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Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab):
I echo the point made by the hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin). My constituents in Wrexham used to be able to come down, have a tour of the House, see it working in the afternoon and go back home, all on the
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same day. The 2001 changes have prevented that from happening, substantially diminishing my constituents' contact with the House.
Mr. Hain: My hon. Friend's constituents, like mine, still have the opportunity to do that on Mondays. That is an important point. One point that I have discussed with Officers of the HouseI think there is an understanding about this; I certainly hope sois the fact that Members of Parliament such as my hon. Friend and, as it happens, me who are in the same situation should be given at least some priority on Mondays. Those who live nearer Westminster should perhaps be encouraged to apply to undertake such visits on Tuesdays, Wednesdays or Thursdays.
Mr. Hain: Done seriously and done effectively, I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman, as a good parliamentary democrat, would welcome young people seeing at first hand through our excellent officials in the education unit how Parliament works, why it is so important and what their rights and duties are.
I have tabled the motion on the car mileage allowance at the request of the Members Estimate Committee, with the support of members of the Committee from all parties. The report of the Members Estimate Committee sets out the background and an explanatory memorandum has been made available.
The Committee is very conscious of the considerable concern among Members about the abrupt implementation of the sharp reduction in the car mileage allowance, which we agreed last November. As Chairman, Mr. Speaker therefore wrote to me to ask that I table a motion before the House to enable Members to determine whether they favour not altering the decision, but phasing in the new arrangements over the next Parliamentan opportunity that they did not have in Novemberand to decide the appropriate mileage threshold used in determining the rate payable. I have done so. This is a House matter and it is right that the House should have an opportunity to decide.
Mr. Hain: As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are already making a considerable saving for the taxpayer, given the decision we made last November. That saving will start from the original implementation date of 1 April and continue progressively to increase over the phased period.
I return to the principal motion. I urge Members to join me in voting for the motion on the sitting hours to implement the proposals recommended by the Modernisation Committee. I hope that Members will not vote for the Tuesday amendments, as I believe that that would be, and would be seen to be in the country, a significant step backwards. It is for the House to decide. Whatever the decision this afternoon, we must accept it as the settled will of the House. I commend the motion.
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Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): As the Leader of the House said, today's debate is not about the most important issue we face involving sitting hours, which is the lack of time given for the scrutiny of legislation as a result of the Government's routine guillotining of our business and the fact that they now expect the Opposition to play the role of humble supplicants begging them for sufficient time to do our job of scrutinising their Bills and opposing their policies. The so-called programming of legislation is not done by agreement. It is imposed, and it is wrong.
Although I am about to express views about our sitting times, I think it only right to set the debate in its proper context. What the Government have done in rationing and starving us of the time needed to do our most important job of making the law is a disgrace. Today's proposals will not affect the overall time available to consider Bills and hold the Government to account.
The House will decide on the question of the sitting hours on a free vote. I accept that, for some Members, this is totemica battle involving modernity and family-friendly hours. Those of us who take a different view are sometimes portrayed as traditionalists, longing for a return to jolly times in the Strangers Bar or the Smoking Room in the evening, but the truth is that that caricature is untrue and for most of us the issue is how to do the job well and fit everything into the limited time that is now available.
In Britain today, there are no normal working hours. Only about a third of people work nine-to-five and most professional people expect to have to work in the evening at least a couple of times a week: lawyers expect to prepare their cases and teachers expect to do their marking. It is not unusual to have to work in the evenings. In fact, it is quite hard to think of a professional job in which someone can expect their evenings off.
With the House sitting in the morning every day except Monday, there is increased pressure on time as we try to fit everything into a shorter period. That is particularly bad on Tuesdays, which is a day full of Committee sittings, all-party group meetings, lobbies and constituents' visits. At the same time, the House and Westminster Hall are sitting. I shall give some examples involving what happened yesterday.
Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab): Is it not the case that the House is sitting not shorter hours, but different hours? The day has been pulled forward by three hours, so we can do the same amount of work. If the hon. Gentleman is about to complain about bunching on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, the solution is in the report of the Modernisation Committee, on which he sat. It is that there should be a full day for debates on Thursdays.
As the hon. Lady knows, I am very supportive of the change on Thursdays, which I will come to in a moment, but she is missing a point. I fully accept that the hours of sitting are the same and there is no disagreement between us on that. The point is, however, that whereas under the old hours it was possible to complete one's Committee work and still be
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in the Chamber for most of the debate, under the current hours it is not. That is why the Chamber is empty on Tuesdays, as I am about to explain.
If we take yesterday as an example, in the morning, 200 Members from all parties were involved in Standing Committees, Select Committees, all-party groups and the busy programme in Westminster Hall. In the afternoon, 350 Members were engaged in Committee activities and all-party groups. In addition, MPs' private meetings were booked in the W Rooms and elsewhere in the Buildings. We know that there are 59 Cabinet Committees, although we are never told when they sit, but I bet that some of them are on Tuesdays. If we add to that external meetings, launches by all parties, particularly in this busy period, lobbies, constituents visiting Members, constituency correspondence, necessary telephone calls and all the rest, the fact is that there is a great deal of bunching, clashing and difficulty on a Tuesday. At one time, one could finish Committee, hope to have lunch and still go to the debate, or finish Committee in the afternoon and hope to catch most of the debate in the main Chamber, now one cannot.
The Procedure Committee questionnaire prompted a good response. It showed that less than a third of Members, 31 per cent., said that they wanted to keep the current Tuesday hours. More than half, 52 per cent., wanted to return to 2.30 to 10. Thirteen per cent. wanted a very long day starting at 11.30 and ending with business after 7. Overall, 65 per cent. wanted the House to sit on Tuesday evenings. The same was not true for Wednesdays and Thursdays, when morning sittings were considered more useful, and of course, normally, no Standing Committees sit on Wednesdays.
To request three days of the week when the House sits in the mornings, and two days when it does not, is not unreasonable. It is not a request for a return to old hours but a call for a balanced week.
Ms Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op): Surely what the hon. Gentleman's list demonstrates is that all MPs have many demands on their time. To suggest that all MPs want to be in the Chamber all the time is complete nonsense. Most MPs follow particular issues and come into the Chamber at the relevant time. The real issue is how MPs manage their time. The fact is that lots of MPs do not feel that they should have to stay here till 10 o'clock at night because other MPs cannot manage their time.
Mr. Heald: Of course, all Members have the opportunity to say what they want in relation to their week. It may well be that different Members of Parliament run their lives in different ways, and that is entirely legitimate. My view, however, is that there is a great deal of clashing of commitments on Tuesdays, which makes life difficult for colleagues. Many people would like to be able to attend more of the main debate in the Chamber on a Tuesday. After all, some of the most important business is often taken on a Tuesday, as it is one of the days that attracts the main debates.
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