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Mr. Tyler: The right hon. Gentleman and I have a common interest in trying to make Parliament more lively for those who are interested in our work, and more accessible, in a way that also makes it more interactive. People need to see what we are doing and feel that their input is appreciated at an appropriate time.
Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con):
The hon. Gentleman mentions making the Chamber more lively.
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Does he agree that this debate should have taken place after the election, when hon. Members who are retiring will not have a vote on matters that will affect all of us in the next Parliament?
Mr. Tyler: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, but the difficulty is that the new Parliament would not know how to start, because the Standing Orders under which we operate at present are only temporary. We have to have some in place. I also suspect that had incoming MPs been asked to take this decision shortly after getting here, their limited experience might mean that the changes did not receive the measured consideration required. This is the right moment to take this decision.
I endorse the sensible transitional arrangements to take account of existing contractual and other commitments in relation to the car mileage allowance, which includes an element for the purchase of a vehicle, not just its running coststhat is the difference with the private sector.
We will have a free vote, like all the other parties, and I am sure that the majority of my colleagues will be in favour of making this place more relevant to our electorate and ensuring that we communicate better with them. Above all, I hope that we will all agree that the purpose of this afternoon's decisions is not to make our working conditions more convenient for us, but to make our work more relevant, more effective and more productive for those whom we serve.
Mr. Robin Cook (Livingston) (Lab): I congratulate the Modernisation Committee and the Leader of the House on their proposals on connecting with the public. I strongly believe that the biggest challenge that we face is the large and growing number of the public who do not feel ownership of the political process and are dropping out of participation in it. Over the next three or four months, all of us will spend much of our time working hard to try to ensure that as many people as possible vote for our parties. That is a proper and legitimate concern of party politicians, but we should also find a modicum of time to reflect on the other major test of the forthcoming election, which will be how many people vote at all. Anything that we can do to improve education, information and knowledge about what Parliament does and how it works has to be welcome and I therefore commend the useful and valuable proposals of the Modernisation Committee.
As the guilty party who introduced the modernisation package, I always regarded the proposals on hours as being among its less important items. Some of our other proposals have made the House more effective and were therefore accepted as consensual. I do not think that anybody would wish to go back to the previous requirement of a fortnight's notice for oral questions, for instance. Question Time is now that bit more topical and up to date. There was a bit of a battle to reach an agreement to circulate the text of statements in the Chamber the moment the Minister sat down, but I think that all Members welcome that innovation. It has helped the exchanges that follow and the scrutiny of the Minister over the statement.
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I am a realistic politician and I understand that what makes debate is not what is important, but what is controversial. The changes on the hours have certainly been controversial. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) that there is no consensus on the matter. All I can suggest is that, as we have strongly divided views on the matter, we should proceed with respect for each other's views.
I deprecate those who have suggested that those who want the new hours do not have an appetite for the job. I have proved my enthusiasm for long hours. I was here in the 1974 Parliament whenat least every second week, if not more oftenwe would have an all-night sitting.
I was young in those days and it may surprise the House to hear that I was opinionated. I took a perverse pride in working those long hours and sitting up all night building socialism. I imagined that my electors back home admired what I was doing. With the wisdom of maturity, I can understand that they thought that I was daft to work those hours. Of course, they were right: it was no way to carry through proper business.
One or two people have referred to the question of shorter hours, but the change did not shorten the hours of the House. Before I examine that, I would say in parenthesis that I am not entirely sure that we are wise to equate length of sitting hours with quality of scrutiny. This Chamber sits much more often than nearly any other Parliament in the world. For every two days that continental Parliaments sit, we sit for three, and it is not immediately evident that the quality of our legislation is that much better as a result.
Nevertheless, the fact is that the changes in our hours have not reduced the debating time in the Chamber. In the first year after the change, the amount of debating time rose by 30 hours, and in the second year it rose by 60 hours, in part because of the earlier finishing time at 7 pm.
The shadow Leader of the House said that that was a firm cut-off time, but it is not. What we are debating is the curious notion of what is called, in parliamentary jargon, the moment of interruption. It has always been possible for business to continue after the moment of interruption, and that used to be routine. However, carrying on a debate after the moment of interruption if that comes at 10 pm makes it certain that the House will sit until midnight. I gently counsel those who want to revert to that practice, and the hours that we used to have, that we will find that we have reduced and not increased the sitting hours of the House because Ministers and Whips will not wish to continue until midnight.
I have been tremendously impressed to hear in this debate about the frustration experienced by colleagues who serve on Committees. They have said that they wished that Committees did not sit at the same time as the Chamber because they want to be able to attend debates here. They long for a return to the hours when the Chamber sat in the evening so that they could spend happy evenings sitting here.
I love this place, but it is important that we are honest about it. When I was a junior Back Bencher in the 1970s, I was invariably called to speak between 7 pm and 9 pm, when other hon. Members had dinner. I was therefore
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able to make my speeches in near-total privacy. The idea that changing the finishing time back to 10 pm will allow excited debate with full Benches is not one that I recognise from my experience.
The reality is that hon. Members are asked to do an impossible job. Most of us work at least 60 hours a week, if not more but, however long we work, we cannot do all that we are expected to do. We are all familiar with the problem of having to juggle with being in at least two places at the same time, and that will be the case whatever hours we adopt for the Chamber. However, I am encouraged by the fact that Select Committees had 300 more sittings last year than was the case three years ago. That suggests to me that, at the very least, the difficulties and problems that we face are not insuperable.
I make one plea in respect of this debate. I am distressed that it focuses on the question of whether we should sit into the late evening. For me, the debate has always been about why we should not sit in the morning. That is the crucial issue. I am all in favour of this House exercising proper scrutiny of the Government, but the whole point is to do so when people outside are listening and noticing.
A very important statement was made earlier today. It has led on all the lunchtime news bulletins and it will dominate the media agenda for the rest of the day. Under the previous hours, that statement would not have been made until the middle of the afternoon, long after the lunchtime bulletins had finished. There would not have been time for the newspapers to analyse it properly the next day.
Decisions of this House are much better reported the next day if they are taken at 7 pm rather than 10 pm. I had the opportunity to see that at first hand when I was still Leader of the House. Shortly after we changed the hours, we had the debacle over the amendments proposing a change in the composition of the House of Lords.
I was the Minister in charge of those proceedings and the House will remember that we failed to agree to a single proposal or option on offer. We had the relevant votes comparatively early in the evening, which enabled every newspaper to carry an editorial the next day saying what a cod we had made of the matter.
As a Minister, I should probably have preferred the vote to have taken place at 2 am, so that no one noticed the result but, as a parliamentarian, I had to welcome the fact that the public knew about what had happened and had time to comment on it and analyse it. When we voted on tuition fees at 7 pm, for the first time ever, more people watched the parliamentary channel than either Sky television or BBC News 24. That has to be the ultimate test of whether we are connecting with the public.
I want to end with one final thought. I fully agree with some colleagues who saythe right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) has said it oftenthat what we say and do is far more important than when we say and do it. However, there is no law that says that the quality of our speeches improves the later in the day that we make them.
Those hon. Members who entered the House by St. Stephen's entrance will have passed Fox, Burke and Pitt frozen for all time in attitudes of declamation
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against each other. Their great debates on human rights, the French revolution and Britain's place in Europe all took place in the morning and in the afternoon. None of them complained that scrutiny of those issues would have been better had it carried on until 10 pm.
As the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) pointed out, the House sat into the evening only after the introduction of gas lighting in the 19th century. It sat in the afternoon and evening precisely so hon. Members could earn their living at the Bar or in the City.
We are all professionals now and quite well paid. We should adopt hours that reflect that professional status and our full-time commitment to the job. That might put us a little more in touch with the modern world in which our constituents live and work.
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