HC Deb 20 June 1994 vol 245 cc18-20
42. Mr. Pickthall

To ask the Lord President of the Council what progress is being made towards reforming the sitting hours of the House of Commons.

43. Mr. Harry Greenway

To ask the Lord President of the Council if he will make a statement on the hours of working of the House.

44. Mr. Clifton-Brown

To ask the Lord President of the Council what plans he has to implement the Jopling report.

45. Mr. Channon

To ask the Lord President of the Council what progress he is making with implementing the Jopling report.

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Tony Newton)

I am currently engaged in constructive discussions with the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown). Our aim is to find ways of enabling the House to conduct its business in more sensible ways and with more sensible hours, without unacceptably reducing either the Government's capacity to carry out their programme or the Opposition's flexibility in deploying and pressing their case. It is my hope—I think that I can say "our hope"—that those discussions will enable us to map a way forward before the summer recess.

Mr. Pickthall

I am grateful to the Lord President of the Council for that encouraging reply. Does he agree that at least part of the low esteem in which the House is held by the general public stems from the barmy hours that we keep? Will he ensure that, in the discussions that he described, despite the recommendation of the Select Committee, he will consider bringing forward sittings into the mornings so that we might have something resembling a normal working day in which we could pursue a full-time single job as we were elected to do?

Mr. Newton

I do not think that I would wish at this stage to hold out a significant prospect of going beyond the proposals in the report concerning the exchange, as it were, of some Wednesday mornings for some Fridays, but that is clearly one of the subjects of the discussion between the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and myself. As for what the hon. Gentleman called barmy hours, of course I should like to see further progress in avoiding late-night sittings, but I hope that he will not underestimate the extent to which we have already made progress on that front over the past decade or so.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

After considering the Select Committee's report, does my right hon. Friend agree that time in this House could be more effectively spent if debates on the Floor of the House were properly timetabled and if Committee timetables were agreed in advance? One could then see whether it was feasible to serve on a Committee because one would know when it would finish. Will my right hon. Friend urgently pursue the Select Committee's recommendations and see whether the matter can be brought forward?

Mr. Newton

I am sure that there will be much sympathy with those thoughts among hon. Members on both sides of the House, although I detected the usual hostile muttering from the Opposition Benches below the Gangway. Of course, the very matters to which my hon. Friend refers are among those being discussed in general terms by myself and the Opposition.

Mr. Channon

Does my right hon. Friend agree that there will never be unanimity about any proposals to reform the working of the House and that the present proposals represent the best compromise—unanimously supported—that has come forward for many years? Will he please make as speedy progress as possible? Did I hear him say that he hopes to have a debate before the summer recess—and if not, why not?

Mr. Newton

I certainly accept that they are constructive and worthwhile proposals, and they are bringing a constructive and worthwhile response. I do not think that I can go beyond that at the moment. If, as I hope, we are in a position to map a way forward before the summer recess, I would expect to seek an opportunity for debate on that map.

Mrs. Ewing

Will the Lord President recognise that the idea that office hours should pertain in the House will have little impact on hon. Members who live outwith Greater London? What is essential is a pattern of sittings in the House like that in the European Parliament, which would enable us to balance our parliamentary, constituency and family responsibilities—along with a pattern of decentralisation to Scotland and Wales, of course.

Mr. Newton

Apart from the predictable but somewhat more tendentious last part of that question, I have a great deal of sympathy with the hon. Lady's point. We must strike a realistic balance between the different duties of Members of Parliament. I accept that greater certainty about the pattern of business is one of the prizes.