Procedure Committee - Minutes of EvidenceHC 330

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house of commons

oral evidence

taken before the

Procedure Committee

Sittings of the House and the Parliamentary Calendar

Wednesday 7 September 2011

JACK Straw, Sir Alan Beith and Kitty Ussher

Graham Brady, Lorely Burt and Tony Lloyd

Evidence heard in Public Questions 44 - 78


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 7 September 2011

Members present:

Mr Greg Knight (Chair)

Mrs Jenny Chapman

Thomas Docherty

Mr Roger Gale

Helen Goodman

Mr James Gray

Tom Greatrex

Mr David Nuttall

Bridget Phillipson


Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: Rt Hon Jack Straw MP, Former Justice Secretary, Sir Alan Beith MP, Chair of the Liaison Committee and of the Justice Select Committee, and Kitty Ussher, gave evidence.

Q44 Chair: It is rather nice to see the interest the public has. Thank you for coming. We are looking at the parliamentary calendar and sittings of the House, and we have decided to take a wide view of it. We are not ruling anything out of this inquiry, so it is likely to go far wider than just the hours we sit between Monday and Friday. We would be happy to hear your views on any aspect of the parliamentary calendar as well as our sitting hours. Do any of you wish to make an opening statement before we get down to questions? I think, Alan, you indicated you would like to.

Sir Alan Beith: I will just make some very quick points if you like.

Chair: Do you want to kick off then and then Jack and then-

Sir Alan Beith: First, to say where I am coming from, I am coming from 350 miles away. I am a provincial Member and I have always taken the part of those Members who live in and have families in their constituencies. That has always prejudged me in favour of compressed hours towards the middle of the week rather than 9 am to 5 pm, Monday to Friday, if I take the two extremes. The objective of people like me is to get the work done while we are here, even if we have stay late in the evening to do so, because we can’t get back to our families unless we do it that way. Of course, many of the problems that you are trying to deal with result from the nature of Parliament itself and lie beyond what the Committee can do, such as the fact that we legislate in immense detail and micro-manage England, in a Parliament that also does all the United Kingdom’s affairs. I am not stating a point of view about that, but it has definite implications for how much work there is to do and how much time it takes.

Another direction I am coming from is that I have developed in 38 years an ever deeper objection to time wasting. Whatever supposed advantage may be gained by delaying the business by speaking for three hours, or whatever it may be, in my view was always outweighed by the damage it does to the viability of the parliamentary process. My experience, latterly, is it is found particularly objectionable by women Members, who are much more used to having to get things done in a relatively short time. It is a view that I have had for a long time and I have it even more strongly now. Whenever I am forced to be in that filibustering situation, it grieves me that it is denying Parliament the opportunity to be more effective in doing what it is supposed to be doing.

The last point I will make is really where I am coming from now, which is I am Chairman of the Liaison Committee and try and look after the affairs of select committees. Select committees welcome the calendar as an institution because it does make it easier to plan what the committee is going to do when you have a reliable calendar as opposed to not knowing whether we would finish by the middle of August, which is what it was like in my early years here. But we do have a fairly constant problem with the competition from standing committees, statutory instrument committees and, of course, the floor of the House, on the attentions of Members. Almost all committee Chairs will say how difficult it is to manage their committee work, even to keep a quorum sometimes, let alone to have the attention you want. That leads me to think that it would be desirable for the House to experiment with-and I stress "experiment with" because we don’t really know how well it would work in this institution-with either select committee days or select committee weeks, in order to give some protection to the ability of select committees to do what they do. I say that in the belief that select committees are one of the most effective ways in which the public is engaged with Parliament, because members of the public have nothing to do with and take no notice of the rest of what Parliament does. They give evidence to select committees; take part in e-consultations. It is such a productive kind of parliamentary activity that I think it deserves some protection from the counter pressures of the system.

Q45 Chair: Are you suggesting then, for example, a week when select committees sit but the main Chamber does not. Is that what you envisage?

Sir Alan Beith: That is one suggestion. Many Parliaments do that, of course. We have an additional difficulty in that, of course, our standing committee system, our public bill committee system is a separate one and a whipped system. That means that it tends to win out in the competition if both things are going on at once. But if it was a whole week that was set aside, then clearly I think some public bill committee work would have to be done in that week as well. It is done by many other Parliaments and I think it is worth an experiment to have some protected time for select committees.

Q46 Chair: But don’t you think it might have the opposite effect to the effect you want it to have, in that an MP residing 300 miles away, faced with a select committee week, might decide to stay in his or her constituency?

Sir Alan Beith: That is why I think it is an experiment, that it is one that tests the capacity of select committees to engage their members properly.

Jack Straw: Can I just make a couple of preliminary points if that is all right?

Chair: Yes, please do.

Jack Straw: First, thanks very much for the invitation to speak here. I have sought to look at the data on workload and to compare that with my recollection as one of the oldies of the place. It is interesting that the data, which I regard as more accurate than my memory, challenges certainly the myths that were in my mind. In terms of non-constituency pressures-I emphasise that-the raw data suggest that the overall workload has not increased all that much. I think you have seen some of this, but the number of acts passed-this is up to 2006-it dodges around but has remained stable. The number of SIs through the place has increased in the last 20 years. The number of divisions remain pretty stable; divisions per sitting day have dodged around but are pretty stable. The number of written PQs has not increased as much as people think; but there has been a huge increase, which relates to the constituencies angle and pressures and emails, in respect of EDMs. The average sitting length has not increased very much either, and in terms of the raw data on scrutiny-ie number of MPs sitting on select committees, hours they sit and so on-that has increased less than I thought it had, although I just add the gloss that I think, in the public mind and the parliamentary mind, select committees have increased in importance in the 20 years, and of course this data is simply quantitative.

The big thing that has changed is the pressure from constituents. I remember, as Leader of the House, I looked at the data on the number of items of post that Members received in the early 1960s and I think it was about 15 a week. By the end of the 1970s it had certainly shot up to many more than that, and of course now, with emails, it is hundreds. With the end of the age of deference, the expectations on Members have changed completely. My predecessor had a very good reputation as a constituency Member. She was in Blackburn typically for six hours on a Friday once a month, had no house there, spent three nights a year in the constituency and was far better and more effective as a constituency Member than most of her neighbours. Anyway, that is not something I can do and nor would I want to. You need to know where we are coming from, yes. I represent a constituency 230 miles away. My family home is just down the road and always has been, although I have a house in Blackburn. My perspective has been different.

I will just make a couple of remarks about sitting hours and then on Alan’s point about the efficiency of debate. On sitting hours, I think the way we have landed is sensible. We made changes in 2001 that led to every session, apart from Mondays, finishing at 7.00pm and it led to a fantastic compression in the week. It led to quite a lot of people only being here for two days a week. I do plead with the Committee, particularly with the expenses scandal, to think very carefully about the optical reputational damage that will happen if it appears that the House is reducing the number of sitting days. That is notwithstanding the fact that the international data shows that we sit for longer than others, but I’m afraid that doesn’t cut much ice in the Lancashire Telegraph.

I would also just say I have had many debates with MPs who are parents of school-age kids about this and perspectives differ. From my point of view, my wife worked full-time in the civil service, she had a regular job. I was able to do the caring in the morning under the old hours, so they were, paradoxically, very family-friendly, and that needs to be borne in mind.

Two last things, one on how to deal with constituency work. Although constituency work has increased so have the resources available to Members. It was fewer than one member of staff per MP when we were around to begin with. It went up to 2.66 in 1997; it is now 4.17. There has been a dramatic increase in the number of staff available, and I think one of the challenges for Members-young and old-is how they manage the constituency pressures. I think few people would claim that I was a poor constituency Member, but I probably spent fewer hours in the constituency than many of my neighbours with a less good reputation. Why? Because I have learned how to manage constituency pressures. I think it is not about calling in McKinsey, the House needs to be better-using the clerks, Hansard Society, ourselves-at giving systematic advice to Members about how you manage the constituency. Yes, you can increase your public support without having to go to every fête or church service to which you are invited. It is not necessary.

On filibustering, I agree with Alan. I think the introduction of time limits has worked extremely well, particularly with the flexible changes we introduced three years ago. The one area in practice, apart from debates that no one is interested in, where you do not have time limits is on report stages of bills, committee stages on the floor and report stages. I think we need to have time limits on those. When I have been handling report stages of the committees, I have seen panel members getting absolutely furious about one person hogging the debate, particularly in the context of a programme motion, which we now have. On the other hand, I think there is a case for increasing the number of days on report and committee on the floor of the House on popular bills and changing the rules on when the knives fall, so that two or three backbench or opposition amendments can be taken when the knife comes down. I think it is a democratic outrage-and I tried to get round this in one particular acute case when I was a minister-that when the knives come down opposition amendments, backbench amendments are not even allowed to be voted on. That must be wrong.

Kitty Ussher: First of all, thank you very much, Mr Chairman, for the opportunity to be here. I defer to former colleagues to my right for their far more extensive experience of the parliamentary system, and seniority within that system, compared to what I have. I have spent the best part of 20 years, I think, working on economic and industrial policy, but I also quit Parliament after one term because the sitting hours just made me angry on a daily basis and I felt that it was impossible for me to continue. So I guess that it is in that capacity that I am here and I will respond to any questions that you or the Committee have, because I have given it some considered thought.

In response to the opportunity to give some opening remarks, I think there are some really important basic principles that we should establish underlying this debate because it can become incredibly personal. I have had really unpleasant discussions with former colleagues over this issue, because it cuts to the core of the relative weights that you put on different parts of your life and the time and decisions that you make, in conjunction with a partner if you have one, about how you bring up your children, and so it is immensely raw. I think it is really important to say that there is no one model that is better than any other model and that all Members of Parliament-whether they have families or not, or whether they are in relationships or not-make different choices about how to run their lives, and we shouldn’t, as a collective body, seek to pass judgment on those. Whether you decide to have your family in the constituency, or whether you decide to have your family in London or whether you decide to see them in the morning or in the evening, is not something for other people to judge.

My simple point is that particularly for those who are what I would call the "primary parent"-whether it is a single parent or whether it is the one in a relationship who knows that if they do not do it they are not quite sure if someone else is going to-life would be made far easier if as much as possible of the working day of Parliament was within the extended school day, so between 8 am and 6 pm. That does not mean that you should spend less time or have the opportunity to spend less time in your constituency because you can fiddle around with Mondays appropriately. It does not mean that you need more or less sitting days. It simply means that the 7½ hours that the main House of Parliament sits should be a different 7½ hours to what it currently is, in order to make it straightforward to manage a family within those constraints. That is my simple point.

Chair: Thank you for those opening statements. I think they were very helpful to us.

Q47 Mr Gale: Thanks for coming. You have already covered quite a lot of ground that we want to cover anyway-and this is not part of the first batch of questions that I will come to quickly-but because Sir Alan raised the issue of select committees, and we are going to come back to committee work later on in this session if we have the time, but mainly because the Government Chief Whip is not a million miles away, let me put this to Sir Alan. It is a problem getting people to attend select committees. Can you see any merit in the possibility of formally pairing Members on select committees, so that they don’t have to be continually interrupted, as today for example, by votes on the floor of the House? Would that help the work to enable a select committee to get through its proper agenda?

Sir Alan Beith: Yes. Yesterday afternoon, when we had the Prime Minister in front of us, we had a very hasty discussion about whether we could unofficially pair everybody, but in the end we were unable to agree that it was possible so we trooped off and voted in the middle of questioning the Prime Minister. In various circumstances, committee sittings and, of course, committee visits, I have spent a lot of my life discussing with pairing whips whether one over parity was acceptable or whether we had to cancel a visit and bring a committee back, or whatever it was. I have looked for, and latterly I think I have tended to get, as much co-operation as I can from whips but quite clearly it often fails. You can’t bring it into action quickly if a situation arises where the work of a committee is being disrupted by something unexpected in the House. I think we ought to find ways of dealing with it. Protected time is one answer and more willingness to allow pairing, irrespective of whether pairing is the practice for the House generally, but it is complicated of course when the numbers fall out as they have in this particular Parliament.

Q48 Mr Gale: Thanks very much and I am sure that that will be taken on board at some point.

Jack Straw touched on the way in which the job has changed. Two of you have been in the House since God was a boy.

Sir Alan Beith: Before.

Mr Gale: You were not the baby of the House; Stephen Dorrell was, I think. Is there any way we could turn the clock back to allow MPs to be more MPs and less social workers?

Jack Straw: Well, Mr Gale, I think the truth is 30 years ago for most MPs it was not that they were more MPs in the extra time they had but they did other things. The numbers on both sides who did other things was very significant. Bear in mind in the 1950s-and leave aside the Conservative Members who had business in the City-members of the Shadow Cabinet such as Harold Wilson, Barbara Castle and Denis Healey had quite significant jobs with outside firms. Harold Wilson worked for Montague Meyer, the shipping importers, and Barbara Castle and Richard Crossman wrote articles, columns for the Daily Mirror. My first head of chambers was a distinguished Conservative MP, Edward Gardner. This was in the 1970s. He was highly regarded in his constituency, but Ted would do court, have his conferences in chambers and turn up here about 5 pm. That was what absorbed the work, but the question is whether there is a way of securing a better balance and reducing the pressures and also, let me say, allowing people-whether they have come from their constituency or not-and their families to have a proper choice about where they live. Do they make their main home London-I mean, it depends-as opposed to their constituency?

I do think advice is needed about how you can reduce the constituency pressures on you from all the dross that we get, bluntly speaking; how you use your staff to filter it; how you train up your staff to do case work; how you ensure that you are readily accessible to your constituents, at the same time as you are being very tough about what you select for your involvement; and how to get away from us just being glorified social workers, which I’m afraid I do not see as the job. That is the job of social work departments.

Sir Alan Beith: I suppose I wouldn’t go quite so far as Jack, but one of the ways in which-for me anyway, and maybe others-I gauge the effectiveness with which the Government is doing things is the pressure from constituents about things that have gone wrong. So you know the CSA needed sorting out because of all the complaints you were getting about it, not simply because someone passes you a piece of paper and gives you a figure of how many there were, but because you have talked to them in surgeries. Thus, what we think of as the social work side of the job does have to be there, but I entirely agree with Jack that many of us could probably manage it a lot better, and could benefit from advice on doing so. Many Members-and I know this for various reasons I will not go into-could manage their staff a lot better, a lot more fairly, with better employment practice than has been the practice over the years. I agree with him that we could do better.

Q49 Mr Gale: The House is going to be reduced by 50 Members at the next election. Is that an opportunity to begin to redress the balance between what we will call parliamentary work-and we all know what we mean-and constituency case work?

Sir Alan Beith: Actually, I did not really address your original question, which is indeed can we turn the clock back? I think probably not, for all the media pressures that there are now and all the expectations that have been generated. When you reduce Parliament by that number of Members, certainly in England-the situation is different in Scotland and Wales, where there is another legislature at work or another tier of Members of Parliament-that is bound to force some adjustment in the way Members operate because they will have larger areas and larger numbers of constituents in quite a lot of cases. A more drastic reduction in the size of Parliament is probably what it would take to make people view the whole role of Members of Parliament differently-if not to turn the clock back-because it would become impossible to do it the way many Members do it now.

Jack Straw: I dealt with the bill to reduce the numbers of MPs for the first six months of this Parliament. I object to it, not least because I think it is a partisan measure and the process is terrible. I didn’t really ever take the point about increasing the size of constituencies because the truth is that the current range of constituency size within England includes a minority-but a significant number-of English constituencies that are already well over the 76,000 mark. If you look at those constituencies and who the Members are, there is absolutely no evidence that they are less effective at dealing with their constituents than constituencies that are at 66,000 or 56,000. These are not American or Indian-size constituencies in the millions. The range is a pretty narrow one. Mr Gale, if you could use it as an occasion to recast the relationship, that would be great.

<?oasys [pc10p0] ?>What I would seek to do is to make myself available through walk-in surgeries, open-air meetings and residents’ meetings in my constituency. So, yes, you are able to absorb all the concerns but in terms of handling case work or a million emails about this, that and the other, we now have the money to pay our staff and to get the staff to deal with them.

Chair: Do you want to add anything?

Kitty Ussher: I completely agree with that point. I am not sure it is a constitutional matter; it is time management and perhaps best practice guidelines that we could spread usefully among colleagues. I am delighted to know that the town that has a Barbara Castle Way in it did not often see Barbara Castle, which I think makes the point.

I just wanted to pick up on a point that Jack made about how maybe a few decades ago distinguished parliamentarians had other careers during the day. There is a very important link between that and the amount that MPs were actually paid. If you look at the history of the working hours of Parliament back in times gone by, it actually sat during the day because it needed the daylight, apparently. It moved to the evenings as a democratising measure to allow professional men-is the words that were used-the opportunity to become MPs, because previously of course, it was unpaid so it was only the aristocracy or those with private means who could be Members of Parliament because there was no income attached to it. By moving the sitting hours to the evening, it allowed the middle classes to become Members of Parliament because they could pursue their professional careers during the day and-much like councillors now, I guess-become Members of Parliament in the evening. Now, of course, MPs are remunerated perfectly well by national standards, so I would argue the case for reverting in order to democratise it even more for those who have commitments outside normal extended school hours.

Q50 Mr Gray: Jack, I thought the figures you produced about the amount of work we are actually doing here were extremely interesting. I presume the Committee has them elsewhere because I have not seen them before. That highlights simply that what is happening here is a change in the role completely over the last 20 years. A lot of people have said, "Fine, let’s have a fundamental review of what an MP is and let’s write down a job description or a protocol or a something or other". Is that either possible or useful?

Jack Straw: It would be very much just generally descriptive because, after all, the job of the MP is to represent his or her constituents in the way that his or her constituents wish him or her to represent them, those constituents in that town, full stop. Guidance about what the job is might help, but mostly it is about getting Members themselves to change practices. I have seen colleagues, and I am sure Alan and many colleagues on the Committee have too, come in and, regardless of their background-they may have had a professional background, they may have been a special adviser, may have been in the City, or may have been a local councillor-they just get overwhelmed by the constituency work. They also find that that is their comfort zone because they know about dealing with that stuff and it’s easy, sort of non-conflictual, and they disappear. It is providing assistance in handling that.

Q51 Mr Gray: Yes, but it is not just how they handle their time, is it? What I am getting at is this-

Jack Straw: It isn’t-

Mr Gray: Sorry to interrupt. Is there not an argument that would say that, if we are to reverse this trend, we have to get the word out to the constituents, to the constituencies, to everybody, to the public, that our job is to be here in this Parliament making law or scrutinising what the Government is doing? If we are spending days, weeks and hours and time doing things that councillors or others should be doing, then we are not doing our job.

Jack Straw: Yes, I agree with that, but years ago there was a man called Hubert Ashton, who was a Conservative Member for Chelmsford. Chelmsford is not that far from London but, famously, when challenged about why he didn’t often appear in Chelmsford, he said, "Sir, I was elected to represent Chelmsford in Westminster, not Westminster in Chelmsford". He was next seen six months later. In the current climate, I think we have to be very careful about not appearing to lecture the public and telling them what they ought to think about what we do. I think what we have to say is, "We are there to deal with your demands but if you want us to deal with your demands about improving legislation, then that will take time, and if it is about somebody’s back fence we have to deal with that more efficiently." That is the sort of-

Q52 Mr Gray: But is there not an argument-sorry, I have been rude, Chairman, interrupting a lot-that says we have to be quite proactive about this? We have to say, "Well, actually, Parliament is going down the wrong track here and we are interfering with councillors’ and other people’s jobs and we are not doing the job we were sent here to do, namely, to make law and scrutinise the Government, and actually let’s get a proactive byway going and say, ‘Well, hang on a minute, we have to turn this back’."

Jack Straw: Well, if you’re talking about the back fence, the back fence may indeed turn out to be a council problem, and normally it would be, but sometimes it is about needing to change the law. Bear in mind that I got into the whole issue of antisocial behaviour legislation, what became ASBOs, and much else besides, as a result of complaints in my constituency arising in an estate called the Shadsworth Estate, which Kitty knows well, too. They started about people’s back fences and rows in one street called Oban Terrace, and they started as council issues but, as I drilled down as to why there were these problems, it emerged that we had to change the legislation. You can’t have a rule here, but what you can do is set up some set of practices, which I think would be better.

Sir Alan Beith: Do we not also have to accept that MPs are going to be different? That is one of the benefits of the place, that they are different. Although there may be a fairly normal model-and certainly the eccentrics should not decide what the structure is because that deprives everybody else-there will be some people who are single issue people who spend all of their time on that one issue, and there will be some other people who spend their entire life seeking to become ministers and so organising their affairs directed towards that. You can think of your own list, but we would not really want completely identikit MPs, would we?

Q53 Mr Gray: All right. What about something else that has been suggested, namely given that people do not understand the difference between what we do in the constituencies and what other people, transport agency or councillors or other organisations and bodies do, we ought to have something called the Constituency Convention, which lays down precisely who does what and why, a document, a sort of protocol? How about that?

Kitty Ussher: May I come back? Don’t we need to give more respect to our constituents? If somebody bothers to queue up to see Jack because of a pothole, then obviously it really matters to them. Their vote is equally as valid as someone who wants to change the law about something to do with foreign policy. I think to say that some issues that constituents want to raise with their Member of Parliament in our current democracy and culture are more valid for an MP to get sorted for them, either directly or by delegating to a very good case worker, than others is not right.

Q54 Mr Gray: I entirely agree with you if it was a positive choice by an individual to go and see an MP and say, "I am going to see the MP because the council haven’t done it." Normally, doesn’t most of our casework load come about because people just do not know who does what?

Jack Straw: I think it depends on the circumstances, but I agree with Kitty. We are all different, but in my case I do five walk-in surgeries a month. Provided people are constituents they have an absolute right to see me and they will be seen. I have no idea what it is about and they may be repeat customers, but I will see them. They can also find me in the town centre when I’m on my soapbox or come to residents’ meetings, but I will see them. In almost all cases they have taken it up with their councillor or somebody else against whom they have complained. Quite often, Mr Gray, I end up by saying to them, "If only you had come to see me earlier I could have got this resolved." I think that bit is complicated. What I have noticed is that 30 years ago scores of my cases were about housing repairs. Because we then resolved the cause of these complaints, which was the appalling service from the council, I probably get one a year now.

Q55 Helen Goodman: Obviously, one of the big parts of this inquiry is about hours. I wonder if you could each tell me what impact you think the hours have had on your effectiveness? What has your personal experience been?

Jack Straw: Look, the old hours, which ran to 10 pm on Thursday and some Fridays, because there used to be Government business on some Fridays, were too long and also the fact that so much business was not, in practice, time limited made for very tired and ragged proceedings. It was quite fun filibustering for a bit, but if you had been involved in a filibuster you were praying hard for a guillotine motion. Then out of one side of your mouth you would be condemning the Government for outrageous abuse of democracy and the other side saying, "Thank God for that." It made a mockery of the legislative process as well because I led for Labour on the Education Bill in 1987 and I think we debated seven clauses over weeks and then we got outrageously guillotined. It was daft. That has changed and that is a good thing.

I am not being reactive here. I actually think the balance we have now is correct. If you are going to allow people to get down on a Monday you can’t start at 11 am. It wouldn’t make any difference to me, I live down the road, but it would to most colleagues. So I think starting then.

What happened when we had the compressed Tuesday was that the conflicts between committees and the House were even worse. It didn’t mean that people were able to get to the theatre because by the time you have had votes it was 7.30 pm, 8 pm anyway. It did mean they would get home a bit earlier, but it didn’t mean anything else. It also meant that quite a lot of meetings were arranged after the votes, so party meetings were arranged after the voting and it was no better. I think that one of the things it is really important to recognise is what happens outside the Chamber. We have political parties, and the House can only operate if they are social organisms. All the parties need an opportunity for people to get together over meals. That is how people socialise. It is of profound importance. I see you smiling, but when there is difficulty inside a party it becomes even more important. I promise you that the collective experience of being here, particularly in the evening, is important and we lost a lot when we went to one day. I think the balance now at two is fine, although it still means that there is a reputational danger for Parliament because so many colleagues just do 2½ days here and disappear on a Wednesday. As I say, if you move to 7 pm on a Tuesday, do not be surprised if collectively we get punished for this, because the papers will go after the people who are here on Monday, off on Tuesday.

Sir Alan Beith: I agree with Jack that the Tuesday hours during the period when they were the same as Wednesday was just too much compression. I think there was enough on the Wednesday but it was very, very difficult when we had that compression on Tuesdays. The big difference today to me is I do not have to get the sleeper on Thursday nights to get home at breakfast time on Friday, which is perhaps as well because it does not run anymore. That is a really great relief for someone travelling. I am here on Thursdays and I do find that I probably waste Wednesday nights. The way it used to work in the old system, when you knew you had to be here Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday evenings, and the way most Members did it was they would get themselves paired for one of the evenings so that they could have an evening at home or they could do something like that, so they did not actually stay every evening. What tends to happen now is that the votes and the lack of pairing means that you are here Monday and Tuesday evening, and on Wednesday I suddenly think, "Oh, it’s 7 pm, have I got to go and clear my desk or couldn’t we have had a bit longer on that clause that we didn’t discuss properly?" Overall, I do think that we have stumbled upon a compromise for the time being, but I do not think that it is permanent. It is one that does reflect the concerns I expressed about Members a long way away.

Helen Goodman: Kitty, your experience was a little bit-sorry, Mr Chairman.

Chair: Sorry, just before you come in, what you are saying is you are happy with this current compromise?

Sir Alan Beith: For the time being I think I am happy with it, yes.

Kitty Ussher: I think that everything that Jack and Alan have said is relevant but peripheral to the main core point, which is that it is bloody hard-excuse my language, I mean it, though-to be a working parent in any job, and that what tends to happen for a period of your career is you pare it down to the bare minimum that is required to function in order to do what you need to do at home. For a Member of Parliament, that means spending adequate time in your constituency, or a lot of time if that is where your home is, and also you absolutely have to be around for when the main votes in the Chamber take place. All the politicking and socialising and networks and committees, both types of committees, are an incredibly important part of what an MP does, but ultimately the Member of Parliament has more control over the amount of hours that they give to those activities as compared to the main business in the House. I think the crucial thing is to ensure that the main business in the House is possible to do for somebody who is male or female who is also the primary parent for the children, probably supported by the other parent. That is extremely expensive and very emotionally disturbing if it is not inside the core hours of the extended school day.

To answer the question, what did it mean for me? It meant that I didn’t see my children on Monday evening, on Tuesday evening, on Wednesday evening because I got back at 8.30 pm, on Thursday evening because I was going to my constituency, on Friday evening because I was coming back from my constituency. I decided that was the wrong thing for my family to do for the next five years. I hate bringing personal experience from my own personal background to bear in a professional setting, but you asked the question and that is what the problem is.

In order to make this easier for parents or people who want to support parents who have decided through their own free will to keep their children near them, because otherwise they definitely do not see them during the week, I would say, "Yes, of course, so as not to disrupt people whose families are in the constituencies, you can’t start Parliament too early on a Monday". That would be an unacceptable intrusion for that cadre of Members of Parliament. But on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday I cannot think of a logical reason why the 7½ hours that Parliament sits cannot start at 9 am and end at 4.30 pm. I cannot think of a good reason. So I realised that I wasn’t around for my children for no logical reason. So, just to finish my rant, I completely accept what has been said, and the old hands said it all the time to me, "Oh, Kitty, it is so much better than what happened before" so, therefore, it is all right. I disagree: let’s make it even better. I also think stopping at 7 pm doesn’t solve the problem. You can’t get to the theatre or you can’t get home, depending on what it is you want to do. Start voting at 4.30 pm and all the problems are solved.

Chair: I am conscious of the fact that-

Kitty Ussher: Now we are going to have a row about different family structures.

Chair: -we are losing time here and we have our second set of witnesses with us.

Helen Goodman: Could I ask some questions to which I will have some quick answers, because they have all given very long answers?

Chair: Of course you can, but can I just bring in Jenny, who wants to ask something on this, and then back to you, Helen. Short questions, please.

Q56 Mrs Chapman: Thank you, Chair. I will keep this really quick. I am really intrigued by this primary parent concept. Could you just explain what that is?

Kitty Ussher: Well, I do not know whether it is crucial to the argument, actually, but-

Mrs Chapman: It seems to be crucial to your argument; I have read your piece of paper.

Kitty Ussher: Yes. Again, I said in my opening remarks I don’t want to prejudge any other family and different families organise themselves in some ways. By pure observation and based on no research whatsoever, it often seems in relationships that there is somebody who is picking up the pieces to make sure the kids are okay and there is somebody who is doing less of that. It is a sort of lesser effect of a single parent and if you are the person who feels you cannot delegate it; you can completely disagree with me-

Mrs Chapman: I think I do disagree with that.

Kitty Ussher: It is a secondary point.

Jack Straw: I sympathise with Kitty’s problems and I am very familiar with them. First, MPs do not have to go back to their constituencies every weekend if they don’t live there. That is a personal choice. Secondly, on the primary parent thing, my wife had slightly more of the responsibility but I had a very heavy responsibility. I was the person who took the kids to school every day. I took them to hospital. The greatest charge my daughter had against me, age 14, when I said, "I can’t get to your assembly," she said, "You did that once before, Dad." I said, "When was that?" She said, "When I was nine." Now, I could not have done any of that. I did the morning shift and I was there because of pairing. I was able to get home very frequently in the early part of the evening and then I came back. I tell you if we had had a 9 am to 5 pm system with my wife also having to do 9 am to 6 pm, we would never have seen the kids. It simply does not follow that if you go to standard hours in our situation you end up with family-friendly hours.

Sir Alan Beith: There is a missing point in Kitty’s argument, which is that Parliament’s Tuesday is not a seven-hour day done at a rather odd time. It is a 12 or 13-hour day, which starts at 9.30 am or 10 am with committee sittings-the largest number of committee sittings is on Tuesday mornings-and ends with votes by about 10.30 pm on a Tuesday night.

Q57 Helen Goodman: Kitty, presumably one of your concerns is that the current sitting hours are particularly difficult for people with school-age and younger children, and particularly for women, and, therefore, that distorts who can be a Member of Parliament, and so Parliament is not truly representative. A single yes or no?

Kitty Ussher: Yes, backed up by a Mumsnet survey that 28% of MPs are considering quitting because of the un-family-friendliness of it.

Q58 Helen Goodman: You said, and I think this is very true, the other problem that there is in organising, juggling, a family, a constituency, work in Parliament, is that it all becomes very expensive. Would you also say that some of the stress and some of the pressure is to do with the fact that the money is premised on a certain family pattern, and so the money and the way IPSA and the way those rules run is just as much of an issue as the way the sitting hours are run?

Kitty Ussher: I think it is an aggravating factor but I don’t think it is just as much of an issue, because I think the need to have face time with your children is more relevant than the actual costs of paying someone else to do the logistics of carting them up and down the country or putting them to bed. But it is majorly irritating.

Q59 Helen Goodman: Coming back to Jack’s point, if we went down your route, although it would be good in the short term, in terms of increasing the representation of this particular group, because this group would not benefit from the social networks that other more traditional Members of Parliament had, wouldn’t that disadvantage them in the long run in politics?

Kitty Ussher: Isn’t that up to them? Isn’t the point being about control over your working hours? If you want to have drinks with colleagues on a Wednesday night, that is up to you to fix your family arrangements so that is possible. What I am saying is don’t force people to stay here in the evenings with the justification that that will enforce socialising that is good for them, all right? It is about control.

Q60 Chair: Just so we understand perfectly well what it is you are suggesting, are you saying you would like to see a 9 am to 4.30 pm on Tuesday through Thursday and with perhaps a midday start on Mondays? Is that what you are saying?

Kitty Ussher: Definitely Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. Monday should start as early as is reasonably possible-midday, 1 pm, 2 pm or whatever-but, as I said in the paper I wrote for the Speaker’s Convention, I think that on Mondays you should have a period of time in the early evening where everyone knows there will not be any votes so it is possible for those who have families nearby to go home and then come back again.

Q61 Mrs Chapman: I just want to ask you about how you think sitting hours relate to the role of being a minister and how you think it may make it more difficult to carry out your functions as a minister, with the hours structured the way they are and the almost random nature of when voting can take place sometimes, and how you think we could change it to make things easier for ministers. Should that be a consideration?

Jack Straw: First, what would make it easier for everybody implicitly is if we got back to a proper pairing system. I think it is simply crackers-and I’m sorry the Patronage Secretary has gone-that both whips often seem slightly resistant to the idea of trying to make a proper pairing system. We used to have one and it worked very well. It had the additional advantage of easing relations between the parties and we ought to get back to it and formalise it-and, yes, ensure that people can’t abuse it-because that made a very big difference.

Secondly, on ministers, having Tuesdays starting at 11.30 am was a nightmare as a minister, and it wasn’t good for Parliament either because of the pressure for statements. Typically what would happen is something happened over the weekend. You would think you had better make a statement about it anyway, or sometimes you weren’t going to make a statement and then there would be an application for a UQ, so you decided, to avoid embarrassment and humiliation, to turn it into a statement. Clearly, you were taking the initiative. You have to have time to prepare these things and that is in the interests of the House. On Mondays you could do it, but you suddenly found there was no time on a Tuesday to prepare. I was always very anxious to get the draft statements to the Opposition at least an hour before and normally more than that, but sometimes I was writing the damn things up to half an hour before, when we had the sessions compressed. I came to live with these hours, since you’re working night and day anyway as a minister. I would have simply as a minister gone for 2.30 pm to 10 pm on Wednesdays, but I don’t think that is an argument in favour of 2.30 pm to 10 pm because it is about what suits the House, not what suits ministers.

Kitty Ussher: The issue of urgent questions and statements surely can be solved by having a slot in the afternoon, even if Parliament starts in the morning. Other professions have to react quickly, for example, to markets and so on, so I am not sure that is a killer argument, although it must have been hard work at the time.

Q62 Chair: Can I just say to you, Kitty, if the House is sitting in the morning, it would kill, would it not, ministerial constituency visits, regional visits?

Kitty Ussher: In my two years as a minister, which is not nearly as long as colleagues, I found that it was quite normal to shift routine meetings to Parliament if there were going to be votes. That was normal to do and certainly Whitehall could quite easily cope with that. Ministers often have to be abroad negotiating or they may want to travel round the country, but that is what the whipping system is designed to deal with. I would say it may be far easier for the whipping system to deal with ministers if they do not also have to deal with distraught parents and people who want to go to football matches in the evening, and all the other pressures that come at different times of day.

Q63 Mr Gale: I am sorry to place this burden on you, Jack, but you have done the job as the Leader of the House. There is a perceived demand among Members of Parliament for greater certainty. We have built a bit more into sessions, so we now know more or less a bit ahead when we are going to rise for the summer, Christmas, whatever. But within the sitting week there is still a lot of uncertainty about voting, so you hang around waiting for something to happen that then doesn’t. From your experience-I personally don’t fancy electronic voting-is there any way in which the voting system, by deferred voting or whatever, could be organised in such a way as to allow for greater planning within the working day?

Jack Straw: No, I agree with that. It is an aggravation, and it doesn’t make for the finest conversation with one’s spouse if asked what you have been doing and it turns out you have been sitting here-

Kitty Ussher: Socialising politically.

Jack Straw: Well, socialising politically, but "Not a lot" is the answer. It is just slightly infuriating. When do we have votes? We have votes on second reading of bills. They are at 7 pm or 10 pm; they are predictable so that bit works. The other votes are on committees on the floor of the House and report stages. I think that if you could refine that process better, provide more time for the contentious bills, less time for the non-contentious bills; for example, tomorrow-and this point has been made to Alan and myself outside-we have the one on the Paralympics. It is non-contentious. It is a complete waste of time, bluntly. It is very important but it is non-contentious. We are spending a day on it, whereas we ought to use that time for other more contentious business or, say, report stages. One of the things I discovered when I went into detail as Leader of the House is how many days we were wasting. It’s just ridiculous. Helen knows this. You have to have five days a year on X and three days a year on Y if no one is there. So better timetabling of these things would provide more time for committee stages on the floor and report stages, but we should have a business committee properly active and looking at how the time is allocated. Then, as I say, allow for the Opposition to select a couple of items for division or backbenchers each time so that we have proper debates and focus. Limit the time that people can speak and then you would know, so there would be a big debate and vote at 7 pm and there would not be another one until 10 pm. I don’t have a problem with that.

Sir Alan Beith: I just want to add to what Jack says. There is an absurd overuse of divisions by Opposition parties, and obviously I have been in an Opposition party, where the only way of really showing and proving to people that you have opposed something is to troop all the Members of the House through the division lobbies. I would be quite content, frankly, if we simply say, "The Labour Party registers its vote against this," and have votes when you need to. When Members say, "I don’t agree with that. I want a recorded vote," as you do in council, "I want a recorded vote to show that I am not actually voting the party line on this," whatever it may be, whenever there is a reason to have a recorded vote you go through the division process. To do it five times in a night simply to say, "Labour doesn’t like this Bill so we are opposing this clause and that clause with a division," is, frankly, an absurd waste of time.

Chair: Can I thank you all for your attendance and giving us the benefit of your opinions? Your experience and comments and your judgment on some of these issues will be invaluable to us when we are making our final decision. Thank you.

Jack Straw: Thank you very much. Can I just ask do you want me to pass copies; the stuff is available but I can-

Chair: I think it would be helpful if you could send it to the clerk. Thank you.

Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: Graham Brady MP, Chairman, 1922 Committee, Lorely Burt MP, Chairman, Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party, and Tony Lloyd MP, Chairman, Parliamentary Labour Party, gave evidence.

Q64 Chair: Thank you for waiting. I am sorry the earlier session overran, but it is a matter of some importance to us all that we took the temperature of our previous witnesses on all of those subjects. Would you like to make an opening statement or comment before we start as to what your views are? I did explain to the other witnesses that we are regarding this as a very wide inquiry. We are not just looking at sitting hours, we are looking at the parliamentary calendar and everything associated with it. You will not be going out of order if you want to bring in matters, other than our sitting hours, which you feel should be addressed. I will start with Lorely then, because you have indicated you do want to make a statement, and then I will go to Graham and Tony.

Lorely Burt: Thank you, and thanks for the opportunity to give evidence. I am the Chairman of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party, a party of 57 MPs who always have at least 58 different opinions. So what I have tried to do is to give you a fair reflection of the varied views of my parliamentary colleagues. I would just like to say a thank you as well to Jo Swinson, who has done quite a bit of work on sitting hours and whose work I am incorporating into the evidence that I am giving.

My colleagues have differing opinions, from, "Bring back all night sittings. Family-friendly hours is a silly concept. We should work the hours best suited for the running of the country, not for some MPs to pop home and sing their children a lullaby or go to the theatre," right the way through the spectrum to, "I was selected as a candidate during the brief experiment with more family-friendly hours. It never occurred to me it would be reversed weeks later." This particular MP, who has small children, would like to see the current Friday hours, 9.30 am to 3.00 pm, on at least three days a week, "If we had more family-friendly hours there would be fewer post-election divorces and more people living in the real world instead of the Westminster bubble."

Having said that, there was a fair degree of consensus; by four to one colleagues favoured a change, so one in four actually favoured the status quo. The rest favoured earlier starts and earlier finishes, and if I could personally echo that as well because I just can’t keep going working after a certain time of night. I think my own efficiency is, unfortunately, diminished. We are hanging around; it is very nice to have dinner, but it would be nice to have the option of being able to have a more productive day for the earlier part of the day.

What people were interested in was the private Members’ bills; a lot of people said that they would like to see those moved from Friday. Despite what my colleague Jack said, a lot of us, certainly in our party, spend a lot of time in our own constituencies and in our political lives we paint ourselves as a local champion. You can’t be a local champion if you have the conflict of losing the one working day a week-we work on weekends like everybody else-to lose that day to come back to Parliament, really, is not terribly helpful.

The late start on a Monday was favoured to be retained and it is very important because, although it doesn’t affect colleagues who live close, colleagues who live a long way away really need the opportunity to travel down and also to get home on a Thursday as well. A 6 pm last vote on a Thursday makes life very difficult for some MPs who have to either fly or take five-hour train journeys to get home. We really should be thinking of them, even though they are not in the majority.

They would like more predictability of hours, which was something that was raised earlier. If you knew when votes were coming that would enable you to attend events offsite. You are still doing your job but this constant worry of: how far is it? Is it within running distance to get back? That would be really, really helpful. What would happen with things like select committees if we changed the hours? Several people actually mentioned that to me. But if you think that select committees operate during the hours of the House now, there will be conflicts that probably would be irreconcilable anyway. I think that more or less sums up what my colleagues said to me. Thank you.

Graham Brady: Chairman, first of all, just to repeat my apology in advance because I think you know that I have to be away before 4.30 pm to chair the Executive of the 1922 Committee, so I apologise for that.

As Lorely has said about the Liberal Democrats, there is certainly no consensus view among members of the 1922 Committee, as you know very well. There is a spectrum of views. Broadly speaking, those Members who have constituencies that are closer to London are more likely to favour more regular office-type working hours, and those who have constituencies further away are more likely to favour fewer, longer days to enable them to spend a block of time in Westminster and a block of time in their constituency. As I say, there is no consensus.

My own view, and having worked under all of the arrangements-I was first elected in 1997, so before the first significant reform of the hours and then through the experiment and the reversion-again, rather like Jack Straw was saying in the previous session, I think we have probably arrived at a reasonably good balance because you can’t accommodate everybody. All you can hope to do is provide a working framework that allows Members, regardless of the geography of their constituencies and regardless of the way in which they seek to organise their family lives, to make it work. It is always going to be difficult for somebody however you do it, but I think the current balance is broadly right.

Tony Lloyd: Thanks, Mr Knight. Can I begin with the same disclaimer that the Parliamentary Labour Party, unusually, has no fixed position on this either, so at least we are agreed across the party spectrum.

I think perhaps I can reflect something more generally. One of the things that colleagues have said to me is that, of course, the nature of being a Member of Parliament has changed and continues to change. The various pressures-such as electronic communications and the capacity for people to communicate more-do not actually lessen the role of the Member of Parliament as constituency representative and, in actual fact, while you may talk about the work/life balance for some occupations, because MPs have almost two distinct working roles, that of parliamentary representative and that of constituency representative, it is really a matter of the work/work/life balance that we are talking about.

Within that context, there are some things on which it is probably fair to say there was a degree of unanimity among my colleagues. I think it was virtually universally the case, for example, that the September sittings are dramatically unpopular. Nobody came forward with any argument in favour of us continuing these September sittings. There are some reasons obviously that may be self-serving, but the general reasons were in terms of the efficiency of the working process. The overall comment was that, for a number of distinct reasons, it is very difficult in August to do things like school visits, or making contact with the private sector or with the public sector. With schools, obviously it is impossible in August, so there are good and profound reasons why the intrusion of two weeks of parliamentary sitting in September does militate against the role of the Member of Parliament as constituency MP, which of course then backs up the pressure throughout the rest of the parliamentary year. So September sessions are particularly unpopular.

Again, there was a lot of unanimity around the need for an annual timetable. A number of people made the point to me that in the past we have had greater certainty about the parliamentary timetable than we now have. Colleagues have said to me that we ought to know, for example, the timetable all the way through to next summer in terms of recess times, et cetera, so that people can plan their various different roles; including, of course, their roles as members of their own family.

The issue then about certainty of voting times that, while it may not be possible to have absolute certainty around the time that votes take place, it would be possible to make some greater attempt to give certainty as to when those votes would come in any particular parliamentary day. The issue of Tuesday sittings is one that exercised lots of people, the most radical suggestion that I came across is that we could look at different types of voting structures on different days. In particular, because Tuesday is the day that almost everybody is interested in, that it would be possible to have Tuesday votes done on a very different basis to other days. That would give the certainty on a Tuesday and might take out some of the pressure around when we started and when we ended. That is probably the most single radical suggestion.

Chair: You mean a wider use of deferred divisions? Is that what you mean?

Tony Lloyd: Because I represent other people’s voices on this let me say what I think was meant. It may have been deferred divisions. I think the suggestion was that as votes are randomly spaced on days when we have, for example, the report stage coming back into the Commons, if Tuesday was kept clear of that, so we know that the votes could only take place at 10 pm, it would give a greater degree of certainty on that one day of the week that would then allow perhaps greater variability to take place elsewhere, but of course the use of deferred divisions is something that we know is around.

In terms of the range of views, I know you are going to take evidence from Joan Ruddock next week, but Joan is one of the few people who has conducted a proper survey of Members of Parliament, along with Mumsnet of course, whose own work, if nothing else, did suggest that very few of us consider the House to be friendly towards our role as family members. So those two surveys, at least, were commended to me to commend in turn to you.

In terms of the debate around hours, the variation was not quite as extreme as Lorely Burt’s; nobody wanted to bring back all-night sittings and nobody that I know sought to bring back all-night sitting, but the range was from people who wanted us to work what they described as "normal" or "office" hours, through to those who thought we ought to go back to 10 am starts on Wednesday and 7 pm finishes on Thursdays. So there is a big range, but within that I think it is fair to say that the big debate is not about Thursdays-some people suggested a slightly earlier finishing time on Thursday, such as 5 pm perhaps, for ease of travel back to constituencies for non-London based Members-and nobody, I think, suggested any real change on Monday. Some argued that maybe it could finish a little earlier in the evening, say 9 pm, but I think most people accept that the needs of the non-London travelling patterns had to be accommodated. So most of the activity was in and around the Tuesday and Wednesday slot, and it is something very similar to what I think you have heard from Lorely and from Graham.

There is considerable interest in Tuesday looking like the present Wednesday, or both Tuesday and Wednesday looking like the present Thursday, but there are equally strong views that we ought not to do that, we ought to keep Tuesday as it is. The reasons do vary. Obviously many things you have already heard, but one of the more interesting ones clearly is the debate about Tuesdays. A little bit has taken place between Kitty and Jack Straw already so I won’t go into it at length, except just to record that there is a significant view that the present late hours on a Tuesday are very difficult for people who have family responsibilities. The counterview, though, was also put to me that, in actual fact, the present Wednesday is the worst possible compromise, that a 10 pm finish allows the family run in the morning and for people to return home and have the evening with the kids, and get back to vote at 10 pm. Conversely, if we were to move away from that, it would be better to move to a 9 am until 5.30 pm maximum time period, because that would mean missing the school run in the morning, but it would at least allow time with the children in the evening. In fact, the worst possible finish for those with families based in and around London is the 6 pm or 7 pm, because you miss out in the morning and you miss out in the evening. So in that sense, I don’t think I am-any more than Graham or Lorely-offering solutions, but we are offering a range of interested views.

Q65 Mr Nuttall: You are often described as "parliamentary shop stewards". I don’t know whether you regard yourselves as being shop stewards, but in that role you must hear comments from party members and their views. Do we have the balance right between the two roles that MPs have? Do we spend too much time in Westminster, not enough time in Westminster? Do we have the balance right? Could we be doing more to educate the public about what we have to do down here? I know from my very limited experience already it seems to be that when I am down here people say, "Well, you should be up here," and when I am in Bury people say, "What are you doing up here? You should be at work." You can’t win, and I wondered whether there was an education role there. Finally, do you think there is any purpose in trying to have a job description for MPs?

Graham Brady: No, I don’t think there should be a job description for MPs. I think that what we do have is a very clear contract between a Member and his or her electorate, and if they like what they get and they carry on voting for it, then that is working. So we should not have a job description. Similarly, I think all Members find a different balance between how much time they spend at Westminster, how much time working in the constituency, how much time they spend at Westminster talking about their constituency, and so on. That I think is entirely right and proper and of course it varies during most parliamentary careers, and some people find that they are ministers for a spell, or they might be a select committee member or chairman, and that changes profoundly the distribution of time and how they do their job.

I suppose I come back to the point I started with, that I think the objective has to be to maximise the flexibility for Members, however they see their role as a Member of Parliament and however they configure their family arrangements, to make it possible for as many people as possible to accommodate those arrangements.

Lorely Burt: Yes, I agree with Graham about the job description. I think people have widely different perceptions of what an MP is and some people just have no idea, but their MP is somebody that they go to when all else fails, when they are in a pickle and they are looking for help and advice. This whole idea of, "We shouldn’t be social workers"-well, I don’t understand why we shouldn’t be. We can fight our constituents’ corner, whether that be with Government agencies or whether that be through Parliament in trying to change the law.

As far as the "shop steward" element is concerned, I like to think of myself as a cross between a shop steward and a favourite aunt, where people can come and moan to me about things that they are not happy with, and I will make sure that that is communicated to the right people within the party or, indeed, outside the party.

Tony Lloyd: I agree with both Graham and Lorely in terms of the job description. I think there are as many different job descriptions as there are Members of Parliament.

Perhaps one thing I should have said earlier on because it is important, it touches on the question that David Nuttall asked about whether we get the balance right? The answer is that we do not get the balance right because the pressures are enormous on Members of Parliament in the different roles that we perform, and it is almost impossible, even individually, for us to work out what that balance is. What I should have said earlier on is that one of the arguments in favour of the shorter sitting on the Tuesday would be the capacity to move things like private business away from the Friday, to guarantee that Friday is then liberated as a constituents’ day, as the one working day in the week when it is possible for Members of Parliament to guarantee that they can be in the constituency when other working structures are around, and that would make some difference.

Mr Nuttall: To move it to a Tuesday?

Tony Lloyd: The argument would be to move the present private Members’ Fridays on to a Tuesday after the finish of ordinary business, so if Tuesday finished at 7 pm-like the present Wednesday-it would be possible to add on some time then for that kind of business-

Q66 Chair: I was going to ask about this at the end, but as you have raised it now, is that a general view in the Labour Party that we should make Friday a constituency day, even knowing the press would say, "Now they want a four-day week" and put private Members’ bills in the middle of the week, is that a majority view in the Labour Party?

Tony Lloyd: I think it is the only significant view that has been represented to me. I choose my answer reasonably carefully because I am sure there will be others who would argue that there is reputational damage to Parliament if we declare ourselves to be a four-day Parliament, and there is a consideration around what the public expectation is of us as a body. I think my own personal view on that, in the absence of my colleagues giving me an absolute steer on this, is that I think there is real merit in doing that. Parliament of course always can be recalled on a Friday if necessary. During the Falklands War-it was before my time and that of everybody here-Parliament sat on a Saturday. So, in extremis, we could always choose those days, but there is real merit-and it comes to David Nuttall’s point-that maybe MPs do have to educate their own constituents about the reality. If they want me to meet the chamber of commerce, I have to do it on a working day and a Friday is the most sensible day of the week to do it.

Q67 Chair: As this has come up now I am going to ask Graham and Lorely to comment on it but, before I do, if we were to recommend that in future all private Members’ bills be taken, let’s say, on a Wednesday at 7 pm-well, at the end of business-do you not think that on difficult private Members’ bills the Government Whip of the day would find extra business to put on to push the private Members’ business beyond 10 pm? Therefore, to be fair to private Members’ bills, one would have to say that at the hour of interruption that private Members’ bills should take precedence and so if the Government want to put extra business on, their business comes back after 10 pm. Do you have a view on that?

Tony Lloyd: I think I would go along with exactly what you just suggested. It is important that we establish that the capacity for the private Members’ bills to make progress is a real one, and we ought to make that a reality. The problem at the moment, quite frankly-and most of us know this-is that generally they are very badly attended. Attendance probably would increase if they were held midweek. Generally, they tend to be monopolised by a limited number of aficionados of private Members’ bills. I think you perhaps-we collectively-need to look at how we broaden the base so that the debates are more representative of Parliament as a whole, and I think some change like that would be advantageous to that process.

Chair: As it was raised by Tony, I thought we had better deal with it now, because I am conscious of the fact Graham has to leave us shortly and I am interested to know the view of the 1922 Committee is, if there is one, on this subject.

Graham Brady: I am always very hesitant to express a view of the 1922 Committee, but I think you would find significant support-although I am sure not unanimous support-for moving away from Friday sittings. I would suggest that really that is an entirely separate matter from the question of when it is best to timetable private Members’ business. Again, in my personal view, I think there is a very strong case for tabling private Members’ business at a time when more Members will be present and more will participate, and I think that would increase the priority attached to it. I think that is a very good thing. You may have to protect the time for it, as you suggest, Chairman. You and I of course were both members of the Wright Committee on parliamentary reform, and I would just comment that, of course, one of the propositions that the Wright Committee put forward was to move beyond merely a Backbench Business Committee and to look forward to a way in which the House might start to manage its business as a whole. That might be part of the answer; that you would be according proper priority to private Members’ business alongside a sensible protection in Standing Orders that would ensure that Government got the time for its business as well.

Q68 Thomas Docherty: There is a convention that private Members’ bills don’t have a time limit on them, and as Mr Lloyd has already said there is a-

Chair: On speeches you mean?

Thomas Docherty: On speeches, yes, and the potential for a small number of colleagues to speak for the full time. Have you had any sense, either way, on your representations from colleagues in the three parties about whether or not a time limit would assist; specifically, going back to the point about poor attendance, is the poor attendance in part because colleagues feel that there is no point in coming because the things will just get talked out anyway?

Graham Brady: May I comment, because I have to leave almost immediately? I think that is absolutely right. I think most of us know that most private Members’ bills are not going to progress anywhere and there are probably more productive ways of spending our Fridays. Some colleagues do a very noble service regularly in the House, nonetheless. I think whether it is through limiting the time for speeches, or through a variety of other ways you might change the procedure, I think there is a very strong body of opinion, probably across parties, that there ought to be a viable way that private Members could legislate.

Q69 Chair: One way of preventing a very high hurdle having to be reached-a closure motion-would be to say that after three hours, say, the question shall be put on the second reading of the private Members’ bill without the need for a closure. Do you have a view on that?

Graham Brady: Yes, as I said, I think any device which makes it more likely that sensible private Members’ business, which has support in the House, can proceed would be welcome.

Chair: Graham, thank you for your time.

Graham Brady: Thank you.

Chair: I realise you have to be elsewhere; thank you for coming.

Graham Brady: Thank you very much.

Tony Lloyd: Could I come in?

Chair: Yes, please do.

Tony Lloyd: On this last little exchange, I think I would be in favour of mechanisms that do control the longevity of some of our colleagues’ speeches. I think most of us have sat through and have been frustrated by them. You talked about a three-hour cap on the third reading. I can think of occasions when I have probably sat through a three-hour speech on a second reading.

Chair: Three-hour cap on a second reading.

Tony Lloyd: Forgive me. I think we have all probably sat through three-hour speeches on second readings. It would be regrettable if we only ended up with a situation where we moved legitimately to put things to a vote-which would be a good thing, particularly if you have a well-attended House, that would be a definite improvement-but it would be a shame if we didn’t also allow for debate to take place. I think if you are thinking about something like the three-hour cut off that you were talking about it might be that you would then have to think about how you ordered speaking times. I don’t think it is unreasonable at that point-I don’t want to pick a figure out of the air-to guarantee that there was more than one voice raised.

Q70 Chair: Yes. One other criticism we have had as well has been that a Member can, by clever use of when he or she tables them, present 15 or 16 bills, fan them out over the days, take up the time and then at the end of the debate withdraw the bill. Do you have any view on whether we should limit the number of bills any one Member can have before the House at one time, to perhaps, say, three? So you could have a ten-minute rule, present a bill, and you could be in the ballot, but that is all you can do at any one time. Do you have a view on that?

Lorely Burt: Until recently, I didn’t realise that you could present a whole load of bills, if I’m honest. I agree with what Tony says and I agree with what Graham says. I also think the point that Thomas Docherty makes is absolutely right. I hate the whole filibustering, talking out issue. I like your elegant solution, Chairman, and I just would love to stop the shenanigans, which to me, as a woman who entered Parliament from a career in business at the age of 50, I just thought, "What on earth is going on here? What are we here to do?" What I don’t think we are here to do is to play around with parliamentary rules in order to frustrate the will of Parliament.

Tony Lloyd: In a sense, that comes on directly to the question you raised about whether people should be allowed to hog the system. Let me say, to be slightly kind, that those who discovered this procedure did chance upon something that nobody had realised until recently, but, like all loopholes, it ought to be plugged. You know, good luck to them for this year, but I think there ought to be some mechanism, whether it is your rationing system or a different kind of rationing system. You will perhaps have more opportunity to look at it. I think it would be legitimate to say that any individual Member would be quite well advantaged if they had the opportunity that you have described. There may be other ways of doing it, but certainly it is right that nobody should be allowed to occupy the whole of the time.

Q71 Bridget Phillipson: In terms of the current sitting hours, what impact do you think they have, positive or negative, in terms of the effectiveness of MPs and what do colleagues report to you about how they have an impact on their ability to fulfil their roles?

Tony Lloyd: I think a lot of our colleagues across the House, in actual fact, but certainly the representations made to me as part of your inquiry, have commented that by late evening-Lorely Burt made this point, as well-nobody is working very efficiently if they have been in the House at 8.30 am in the morning. This, by the way, applies not only to Members of Parliament; it applies to those who service us in our work. So I do think we do have to look at that as a real and proper issue, but what you will come to time after time is that there is a capacity constraint within the system. We need hours to do different things and it is what kind of compromise are we prepared to make to fit in with those, and if we recognise that there are disadvantages in the present hours-and some people argue, as you know, strongly in favour of keeping those present hours-then compromises have to be made elsewhere.

The kind of arguments people put in favour of long hours are sometimes a little bit more difficult for me to express, but I will do my best. Some people have pointed out, and it is legitimate, that for some types of activity, having working time during the day when the Chamber isn’t in session is useful and helpful, and of course the other point-this is probably much more marginal, but I throw it in because it was made to me-is that for those who represent constituencies outside, say, Greater London, things like school visits would become nearly impossible. They are effectively impossible for me, as a Manchester Member of Parliament-outside of I think now, really, Tuesday-because the House sits too early on Wednesday and Thursday, and Friday when it sits. Tuesday it is possible for me travel down to London in time to make that kind of visit, tour of the House and then tour of the Chamber, but I wouldn’t want to suggest that is really going to be a determining argument for you as a Committee.

Lorely Burt: Yes, I agree with Tony. I have already made the point about how tough it is for me personally to keep my concentration, and I don’t think I am alone in that, and I just want to make the point about my colleagues. They don’t want shorter hours, they want to work the same number of hours but they want them rearranged in a way that enables them to perform most effectively.

Q72 Bridget Phillipson: What has been suggested to us as well is that, when we are considering changing hours, in terms of what perhaps allows MPs to function more effectively or allows Parliament to function more effectively, consideration should also be given to the impact that might have on the people who work here and allow the place to operate. Have you discussed that with colleagues or what impact changes might have on staffing arrangements here? I don’t mean in terms of necessarily individual MPs’ staff, but I mean in terms of the broader setup that facilitates everything happening.

Lorely Burt: No, I haven’t discussed that but it can’t be any easier for staff to work late at night than it is for us.

Tony Lloyd: I can only second that answer.

Q73 Tom Greatrex: I think you both have-and Graham did before he left-touched on the issue around Fridays, but could I ask, just broadening it out slightly, whether you think it would be better if MPs had clearly defined times, maybe a day or two a week or set weeks, for constituency time because of the issues around trying to juggle the two different roles? Is that something that has come back to you, there should be a specific time for constituency activity, either a week at a time. I think a large majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party favoured going back to something like that, or saying, "This day in a week is set aside for that."

Tony Lloyd: Those were internal mechanics, if you like, that operated from-if my memory serves me well-within the Parliamentary Labour Party. Jack Straw referred to something earlier, when he talked about a much more formalised pairing system, and I think it would be possible for you as a Committee even to recommend to the different whipping systems that they do reconsider a much more formal pairing structure. Mr Chairman, I think you had some experience of this at one time in your previous existence. It did work. It didn’t work as well as perhaps some people romantically remember it. It was very hit and miss and did depend quite a lot on the interpersonal relationship between the paired individuals or sometimes the vagaries of the pairing system. So if we do want to look at the concept of how we allow constituency time, I think some of it is around having certainty around timetabling, both the calendar, the timetabling of business in the week, and so on.

I don’t want to do this very often, but for example, if I knew that I wouldn’t need to be on duty here until 5 pm in the evening, I could, in extremis, get back to my constituency, do most of the day’s work and be back in time to do other things. Very often the parliamentary day prevents that kind of activity. It certainly prevents it if you need to plan it in the future. From time to time most of us have probably gone back home for a funeral. You do that because it is normally reasonable to say to people, "I must do this". It is more difficult if it is a pre-planned meeting, three weeks in advance, when I could not say to my constituents, "I know what the business will be that day and I know that I can guarantee I will be there." So I think there is real merit in the timetabling.

There is real merit-being repetitious-in what I said before about making sure that the September period is there for Members of Parliament, because it does stop that back-loading, when all those things I thought I’d do in the summer didn’t get done. If I could do them in September, I wouldn’t now be thinking, "How do I fit them in November or January or March?" so that gives some regularity in our lives. I think the Labour Government introduced the September sittings first of all in-what was it?-probably 2001 or thereabouts, I can’t remember.

Chair: It was Robin Cook’s idea.

Tony Lloyd: It was Robin Cook, yes.

Chair: He said to me he wanted to do it to stop the press complaining about MPs having a three-month holiday.

Tony Lloyd: That is right. Then ditto with the general election last year. I think we found the same thing. In reality, you do come down to David Nuttall’s point that we can’t run away from the fact that we are busy people, and we will be criticised if people think we have these three-month holidays, but that is something I place on the record. So please take this down carefully. We have not yet had a holiday but just plan at least one week, whenever. MPs across the board actually do work very hard because of the demands on us. That is not special pleading, most of us recognise we do it, but it would be better if we could do it in the recognition that the constituency role is fundamental to what we are as a Member of Parliament.

Q74 Chair: Would it be accurate to say that what you are saying to us is that there is an overwhelming view in the Labour Party that the House should have the opportunity to vote again on whether it wants September sittings?

Tony Lloyd: I think I could faithfully reflect the opinion of my colleagues on that.

Chair: Would that apply to the Lib Dems?

Lorely Burt: I don’t know, Chairman. It’s not something that anyone has raised with me.

Chair: If you want to take their temperature and then drop me a line.

Lorely Burt: I certainly will.

Chair: That would be helpful.

Lorely Burt: Yes, I certainly will. As far as constituency weeks are concerned, I thought that was what recess was for, and that is what I do. I think most of us plan our recess in order to get all of those jobs done that we don’t have time for ordinarily. I can’t help you on pairing, because it was before my time.

Q75 Thomas Docherty: Just a quick question. Obviously there is talk about going back up to constituencies more frequently. Do you get the sense that, in light of the fact of not so much the expenses scandal but the media attention on how much MPs cost, so to speak, that colleagues are reluctant-particularly colleagues, say, from the Midlands upwards-to undertake a journey during the week because of the cost involved and they are nervous about jacking up their travel costs? I am kind of conscious that there were one or two colleagues in the last Parliament who had particularly high airfare figures.

Tony Lloyd: I think it is a real issue for all of us, because none of us now wants to move away from publication of all the information that is in the public domain, of course, but nevertheless it does condition people’s behaviour. That is regrettable because I do come from Manchester, so if I want to represent my constituency I do have to look in from time-to-time and check that they are still there. They expect that of me, paradoxically. I want to do that because it is the best way of knowing that when I stand up in this place, or do the other things that MPs do representationally, that I really do speak for the people that I claim to represent.

Q76 Bridget Phillipson: Very briefly, just in terms of Lorely Burt’s point about constituency weeks and recess. As a new Member, I didn’t really have any views as to the effectiveness or otherwise of the September sittings, but what I found over the last two recess periods is that no matter how hard I have tried to arrange everything in that period, it is often very difficult because, even though I might not be on holiday, often many of the people I would like to go and see are on holiday, whether that is schools or public bodies, or if I want to meet with the director of a department at the council. Often that is quite difficult, and just in terms of what you were saying about constituency weeks in the September recess, I haven’t experienced that but I do know how difficult it can often be, during August in particular, to get those meetings set up.

Lorely Burt: Yes, of course it is difficult in August, but I just try to fit mine in on Friday or Saturday, or whenever, and as long as you have a good diary secretary normally you can fit, squeeze, most of the things in but there is never enough time. To me, there is always more time I would like to spend in the constituency because there is so much demand.

Tony Lloyd: There is again a radical solution, and one that I suspect that your Committee will not necessarily manage to achieve. There has always been discussion about whether the party conferences, which really dictate the pattern that we have at the moment, need to be where they are. Mr Knight, I am sure with your seductive charms you might be able to persuade all three parties to alter the pattern of the conferences. I don’t know whether it is even remotely achievable for us to think about that. In the past the argument was that we all met in the big seaside towns at a time when they were no longer using their accommodation for the holidaymakers. That world has gone, and so the imperative to have the conferences exactly when they are is no longer quite the same, but whether it is possible to change that I really have no idea, but it wouldn’t half make a big difference in terms of the patterning of time.

But I do think, come what may, we really do need to look at whether we have constituency weeks, or whether we simply put back the recess as it was before we changed the September sitting. We do need to recognise that part of a Member of Parliament’s role is to have that contact time that Bridget Phillipson just described. But every one of us knows it is part of the MPs’ role.

Chair: Thank you, a final question from Roger Gale.

Q77 Mr Gale: I am sorry about this, but I want to put the elephant in the room on the record. There are seven days in a week, 24 hours in a day and 52 weeks in a year. As Members of Parliament, we all know that we have a huge amount of constituency work to do, including business visits, school visits, hospital visits, things that have to be done during the working week. That is Friday and that is the recess. We all know that the constituency casework has gone up exponentially and we all know that, no matter how good our staff are, a huge chunk of that burden still falls on the MP’s shoulders. We also know there is a vast amount of legislation-probably far too much-and we haven’t even mentioned public bill committees in this hearing at all. That has not been accommodated in any of the discussion of the hours that we have had. Nobody has mentioned public bill committees and they have to meet, as do Statutory Instrument Committees, which have been referred to. There are only so many hours in the day that all of that stuff can be fitted into.

Now, Kitty Ussher earlier used her personal circumstances, so I will use mine. I was rising 40 when I came into the House of Commons; I turned 40 in that year. I had a young family, my youngest child was two. Nobody held a gun to my head and said, "You have to become a Member of Parliament", nobody made me stand for election. We spend a huge amount of time talking about making the Government of the country, the governance of the country, family friendly, and I think we have to question and somebody has to say, "Are people coming into the House of Commons, into the legislature, too young? Should we be shifting the emphasis back to the job that has to be done, rather than expressing too much concern about the working hours and the friendly nature of the job that we want to do and the way that we want to do it?" I am sorry that Graham is not here, but two of the shop stewards are.

Tony Lloyd: Let me respond if I can. I don’t think anybody should pretend that there aren’t demands made on Members of Parliament, and those demands will never be able to be encapsulated in the framework of whatever the ordinary working week is nowadays. We just don’t have that type of role in society. Very few MPs, even those who express a desire for change, are trying to say that MPs want to work 9 am to 5 pm, or whatever. The pressures will be there, come what may. What we are trying to do is find ways through. How do we get that quart into the pint pot, and make it work in a way that keeps the scrutiny on Government, and ensures that we perform our roles as scrutinisers of legislation, of society more generally, as well as perform the other tasks that are upon us? Altering the balance will not create political nirvana, but I wouldn’t want to begin by saying that, as a Parliament, we set out to do anything other than say that it is for the electorate to decide who comes into this House. It is not for any Parliament to say, "You have to be over 40". Well, I suppose we could, but I think most of us wouldn’t have the ambition for us to say that we design a system that is only suitable for certain types of individuals or family circumstances. It is individuals who will make the choice.

It is a difficult job, however we structure it. It really is a difficult job, and almost every one of the 2010 intake, certainly in my own party that I have spoken to, expressed astonishment that once they got in here, it wasn’t what it said on the tin. Now, I don’t think we can find a way around that. It never will be what it says on the tin.

Lorely Burt: Roger Gale omitted to mention at least one thing that immediately sprang to my mind about what else needs to be done, and that is to be a local campaigner. I think Liberal Democrats do that a lot. For me personally, with an interestingly small majority of 175, getting re-elected has to be a really important issue. I do that, communicating with my constituents, week in week out, year in year out. That is what we often do. So there is that on top of all the other things that you said.

Going back to Kitty Ussher, I was on the committee stage of the longest and arguably the most boring bill in history, which was the Companies Bill. Kitty Ussher’s childcare arrangements fell down, and the only enlightening bits of that bill for me were watching her little daughter learning to walk on the committee corridor. Of course, we have a crèche now, and about time too I have to say. We must have diversity in this place. It is really important that we have people who are living day-to-day with the challenges of being young, of being a parent with small children. We get all sorts, so many different characters. I think that is what makes this place what it is, and it could be so much better if we could get much greater diversity in the circumstances and the backgrounds of the people, so that the policy that we come up with at the end of the day reflects all of those interests and not the interests of people who are of a certain age, and might have forgotten some of the challenges that they have had in their lifetimes.

Chair: Okay, thank you. Thomas, were you trying to catch my eye?

Q78 Thomas Docherty: This last point about campaigning time, and obviously I would say of course Labour MPs are equally local champions, but do you honestly think that the public will buy that they should pay us to go back and campaign for re-election? If there is one thing that the public do not want us to be doing on the public purse is spending time seeking votes.

Lorely Burt: I never for a second suggested that we would do such a thing. All I am saying is that we do need to find the time to do that. Yes, of course, and it is really important that we don’t use any member of staff who is paid through the public purse; that we never use public funds for campaigning in any way. All I am saying is that we have to do it and, if you have a majority of 175, let me tell you, you do it every week.

Tony Lloyd: If I can just say for the record, Mr Knight, I can absolutely guarantee that all Labour MPs campaign for fun and in their own time.

Chair: I think on that note, I will draw this session to an end. Can I thank you both for coming, and expressing not only your own views but for giving us a distillation of the views of your own parties. If at any time from now, while we are still ongoing with this inquiry, new issues are raised in the PLP or the Liberal Democrat parties, or you sense a change of mood in your parties, please do feel free to drop me a line, because we are anxious when we start to reach our conclusions to make sure we have the most up-to-date information on the thinking of our colleagues. Thank you again for coming.

Lorely Burt: You are most welcome.

Chair: It has been a long afternoon but, from our perspective, it has been very worthwhile and helpful.

Prepared 21st June 2012