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1 Nov 2006 : Column 395

The following is on the record, so no one should be surprised when I mention it now; nor is it the main part of my argument: we have had debates, on which the whole modernisation process hinged, about making the House a family friendly institution. That “family-friendly” institution was designed mostly for London Members. I am not saying that it is perfect for them, but if the House rises at about 7.30—as it will tonight—presumably they can be at home with their families by 8 pm, and even earlier on Thursdays. Indeed, they can nip home between votes on Mondays and Tuesdays, unless there is a running whip. This is not special pleading from a Scottish Member. Any Member whose constituency is significantly out of town will be either in London or in the constituency, not running between the two—with the possible exception of the hon. Member for Falkirk (Mr. Joyce).

The serious issue is to do with the fact that most people come to Parliament for the three or four days in the week that the House is sitting to conduct their parliamentary business and they then leave, and squash in whatever they can in consultations and visits in their constituencies, which they get back to on Thursday night if they are lucky, although in some cases not until Friday morning. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) again made some sensible suggestions on whether we could have shorter weeks, but more of them, to allow for a better balance: That might work, but the House needs to take on board the fact that we are in danger of completely ignoring the family considerations of out-of-town Members, in terms of considerations such as school holidays.

On a personal basis, when I analysed the situation as of two years ago, I found that the only times when my children and I were off together were Christmas and the first two weeks of August; there was no other time when the children were off and the House was not sitting. I am not suggesting that we can accommodate all variations to do with school holidays, given that they are changing, but I got the impression that almost every Member liked the idea of rising earlier in July—that that suited most of us, throughout the United Kingdom. That is the case not least because in recent years we have found that the hottest and most uncomfortable weeks tend to be the last two weeks in July, and the Leader of the House will know that the weather at that time is not only uncomfortable, but it makes life worse for him, as hot and bad-tempered Members who wish they were with their families or abroad are not the most compliant and helpful of legislators.

The original proposal was that we rise earlier in July and go back in September. I completely agree with those Members who have suggested that having a two-week sitting in September and then another break for several weeks does not work. That is why, although I am happy to support the amendment of the hon. Member for Walsall, North my amendment suggested that we required further consultation to try to work out a pattern and balance of sittings of the House that meets the various considerations. I wrote to the Leader of the House on this matter, and he courteously wrote back acknowledging the content of my letter, and I honestly thought that that was what he was engaged in—that he was involved in a discussion to see how we
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could review our sittings and come up with an alternative proposition that met the objectives originally set out. I certainly did not expect us to go back to having a long 12-week recess.

I was as disappointed as other Members when I saw what the Leader of the House was proposing. I can only say to Members who do not feel satisfied with the length of the recess but are prepared to vote for the motion that I am with the hon. Member for Walsall, North. I believe that the motion will leave us with long recesses for the foreseeable future, or until such time as a head of steam for change builds up again—and anybody who has been a Member of this House for quite some time, as I have, knows that it takes quite a long time for a head of steam for change to build up.

Even at this late stage, I plead with the Leader of the House to go further than he has done in this debate. On the basis of the way that the vote is likely to go, he should say to the House that he takes on board the idea that we must think hard about how we manage the business process during the year, that he acknowledges that a 12-week recess without a break is not acceptable, and that he genuinely intends to consult more widely to see whether we can come up with a way of working that meets the needs of the House itself, our constituents, Members’ families and the effective working of our democracy. If he does that, he will be welcomed as a Leader who is engaging the House in good faith. But my gut feeling is that the Government never liked the September sittings, and that they want to bury them once and for all. That would be an extremely regrettable development.

Debates such as this are unusual, but we have had an interesting discussion and the balance of the argument has been much more even than the hon. Member for Walsall, North suggested in his initial speech. Most of the Members who vote will not have listened to the debate. But the Leader of the House has listened to the debate, and I give him credit for having been here for a very substantial part of it. I hope that he will take seriously the representations that have been made. If we simply abandon September sittings, or any reform of the pattern of sittings of the House, at this stage, we will be seriously out of touch with what our constituents expect.

6.15 pm

Ms Dawn Butler (Brent, South) (Lab): As a member of the Modernisation Committee, I felt it important that I should contribute to the debate, if only briefly. At times it seemed as if some members of the Committee were there to ensure that we did not take modernisation too far.

I want to discuss an issue that has not been dealt with so far—the section of the report dealing with information technology—but before doing so I want to stress the importance of evidence-based Committees and pre-legislative work. There has been a lot of talk today about engaging with the public. Such Committees and such work ensure that this House is effective, that we engage constructively with the public and that everybody—not just lobby groups—gets a say in how we produce legislation. A good example is the “Youth Matters” document. More than 20,000 people contributed to that debate—notably young people—
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and in the end we produced a very good document. Indeed, the youth opportunity fund and the youth capital fund are working very well in my constituency.

Whether Members like it or not, IT will play an important role in engaging the public with Parliament. I am talking not about websites such as YouTube, but effective communication. MPs and the public should be able to follow legislative debates in Committee online—the report states clearly how this would work—and have hyperlinks to explanatory notes, and so on. People who watch our proceedings in Parliament and in Committee are amazed to discover that it is necessary to have three different sets of paperwork to try to follow the argument, which complicates matters and means that in fact, they lose the flow of the argument.

I welcome the forthcoming pilot in Parliament. I should tell those who have doubts about technology that the Modernisation Committee took plenty of evidence on that issue. Although it was noted that Parliament’s website has improved in terms of connecting with the community, we still have a long way to go. I welcome the move toward the integration of technology and the use of laptops and personal digital assistants in the House, and not only because it will increase efficiency. This House is renowned for using a lot of paper, and if we are serious about saving our planet, such a move will ensure that we use less.

In line with the nature of this debate, I will keep my contribution very short. I hope that Members in all parts of the House will try to give the move towards the integration of technology a fair trial, because it is important that we modernise and use technology to its fullest capability. I thank the Leader of the House for helping to move forward the modernisation agenda, and I hope that it will be a success.

6.18 pm

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): I am grateful for the chance to make a brief contribution to this debate; I am very sorry that I was not here earlier.

I associate myself completely with the remarks of the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples)—I will not repeat his arguments—and I very much appreciated the comments of the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) and the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton). Both chaired Committees to which I gave evidence, and both were extremely generous in their handling of those proceedings. However, it will probably come as no surprise to the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire that I do not agree with the Committee’s conclusions about the application of the sub judice rule.

Although, as I said, I will not pick up on all the comments of the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon, I will touch on three particular issues that I hope my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will deal with when he winds up.

Mr. Greg Knight: Does the hon. Lady not welcome, however, the letter that I received, and from which I quoted, from the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional affairs? It makes it clear that we now
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have an opportunity to reduce the long delays that have occurred, which were the source of the hon. Lady’s major complaint, in cases where an inquest is opened.

Ms Keeble: I was going to deal with that as one of the three points. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for drawing attention to the matter.

First, it is important that there be clarification about issues of national importance. The case that my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) raised was of national importance; it was about security. The case that I brought was about the death of a boy. The death of a boy in a secure training centre is an enormous tragedy. In this case, it had implications for the types of holds that are used for such children in secure training centres up and down the country. They had to make changes, and there are still outstanding issues. Therefore, it was of national importance in that it affected national policy on secure training centres.

The death of a boy in the custody of the state is sufficiently important for the Home Office to be called to account on the Floor of the House to explain why that happened and what was being done to put it right. Therefore, the definition of “issues of national importance” must be clearly spelled out. It must be clearly spelled out why the death of a 14-year-old boy in custody may not be regarded as an issue of national importance. In the interim, there has been a complaint to me that another boy was substantially injured while he was being held in restraint in a secure training centre, so there was a similar episode, albeit that the outcome was different.

The second point is about the guidance to Mr. Speaker. There has been much discussion about the difference between our sub judice rule here and the sub judice rule that applies to the media. One of the big things with the media is that they break the rule first and are then tried for contempt, but here if we ask in advance whether we can raise something and we are told no, that is the end of the matter. There are no means of effective challenge. I ask my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to answer that point. He may want to set out exactly how he envisages the guidance being applied.

The third point was raised by the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight), and is about the letter from the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs about the changes to coroners courts, which are going to have investigations, instead of opening and adjourning inquests. We need to know when that is going to happen, and to be clear exactly how that will interrelate with the sub judice rule as we apply it to ourselves. It has to be made clear that the coroners are going to be consistent in what they do, and that we are going to be consistent, in that we are going to regard investigations as not being judicial legal proceedings.

I am grateful for the chance to speak in the debate. The inquest on the case about which I was concerned is not going to be until next February. Some preliminary hearings have taken place, but the inquest will not actually be until next February. That is just short of three years since the boy was killed, during which time there has been a general election. It is completely wrong that, although it has been possible to have
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discussions with colleagues in their office about that case, to do work with the media about it, to visit that secure training centre and another secure training centre and to talk to all kinds of people about it, it has not been possible to hold the Government to account in this Chamber, to ask questions here and to have the discussion here. That is one of the key functions that we were elected here for. If we cannot do that, there have to be cogent reasons why not.

That matter has not been pursued flippantly. I intend to continue to pursue it until we finally get the debate about what happened to that boy and get the answers on the Floor of the House, so that people can be confident about what happens to young people in those circumstances.

6.25 pm

Mr. Straw: This has been an excellent day’s debate. It has covered the ground comprehensively, and it is striking that one of the consistent themes expressed on both sides of the House is that Members are anxious better to serve their constituents.

I want to make two points, not least to the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) and others. I do not think that he was in his place when I opened my remarks— [Interruption.] If he was, I apologise. In my opening remarks, I was spelling out factual evidence suggesting that the House has become more effective, not less, in scrutinising the work of Ministers. I do not dispute that we still have a long way to go. The 27 years that I have been in the House, however, have seen the crucial introduction of departmental Select Committees by the then Leader of the House, Norman St. John-Stevas, in the 1979-80 Session, and their considerable strengthening over the years. We have seen the introduction of Westminster Hall. In relation to the intelligence and security agencies, of which not only was no parliamentary scrutiny allowed but Governments’ official position was not to aver their existence, we now have the Intelligence and Security Committee. Legislative changes that we have made, such as the Modernisation Committee agenda and also the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Freedom of Information Act 2000, have opened up government to an extent undreamt of a generation or so ago.

My second point is on the issue of trust and the media. If we go outside and ask people whom they most and least trust, the most trusted include ministers of religion, doctors, teachers and nurses. Competing at the bottom for the wooden spoon, depending on which day one asks such questions, are estate agents, journalists and politicians, with a special place reserved for those estate agents who are also journalists and politicians. Generally, we get low scores. But if we ask members of the public to say what they think about their own Member of Parliament, or a Member of Parliament they reckon they know, the scores rise rapidly. If they not only know their Member of Parliament but have respect for them, the scores are high and, these days, rising. I see part of my task as Leader of the House to increase those scores for everybody, in order better to facilitate the work of Members.

Let me deal with the main issues in turn. I am grateful to the House, and I know that all members of
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the Modernisation Committee will be, for the overwhelming welcome for the changes proposed to the way in which Bills are scrutinised in Committee, and for the changes proposed for greater flexibility on Report. As the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) has pointed out, Report has been up to now among the most important stages. We want Committee to be of equal importance. Additional scrutiny in Committee, provided that we introduce it carefully with improved resources available and commitments on all sides, should help to achieve that. I also commend my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Ms Butler) who, in relation to the use of technology, has been committed to trying to bring the House into the 21st century at the beginning rather than the middle or end of the century. She has not only made important points but proposals that have fed their way into pages 32 and 33 of the report.

On the communications allowance, it is fair to say that the principle of it has received general but certainly not universal support. I emphasise, however, that if colleagues read the motion, they will see that it asks them to welcome the principle of the proposal without committing themselves at this stage to its final introduction, which will have to await the recommendations of the Members Estimate Committee. The matter will then come back to the House. Of course, the Members Estimate Committee—the Commission under a different title—will take full account of the observations made. The right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) raised the issue of whether there should be one allowance or two, and it depends how we construct the rules.

To pick up a point made by the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling), the one thing that is certain is that once the allowance is introduced, there will be caps on spending on communication, both on stationery and envelopes and on wider communications. Whether we have one allowance or two, the aggregate amount will be less than the sums currently being spent by some hon. Members on both sides. This should not be seen as Members having the chance to spend even more money: it should be seen as a way of responding to the changing expectations and increasing demands of constituents. It is also a way to improve probity, rather than undermine it.

The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) formally opposed the proposal, but when he reads his speech in Hansard tomorrow I hope that he will see that he made a very good case for change, and the introduction of a rules-based communications allowance. That was the gravamen of our report.

Mr. Robathan: I am grateful to the Leader of the House for giving way and I am sorry that I missed his earlier speech. Can he confirm that if we had a communications allowance it would definitely put a cap on the amount of postage Members could use and can he give us some idea of what it might be?

Mr. Straw: That is ultimately a matter for you, Mr. Speaker, but if I may speak for you for a moment, I can confirm that there would be a cap. The aggregate will depend on the final recommendations—which are not a matter for me, but for you and the Commission—
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but the total amount for envelopes and other communication will be less than some Members currently claim for envelopes.

The third matter is that of September sittings. The right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) is right. When the proposal was made originally, in 2002, I was strongly in favour of them, as a member of the Government who had been in the hot seat, in different jobs, for several summers. In 1998, a recall was requested because of the Omagh bombing, and I was Home Secretary. In 2001, the recall was for 9/11 and I was Foreign Secretary, as I was in 2002, when it was for Iraq. My view was that given that we had calls for a recall every summer—and we responded to three out of six of those calls between 1997 and 2002—it was better to schedule sittings in September, instead of having to respond to a silly season summer story. In retrospect, the judgments look straightforward, but they were quite difficult at the time, and had to be made in consultation with the Leader of the Opposition and with you, Mr. Speaker.

The second reason I supported September sittings was that, like many others, I had been embarrassed by the charge that we were away for 11 weeks and the ridiculous notion that we were all sunning ourselves in warmer climes for almost all that time—and if we were not abroad, we were in our gardens. That is nonsense, and every journalist knows it. Whatever other criticism there may be of Members of Parliament, the charge that we are slacking and not doing our work is not one that can be made. All the evidence shows—it is there to be published—that MPs work very hard for very long hours. There may be an issue with how productively we work, but there is no doubt about how hard we work. There is also no doubt that the demands on us have risen exponentially. Overall, therefore, I used to think that it was better for us to come back.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South spoke about evidence, but we have to rely on our own experience. In 2005, as I said, we could not have sittings here because of the installation of the security screen. Leaving that aside, most hon. Members to whom I have spoken believe that, on balance, the experience of September sittings has not worked as intended.

The hon. Member for Wellingborough said that we can dismiss the costs involved, and he is right, but they need to be weighed in the balance. It is not an overriding argument to say that it may cost anything up to £12 million to interrupt the progress of major maintenance work for two or three weeks, but it is certainly a factor that needs to be considered.

I listened to the speech of the right hon. Member for Gordon with great care, and I agree that we should take account of the Scottish Parliament’s experience. Recently, I met a delegation from that body’s equivalent of our Procedure Committee and we talked about how that Parliament progressed legislation. We need to share best practice with all comparable Parliaments, and especially those in the UK, and we also need to take account of what they do in September. In the end, though, we must make our own decisions about what is suitable.

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