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Mr. Bone: I have never seen mass attendance in the Chamber, except during parliamentary questions. As I shall make clear later, my proposal will give hon. Members who want to stay in their constituencies in
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September the opportunity to do so, and will allow Members who want to question Ministers in the House to attend Parliament. There will be no onus on those Members who wish to remain in their constituency to attend Parliament during that period, but other Members will have the opportunity to hold the Government to account.

Secondly, and most importantly, it is not the case that a Member of Parliament can either be in his constituency or attend Parliament—it is the role of Members to do both. It is not the case that, when Parliament is sitting, hon. Members do not visit their constituencies. When Parliament is sitting, I am not prevented from seeing constituents, holding weekly advice surgeries, or continuing with my rolling survey of constituents through my “Listening to Wellingborough and Rushden” campaign. I attend meetings, events and functions, yet I am still present in Parliament for questions, debates and Divisions. The situation would be no different if Parliament met in September. If Members wished to remain in their constituencies for the whole of September, there would be nothing to prevent them from doing so, but September sittings would give Members who wanted it parliamentary time for genuine debate and scrutiny. September sittings would allow us to fulfil both of our major roles as Members of Parliament. If Parliament reconvenes in September, we will have a real opportunity to be innovative in how we use the parliamentary time.

Ms Butler: On a point of clarification, I understand that the hon. Gentleman supports the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick). I followed my hon. Friend’s arguments, but I find it a little difficult to follow the hon. Gentleman’s argument. Is he suggesting that the House should sit in September, but that Members should be able to choose whether to attend, depending on whether it is a commutable distance for them?

Mr. Bone: I have not made my point clear, so I shall try again. I am saying that in September, there would be no Divisions and no new legislation would be introduced, so Members would not have to attend, as they must in the rest of the year. It would give us a period in which we could do things differently.

Mr. Kevan Jones: It would be a little naive not to recognise that the hon. Gentleman’s proposals would result in a feeding frenzy for the press, as they could track down who attended which debate, at a time when MPs might well want to do valuable work in their constituency, instead of attending a debate in the House that might be of very little relevance to their constituents.

Mr. Bone: It would be an appalling state of affairs if the House made its decisions according to what the media considered right.

I suggest that we use September sittings to hold in-depth reviews of particular Departments, in which Members would have the opportunity to ask more than one question to the Minister in charge. The time would
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also give us the opportunity to hold more Adjournment debates on subjects that are of great interest, but that cannot otherwise fit into the parliamentary timetable. Even if we had September sittings, Members would still have a recess of at least six weeks, and in those six weeks, if Parliament needed to be recalled to discuss urgent business, Parliament should make that decision, and not the Executive.

Motion 7 argues that September sittings should be abolished, due to the introduction of a procedure for the tabling and answering of written questions during the summer recess. That is an interesting idea, and I participated fully in the experiment that took place in the summer recess. Named day questions were delayed, some Ministers did not even attempt to answer the questions that I put to them, and some responses were incorrect. I have expressed concern about such problems many times in points of order, parliamentary questions, Westminster Hall debates and letters to Ministers. To use an example that I have used several times in the House—I shall continue to use it until a member of the Government admits misleading the House—since November 2005, the Prime Minister and several of his colleagues have stood at the Dispatch Box and told the House that no one waits more than six months for an NHS operation. In fact, Ministers have made that assertion no fewer than 14 times in ministerial statements and answers to parliamentary questions.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. In his enthusiasm to pursue the argument about September sittings the hon. Gentleman is going rather wide, so I must rule him out of order.

Mr. Bone: I was trying to make the point that if those statements were made immediately before the recess, they could not be challenged in the 11 weeks in which Parliament does not sit. If the House adopted my proposal of in-depth reviews of Parliament, the hypocrisy of those statements could be exposed.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman is perhaps spoiling his argument with the use of immoderate language, which we generally deplore in the House. He might rephrase what he has just said.

Mr. Bone: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. If the House sat in September, hon. Members would not have to worry about the pressure of voting. They would have more time for scrutiny, and we could correct inconsistent facts in statements. Ministers seem to be able to say certain things, but there is not enough time for Back-Bench Members to correct them. In conclusion, if we do not vote for the amendment, we will close off the opportunity for September sittings, whether or not we wish to reschedule the parliamentary year. In my opinion, it is quite wrong that for 11 weeks this Government, or any other Government, should not face parliamentary scrutiny.

5.52 pm

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): There are great benefits in being called early or late in a debate, as one can make a speech to many more excellent colleagues in the Chamber, although that may well give me more pleasure that it gives them.

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It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone). I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker), who made an excellent speech that was only five minutes long. He made his points better for his brevity, and I believe that he shared my amusement and amazement that many right hon. and hon. Members spoke for 20 or 30 minutes in a debate partly dedicated to shorter speeches. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) said, it is desirable to restrict speeches, but three minutes is too extreme a limit and would frustrate good debate in the Chamber. I shall therefore vote against that measure.

Mr. Heath: As the hon. Gentleman was one of several Members who intervened on me, would he prefer me not to accept his interventions in future?

Bob Spink: As usual, the hon. Gentleman makes a compelling point, and he has disabused me of that notion.

I oppose motion 7, as I support September sittings. Politics is changing fast—in an increasingly globalised and uncertain world, there are more threats and opportunities. We have experienced major problems such as wars, terrorism, extreme weather events and disasters, and serious events have occurred in the UK. Parliament must deal with those events, and speed of response is often of the essence.

September sittings would allow more time to scrutinise the Executive. That does not mean more legislation—we need less legislation—but we need better to scrutinise legislation and the Executive.

The press and public opinion is not the only issue or even the main issue in this debate, but it is a concern. The public are increasingly sceptical about politics and political structures. There is a serious disconnect, because the public—I believe incorrectly—do not think that we are doing the job how they want to see it done. The public interest and democracy are best served by this House tackling public cynicism, which, whether we like it or not, is caused in part by our very long recess. We need to be seen to be more responsive and more in touch with the real world as events unfold.

We should not organise the activities of this House for the convenience of political parties and their conferences, which are outdated and which can be counter-productive. I believe that party conferences are part of the problem of public disengagement and not part of the solution. My hon. Friends know that I have not been to my party conference for some years, and I am the better for it and so are my constituents, whom I serve better because I am in my constituency rather than playing politics at a seaside resort.

Parliament must retake more power and control over the Executive and hold the Executive better to account if democracy is to be saved and rehabilitated, and stopping the Government’s 80-day scrutiny holiday would be a good start.

Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): Is my hon. Friend aware that it is not only the Government who are escaping scrutiny? The European Parliament returns on August bank holiday Monday, so there are five weeks when this House cannot scrutinise and comment on what goes on there.

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Bob Spink: My hon. Friend has made a characteristically excellent point, and I congratulate him on it.

We must re-examine the powers that enable us to recall Parliament. It must be in the gift of MPs rather than parties or the Executive to force the recall of Parliament.

The bottom line is that this House should sit in September, perhaps at the end of September, to avoid the stop-start situation, which is difficult to explain. As the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) has said, perhaps we should use light sittings, or, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough has explained, perhaps we should use innovative approaches. We should certainly be here; we should be better holding the Executive to account; and MPs should be given powers to recall Parliament, as and when it is necessary to do so.

5.58 pm

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): I commend the Leader of the House for motion 4, on Standing Orders, which will take forward how we deal with legislation in the House.

In an earlier intervention, I said that I had heard comments from public and private agencies in Scotland—British organisations that deal with both the Scottish Parliament and Westminster, and can make comparisons. They have concluded that the way in which legislation is handled in Scotland, whether or not it involves a partnership or shared responsibility between Westminster and the Scottish Parliament, is much more efficient and effective and that the quality of the legislation is much higher. That is not because the calibre of the political animal in Scotland is necessarily better, but because the process ensures that evidence is taken and that committees help to shape legislation through their deliberations. Problems of the kind that we have here, whereby legislation is ill prepared and there are lots of late Government amendments, do not happen to anything like the same extent. The Leader of the House’s proposal seems to give us a much better chance of achieving that quality, which would benefit the House, outside agencies wishing to influence legislation, and, ultimately, the Government, who will end up with better laws.

There is a demarcation dispute as to who should chair the evidence-taking element of the Committee. The hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), who is not in his place, declared his interest as a member of the Speaker’s Panel. I am surprised that relatively few members of the Liaison Committee have taken part in the debate, because they said at a meeting last week that they were somewhat unhappy with some of the proposals, and I would have thought that some might come here to say so. The process of taking evidence is different from that of deliberating on a Bill. It is no disrespect to the excellent members of the Chairman’s Panel to suggest that it is not necessarily where their experience lies, although of course if their job changes their competence will change.

It is argued that members of Select Committees who specialise in a particular Department have particular expertise, so the quality and depth of their inquisition is therefore likely to be that much more effective. My
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hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) told me informally that when he sat on the “Puttnam Committee”—a Committee of both Houses that took evidence on the Ofcom legislation—his expertise hugely helped the process of the deliberations and improved the quality of the Bill.

I hope that the House will consider and accept the recommendations made by the Modernisation Committee in this respect. I also hope that the Leader of the House, who implied in his response to the hon. Member for Buckingham that he was rather more in favour of the Chairman’s Panel approach, will reflect on the matter, and that we may even have the opportunity to discuss it more fully.

I want to speak against motion 7, on September sittings, and in favour of the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick). Indeed, an amendment of a somewhat similar character stands in my name. It is worth recalling that before the introduction of September sittings, the House was recalled during the summer recess in 1992, 1998, 2001 and 2002. In 2003, when the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Hain) was Leader of the House, he said:

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) gave examples of years in which the recess lasted for 13 weeks.

I am not interested in what the media think about what we are doing during those 13 weeks—I am interested in how we can possibly stand up in front of our constituents and say that the important business of questioning Ministers and calling Parliament to account goes on week in, week out, except for 13 weeks when it does not go on at all. I think that most people understand that there is a period in August when hardly any other Parliament in the world sits, other than in extremis. As the then Leader of the House said, Members can hold back for a few weeks if we know that the House is going to be sitting and that we can marshal our arguments before we make our case. It is not credible to suggest that we can do the job that we are elected to do effectively when the House does not sit for 13 weeks at a time. Frankly, I found some of the contrary arguments breathtakingly unbelievable.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is, by definition, likely that he would see less of his constituents as a result of sitting in this place in September, and that as a result, he would be less well advised about issues in his constituency?

Malcolm Bruce: The answer is simple. The House needs to sit regularly, with regular breaks. We should neither sit for too long nor be away for too long. That ensures that we get the balance right between time spent in the constituency and time spent dealing with
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matters in the House. It is the distribution of our work load that is inefficient and ineffective, in that the job we are supposed to do simply cannot proceed.

The hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) made some suggestions that I found interesting, although they were somewhat derided.

Mr. Straw: They were not derided.

Malcolm Bruce: Not by the Leader of the House, but by some other Members. There were suggestions about how we might organise the time. The hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) is not present, and I am not being ironic when I refer to the proposition that we turn up here only when there is a Division and the Whips require us to do so. It is true that there may well be occasions when only 30 or 40 of the 645 Members feel the need to be here, but the fact is that every Member has the opportunity to be here. Ministers have to be here, the exchange of information is here, and the public can observe what is going on and what is being said. That is what matters. Each of us—all 645 Members—must account to our constituents for where we were and why we were there, and I think most of us are big enough and ugly enough to be able to handle that reasonably competently. I believe that we are in danger of making a complacent and serious error if we vote for the recommendation by the Leader of the House.

The hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) said that she used to be in favour of September sittings, but would vote against them tonight. She made some pertinent comments about the need to rebalance the whole year along the lines that I have suggested, and said that although she would vote for the motion, she hoped that we would revisit it. I heard what the Leader of the House had to say, but my honest view is that if the House votes for his motion, that is the last we shall hear of it until pressure and embarrassment build up again, and the House comes to its senses and concludes that not sitting for 12 or 13 weeks is an unacceptable way in which to conduct our business in modern times. I believe that the Leader of the House, who used to be in favour of September sittings, has made an error of judgment in this case.

Some Members have expressed the view that our September sittings were not very effective. I agree. They were not very well organised. It was, I recall, well known that many Ministers did not really approve of them, feeling that they were a nuisance and a pain. The Government business managers, of course, control what goes into those two weeks. It is very easy to look back and say that it was not very much, but there were Second Reading debates and Report stages. There was legislative progress, which may have reduced the ping-pong pressure at the end of the parliamentary year.

In an intervention, the hon. Member for Buckingham sensibly advanced the case for a business Committee. That would help to resolve the issues of the pattern of business, the pattern of sittings, and how business can be managed effectively. I think that those who say, “The September sittings did not work very well and we should revert to the status quo ante”, should instead be asking how we can arrange September sittings in a better and more effective way.

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