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It should be said that the Modernisation Committee’s report was passed by a very large majority—by 411 votes to 47.

It has been argued that the matter of the September sittings was all very unfortunate, and that when we met in September in 2003 and 2004 it did not work out well, but I have no evidence of that. Government business was undertaken. It is true that on the last occasion, in 2004, hooligans invaded the Chamber, but that is hardly an argument for not having September sittings—hooligans could have invaded the Chamber at any period. Where is the evidence that it was wrong to hold those sittings, or that the Government, the Opposition and Labour Back Benchers did not have all the opportunities that they usually have when the House sits? I do not accept the argument that it was all a failure. I was present on both occasions and I cannot remember any such verdict being reached.

As regards the issue of what Members of Parliament do, I do not argue that we are all lazy. Indeed, it could well be argued, especially on the evidence of the past few years, that Members of Parliament are more likely to be workaholics than lazy. I do not work on the assumption that we all go to the beach in some foreign land for the whole recess. That would be rather boring and expensive. Like most hon. Members, I take a fortnight’s holiday and then I do my constituency work, and I do not pat myself on the back for it. That constituency work is important, but surely it is not argued that if we came back for a period in September
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we would not have time to do it. If we go into recess in mid-July, as we did in the two years in question, we would have time to do that work in July, or in the latter part of August. If we sat for two weeks in September, we could do that work between those two weeks and our return in October. It cannot be argued that if we were in the House, debating and doing our job, we would not have sufficient time for constituency work.

I take the view—I hope that it is not outdated—that however important our constituency work and however many letters we send, our main job, as I said in an intervention on my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, is to hold the Government to account in Parliament. Indeed, that is the reason why we were elected. I accept that some of my hon. Friends are not enthusiastic about the amendment, but they might be more enthusiastic about September sittings if we were in opposition. It is difficult to understand why Opposition Members are not keen on September sittings. If I were in opposition—and I served in opposition for an 18-year stretch—I would be even keener.

Ms Butler: Does my hon. Friend agree that while part of our job is to be here, it is also our job to ascertain our constituents’ views and air them in Westminster?

Mr. Winnick: Of course I do. I have tremendous respect for my hon. Friend and I do not dispute her assertion. Surely, however, she would not challenge my view that our main job is nothing other than our work in the Chamber, Select Committees and so on? I hope that that is always the case, as it is the basis of our parliamentary democracy.

Much criticism has been levelled at MPs, particularly last week when our expenses were published. It is difficult to accept the way in which expenses are designated. My secretary, for example, does not receive expenses—she receives a salary, and my constituency assistant does, too. We are subject to a good deal of criticism—some of it ill-judged, I accept—much of it directed at our salaries, pension entitlement and expenses. No doubt there will considerable public controversy about the new allowance that may, or may not, be justified. The perception that we will reject the opportunity to sit in September does not help the House of Commons, and we should take that into account.

Martin Salter: May I chastise my hon. Friend, because he does not do himself or his argument any favours by referring to the allowances and budgets that we receive to pay our staff, and provide a service to our constituents, as expenses? Expenses are what journalists receive; budgets and allowances are what MPs receive to do the job of work that we are sent to Westminster to perform.

Mr. Winnick: My hon. Friend would be perfectly entitled to make such a remark about me if he would only listen for once. It is the first time that I have been criticised in an intervention for the opposite of what I said.

In conclusion, the word “recess” is virtually unknown outside the Westminster village. Members
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may have met constituents and others who talk about the recess, but I have only done so once or twice in all the years in which I have been an MP. It is a Westminster word. To the average person, it is a holiday. Most people generously accept that during that “holiday” we do a good deal of constituency work but, nevertheless, the term is not used outside the Westminster village. My amendment gives the House the opportunity to sit in September. If it were carried—I accept that that is unlikely—there would be consultations between the Front-Bench spokesmen of the three main parties and the usual channels to try to remedy the arrangement whereby we returned for two weeks in September before the recess resumed. Urgent steps would be taken, as recommended by my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon) when he was Leader of the House. In a reply to a question that I asked during business questions almost a year ago on 10 November, he said that the political parties could be consulted about conference arrangements and so on.

There is therefore a solution—we could return to Westminster in late September, so the recess would not resume. I emphasise that if the House rejects my amendment, it is unlikely, despite what my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said, that there will be any change for a long time. That is unacceptable and we would not do ourselves any favours. I therefore urge right hon. and hon. Members to give serious consideration to my proposal.

2.25 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick). I shall come to his amendment, but may I pick up one point that he made? He said that the term “recess” is not used outside the House. It is in common usage in America, where it means playtime. One problem we face is that many of our constituents think that that is what “recess” means for us—it is a playtime that is not used effectively to hold the Government to account.

The most important commodity in the House is time, which is needed by the Government to ensure the progress of their legislative programme. It matters to people affected by the legislation, as it ensures that there is proper scrutiny. It is important to Opposition Members, who should have the opportunity to raise serious matters on their parties’ behalf. It is important, too—this ingredient is often forgotten—to Back Benchers, who often do not have the opportunities that are afforded to their Front-Bench colleagues, to raise issues that are vital for their constituencies during the passage of legislation and at other times. Any discussion that enables us to use the time available to the House more effectively is therefore valuable. I applaud the Leader of the House for introducing a wide-ranging series of motions. I do not agree with every proposal in that gallimaufry but, nevertheless, the House should have the opportunity to discuss them. He introduced them so promptly that some of them probably surprised some of his senior colleagues, but that is a matter for another day.

May I deal with the Modernisation Committee report as a whole? The Leader of the House has urged us to
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welcome it, telling us in parenthesis that proposals that have not been selected to appear as motions on the Order Paper will receive the implicit approval of the House if we agree the third motion. I applaud the work of the Modernisation Committee, but I wish to raise a number of issues on which it has not done such a good job and which give cause for concern. Addressing the thorny issue of programme motions and their consequences, it helpfully proposed that programme motions should not prejudge the interests of Front-Bench spokesmen on Second Reading or, as I suggested earlier, of Back Benchers with a particular concern that they wish to pursue in Committee. It is absurd that Government business managers affect to understand, before Second Reading, which issues are likely to be important, producing a programme motion on committal proceedings and an end date before assessing interest in the Bill. That is a perverse way of doing business, and I am sorry that the Leader of the House did not agree to the Committee’s proposal.

I am even sorrier that we have not received, as the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) said, a proper response to the earlier proposal from the Procedure Committee to establish a proper business Committee for the House. In most modern legislatures, parties meet to programme business effectively, not by edict but by agreement, thus determining the legislature’s opportunities to scrutinise business. We must return to that matter because the programme motion regime is simply not working. Programme motions work as guillotines, but they are introduced in circumstances in which guillotines are not required, as the House can manage its own timetabling business.

Malcolm Bruce: Is my hon. Friend aware that the process in the Scottish Parliament includes pre-legislative scrutiny and a business committee? All the public and private interest groups that are concerned about legislation in Scotland have found that the conduct of legislation in Scotland is much superior on a practical basis to that in Westminster. Is there not some advantage in learning from a devolved Assembly that has developed ideas, which this Parliament has failed to do?

Mr. Heath: That is a good example, but, as my hon. Friend knows, we have turned our backs on many other sensible procedures through simple reaction, although such procedures could make us a more effective legislature.

The Modernisation Committee did not properly address two other parts of Bill procedure, the most important of which is the Report stage. First, when a Bill is on Report, it is the one opportunity for Back Benchers to table and debate amendments. The opportunity is often denied by the timetabling, which curtails discussion on Report and which orders the business in such a way that Front Benchers have their say while later amendments are not debated. Secondly, swathes of Government amendments that are barely scrutinised are often introduced on Report, which denies the House the opportunity to do justice to its scrutiny role. The other place is offended when it gets a half-scrutinised Bill, large elements of which have never been seen or discussed by this House, because it has to try to put right what we have failed to do on primary legislation.

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Another issue is when we find ourselves in dispute with another place. The Modernisation Committee report refers to the Reasons Committee, and it concludes that that Committee is not very good, but we cannot do much about it. The Reasons Committee is a farce. We all troop into the little Room behind the Speaker’s Chair, and the Minister reads out an entirely spurious reason for disagreeing with the other place. There was a classic example of that when I spoke on home affairs—the reason was “this House does not believe that the amendments are appropriate”.

Ms Butler: That is fair enough.

Mr. Heath: That is not fair enough in a sensible, grown-up legislature. When we disagree, we should have a sensible dialogue between the two Houses. We should have a conciliation procedure that respects the views expressed at each end of the Corridor and tries to assimilate them, whenever that is possible. Then we would not have sterile ping-pong between the Houses, one-hour sittings dealing with half a dozen amendments from another place, which do not do justice to the views expressed, and the feeling that that is a dysfunctional part of our legislative process.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): I want to respond to the hon. Gentleman’s remarks about programme motions. I am sure that he wants to avoid the possibility of cosy arrangements being made between party managers in smoke-filled rooms, which impedes this House’s ability to hold the Executive to account.

Mr. Heath: That is the reason why I have made my suggestions. At the moment, there is a nod and a wink between the usual channels, and then a programme motion is plonked before the House, which can take it or leave it—the answer is that we take it, because there is a Government majority in favour of the programme motion. That is not a good enough way of doing business, and it does not do justice to hon. Members.

Mr. Greg Knight: The hon. Gentleman is giving the House a catalogue of complaints about the work of the Modernisation Committee, but that Committee is unique, because its members include the Leader of the House, who is Chairman, and the shadow Leader of the House. In view of the hon. Gentleman’s Front-Bench position, if he is that concerned about what the Modernisation Committee gets up to, why does he not sit on it?

Mr. Heath: The right hon. Gentleman should think for a moment, because it is an extraordinary proposition that one can only comment on a Select Committee report if one sits on the Committee. He may be surprised to learn that I do not entirely agree with him. I sat on the Modernisation Committee for a short time, but it became irreconcilable with the other duties that I perform on behalf of my party, which is why I stood down from that Committee and asked my hon. Friend the Chief Whip to sit in my place. I am sure that my hon. Friend does a good job in Committee, but that does not stop me giving my opinion on the conclusions of the Modernisation
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Committee in a debate such as this. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman does not want to prevent me from giving my views.

Turning to the specifics, the proposal on public Bill committees will commend itself to the House. There is widespread support for the suggestion that we should take a more reasoned view, including taking evidence, before conducting line-by-line scrutiny, although one should not be at the expense of the other. I hope that we will not lose the capacity closely to scrutinise what is written in statute, because I am one of those old-fashioned people who thinks that it matters what we write into laws and that what we write into laws should be right. At the moment, that happens in Committee, and I do not want to lose that procedure.

In an earlier intervention, I raised the issue of delegated legislation with the Leader of the House. Given that so much legislation that has a crucial effect on our constituents is now secondary legislation, there may be occasions when it is appropriate for a Committee considering delegated legislation to take evidence before reaching a conclusion. I support the view that it should be possible to amend delegated legislation, because we often make bad law simply because there is no way to express a different view. It would also be in the interests of the Government to be able to accede to a sensible amendment in a Committee considering delegated legislation rather than passing flawed legislation that must be amended later.

The communications allowance is a more difficult matter, and I have listened carefully to the exchanges on the subject. It is a matter for individual hon. Members, so I can only speak personally, but I have not been persuaded that the communications allowance is necessary. I find it difficult to understand how some hon. Members manage to spend quite as much as they do on their postage allowance within the rules of the House, as I understand them. Some hon. Members have extraordinarily busy inner-city constituencies, and they deal with a huge volume of correspondence that is far beyond what, for example, I would expect to receive in my constituency. Those hon. Members reply to all that correspondence by letter, but they get nowhere near the upper limits that other hon. Members find it appropriate to claim.

I suspect, although I cannot prove it, that there are widely differing interpretations of the current rules. The starting point should be interpreting the rules consistently and ensuring that the rules are clear. There are instances in which it is appropriate to write on House of Commons notepaper to a particular constituent, because one is aware of something that will affect that constituent directly and one would like their view, which is legitimate parliamentary business.

I am equally certain that something that is essentially a party political leaflet in a House of Commons envelope is not an appropriate use of taxpayers’ money. We should be able clearly to distinguish between the two. I do not take the view that annual reports are a waste of time. They communicate directly between hon. Members and their constituents and ensure that constituents are aware of the range and availability of services that Members offer them. However, Members who put out a glossy leaflet on a much more regular basis than an annual report are probably abusing the
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use of taxpayers’ money for party political aims. It is important to get the balance right and to ensure that the rules are clear.

Some Members face difficulties because our allowances system does not properly cater for the variances between the running costs of constituency offices. The most appropriate cost to ring-fence might be that of office rental, because that can differ hugely as between a central London location and somewhere in an extremely rural area. It seems perverse that some Members can spend a large part of their so-called expenses just on ensuring that they have an office available to their constituents while others will pay much less and have more money available for other activities that they undertake. I worry that the rules sometimes seem to be applied in a very arbitrary fashion, not because the Fees Office wants to be arbitrary but because we have failed to provide sufficient and adequate guidance as to what are appropriate expenses.

Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the logical corollary of his line of argument is that we could be on a slippery slope to creating different types of Members of Parliament based on value judgments as to the type of casework that they do and their geographical location? For instance, I have a lot of asylum and immigration cases in my constituency, but it would be a retrograde step to make a value judgment that my case load was more deserving of a bigger allowance in delivering my duty as a Member of Parliament than someone in a rural area such as himself.

Mr. Heath: It is not a value judgment, but merely a recognition that different costs are involved. Given that our allowance system is supposed to equalise Members to make it equally possible for us all to do our work effectively, where there are fixed costs, which take a very large percentage of some Members’ allowances and not those of others, it is sensible to recognise that rather than to pretend that it is otherwise. We do that in relation to accommodation, so why not office accommodation? That is an odd discrepancy. I will not support the communications allowance because I suspect that it acts as a strong support for incumbency, which is not necessarily a good outcome.

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