the public regard an institution that was almost unique in the world in sitting the hours that it used to sit. Other legislative bodies across the world sit more normal hours.
Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough): I congratulate the Leader of the House on what he has said today. There is clearly a difference of view on this matter. We should take stock as we would make ourselves look ridiculous if, having made a decision, we were to change our minds just a year later. We should let the House consider these matters at the beginning of the next
Mr. Hain: I very much endorse the hon. Gentleman's sentiments, in the sense that the House made a decision for the rest of this Parliament. There are strong views on either side of the argument, and I am listening to them. Specific points have been made about constituency visits, about the Chamber being locked too early in the evening, and about the timing of Standing Committees and Select Committees. We should try to resolve all such matters and see how things work out. If hon. Members feel that the new hours have not worked and there is an overwhelming desire to reverse the change, we will have a chance to do so when we have had time to judge the experience.
The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Phil Woolas): That is an interesting question. Of course, there is provision already for Ministers who are Members of the House of Lords to be questioned in the Grand Committees and in the new Standing Committee on the Inter-Governmental Conference, and Lords Ministers frequently appear before Commons Select Committees.
Mr. Bryant : I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for that answer, but "Erskine May" makes it clear that there is no reason why any Member of either House of Parliament should not speak on the Floor of either House, provided that permission were granted by both Houses. In the interim period before we have a wholly elected Second Chamber, would not it make more sense for Ministers from the House of Lordsand this applies especially to the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, who is about to bring forward very important legislationto be able to be put to the test in this Chamber, in front of elected politicians?
Mr. Woolas: Again, my hon. Friend makes another interesting point. He is right to say that Standing Orders in both the Commons and the Lords would need to be changed for what he describes to come about. However, the House may be interested to learn that precedents do exist. Commons Journal No. 99 records that in 1572 and 1604 Ministers who were Members of the House of Lords did answer questions. The Earl of Hertford and his brother, Mr. Seymour, were both ordered to the Bar
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): I suggest to the Deputy Leader of the House that it is not necessary to go back five centuries in this matter. Is not it time to take up the suggestion, made by hon. Members of all parties, that all Ministers should be elected Members of this House? I suppose an alternative would be to wait until the other House is elected, but it will be difficult to pursue the problem and make matters more acceptable democratically until all Ministers are accountable to the electorate by some means or other.
Mr. Woolas: I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, but custom and practice is that the Government are held to account collectively and Ministers answer questions in both Houses to their respective Houses. Westminster Hall may offer an opportunity for an examination of the issue and the hon. Gentleman may want to put forward that suggestion.