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2.45 pm

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Phil Woolas): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate, which, as the Committees of the House progress their deliberations, is timely. As the House

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knows from the statements of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, his deliberations—based on formal and informal consultations—have reached what could be described as fever pitch in the past few weeks. I put on record my admiration for her, the dignity with which she has conducted herself, and the seriousness with which she has presented her arguments. I congratulate her on all of that.

I should like to respond briefly to a few of my hon. Friend's points and to put on record the Government's view of the position on the sitting hours of the House. She rightly said that, whatever sitting hours or days of the week are determined for the House to conduct its business, it is recognised everywhere that the work of MPs and the House is not a 9 to 5 job. Under whatever arrangements are made, it is unlikely to be family-friendly. My view, which is borne out by the testament of Members throughout the House over the years, is that it is often MPs' families who bear the heaviest burden as a result of the work load that inevitably and rightly falls on hon. Members.

My hon. Friend said that the argument in favour of change was not particularly that it was family-friendly. The experience of recent months has been that one individual Member's circumstances differ so much from those of their colleagues that it would be impossible to set sitting times throughout the year that would be convenient for all MPs with families. There are many differences, with some families based in constituencies, others in inner London, so it is difficult to find arrangements suitable for one and all. I strongly agree with my hon. Friend, however, about the dangers of sending out the message that we are somehow feathering our own beds for our benefit in ways that are not available to members of the public. Not many of my constituents in Oldham, East can take their children to school before starting work in the morning, so my hon. Friend makes a good practical point about that. However, many Members who do not see their children other than in the morning do benefit from the ability to do so, and the House should take that into account.

I noted my hon. Friend's point about the practicalities of the differential impacts on different Members, which depend on where their constituencies are. She said that she could not often make it back to Reading in time for coffee, let alone the soup, or she might have said the cheese and biscuits. If I make it back to Oldham for last orders, even on our 6 o'clock finish on a Thursday, I am grateful. The impacts are different. My hon. Friend's analysis of the House as a workplace, a legislature and an attraction for visitors was important and accurate.

My hon. Friend mentioned that the Parliament of Mozambique sat at 8.30 am. In doing my research for this debate, I was greatly assisted by the House authorities and, as ever, by the Library. I discovered that the debate about sitting times first began in 1570 when the House met from 8 am to 11 am or noon, depending on the business of the day. That was the norm from 1571 until the civil war. Throughout the centuries, the sitting hours of the House have been subject to votes and to debates that were no doubt as vigorous and robust as those we hold currently.

The latest time ever appointed for the House to meet was 10 pm on 11 August 1853, to enable Members to attend the Spithead naval review. The research paper shows that the advent of what the modern world

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understands as the weekend—Saturday and Sunday off—came about, in part, because the House at one time sat regularly on Saturdays. The demise of Saturday sittings began in 1732, under the influence of Sir Robert Walpole, so that he

The House voted to allow Members to go hunting, and that was the advent of the weekend. In the 19th century, the House always adjourned on Derby day, even if it did not fall in the Whitsun recess.

Although such debates have been around for centuries, this debate is important. The Government's intention was and is, in part, to be family-friendly, in part, of course to improve the efficiency of the working of the House and, in part, to influence public perception—not in a crude attempt to fit in with the daily news agenda, although that is an important consideration if we want the public to have access to the work and debates of the House, but to send a message to the country and the wider world that this place is modern.

I think that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has widespread support for ruling out the idea of ever returning to limitless debates that went on through the night. That often gave rise to a situation whereby in Parliament Wednesday would still be Tuesday because we had sat through the night, yet in the real world Wednesday was, of course, Wednesday.

I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East broadly supports the change in sitting hours, and I share her view that the new hours are more in keeping with the modern world. They send out a much more modern and family-friendly message to our constituents, which is important.

The House will know that, at present, the Procedure Committee is undertaking a detailed survey of Members' attitudes towards sitting times and we await the publication of its findings with interest. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has held consultations, informally with Members on both sides of the House, and formally through the Modernisation Committee, which is charged to make recommendations on the matter.

It is clear that many Members would like some adjustment. Early-day motion 652, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike), has attracted 66 signatures and it is clear from all the consultations and discussions that the House is divided. There are strong views in favour of reverting back to Tuesday evening sittings. Some Members want to sit on Wednesday evenings and some argue that we should not sit on Fridays, to allow Members more time in their constituencies, when schools, factories and so on are open. Unfortunately, any suggestion for change is inevitably reported in some parts of the news media as a retrograde step—that Members are trying to have longer holidays and take more time off. In fact, my experience is that, on the whole, Members of Parliament work extremely hard and provide a very good public service.

I do not say that from a partisan point of view. Public opinion research shows that although, in general, the standing of politicians is low, that is not the case for

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individual Members of Parliament in their local constituencies. When local constituents are asked, "Does your MP do a good job on your behalf?", the answer—irrespective of political party—is overwhelming: 80 per cent. of people say, "Yes, they do." I am glad to report to the House that at least we are respected among our local constituents. The media filter those matters and often misinterpret them. Someone—I think that it was Enoch Powell—said that a politician complaining about the media is like a fisherman complaining about the sea.

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has made it clear that it would be pointless to hold a vote that simply replicates and reinforces the division of opinion. It is important for people on all sides of the argument to reach a compromise on the way forward, and he has rightly urged hon. Members to discuss how we may move the matter forward.

The early-day motion argues that we should examine Tuesday evenings and move away from Fridays. I know that many hon. Members would like to dedicate Fridays to constituency business and would favour using Tuesday or Wednesday evenings instead. My right hon. Friend has indicated that the Modernisation Committee will explore that option as part of its review.

Inevitably, there are difficulties: moving private Members' business from Friday would not be straightforward and raises a number of serious questions. For example, would one allocate every Tuesday evening, or just some? Some 22 evenings would be required to match the 13 Friday sittings in each Session—how would one divide those days between Second Reading and the remaining stages of the Bill? If Divisions at 7 pm eroded the three-hour period, would there be enough time for a Second Reading debate, and would a single evening be sufficient for the remaining stages of the Bill? It might require a thorough rethink of how we approach private Members' Bills.

In conclusion, my right hon. Friend has said to the House that we want to move forward, but only on the basis of consensus. If hon. Members remain divided, the status quo must continue. The current arrangements will take us through to the end of the Parliament. They will be reviewed before the end of the Parliament, and some of the provisions are, of course, subject to review by motions at the end of the Session.

I welcome the opportunity to put the Government's position on record, and I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and on the manner in which she presented her sound arguments. I look forward to the findings of the Procedure Committee and the recommendations of the Modernisation Committee in order to settle the issue to the benefit of all hon. Members and to enhance the reputation and public standing of the House. The reputation of the House of Commons is growing, and it is clear that Parliament remains the centre of public policy debate and of national life. Its sovereignty is under attack from many quarters, and my right hon. Friend and I have the job of securing that sovereignty on behalf of the people.

Question put and agreed to.

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