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My hon. Friend makes his point very well. The right hon. and hon. Gentlemen on the Conservative Benches seem to be saying, "Don't confuse us with the facts". I am presenting the facts. They might take a different view from mine on sitting on Tuesday evenings, and they are entitled to do so. I respect their sincerity and their different view of how this Chamber should operate. However, they cannot advocate a change back
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to the old hours by saying that the Commons has worked less hard under the new ones. On the contrary, we are working harder.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) commented on the length of time that we might spend voting tonight. Could we not deal with this problem by having a more modern voting system, so that each Division did not take 15 to 20 minutes?
Mr. Hain: I am sorry, but on this matter I am a traditionalist. The present system has its advantages. For example, as a Cabinet Minister, colleagues bump into me regularly in the Lobby during Divisions, which provides me with an opportunity to be nobbled and for representations to be made to me.
By sitting an hour earlier on Thursday, we will make it again a day on which major business can be scheduled, re-balancing the working week while ensuring that whipped business ends early enough for Members to get to their constituencies on Thursday night. The amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Cunninghame, South (Mr. Donohoe) would have the effect of deferring almost all divisions after 6 pm on a Thursday. I understand the reasons for this, and I have discussed the matter with him. Members, particularly those with distant constituencies such as his should be able to get away promptly after 6 o'clock. I am very sympathetic to that, which is why we brought forward the finishing time on a Thursday to 6 o'clock in the first place. As a business manager, I shall be mindful of this issue when planning the business for a Thursday, and I am grateful to him for reminding me of it.
However, the amendment would mean that decisions on major businessincluding Second Reading debates on Billscould be unresolved for almost a week. I am sure that none of us would find that satisfactory. Let us take as an example a key debate of the kind that has dominated the House over the past couple of years, such as that on Iraq or that on student fees. Under my hon. Friend's proposal, we could have had a situation in which a reasoned amendment was decided on, but nobody knew the outcome, because that amendment might not have attracted the same vote that had gone into the Lobby on the main motion. It would not be right for the House to leave a major decision such as that unresolved. I hope that my hon. Friend will not press his amendment to a vote today but, if he does, I must urge the House to reject it.
Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Cunninghame, South) (Lab): Surely it is for the Leader of the House and the business managers to ensure that business of that nature is not taken on a Thursday. In that way, what I propose could well take place. This would allow people to get away at 6 o'clock. It would also allow meetings to take place and people would know that they could attend them.
I understand my hon. Friend's point. I am with him in not wanting delays long after 6 o'clock that would prevent people from catching trains or planes to get them back to the north of England, Scotland, the far west of England or wherever. As business managers, we
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shall endeavour to stop that happening, but his request would leave me unable to table major legislative business or to take Opposition day debates on a Thursday. Effectively, that would mean that the House was not working a full working week. I am seeking, with widespread support from across the House, to have not only Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday but Thursday as a day on which most, if not all, Members can be present to deal with what is invariably whipped business. My hon. Friend's point is a powerful one, but in scheduling that business, we need to be aware of the need of many Members to get away.
The amendments tabled by the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) would have the effect of keeping the starting time on Thursday at 11.30. However, it was the central recommendation in the Modernisation Committee's report that Thursday should be restored to a full sitting day, ensuring that we have a full four-day parliamentary week. I urge the House to reject those amendments.
I understand and respect the strong feelings of Members who want to change back to the old hours; I know that those views are sincerely held. However, this House has consistently voted for the modernisation of working practices right across the public sector, and we would look very odd if, after only a two-year trial, we reverted to hours designed to suit the lifestyles of our Victorian predecessors, when Members of Parliament were unpaid and could attend only in the evenings because they were earning a living during the day. I would find it difficult to explain to my constituents why we had gone back to making law in the middle of the night. Everybody knows that a Parliament of today would not have started with the sitting hours of yesterday. The House is already competing for attention in an era of 24-hour news and instant communication. It would look old-fashioned if we were to go back to the pattern of evening working that existed before radio and television.
Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): Given that we now have 24-hour news, which we did not have when the old sitting arrangements applied, surely it does not matter if we debate all through the night. The 24-hour news gatherers will be there to receive what we have to offer.
The next motion before us, on connecting Parliament with the public, is also intended to address the lack of engagement with the parliamentary process felt by many of our constituents. The House should make itself more accessible, make it easier for people to understand the work of Parliament and do much more to communicate its activity to the general public. Much good work goes on already, but much more needs to be done.
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I hope that the House will agree to give authority to the House of Commons Commission to take forward some key recommendations made in the Modernisation Committee report last year, in particular the proposal for a guide for first-time voters from the House to provide information about Parliament, why it matters, how to vote and so on.
Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that one area of good work is that being done by our own parliamentary education unit and that the challenge that we face is to replicate in the rest of the country what it does so well in the House? That means improving the website and the unit's relationship with local education authorities so that that same work can be done away from Westminster.
Mr. Hain: I very much endorse my hon. Friend's point. The evidence that we took on the matter in the Modernisation Committee made it absolutely clear to us that not enough is being done, despite the new citizenship element in the school curriculum, to explain how parliamentary democracy works and make it part of youngsters' education. The LEAs were simply not being linked to the work of the excellent education unit. We want to address that.
We also went to the National Assembly for Wales and found not only that its education unit is doing much more imaginative work with young people coming into the Assemblywe saw some of that work in actionbut that it has a roadshow that goes out of the Assembly and into schools, making regular efforts to try to connect with young people and educate them about the Assembly. If that can be done in Wales, we should do it across the United Kingdom.
Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con): I voted against the change when it was introduced by a previous Leader of the House, but I have changed my mind and will today support the motions tabled by this Leader of the House. One of the downsides of the new sitting hours is that our constituents no longer get the opportunity to come down and do a tour of the House of Commons on Tuesday or Wednesday mornings because the House is sitting, which makes it more difficult. Has he therefore taken any further forward the possibility of ensuring that the building is open at weekends so that visitors can see the place then?
Mr. Hain: The hon. Gentleman makes an important pointI, too, have a constituency remote from Westminsterwhich I have discussed with the Officer of the House who leads on these matters. He has an imaginative strategy for attracting more visitors, including from schools, to the House. We shall consider the hon. Gentleman's point.
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