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Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab): I speak as a member of the Modernisation Committee, and although I want to concentrate on the sitting hours, I commend to hon. Members the motion on connecting the public with Parliament.
The debate is nominally about the hours that we work, and of course we all have a personal preference. However, it is also about the culture of this place, outside perceptions of this place and, most importantly, how well Parliament does its work of holding the Government to account and communicating with our electorate.
Let me deal with the culture first. When we changed the hours two years ago, a majority of those of us who had been Members of Parliament for more than 10 years voted to retain the old hours. A majority of those who had become Members of Parliament in the past 10 years voted for the earlier starts and finishes, as I did. However, as one of those who was elected more than 10 years ago, let me tell it like it was.
In my first year, we sat for 218 days. On 166 of them76 per cent.the House sat between 10 pm and 2 am. On 26 days the House sat after 2 am. Those were the good old days of the thriving parliamentary culture that the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) remembers so fondly. For me, a woman who had worked all her working life for long hours in pressured jobs, it was none the less a huge culture shock to come to this place.
Although I was used to working long hours, I was not used to dining for long hours or to going from dining to the Strangers Bar or the Tea Room or the Smoking Room. Of course, it was an age of extraordinary, and occasionally great, oratory in the House, but part of the long-hours culture was built around one that was already disappearing from everyday life. As The Times reported:
Was that a Parliament of which we could all be proud? Was it a Parliament of people who were in step with their constituents? Was it a Parliament dedicated to holding the Government to account? Not in my judgment. I do not suggest, and I know that others have not suggested, that those who want to revert to late hours on Tuesday wish to return to that boozy old boys' culture, but we need to recognise it for what it was and acknowledge that, progressively, as new people have come into this place, there has been a change in the culture that predated the change in the hours.
People spend less time in the Chamber because they are in Westminster Hall, on Select Committees or dealing with their constituents, who make increasingly onerous demands on all of us. The experimental new hours have been difficult for some people because they have required change in working hours and all change is difficult. However, as the Modernisation Committee acknowledged, those of us who pressed for change have listened to people's complaints, looked at the whole week and made proposals accordingly.
The hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) asked why nobody proposed moving to early hours on Mondays. There is a good reason for that. We recognise that people must have time to travel on Monday from their constituencies and it is therefore logical to have a late night on a Monday. The same logic cannot and does not apply to any other day of the week.
Mr. Gerald Howarth: Many Labour Members who support the hon. Lady's argument have tried to draw parallels between us and the commercial world. She will be familiar with many people, perhaps friends, who live a long way from London but work there and who, to fulfil their duties, do not take up Monday morning in travelling to their office. They travel to London on a Sunday night.
Joan Ruddock: I could not agree more. However, early Mondays are not proposed because it is acknowledged that because of the stress of the job and the fact that all Members of Parliament have to undertake constituency engagements at weekends
Perhaps with the exception of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), it is reasonable that people should spend time in their constituencies and with their families on Saturday and Sunday. Travelling on a Monday is logical and appropriate for the good workings of this place and for some balance in one's private life. But there is no argument for returning to a late night on a Tuesday for those reasons.
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People have said that they have difficulty coping with all that they have to do on a Tuesday morning, and the Modernisation Committee agrees that there has been a bunching of activities on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. However, the solution to that is in our own hands and available to us today. It is to move to a slightly earlier starting time on Thursdays, so that we have a proper day with the five-hour space that we need for a Second Reading debate. More change, not less, is required to make the House a functioning institution in which we can be effective in our jobs.
People have said that Select Committees keep being interrupted by Divisions in the House. However, the Committees often chose to work at times at which they would be interrupted in that way. This is not a new phenomenon. If Chairs and members of Select Committees do not wish to have those interruptions, they can sit in the mornings. Wednesday morning in particular has been made available to enable Select Committees to sit at that time. I sit on two Select Committees. I know how much work we do, and I know that we have been effective in holding the Government to account. I also know that the Select Committees as a whole have produced more reports under the new hours than under the old ones.
The solution is in our hands. The working week under the new hours has not proved to be a full four-day week, and that has brought this place into disrepute. The former Prime Minister, John Major, said of MPs:
The shadow Leader of the House talked about the psychologist's report and the stress that MPs have experienced under the new hours. I recall that, with the old hours that I have described, seven of our Members died in office. I cannot make a causal connection between those hours and those deaths, but I suggest to the hon. GentlemanI am sorry that he is not in his placethat he cannot make the causal connection to which he referred either.
As we have all said, we need to communicate the work that we do here via the media. There is not a shadow of doubt in my mind that enabling the media to digest the votes properly, to hear the debates and to communicate them to our constituents at a time when they are not in their beds, is an important aspect of the modernisation that we have enjoyed.
I want to make a brief comment on what a return to a 10 pm finish on Tuesdays would mean. In the past two years, when business and votes have been required beyond the cut-off time of 7 pm, this has resulted in our being able to leave at about 8.30 in the evening. A return to late nights on a Tuesday would end all that.
Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme) (Lab):
Perhaps we should be drawing not only commercial parallels but international parallels in this debate. I am not opposing late night sittings on Mondays, for the very sensible reasons that my hon. Friend has given. However, not a single legislature on the list that I have here sits until 10 pm even on one night, let alone two, three or four. That list includes the legislatures of
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France, Germany, Japan, Canada and New Zealand. Yet we still manage to sit for more hours than any of them, and on more days.
Let me return to what late night sittings on Tuesdays would mean. In the year before we moved to the new hours, the House sat on 201 days. On 78 of those days it sat beyond 10.30 pm. Sometimes it was closer to midnight; very occasionally it was after midnight. That is what people will be voting for today if they vote for a return to the old hours on a Tuesday[Interruption.] That is a fact. If hon. Members vote for a return to such hours, that will be up to all of us. However, I ask Members of the House to think about all the hundreds of people who support us in a huge variety of ways in the service of the House of Commons. Those people do not want to return to the old hours.
"I think the way we did business in the 70s and early 80s was, frankly, absurd. I think if Members look back on those days, a few may look back with nostalgia but, equally, there were times when Members were walking around like zombies during the Consolidated Fund and that was not a sensible way to conduct the business of a great nation. The more we approximate to normal working hours, I think the more effective we will eventually be."
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