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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. Christopher Leslie): Although lay magistrates in England and Wales are not remunerated, they receive reimbursement for their travel costs and loss of earnings resulting from the discharge of their official duties. Further resources are not available to change that arrangement at this time.
Richard Ottaway: That relates only to certain magistrates, and it was a fairly mealy-mouthed answer to those who deal with 97 per cent. of the crime in this country. The Government impose a huge number of demands on magistrates who do fantastic work both inside the courts and outside, such as extra training in relation to antisocial behaviour orders. The reserve forces get bounties, and councillors get paid and only have to show their face in the council chamber once every six months. Why cannot the Minister remunerate people who do something useful in the community?
Mr. Leslie: Of course, I agree that magistrates do a fantastic job and we owe them a great debt for their role in the local administration of justice across the country. However, the hon. Gentleman's plan for remunerating and paying thousands of magistrates is not on our agenda right now. If the Conservative party proposes to add that to its list of spending commitments, that shows how hollow its commitment to the shadow Chancellor's supposed tax-cutting agenda is. It could not afford the plan and, in fact, it proposes to scrap pretty much all of this particular Department.
The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Peter Hain): The Modernisation Committee, which I chair, recommended that the House devise a new voters' guide to be sent to all young people around the time of their 18th birthday. The House of Commons Commission has authorised further exploration of this proposal and has stated that it would not authorise the production and distribution of such a guide without the prior approval of the House, which I hope to seek soon.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. I wonder, however, whether he has read some of the research that reveals that turnout among first-time voters is low because many of those young people simply do not know what to do when they get into the polling station. Such a measure would therefore complement the work of many Members of Parliament, schools and colleges. Were the House to support such a measure, when would he anticipate a guide being sent to new voters?
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Mr. Hain: I very much agree with my hon. Friend's point. Indeed, I recall an incident in the Islwyn by-election when I knocked on a door and an 18-year-old came to the door who asked me, "If I make a mistake in the polling booth, will they have a go at me?" She did not ask me what would happen if she voted one way or the other. There was therefore a degree of concern, worry and intimidation in her question. The sending out of a new voters' guide, possibly in your name, Mr. Speaker, would explain to every young person their democratic rights and opportunities and how to vote. Closing the gap between young people and Westminster would be a big boost for democracy.
The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Phil Woolas): As my hon. Friend knows, there is already a Scottish Grand Committee, a Welsh Grand Committee and a Northern Ireland Grand Committee, and the Standing Committee on Regional Affairs fulfils much the same function for England. It is open to the Standing Committee to meet to discuss a topic of concern to a particular region, and any Member for an English constituency may attend. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is open to suggestion for potential topics for debate.
Mr. Hoyle: That was an interesting answer. What we ought to be saying is that we should enfranchise Members in, for instance, the north-west following the rejection of regional government. There ought to be a way of making quangos accountable, and to provide the same benefits that Scotland and Wales have enjoyed in the House of Commons. It is only right for us to have a regional Question Time allowing us to make Ministers accountable to the Members who are affected by their decisions. Will my hon. Friend consider a trial programme for a region such as the north-west, which has a larger population and gross domestic product than Scotland? We could then judge whether there were benefits in the extension of such Question Times to other regions.
I certainly think that the north-west should be first to be involved in any such trial. That much is obvious to my right hon. Friend and me. My right hon. Friend agrees that those of us who represent English regions should have opportunities to debate regional issues. He would be willing to consider the option of English regional Grand Committees if there were widespread support for it, but it is not clear that such Committees would offer significantly more advantages than the current Standing Committee on
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Regional Affairs. That Committee can and does debate issues of regional interest: for example, it last met to debate regional economic performance and the Northern Way.
When my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local and Regional Government canvassed on the idea of separate Standing Committeesfirst raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice)it found little favour.
Mr. Woolas: I recall that when I was the Committee's Whip it was difficult to persuade many Members to attend, but it has held useful meetings on a number of matters[Hon. Members: "Answer."] I am about to answer. It has held meetings on a number of matters, including the important Northern Way economic strategy and planning policythe regional policy raised by the hon. Gentleman's own party.
Mr. Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend accept that we are faced with a growing accountability deficit? In the north-east, the regional development agency is engaged in discussions aimed at identifying a site for a mega-casinoone site somewhere in the north-east. No public accountability applies to those discussions and processes, which is unacceptable. Will the Government now address that?
Mr. Woolas: My hon. Friend has raised an important point relating to the accountability of regional bodies for regional decisions. That is why my right hon. Friend is encouraging participation in the Standing Committee.
The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Peter Hain): The Modernisation Committee published its report on sitting hours this morning. A copy has been sent to every Member. It recommends that the current hours be made permanent, with sittings beginning an hour earlier on Thursdays to accommodate more substantial business and rebalance the sitting week. I intend to give the House an opportunity to reach a decision on our future sitting hours in the next few weeks.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that at a time when the Government are requiring public services such as the health service to modernise, it would be very negative of
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the House to vote to return to its former ways of working, rather than seeking to balance the unique role of Parliament with more modern ways of working that better reflect the experience of the constituents whom we represent?
Mr. Hain: I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. It would be wrong for this House to revert to the working hours of the Victorian era. We should reflect modern working practices and that is what the Committee recommends.
Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): It should not be for the Modernisation Committee to lecture the House[Interruption.] The responses of Members of Parliament to the Procedure Committee's questionnaire showed that only[Interruption.]
Mr. Speaker: Order. There is too much conversation among the Whips, who have been talking for the best part of half an hour. It is going to stop, or the hon. Member in question will be removed from the Chamber.
Only 31 per cent. of Members wanted to keep the current Tuesday hours, while 65 per cent. wanted the House to sit on Tuesday evenings. Of course, there are some good things in the report that I support, but the plea that the Committee is making in respect of Tuesdays is a rather desperate one. Surely we are entitled to take our own decisions on these matters, and if the House takes the view that it is more convenient to sit on Tuesday evenings, it should be able to do so. Can the Leader of the House assure us that there will be an early vote on restoring Tuesday evening sittings?
Mr. Hain: I certainly can assure the hon. Gentleman that there will be an opportunity for an early vote. As he points out, there are deep feelings about the issue of Tuesdays, on which the House is divided. I had hoped to achieve a consensus through the Committee's work and through my prior consultations with many Members from all parts of the HouseI thank those who took partbut it was not possible. In the end, the House will make the decision, but the view that the Modernisation Committee formed on this matter was a majority one. Its report is excellent and I commend it to every Member.
Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley) (Lab): Is it not a fact that the Modernisation Committee has considered all the evidence very carefully? The shadow Leader of the House said that Members want to sit on Tuesday evenings, and it is true that quite a large number want to take private Members' Bills then and to cancel all Friday sittings. The report recognises that this issue will have to be considered at a later stage, but is it not a fact that in focusing on the entire sitting week and the particular problems associated with Thursdays, the report has tried to give the House a balanced view, based on all the evidence submitted to it during the inquiry?
I agree with my hon. Friend. There was a strong argument in favour of shifting private Members' Bills perhaps to Tuesday eveningsindeed, probably a majority of Committee members were in favour of that ideathereby making all Fridays constituency days.
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But we did not want to do that in isolation from the wider issues associated with private Members' Bills, which is why the report reached the conclusion that it did. The point that my hon. Friend makes is important, in that it is wrong always to have, in effect, a lot of one-line business on a Thursday and to risk the danger of becoming a House of Commons that sits for only
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part of the week. That is why we recommend sitting for an additional hour on Thursdays, and I hope that the House will support that recommendation. Doing so will enable Second Readings and Opposition days to be taken and a rebalancing of the week, so that we work a full week and go back to our constituencies on Fridays.
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