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Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): I am pleased to follow the right hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook). He was a distinguished Leader of the House, which he led with and by example. In addition, he chaired the Modernisation Committee exceedingly well. I was delighted to work with him then, as I am delighted to work with the current Leader of the House.
The right hon. Member for Livingston referred to parliamentary questions. The change in our practices in that respect was the initiative of the Procedure Committee rather than the Modernisation Committee. I hope that he will accept that modest correction to what was otherwise a splendid speech. He and I are both parliamentarians, although the conclusion that I reached is slightly different from his. In my short speech, I hope to explain my reasoning.
Hon. Members will know that I have the honour to chair the Procedure Committee, which circulated a questionnaire about sitting hours last January. We published the results in our second report last March. In paragraph 13 of that report, we made some points for the Modernisation Committee and the House to take into account. I shall go through some of them briefly this afternoon.
As my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) stated earlier, the questionnaire found a slight overall preference for a reversion to the old hours on Tuesdays. I am glad that the Government have tabled amendments to allow the House to decide on that, and I pay tribute to them for doing so.
I have had many discussions with hon. Members who take very different positions on these matters and I know that many are not in favour of taking what they consider a backward step. However, some of the arguments that I have read in the past few days are, to say the least, a little exaggerated. I have also read editorials and articles in newspapers such as the Evening Standard and others, written by people whose knowledge of this place I expected to be greater. They have made statements that are very far from the truth. Those of us who want a modest change back to the old hours, particularly on a Tuesday, are not trying to work lesswe are actually trying to work longer and to do a better job. The question is how time is allocated. That said, I respect the sincerity of the case put by the Leader of the House.
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Reverting to the old times on a Tuesday would not mean voting, as some have said, into the small hours. The moment of interruptionthat technical phrase to which the right hon. Member for Livingston referredwould be 10 o'clock, so it would not mean going back to Victorian timings, which were bound to be unsuitable anyway. In fact, as historical statistics show, the moment of interruption was midnight from 1888, when it was introduced, to 1906 and it was not changed to 10 o'clock, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, until 1946. If the old Tuesday hours are so unacceptable, I have to ask the rhetorical question why there is no pressure to change the Monday hours as well. [Interruption.] Well, I do not think that there is.
I shall support amendments (a) to (l), which would enable us to revert to the old Tuesday hours. Members who want to go back to the old hours on Wednesdays as well can achieve that by voting against the entire motion. I should point out to the Leader of the House and the Deputy Leader of the House that I shall be voting merely to restore the old Tuesday hours. I shall not try to restore the old hours on Wednesdays. I shall also vote for bringing forward the start of business on a Thursday to 10.30 am.
The Procedure Committee pointed out that Standing and Select Committee sittings have to be taken into consideration, as well as the sittings of this House. I am glad that the Modernisation Committee paid considerable attention to that issue. The proposed earlier start on Thursdayswhich would restore Thursday sittings to the same length as those on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdayswould of course result in very short sittings of Committees in the morning and, presumably, correspondingly longer ones in the afternoon. Despite that, it is important that we ensure that Thursday is a full day, so I shall support that proposition.
A number of colleagues still seem to think that we can run the House of Commons as if it were an ordinary commercial office, with us all arriving at, say, 9 o'clock and leaving at 5 o'clock. The Procedure Committee pointed out that we all work in at least two placesour constituencies and hereand we might even claim to have duties overseas as well. For many Members, the House and their constituency are many hundreds of miles apart. We surely need, therefore, to choose hours that will work for us as Members of Parliament, rather than just copying those in use elsewhere. In any event, nine-to-five jobs are perhaps becoming less commonplace.
The Procedure Committee recommended that decisions should be made in full knowledge of the effects on staff of the House and their working patterns. The hon. Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett) raised that issue in an intervention and it certainly was important that, this time, we consider the impact on staff. The report that gave rise to our current sittings did not really do that. I am delighted that we have put that right, and that the Modernisation Committee took the hintI thinkfrom the Procedure Committee. Indeed, there is detailed evidence to justify this recommendation.
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It is important to realise that those of us who are deeply committed to and involved in this House do a tremendous amount of work here during the weekbe it as members of the Speaker's Panel of Chairmen, as Chairmen of Westminster Hall, as members of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and the Inter-Parliamentary Union or as members of other Committees of the House, including the all-party groups. Such work does seem to be rather heavily concentrated on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and the House needs to take that into account. Perhaps the Government will win the day and the House will decide to stick with the current hours, but I hope that this issue will be kept under review. It is important that Committee work, which in my view is as important as what goes on in this Chamber, is in no way prejudiced and disadvantaged. I want us to get rid of some of the bunching of Standing and Select Committee sittings.
In my viewit is shared by the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams), who chairs the Liaison Committee with great distinctionI see a time when the Modernisation Committee might be terminated and I hope that the Leader of the House will give some attention to this issue. What remains of modernisationif there is any modernisation to do in futuremight be assumed by the Procedure Committee. There is some danger in a Committee that dictates how this House deals with its business being chaired by a Cabinet Minister. It would be perceived as much fairer and more democratic if it were chaired, as other Select Committees are, by an experienced Back Bencher.
I am obviously very happy with "Connecting Parliament with the Public". This Friday, I shall attend the Cheshire UK Youth Parliament election day at Chester county hall. It is important that we educate young people and seek to make them more interested in what goes on in this House.
The Leader of the House has acted very responsibly in tabling the car mileage allowance motion. It does not change the decision that was taken in the latter half of last year, but it makes the situation much fairer. It treats those who represent very large constituencies with much more justice, and I hope that it will be passed.
I commend the Leader of the House and the Deputy Leader of the House on tabling these motions. I hope that Members will vote on them entirely freely and exercise their right as Members of Parliament to judge the work that we seek to do, which is to work hard and, if necessary, long in the interests of our constituents.
Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge) (Lab): I was among those who suggested to the Leader of the House some months ago that this debate should be postponed. I did so partly because many of the Members who decide on this issue today will not be in a position to experience any changes that are made. I understand why such a postponement has not been possible, but as a result, this debate is likely to continue, regardless of the decision reached today. New Members entering the House may want to debate this issue again; indeed, I doubt whether it will ever be possible to decide that it will never again be debated.
I am one of the Members of this House who are fortunate enough to represent a constituency within travelling distance of the House. That does not enable
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me, however, to get home in time to attend evening meetings, but last night I was able to go home in order to attend a job fair that was held in my constituency today. It was an interesting fair, which was attended by a number of employers. I took the opportunity to talk to them about what they were doing, and several asked me about today's business of the House. I told them what we would be debating and the issues. Every single one of them was horrified at the thought that we might revert to the old sitting hours on a Tuesday; not one could understand the reasoning behind such a change.
I ask Members to think about the effect of any decision taken today on opinion in the outside world. We shall look extremely foolish if, having adopted what I think of as normal business hours, we reverse that decision after only two years and go backit would be going backto a dark age. Most people simply would not understand that decision.
I would like to come back to whole question of how we can make Parliament more efficient and businesslike. One reason why the Government have spent a good deal of time debating family-friendly issues or the work-life balancewhatever one wants to call themis the large amount of stress that people experience in the workplace. I do not think that hon. Members are different from people who work in business. We have found that people who are able to make some choice about their working hours and are thus able to be flexible, to have a good relationship with their families and to arrange their domestic affairs as they would wish suffer from less stress than those who are fixed to rigid hours and have less contact with their families. That is important for us, because if we put ourselves in less stressful situations, we make better decisions. We are also then better able to debate and analyse matters, and to represent our constituents.
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