Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall) (LD): A few moments ago, the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) described himself as a traditionalist. He should take note that one of my constituentsSir Goldsworthy Gurney, of Bude in north Cornwallinvented and installed the first gas lights in the Chamber. That, of course, made the major difference; until then, the House sat until the daylight hours ceased, when candles had to be lit. If the hon. Gentleman is a true traditionalist, he should propose that we end the sittings of the Chamber when candles have to be lit.
The advent of those gas lights made it possible for the Members in those days to go off and make their living up the road, in the Inns of Court and the courts, and then to come here after lunch. Those days have gone; one or two Conservative Members may still treat Parliament in that way, but very few. Traditionalists be warned; there is always a precedent for everything, which does not mean that the past is a better place.
I hope that all Members will approach the subject as the hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) did just now. There are three key objectives for the compromise that we are seeking to attain. First, surely we should be trying to improve the product of this place. Anyone who has attended and participated in late evening sittings, let alone late night sittingsI remember 1974, when I had to sit up all night as the swing vote on every Committee on which I served, because the Government had no majorityknows that we are not at our best late in the evening and therefore that we do not give legislation or the Executive action of the Government of the day the careful scrutiny and informed votes that it should have.
The second objective surely must be to communicate better with those who send us here, and to do so at a time and in a form that enables them readily to understand what Parliament is doing on their behalf. I disagree with the hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East, who said that we were less popular now because of the change in hours; that is nonsense. The reason why some Members are less popular is because the electorate have been seeing what line they took on, for example,
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Iraq; I cannot remember which way the hon. Gentleman voted. We have had a better assessment of what the House is doing since the new hours came in because the late night television news, and the overnight early editions that go to his constituency and mine, are much better informed.
Only thirdly should today's objective be to try to make this place more convenient for those who work here. Every differentand, one might say, difficultMP has different needs, which is why it is important for us all to recognise that the other two objectives come before the differences that we may have in terms of our work needs.
Dr. Julian Lewis: As for people being jaded and tired when important votes are taking place, I put a serious point to the hon. Gentleman. With the previous hours, and those that we still have on Mondays, the main speeches of the debatethe opening speeches, in which the main cases for and against the motion are statedhappened at a time when people were relatively fresh, and they did not clash with the hours when people would normally be having lunch. Also, people had dinner at a stage of the debate when there were only a small number of people in the Chamberthose who were waiting to speak. With the new hours, people have to choose constantly between starvation and participation at lunchtime, which does not improve their judgment. In addition, does the hon. Gentleman have any hard data on whether the electorate even know what hours we keep and what hours we stop? I do not think they have the faintest idea.
Mr. Tyler: Let me take the last point first. It is clear from the evidence that the Modernisation Committee has taken, and from the discussions that we have all had with those who represent the broadcast and written media, that those concerned find it much easier to interpret the work of Parliament with the present hours, particularly when the divisions in the evening take place around 7 pm or 7.30 pm.
The hon. Gentleman will not rememberhe was not a Memberbut Trevor McDonald, or whoever presented "News at Ten", used to say, "Something is going on in the House of Commons. The Government have a very small majority. The Government of Mr. Major may indeed be defeated this evening. I may be able to tell you before the weather forecast, but probably not." If that is the way to communicate with the electorate, take it away, my friends.
The hon. Gentleman was not in the House when we had a great many late evening and late night sittings. I can tell him that the quality of response by most Members to the wind-up speeches, and the degree to which those responses were well informed about the issues at stake at 10 o'clock, left a great deal to be desired. He was not here and he does not have that experience, so I must take his evidence as not particularly persuasive.
I have the same priorities as the hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East. The first is a better parliamentary product, and the second is better interaction with the electorate. We are not a commercial
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company; we are here as representatives of the people. We are not just having an internal discussion this afternoon; what we do is important for those who send us here. Thirdly, but only thirdly, do I believe that we should be looking at family-friendly or MP-friendly hours. We should really be looking at voter-friendly hours.
Barbara Follett (Stevenage) (Lab): We should also be looking at the hours that are kept by the people apart from ourselves who work in this House. When the Modernisation Committee, on which the hon. Gentleman serves with me, took evidence from the staff side and from unions, we heard that they were quite adamant that a move back on Tuesday or Wednesday night would be retrograde, and that we should take that into account.
As the Leader of the House rightly indicated, there are some rough edges in the present arrangements, as I am the first to acknowledge. We need to address them, and the Modernisation Committee heard evidence of, and recommended solutions to, those problems. The first is obviously the impact on the work of Committees; a lot of the oral and written evidence that we tookthe best evidenceconcerned the impact on the work of Committees.
Here, the Select Committee has made two crucial suggestions to assist. The first is that Standing Committees should have the same freedom and flexibility as Select Committees to decide precisely when they sit and how they work. In particular, the former need no longer keep up to three hours to have lunch. That is an absurd anachronism. Some Members clearly have an obsession with the precise time at which they feed themselves. The way in which the House operates should make it as
The hon. Gentleman is making light of something that is rather serious. It is not just a question of our feeding ourselves, although that is an essential process for everybody on the planet. There is a much more serious point. As the Foreign Secretary pointed out in his submission, lunchtime provides an opportunity to meet constituents and people who have points to make to us. As a Front-Bench spokesman, it provides me with an opportunity to meet people involved with defence. Lunch was an important component, but lunch has been destroyed for three days of the week. If Members want to participate in a debate
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or hear an important issue being debated in this House, lunch has been completely rubbed out, which substantially impairs our effectiveness in this House.
Mr. Tyler: That is the hon. Gentleman's view. When I had a real job outside this House, I used to advise clients that any MP who had time for lunch was not worth talking to. That may put the hon. Gentleman in his proper category.
We can all meet constituents at any time of the day, over a cup of coffee or tea. I encourage anyone who wants a substantial discussion with me to catch me at the end of the day, after my parliamentary duties are completed in this place. Many of us can do that; I recommend it to the hon. Gentleman, who may get a much better dinner than lunch.
The important issue is that Committees should be in charge of their own timetable and be able to plan the way in which they operate. The other change for which there is broad support is that we should seek to take away the bunching of Committee work, all-party work and all the groups in this building from Tuesday and Wednesday. We should extend that work more into Thursdays and encourage it more on Mondays.
The Select Committee's proposal that we bring forward the start time of the main business in the Chamber on Thursday to make it possible for there to be some substantial business, such as Second Reading or Opposition day debates, would mean more whipped business on Thursdays. That will mean more people being here, and more people being prepared, able and willing to take part in all forms of Committee activity. There is wide acceptance of the idea that avoiding the present midweek bulge on Tuesday and Wednesday is crucial to improving the balance of our workload through the parliamentary week. I hope that all hon. Members will support that proposal. I cannot see how any conscientious Member of Parliament could possibly oppose making Thursday a full parliamentary day again, and I hope that we will have support for that.
As the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) mentioned, the Committee took much evidence and spent much time trying to find a practical way to take private Members' Bills on Tuesday evenings, after the moment of interruption. There were considerable difficulties and, reluctantly, we came to the conclusion that the way in which private Members' Bills are handled will have to await fuller and deeper consideration. That is not least because there is a trade-off. If the Government give more time for private Members' Billsand I hope that the Government will take them more seriouslyprivate Members may have to reduce the number that have a serious prospect of reaching the statute book. I would be in favour of that trade-off. I came 16th in the ballot one year, and apart from having to appear every Friday to see what might happen, it was simply an opportunity for some contact with the press. If we had only 10 Bills, but all of them serious candidates for the statute book, that would be a good deal to make.
I hope that in due course the Modernisation Committee will address the whole issue. In the meantime, however, simply to transfer private Members' Bills from Friday to Tuesday evening would be enormously complicated. For example, it would
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mean that staff would be on parade from early in the morning until very late at night on Tuesday. That would have staffing resource and financial consequences.
I agree with the Leader of the House about deferring all Divisions after the first on a Thursday. Imagine if we had voted on a reasoned amendment to a Second Reading on a Thursday, but could not vote on the Bill itself. Though it would be attractive to ensure that we could all get away after the first Division on a Thursday evening, it would be absurd to restrict the House by saying that the second and any subsequent Divisions had to be deferred until the following Wednesday. I hope that the House will recognise that. I accept the assurances given by the Leader of the House that he would seek to avoid having a succession of Divisions at 6 pm on a Thursday.
Before I leave the subject of the Standing Orders, I wish to address Standing Order No. 14(2), and I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will be able to give me a specific assurance on the issue. It is now wildly out of date. My colleagues and I are very disappointed that the opportunity has not been taken to deal with the allocation of Opposition days more sensibly. The allocation does not even follow the Standing Order as it is written, and I hope that we will receive an undertaking from the Deputy Leader of the House, or the Leader of the House if he is back in his place, that the matter will be reviewed in the light of the parliamentary arithmetic after the election, in line with all the other allocations. Every Committee is allocated on a proportional basis, according to the strength of the parties in the House, and that too should be reflected in Standing Order No. 14(2).
I strongly endorse the recommendations of the report from the Modernisation Committee on reconnecting Parliament with the public. We decided in the course of our inquiry that we should place much more emphasis on electronic accessibility. I understand the concerns that were expressed earlier about visiting groups, especially schools. We all like to take schools round this building and to show them a parliamentary democracy at work. However, if students in my constituency happen to come here once in their school lifetime, they are lucky; coming from Cornwall is an expensive business for a low-income area. If they do come, the likelihood that the visit will coincide with a time when they are really interested in what is going on here is limited. It is far more likely that they will want to go online to see what we are doing and to interact with the work of our Standing and Select Committees. Therefore, the emphasis given in the report to online accessibility is the true value-for-money option. In due course, we will no doubt have a wonderful new visitor centre, but that will be many years, and many millions of pounds, hence.