HC Deb 17 January 1980 vol 976 cc2048-57
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Richard Crawshaw)

Before I call the right hon. Gentleman, I wish to indicate that the amendment standing in the name of the hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) has been selected.

12.6 am

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Norman St. John-Stevas)

I beg to move,

rupted at 2.30 and the adjournment will run until 3 o'clock, when the House will normally rise.

I have already assured the House, and I repeat the assurance tonight, that the Government will move the suspension on Fridays only in special circumstances of urgency and importance.

The motion further provides that Mr. Speaker may interrupt proceedings at 11 o'clock to enable private notice questions to be asked and any ministerial statements and personal explanations to be made. The amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) would require such matters to be dealt with at the commencement of business. I strongly advise the House that it is in the general interest of hon. Members that, where necessary, the interruption should be at 11 am as proposed in the motion. As the House will, I am sure, recognize, it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to deal adequately with private notice questions, in particular, in the time available before 9.30 in the morning, and I have no doubt the authorities of the House would be faced with similar problems. I accordingly believe that an 11 o'clock interruption would, where required, be much more convenient to all concerned, including Back Benchers.

The House authorities have now carried out all the necessary consultations to ensure that the change to an earlier start time can be made smoothly. Hon. Members had made it clear that they would like to see the change made, and I accordingly commend it to the House.

12.9 am

Mr. Michael English (Nottingham, West)

I beg to move, as an amendment, leave out lines 7 to 17.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for providing this small amount of time to discuss this motion. I am also grateful to him for deferring its implementation while he had consultations. I think that, as he is aware, on a previous occasion he had been somewhat misled as to the extent of consultations, and I am grateful for his ready and immediate response and his carrying out of these consultations with all the people affected by this motion.

I have no wish to obstruct the will of the House. The House has decided that it wants to meet at 9.30 am on Fridays and I have no wish to object to the principle of the motion.

The sole point I am disturbed about is the proposed interruption of what is normally private Members' business at 11 am. It is not our practice to interrupt business at all. It is normal and usual in this House, if we are proceeding on a given subject, be it to take recent business, the Southern Rhodesia Order or anything else, that it is not suddenly interrupted except for grave events and crises. There are such crises, and Mr. Speaker would always interrupt the business of the House without the necessity of invoking a Standing Order for a statement of the greatest importance. I remember that we discussed the devaluation of the pound in 1967 at about this hour. At about midnight business was interrupted for a statement on devaluation and questions upon it.

The implication of putting this provision in a Standing Order is that the Government want to interrupt business for second class statements that are not of such importance for the Speaker automatically to interrupt business.

May I ask hon. Members to consider what is likely to happen? Great passions can be aroused on either side of the House in discussing, for example, the Abortion (Amendment) Bill. There are those who support it and those who will passionately oppose it on Report in a few days from now. At about 11 o'clock in the morning, as we are discussing whether there should be abortions at 24 weeks or 20 weeks of pregnancy, a Minister may stand up and announce to the House that overseas aid is being reduced by 10 per cent. That would be an extraordinary set of circumstances.

The Leader of the House is no doubt technically correct in saying that the effect of my amendment is that statements and PNQs would, if nothing else were done, occur at 9.30 am. Has he not thought of the possibility of putting them at the end of business, at 2.30 pm? On Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday statements and PNQs are normally made at 3.30 pm or slightly later. They could well be made an hour earlier on Friday, at 2.30 pm. That would be helpful to the press and to everyone, and that would occur after the normal interruption at the end of what is usually, though not invariably, private Members' business.

I shall not press the amendment to a Division. If hon. Members wish to negative it, I shall let that happen, but, after we have had a full Session of the operation of this Standing Order in practice, I suggest that the right hon. Gentleman should move the statements and PNQs to an alternative time, such as 2.30 pm, so as not to interrupt what is not the Government's business. It is unfair that the Government should wish to interrupt private Members' time for their own purposes.

12.13 am
Mr. Merlyn Rees (Leeds. South)

We agreed this procedure on 31 October, and consultations have taken place on behalf of the official Opposition. This is very much a matter for individual Members. We agree with what the Government are doing. I understand the view expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English), and I hope that it will be taken into account. Let us look at it.

It takes a long time to shake off being a member of the Government. I do not think that statements should be taken at an earlier time because it takes a long time in the morning to collect together information; and the whole purpose of the change is to allow hon. Members to get to their constituencies in the afternoon.

I support the Government, and I am sure that the Leader of the House will consider the procedure carefully in the light of what my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, West has said.

12.14 am
Mr. Peter Bottomley (Woolwich, West)

The suggestion made by the hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) is important. If it is found that the taking of statements at 11 am unduly interrupts the business, I hope that the Government will consider the alternative suggestion of 2.30 pm, which would be preferable to 9.30 am, and allow hon. Members to take time to discover what question is coming up.

What matters is the interruption of the debate. It is not taking time from private Members. The same amount of time will be available on Fridays whether it is from 9.30 am to 2.30 pm or 11 am to 4 pm.

Mr. English

The hon. Member may be wrong. If there is a statement at 11 am, and if Mr. Speaker allows half an hour of questions, that half an hour will not be replaced. The interruption of business will still come at 2.30 pm as it presently comes at 4 pm. or as it presently comes at 10 pm on another day of the week. The time will have been lost by private Members.

Mr. Bottomley

The point remains that the time taken up by debate on a statement or questions will be the same as it has been up to now.

I greatly welcome the move to a 9.30 am start on Fridays, even though mine is a London constituency and it is already possible for me to get there in the afternoon for a surgery. The only difference to me—and to the many constituents of mine who work in the House of Commons—is that it will be possible to get home without joining in the rush hour. I greatly welcome that.

12.16 am
Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

I shall not speak for long. I am most unhappy about the proposed change in sitting times from 11 am to 9.30 am. It means putting back from 4 o'clock to 2.30 pm the time for finishing our business. It is a matter of opinion whether the House has already decided that issue.

As I recall, we had a vote on all the recommendations. An amendment was tabled on 31 October 1979 to the effect that all the House needed to do was take note of the recommendations without voting on them. In the event, we voted on the recommendations in toto and I voted as we were recommended to vote by the Leader of the House. I did not think that my personal feelings on one recommendation should guide me to vote against the whole lot. Nevertheless, this is an opportunity to discuss the issue and to voice one's feelings of regret about the matter. I am taking brief advantage of that opportunity.

My main reason for regret is this; I appreciate that in a sense it is a form of special pleading. Some Members of the House are practising members of the Bar. Barristers infrequently stand up and talk about the difficulties of their profession because special pleading is not normally liked in this place and because we are somewhat shy of the accusations—only too easily made—that we are defending our financial interest.

I can assure hon. Members on both sides of the House that a member of the Bar has a duty to appear in court. Very often that duty is performed regardless of the financial benefit. We would as soon not concern ourselves with the financial aspect, but we have a duty to appear at a certain time and at a certain place.

Though it is possible for members of the Bar engaged in a case which has lasted for several days—say, at the Central Criminal Court—to approach the judge and say that a matter of great importance has arisen in the House of Commons and would the court rise to enable us to indulge in our public duty they do not make applications of that kind enthusiastically.

Frequently such an application involves the wasted expenditure of considerable sums of public money. Not only is the time of the court wasted by the necessity for it to rise for the convenience of counsel who is a Member of this place, but the time of witnesses, judges, solicitors, the staff of the court and juries is wasted at great public cost. Therefore, we are extremely reluctant to take advantage of the opportunity which tradition has given us of approaching the judge in those circumstances and saying "May we rise early in order to satisfy this public duty?"

Mr. English

We can all see the hon. Gentleman's point, which I should have thought applied from Monday to Thursday as well. That is why many lawyers come into the House at a certain hour in the afternoon. I do not understand what difference it makes to sit from 9.30 am to 2.30 pm as distinct from 11 am to 4.30 pm.

Mr. Lawrence

I shall endeavour to enlighten the hon. Gentleman, who probably at this hour of night is not thinking with his usual clarity. From Monday to Thursday, this House does not sit before 2.30 pm, and it is very seldom that a debate begins before 4 pm or later. Today the debate began nearer to 5 pm. It is the normal practice for the courts in London to rise at about 4 pm, and therefore it is perfectly possible for members of the Bar practising in court on a particular day from Monday to Thursday to be here by 4.30 pm. But, of course, on a Friday the same position applies. Members of the Bar could be here at 4 pm in order to vote on a matter of importance. But now it will be very difficult for members of the Bar to be here at 2.30 pm to vote on a matter of importance if they are engaged in a case. [AN HON. MEMBER: "It is a matter of choice."] The hon. Gentleman says that it a matter of choice. He ought to know about this, because I believe that his brother is a distinguished member of the Bar.

If one is engaged in a case which has lasted weeks or days, it is not a matter of choice whether one turns up. One's obligation is to remain in court to continue the case unless a matter of substantial importance arises which brings one to this place, in which case great financial loss is occasioned, not to the barrister but to the State as a whole, for the underwriting of the cost of a trial which is delayed for several hours as a result of the need to come here.

It is not just a question of choice. Frequently my colleagues and I in this place decide that we shall take no work at the Bar for a substantial period in order to be here to take part in Committees in the mornings or to take our part in Question Time in the afternoons. As long as this place remains a place at which members of the Bar can carry on to some extent their practice at the same time as they are Members of Parliament, I believe that the activities of the Members of this place are to some extent enhanced by having practitioners not only from the Bar but from other walks of life. I do not look forward to the day when this place becomes a wholly professional nine-to-five institution.

Therefore, I think it important that I state the difficulty that will face hon. Members who are members of the Bar. There are not many of us. Perhaps the point also applies to other professions or other activities. As long as this place is a mixture of the full-time politician, the mostly full-time politician and the part-time person with another activity, that difficulty will arise, and it will be aggravated by moving the voting time from 4 pm to 2.30 pm. It is a substantial difficulty.

I appreciate that a large number of hon. Members would find it easier to get to their constituencies if the House adjourned at 2.30 pm. It takes me four or five hours to get to my constituency at some bad times of the year when the M1 is chock-a-block. I hope that the Government will soon put an end to those difficulties. There is only a two-lane system between here and the part of Hertfordshire that is on the M1. I also understand that several hon. Members who have constituencies further away than mine get to those constituencies a lot quicker than I get to mine. The question of time is important to many of us. I have long given up being irritated when my constituents tap their watches on a Friday evening as I arrive half-way through a dinner, or after the last course has been served, or half-way through a meeting and say "Ah, late again". It shows a misunderstanding of the many difficulties that face hon. Members.

I understand the advantages of rising early in the afternoon. I shall therefore do no more than voice my unhappiness. I would not wish to press the issue to a vote. Equally, hon. Members should understand the position of all sorts of people who are connected with the House. They will find it inconvenient to be here at 8.30 am or 9 am in preparation for a debate that starts at 9.30 am. Not everyone lives in London or within half an hour's travel of the House. Many people apart from hon. Members will be inconvenienced. I do not expect the House to be very interested, but I take my daughter to school in Chertsey as often as I can as a method of maintaining the close relationship between my family and I. Of course I shall not be able to that on Fridays. People who work in the Library and many different servants of the House who live outside London will not be able to take their children to school if the House sits at 9.30 am.

I have voiced the issue about which feel quite strongly and I hope that hon. Members will realise that if the sitting time is altered in a way that may suit some hon. Members but not all the issue cannot be quite as simple or as straightforward as it may seem.

12.26 am
Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

My hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) has displayed his considerable ability as a lawyer. If his speech was short, it is not surprising that the cost of the law is so high.

I shall be very brief. My right hon. Friend has a fine reputation for assisting the House and I seek two points of clarification from him. To some extent I support the views advanced by the hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English). I am deeply concerned about the interruption of private business, although I am not at all worried about the interruption of Government business that is occasionally also taken on Fridays. However, it is inappropriate to interrupt an important speech during the limited time that is available to private Members. Will my right hon. Friend consider the case put forward by the hon. Member for Nottingham, West, and will he reconsider the time at which Government statements may be made?

I have been here for eight years or more and I have attended many Friday sittings. Governments have a habit of making statements on Fridays. It therefore appears that quite a number of private Members' motions and Bills will be interrupted by Government statements. Unlike those referred to by the hon. Member for Nottingham, West, they are not usually statements of great import. Will my right hon. Friend look at the points raised by the hon. Member for Nottingham, West, because there is some validity in his argument? The House accepts changes in procedure too easily and those changes are often damaging to the amount of time available to hon. Members to raise private business.

From time to time the House has been known to sit all night. How will the procedures of the House be changed and by what time will an all-night sitting have to be concluded if we start at 9.30?

I repeat that my right hon. Friend has a fine reputation, as the hon. Member for Nottingham, West stated, for trying to meet the genuine concern of hon. Members. I hope that yet again he will endeavour to meet it.

12.30 am
Mr. St. John-Stevas

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) for that totally unsolicited tribute, and I am also grateful for the courtesy of reference of the hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English).

If my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) will forgive me, I shall not follow his argument. He had a perfect right to voice his opinions, but the decision on principle has been taken by the House, and I took it that his speech was more in the nature of an elegy than an argument. I shall respect the melancholy tone of his reflections and not attempt to add to or subtract from them. It was a valuable contribution to our discussions.

I am also grateful to the right hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) for his support.

I suppose that the business of the previous day will have to end at 9.29 am in order for Friday's business to begin at 9.30 am. The arrangement will be the same as at present except that the time will be moved back one and a half hours.

When I put the proposals to the House on 31 October, I made it clear that the 9.30 am sittings were subject to the proviso that there would be an interruuption at 11 am. Everyone was clear about that.

I am the servant of the House in these matters and I am not attempting to impose my will on anyone. I am trying to find out what the will of the House is and do what is in the best interests of the House. Any change must in the nature of things he experimental. If we find after a period that the changed hours are not working as we hoped, and they are found not to be to the convenience of hon. Members, we must look at them again. Equally, if the practice of interruption at 11 am is found to have some of the undesirable effects in practice that the hon. Member for Nottingham, West fears in principle, we must review it again. We are here to assist the House in these matters, and they affect Back Benchers above all. Their wishes must, should and will be taken into account.

Amendment negatived.

Main Question put and agreed to.


That, with effect from 25 January, Standing Order No. 5 (Friday sittings) be amended, as follows:

Line 2, leave out "eleven o'clock" and insert "half past nine o'clock".

Line 10, leave out "four o'clock, a quarter to five o'clock and half past five o'clock", and insert "half past two o'clock, a quarter past three o'clock and four o'clock".

Line 18, leave out "half past five o'clock" and insert "four o'clock".

Line 20, at end add— (3A) At eleven o'clock Mr. Speaker may interrupt the proceedings in order to permit questions to be asked which are in his opinion of an urgent character and relate either to matters of public importance or to the arrangement of business, statements to be made by Ministers, or personal explanations to be made by Members. (3B) If the House is in Committee at eleven o'clock, on an occasion when Mr. Speaker's intention to permit such questions, statements or explanations has been made known, the Chairman shall leave the Chair without putting any question, and report that the Committee have made progress and ask leave to sit again".

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