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Sir Robert Smith: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Joan Ruddock: Sorry, but I do not have time.

That is the view of the leader of the trade unions of the House of Commons.

Barbara Follett: Does my hon. Friend know how much sitting late in the evening costs in overtime and in taxis just to get Doorkeepers and Tea Room staff home?

Joan Ruddock: I do indeed; my hon. Friend makes a good point. Two members of staff of the House have been mugged leaving here late at night. They left in the hour before they could have had a free taxi.

Sir Robert Smith: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Joan Ruddock: I want to conclude; others want to speak.

We have a solution to rebalancing the working week, making us more effective Members of the House, holding the Government to account, enabling us to identify with our constituents ensure that the business of the House can be communicated to them at a reasonable time of day. I commend the motion.

4.6 pm

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock), who is always extremely courteous in giving way and in presenting her arguments. As she knows, I have a particularly personal interest in so far as my son-in-law, James Cartlidge, is the prospective Conservative parliamentary candidate for her constituency of Lewisham, Deptford. All I will
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say to her on James's behalf is that if she is finding it too stressful here, all she has to do is to give way to my son-in-law. Then she will be able to enjoy a more leisurely time.

May I also say to the hon. Lady that in response to my intervention, she acknowledged what I think is an important point that shows a slight difference of view between two different camps in the debate? I agree that this is a different job. I do not believe that there are parallels between what we do here and the commercial world. Indeed, I do not believe this to be a job; it is a vocation.

Every day that I come into this place I pinch myself, because I have been accorded such a privilege by my fellow citizens, who have sent me to this, the oldest Parliament in the world. Indeed, despite all the brickbats, it is respected throughout the world. I therefore do not believe in making parallels between the honour of serving the people of this country in this great Parliament and serving in the commercial world. They are two entirely different activities, which cannot be equated.

I also take the view, which was advanced by the hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), that modernisation should not be considered synonymous with progress. Most Conservative Members, and many Labour Members too, regard the Government's use of the word "modernisation" as simply an attempt to close down the debate. All people need to do is advance a case on the ground that it is modernising, and that is the end of the argument. Apparently, no one can possibly be considered to have an argument worth listening to unless it involves modernisation. I take a totally different view.

I am pleased that the Foreign Secretary, too, took that view in his evidence to the Committee. I hope that the former Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook), who takes a very different view, has read the submission of his successor, because it encapsulates many of our arguments. The compression of our time brought about by the new hours has made life very difficult for us all.

It is a loss, because as my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) said, so many other things could previously be encompassed during the morning, such as visits from constituents. Yesterday, for example, I had visitors from the Pegasus Bridge museum in Normandy. I could show them the House of Lords, but I could not bring them here. We are not serving our constituents by denying them the opportunity of visits, although that is only one small part of it—constituency work, meeting people, undertaking telephone calls, all of which go on in the morning, are now increasingly denied to us.

The e-mail system has now imposed even more burdens on us. Every constituent who has access to this new technology feels not only that they have instant access to us, which is of course entirely their right, but expects an instant answer, too.

Mr. Forth: Well, they are not getting one.
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Mr. Gerald Howarth: As my right hon. Friend says, in his case, they are not getting one. On one occasion, a constituent sent me an e-mail saying, "I saw you open my previous e-mail" at such and such a time, and that I had not yet replied. I responded, "I am not an automaton sitting in front of a computer screen. I am a Member of Parliament and I have different duties."

The Foreign Secretary also mentioned in his submission the effect that consolidation of Prime Minister's Question Time into a single day has had on attendance in the House and on the whole ambience of the House and the way in which it is treated. He is absolutely right to say that taking away that quarter of an hour of Prime Minister's Question Time on Thursday has made Thursday into a "come if you can" day; otherwise, Members go off and do something else. That has reduced this place to at best a three-day week, but as far as most of us are concerned, it is more like a two-and-a-half-day week.

I support the amendment of my namesake, the hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth). It is an entirely sensible and modest proposition. It is not a return to what the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) called the dark old days. It is a sensible and modest proposal, and it should commend itself to all Members of the House.

Mr. George Howarth: Before the hon. Gentleman concludes, will he reflect my view that if he and I agree, there really must be a consensus?

Mr. Gerald Howarth: Yes, and that is why it will not get reported, but I will come on to that in a minute.

No one is suggesting that we return to all-night sittings. There was something mediaeval about all-night sittings, and I have no desire to return to them. A return to a 10 o'clock finish on Tuesday night has been represented, however, as somehow a return to all-night sittings. That is simply absurd. This is a compromise that therefore ought to commend itself to the House.

The right hon. Member for Livingston made two points to which I want to refer. First, he said that the changes that we have instituted would bring us into line with others. I have tried to deal with that argument by saying that I do not believe that we are like others. If one works in the City these days, however, one is sometimes there all night and all weekend. My son is a trainee lawyer working in the City, and during the Marks and Spencer business, he was there from Friday until Monday morning. We should not therefore delude ourselves that we are somehow exceptional in that respect.

What the right hon. Member for Livingston said about the convenience of the new hours for the media tells us an awful lot about this Government's desire to manipulate and to manage the news. The idea that a statement made at 4 o'clock in the afternoon will not get through to the people is simply ridiculous. It gets through to them on the 6 o'clock news, or on the 10 o'clock news, which most people watch. The hours are not in Parliament's interests, but they are unquestionably in the Government's interests. As I hope to be on the Government side of the House on 6 May, I could be said to have a vested interest in a system that benefits the Government, but I am here principally as a
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Member of Parliament. That is my first duty, and that is why I am not attending a conference on air power this afternoon. I am here because I think that this Parliament is important to the people.

As always, my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire spoke about this place with vigour and passion. He spoke of the failure of the press to report the House. Perhaps we are not as well perceived now as we have been in the past, but whereas the newspapers—especially what used to be called the broadsheets—used to feature an extensive report of comments made by individual Members, the only report now is the parliamentary sketch. Although it is often very amusing, the sketch is invariably trivial, and it invariably writes down this place and pokes fun at it. That is the purpose of the sketch. In the old days, the sketch sat alongside the objective serious report. Now there is no objective serious report, only the poking fun. Is it any wonder that the public thinks that this place is just fun, when that is the only way in which those who command the media are prepared to broadcast it to the nation?

Paul Farrelly : I too, to my shame, have worked City hours in the past, and I do not want to return to them. I have also been a journalist. The point that the hon. Gentleman is making now, however, has nothing to do with sitting hours. Logically, bringing forward our sitting hours means that newspapers are better able to meet their deadlines.

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