HC Deb 26 November 1973 vol 865 cc23-5
46. Mrs. Renée Short

asked the Lord President of the Council if he will propose discussions through the usual channels about reforming the sitting hours of the House of Commons.

Mr. Prior

Any revision of sitting times would be a matter for decision by the House generally rather than by the usual channels. I have repeatedly made clear my own personal view that our present sitting hours are too long.

Mrs. Short

Will the right hon. Gentleman nevertheless see what steps he can take to remove the burden not only from hon. Members and their families, who feel great strain because of the way we organise our business, but from over 1,000 people working in this House when it is sitting—journalists, police, and many others—who look after the House and the comfort of hon. Members? These people should be considered too.

Mr. Prior

I think that the hon. Lady is right. There are other people to consider besides ourselves. I hope that sooner or later the House will give the necessary co-operation to a Leader of the House who tries to cut down the number of hours that we work. I should perhaps tell the House that the number of hours overtime that we worked last Session—that is, hours after 10.30 p.m.—were down to 227 compared with 319 in 1971–72 and 318 in 1970–71. Perhaps we can do better this time.

Mr. Wiggin

Will my right hon. Friend repeat an assurance given in July by his hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Civil Service Department that the Government are considering the dates of the Sessions with particular respect to rising earlier for the long recess and sitting longer in the autumn?

Mr. Prior

Yes. This matter needs much further consideration. I think that it would be for the convenience of many hon. Members that this should happen.

Mr. Pardoe

Will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind the remarks made by the Labour Party's Chief Whip at the Labour Party conference that most of its legislation will have to be guillotined if the Labour Party ever comes to power? Surely that means that, in order to cut down the number of hours, every major Bill, by whichever Government it is introduced, must have a predetermined timetable?

Mr. Prior

The first part of the hon. Gentleman's supplementary question is purely hypothetical. The second part is a matter which would have to be very carefully considered by the House as a whole. If we are to reduce our hours to a reasonable existence and at the same time allow more time for general and topical debates, which I think would do much to stimulate the Chamber into greater activity, there will have to be some restriction on time-wasting procedures which have been part of the history of the House when it comes to Committee and Report stages and even some Second Reading debates. There is much greater agreement now on both sides of the House that we should make changes in this respect. I do not know whether we shall be able to put forward proposals shortly, but I should like to consider them in view of the exchanges this afternoon.

Mr. Tom King

Is it not clear that one area where time could be saved is in the general and topical debates to which my right hon. Friend referred, which in many ways are often far too long? Could we not have more short debates with special regulations about short speeches so that there is more general involvement by hon. Members?

Mr. Prior

None of these matters, Mr. Speaker, as you know only too well, is without its controversial side. I think that short, topical debates, but more of them, would meet the general wish of the House.

Mr. William Hamilton

Is the Leader of the House aware that the principal weapon of any Opposition is time? This place is unique in that we cannot have fixed hours. We on this side, and I think many Conservative Members, will look carefully at any proposition about working anything like office hours. Will he undertake that what was reported in The Times this morning has not come direct from the Government Chief Whip and that we should have an open, frank debate in the House of Commons before any proposals are put before it by the Government?

Mr. Prior

I certainly assure the hon. Gentleman that the House would wish to be concerned in any changes of this kind which could possibly be contemplated. I recognise that time and the ability to delay Government legislation is a very important part of the duty of an Opposition. But, of course, all these matters would have to be properly considered by the House on a suitable occasion. No changes will be made without that proper consultation.

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