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The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Peter Hain): I received 82 responses to the letter that I sent to all Members on 8 January asking for views on a number of options for our sitting hours. In addition, I have met with well over 100 Members of all parties, very many Members have spoken to me informally about the matter, and I have studied the report of the Committee on Procedure.
Mr. Amess : Although I suppose that we could be accused of bias, does the Leader of the House agree that the overwhelming majority of Members of Parliament are conscientious and work extremely hard? Does he further appreciate that hon. Members' participation in the Chamber would improve were it not for the clash with Select Committee and Standing Committee duties? In the light of that, will he seriously consider extending the practices on a Monday to other days of the week?
Mr. Hain: I agree with the hon. Gentleman that virtually all right hon. and hon. Members are conscientious and hard-working, and work very long hours. It is a privilege to do the job, and I am not complaining about that; neither, I should think, is he.
Standing Committees can avoid that clash by, for example, choosing to start their sittings a little later, which would be less inconvenient to their members. On the other hand, at the express wish of the Liaison Committee, the parliamentary Labour party has moved its meeting from Wednesday mornings to Monday evenings, which is more convenient for its members for other reasons as well, and that has left Wednesday mornings completely free for Select Committees. So there need not be any clashes.
There is no majority for going back to Monday hours on other evenings. [Hon. Members: "Yes, there is!"] Well, let us take Wednesdays as an example. The committee and procedures surveya big survey involving 368 Membersshowed that only a third favoured going back to 10 o'clock on a Wednesday. Tuesdays are a different matter. A majorityaround 52 per cent.favoured going back to 10 o'clock on a Tuesday, while 44 per cent. preferred staying as we are. The House is pretty split, as it was on the original decision. The Modernisation Committee will begin its review of the matter in June, as has long been promised, and my objective is to see whether we can find a way forward that will find consensus. A vote will be put to the House and the House will decide.
Tony Wright (Cannock Chase)
(Lab): Has my right hon. Friend received any representations to the effect that although we get very exercised about when we sit, the important thing is what we do when we sit? Does the
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example of the Human Tissue Bill not show that, if we gave as much attention to the need for pre-legislative scrutiny whenever we sat, it would be greatly to the House's advantage.
Mr. Hain: I am a champion of pre-legislative scrutiny, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that it is an important addition to our ability to conduct our business properly. I would add that the average length of the sitting day went up last year, and we sat for more days in 2003 under the new hours than we did in 2002. We have sat for longer, on average, under the new hours.
Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): Does the Leader of the House agree that the effectiveness of our work would be improved if the Government stuck by the convention that named-day parliamentary questions were answered on the named day? Is he aware that, so far this Session, 70 per cent. of questions to the Department of Health have received holding answers, of which 5 per cent.
Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend acknowledge that the Procedure Committee's inquiry has found that there is only a narrow majority in favour of returning to the old hours on a Tuesday? Does he accept that those who wanted a change were more likely to respond to the Committee's inquiry than those who were happy with the present situation? It really is nonsense for people to claim that there are more clashes with Standing Committees now than under the old hours, because that simply is not true.
Mr. Hain: My hon. Friend has eloquently stated why this is such a difficult issue to resolve. Whatever statements are made[Interruption.]including some from a sedentary position at the moment, the truth is that the House is pretty evenly divided on the matter. I would like to find a way forward in which that division could be avoided, and to achieve a consensus on a permanent arrangement that provided for modern arrangements. We shall have to wait and see whether that is possible, but I should like to see a balanced set of changes.
Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): The Leader of the House will know that the Conservatives want more time for scrutiny, not less. He will also be aware that we want the Modernisation Committee to get on with its inquiry and to produce its report. Over the weekend, there was further speculation that the right hon. Gentleman is considering abolishing the September sittings, giving Members a three-month holiday. What is the truth about that?
I am grateful for the opportunity to correct that. I read quite a lot of stuff in the newspapers that bears no resemblance to reality or the truth. Perhaps that goes with the job, as far as I and others are concerned. I think that the September sittings have been
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quite valuable, but it is a matter for the Modernisation Committee review to ascertain whether there is a consensus to maintain them.
On the hon. Gentleman's substantive point about scrutiny, we have not only published more draft Bills than ever before, but there is now a shorter notice period for oral questions. Members therefore have an opportunity to hold Ministers to account, rather than having to table questions two weeks in advance. There is much more opportunity for the House to scrutinise the Executive than ever before, and Members are rightly taking advantage of that.
33. Laura Moffatt (Crawley) (Lab): To ask the Leader of the House if he will propose to the Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons that it consider the House's practice regarding the length of speeches in the Chamber. 
The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Phil Woolas): My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has no plans to do so. However, the Procedure Committee, in its recent report on procedures for debates, Private Member's Bills and the powers of the Speaker, considered the length of speeches in the Chamber and recommended as an experiment that an hour before the winding-up speeches should be given over to short Back-Bench speeches. The Government are to reply shortly.
: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. I know, Mr. Speaker, that you in particular uphold the integrity and the reputation of this House.
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On a recent visit to the Canberra Parliament, I was made aware that it has a 20-minute limit on speeches. Far from detrimental to the work of that Parliament, it appeared that that enhanced Members' contributions. Will the Leader of the House consider making representations to the Modernisation Committee on that basis?
Mr. Woolas: I very much endorse the first part of my hon. Friend's question in commending the integrity with which you uphold our debates, Mr. Speaker. Many Members, particularly from the 1997 intake, struggle sometimes to take part in the debates. I understand the point that she makes. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is sympathetic to the point, and the Modernisation Committee will be considering the matter. As I said in my first reply, the Government will be responding to the Procedure Committee shortly.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): In considering the length of speeches in debate, will the Leader of the House also consider the allocation of time during ministerial statements, departmental questions and Prime Minister's Question Time? Often, more than half the time allotted is given to exchanges between the two Front-Bench teams across the Dispatch Box. That cannot be fair to Back Benchers who wish to contribute, and I doubt very much whether it is effective in holding the Government to account.
Mr. Woolas: May I emphasise, as I am sure the whole House would want to point out, that timings of speeches are a matter for the Speaker? However, we recognise the hon. Gentleman's point that there is resentment from Back Benchers when Front Benchers take too long over speeches. That point is being considered.
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