The starting-point for any consideration of sitting hours and the Parliamentary calendar must be an appreciation of what it is that a Member of Parliament actually does. The evidence we have gathered in the course of this inquiry shows clearly the enormous pressure on Members of Parliament from the competing demands of constituency, party and their role in the House itself. We have borne in mind the need for sitting hours and the Parliamentary calendar to support Members' work both in their constituency and at Westminster, and the need for them to maintain some semblance of normal family life.
The issue emerging particularly strongly from the evidence to this inquiry was the huge increase in the constituency workload over the past few years. We have focused on what those pressures mean for sitting hours and the Parliamentary calendar, despite them not in any way diminishing the importance of a Member's work at Westminster. Each Member of Parliament has a different way of working. That means that in considering the sitting hours of the House there are no mainstream options which are necessarily 'right or wrong', 'out-dated or modern', or 'effective or less so'. The whole issue is largely a matter of individual preference.
The current sitting hours were inherited by this House from its predecessor and it is right that the House elected in 2010 now have the opportunity to decide its preference about the hours that it sits.
The Parliamentary calendar
The evidence which we have taken suggests that the current balance between the number of sitting days and the number of non-sitting days across the year is broadly correct. We conclude that the number of sitting days, and sitting weeks, should remain approximately the same as at present, that is, about 150 days, spread over about 34 weeks, per year.
We recommend that the House should be given the opportunity to vote on whether the House should continue to sit in September from 2013 onwards. Otherwise, subject to the decision on September sittings, we recommend that the House should continue to follow the current overall sitting pattern.
Daily sitting hours
There is widespread recognition that there is no scope for any diminution in the time available to the House for debate and scrutiny of legislation. We conclude that the current pattern of 8 sitting hours in the Chamber on each sitting day between Monday and Thursday should continue, subject to any future decision the House may make concerning Friday sittings (see below).
We heard suggestions that the House should sit during normal working hoursthat is, for 8 hours and for those 8 hours to be scheduled between, say, 8am and 6pmeach day. We are concerned that the option of sitting during "normal" working hours is ill-suited to the transaction of other important Parliamentary business, particularly sittings of public bill committees; takes insufficient account of the needs of Members whose constituencies, and families, are located at some distance from Westminster; and would prevent many constituents from being able to tour Parliament whilst it is in session.
We have further considered, in line with proposals made to us, whether the House should sit earlier on each of the days Monday to Thursday. The arguments are finely balanced. We have recommended that there be no change to sitting times on Mondays, Tuesdays or Wednesdays, and that the House have the opportunity to decide whether to sit at 9.30 am on a Thursday, with a moment of interruption of 5.00 pm.
However, we recognise that some Members have different views, and so we believe that the House should be enabled to come to a decision on its preferred sitting hours in respect of each separate day of the week. We have put forward a means of allowing the House to do that whilst avoiding a potential long series of divisions on propositions which may attract only marginal support.
Private Members' bills
A number of Members invited us to consider whether consideration of private Members' bills should be moved from the current Friday slot to an earlier weekday evening. The rules and practices affecting how private Members' bills are considered are not straightforward and are closely interlinked. It would be wrong for private Members' bill procedure to be altered as by-product of recommendations on sitting hours. A comprehensive overhaul of the rules and procedures for private Members' bills requires a full dedicated inquiry. We intend to carry out that work shortly, with a view to making recommendations which could be implemented from the 2013-14 session.
We have undertaken some preliminary analysis of the consequences of a move of private Members' bills away from Fridays on to an earlier weekday evening, to inform a decision by the House itself of whether it would be willing to contemplate such a move. Following that decision, we will conduct our inquiry into private Members' bills in the light of the House's preference for when they should be taken, and make recommendations accordingly.
Exchanges in oral evidence with the Leader of the House and with the Clerk of the House and Clerk Assistant led us to explore with the Speaker the effect of the selection and grouping of amendments at report stage of programmed bills on the time available for their scrutiny. We welcome the Speaker's indication that he is willing to see whether revisiting the practices of selection of amendments on report would assist the House. We intend to look more closely at the operation of the programming of legislation in a later inquiry.
"Injury time" and the use of Westminster Hall for Ministerial statements
We have considered again a proposal, made during our inquiry last year on Ministerial statements, to allow "injury time" to compensate for time spent on oral statements. The incursion of time taken for statements into that available for other business continues to inhibit the Government from bringing as many of its policy proposals to the House for scrutiny as might otherwise be the case. We conclude that rendering uncertain the time of conclusion of debate in the House, by the introduction of "injury time", would be undesirable. Instead, we propose an alternative means of securing greater Ministerial accountability without increasing overall sitting hours, namely that there should be a mechanism for backbenchers to question a Minister on a written Ministerial statement made in the previous week, between 11 am and 11.30 am on a Wednesday in Westminster Hall.