Sitting hours and the Parliamentary calendar - Procedure Committee Contents


3  Sitting hours

19. There are some who hold the view that the present sitting hours of the House are a relic of a bygone age, born of a time when Members attended to their business in the law courts and the City before participating in business in the House of an afternoon and evening, and that they are no longer suited to the modern age. The Shadow Leader expressed that view to us most clearly:

[…] the plain fact is that our Parliament created its structures and its way of working in Edwardian times, when there were no women, when MPs were not paid anything, when many MPs had other jobs to do before they came to Parliament, and there is no reason on this earth why in the 21st century we ought not to be looking at a different way of doing things.[17]

20. Whilst we entirely agree with the Shadow Leader that there is no reason why we should not look at a different way of doing things, the majority of evidence we have received does not support the view that the House's sitting hours are an outdated anachronism. Many changes have been made to sitting patterns since Edwardian times: for example, the House no longer delays the start of its sittings until the afternoon on two days a week. We are conscious too that 'normal working hours' are not necessarily 'normal' for all our constituents, many of whom may also find themselves for a variety of reasons working all sorts of hours. But more importantly, a number of Members have told us that, generally speaking, the present hours do in many ways suit their working practices and support the many and varied demands on their time.[18]

21. The view of sitting hours also appears to be informed—or misinformed—by an idea that attending debates and votes in the Chamber is all an MP does, partly perhaps because of the flow of regular newspaper stories about MPs' "holidays" whenever the House goes into recess.[19] As we have shown in the first chapter of this report, that is very far from the truth about what a Member of Parliament actually does. It is not even the truth about what Parliament does. Debates and votes in the Chamber remain central to the business of the House of Commons and of the individual Member. But work in select committees, public bill committees and delegated legislation committees, in Westminster Hall debates, European Committee debates and all-party groups, to name but a few, goes on constantly—to say nothing of the work needed in preparation for those forums. We know that many colleagues will identify with the story related to us by Angela Eagle, the Shadow Leader—"the most I ever was asked to be in was four places at once, and I think I managed three and ran along a corridor and missed the fourth".[20] As the Hansard Society observed, "a working day of at least 12 hours and often more is [...] largely the norm not the exception for MPs at present".[21] Hours need to be found for all those activities; and they cannot simply be squashed into an ever-decreasing period in the middle of the day without hindering the ability of MPs effectively to scrutinise the Government and serve their constituents in all the ways demanded of them.

22. It is of course true that current working practices will to some extent have been shaped by the sitting hours of the House, rather than the other way round; and that, given free rein and starting from scratch, not many Members would choose precisely the current sitting patterns. Nonetheless the view that the present sitting hours are a major impediment to up-to-date and effective working practices is simply not supported by the evidence we have received. It was Ken Gall, Chair of the House's Trade Union Side, responding to a direct question on what he thought ought to be done about sitting hours, who perhaps expressed this best:

I can't remember whether Churchill was talking about capitalism or democracy when he said, "It was the least bad of all possible alternatives". That may be the best we could hope for.[22]

23. It is with these arguments in mind that we have reached our conclusions about the House's sitting hours.

Overall number of hours sat in a week

24. If there is no appetite for a return to regular late-night sittings, which Members consider to be ill-suited to effective Parliamentary scrutiny, there is nevertheless also widespread recognition that there is no scope for any diminution in the time available to the House for debate and scrutiny of legislation. At present, the House sits for around 8 hours/day, Monday to Thursday. We received no evidence suggesting that the House should sit for fewer hours per day. Although some Members with constituencies far from Westminster suggested that it might be desirable to compress the House's sitting hours into three, rather than four, days in a week, we do not consider that this is a practicable option given the amount of business other than that which is transacted in the Chamber which is part of the Parliamentary week. We conclude that the current pattern of 8 sitting hours in the Chamber on each sitting day between Monday and Thursday should continue.

Daily sitting hours

25. We heard suggestions that the House should sit during normal working hours—that is, for 8 hours and for those 8 hours to be scheduled between, say, 8am and 6pm—each 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 conclude that it is simply not possible effectively to combine the many and varied roles of a Member of Parliament into 9 to 5 office hours each day. We note the view, expressed in particular by the Speaker's Conference on Parliamentary Representation, that reform of sitting hours is necessary to ensure that certain sections of society are not deterred from standing as Members of Parliament.[23] We note also, however, that current sitting hours, while they many deter some from becoming an MP, have not prevented a wide variety of people from all walks of life, including those with young children, from entering Parliament. Radical changes to sitting hours may have perverse and unforeseen consequences not only for the working and family lives of MPs, with potential knock-on effects for Parliamentary representation, but also for effective scrutiny of legislation and of the actions and polices of the executive.

MONDAYS

26. The House sits at 2.30 pm on a Monday. Earlier sittings of the House on Mondays would compromise the ability of Members from constituencies distant from London to make the journey on Monday; others closer to Westminster value the opportunity to carry out some constituency business on Monday mornings. Consequently we found little appetite in the evidence we received for changes to sitting hours on Mondays. There were nevertheless suggestions that a slightly earlier start would prevent the late evening votes at 10.00 pm whilst still leaving time for Members to reach Westminster from their constituencies before the House sat.[24] We note that no motion has recently been put to the House concerning Monday sitting hours. We recommend that if a vote on retaining the status quo on Monday is lost then the House should be given the opportunity to decide whether it wishes to sit at 1.00 pm on a Monday, with a moment of interruption of 8.30 pm. Our view is that the current Monday hours should be retained.

TUESDAYS

27. On a narrow vote in 2002 (274 - 267), the House agreed to sit at 11.30am on a Tuesday under arrangements which continued to the end of that Parliament.[25] A proposal to make those hours permanent was defeated (292 - 225) in early 2005, chiefly as a result of concerns about times for committees to sit which did not clash with sitting times in the House, and about the ability of the public to visit and tour the Palace of Westminster.[26]

28. We have heard in the course of this inquiry renewed suggestions that sitting hours on Tuesdays should be brought forward. Dame Joan Ruddock told us that she and Ann Coffey had done a considerable amount of work attempting to build a consensus around a start time of 11.30 am on a Tuesday, or 10.30 am on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, with potentially an earlier start time on a Thursday.[27] In her written evidence to us, Dame Joan argued

Surveys indicate that MPs admit to being exhausted much of the time and stressed by their jobs, with personal lives suffering as a consequence. Starting and finishing formal business earlier would give MPs more control over the remaining hours of the day. Most would continue to work, but in their own way; those who can would choose to go home.[28]

Giving oral evidence, she expanded on this argument:

[...] many people made comments [when Members were surveyed], and many of the comments were around the sense that people cannot control their time sufficiently, that the hours are so long that they are perpetually tired, and that they would want the freedom to organise their time better in the evening. That is not to say that they do not want to work in the evening, and also no one is suggesting fewer hours—at least, we never were—but just bringing them forward in the day.[29]

Later, she clarified, "It is just a question of when do you vote, and that is what holds most people here."[30] Dame Joan also argued—notwithstanding the decision in 2005 to return to later sitting times on Tuesdays—that, in the period when they were used, the earlier hours had worked.[31]

29. The main argument in favour of the current Tuesday hours is the effect which an earlier sitting would have on committee meeting times. Sir Alan Beith, Chair of the Liaison Committee of select committee chairs, wrote to us on behalf of the Committee as follows:

the Committee agreed that I should highlight a difficulty that would arise should the sitting hours of the Chamber be brought forward on Tuesdays. Currently up to 15 select committees meet on Tuesday mornings, principally because this is when the Chamber is not sitting. As your consultation points out the House trialled earlier sittings on Tuesday in the 2001 Parliament but decided not to make this sitting permanent in early 2005. The Liaison Committee thinks it is important that there is time during the week when all Members are able to devote their time to select committee work without losing an opportunity to participate in business in the Chamber.[32]

Dame Joan Ruddock wrote to us with supplementary evidence arguing that there is no fixed pattern of select committee sittings, and that many have sat and continue to sit at the same time as the Chamber.[33] The position is not quite the same with respect to public bill committees, however. Whilst public bill committees do sit while the House is sitting in the afternoon and evening, they do not sit during oral questions, nor for a period thereafter while statements or urgent questions may be proceeding in the Chamber.[34] The usual Tuesday morning sitting times of public bill committees under current arrangements are 10.30 am to 1.00 pm. During the previous period (2002-05) when the House sat at 11.30 am on Tuesdays, the prevailing practice of public bill committees shifted from 8.55 am as a standard start time, allowing the same two and a half hour sitting period as under current arrangements, to 9.25 am, allowing two hours.[35] An 11.30 am start on Tuesdays would thus be likely to mean both earlier sittings of public bill committees, and also that a slightly larger proportion of their sittings would have to take place at the same time as the Chamber.

30. It is also the case that many Members, particularly those with constituencies outside London, do not object to evenings being filled with business in the Chamber. Pete Wishart, for example, told us

as far as I am concerned—and I know for colleagues in the Scottish National party—we are here anyway. There is no place else for us to go. We tend to be around, and either we are going to be here discussing and debating issues in the House of Commons, or we are going to be elsewhere in London twiddling our thumbs and wondering what to do of an evening.[36]

John Thurso told us, "For me, the way in which Tuesday is structured and Wednesday is currently structured works very well."[37] Those views were echoed by Sir Alan Haselhurst, a former Chairman of Ways and Means, the Chair of the Administration Committee and a Member with a constituency very much closer to London:

I question whether moving the hour of interruption forward meets people's real desires. Does having that change of hours actually free them to get away to do what they wish to do—whether that is simply to go back to the bosom of their family, if their family is in London, to go out to the theatre or whatever? You cannot be sure that you will be able to do that.[38]

Reasons of practicality mean that other Parliamentary business, especially that which involves members of the public, such as select committee or public bill committee evidence-taking, do not usually take place in the evenings; and so (especially for a Member whose family and constituency is far from London) debate in the House is a productive means of passing Tuesday evenings, particularly since it frees up time earlier in the day for other business.

31. There are, as we have already observed, many and varied calls on Members' time; and many meetings of both select committees and public bill and other general committees do already clash with sittings of the Chamber. Nonetheless we consider that there is value in retaining at least one full half-day during the week in which Members can participate in Committee and other work without having to choose between that and attending the Chamber.

Tours

32. There is one further issue of which the House should be aware when making a decision about sitting times on Tuesdays, and that is the effect on tours of the Palace. The Clerk of the House's memorandum to us reported:

Bringing forward the sitting times on a Tuesday from 2.30 pm to 11.30 am would mean about 750 fewer people would be able to go on tours each day (based on approximately 38 tours a day). Each tour can contain the groups of several Members. For Members' tours, the overarching issue therefore is maintaining the number of hours on weekdays when the House Service can offer tours—for example, if some time were lost on Tuesday mornings, we would need to be able to make it up on, say, Thursday afternoons or Fridays.[39]

Whilst we do not believe that the House's sitting times should be solely dictated by the position of the House as a tourist attraction, we nevertheless consider that the ability of the public, including our constituents, to visit the Palace of Westminster is an important consideration. The more people are able to come to this building and see and hear for themselves what it is that Parliament, and Members of Parliament, do here, the better the chance of genuine reengagement of the public with the political process.

Tuesdays: conclusion

33. If the House were to sit earlier on a Tuesday, we consider that it should not do so earlier than 11.30 am, in order to leave some time for other business to be transacted on Tuesday mornings. We recommend that if a vote on retaining the status quo on Tuesday is lost then the House should be given the opportunity to decide whether it wishes to sit at 11.30 am on a Tuesday, with a moment of interruption at 7 pm. Our view is that the current Tuesday hours should be retained.

WEDNESDAYS

34. Currently, the House sits at 11.30am on a Wednesday, with a moment of interruption at 7.00 pm. There is a desire on the part of some Members to bring that time forward, in order to allow them to spend time in the evening with their families, or on other business, or—where they do not wish to attend business in the House on a Thursday, which has sometimes been lightly whipped—to return to their constituencies. That may be particularly the case for Members whose constituencies are distant from Westminster.

35. We consider that it would be possible to accommodate a change to bring forward the time of sitting on Wednesday by one hour if there is majority support for it in the House. Such a change would, however, squeeze the time available for select and general committees meeting on Wednesday mornings, as well as reducing the time during which the public may make tours of the Palace. In addition, we do not consider it desirable to arrange sitting hours just to allow Members to depart Westminster before the week's business is complete. Even lightly whipped business may well be of some significance and, while we recognise the importance of constituency work, we do not wish to see further incursions of such duties into the equally important work undertaken at Westminster.

36. We recommend that if a vote on retaining the status quo on Wednesday is lost then the House should be given the opportunity to decide whether it wishes to sit at 10.30 am on a Wednesday, with a moment of interruption at 6.00 pm. Our view is that the current Wednesday hours should be retained.

THURSDAYS

37. The House currently sits at 10.30 am on a Thursday, with a moment of interruption at 6 pm. Although we do not wish to encourage departure from Westminster on a Wednesday, before the end of the week's business at Westminster, we recognise that it is in the interests of the efficient use of Members' time to enable them to get back to their constituencies on a Thursday evening. We heard some evidence that an earlier finish on Thursdays would assist some Members to do so, particularly those who have a significant distance to travel.

38. The obvious disadvantage of this arrangement would be the diminution of time available for other Parliamentary business on a Thursday morning. Few select committees sit on a Thursday morning, and those which do tend to meet at the same time as the Chamber in any case. An earlier start in the Chamber, of say 9.30 am, would however render pre-Chamber sittings of public bill committees impractical. We doubt that many Members would relish a start in public bill committee of 8.00 am. It would also mean an unreasonably early start for public bill committee staff—perhaps as early as 6.30 am. It is a matter for public bill committees themselves to decide when they meet, but we expect that, to accommodate a start time of 9.30 am on a Thursday in the Chamber, public bill committees would find it necessary to meet while business is proceeding in the Chamber on a Thursday morning, either during oral questions or starting immediately thereafter.

39. The Clerk of the House also drew our attention to the implications of an earlier start time on Thursdays for urgent questions.[40] The Standing Orders already make provision for business to be interrupted at eleven o'clock on a Friday—when the House, of course, meets at 9.30am—for statements or urgent questions.[41] If the House were to decide to meet at 9.30 am on a Thursday, we suggest that similar provision—whether for interruption at eleven o'clock, or later, say at 12 noon—might be made for those days, in order to ensure that the Speaker can be properly briefed on matters which have been subject to a request for an urgent question.

40. We recommend that the House should be given the opportunity to decide whether it wishes to meet at 9.30 am on a Thursday, with a moment of interruption at 5.00 pm. We expect that the consequence of such a change would be that public bill committees would sit while business proceeded in the House on a Thursday morning. Consideration would also need to be given to the timing of urgent questions.

FRIDAYS

41. Currently, the House normally sits on 13 Fridays each session, to consider private Members' bills.[42] The question of whether to continue to sit on some Fridays is therefore wholly bound up with the question of the consideration of private Members' business, which is considered further below.

How to enable the House to come to a decision effectively on daily sitting hours

42. Because of the interaction of the various options, enabling the House to come to a decision on daily sitting hours will not be straightforward. We have considered how to make the procedure as comprehensible as possible, whilst ensuring both that the House avoids, so far as possible, coming to decisions which we feel are mutually incompatible (such as taking private Members' bills on a Wednesday evening and meeting at 9.30 am on a Thursday), and that it is able to come to a clear decision without a large number of votes on propositions for sitting times which enjoy only very limited support.

43. As our conclusions and recommendations above imply, we consider that the House should be enabled to come to a decision in respect of each separate day of the week. Our preference in the case of Monday to Wednesday is for there to be no change to sitting hours. We recommend that the House should be invited to consider first in respect of each of those days a motion that no change be made to sitting times on that day. If that motion is passed, no further motion will be able to be moved making changes to sitting hours on that day.

44. Each of those motions should be followed on the Order Paper initially by a motion making the change we have suggested that the House should consider if the status quo is rejected. Ordinarily, that motion would be open to amendment to effect any other change to sitting hours which any Member wished to put to the House. The problem with that procedure is that all such amendments would have to be disposed of before the main question—which we would expect to be the option commanding greatest support—could be put.

45. Instead, therefore, we recommend that any Members wishing to put an alternative proposition to the House be invited to table their own motion, rather than tabling amendments. Since it would be possible to table freestanding motions, the Speaker would be invited to be sparing in his selection of any amendments. Because amendments would be unlikely to be selected, Members would be advised to table motions instead of amendments. Any such motions would be arranged on the Order Paper following the motion for retaining the status quo and the subsequent motion making the change we have suggested that the House should consider if the status quo is rejected. As soon as either the motion to retain the status quo or any motion making a change to sitting hours on any day was agreed to, all other motions would fall and would not be put to the House, thereby avoiding a large number of unnecessary votes on propositions enjoying only limited support.

46. In the case of Thursday, we have recommended that the House be invited to decide whether it wished to meet at 9.30 am, with a moment of interruption at 5.00 pm. In this case, there would be no motion to retain the status quo: the House would vote first on the motion to make that change. Any different propositions which any Member wished to put to the House for decision would be tabled as separate motions, which would fall and not be put to the House if the motion to meet at 9.30 am were agreed to. Members wishing to retain the status quo would vote against all motions relating to Thursdays.

47. A business motion would be required to enable all necessary votes to occur at the end of the debate, after the moment of interruption: we would look to the Government to facilitate that.

48. The Order Paper would thus look something like this:

1  SITTINGS OF THE HOUSE (MONDAYS) (NO.1)

That no change be made to the time at which the House sits on a Monday.

2  SITTINGS OF THE HOUSE (MONDAYS) (NO. 2)

[Motion making the changes to the Standing Orders necessary to enable the House to sit at 1.00 pm on a Monday, with a moment of interruption at 8.30 pm.]

This motion cannot be moved if motion 1 is agreed to.

3  SITTINGS OF THE HOUSE (MONDAYS) (NO. 3 [&c])

[Any motions making changes to the Standing Orders necessary to provide for any alternative sitting hours proposed by any Member.]

This motion cannot be moved if either motion 1 or motion 2 [&c] is agreed to.

4  SITTINGS OF THE HOUSE (TUESDAYS) (NO. 1)

That no change be made to the time at which the House sits on a Tuesday.

5  SITTINGS OF THE HOUSE (TUESDAYS) (NO. 2)

[Motion making the changes to the Standing Orders necessary to enable the House to sit at 11.30 am on a Tuesday, with a moment of interruption at 7.00 pm.]

This motion cannot be moved if motion 4 is agreed to.  

6  SITTINGS OF THE HOUSE (TUESDAYS) (NO. 3 [&c])

[Any motions making changes to the Standing Orders necessary to provide for any alternative sitting hours proposed by any Member.]

This motion cannot be moved if either motion 4 or motion 5 [&c.] is agreed to.

7  SITTINGS OF THE HOUSE (WEDNESDAYS) (NO. 1)

That no change be made to the time at which the House sits on a Wednesday.

8  SITTINGS OF THE HOUSE (WEDNESDAYS) (NO. 2)

[Motion making the changes to the Standing Orders necessary to enable the House to sit at 10.30 am on a Wednesday, with a moment of interruption at 6.00 pm.]

This motion cannot be moved if motion 7 is agreed to.  

9  SITTINGS OF THE HOUSE (WEDNESDAYS) (NO. 3 [&c])

[Any motions making changes to the Standing Orders necessary to provide for any alternative sitting hours proposed by any Member.]

This motion cannot be moved if either motion 7 or motion 8 [&c.] is agreed to.

10  SITTINGS OF THE HOUSE (THURSDAYS) (NO. 1)

[Motion making the changes to the Standing Orders necessary to enable the House to sit at 9.30 am on a Thursday, with a moment of interruption at 5.00 pm.]

11  SITTINGS OF THE HOUSE (THURSDAYS) (NO. 2 [&c])

[Any motions making changes to the Standing Orders necessary to provide for any alternative sitting hours proposed by any Member.]

This motion cannot be moved if motion 10 [&c.] is agreed to.


17   Q 249 Back

18   See, for example, Ev w29, Ev w62, Ev w87, Ev w91, Q 178, Q 181. Back

19   Q 97 Back

20   Q 247 Back

21   Ev w15 Back

22   Q 145 Back

23   Ev w32 Back

24   Q84 Back

25   CJ (2001-02) 781 Back

26   HC Deb, 26 Jan 2005, cols 327-378 Back

27   Ev w44, Q80 Back

28   Ev w46-7 Back

29   Q 85 Back

30   Q 87 Back

31   Ev w47 Back

32   Ev w50 Back

33   Ev w50 Back

34   Standing Order No. 88(1) Back

35   Note to Q 200 Back

36   Q 111 Back

37   Q 181 Back

38   Q 179 Back

39   Ev w55. See also Ev w1, from the Chair of the Administration Committee. Back

40   Q 208 Back

41   Standing Order No. 11(4) and (5) Back

42   Exceptionally, the House sat on 23 March 2012 for a continuation of the Budget debate. The last time the House sat on a Friday other than to consider private Members' bills was 11 April 2003, also for continuation of the Budget debate. Back


 
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Prepared 20 June 2012