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On September sittings, I am broadly in favour of coming back earlier than we do, but I share the concerns expressed by many people. It is ridiculous to
come back for two weeks in September, and then to disappear to the seaside for a week in order to attend our party conferences. If we are to come back earlier, let us do so toward the end of September, which is still two weeks earlier than coming back at the beginning of October. Of course, there is an argumentI am not sure that my view is shared by colleaguesfor having fixed Parliaments. That way, we could follow the American example and have one conference every four or five years before a general election. However, this is neither the time nor place to discuss that.
It is important that Parliament sit for a couple of weeks longer every year in September, but I do not want to see more legislation in this place because there is far too much legislation. We need to spend more time talking about the things that matter to the people of this countryhousing, building on the green belt instead of on brownfield sites, immigration, pensions, the nuclear deterrentso that our constituents can feed their thoughts to us and we can take a considered view. So please let us have less legislation in this place and a bit more considered discussion of the things that keep our constituents awake at night.
Finallygosh! I have taken four minutesI turn to family friendly work practices, which I know many people like. We sit till 10 oclock on Monday and Tuesday nights but rise at 7.30 on Wednesday, which means that I am at a loose end on Wednesday evenings. I normally end up in a curry house eating things that I should not eat. Could we not use the additional two and a half hours not for whipped business, but for one-line debates, during which we could hold Ministers to account? That might provide more time for Back Benchers to have Adjournment debates and talk
Mark Lazarowicz: It has been suggested that that time on Wednesday evening could be used to deal with private Members Bills, which are still dealt with on Fridays. Does the hon. Gentleman believe that that is a good suggestion?
Mr. Walker: I do. That is an excellent suggestion. A number of suggestions could be made and the House could take a view, but as I say I do not think that we should have whipped business on a Wednesday evening.
Very finallythe last of the absolute lasts, and I am not sure that this is covered by the motions being debated todayI am concerned about the issue of seniority in this place. I am sure that, when I have been here for 20 years, if my electorate allow me to be here for that long, I will be far less concerned about seniority, because it will play to my favour, but my constituents do not care how long any Member of Parliament has been here. It makes no difference to them. I am the only Member of Parliament they have and there are too many occasions when, sitting in a short debate that may be three hours long, I look at the right hon. Gentleman over there, at the right hon. Gentleman over here and at those leading Select Committees and I realise that I do not have a cat's chance of being called. Therefore, I would like seniority perhaps to take more of a back seat, at least for the next 20 years. Thank you very much for calling me, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): May I say from this corner, where the most junior Members of the Labour Benches sit, how much we agree with the closing remarks of the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker)?
There has been a lot of debate about a number of issues this afternoon. I want to say something about September sittings but first I want to draw attention to some of the other aspects of the report of the Modernisation Committee, on which I am privileged to serve. I want to highlight the fact that, if we seize opportunities offered in that report, there will be important consequences not just for the way in which we carry out business in the House but for the way we relate to the wider public, which is one of the themes that the Committee report addressed. I want specifically to refer to the proposal for Standing Committees in effect to be turned, in the normal course of matters, into evidence-taking Committees. If that is done properlyit has to be done properlyit could radically transform the way in which this place operates for the better.
Because of the location of my constituency, obviously, I observe quite closely and read a lot in the media about the workings of the Scottish Parliament. Like all institutions, it has its good points and its bad points, but one of its good pointsthis is widely recognisedis the effective way in which its committees take evidence and have a direct impact on the legislation that comes out at the end of the consideration process. That results in better legislation. If we can get outside organisations regularly expressing their views to Members of Parliament, we will have a better chance of getting legislation changed before it becomes set in stone by the Government, or by the intricacies of the political process.
In addition, the opportunity to have a dialogue with organisations, groups and society outside Parliament is an extremely important way of rebuilding trust between the political process and the wider community, which we all recognise we have lost to a certain degree. Therefore, the importance of the proposals for Standing Committees should not be underestimated. However, it must be recognised that we have to adopt those enthusiastically as a Chamber if we are to make the most of them. As hon. Members have pointed out, the procedures to allow us to do that have been there for many years and they have not been taken up, so it is important that, as well as agreeing the proposals today, as it appears we are likely to do, given that no one has spoken against them, we put them enthusiastically into practice and do not allow them to fall by the wayside.
In that connection I have some reservations about the consensus that appears to have developed that it will be a member of the Chairmens Panel who will chair the new Special Standing Committees. I say that because there must be a danger that, in some cases, the member who will be chosen to serve as the Chair of a Special Standing Committee may not have any particular expertise or interest in the subject matter of that Committee. It may be that members will adopt that interest for that Committee, choose to become heavily involved in its work and act in a proactive way, as Select Committee Chairs often do. If not, in some cases, there would be a danger that the Special
Standing Committees evidence-taking session would become ritualised and almost like a court hearing rather than a more free-flowing exchange of views between Members and outside organisations.
Malcolm Bruce: As the Chairman of a Select Committee that generally does not deal with legislation, I have no partisan interest. It is interesting, however, that the Modernisation Committee suggested that it would be better for Chairs or members of Select Committees to carry out that process, and for the Chairmens Panel to take over when the normal line-by-line consideration of a Bill starts. It is unfortunate that the Leader of the House gave the impression that he had been nobbled by the Chairmens Panel.
Mark Lazarowicz: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for reminding me of the conclusions of the report to which I put my name, which reflect the discussions in Committee. I made the point that we must adopt the change enthusiastically, as it could be a radical change, and I want it to be. As can often happen in this place, however, proposals that are meant to lead to radical changes suddenly diminish in significance under the pressures of this institutions various long-held traditions.
On September sittings, I certainly recognise that our short experiment with them so far has not worked well in many respects. Certainly, I am not thirled to the idea that there must be September sittings in just the same way as in previous years. I am not sure that everyone in the House gave their full enthusiastic support to the idea of September sittings, although they could have been made to work more effectively. Nor do I think that they were a total disaster. I accept, however, that there is every reason to reconsider exactly how we sit in September, if we continue to do so.
It would be entirely wrong, however, to return to having a long, three-month gap in the summer recess, as we had this year. There are several reasons for that. As my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) pointed out, for those of us who have children at state schools in Scotland, it is problematic that schools in certain parts of Scotland return within two weeks of Parliament rising for the summer recess. If we want to have a Parliament for the entire UK, and one that allows those from all situations in life, including those who have younger families, to put themselves forward as MPs, we should at least try to be as helpful as possible to those who want to spend more time in the summer with their children.
Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab):
As my hon. Friend says, Members across the House say that they want a more representative Parliament with more women in it. Inevitably, that means thinking about making the way that we operate more family friendly. That would be beneficial not just to Scottish Members, but to English and Welsh Members. We are not talking
about doing more work in total but about shuffling it around the year. If we have September sittings, we will be able to maintain recesses in the middle of February and at the end of May.
Mark Lazarowicz: I agree with all my hon. Friends points. In that context, I recall a comment from my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter), who made a good speech, much of which I agreed with. On the issue of school holidays and their impact on MPs, however, he commented that the House authorities were no doubt wrestling with the issue even at this moment. With respect, there is every possibility that the House authorities will wrestle with the issue for decades and perhaps centuries before coming up with an acceptable solution. That is why I, for one, am reluctant to give up September sittings until we have a better alternative.
The issue is broader than simply the advantages for hon. Members with young families, although obviously they are important if we wish to have a Parliament that is representative of society and of people in different personal circumstances. The wider issue is having a long period in which we are not able to exercise our functions properlyto hold the Government to account, to scrutinise the work of Government and to raise the important issues of the day, if we think that it is necessary. This summer is a case in point. We did not have a recall of Parliament, although many of us wanted one. There was every reason to have a recall, because there were important issues to addressnot least what was happening in the middle eastand many of our constituents asked us to raise their concerns. My constituents were taken aback when I replied that I could write to Ministers and ask for a recall, or write articles for newspapers, but I could not do much more in exercising my duties as a Member of Parliament to represent their concerns.
Andrew Mackinlay: Surely the example we must address is not the recall of Parliament because of an invasion of another country, but a recall because of a transport tragedy, such as the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise or a major rail crash. If that happened today, we would have a statement and questions tomorrow. If it happens in September, there is no statement and no examination.
Mark Lazarowicz: That is a good point. Clearly if there was an overwhelming international or national crisis, Parliament would be recalled, but the longer the recess, the less likely it is that hon. Members will be able to raise issues in Parliament in a relatively timeous and speedy fashion.
The opportunity to table written questions is better than nothing, but it is not the same as having the opportunity to raise issues in the Chamber. If that logic were carried through to its ultimate conclusion, we could sit one day a week and spend the rest of the time tabling written questions. Some hon. Members might like that, but I do not think that it is the right way forward.
Another aspect of the physical presence of Members at Westminster is the informal contact. One knows more about what is going on because one is here. London Members or those close to circles of power may be able to keep in touch, but what if one is not in that fortunate situation? During the summer recess, one is way out of touch with what is going on in the centres of power. We are not always in touch when we are here in the House, but we have more chance to take part in the more nebulous type of policy debate and holding the Government to account if we are actually here, not in our constituencies.
As I said, the September sitting arrangements are not perfect. I would prefer to have a slightly shorter sitting week, so that we could spend more time on Mondays and Fridays in our constituencies, and to sit for more weeks, instead of a situation in which for three months of the year we are hardly in Parliament and for eight monthsapart from weekendswe are hardly in our constituencies. It would be good to have a better mix between being in Parliament and being in our constituencies, so that we could pick up on the feelings of our constituents about issues and raise them in the Chamber if we chose to do so.
The present arrangements are not perfect, and I respect the sincerity of the comments made by my hon. Friends the Members for Reading, West and for Lewisham, Deptford about the need for a fundamental look at how the parliamentary calendar operates. However, I support the amendment in favour of retaining some form of September sitting because I do not think that we will ever get any other solution if we get rid of it now. The idea will disappear into the sunset, and there will be no change of any sort for decades to come.
We should not get rid of September sittings and then look for a better system for the entire year. Instead, we should come up with a better system for the entire year first, and then talk about changing the sittings in September. In the meantime, instead of having a three-month gap between leaving this place and returning, we have an opportunity to come back a bit earlier. We must not give that up.
On the motion relating to Northern Ireland, the Ayes were 250, the Noes were 227, so the motion was agreed to. On the motion relating to the Voluntary Reduction (Modulation) of Direct Farm Support Payments, the Ayes were 247, the Noes were 226, so the motion was agreed to.
Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): My purpose in rising in this debate is to address some remarks to motion 6 in respect of the proposed communications allowance, but I shall begin by throwing in my tuppence worth on September sittings. In 2002 I voted enthusiastically in favour of the experiment, but I do not believe that returning here for two weeks and then clearing off for another three or four has proved a sensible or useful way to conduct our business. I have a lot of sympathy with those who have said that we should come back here by mid or late September, and that that should be the start of the new parliamentary calendar.
In this day and age, children are not taken on holiday during the school term. Schools go back at the start of September, and I do not see why party conferences, if they are going to take place in that month, cannot be rattled through pretty quickly. That would mean that the House could be back here well before the end of the month to begin our autumns work. Anyhow, I shall vote for the motion tonight and hope that we will make progress on the matter that I have set out.
Mr. Walker: We could rattle through the party conferences in a week, but all parties want their own week in the sun. The three main parties currently occupy successive weeks in September, but to achieve what the hon. Gentleman wants we would have to persuade them to hold their conferences at the same time. That would be a difficult challenge.
Nick Harvey: I do not think that holding the conferences at the same time would be the solution, but all the parties seem to be making an effort to make them shorter. Therefore, even if they took place consecutively, the period devoted to them could be over more speedily.
As has been noted several times today, the widely observed problem of disconnect between Parliament and the public might be a contributory factor to lower turnouts at elections. The Hansard Society published a report that challenged Parliament to up its game in its relations with the public. We have started to do that. Our Select Committees, and the House itself, employ press officers to explain our work to the public. More outreach officers go into constituencies and local education authorities to explain the work of Parliament. The education unit has expanded its programme of school visits and produced new films about our work, while its work books are part of the national curriculum. In addition, a major overhaul of the parliamentary website is under way, although it is still very much a work in progress.
I welcome the efforts that the House as a body corporateif I might use the phrase in this contexthas made to up its game. However, if those communications are to work we have to recognise that the work of the House is the work of its Members. It is ridiculous for us to think that we can sit back and let the House and its Officials explain what is going on and that we do not have a greater part to play in the
process, not least because opinion polls and, I think, the report of the Hansard Society note that when the public are asked what they think about MPs in general they have rather a derogatory view, but they usually take quite a benign view of their own MP. There is a challenge for MPs to take more of a role in their constituencies in explaining their own work and the work of the House. There is nothing illegitimate in an MP making a report, in non-partisan terms, about what the MP is doing and about what Parliament is doing.
The existing arrangements are profoundly unsatisfactory, however. As the House knows, during this Session I have been serving on both the Members Estimate Committee and the Committee on Standards and Privileges, so I have seen the issue from both ends. Concerns about the current arrangements have been knocking around for a long timecertainly longer than I have been involvedand it has taken two or three years for a constructive proposal to be put on the table. We have one before us today, in the shape of the recommendation from the Leader of the House for a communications allowance. I commend him on having taken the initiative in trying to address such a tricky issue.
Members have already touched on the anomalies in the existing regulations. I will start with pre-paid post and House stationery, to which Members have unlimited access at present. In the year running up to the election, we reached a ridiculous situation: Members average spend on those two items put together was about £3,500, but in one or two cases there were some outrageous expenditure totals, one of which stretched to more than £50,000. The system cannot be working properly when some Members, seemingly within the regulations, can spend up to 15 times the average. Clearly, that has to be addressed.
Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Con): It was in fact my predecessor who spent that amount. Does not the concrete proposal that has been made offer us the opportunity to put a cap on that type of expenditure? It is too easy to dismiss the proposed allowance as extra money for Members of Parliament, when it is actually an initiative that would put a cap on irresponsible behaviour.
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