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2.20 pm

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): I was extremely disappointed by the response from my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) to my earlier intervention. If he is arguing for thresholds for referendums in the wider world, why on earth is he not prepared to abide by the threshold that we set in the House for primary legislation? I think that is not a lawyerly point, as he said in response, but a point fundamental to our constitution. If legislation is to go through the House, it should have appropriate support from those present in the House.

Mr. Forth: In that case, would the hon. Gentleman accept my suggestion that the quorum in the House

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should be 50 per cent.? In order for a measure to get on to the statute book, surely it is not unreasonable for at least half of the MPs to turn up to vote for it.

Mr. Dismore: The right hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point, but I suspect that with such a threshold we would probably not get any legislation through at all—

Mr. Forth: Good. Excellent.

Mr. Dismore: I know that it is one of the right hon. Gentleman's primary objectives on a Friday to make sure that we get no legislation through.

There is not a great deal of time, but I shall address the point made by the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) in an intervention, about the position when it is pretty clear what the result will be. We have had a lot of sniping from those on the Opposition Front Bench and Back Benches about the referendum for the Greater London assembly and London Mayor. It is true that the turnout was only 34 per cent., but it is equally true that the overwhelming voice of the people of London was expressed in that vote—

Mr. Forth: No!

Mr. Dismore: —through a yes vote of 72 per cent. That reinforces the point made by the hon. Member for St. Ives that when the result is so overwhelmingly clear, there is a tendency for people not to bother to vote because they see how the vote will turn out.

Mr. Francois: The hon. Gentleman is making rather an interesting argument. In the old Soviet Union the turnout in elections was often 98 or 99 per cent., and everybody know who would win.

Mr. Dismore: The hon. Gentleman is probably making a point against himself in the context of the Bill. We have a very successful operation through the London Mayor, and I very much hope that in the elections in June the Mayor will be returned to build on his excellent record on behalf of the people of London.

I shall deal now with another right: the right not to—

Mr. Paterson: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Dismore: I always give way on a Friday, as does the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth).

Mr. Paterson: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. With reference to his pride in the Mayor, why did the Labour party oppose him?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. Even in a wide-ranging debate, that is not acceptable.

Mr. Dismore: That is a great pity, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was looking forward to answering that intervention, but I shall go on to my next point, which concerns the right to abstain. Our democratic process does not require people to vote if they do not want to. Under my hon. Friend's Bill, people's decision not to

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vote would effectively be counted as a vote, whether they liked it or not. That is an infringement of the democratic process.

Article 9 of the Human Rights Act 1998 provides for freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and I think that includes the right to have their political views respected. I put it to my hon. Friend that Jehovah's Witnesses have a principled view that although they register to vote because that is a requirement of the law, they do not wish to participate in the political process. The Bill would force them to participate, whether they like it or not, by counting their principled abstention from the democratic process as a vote against a particular reform.

Mr. Prentice: I would have to think a bit more about the Jehovah's Witnesses—they always creep into these debates, do they not?

I remind my hon. Friend that other countries in the European Union, notably Portugal and Italy, implemented provisions of the kind that I propose without in any way infringing the European convention on human rights, which is the linchpin of our own Human Rights Act.

Mr. Dismore: Further to my hon. Friend's comment about the Jehovah's Witnesses, religious groups are often the subject of our debates. When we discussed the Pensions (Winding Up) Bill, we had an interesting diversion around the tenets of the Plymouth Brethren.

My hon. Friend says that such provisions do not infringe the convention, but he may not have considered the issue in one important context; indeed, perhaps I am the first person to do so. It is certainly important in my constituency. In Mill Hill, we have Watchtower house, the headquarters of the Jehovah's Witnesses, and a significant number of Jehovah's Witnesses are on the electoral register. That could affect the turnout significantly in the event of a referendum in my constituency.

That raises the whole question of the electoral register. Some of our electoral registers are more accurate than others—let me put it that way—and they are not designed to provide for thresholds or abstentions. Although we have a rolling register, its accuracy often leaves a great deal to be desired. For example, it is rare for people who have died during the year to be removed from the register. Indeed, they often crop up for several years before the local authority gets round to amending it. Under my hon. Friend's Bill, people who had died would effectively have a vote: they would be counted as having voted against because they had not turned out. That is an inevitable consequence of the Bill as drafted. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend says that he made that point during the debate, but it is nowhere in his Bill. It makes no provision for changes to the maintenance of the electoral register.

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The same argument applies to people who have moved house during the currency of an electoral year. They remain on the register and technically still have the right to vote, yet under the Bill their vote would be counted irrespective of whether they decided to do so. The same goes for overseas voters. Moreover, in certain parts of the country, the register turns over much more quickly than in others. My hon. Friend has not thought through his proposals.

I have a great deal more to say, but I know that my hon. Friend the Minister would like to have a few minutes to speak. In the unlikely event of the Bill's making progress, I reserve the right to return to the matter at a later stage.

2.27 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. Christopher Leslie): In the generous amount of time that I have left, I will endeavour to explain why, after a great deal of consideration, we have concluded that the Government cannot support the 50 per cent. threshold for referendums that my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) proposes. I know that that will be a disappointment to him, so it will be helpful if I explain why we take that view.

First, let us not forget that there is a legal and legislative structure for our referendums. The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 governs the general rules for matters such as expenditure limits and organisation. There is also a requirement for separate Acts of Parliament to specify the details of particular referendums—the question, the franchise, the date and so forth. Clause 1 of my hon. Friend's Bill would amend the generic legislation. That would be wrong. It would be too rigid and inflexible an approach to apply the 50 per cent. threshold for all referendums in all circumstances. It is important that every referendum is considered on its merits. On principle, it would be wrong to have a 50 per cent. threshold, thereby allowing non-voters effectively to veto a yes vote or even a no vote, depending on how one viewed a threshold. That is a fundamentally undemocratic approach. People who wanted a no vote could campaign for abstentions rather than a positive—

It being half-past Two o'clock, Mr. Deputy Speaker adjourned the debate, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Debate to be resumed Friday 12 March.



Order for Second Reading read.

Hon. Members: Object.

To be read a Second time on Friday 14 May.

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Hours of the House

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Kemp.]

2.30 pm

Jane Griffiths (Reading, East) (Lab): Although I am grateful for the opportunity to introduce the debate, I am a little amused, given the topic that I chose, because I suspect that the sitting hours of the House will not have an impact on me in the next Parliament. None the less, it is an important matter. I am well aware that there have been consultations, questionnaires and reviews on the matter and that discussions are continuing. However, I should like to share with hon. Members my view and perspective on the discussions that have taken place.

I was part of the large intake of hon. Members who entered the House in 1997. On that day, the composition of the House changed by more than 50 per cent. More than half the hon. Members who entered Parliament were new. As such, perhaps, many of us had a fresh perspective. It remains true that a majority of hon. Members have served for relatively few years. Perhaps, therefore, some of our views may be worth considering.

First, anyone who tries to become a Member of Parliament knows that that occupation is neither family friendly nor nine-to-five. It simply cannot be that. I also submit that anyone who tries to be a Member of Parliament will have been engaged in various activities, usually party political, which took up a considerable amount of their time. They will not therefore have lived the sort of life in which one goes to work, finishes, goes home and watches television. Many of our constituents do that, but we do not.

I know about all the discussions that have been held, so the purpose of today's debate is not to take hon. Members through what has been said because there will be reports, and there have been reviews and, indeed, early-day motions, which are often derided as political graffiti. I do not take that view. Early-day motions are a valuable opportunity to express parliamentary opinion and many of our constituents value them. As hon. Members know, constituents often approach us and seek our support for various early-day motions, although not those on the sitting hours of the House. It is a matter of great interest not to our constituents, but to us as Members of Parliament.

I want to refer briefly to a comment that my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) made in the House. She sought, rather unusually, for parliamentary time not to be found to discuss sitting hours of the House. I have been a Member of the House for more than six years, and I have heard countless calls for parliamentary time to be found for one issue or another, but that is the only time that I have heard a request for parliamentary time not to be found. However, I can understand the thinking behind that request.

Between 1997 and 2001, the House had a great many late sittings, and I could understand the need for that. It is important for Government business to be done and for full debate to be had. But I can recall occasions where earlier in the day I had been fully cognisant of what a Bill was all about, but by 2 or 3 o'clock in the

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morning my mind was less keen. Therefore, I quite enthusiastically supported the change to the sitting hours of the House to sit in the morning and to attempt to finish the day's business by the early evening. That seemed sensible.

Many of the arguments for that change in the sitting hours of the House were not mine. Various hon. Members say that since the House and Committees began to sit earlier in the day they find it difficult to drop their children off at school. That may be so, but in the 23 years of my working life before becoming a Member of the House, I never had a job that made express provision for me to drop my children off at school. I made my own arrangements, as working parents do. I find demands for hours that allow children to be dropped off at school, or whatever other things family life requires, a little excessive, given that most employment does not offer that facility, and there has been no suggestion from Government or anywhere else that it should.

Leaving that to one side, I supported a change to the sitting hours of the House because I believed, not for family friendly reasons but purely for reasons of efficiency, that our parliamentary business could be done in more normal hours, while still allowing us to do what we did before, and enabling the wider public to be informed of what we do here in this Chamber more efficiently. Before the sitting hours changed, it was quite difficult, in this era of 24-hour rolling news, for newspapers to report the proceedings of the House in an up-to-date fashion.

However, once the sitting hours changed, I found that the rosy dream of an efficient parliamentary day did not quite become reality. When I first entered the House, we sat until 10 o'clock in the evening, but in 1998, before the blanket change was made, the decision was made to finish at 7 o'clock on a Thursday evening, which I think was universally welcomed. It contributed to the efficiency of our business, and hon. Members could travel back to their constituencies on a Thursday evening.

My constituency is close to London and I can be there in an hour or an hour and a half, so for me the journey is not a problem. My hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter) boasts that he does not require to stay overnight in London because the journey to Reading is so easy, and that is right. When the sitting hours of the House were changed, some constituents said to me, "You do family friendly hours now, so you will be able to get back to Reading and come to meetings. We would like you invite you, and you will be able to be there." But even though I can leave this House and be in the centre of my constituency in just over an hour—transport permitting, and if everything goes well—I found that I simply could not get to such meetings and functions. I have been invited to speak at dinners, only to arrive when people were drinking their coffee. They had been told that they could expect me in time for the main course, but I simply could not do it, even though my constituency is very close to London. Of course, those Members whose constituencies are much further away cannot go home to them in the evenings; yet nothing happens in the House in the evenings, certainly not on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

That offers an opportunity. I had a useful time this week, in that I was able to have dinner on Tuesday evening with other Members and a Minister. I shall not

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share the content of that conversation with the House now, but it did constitute a good use of evening time, because it was an opportunity to sit down with parliamentary friends and colleagues and discuss issues. However, we have to ask ourselves what Parliament is for. It is very pleasant to sit down with friends and colleagues to have dinner and chat, but what is this House? It is a workplace and, at times, a tourist destination. Members should consider that point in the context of the reviews that have taken place.

Members should consider that this House is a workplace, a legislature and a tourist destination. Not only now but historically, those three aspects have been very hard to reconcile. Many Members have said that they find it difficult to arrange tours and to bring their constituents to the House since the change in the hours, yet constituents greatly welcome such visits. Again, this is not a problem for me, because my constituents in Reading can reach the House quite early in the day; however, many others do experience difficulty. I suspect that that difficulty can be resolved by considering other practical measures. I have my own thoughts on that issue, but I shall not share them with the House now, given the little time available.

I feel strongly that we should move away from the notion of family friendly hours and normal working hours, because those are impossible to achieve for Members of this House. After all, only about one in three of Britain's work force works anything approximating a nine-to-five day, or normal working hours. We should move away from those notions, to which the media refer as a kind of shorthand. Of course, the attempt was made in the media to suggest that we were voting for shorter hours for ourselves, which we were not. The number of hours that the House sits has barely changed at all.

As a Member of this House, I have had the great opportunity and privilege to visit Parliaments in other parts of the world, and I recall in particular my visit to the Mozambique Parliament in 2002. I asked the Members of that Parliament what time it began sitting, to which they replied, "Eight-thirty in the morning." The notion of sitting at 8.30 am would strike horror into the hearts of many Members, but that comment made me think. I asked, "Does everyone turn up at 8.30 am?" I was told, "Oh yes, we have to. There is a roll call, and if you're not there you get into trouble."

I have heard it said by hon. Members who describe themselves as modernisers that the new—now a year old—sitting hours could prevent hon. Members from engaging in other occupations, but they do not, because it is not compulsory to attend in the Chamber. Hon. Members could be elsewhere doing all manner of things: we do not know; we know what they are doing only when we see them here. I wish fervently that whenever the House is sitting, more hon. Members would be in their places. I ask the Minister to reflect a little on what I have said, as I know that there will be further deliberations.

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