HC Deb 18 July 1973 vol 860 cc670-80

12.1 a.m.

Mr. Jerry Wiggin (Weston-superMare)

Intrigued by the trailer for that television series, I am glad that the stars have now left the floor to us. I am grateful for the opportunity to raise at this time of year the question of the parliamentary year and the calendar of our Sessions and Recesses. I deliberately postponed applying for this Adjournment debate until the humid, long and tiring days of July were upon us so that the difficulties of sitting at this time of year should be apparent to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary.

I should like to thank my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House for writing to me and explaining why he is not able to respond to my debate, but in some respects it is perhaps propitious because my hon. Friend who is to reply has for long taken a considerable interest in the welfare of hon. Members and their families, and I know that his wife has interested herself considerably in the welfare of Members' wives. This is something which is frequently forgotten in this place.

My point in raising this matter is to direct to the attention of the authorities of the House the position not only of Members but also of the many hundreds of other people who are involved when the House is sitting. The staff of the House immediately come to mind—the officials, the Official Reporters, the police, the cleaners, the civil servants on parliamentary duties in every Government Department, members of the Press and individuals in embassies and companies. Of course, like us they have families whom they like occasionally to see when they are not performing their official duties. It seems to many of us that our present arrangements impose the maximum of suffering quite unnecessarily on a large number of people. I shall try to explain briefly how I see the problems.

I fully acknowledge that the Select Committee on Procedure dealt with this matter in the Session 1967–68 in a report entitled "The Dates of the Session; the Financial Year", but that Select Committee sat some five years ago and to my knowledge nothing has been done subsequently. I hope that what I have to say tonight might perhaps spark off a new investigation into the possibility of trying to alleviate some of the unnecessary distress caused by the present arrangements.

I accept, as the Select Committee accepted, that there is no need basically to alter the total length of our Session. I have looked up the length of the Session in the last 10 years. Starting with 1962–63, the length of the Session in terms of days for that and each succeeding year is as follows: 162, 155, 178, 65—that was an election year, followed by a Session of 246 days, giving an average for the two of 160. In 1967–68 the length of the Session was 176 days, and in the succeeding years it was 164, 122, 206 and 180. If the current Session sits until 25th July, we shall have sat for 156 days this time. If one accepts that basic precept—that the Session should be neither lengthened nor shortened—one is left with the question of how to fit the right number of sitting days into the gap with the recesses in between.

I hope that we can consider a method of rising at the end of June. Clearly, that would have a quid pro quo in that the House would have to make up the days it lost during July by sitting in the autumn, presumably from about the middle of September or even a little earlier—say, the end of the first week in September—until the hang-over business is concluded, then allowing time for the party conferences. The new Session would start at about the same time as it does now.

I appreciate that the party conferences cause a difficulty, but it would be wrong for the House to adjust its own business only because they could not be fitted in except at that time of year. It was, I think, only in about 1948 or even later that the party conferences stopped being held at Whitsun. I do not suggest that the whole panoply of a party conference should be altered, but I cannot imagine, with the new conference centres being built round the country and the other facilities becoming available, that we must be quite so inflexible about when the party conferences should be held.

I should like to draw attention to the tourist figures for the past three years. In 1970, for example, in June there were 509,000 tourists, in July 821,000, in August 680,000 and in September 446,000. In 1971 the comparable figures were 571,000, 907,000, 690,000 and 478,000. In 1972 they were 580,000, 896,000, 682,000 and 532,000. July and August are outstandingly the major tourist months. Any hon. Member who has an office outside the building or who approaches it on his own two feet will be well aware that in July and August every tourist who enters the country appears to visit Westminster Abbey and Parliament Square at least once, and many come to this building.

The tourist authorities tell me that about 80 per cent. of all the tourists who come to this country visit London. On the assumption that the majority visit this part of London, there is quite a good case for leaving it to them for July and August. I am the first to acknowledge that the tourist industry is of great importance and that it would be wrong to try to restrict tourists. We must live with them.

I know that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary is rightly very interested in family life. It is obvious that the school and university holidays have become completely out of gear with the parliamentary year. That causes considerable difficulties to all those with members of their family who are of school or university age. To see one's family is difficult enough at present, with the ordinary constituency duties that hon. Members have to perform, travelling, speaking engagements, and so on. But to make it doubly bad by ensuring that one's children are at school when we are in recess and vice versa seems unnecessary.

The university year apparently now concludes in about the middle of June. This year Oxford rose on 22nd June and Cambridge on 15th June. School holidays depend to some extent on the local education authority, but the second week in July is usually about the latest that schools break up. It appears that public schools are also breaking up at about that date. The university board examination for A- and O-levels are held in the last week or two of June and the first week of July.

Next we must consider the technical reasons which are said to preclude such an arrangement as I suggest. The Select Committee examined pages of evidence from the Treasury. There seem to be innumerable historic and bureaucratic reasons for not altering the Treasury year. Any hon. Member who has ever been responsible for a business which has altered its financial year will have some sympathy with the problem. It is not easy. Difficulties are created, but those difficulties are far from insuperable. The necessity to alter our financial year should not be an objection which cannot be overcome.

Third Readings of Finance Bills during the last 10 years have been before the end of June or in the first week of July in six years out of the 10, one of which was 1970, which was an exceptional year. For the other five years Third Readings were always in the first half of the month. It would seem that, even if we adopted the same financial year, the Finance Bill is not an excuse for not rising rather earlier.

I accept that there is a difficulty about the number of Supply Days which, according to Standing Orders, have to be dealt with by 5th August. We would have to change a Standing Order if we were to allow Supply Days to be taken in the held-over part of the Session.

I have the dates for the rising of the House. In 1963 we rose on 30th July; in 1964, 31st July; in 1965, 5th August; in 1966, 12th August; in 1967, 28th July; in 1968, 26th July; in 1969, 25th July; in 1970, 24th July; in 1971, 5th August; and in 1972, 9th August. We shall soon know whether we are to rise this year on 25th or 26th July. We are talking about three or possibly four weeks when our dates could, and I believe should, be altered.

We are keen at the moment to conform with Community practices. The details are not easy to obtain but it appears that Belgium, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, France and Holland have financial years which start on 1st June. Sessions end in June or early July in Belgium, Denmark and Germany. Other Parliaments have very different practices from this House. The hours which they sit are different and to make comparisons is difficult. However, it would seem that we would be far from out of step if we were to make the change which I suggest.

I see no reason for not giving this suggested change a try. The noble Lord, Lord Diamond, in giving evidence to the Select Committee in 1967, said that he could not envisage an alteration of the financial year as such an alteration would be incapable of being carried out until 1972 at the earliest. Clearly we are already past that date. I hope that Her Majesty's Government will reconsider the matter. We could keep the same financial year and yet rise earlier. That is a matter purely for this House. If that proved convenient, no doubt the Treasury could overcome any difficulties and reorganise the financial year. An earlier rising could then become part of the normally accepted parliamentary year.

12.14 a.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Civil Service Department (Mr. Kenneth Baker)

When I was listening to my hon. Friend the Member for Westonsuper-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) I could not help recalling that someone, somewhere, on some occasion, remarked that a week in politics was a long time. When my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House asked me to reply on the subject of a whole parliamentary year, I thought I might be bordering upon a political eternity.

My hon. Friend, with his usual clarity, brevity and good and thorough research, has set out in specific terms his concern about the present arrangements of our business and his plea that we could now profitably make a change.

I want first to emphasise that my hon. Friend's choice of the title, "Parliamentary year", is obviously a very deliberate one. To avoid misunderstanding outside this House, I want to make it clear that we are not talking about the Member of Parliament's working year or the Minister's working year.

There is no question here of MPs asking for longer holidays. Any such suggestion is based on a misunderstanding of an MP's life. It makes the mistake of assuming that Westminster is an MP's office and that when he is not there he is not at work. I am sure my hon. Friend will agree with me that this is very far from the case. The Recess is not all holiday. Most of it should be described as an essential break in parliamentary business which allows MPs to devote more of their time to work in their constituencies.

What we are talking about is the feeling among some MPs who are so often parted from their families for long periods that, if there is an opportunity for them to be working at home during school holidays, it should be taken. Political life imposes upon an MP many strains, but the greatest of all is that imposed on his family and I think that we should do everything we can to reduce this strain.

My hon. Friend has taken up the argument put to the Select Committee on Procedure in 1968 that changes in the school holidays have meant that Members, particularly in Scotland and the North of England, have been separated from their families for almost a month of their school holidays.

I believe it is the custom in Scotland for schools to break up at the beginning of July. Certainly many schools in England do. My children broke up a week ago. This is a very important factor. My hon. Friend also mentioned the universities and their terms. That is a matter of opinion. I think it is rather nice to be with one's children when they are small, but I do not know whether, when mine go to university, I will want them with me or, indeed, whether they will want to be with me. I have some doubts about that.

Hon. Members will recall that in 1968, just after these changes had become evident, the Select Committee on Procedure did not come to a final decision although it provided a most useful analysis of the problem. My hon. Friend has argued that experience since then, and the influx of younger Members with school age children into the House, makes these arguments all the more cogent. I also noted what he said about the financial year.

I assure my hon. Friend that the Government recognise the problem posed by the different financial years in the EEC countries. We have also noted the Irish Government's intention to go over to the calendar year basis in 1975. As Treasury Ministers have announced, we have therefore set in hand a study on this matter.

If a change in the financial year were to be recommended, it would, of course, mean changes in the timing of parliamentary business, and I can assure my hon. Friend that the points he has made tonight will be taken into account. I think, however, it is fair to say that while it would obviously be sensible for decisions on any change in the financial year to be taken at the same time as a decision on the parliamentary year, the latter change is not dependent on the former. It would be possible to do the one without the other.

Indeed, as my hon. Friend has pointed out, the Finance Bill used to be a tremendous blockage during the summer, but ever since it was split in 1968 it has become very much less so. It has, in fact, been deglamorised since then, and in my view rightly, because the other economic debates during the year, like the public expenditure debate just before Christmas and the various others on subjects such as the Price and Pay Code, are as important as the Finance Bill, which now passes through the House in a much easier way.

This is very much of a pattern of how Parliament changes over the years and, indeed, how the dates of Sessions change over the years. When I was reading Robert Blake's biography of Disraeli, I came across an account of how our predecessors did things in those days. I should like to give the following quotation: Summer after summer when the Session ended, often late in August, the Disraelis would repair to Hughenden, and unless the Conservatives were in office when Cabinet meetings made it necesary to return to London in late October —that is rather nice, two months without Cabinet meetings— they would stay there until after Christmas. Autumn Sessions were rare in those days. Indeed, in that Indian Summer of aristocratic rule the life of a politician was in almost every respect more agreeable than it is today. There was far more time for thought and reflection. Therefore, when people refer to the good old days, a vision of the Disraelis going to Hughenden in August and not coming back until January springs to my mind and I can see the gleam of nostalgia in the eyes of my hon. Friend. I fear, however, that such days are long past.

The aristocrats' benevolent paternalism has been replaced by the yoke of the burghers' rule. We are the most hardworking legislature in the world. The Procedure Committee published some very interesting figures which show that the House of Commons averages some 1,350 hours in a Session per year as against 1,000 in Canada, 920 in the United States of America, 540 in France and 260 in Germany. We sit five times as long as the Bundestag. It seems obvious, therefore, that we should do what we can to reduce the strain imposed by long Sessions and long hours.

I turn briefly to the various factors of constraint on the changes suggested by my hon. Friend. First, there may be the views of those hon. Members who do not have children of school age and who prefer the present arrangements. Second are the changes which might have to be made to other Recesses to pay for an earlier summer break. For example, to get through the business it might be necessary to shorten the Christmas Recess or to ask hon. Members to return earlier in the autumn and accept a longer spillover period, to come back in September to catch up on the lost period. This might not be welcomed by all hon. Members.

Third, and I think most important of all, are the difficulties which my hon. Friend recognised of rearranging the party conferences, which have to be held out of the holiday season, otherwise we could not get in at the two towns to which the two parties seem to be irrevocably committed. October is the most convenient time for the Conservative and Labour Party conferences and changes in the dates might prove awkward.

It is perhaps ironic that the one thing which party conferences dictate with absolute authority to the parties and to this House are the dates of our Sessions. However, I do not believe that any of these difficulties would prove insurmountable and beyond the wit of the ingenious managers who have contrived to provide for us to rise in any event during next week.

The introduction of new procedures such as the Statutory Instruments merits committee may help by relieving the full meetings of the House from examining subordinate legislation.

It would be no bad thing if we imposed a healthy self-discipline on ourselves and legislated a little less. Then the Opposition could, as their part of the bargain, offer up some Supply Days as their part of this self-denying ordinance.

On behalf of the Government, therefore, I welcome the initiative of my hon. Friend in this matter. The House would do well to look carefully at his argument for change and at the constraints affecting such a change.

I personally have every sympathy with the argument my hon. Friend has put, and I know that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House shares this sympathy. I can assure my hon. Friend that all the points he has made tonight will be carefully noted and considered by the Government.

I am only sorry that in order to raise these points my hon. Friend has had to sacrifice yet another evening with his family, and in view of the hour he will not be able to go home and get in touch with them to let them know how the debate has gone. Perhaps it is some consolation for him to know that there is only one more week left in this parliamentary Session before he can return to Somerset, to his family and his constituents.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-four minutes past Twelve o'clock.