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Mrs. Jackie Lawrence (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that this is not an argument about modernisation of the House, but a discussion about whether we can do our jobs properly? The present hours prevent us from doing so.

Mrs. Mahon: I could not agree more. I also wish to reject the notion that women do not want to enter Parliament because of the hours. We have just had a selection procedure in Halifax, at which brilliant women from John O'Groats to Land's End queued up. Not one of them asked about the hours in this place. In 18 years, I have never had an e-mail, letter or message that has said, "I would vote for you, but you work silly hours." No one at any surgery has ever said that either. It is nonsense to claim that our hours affect whether people vote.

The new hours have severely damaged Parliament and its effectiveness. The Chamber is half empty and the scrutiny of the Executive does not happen as it should. Committee sittings have been disrupted. We invite expert witnesses, but have to leave them when the Division bell goes. What is the response of the so-called Modernisation Committee? It advises us to meet in the evenings or on a Saturday morning. It is nonsense. Nor have I have ever seen before so many vacancies on popular Select Committees on the Labour party Whip.
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Members no longer get to see Ministers. They used to have to eat here at least a couple of nights a week. They now go off to some fashionable restaurant or club. They come here in a chauffeur-driven car and live in a little elite bubble, and we cannot get at them. I used to get at Ministers regularly when we worked late. Ministers no longer have as much contact with Back Benchers and that removes them from the real world. Many of my constituents work on a 24-hour clock. I did it myself when my children were younger and it is nonsense to say that people do not.

Outside meetings are also suffering. Somebody has already mentioned the fact that we had only one day to debate the war, which was possibly the most important vote in my 18 years in Parliament. I have held meetings in Westminster Hall and other parts of the Palace and the security people have come in and said, "It's half-past 8 and we need you to empty the place." It is sad that such meetings should be shut down.

The new hours have shrunk the parliamentary week, interfered with MPs' activities, undermined public access, made no difference to women wanting to come here and reduced contact between MPs and Ministers, not to mention contact among MPs. The new hours have destroyed one of the greatest debating chambers in the world and the Modernisation Committee should vote for the change back.

Hon. Members: "Hear, hear!"

4.33 pm

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Phil Woolas): We set out to achieve consensus and it seems we have done so in some parts of the House.

This has been an important debate. The decisions that we are about to make will affect the way the House operates and the way it is perceived outside. I have been asked for two commitments on behalf of the Government, so I shall deal with those now. The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) asked for a commitment that, if we were in government after the general election, we would review the allocation of Opposition days on the basis of proportionality of representation. That would be our policy, and the allocation would be reviewed. I appreciate that he understands that that is not part of our debate today.

The second request was from the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), who asked about the Procedure and Modernisation Committees. As he knows, that is a matter for the next Parliament and is not directly related to this debate. However, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has heard the points that he made.

The Modernisation Committee has considered carefully the options for future sittings of the House and produced a package of proposals that it considers the best way forward. The package means that we would keep our current hours on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday, but that the start of Thursday's sitting would be brought forward to 10.30 am. Maintaining the moment of interruption at 6 pm would mean that Thursday would be restored as a full sitting day. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has tabled a motion—the main motion under consideration—that would implement the package.
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The Modernisation Committee also recommended that the House should be able to express a clear view on Tuesday sittings—a matter on which the House was unfortunately unable to reach a consensus. To facilitate that expression, I have tabled amendments that would return Tuesday to the old hours of 2.30 pm to 10 pm—the same hours that obtain on a Monday. I do not personally support those amendments, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) spoke with his usual clarity and elegance. Instead, I urge the House to join me and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House in voting against them.

Mr. George Howarth: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the help that he has given on this matter, if not for the way that he will vote this evening. Does he accept that the problem was that the Modernisation Committee declined to accept the consensus that was achieved?

Mr. Woolas: I understand my hon. Friend's point and I am grateful for the thanks that he expressed to me and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House in respect of trying to reach a consensus. I always thought that it would be a difficult job, but my right hon. Friend has to reach across the spectrum of the whole House, as I hope that my hon. Friend acknowledges.

Hon. Members on all sides of the argument would be well advised to listen to my next point, which I want to emphasise. If the motion in the name of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House were to fall, in the next Parliament we would have to revert to the hours of 2.30 pm to 10 pm on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and to the hours of 11.30 am to 7 pm on Thursdays.

Mr. Forth: Hooray!

Mr. Woolas: I do not think that even the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) went that far in his speech.

Some people outside the House have suggested that we would revert to sittings lasting all night. They were abolished by previous Standing Orders, but we would push votes and debates after the moment of interruption up to midnight and even beyond. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter) for analysing what happened in previous Sessions. The results show that we went beyond the moment of interruption 78 times in 2003, and that debates often finished after midnight, even before votes were held. [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The general conversation in the Chamber means that I am having difficulty hearing the Minister. The House must listen to the Minister.

Mr. Woolas: Those who support the amendment in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Cunninghame, South (Mr. Donohoe) may wish to bear in mind the commitment given by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House regarding whipped business on a Thursday. I hope that they will bear in mind also that delaying votes by deferred Division on major business—currently, deferred Divisions are used in respect of secondary business—would have a significant impact on the timing of business in the other place. My right hon. Friend and I are also concerned about that.
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Furthermore, the House should bear in mind another point raised in the debate—that delaying votes would mean that we would not be able to reach a conclusion on a Thursday night. I also urge the House to reject the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack), as they would undermine the objective of the Modernisation Committee's central recommendation that Thursday should be restored to a full sitting day.

This has been an excellent debate. Unfortunately, we have been unable to reach the consensus that we set out to reach, but we have certainly narrowed the area of disagreement. Greater consensus exists now than existed during the debate in October 2002, which has been to the benefit of the whole House. I urge Members to join the Leader of the House in voting against the amendments and for the main motion as it stands, and for the motions on connecting Parliament with the public and the car mileage allowance. We must now come to a firm decision, so that Members and staff can plan with certainty for the Parliament ahead.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I remind the House that, if an amendment is agreed to the motion on sitting hours, the Question will immediately thereafter be put on any consequential amendments. When the amendments have been disposed of, the Question will be put on the main Question on sitting hours, amended or not, as the case may be. The Questions will then be put forthwith on the motions on connecting Parliament with the public and on the car mileage allowance. The first amendment relates to the time of Tuesday sittings.

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