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Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East) (Lab):
To confirm a point to which the hon. Gentleman referred, one Cabinet member confirmed to me earlier that they were unable to be present for this
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debate because they had to chair a Cabinet Committee meeting. He made the point that that was because of these hours.
Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman gave statistics a few moments ago about people who wanted a return to the old hours on Tuesdays. Will he accept that one statistic that he did not mention is that quite a large number of Members said that they would like to take unwhipped business after 7 o'clock on a Tuesday, such as private Member's Bills? I know that the report clearly identifies that the issue of private Members' Bills will have to be considered in the next Parliament, which I fully accept. That is different, however, from saying that we want to return to the old system of taking three-line Whip business until 10 o'clock. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said, on some occasions, particularly near the end of the Session, people moan because we go on after 7 o'clock
Mr. Heald: If, as the hon. Gentleman says, Members take the view that they want to take unwhipped business after 7 o'clock, they ought to vote for the Deputy Leader of the House's motion. The reason for that is that if one votes for the Leader of the House's motion, one is stuck with a firm cut-off at 7 o'clock.
If I may continue on the Procedure Committee's responses to the questionnaires, the reasons that were given by Members for favouring evening sittings on Tuesday were well thought-through. They were not just, "Let's return to jolly evenings in the Smoking Room". The first and foremost reason was that there would be fewer clashes between House, Committee and other meetings, which was raised by 165 Members. The second reason was that there should be more time during office hours for constituency work and to respond to telephone calls, which was raised by 156 Members. The third was that there should be less concentration of meetings, which was raised by 132 Members. The fourth was that it would make more effective use of the parliamentary day and allow more visitors' tours. Other reasons given included improving the collegiate atmosphere, but those attracted little support. The main reasons related to how to do this difficult job well.
Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough) (Lab):
Is not the main issue that Members of Parliament now have increased resources to manage their constituency and parliamentary business, with secretaries in their offices to answer the telephone and pagers to receive those telephone messages, and what they are asking for is the choice to manage their parliamentary and constituency life successfully within normal working hours, so that they have the evenings to work, not work, or attend other meetings, political or otherwise, as they see fit?
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That choice will allow them to become real people and to manage their working lives like other professionals that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned.
Mr. Heald: The hon. Lady has her viewpoint, but I remember talking to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) about how useful the telephone can be, and how one can use it to speak to constituents who have a difficult problem. One can solve a lot of problems on the telephone. I recommend it to the hon. Ladyit is good to talk.
Sir Patrick Cormack: I suspect, though I do not speak for myself, that many would not be influenced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth). Will my hon. Friend draw attention to the admirable evidence given by the Foreign Secretary, however, which is as brilliant an exposition of the case that he puts as one could find?
Mr. Heald: Some of the best evidence that the Modernisation Committee heard on this issue was striking. I have never supported anything other than the return of the Tuesday hours, and some of us were not keen for the Modernisation Committee to lecture the House about what ought to happen on Tuesdays. Some votes were taken, which were recorded in the report and which my hon. Friend will have seen, to the effect that the House should not be lectured, particularly in circumstances in which two thirds of the House want to sit on Tuesday evenings. To have the Modernisation Committee telling us that we are all wrong, as if we are children or foolish, is just not right. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) said, however, there is no one quite like the Foreign Secretary when it comes to explaining why Tuesday evenings should return.
Angela Eagle (Wallasey) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman agree that apart from the surprise of hearing that the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) has embraced new technology, this debate is not helped by trying to determine whether there are clashes, whichever shape of hours we get? I remember findingwhen, some time ago, the House sat late every nightthat I had to be in four places at once, dealing with official business.
Clashes are not the issue, especially as we have introduced Westminster Hall sittings, and more events that improve ministerial accountability to Parliament are going on at the same time. Clashes will occur regardless of the shape of our sitting hours. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that they do not provide a good enough reason for us to return to late-night sittings?
I believe that it used to be possible to spread out the day better, especially on Tuesday, which I think is the busiest day. All the most difficult debates take place on Tuesday or Wednesday, and Tuesdays attract a great many Committee meetings. [Interruption.] The Leader of the House asks, sotto
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voce, why we do not want to return to the old hours on Wednesdays. Wednesdays do not involve the Standing Committee work load. Yesterday was an example of a day with a very heavy Standing Committee work load.
Mr. Hain: As the hon. Gentleman knows, the parliamentary Labour party switched its meetings from Wednesday mornings to Monday evenings for a variety of reasons. One was because it wanted to encourage Select Committees to make more use of Wednesday mornings, so that members of both Select and Standing Committees would not find that their meetings clashed as they sometimes do now. I would encourage Select Committees to take that Wednesday morning opportunity, and in that case the hon. Gentleman's argument would not stand.
Mr. Heald: May I pray in aid the Procedure Committee's questionnaire? It shows that Members did not feel the same about Wednesdays as they did about Tuesdays. Perhaps the Leader of the House sees no difference between Tuesdays and Wednesdays, but a wide trawl of Members of Parliament revealed that for them it was a serious issue. Tuesdays were different.
Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax) (Lab): I would like to lay the myth that everyone who comes here has always worked from nine till five before. My constituents keep the public services going by the 24-hour clock. I worked two nights a week when my children were little, and I thought that those were normal hours.
I agree that we should start at 10.30 am on Thursdays. That would enable us to have a full day's business, which is not currently possible on Thursdays. We would be able to have Opposition days, as the Leader of the House pointed out, and also Second Reading debates. What this debate boils down to, however, is whether we should return to our former hours on Tuesdays.
I do not think that we should deliberately try to create a stressful pattern of life for Members of Parliament. I am not necessarily one to pray in aid the views of psychologists, but it has been suggested that the new hours on Tuesdays are more psychologically stressful than the old hours. [Laughter.] No, no, this is true. In April, in a paper to the annual conference of the British Psychological Society, a Dr. Weinberg reported that a serious study by psychologists at Salford and Lancaster universities had found an increase in symptoms of stress among Members following the introduction of the reforms, and had concluded that the reforms were not working. The amount of stress reported was related to the amount of work that we had to do, and the difficulty involved in juggling demands. On 19 April last year the Manchester Evening News, that great organ, reported that
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