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Neither the Scottish Parliament nor the Welsh Assembly have to navigate around the fact that, in
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September, we have the conferences for the TUC, the Liberal Democrats, the Labour party and then the Conservative party. Were it not for those conferences, it would be relatively simple for us to come back in September, and stay back. However, they remain a difficulty.

Meanwhile, I hope that the discussions taking place will make progress in determining whether the party conferences, which are very expensive for all the parties, can be held at different times of the year. The Labour party conference used to meet at other dates, so September is not set in stone. However, changing dates would take a long time to achieve, as conference venues are booked for years ahead. Following the recommendation from the previous Modernisation Committee, I have introduced having written questions and written ministerial statements in September. If the House approves it, the relevant motion before us will strengthen that system for the future.

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): Does the Leader of the House agree that another feature that has evolved in very recent years is the increasing regularity with which Select Committees meet and produce reports in September? For example, I am a member of the Defence Committee, and we went on four trips in September to take evidence in the UK. That was not done in previous years. September gives Select Committees a clear run to do serious work.

Mr. Straw: I do accept that. Whether or not we sit in September, we need to remind the public of the incontrovertible evidence that this House sits for longer than any other European Parliament, apart from Greece. We sit for longer than most comparable Commonwealth Parliaments, and for longer hours.

Mr. Winnick: The argument is not that we sit for shorter periods than other Parliaments. We probably sit for as long, or longer. The crux of the matter for the House to decide tonight—and it seems that those of us who favour September sittings are in the minority—is that we should not be away on what is called a recess for 12 weeks, or a quarter of the year. In my view, and in the view of those who agree with me, that is totally unacceptable.

Mr. Straw: I understand that that is the crux of the matter, and it is why I strongly supported September sittings when they were first proposed. However, they did not work out as intended. Other factors have intervened, including the party conferences. Furthermore, I was determined that the House should decide the matter on a free vote and that it should not be imposed by the Government, so I hope that my hon. Friend will concede that point. It is important to establish that principle. I promise that before the end of this Parliament the Modernisation Committee will review progress and the further experience of not sitting in September and will make any further recommendations that it deems fit.

Two matters gave rise to rather more debate than I thought they would. The first was in respect of coroners proceedings and the sub judice rule. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples) and to my hon. Friend the Member for
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Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) for their remarks and to the Procedure Committee, chaired by the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight). These matters are tricky, because we do not want to pre-empt or prejudice court proceedings, but I accept what the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon said: there is a real difference between civil and criminal proceedings. I also accept the case made by my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North that delays can sometimes be unconscionable and mean that a Member who is desperate properly to represent the concerns of his or her constituent is unable to do so in the very place designed for that purpose—the House of Commons.

My hon. Friend asked how the new rules will work. They will be a matter for the Chair, operating under the new Standing Orders and the guidance proposed by the Table Office. However, as I said in the explanatory memorandum,

I know that Mr. Speaker was listening with care to my hon. Friend, as was I, and I shall certainly pursue the matter on her behalf.

Mr. Maples: I think that those who discussed the sub judice question during the debate agreed that we would like to see how the system works from now on and whether it will be necessary to revisit it. Can the Leader of the House devise a way for him to be kept informed when questions or issues in Select Committees or elsewhere are ruled out of order as sub judice? Perhaps in a year’s time we could look at the question again to decide whether it is necessary to amend the rule.

Mr. Straw: I shall ask my office and the Clerk’s Department to keep me informed and shall discuss the matter with Mr. Speaker.

The hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon raised the final matter to which I want to refer: the length of Ministers’ speeches—[Hon. Members: “Too long.”]—That was a Whip, Mr. Speaker—

Andrew Mackinlay: They never speak at all.

Mr. Straw: They should indeed be seen and not heard at all times.

Mr. Speaker, we are making decisions today about giving you wider discretion to set the length of speeches in popular debates. The hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon said that consideration should be given to setting rules for the length of Ministers’ opening and closing speeches in debates, with time added for interventions. I shall discuss the suggestion with colleagues, but personally I think that there is much to be said for it, as it would ensure that debates go with a better zip than some do at present. However, as I said to the hon. Gentleman earlier, it is of profound importance to the House that Members on both sides should be able to intervene in everybody’s speeches, but above all in a Minister’s speech, to put the Minister on the spot—

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald) (Con) rose—

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Hon. Members: Hooray.

Miss Widdecombe: I am grateful to the Leader of the House for giving way at such an opportune moment. I am about to call a Division on an issue that is, I suspect, doomed to failure, so if the restriction of Back-Bench speeches to as little as three minutes—which could happen—is seen to give rise to problems, will the right hon. Gentleman undertake to carry out a review and return to the House on the matter?

Mr. Straw: Yes is my answer to that intervention. The right hon. Lady makes a point about the importance of interventions on Ministers. I spent many happy hours when in opposition, sitting on the Back Benches waiting to be called to speak in debates, and I always used to think that three minutes was better than no minutes. She may not agree and there may well have been people on the other side who thought that no minutes were, for me, better than three!

I commend all the motions to the House.

Question put and agreed to.




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