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Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): I am most grateful to the Leader of the House for giving way at this early state. I hope that, in the course of his remarks, he will give us his assessment of how he believes the new hours have enhanced the role of Parliament and the House of Commons, especially vis-à-vis the Government. Those assessments would be useful.
Let me give him the figures. In 2002, the last year of the old hours, the House sat for 1,176 hours in 150 days. In 2003, the first year of the new hours, the House sat for 1,206 hours in 153 days. It sat for longer
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and there was more time to hold the Government to account. In 2004, the House sat for even longer1,239 hours.
In addition, Select Committees also worked harder. Their meetings increased from 1,037 to 1,312 in the period that I outlined. The number of Committee reports increased from 201 to 232. Hansard shows Commons activity increasing under the new hours. Its length increased from 159 to 165 pages per day after the new hours were introduced. The new sitting hours therefore provide more opportunity for scrutiny and for the House to hold the Government to account.
Mr. Heald: Does the Leader of the House realise that what matters is the time available to cover the amount of legislation that the Government introduce? Although there may have been a few extra hours here and there, there has been a tidal wave of legislation. I do not necessarily mean the number of Acts of Parliament; I mean the number of pages in legislation, as the House of Lords Committee made clear last year.
Mr. Hain: I agree with my hon. Friend. If the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) is making a point about programming, as he habitually does, I point out that we held a debate on that late last year and decided the matter. We are now debating sitting hours.
Mr. Robin Cook (Livingston) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the robust case that he is making. Will he spell out to the House that we have the flexibility to sit for longer precisely because of the earlier hours? I understand that we are unlikely to finish voting today until between 8.30 pm and 9 pm. Would my right hon. Friend care to remind hon. Members that, under the old hours, that would mean finishing voting between 11.30 pm and midnight, which is an unattractive time to go home by public transport in London?
I agree with my right hon. Friend, whose distinguished period as Leader of the Commons saw the major reform of moving towards more modern hours. He is right that if we added an extra couple of hours to
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a 10 o'clock finish this evening, we would be up until midnight and perhaps beyond. Is that a good time for Members of Parliament to decide the laws of the land?
Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): A question arises about the quality of activity during the sitting hours. I have just had to make a hard choice. I was in the Chamber for the statement and so I have had to choose between having lunch and listening to the Leader of the House. I believe that I made the right choice, but I put my head in the Tea Room and saw that scores of his colleagues and mine had decided to have lunch rather than listen to him. Would not it be nice if we could both eat and listen to the opening speeches in major debates?
Mr. Hain: I hear mutters of "Bring a packed lunch", but I believe that that is against the rules of the House. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman made the right choice. He would have a far healthier existence if he had lunch rather than listened to me. We are considering a substantive point, not when one can grab lunch. Members of Parliament always find it difficult to grab lunch if they are busy.
Sir Nicholas Winterton: May I ask the Leader of the House for clarification? He has quoted a statistic relating to Hansardthe Official Reportstating that it now contains more pages. Was he including reports of the sittings in Westminster Hall in those calculations? It is important to accept that we now have a complementary Chamber that often holds debates at the same time as those in this House. Hansard will therefore inevitably have more pages, because it records Westminster Hall as well as the Chamber of the House.
Mr. Hain: Westminster Hall is part of the scrutiny to which we subject Ministers[Hon. Members: "Ah!"] It is. However, I can say to the hon. Gentleman that the figures that I gave the House exclude written questions. This is about the debating time on the Floor of the House.
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con):
Surely the answer that the Leader of the House gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) was slightly disingenuous. After all, there are no votes in Westminster Hall on any matter at any time, and all the debates there are either Adjournment debates or examinations of Select
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Committee reports. That is not holding the Government to account. This is a smokescreen that the Government have put up to disguise their contempt for this Chamber.
The truth is that, under this Government and under the new sitting hours, we have seen increased sitting times, a greater opportunity for Back-Bench Members to make their case to a Minister in Westminster Hall, and greater Select Committee activity. Furthermore, the Prime Minister has made more statements to the House, thereby being held accountable to it, than his predecessor, and we have established a procedure whereby he can be questioned regularly by the Liaison Committee. That all adds up to considerably more scrutiny. However, the issue that we are discussing today is the opportunity for the House to have more modern sitting hours.
Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West) (Lab): May I endorse what the Leader of the House said about Westminster Hall? The important thing is that Select Committee reports are now debated, and Membersnot only those on the Committee in questionare able to take part in those debates. Under the previous Conservative Administration, those reports simply gathered dust on shelves.
Mr. Hain: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for endorsing the central point that I am making. Over the past few years, we have had the great advantage of sitting in more modern conditions andas I want to discuss in a moment, if I am allowed to get thereimplementing the modernisation of the House, in common with the modernisation of the conditions of other public sector workers and others elsewhere, that the House has voted for. In addition, as my right hon. Friend points out, there is now a greater opportunity for Select Committee reports to be debated in Westminster Hall and for Ministers to be present at those debates. That enhances the scrutiny and the excellent work of the Select Committees.
Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): Does the Leader of the House agree that attempts to ridicule his figures by citing Westminster Hall carry no weight whatever? The figures show an increase in activity from 2002 to 2003 to 2004this spans a period before the change in hours and the period after itbut Westminster Hall has been successfully in existence since 1999, so the arguments from the Conservative Benches carry no weight whatever, either in logic or in fact.
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