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The new hours have been a great improvement. The Leader of the House said that activity has increased and that the House has sat longer, as have Select Committees. I believe that the work of those Committees is a vital part of the work of the House. It is not desirable to conduct business late at night, and a move backwards would create a bad impression among the public, as Members have already said. Many Members have said that the issue is of no interest to their constituents, but people in my constituency are concerned about the way in which the House conducts its business, and have asked me whether the House is
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still sitting long hours. Whatever the reasons for reversing the decision on Tuesday hours, the public would view it as a return to the jolly hours in the Smoking Room, as the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) said.
We should make greater attempts to make contact with the public and encourage people to stand for public office. That important issue is relevant to our debate. We have not debated at great length the fact that many groups are under-represented in Parliament, particularly women, who make up over 50 per cent. of the population but only 18 per cent. of the House of Commons. One reason for that discrepancy is that women have not been attracted to a place with awkward sitting hours that has the reputation of being a men's club. All constituency parties, of whatever political persuasion, have been reluctant to select women, because they caricature Members of Parliament as middle-aged men in grey suits. The clubby portrayal of life in Westminster makes them think that they should select male candidates, so our reputation plays into the unconscious sexism of many constituency parties. Restoring late-night Tuesday sittings would be a big setback to efforts to attract a more representative group of parliamentarians.
The newer institutions that we have set up have reasonable sitting hours, and have much more representative Members. The Welsh Assembly, for example, has 50 per cent. men and 50 per cent. women, and women account for more than 40 per cent. of Members in the Scottish Parliament. Reasonable sitting hours and good gender-balanced representation go together, and more normal hours would bring a more representative group of MPs. The current sitting hours were introduced for a limited period, but many candidates who hope to be selected as MPs at the election expect to serve in a House with reasonable sitting hours. In Wales, we are likely to have five extra women MPs, and those candidates put themselves forward in the expectation of working reasonable hours. There is a bigger issue herewe are not just changing the hours of the House. We are discussing what sort of Parliament we want.
Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): Has the hon. Lady alerted those candidates to the fact that the kind of Parliament very much depends on the electorate's decision as to the balance between parties? In a Parliament like the present one, where there is a large majority, life is not so difficult for Back Benchers, but a Parliament with no overall majority or a very tight majority will involve Members in much more work in this place, whatever the hours.
It is important to consider what sort of Parliament we want. Do we want a modern democracy that is seen to be trying to connect with the people, or do we want what the public see as an historic club, inward and backward-looking? That is what the public will think we are deciding today. I accept that that is not the reason for all hon. Members' decision, but that is the impression that the public will gain. We want Parliament to be seen as taking everybody's views into account. We want
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Members to be representative of all sections of society. We must therefore have the sort of Parliament that seems to be in touch with people's everyday lives.
Others have pointed out that people in some professions and some jobs have to work long hours and in the evenings, but we do not have to do that here. We are not working less. We are moving the hours forward in the day. We are working longer, as the Leader of the House said.
Mr. Wiggin: The answer is no, there is no reason why members of Select Committees who want to sit late on a Tuesday night should not do so. That rather plays to the hon. Lady's argument, and I was hoping she might agree with me.
Julie Morgan: I certainly think that there is a case for using Tuesday evenings for other activities. If that is the point that the hon. Gentleman was making, I agree with him. We want to make this place appealing to the public. Our decisions tonight will affect the way in which the public see Parliament.
Mr. Hain: Does my hon. Friend agree that it is up to Select Committees to choose to sit whenever they want to sit, including on Tuesday or Wednesday evenings? It is up to Standing Committees to choose, within the rules, to sit later on Tuesday evenings, if Members feel they must occupy their time in that way.
Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con): The hon. Lady has been generous in taking interventions. What she has described is her perception of how the world should be. However, there are many of us who think it is not important how we see who should be here and what they should be doing. What matters is how our constituents see it. It is they who will make the choice. I have never had anyone say anything about the hours that we sit, other than an occasional comment. The substance of who comes here and what they represent is determined not by us, but by our constituents.
Julie Morgan: I agree. The public determine who comes here, but the hon. Gentleman must surely accept that the public's perception of what happens here influences how they choose candidates and sometimes how they vote. The debate is much wider than whether or not we move our hours forward.
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): We have heard a lot of talk about connecting Parliament with the people. Parliament connects with the people in a variety of ways, including the quality of individual representation provided by Members of Parliament, which includes welcoming constituents to this House, showing them how it works and taking them roundsomething that has become well nigh impossible since we changed our hours.
The connection also depends on the quality of press and media reporting of this place. One of the scandals of modern times is the way in which the Chamber is ignored by all but the sketch writers and those who occasionally report speeches by Front Benchers. I remember the day when all the quality papers, and some of the others too, in effect carried a précis of Hansard. People knew what was said here, which connected them with Parliament. The papers are awash with political news and speculation, but very little of that is direct reporting of Parliament. I say that to the right hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook), who is no longer present and who made much of the fact that the new hours are more media friendly.
When I entered this House in 1970, the hours and the place were very different. When we considered the ill-fated Industrial Relations Act 1971, which was introduced by the Conservative Government, we sat through the night on many occasions. I am not arguing that that improved the quality of the legislation, but it gave the Opposition an opportunity to hold us to account in a way in which no guillotine motion ever does these days. I would not necessary return to open-ended hours, although I remember a certain firebrand, the right hon. Member for Livingston, coming here in 1974. I was told, "You must watch that young man. He's going to do marvellous things in Parliament." In many ways, he has done marvellous things in Parliament, and I am sorry that he is not here now to hear the compliment.
After a two-year experimental period, we are deciding how we can best do our jobs. Every Member of Parliamentthose who are here and those who are notbrings different qualities and attributes to this most peculiar of jobs. It is not really a job; it is a way of life, and we all approach it slightly differently. The longer Members are in the House, the more they become involved with a range of issues, some of which touch on foreign affairsfor instance, I have done a fair amount for the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. Some hon. Members are involved in all-party groups, and I have chaired the largest of those, the all-party arts and heritage group, for many years. All those commitments involve keeping in touch with people outside the House.
Hon. Members must also deal with their constituency commitments and correspondence. I rarely receive fewer than 30 letters a day and frequently receive many more than that. I have always been one of those Members who is in their office very early in the morning, and Monday is the only morning of the week that I can spend wholeheartedly working on my parliamentary and constituency duties without neglecting this
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Chamber. Much to my wife's anger and chagrin, I invariably come to London on a Sunday, so that I can be in my office by half-past 7 on a Monday morning to work. The new hours have made it impossible for me to maintain the same connection and service with the individuals and bodies outside this House with which and with whom I am connected. [Interruption.] I wish that the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) would shut up for a moment.
It is sad that the camaraderie that existed in this place for evening after evening in the Smoking Room and the Dining Room is a thing of the past. I frequently dine in the House on Tuesday or Wednesday, but rarely more than a handful of hon. Members are present to exchange views, discuss the issues of the day and talk about the problems and conflicts with which we are all involved. We are not here for our personal convenience, but as public servants to do a job for our constituents by representing them here at Westminster and playing a full part in helping to hold the Government of the day to account.
I believe that the combination of the change of hours and the imposition of the automatic guillotine on every Bill has emasculated this place. That is extremely dangerous, especially when we have a Government with an overwhelming majority, as we do at the momentalthough I trust that we will put that right at the next general election by electing a Government, albeit with a smaller majority, comprising Members from this side of the House.
Unless we have a degree of flexibility in hours that is not allowed for in the motion, we will not fulfil the full role of an adult Parliament. I have tabled an amendment about Thursdays. I did so not because I wish to truncate business on Thursdays but because I do not want to see another morning eaten into and further bunching and clashing as regards Committees. My ideal solutionalthough I am happy to accept the compromise that is before us today in a spirit of conciliationwould be to go back to the normal hours on Wednesdays and Thursdays, although I realise that that is unlikely to earn the approbation of the House. On Thursdays, it would be a very small concession to sit from 11.30 am until 7 pm; we could then have a full day's business, which the Leader of the House was anxious to commend to us.
Whatever Members think about the Thursday amendment, I very much hope that those on both sides of the House will carefully consider a reversion to Tuesday hours. That is not to suggest going back to the dark ages and sitting beyond 10 o'clock. I am not one for all-night sittings, as I said, although I like to have a more open-ended timetable. It is a very modest proposal, and I was glad that it received the enthusiastic support of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), because it goes nowhere near as far as he would ideally like to go. However, it would restore something of the spirit and atmosphere of Parliament as those of us who have been here a long time know it and love it, give Members more opportunity to do things in the morning in response to the many demands that are made on their time, and restore a breath of sanity to our proceedings that has gone over the past two years.
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I entirely accept the good faith of the Leader of the House, who of course sees things from a different perspective. When one sits on the Government side of the House, it is inevitable that one's prime interest, particularly if one is a Minister or a Cabinet Minister, is to get the business of the Government whom one serves through the House. When the right hon. Gentleman sits on this side of the House again, his perspective will change, just as my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst changed from a remarkably fierce gamekeeper into a wonderfully free-ranging poacher after 1997.
This is an opportunity for us to make a modest change before the general election so that those who are elected here on 5 May, or whenever it is, will have a timetable that has been agreed by those who have experienced both situations. Every Member of this House was elected knowing what the hours were, but they were not what they are now. I know that it is hotly contested and the Division will be keenly fought, but I hope that we will at least make this modest bit of progress so that when Members are elected in May, or whenever, they will be able to judge for themselves. I warmly commend the amendment that the Deputy Leader of the House tabled but, sadly, will not vote for.
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