CORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE
To be published as HC 1370-vi

HOUSE OF COMMONS

ORAL EVIDENCE

TAKEN BEFORE THE

Procedure Committee

Sitting Hours and the Parliamentary Calendar

Wednesday 1 February 2012

Angela Eagle MP

Rt Hon Sir George Young MP

Evidence heard in Public Questions 238 - 312

USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT

1.This is a corrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee, and copies have been made available by the Vote Office for the use of Members and others.

2.The transcript is an approved formal record of these proceedings. It will be printed in due course

Oral Evidence

Taken before the Procedure Committee

on Wednesday 1 February 2012

Members present:

Mr Greg Knight (Chair)

Karen Bradley

Mrs Jenny Chapman

Nic Dakin

Thomas Docherty

Sir Roger Gale

Helen Goodman

Mr James Gray

Tom Greatrex

John Hemming

Mr David Nuttall

Jacob Rees-Mogg

________________

Examination of Witness

Witness: Angela Eagle MP, Shadow Leader of the House, gave evidence.

Q238 Chair: Angela, thank you for coming. I am sorry we are starting late, but the reason for that is obvious.

Angela Eagle: Yes.

Chair: Do you want to make an opening statement to us?

Angela Eagle: I thought it might be helpful if I did make a few remarks to just frame the context in which I will be answering the questions that you want to put to me.

Chair: Okay. It would also be helpful if you could indicate where you are expressing a personal view or where you are expressing official Opposition.

Angela Eagle: Yes, I will try to do that for you. First of all, I would like to thank you for calling me to give evidence, and I would also like to say that I don’t really envy your task in terms of dealing with these difficult issues. On precisely the point, Mr Chairman, that you were making about personal preferences, on issues such as sitting hours the parliamentary Labour Party doesn’t have an official position, I suspect like the other political parties, and I have read some of the evidence that you have been taking. There are quite a lot of different positions and most of them are completely incompatible with the other ones. That has to be taken account of when you are listening to the responses that I will give you today.

I consider myself to be a parliamentary moderniser, and in saying that I think the following principles ought to apply to any kind of change that we need to be making to the way in which we do our business. First of all, we need a strong Parliament, one that is better at scrutinising legislation and holding the Government to account; secondly, we want more opportunities for private Members’ business and Members to have a greater say over the timetabling of business, and we have seen some good developments in that area. We also want a Parliament that is relevant to our constituents’ lives, whose proceedings are clear and comprehensible, and I personally think that we need to do a bit more about that as a collective body.

Finally, I think one of the issues this Committee has considered is whether there needs to be clearer guidance on what an MP’s job is. That is very difficult for us as a corporate sort of existence to think about, simply because MPs will do the job in the way that they think best, which most suits them, and they have to be allowed to find their way in that. So, individual MPs to be given some sort of leeway but those other principles to underlie the sort of approach to modernisation that I take as Shadow Leader of the House.

Q239 Chair: Is the Labour Party broadly happy with the party conference season being where it is?

Angela Eagle: I think you have had evidence from both our past General Secretary and the current one that indicates how awkward it would be for the Labour Party to be able to move its conferences, simply because it would make it harder for people to visit. We have about 11,000 delegates and visitors at our conference. In the Labour Party constitution-and I speak as a member of the Labour Party National Executive Committee-our conference is the supreme policymaking body of the party, and we take extremely seriously our democratic structures there and the use that we make of our conference. As you will have seen from the evidence given by our current General Secretary and the most immediate past one, we think it would be very difficult indeed to move the conference from its current place.

Q240 Mr Gray: It is an interesting point you make about the constitutional role of the Labour Party conference. I think it is possibly different from the Conservative Party, where it is a media scramble. Leaving that on one side-

Angela Eagle: I think we have our own media scrambles as well, Mr Gray, but there is this constitutional role that I think that we shouldn’t overlook.

Mr Gray: That is right, and therefore I am anticipating slightly what your answer will be to my question, namely this: is there any real reason why Parliament should not sit simultaneously with the conference, the same time as the conference? For example, I think some of them are increasingly becoming a sort of Friday-to-Tuesday event with the House business rearranged to accommodate that. In other words, do we really have to have the two-week September sitting simply in order to accommodate the three party conferences plus the TUC?

Angela Eagle: The Labour Party conference itself effectively runs from Sunday to Thursday and clearly many people arrive on the Saturday, and those of us who have more formal business to do at the conference often have to go on Friday. I think it would be quite hard to squeeze the amount of work that we do in that stretch of time into an even shorter time with a weekend in the middle. I think it would be very difficult. All political parties try to fundraise at their own parties. They also use their party conferences as a platform that the media cover in great detail. I think that is good for democracy and I would be loth to see that diminished. The idea of Parliament sitting simultaneously would simply remove Members of Parliament from being able to attend their own party conferences if there were whipped votes and things.

Q241 Mr Gray: Some of us think that is great news.

Angela Eagle: I know that not all Members of Parliament enjoy the prospect of going to their party conferences. I have had chats in the tearoom, as I am sure all of you have had, about that issue, but I think it is important for the political parties themselves, and certainly for members and activists in the party, to be able to interact more closely with their representatives and MPs. I think that is part of what our members like about our conference.

Q242 Mr Gray: I accept that, but just pressing slightly further on it, supposing it were, let us say, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, for example. That is five days, so it is no shorter than your Sunday to Thursday. The Tories have already done this. I think the Tories, from memory-I can never quite get this right-are Thursday to Tuesday or something of that kind. Would it not be possible to do it that way with the Whips arranging the business in such a way that Members then didn’t have to come back on the Monday or, indeed, stay here on the Thursday, so you could accommodate the two at the same time, as it were? All we are talking about here is getting rid of the September sitting, which people seem to find inconvenient.

Angela Eagle: I think people do find the September sitting inconvenient, but I have to say, if it is properly organised, the September sitting allows certainly Oppositions to keep holding the Government to account, rather than have a very large period in the calendar year when everybody is off doing things. I know September sittings are not enormously popular, but I think it is hard to justify having that amount of time away when, as an Opposition, you are meant to be scrutinising the Government. The Government is still here working. When I was a Minister, I used to be here during that period working, and it certainly takes the pressure off Ministers not to have to come in and be held to account in this place. So, although it is unpopular, I think the September sitting is probably here to stay.

Q243 John Hemming: You have already said there is no Opposition view on hours. No change to Monday has been suggested, but bringing forward the time by potentially an hour even on Thursday. Do you have any views or views of others you would wish to indicate about bringing the time forward?

Angela Eagle: I can only indicate my personal views on hours, and I personally have no problem with trying to have more usable hours from that point of view on bringing forward Thursdays. I thought the Cook proposals that did that worked quite well, but I am well aware that they were not popular among some colleagues.

Q244 John Hemming: So the proposal is bring forward Thursday but leave the other two the same?

Angela Eagle: Well, that is another way of doing it. I think any way that you look at these things there is advantages and disadvantages, and the problem is that the convenience of Members never ties in, because it depends whether you represent a constituency 230 miles away, like I do, whether you have young children, if you do have children who quite understandably you want to be able to see occasionally, and whether they live in the constituency or in London. These are all the issues that we have always wrestled with in the 20 years that I have been a Member, and you can never get a total agreement because the requirements of people who are more London-based or closer to the capital, with or without children, are very different from those who represent seats further away.

Q245 John Hemming: So the word "usable" there is by Member?

Angela Eagle: I am afraid, in my experience of 20 years in this place, the one thing we have never been able to have any consensus on is the hours.

Q246 Chair: Can I ask you to clarify something? Did you mean Thursday? You referred to Thursday. Did you mean Tuesday, or did you mean Tuesday and Thursday?

Angela Eagle: First of all, I don’t mind. I don’t think there is a problem with bringing Thursday slightly forward, because it gives colleagues a chance to get away slightly earlier and have the potential to get home on Thursday night if their families are in the constituency, and also have an early start on Friday to do constituency business. I also personally don’t mind the idea of bringing Tuesdays forward either. I have an open mind about these things. I was a supporter of both the Robin Cook changes and I was sad to see them go back on the Tuesday.

Q247 Sir Roger Gale: One of the reasons that Tuesday changed was because it threw the sitting of public bill committees into complete confusion. Thursdays is now a mess as a result of the House sitting earlier on Thursday, and if you brought it forward even further it would be virtually impossible to have sittings of public bill committees on Thursday mornings. If we are going to tinker with the hours yet again, how would you or the Official Opposition, or both, feel about public bill committees sitting while the House was sitting; we just accept the fact that Members cannot be in two places at once?

Angela Eagle: Yes. I think the most I ever was asked to be in was four places at once, and I think I managed three and ran along a corridor and missed the fourth. I understand all of the problems with timetables like this, when Members are meant to be doing multiple things in different places all at once. I think that with any slight change to the hours there are these kinds of effects at one end or the other. That is why I might be more interested to look at more fundamental changes to procedures that might deal with some of these things. For example, maybe we could fold ad hoc standing committees into select committees and have a committee system that is much more like other parliaments, where the legislation goes through the same structure rather than having ad hoc standing committees put together for particular bills. I think there are more fundamental reforms we could look at and think of, like having committee days and plenary days, how we could brigade the business that is different from what we have traditionally done in this Parliament. The Committee could perhaps look at more fundamental reform to see whether we can deal with this, rather than expect moving the hours slightly to have too much of an effect, because, Mr Gale, you are quite right, if you tinker with an hour here or there, there are often these unintended consequences.

Sir Roger Gale: Sorry, you did say plenary days and committee days?

Angela Eagle: Committee days perhaps, yes.

Q248 Sir Roger Gale: So you are saying taking a whole day and the House not sitting but Committees sitting on that day?

Angela Eagle: We need to look at the way other parliaments work and see whether they have a better way of brigading business. I don’t think we will ever be able to have a 9.00 am to 5.00 pm kind of existence. I don’t think any of us came into politics expecting it to be 9.00 am to 5.00 pm, and I don’t know anyone who came into Parliament expecting it to be 9.00 am to 5.00 pm, but we have developed a particular way of working in this Parliament that doesn’t have to stay the same. The Procedure Committee can take a much broader and more radical look at the way we do things if it so chooses.

Q249 Mrs Chapman: Talking of broad and radical, an idea was put forward by someone sitting not too far behind you about reorganising business. For example, on a Monday you would have the hour of interruption at 9.00 pm and then you would do questions after 9.00 pm.

Angela Eagle: It would give Ministers more time to prepare. I think that is rather odd. I think that what we need to do if we are thinking about this is not just take one change and put it into an existing structure but look at the entire structure from start to finish. We can all sit here and say we can move one little thing from the beginning of the day to the end of the day, but the plain fact is that our Parliament created its structures and its way of working in Edwardian times, when there were no women, when MPs were not paid anything, when many MPs had other jobs to do before they came to Parliament, and there is no reason on this earth why in the 21st century we ought not to be looking at a different way of doing things.

Mrs Chapman: We are looking at it.

Q250 Mr Nuttall: Could I turn now to the issues of private Members’ bills? We have heard suggestions from a number of Members that one solution to the problem of private Members’ bills would be to move them from Fridays on to another evening. I wondered what your view was about that. Would you be in favour of moving them to a Tuesday night or a Wednesday night? Of course, that would have knock-on effects, as you would probably do away with the idea of having shorter evenings.

Angela Eagle: I am fairly agnostic about moving them from a Friday. I understand why people want Fridays to be free. Certainly as a Member who represents a constituency 230 miles away, I wouldn’t routinely expect or want to be down in London in this building on a Friday, but if we move private Members’ bills, say to Wednesday, then we are recreating the Jopling hours, effectively. We will just have late nights again on Wednesday, and the Government may well begin to think it can encroach on that time. It certainly can encroach on private Members’ bills time and has done for statements and other such things. There would be a temptation, and we could end up with just having three late nights, like we did with the Jopling reform, so I think that would be regressive. I am agnostic about where private Members’ bills are, with that worry, but I would also sort of support some of the changes to procedure in the very old and antiquated private Members’ bills procedure that I know the Committee is considering, such as time limiting speeches or doing more to prevent the noble, but I think anachronistic, art of filibustering.

Q251 Helen Goodman: Well, it is interesting that you say that, because those were some of the things I wanted to ask you about. Obviously, private Members’ bills are extremely important. You were speaking at the beginning about the importance of engaging with the public, and private Members’ bills are a big lever for doing that because they are often the result of nationwide campaigns and they are an opportunity for individual Members, as opposed to the Executive, to put forward ideas. I wonder if you would like to say some more about what changes you think would be practical to ensure that the majority of the House sees its will enacted and we maybe limit some of the filibustering?

Angela Eagle: I am a bit loth to talk about the noble and anachronistic art of filibustering, given that we have, in Mr Rees-Mogg, one of the proponents of it and he is very good at it when he turns up on a Friday.

Jacob Rees-Mogg: May I return the compliment – the finance bill?

Angela Eagle: Yes. I think as a minister I did once talk out a private Member’s bill on Scottish banknotes, so we have all done a little bit of it. However, I do think that having either a set time when there could be a vote on second reading or a time limit for second reading, after which there would be a vote rather than a closure, would be a good thing. I don’t have a problem either with time limits on speeches, which would mean that in order to effect the anachronistic but ancient art of filibustering one would have to get a few more people to make speeches. I think that is reasonable, to give these bills a chance, but private Members’ bills are not always what they seem. There are lots of Government hand-out bills. There is always a tendency for the Government to take over any procedure that happens to be there, but I think most of the procedures that private Members’ bills use at the moment is 1940s-style procedures of the House. It is about time it was modernised.

Q252 Helen Goodman: So you favour time limits on individual speeches and specified times on putting the questions. What about deferring votes to a set time the following week? We have pink slips, deferred voting, so you could have the debate and people could speak in an unrestrained manner on the Friday and then everybody could read Hansard before and vote according to their views the next week. What do you feel about that?

Angela Eagle: I don’t have a problem with deferring divisions per se, and we have already seen some examples of that. We all know that in some cases deferring divisions wouldn’t work when you have a running whip or you are in a Standing Committee, but I think I would look-and this is a personal view, Chair-quite benignly on the idea of having deferred divisions for private Members’ bills. I think it is probably a myth to say that absolutely everyone who votes on everything has always been in and listened to the debate. I am sure all of us are listening to it on the TV in our room on the feed while we are busy doing other things. However, I wouldn’t like to give the Committee the impression that I would be in favour of deferred divisions as a general thing because I think, outwith the private Members’ bills example, that that might give the Government an advantage that perhaps it shouldn’t have on other government bills.

Q253 Helen Goodman: Why do you think that?

Angela Eagle: I just think that sometimes the uncertainty of having to gather people here is an important thing that the Opposition can impose on a Government, which is useful and important, so I would not like to see complete deferred divisions on everything, apart from standing committees. However, I think that there is certainly scope to extend the scope of deferred divisions, and private Members’ bills seems to me to be a very viable one for this Committee to consider.

Helen Goodman: Thank you very much.

Q254 Mr Gray: I am slightly puzzled by something. There seems to be an internal inconsistency in what you have just said. If you were to have time limits on speeches on Fridays, that would make it easier for Members introducing private Members’ bills to get their business through. If, however, you were at the same time to bring in deferred divisions of that business, that would make it easier for the Government to whip against it and therefore it would make it much more difficult. You could end up with an entirely pointless exercise on Friday, a lot of people yakking on, no ability to affect the outcome of the debate because there won’t be filibustering, and handing to the Government the opportunity either to let through, or indeed vote against, the bills.

Angela Eagle: I think that what you have to think about with respect to private Members’ bills is not that they have a right to be put on to the statute book, because some of them will have merit and others won’t, but they have a right to be brought to a vote rather than be talked out. Whether you have deferred divisions or not, that is one way of modernising the voting, but I also think that it is important to think about how you can limit the scope that there is in the rather convoluted private Members’ bills procedure that has been under reform for years for filibustering. I understand the point you are making.

Q255 Mr Gray: You use the word "modernising" as is it were by definition a good thing. Surely what you are doing, as the Opposition, is saying, "Jolly good. We will now remove the possibility of doing private Members’ bills and we will say to Government the Whip’s Office can now decide whether to allow these bills through or not". At the moment, if the Government doesn’t like a bill it either has to talk it out, by getting a minister to do that, or it has to have enough people here, keep them here on a Friday, in order to kill the bill off. Under the circumstances you describe, with absolutely no speaking, no activity in the Chamber of any kind at all, the Government would simply say, "I will have that one, that one and that one", vote for it or not as the case may be. You are handing a huge wodge of power to the Government on that basis.

Angela Eagle: I think that all of these changes can be taken singly or together, and I think any of them would improve the procedure that we see at the moment.

Mr Gray: Why?

Angela Eagle: Mr Gray, you are talking about the bill that is on top of the list for which particular Friday we have. There are many other bills that never get the chance to be debated that can come up to be voted on, or often a bill that has merit is talked out to prevent bills lower down the list from being given a hearing, so there are many tactics with the structures we have.

Q256 Mr Gray: What you seem to be suggesting now is that, without being debated, bills that are lower down the list on Friday would be voted on the following Wednesday without any form of debate at all.

Angela Eagle: Well, no. If you were going to have deferred divisions you would have to ensure that you had a procedure that made sense. If you are going to look at the whole procedure for private Members’ bills, you have to make sure it is internally coherent. What I was saying to Helen Goodman was that we have to look at all of these things and work out a coherent, more modern way of dealing with private Members’ bills so they get the chance to be voted upon after they have been debated, rather than just killed off without the chance for people to have an opinion about them. I am not saying that private Members’ bills have the right to be on the statute book.

Q257 Karen Bradley: Leading on from deferred divisions, I think there is a link here. One of the Committee’s requests in the consultation document was for people to comment on how we give Members more certainty about when they need to be in the House, and obviously deferred divisions is one way of doing that. First of all, is that a familiar comment that you hear, that Members would like more certainty, and what ways would you favour or not for achieving that?

Angela Eagle: I think that there is quite a difference between Members who have been here for a while and are more used to the ways of the House and the new intake that came in in 2010. I have certainly noticed that the new intake that came in in 2010-and that is about a third of the House, I think-are pretty impatient with the old way of doing things and want much more certainty, want more bounded hours and want to be able to organise their time efficiently and effectively. Now, I have sympathy with that, and I think we should try to do that as much as possible, without handing the Government so much power that it can completely control everything that Parliament does.

We have to remember that Parliament is here to hold the Executive to account, and one of the tactics that it has historically used is uncertainty about voting plans. You have to get the balance right between certainty and uncertainty and handing the Government too much power to completely control everything. We already have an Executive that is extremely powerful in the way in which it can effectively enable Parliament to work, so we have to think about how we treat that balance between effective and powerful scrutiny of the Executive in the legislature.

Q258 Karen Bradley: Deferred divisions, you have implied-and please correct me if I have interpreted this wrongly-that you do not object to them on private Members’ bills, but would not-

Angela Eagle: Not on principle, no.

Karen Bradley: No, but not necessarily for other business.

Angela Eagle: The issue, and I think Mr Gray has raised it, is the more certainty there is about when divisions are the easier it is for the Government Whips to do their business. If you were going to talk about that then you would have to think of some other things that would rebalance that power. To some extent, what I have said is I don’t mind the idea of having deferred divisions. I don’t mind the idea, and I am sure Mr Stunell would probably agree with me after his performance last week, of thinking about how we might reform the voting mechanism. However, if you are doing that you have to recognise how it changes the balance of power between the Legislative and the Executive, and Whips’ influence particularly, and think about how you can rebalance that. You can’t just ask about that in isolation from everything else, because we have to work out a balance. I come back to my point at the beginning about the principle. We have to have a strong Parliament that can scrutinise the Executive effectively.

Q259 Jacob Rees-Mogg: May I follow up very briefly on that before going to another question. Do you think that with a whole load of new MPs in the House, the uncertainty is in fact inexperience, and when you have been there a little bit longer, you can work out when the votes will be?

Angela Eagle: You can, once you have been here a while, predict them. Obviously in Opposition one knows a little bit more about it than when one is in Government, although I must say I prefer to be in Government and be uncertain, but that is just my own opinion. There might be a bit of that but, no, I detect a different impatience for the new Members. I don’t think that they could believe quite how peculiar our way of doing things was when they came in. I think large numbers of them are much less willing to put up with it or accommodate it, or indeed be institutionalised by it, if I could put it that way to you, Mr Rees-Mogg, than people have in the past. I think this is probably a watershed intake from that point of view. It is a 21st-century intake and they want us to make changes.

Q260 Tom Greatrex: You talked before about the importance of scrutiny. Can I just ask you about the issue of ministerial statements and whether there should be injury time for the loss of scrutiny of legislation? What are your views on that?

Angela Eagle: There is a sort of unwritten courtesy that government statements won’t be put on when there is Opposition business, to take away from debates in Opposition time, which is more honoured in the breach than the observance by both Governments, I have to say. I am not making a partisan point. The only trouble with injury time is that it means later evenings, and then the progress that was made on having fairly set finishing times disappears. I think the way of dealing with that is forbearance and agreement between the usual channels, if at all possible. If it was abused constantly all the time, then I would say perhaps we need to look at it, but the downside of injury time is later finishes.

Q261 Tom Greatrex: I don’t know whether you have had a chance to read the Leader of the House’s submission to the Committee, but he made a number of suggestions dealing with this around the timeliness of statements or sitting earlier for statements or having some statements in Westminster Hall. Do you have any view on this?

Chair: Before you reply, one of your predecessors, Hilary Benn, did say that he thought we should look at the possibility of using Westminster Hall for some oral statements. It would be helpful to know if you share that view.

Angela Eagle: Again, I do not have a problem with making bigger use of Westminster Hall. I think that clearly there is less attention paid to Westminster Hall and it is not seen, by the outside world at least, as a Chamber that is as important as the House, so quite how one would decide which ministerial statements went in one place or the other, I don’t know. Again, I don’t have a problem with it in principle. I think, though, that we do have to take account of the fact that we are going to be 50 Members of Parliament down in 2015 and this Committee needs to think about some of the implications of that if it is thinking about changing procedure. The fewer MPs there are, the more things that they are expected to do, the larger the constituencies that they are representing, clearly means that the viability of some Select Committees, the viability of Westminster Hall, has to start being called into question in the post-2015 House, where I think we will have fewer MPs than we have had since the Great Reform Act.

Q262 Chair: Would you favour the Speaker having power on injury time so that it was not automatic but it was something the Speaker could grant if the Official Opposition, or anyone else for that matter, asked him to consider granting it?

Angela Eagle: I think the Speaker tends to be quite pragmatic about these things. Again, I don’t think it would be a problem, but we get then to more uncertainty about hours. If you give the Speaker that kind of power, the downside of that is that there is more uncertainty not less uncertainty about when we would be likely to finish, and that makes it quite difficult for those with family or caring responsibilities to organise their lives. As with all of these things, there is always a downside to the flexibility.

Q263 Jacob Rees-Mogg: One of the issues raised is the issue of programming. The Leader of the House has said that-and that is another, less contentious point of his-and you were obviously mentioning about how one of the important powers the Opposition has is to create uncertainty in the Government. Are you happier with programming or do you still have concerns about how it is operated and the time available for major legislation?

Angela Eagle: I do have concerns, and this is my own personal view, it is not a Labour Party view. I was a minister pre-programming and post-programming. I was in this House before we had the sort of programming that we have now, although we did have quite regular guillotines prior to the programming revolution. My view is that not enough time is given for the early stages of bills in the programme. Once you go up into standing committee, as a minister I did pre-programming and post-programming standing committee work, and it is very difficult with some of the programming that is done to do justice to the debates. I don’t object to programming in principle, I just think some of the programme motions that are moved don’t give enough time to consider the bills. If we look at what has happened with the bills we had in the last session, the last couple of years, the first session of this Parliament, they have been pretty uncooked when they have come to the Commons. They have been shoved through the Commons very quickly and all the damage and thousands of amendments have had to be made in the Lords.

Not to make a partisan point, we had plenty of the same difficulty with bills in the programming era in the previous Government, so something is not right about how legislation is prepared and how, as a Parliament, we do our scrutiny job, particularly also, though, I think how the Government brings bills to this House, particularly at the state of readiness that they are in. I don’t think the way programming has worked in principle, because too short a time is given, has covered us in glory as a scrutiniser of legislation in the House of Commons.

Q264 Helen Goodman: You said that you thought there was an issue about the early stages, but I would have thought that the major problem was on report, because it is on report where we have large tranches of amendments in Christmas tree bills-as you say, both parties have engaged in this-which go through without debate because of the order of the voting. Don’t you think that is a bigger problem than things that go on at first and second reading and even in committee?

Angela Eagle: First reading is totally formal. I have done quite a lot of Finance Bills in my time, and I quite like the procedure of having some important issues heard in Committee on the Floor of the House and then have the bill taken up for much more detailed scrutiny at that level. I think that there are issues of being able to consider the meaning of legislation at all of these stages, and the Committee might want to look at the Finance Bill model in terms of having some debates on issues that are not second reading but are more focused at a Committee of the whole House much more regularly than we are doing now. I certainly think that the way things are at the moment, with short programme lengths of time, we are not doing a good enough job of close scrutiny of bills. That is partially because of the shape and the nature of the bills that are coming, how well they are drafted by the time they come to the House of Commons. It is a mixture of all of these things.

Q265 Sir Roger Gale: You mentioned the possibility of having a committee day in the course of the week, as opposed to a plenary session. Given what you have just said, could you see a situation where you might have a committee day with the Committee of the Whole House sitting on something, which wouldn’t necessarily have to be a Finance Bill, it could be an important clause of an important piece of legislation, and other standing committees sitting at the same time elsewhere?

Angela Eagle: I think that would be a good way of thinking about how a new timetable might look. I would like to encourage this Committee to think quite radically about what we might do with the shape and structure of the business that the House has that is different from what we have always done. There is no reason why we should carry on doing what we have always done simply because we have always done it, so I think, Mr Gale, you have raised a good point. It is an interesting way of thinking about slightly changing the way we scrutinise legislation. I would certainly be in favour of looking at all of these models to see how they might work in practice.

Q266 Chair: Is there any issue that we have not covered that you would wish to draw to our attention or make comments on?

Angela Eagle: No, I don’t think so, Mr Knight. I think we have covered quite a lot of ground in a small amount of time.

Chair: We have, and thank you very much for coming. Your evidence has been very helpful to us, and if there is anything you think of after today that you wish to draw to our attention, please do write.

Angela Eagle: I certainly will. Thank you.

Examination of Witness

Witness: Rt Hon Sir George Young MP, Leader of the House, gave evidence.

Q267 Chair: We now come to our second witness, George Young, the Leader of the House. Thank you for coming. You have heard the evidence we have just had. Do you wish to make an opening statement to us on this subject or do you want to just get going?

Sir George Young: Very briefly, just to respond to the question you put to my Shadow, these are my personal views, as was the letter that I wrote. The Government may take a collective view downstream when we see what the recommendations of your Committee are, although of course the final decision will be that of the House. These are my views, based on a number of years as a Government backbencher, an Opposition backbencher, a minister, shadow minister, and then time on the Modernisation Committee and now time as Leader of the House.

It strikes me, reading your opening document and looking through the evidence, there are two issues that have got conflated. One is when should the House sit, the calendar and the sitting times, and the second issue is when it meets and, whenever it meets, how do you make best use of the time. On the first, the broader issue, my view, as I have said, is we have the balance between the sitting days and non-sitting days roughly right. I think the split of the year into three big chunks, October to December, January to spring, spring to summer, is right, with two- to three-week breaks at Christmas and Easter and then mini-breaks, as we have just seen, in November and February, and in the summer session, you have Whitsun. So long as there is a big gap between July and October, my view-and indeed the Government’s view-is that the House should sit in September rather than have a long gap. We have tried to make that September, in the two sessions we have had, important sessions where there has been some heavy lifting on legislation.

Then, drilling down, it seems that the variables are Fridays, whether you shift private Members’ bills from Friday to Tuesday or Wednesday, and then Tuesday, whether you shift it forward a bit. On Fridays, I am in favour of leaving private Members’ bills where they are, and I set out why in my letter. On Tuesdays, there is simply no consensus. I preferred the experiment, moving it forward, and I voted against the reversion, but I recognise there were strong views held the other way. I think one needs to be absolutely clear what one’s objective is, which is to make the House work better.

Finally, as Leader of the House, I obviously have an interest in making sure that it is possible to get the Government’s legislative programme through. As a member of the Commission, I have an eye on costs. I am interested in the staff who work here. I take account of the party conference season and the ability of the House to undertake major projects. So that is where I am coming from at the moment. I am very happy to answer your questions.

Q268 Chair: What you are saying to us, these are your personal views, except on the issue of September sittings where there is a Government position in favour?

Sir George Young: Yes. The House did not sit at all in September in the last Parliament. We have sat for both Septembers in the two years of this and, if you look at the calendar, I have indicated that the House should sit this September. We believe the House should be able to hold the Government to account without a three-month gap, which there often is between July and coming back in October, but of course the Government would reflect on the views of your Committee if it recommended otherwise.

Chair: Thank you.

Q269 Mr Gray: Of all you say about the overall sitting patterns, I am sure that most people broadly agree with it, with the possible exception of September sittings. Picking up on one minute point you made just now, you indicated that you thought that on both occasions since the last general election there had been quite heavy lifting, I think was the expression you used, during that time. I can’t remember any heavy lifting. Last September, if I recall rightly, there were no votes at all in the first week. It was all backbench business and all that. The second week, we moved on to legislation, if my memory-

Sir George Young: I think we had some committee days on the Health Bill, which were quite contentious. There were certainly some backbench business days, but they had some serious debates. I am very happy to give the Committee the agenda for both Septembers but, against the background of what happened some time ago when we sat in September and didn’t do very much, I was very anxious that those days should be put to good use and that there was, to use my expression, some heavy lifting done. I am very happy to give Mr Gray and the Committee the details.

Q270 Mr Gray: Do you think potentially the parliamentary year has an effect on this? In other words, when we used to have the spillover in the early autumn, September, would have been heavy lifting in getting things finished for revision. Now, of course, revision is not until March-April or whenever it may be, and it would be fair to say we are looking forward to hearing that. Is there not therefore less urgency about sitting in September?

Sir George Young: No. If you took those days out of September, the Government would have to find them somewhere else. Either you would lose the February week or you would have to sit later in July. I said at the beginning that my view was we have the balance of sitting days and non-sitting days about right, and if you remove the days in September I would have to find them somewhere else, so it is not a nil-sum game.

Q271 Mr Gray: One point you made in your letter was about the relationship between the Lords’ activities and ours, particularly during that September period, and your concern as to how changes here might prove complicated with regard to the Lords. I could not think what you meant. In what way might something we do here, for example with regard to September sittings, have an unfortunate effect on the way the Lords-

Sir George Young: At the moment, the House of Lords sits in our party conference season and we don’t, but if, for example, there is a process of ping-pong and one House was away, then obviously it would be difficult for the Government to conclude its business. The Houses don’t sit at identical times, but in terms of a number of issues, for example visits and tours and the staff, it may make sense for there to be a certain sort of congruence in times, if it is not absolutely replicated day for day.

Q272 Mr Gray: Yes. The expression you used in your letter was, "One thing that has to be borne in mind are the roles of each House in relation to the legislative programme". That would indicate to me the notion that the two Houses should, broadly speaking, sit at the same time. As you correctly say, at the moment, the Lords sit during the party conference and we don’t. Surely that is precisely the opposite from what you say in your letter.

Sir George Young: There are, for example, joint committees of both Houses that look at draft bills. There is a joint committee looking at the House of Lords Bill, for example, and if one House is not sitting then it makes the work of those joint committees more difficult. The Government is keen on more pre-legislative scrutiny, and I think there is more joint committee work, so that is an example of where it would make sense for them to have some congruence in sitting patterns.

Q273 Mr Gray: Yes, exactly, so with regards to September sittings, the issue we are looking at here, if the Lords sit during that time, what you are, broadly speaking, saying is that we should sit during our party conferences, because if the Lords are sitting during the party conferences, then we should be too.

Sir George Young: I think the relationship between Members of the House of Lords and the party conference is different from that of Members of Parliament and the party conference in terms of-

Q274 Mr Gray: But the point you were making though, as I understand it, was that you felt it was useful for, broadly speaking, there to be a confluence between when the Lords sit and when we sit. That, of course, is not the case at the moment because we don’t sit during party conferences, but the Lords do. Surely, in view of what we are considering here, your evidence tends towards the view that, given the Lords are sitting during the party conference, so should we.

Sir George Young: No, I don’t follow the logic of that at all. I think it would be considered as an act of aggression if I programmed business for the House when the three main parties had their party conference. I tend to work around the party conferences and assume they are there until someone tells me they have moved. I don’t think it would make sense, quite frankly, for all the reasons that the Shadow Leader said, to make it difficult for Members of Parliament to attend their party conference.

Q275 Mr Gray: So why do we ignore the Green Party, the Welsh Nationalists, the Scottish Nationalists, the Northern Irish, Ulster Unionists and other minority parties? We sit during their party conferences.

Sir George Young: There are a very large number of party conferences and it would be difficult to plan the sitting of the House around all of them, particularly those that don’t have any Members of Parliament.

Mr Gray: Yes. Well, that is true. I think I will leave it there.

Q276 Sir Roger Gale: I seem to recall there was an occasion when the House was recalled for urgent business during a Conservative Party conference and I don’t recall that Members of Parliament were particularly missed at that conference as a result of it.

You have already indicated that you preferred the original Tuesday sitting day. Why was that?

Sir George Young: I think one has to have an eye on the staff, and if you rise at 7.00 pm the staff here can go home at 7.00 pm instead of 10.00 pm, and I think one just has to have an eye on that. I think the other was a sort of broader reason. Although our work is very different from that of other people, the more one can begin to align our working hours with those of other people then I think one should seek to do so. I just personally found it acceptable, which is why when there was a vote I voted to keep it as it was, but I recognise that there is no consensus. It depends whether you have a family here, where your home is, all sorts of factors, but I was just slightly in favour of working hours that other people recognised as normal than going until 10.00 pm.

Q277 Sir Roger Gale: Would you be in favour of bringing forward Wednesday and Thursday sittings as well?

Sir George Young: If you bring forward Thursday from 10.30 am, there are issues for the clerks, the Speaker, for urgent questions. You would probably have to get your urgent question in by 7.30 am, and there are issues with marshalling amendments and linking questions, so the staff would have quite an early start. It will enable more people to get home early on Thursday evening, and the Modernisation Committee looked at it. My own personal view is I wouldn’t have any personal objection, but I think you just have to have an eye on the evidence you had, I think last week, from the Clerk of the House on the ability of the House to take a 9.30 am start, and it depends what you are going to do on Wednesdays. If you are going to have a 9.30 am start on Thursday after a late night on Wednesday then I think that does raise broader issues.

Q278 Sir Roger Gale: I would hazard a guess that probably two thirds of the House of Commons does not have its family home in London. It has its wives and husbands and its children or whatever well outside the city. Members of Parliament travel to London on Monday and they are then stuck here doing whatever they are doing until Thursday. If we are going to maximise the use of a Member of Parliament’s time, what on earth are these Members, going back to their garrets on their own, going to do on Monday night, Tuesday night, Wednesday?

Sir George Young: Well, without getting into it all, I was a London Member of Parliament and I would advertise the wide range of attractions that are available in the finest capital city after 7.00 pm. Sir Roger, my family don’t live in London but, nonetheless, I preferred to work those hours than the longer hours and I found I had plenty of work to do after the House stopped at 7.00 pm. I think what happens is some of the work that you might have done early you then do late, because you have moved everything forward. But I just preferred a more civilised working day than working until 10.00pm on Monday and Tuesday and then 7.00 pm and 6.00 pm on Wednesday and Thursday. I recognise there is no consensus on this at all.

Q279 Sir Roger Gale: The other point that I wanted to press you on was the public bill committees again. You heard what the Shadow Leader said about the possibility of having a committee day and plenary days. If we are going to change these hours then we have to accommodate standing committees somehow. She made two suggestions, one of which I have not heard before, which was that we should take more committee business on the Floor of the House and then, alongside that, the possibility of having a full committee day rather than a plenary session. What do you think about that?

Sir George Young: When the House sat earlier on Tuesday, there were public bill committees on Tuesday morning, and of course there are public bill committees on Thursday morning when we start at 10.30 am, so it is possible to have a 10.30 am start or an 11.30 am start on Tuesday and still have public bill committees. Public bill committees sit when the House is sitting in the afternoon, so you already have a certain amount of conflict. Clearing the whole day with no legislation in the Chamber would cause problems in that we would have to find the time that we have lost, and that time in the Chamber is backbench business day, it is opposition days or it is the Government’s legislative programme. If we were going to lose a quarter of the week by having, for example, Wednesday, no votes or no business in the Chamber, it would cause quite a lot of problems in terms of business management. So I think that the Tuesday and Thursday morning and afternoon works quite well and I would have reservations about not sitting on a Wednesday.

I understand all the problems about divisions interrupting select committee business. It is not my territory at all, but when select committees go overseas they pair, and if select committees were sitting on a Wednesday and there was a vote-as I said, it is not my business at all-it might be possible to come to some arrangement so the business was not disrupted, as it is if everyone troops off and votes.

Q280 Thomas Docherty: Sir George, I am sure you simply misspoke when you suggested that when the House rises, the staff go home at 7.00 pm, because of course-

Sir George Young: The staff would go home three hours earlier than they would if the House rose at 10.00 pm.

Q281 Thomas Docherty: But not at 7.00 pm if the House rose at 7.00 pm?

Sir George Young: No, but they would go home at a slightly more civilised hour if you moved Tuesday back to where it was.

Q282 Thomas Docherty: Although would you also accept the suggestion from the staff unions that their start time would become less civilised, because in order to get the House ready for Members to come in they would have to come in, for example, while the sun is not yet up for the bill committees and because they are getting the Chamber ready. So, while it may be more civilised for some of us in the evening, the impact on the staff would be less civilised early in the mornings.

Sir George Young: Well, the views of the staff are important. If the House sat at 11.30 am on a Tuesday morning, I hope that wouldn’t involve too many people coming in at an unearthly hour in order to get the House ready for business.

Q283 Thomas Docherty: I don’t know if you have seen the evidence from the unions, and apologies if you haven’t, but the suggestion was it was not even so much the Chamber, it is the knock-on to the standing committees and the select committees, so that the staff would have to come in significantly earlier to get those set up. I do not think Angela Eagle was suggesting a day a week but it was a day on each bill and, without rehearsing the banter that you and your Shadow have on a regular basis on a Thursday, which is always primetime viewing, I have to say, there is the suggestion that we haven’t had too many bills in front of the House of Commons in recent months. When you refer to the loss of legislative time, can you think of many bills that would have been slowed down in the last six months if we had given, say, an extra day at second reading for a general discussion on the points of the bill?

Sir George Young: We have tried to be generous, not so much on second reading but on report, where I think there really is a pinch and in this session we have had a number of bills that have had two days on report, which hardly ever happened in the last Parliament, and on one occasion, I think, three. We have tried to use the time not so much for second reading but for the remaining stages and the amendments. We have tried to reach agreement with the Opposition, and I pay credit to the other side, the usual channels, in enabling us to agree what I regard as a sensible programme and having fewer divisions on programme issues. On Monday, the Civil Aviation Bill programme went through without division.

Wherever possible, we want to reach agreement on the framework so we can spend our time on the issues that really matter. We have a bill on the Floor at the moment, the Local Government Finance Bill, and when I put that on the Floor I was then criticised for doing so by some of your colleagues instead of sending it up to a public bill committee.

Q284 Thomas Docherty: I think the criticism was that you had no other business, and thus you had the ability to put the Local Government Bill on the Floor of the House.

Sir George Young: We have had this discussion about the business of the House, and my view is the House has had important issues to discuss on opposition days, on backbench days, as well as now dealing with Lords amendments, and we are now having carry-over bills being introduced. So I don’t take the view that we have had too much time hanging on our hands that has not been put to good use.

Q285 Mrs Chapman: You were here, so you know Angela Eagle described your idea of having questions at 9.00 pm as strange. I am sure you are not offended by that, but would you like to defend the idea?

Sir George Young: The idea was to look a little more radically at how we use the day and if, for example, there was a strong move to get a large number of people home at 9.00 pm instead of 10.00 pm on a Monday, one of the ways you could do that is have questions at the end rather than questions at the beginning. I think there is an opportunity to look radically at how we use the time when the House is sitting. I floated a number of ideas, some of which have met with resistance from your Committee. We can look at how we use Westminster Hall. That was one idea of how we just look at the conventional pattern and see if there is another way of doing it. It is an idea that was floated for discussion.

Q286 Mr Nuttall: Turning to private Members’ bills, I have read your comment in the note that you submitted and your view, that the last Modernisation Committee had reached, that it wouldn’t be a good idea to change procedures for private Members’ bills just because the rest of the things were changing, but nevertheless there is in many quarters-and I don’t speak personally-dissatisfaction with the way that private Members’ bills are handled. Do you recognise that that is the case, that there is some dissatisfaction, and that part of that is the fact that they are tucked away on the Friday and some have suggested that they should be dealt with on a different day of the week?

Sir George Young: I think if you moved them from Friday to Wednesday it would change the character of the private Members’ bills in that it would be much easier to whip and so the terms of trade, I think, would change. If you did that, the headline figure of sitting days per year would come down, and then you have an issue out there. If you were to make good the time that you lost on the Friday by putting it on to a Wednesday, you would have to do more Wednesdays than Fridays, unless you sat for whatever it is, six hours extra on a Wednesday.

Q287 Mr Nuttall: Five.

Sir George Young: Five. You would know much more, if I may say so, Mr Nuttall about how long the House sits on a Friday.

Mr Nuttall: Or 300 minutes, to be precise.

Sir George Young: So I think the real issues about-

Mr Nuttall: Or five and a half if you included about the adjournment for private Members’ bills.

Sir George Young: There would be real issues. Wednesday could be a very long day, an 11.30 am start and then sort of midnight or however long it was, so I think there are some practical reasons for not moving it. My own view is that, separately from the sitting hours and the calendar, you should have a look at private Members’ bills and the procedure and see if there is a better way of handling them. I think it is almost a separate question and separate subject.

Q288 Mr Nuttall: Yes. You wouldn’t have any objections to introducing proposals along the lines that have been suggested, time limits or automatic closing?

Sir George Young: I think I am very happy to-

Chair: Sorry, for the purpose of the person transcribing this session, you shook your head then when the question was, "Would you have any objections?" Could you just clarify what you said?

Sir George Young: I have no objections to the Procedure Committee doing an inquiry into the procedure for private Members’ bills.

Q289 Chair: But what is your personal view on the suggestion that, for example, on the second reading of a private Member’s bill that the questions are put, say, after three hours without the need for a closure?

Sir George Young: It would be unprecedented to have a time limit like that for a debate before you knew what the subject was or how many people wanted to speak. For private Members’ bills at the moment, you have to get a closure, as I understand it, but if the proposition is whatever the private Member’s bill, however many people want to speak it is sort of timetabled, that would be an innovation.

Q290 Mr Gray: This is an innovation, isn’t it?

Sir George Young: It is an innovation for private Members’ bills.

Q291 Chair: Is it an innovation that you personally would be attracted to?

Sir George Young: No. As Leader of the House, last Thursday I took a lot of questions about the way the Daylight Saving Bill was handled and there is widespread dissatisfaction within the House and outside about our current procedure. I am all in favour of a review of that procedure to see if there is a better way of handling private Members’ bills. One idea may well be that you put the question automatically after three hours or earlier, presumably, if nobody wants to speak.

I think there is a general point that I would make, that private Members’ bills to some extent should face a slightly higher hurdle than other bills, in that with other bills they may have been through Green Paper, White Paper, pre-legislative scrutiny, parliamentary business and legislation committee and all the rest, and they have to some extent been tested in a way that private Members’ bills have not been tested, so I think there is an argument for having a slightly different route around Parliament. We may not have the route right, and I am very happy to have a look at it and look at all sorts of radical suggestions about time limits on speeches and some informal way of the House indicating at an earlier stage which bills it is in favour of or not, but I think that is a slightly separate discussion as to when the House sits and for how long it sits.

Q292 Mr Nuttall: Can I come back on one very important point that you just touched on in the earlier answer about the fact that if private Members’ business was moved from a Friday to, for example, a Wednesday evening-it doesn’t matter-that would mean 13 fewer sitting days over the course of the year. Bearing in mind what you said about September sittings and the need to make up that time if September sittings were scrapped, would you also seek to make up those 13 days by sitting later in the summer?

Sir George Young: If September was scrapped?

Mr Nuttall: Well, if we didn’t sit on the Friday, we would be sitting for 13 fewer days in a year. It would not look very good outside of the House and it would be a 13-day drop. Would you seek to make it up elsewhere?

Chair: We would be sitting the 13 fewer days’ hours, wouldn’t we?

Sir George Young: No, I wouldn’t, but what I would be worried about was the length of the Wednesdays, which would be-

Q293 Mr Nuttall: But you would accept that there would just be a drop and that would be it then?

Sir George Young: Yes, there would be a headline figure drop but, as the Chairman has just said, the number of hours would remain the same. Now, what the media would make of that, one can only guess.

Q294 Thomas Docherty: Sir George, you suggested government bills are subject to more thought before they come before the House in terms of consultation, political scrutiny. I recall two constitutional bills, both the AV Bill and the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill, that had no pre-legislative scrutiny whatsoever before they were brought forward. Would you accept that it is not always the case that the Government does the due diligence it is asking private Members to do?

Sir George Young: I assure you that within Government that bill was subjected to considerable scrutiny before it was published. In other words, it had to go through the normal process within government departments, Cabinet sub-committees, and a private Member’s bill may not have gone through the same process as that particular bill, even though it wasn’t subjected to pre-legislative scrutiny. The pedigree, if that is the right word, may be slightly different for government bills, which have all the resources of a government machine behind them, and a private Member’s bill.

Q295 Thomas Docherty: Right, and yet some of the government bills are still quite good, despite all the government machinery behind it. Are you aware of the Scottish Parliament model on their version of private Members’ bills?

Sir George Young: No.

Thomas Docherty: What they do is that when you table your private Member’s bill, you are then required to do, I think it is, 40 days public consultation before you proceed to their version of second reading. If a Westminster private Member’s bill was subject to that same consultation, or a version of it, would that then satisfy you of the issue of-

Sir George Young: Yes, it would, and it raises questions on how you factor that into the timetable, the 40 days, and it raises broader possibilities, for example whether you can have pre-legislative scrutiny of that kind for a private Member’s bill and then carry it over to the next Session, so you are not constrained in the way that you are at the moment. I think there are a number of ways of taking this trick. The point I was making a few moments ago was that I think the procedure for a private Member’s bill may be slightly separate from the broader debate about when the House sits, the hours and all the rest of it.

Q296 Thomas Docherty: Finally, would you not accept that, by their very nature, private Members’ bills typically are single clauses or very narrow changes to laws on the whole? There have been some historic bills as well, I accept, but whereas a government bill such as the Civil Aviation Bill we did on Monday, or indeed the bill that we are currently debating on the floor of the House, which is a significantly larger bill, and thus a closure motion after whatever it is, two and a half, three hours of second reading on effectively a one-clause bill and allow significantly more time for debate than we got on, for argument’s sake, the Welfare Reform Bill second reading

Sir George Young: Some private Members’ bills have been very controversial, the Abortion Bill for example, but I think one should not forget that in the last Parliament, 22 private Members’ bills reached the statute book. It is not an impossible task. I got a private Member’s bill past Eric Forth in 1997, which required some heroic navigation, so it can be done.

Q297 Jacob Rees-Mogg: Sir George, when it came to the last Friday and there were 60-odd bills at the end of the list, I think it is right to say the vast majority of them were objected to by the Government, not by backbenchers. I hope I am not giving anything away when I say that both Mr Nuttall and I are often given a nudge to encourage us to speak in these debates by Members of the Government, though not invariably. We are told that a few words would be helpful. Appalling, isn’t it? I have let the cat out of the bag. I do just wonder whether, however private Members’ bills are reformed, unless they are broadly in line with government policy, like the Chairman’s was, the Government does not want them to get through, and therefore people have to recognise that either their bill is going to be in line with government policy and they have a chance, or they are actually publicity exercises and they are not a real effort to make legislation, and our report will have to bear that in mind.

Sir George Young: Yes. If the Government finds something in a bill is contrary to government policy then I think the Government is entitled to make that view known, usually through the minister. Quite often the reason that private Members’ bills are objected to is the Government is already doing something along those lines, but perhaps something different, and it preferred to carry on with that route rather than the private Member one. Quite often the private Member’s bill has given us a nudge in the right direction, and we give assurances and we make progress. If the point you are making is that some private Members’ bills do not deserve to reach the statute book for whatever reason, then that is obviously the case.

Jacob Rees-Mogg: It will either be-

Chair: Sorry, Jacob, could I just ask you to speak up a bit for the benefit of the stenographer?

Q298 Jacob Rees-Mogg: Sorry. No, it will either be whipped out of existence or it will be talked out of existence, and there is that pretty straightforward choice.

Sir George Young: Or amended out of existence.

Jacob Rees-Mogg: Yes, like the Daylight Saving Bill, which was amended out of existence and then talked out of existence, but not by the Government.

Q299 Karen Bradley: I want to look at the way we use the time we have more effectively, rather than the sitting hours themselves. On the point of scrutiny of Government, one of the suggestions or thoughts has been that there could be procedures and processes put in place that would mean that debate on the Floor of the House on report did not cover ground already covered in the bill committee, either by making sure that amendments that had already been tabled and discussed at length in the bill committee could not be resubmitted or some other mechanism. I wonder if you have any thoughts on how that might help?

Sir George Young: It used to be the case that it was quite difficult to get amendments pulled on Report, and if it had been discussed in the standing committee, as it then was-the public bill committee-it wasn’t then debated on report. That seems to have changed and there are now amendments selected on report that have been dealt with in committee. As a business manager, my response is to respect the selection of the amendments and then to try to make sure there is enough time to deal with it. That is why we have had, as I said earlier, two days on report on a number of bills, which didn’t happen in the last session. There are other ways of dealing with it, again beyond my remit, but time limits on speeches on report, for example, would be one way of making sure we made faster progress. Those would be my responses: first, to try to make sure there is enough time and then, secondly, look at how each debate is managed and the possibility of time limits.

Q300 Karen Bradley: Going to this subject of certainty and the desire that many Members have for greater certainty about when they are required to be in the House, either to speak or to vote-the same question as I asked the Shadow Leader-do you have any thoughts on how we might practically do that and any preferences for any of the possible ways it could be done?

Sir George Young: We have tried to give more certainty with the calendar, and there is more certainty than there used to be when we used to sit beyond 10.00 pm and you were never quite sure when the House was going to finish. There is a sort of inbuilt certainty on many of the days, the opposition days, two half-days, 7.00 pm and 10.00 pm for backbench business if there is a debate or motion at the end of the day, a second reading. There is uncertainty, like today, report stage. Today, actually it is certain because we have inserted knives. We have tried to inject certainty but, as I said, I think, in my letter, if you want certainty then you can’t have things like injury time for statements, and I come down in favour of certainty rather than injury time on that particular example.

Q301 Karen Bradley: What about specifically deferred divisions, which is the suggestion that keeps coming back to us?

Sir George Young: I have form on deferred divisions. I wrote a minority report in 2000 to the Modernisation Committee. I think there is a reputational issue for the House if you have too many deferred divisions. I think there is an issue about attendance in the Chamber if it is deferred and, as has been said earlier, you can’t have deferred divisions if you have a sequence of amendments and a decision on the later ones depends on the first. I am in favour, where possible, of taking the decision after the debate. If you have a great issue and people are tuned in and they want to know what the result is and they have to wait until Wednesday, you can feel a sense of deflation to wait a few days before they know what the House has decided, so I prefer linking the decision to the debate.

Q302 Helen Goodman: You propose more imaginative use of Westminster Hall for holding Ministers to account. Would you like to say some more about that? How you think that might work?

Sir George Young: I floated the idea of using Westminster Hall for statements. If you can take statements or some statements out of the Chamber, it deals with some of the problems that you have touched on about injury time and all the rest. I am interested in using Westminster Hall possibly for statements, not necessarily all statements, perhaps as a pilot. My previous Shadow floated the idea of using Westminster Hall for some other procedures that we don’t use it for at the moment. I think one of the things we can do is just look more laterally at Westminster Hall, use it more imaginatively. Your Committee has just produced a report promoting the use of Westminster Hall on a Monday for e-petitions, which I think is a good example of how you can use Westminster Hall imaginatively, perhaps relieving pressure on the Chamber, or perhaps doing things that we don’t do at all at the moment, considering some motions that go through on the nod.

Q303 Helen Goodman: What do you think that would do to the balance of time between ministers and backbenchers or the balance of power between ministers and backbenchers if things were put into Westminster Hall? Do you think it would make a difference? I guess that relates to another question, which is who decides which Chamber statements will be made in?

Sir George Young: I would be in favour of a pilot. I did float some propositions to your Committee, which would have divided statements into a number of sort of categories according to how much time they might take. If you were going to go down that route, you could take the shorter ones, in other words the ones that probably generated less interest, in Westminster Hall and keep the major ones in the Chamber, and one could have discussion through the usual channels or with the Speaker if one went down that route. It might enable statements to be made earlier in the day, which is an issue that the Committee has discussed with the Government before, so I think those are some examples of how Westminster Hall might be used.

Q304 Helen Goodman: What about having questions in Westminster Hall?

Sir George Young: Well, I think we tried that. We had cross-cutting questions in Westminster Hall where a number of the-

Q305 Helen Goodman: Could you tell us about that? I think that was before some of us were in the House.

Sir George Young: There were a number of sessions where issues that covered more than one department had what was called cross-cutting questions in Westminster Hall, and the Ministers from the various departments all came and, for whatever reason, it did not take root and it was dropped. I have a terrible confession to make in that I think at the time I was on the backbenches and I have to say I never attended one of these sessions, but Mr Gray clearly did. For whatever reason, they did not find favour and they were dropped.

Q306 Chair: Both the Chamber and Westminster Hall are not just to be a showcase for government announcements, they are to be places of scrutiny. Your eagerness to make greater use of Westminster Hall today is at variance with your rejection of an earlier suggestion by this Committee that we should be able to question ministers on controversial written statements, perhaps in Westminster Hall. Have you changed your view on that?

Sir George Young: No, I think my response to that was this is something that can already be done with existing procedures, by putting in for an adjournment debate, and the possibility already exists to get ministers back. I was answering Helen Goodman’s question as to how one might use Westminster Hall, and I think that if you can take some of the pressure off the Chamber and free up the time there by moving them to Westminster Hall it takes that particular trick.

Q307 Helen Goodman: I haven’t observed how these cross-cutting questions worked, but there are some things we do quite well and some things we do not do so well, and I think everyone is conscious of the fact that we do not scrutinise European legislation very well. What do you feel about the possibility of having European questions in Westminster Hall? If you have not thought about it, you do not need to give an instant response.

Sir George Young: European questions at the moment are part of FCO questions in the Chamber and I assume you wouldn’t want to replace that, move those.

Helen Goodman: No.

Sir George Young: This would be an additional. There is a discussion going on at the moment, in which I think the Liaison Committee is involved, about how we better scrutinise European legislation post-Lisbon, and that might form part of that broader debate.

Helen Goodman: Thank you.

Q308 Nic Dakin: I suspect the cross-cutting questions in Westminster Hall may well have been as much to do with cross-cutting and the issues around focus on that as the venue of Westminster Hall for questions. There is a danger that a possible experiment is tarnished, that took place so long ago that most of us in this place do not remember it. You seem enthusiastic about piloting some things in Westminster Hall. Why not pilot some questions in Westminster Hall as well?

Sir George Young: On top of or instead of the current questions in the Chamber? I have no instinctive reaction against using Westminster Hall for questions. I think it raises some broader issues.

Q309 Mr Gray: Nic Dakin’s point is perfectly right, which is there were only three or four, from memory, cross-cutting question sessions and, by definition, the issue had to be of relevance to a number of different departments and therefore was very limited. One could, for example, imagine a situation where there is not enough time at the moment in some ordinary question times in the Chamber, so that you could go back to, for example, having an hour for the main topic with some of the secondary question times being moved out. For example, you could have the Attorney General, the questions falling to the Church Commissioners, loads of sort of secondary-level question times, for example-they are not secondary, they are more important than but just different-thereby giving more time for main departments of state to answer questions in the main Chamber.

Sir George Young: It certainly is the case that I am under some pressure to allow longer time for questions for some of the departments. Not all of them have 55 minutes; some have half an hour and the Attorney General has even less than that. I have an open mind on whether one could make use of Westminster Hall for questions for some of the departments.

Q310 Mr Gray: Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland.

Sir George Young: Yes, I can see issues about taking Scottish questions and Welsh questions in Westminster Hall and all the other questions in the Chamber. I think that raises a sort of broader issue, but I have no instinctive case against or feelings against using Westminster Hall for questions and leaving the House better to hold the Government to account.

Q311 Chair: Thank you. We have concluded our questioning. Is there anything you want to add that we haven’t covered already or anything you want to draw our attention to?

Sir George Young: No, but I may want to when I have had a discussion with my private office.

Chair: Okay. James Gray is gesticulating to me, which I think means he wants one very brief, final question.

Q312 Mr Gray: I apologise. We forgot Wednesdays; we didn’t really touch on Wednesday hours. There is a rumour circulating in the press gallery, that home of everything that is almost certainly not true, that the Government are keen to change Wednesday sitting hours in order to better accommodate the media schedule with regard to Prime Minister’s Question Time. You are shaking your head and therefore you are knocking the notion-

Sir George Young: Not aware of this, and I wouldn’t believe everything I read in the media.

Chair: Can I thank you for giving us your time today? It has been invaluable to ask you the questions we have, and we hope we can conclude our deliberations during this Session of Parliament.

Sir George Young: Very grateful to you, Mr Knight.

Prepared 13th February 2012