HC Deb 16 December 1998 vol 322 cc986-1050 4.36 pm
Madam Speaker

I inform that House that I have selected the amendment standing in the name of the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young). Do I need to take further points of order after making that clear?

Mr. Campbell-Savours

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I understand that you have selected that amendment, but my query is about the order in which the motions were tabled. Two different motions are published in the Order Paper—Sittings of the House (No. 1) and Sittings of the House (No. 2). What appears to have happened is that the selection of the amendment means that the voting on those motions has been placed in an order different from that published in the Order Paper. I understand that the original order would have meant that the Committee's motion recommending that business can be begun at 11.30 am would have been taken first. Subsequently, if that had failed, there would have been a further vote, on the Sittings of the House (No. 2) motion. However, that order has now changed, and the pecking order will be that the vote on suspending business at 2 pm and resuming it at 2.30 pm will come first.

I appeal to you, Madam Speaker, to reconsider the matter, because we are dealing with a recommendation of a Committee of the House of Commons, which I understand was supported unanimously. [Interruption.] Well, it was certainly the recommendation of a Committee of the House of Commons. That being the case, should not the main proposition be put before the House first?

Madam Speaker

I have given very careful consideration to this matter. It is a House of Commons matter: I am anxious to have as wide a debate as possible and that Members of the House are able to express themselves at Division time.

What will happen is this. I have selected the amendment as I have described. There will be a general debate. At Division time, the amendment, as always, will be put first. If the amendment is successful, all else will fall, as is clear from the note to Government motion 5, which states that the above motion will not be moved if Margaret Beckett's Motion on Sittings of House (No. 1) is agreed to. Therefore, if the amendment to Government motion 4 is agreed to, motion 5 will not be put.

I cannot make the matter clearer than that.

Mr. Ben Bradshaw (Exeter)

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. Did you say that, if the amendment failed, the whole motion would fall? Did I hear you correctly?

Madam Speaker

If the amendment falls, the motion is carried.

Mr. Tony McNulty (Harrow, East)

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. In conjunction with my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours), may I ask you to reconsider your decision, in the light of paragraph 73 of the report? In that paragraph, the Select Committee states—and I think that it does so unanimously—that motion 4 on the Order Paper should be taken en bloc, and that the amendment should be put only if that motion falls. In effect, both are amendments to the business of the House, and I ask you to reconsider and follow the Select Committee report.

Madam Speaker

I have given careful consideration most of the morning to the matter. I am very concerned that, on a matter that concerns the entire House and its proceedings, debate should be as wide as possible and that hon. Members should have a very free choice as to the way in which they cast their votes.

By proceeding in the way that I have determined—by putting, as we always do, the amendment first—what will happen is that, if the amendment fails, motion 4 is obviously carried. That will be the end of it.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. The motion has to be put, does it not?

Madam Speaker

Of course the motion has to be put. We all know our procedures. Of course the motion will have to be put. We have been Members of this House for a long time and we know how to put amendments. When amendments fall, the motion is put. If motion 4 is carried, motion 5 falls. I hope that the House now has the answer it wants.

4.40 pm
The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett)

I beg to move, That this House approves the First Report from the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons on the Parliamentary Calendar: Initial Proposals (HC60). I understand that with this it will be convenient to take the next four motions—Sittings of the House (No. 1)That, with effect from Monday 11th January until the end of the present session of Parliament, the Standing Orders and practice of the House shall have effect subject to the modifications set out below: (1) the House shall meet on Thursdays at half-past eleven o'clock, and will first proceed with private business, motions for unopposed returns and questions; (2) proceedings on business on Thursdays shall be interrupted at seven o'clock; and (3) in their application to Thursday sittings of the House, reference to a specified time in the Standing Orders shall be interpreted as reference to a time three hours before the time so specified, save that reference to half-past ten o'clock shall be substituted for reference to twelve o'clock in Standing Order No. 24 (Adjournment on a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration). Sittings of the House (No. 2)That, with effect from Monday 11 th January until the end of the present session of Parliament, the Standing Orders and practice of the House shall have effect subject to the modifications set out below: (1) the House shall meet on Thursdays at half-past eleven o'clock, and will proceed with public business, which may include a motion for the adjournment of the House; (2) at two o'clock on Thursdays, the Speaker shall interrupt the business without question put and the sitting shall be suspended until half-past two o'clock; the House will then proceed with private business, motions for unopposed returns and questions, after which any business interrupted at two o'clock shall be resumed; (3) proceedings on business on Thursdays shall be interrupted at seven o'clock; and (4) in their application to Thursday sittings of the House, reference to a specified time in the Standing Orders shall be interpreted as reference to a time three hours before the time so specified, save that reference to a quarter to three o'clock in Standing Order No. 20 (Time for taking private business), to half-past three o'clock in Standing Order No. 21 (Time for taking questions) and to twelve o'clock in Standing Order No. 24 (Adjournment on a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration) shall remain unaltered. Meetings of Standing Committees (No. 1)That, with effect from Monday 11 th January until the end of the present session of Parliament, the Standing Orders and practice of the House shall have effect subject to the modifications set out below: Meetings of standing committees: Standing committees shall have leave to sit at any hour and notwithstanding any adjournment of the House, subject to the following provisions: (a) on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays when the House is sitting, no standing committee sitting at Westminster shall sit between the hours of one o'clock and half-past three o'clock, except as provided in paragraph (2) of Standing Order No. 88 (Meeting of standing committees); and (b) on Thursdays when the House is sitting, no standing committee sitting at Westminster shall sit between the hours of half-past eleven o'clock and half-past twelve o'clock, except as provided in paragraph (2) of Standing Order No. 88 (Meetings of standing committees) with the substitution in that paragraph of "half-past eleven o'clock" for "one o'clock" and "a quarter to twelve o'clock" for "a quarter past one o'clock". Meetings of Standing Committees (No. 2)That, with effect from Monday 11 th January until the end of the present session of Parliament, the Standing Orders and practice of the House shall have effect subject to the modifications set out below: Meetings of standing committees: Standing committees shall have leave to sit at any hour and notwithstanding any adjournment of the House, subject to the following provisions: on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays when the House is sitting, no standing committee sitting at Westminster shall sit between the hours of one o'clock and half-past three o'clock, except as provided in paragraph (2) of Standing Order No. 88 (Meeting of standing committees).

Mrs. Beckett

The motions on the Order Paper are designed to put before the House the unanimously agreed report from the Select Committee on Modernisation, which contains recommendations for an experiment with our sittings.

I bow to no one in the House in my respect for its traditions and its history, but I recognise that institutions that fail to change are institutions that die. Certainly the work of the Modernisation Committee itself has been undertaken—or so I thought until a moment ago—very much in the spirit of the best traditions of the House: seeking, if not always finding, common ground; respecting the different experience and different views of others; but nevertheless exploring proposals for change. That was the general spirit of the Committee, and I hope that it will also be the spirit of an informed debate.

Let me begin by identifying the areas where there is undoubted agreement underlying both the work of the Committee and the report before the House. First, I hope that it is entirely clear to everyone that the proposals which the report enshrines do not envisage the House sitting for fewer hours than we do now. Within the same number of hours, the Committee considered whether there are ways in which we can use that time and address our work more effectively.

Secondly, the issue of how this place might work more effectively is the overall and underlying theme of all the work that the Committee has undertaken, including that reflected in its previous reports.

Thirdly, apart from the specific proposals on which the House will be asked to decide tonight, it is hoped that, today and later, hon. Members will examine other issues, such as the operations of the Main Committee in the Australian Parliament, which might contribute to further thinking about the effectiveness of our own methods of parliamentary scrutiny and debate.

That proposal for an alternative forum for debate reinforces the point that I made at the outset: the proposals are not about reducing the work or the hours of Parliament. That idea—raised today only to encourage debate, not for decision—is intended to make available more time and opportunity than now for both scrutiny and debate.

Taking the proposals in the report as a whole—those put forward for decision today and those put forward for debate—the House will see that, far from proposing a reduction in the work of the House, if we pursued all these ideas, there might be both more effective use of time and more time.

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)

The right hon. Lady has been at pains to explain that the number of hours that the House works will not be reduced. Will she tell us, frankly, whether she is satisfied that the opportunities for Back Benchers to hold the Executive to account will not be reduced as a result of the proposals?

Mrs. Beckett

Absolutely and categorically. Although the proposals for a Main Committee are not before the House today for anything other than discussion, should the House so choose, they would actually offer more opportunity for scrutiny and debate.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex)

Does the right hon. Lady imagine that the proposed Main Committee would sit concurrently with the House or at a different time? If it sat concurrently, when the House was dealing with main business and legislation, the House would be even emptier than it sometimes is already. If the Main Committee sat at a different time, Members of Parliament would have even less time to deal with their correspondence and their constituencies than they have at present.

Mrs. Beckett

No doubt, in the fulness of time, the House will consider those matters and take them into account. I am not an expert on them; the Committee's extensive discussions on them took place before I joined it. In one Parliament that has tried that procedure, the outcome was not that suggested by the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

According to the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), who just intervened, the House should hold no Committee meetings—whether they be Select or Standing Committees—while the House is sitting. That is totally illogical. The Modernisation Committee's proposal for a main Committee provides major new opportunities and is the most important part of the report.

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that clarification.

Mr. Jenkin

The suggestion by the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) is utterly ridiculous. We must clearly strike a balance between the number of Committee meetings and hon. Members' duties outside the Chamber and responsibilities in the Chamber. The hon. Gentleman claimed that as many Committee meetings as possible should be held outside the Chamber because they have been effective in the past. That is a ludicrous extrapolation.

Mrs. Beckett

I did not think my hon. Friend said that. However, as I said before, I am confident that the hon. Member for North Essex has read the report and will contribute to the debate if he is fortunate enough to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I turn to the specific proposals put forward for decision today. First, I remind the House that the context of the proposals is provided by the earlier reports of the Modernisation Committee approved by the House, which should promote more effective use of the time that we spend in the scrutiny of legislation, for example. Most recently, the House agreed to proposals on scrutinising European Union business that will allow wider and much more effective scrutiny than in the past.

Last Session, we carried the Committee's proposals that more Bills should be published in draft and receive pre-legislative scrutiny. In this Session, for example, I hope that we shall make use of a Joint Committee on the draft Financial Services and Markets Bill and that other Bills in draft will receive other forms of pre-legislative scrutiny.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Beckett

If I must.

Mr. Bercow

The right honourable Lady referred to the opportunity for improved scrutiny of European Union legislation. Presumably she is not seriously suggesting that the House will have a better opportunity to scrutinise the judgments of the European Court of Justice.

Mrs. Beckett

I suspect that the hon. Gentleman was either not present or not listening when the proposals for scrutiny of European legislation were advanced. If he had been, he would be well aware that the proposals put forward by several Select Committees—and finally by the Modernisation Committee—extend the areas of scrutiny to the other pillars that were not within the ambit of the scrutiny procedures originally before the Committee. In consequence, not only is a wider area available for scrutiny—including scrutiny of legislation that comes from the Commission—but we have established a different Committee structure to facilitate more effective scrutiny.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Before we get bogged down in an argument about the scrutiny of European Union business, I—as someone who spent long hours on the Opposition Benches arguing, night after night, about the common market—remind my right hon. Friend and the Tories that, one dark night, the then Tory Government decided to change everything. They stopped me and my old mate Bob Cryer and some others from arguing the toss about common market legislation night after night—we often kept them up until 3 or 4 am. The Tory Government, backed by most of their Back Benchers who are in the Chamber today, walked through the Lobby against me and my old mate Bob Cryer and sent all the common market Orders upstairs into Committee. At a stroke, the Tory Government stopped our scrutiny of the common market. I hope that we will not have any bouts of hypocrisy from that lot opposite this afternoon.

Mrs. Beckett

I share my hon. Friend's hope, but I doubt that it will be realised.

The House also passed proposals to carry over some Bills from one Session to the next. That should enable us to make better use of time for Committee scrutiny in June and July when most of the Bills that we hope to finish during the Session should be out of Committee, and it will enable more steady progress to be made with Committee work as well as with other aspects of legislative scrutiny.

All the proposals give Members a much better opportunity to scrutinise legislation and contribute to the legislative process at a much earlier stage. That should mean not only that legislation will be of higher quality, but that it may need less amendment, particularly less late or unforeseen amendment.

The proposals for an experiment in our hours of sitting should be judged against the background of what should be better handling of legislation, less hurried processes of legislative scrutiny and less likelihood of ill-thought-through proposals coming forward in a rush and needing vast amendment to make them effective.

The existing procedures of the House can be and are criticised in various ways. For example, and with due deference to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), although I hate an early start and prefer to operate later into the evening, I am well aware that the House as a whole is not at its best in the small hours of the morning. It is a fair criticism to say that the longer we go into the later parts of the evening and the small hours, the less progress on scrutiny, and the less effective progress on scrutiny, we often make.

Caroline Flint (Don Valley)

I bring to my right hon. Friend's attention a booklet called "The work of an MP", which is available in the Library, which says: By the time a Member finally gets to bed it can sometimes be nearly time to begin the next day's work. The booklet then asks readers whether they think they would be fit enough to become an MP and suggests that they use the House of Commons Gym. Would it not be better for us to have improved hours of work, so that we would not have to go to the gym when we are here?

Mrs. Beckett

I have considerable sympathy with my hon. Friend's point, even though, as I said, I prefer to work late at night rather than early in the morning. I recognise that there are hon. Members present who have served even longer than I have, but I speak as someone whose service in the House spans 24 years, five of which were spent as an Opposition social security spokesman at a time when there was an extraordinary amount of legislation before the House. On the basis of that experience, I can say categorically that, once we get into the small hours or even late into the evening, progress on legislation slows down, people stray from the point and their concentration wanders. Far less work is done and it is done far less effectively.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath)


Mr. Bercow


Mrs. Beckett

I shall certainly not give way on that particular point to hon. Members who are comparatively new to the House, because lengthy experience drives one to the conclusion that late-night sittings are not an effective way for the House to conduct its business.

I understand the concerns of those who feel that, their own or their staffs patterns of work having been adapted to the present patterns of debate, the proposed experiment in bringing forward our hours will cause problems. The underlying dilemma of how to juggle conflicting pressures and demands is perpetual. It is not created by the proposals, and views both on the dilemma and on its solution vary from Member to Member. Many of us believe, however, that the proposals may contribute to more measured and better-informed debate.

The issue before the House with regard to the proposed experiment is not only when or for how many hours Members are in the House but whether patterns of work that grew up to suit the habits and, frankly, far lighter work load of earlier generations of Members now contribute to us sometimes wasting time in the House rather than making the best and most productive use of it.

That brings me directly to the votes before the House tonight. In its report, the Committee recommended unanimously that the House should be given the opportunity to vote on the proposal initially put to the Committee by my predecessor on behalf of the Government, namely that, on Thursdays, the main business of the House should begin at 11.30 am with questions; that to observe the rule that Standing Committees do not sit during Question Time, they should commence their proceedings at 9 am rather than 10.30 am as at present, and that the moment of interruption of the normal day should be 7 pm rather than 10 pm as now. Since these proposals first came before the Committee, several concerns have been raised about the implications of the alternative timings. Two other proposals were thus considered by the Committee.

The first was that the parliamentary day should, as in the original proposal, commence at 11.30 am but that Question Time should be taken as now at 2.30 pm and Standing Committees should sit as now at 10.30 am. The Committee gave this proposal extremely careful consideration. Those who preferred to make no change at all in the timing of Thursday sittings nevertheless felt that the second proposal would clearly mean less change and hence less impact of change, which is incontestably true. However, as with all such proposals, there are other knock-on effects.

The parliamentary day itself would be disjointed. The debate would have to be interrupted for questions and, because Thursday is the day on which the business statement is made, adjourned for an undetermined period. Many members of the Committee doubted whether that was a preferable outcome. In particular, given that the underlying purpose of making any such proposal was to make more effective use of parliamentary time, this disruptive method of conducting the day caused particular concern. The uncertainty made that proposal less popular with the Committee than the original one.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

I hope that the right hon. Lady will be fair to the House. It is important to establish the fact that the Opposition on the Committee, comprising just four members, made it perfectly clear that while both propositions should be put to the House, they would not support the proposal that Standing Committees should sit at 9 am and that questions should take place after prayers at 11.30 am on a Thursday. Will the right hon. Lady therefore confirm that, while she has sought to highlight the fact that the report was not, as it were, contested, the main Opposition on the Committee made it perfectly clear that they could not support Standing Committees sitting at 9 am and questions other than at 2.30 pm, which is the present tradition and custom?

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I did indeed fully intend, and do intend, to make that quite plain, although I might not have put it in quite this way had he not said what he did. I am not seeking in any way to misrepresent the views of members of the Committee.

It is also right that the House should be made properly aware of the fact that the representatives of the principal Opposition party on the Committee made it plain not only that they did not support the proposal that Standing Committees sit at 9 am, but that they did not support the alternative proposal for the House to sit at 11.30 am and then adjourn, with questions at 2.30 pm. It was suggested in Committee that they had no intention of voting for that proposal, should it come before the House, so it will be interesting to see whether they vote for the amendment that they have tabled.

The hon. Gentleman is entirely right to say that the proposal that Standing Committees should sit at 9 am was not supported by all members of the Committee, and at no point did I intend to convey the impression that it was.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

I have been a Member of Parliament for 20 years. We have had these arguments down the years. Tory Members of Parliament have repeatedly opposed the idea that the House should meet in the morning. The reason is simple—they have interests in the City which they want to pursue, and they do not want the House to meddle in their private commercial affairs. For once we should grasp the nettle.

Mrs. Beckett

The reasons for the concerns that hon. Members express is a matter for them, and I expect that we shall hear some of them today. I certainly recognise the variety of concerns of different hon. Members about such proposals. Undoubtedly, Conservative members of the Committee did not support either the proposal for Standing Committees to sit at 9 am, as the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) correctly said, or the proposal for the House to meet at 11.30 am and adjourn at 2.30 pm.

Mr. Winterton

I hope that the right hon. Lady is also prepared to admit to the House that, although the main Opposition—the Conservative and Unionist parties—on the Committee were not happy that the House should sit from 11.30 on Thursday mornings, they were reluctantly prepared to go along with it. We were also supported by representations made to the Committee by Madam Speaker—the information is in the public domain, so I may quote it—and a subsequent letter from the Chairman of Ways and Means on behalf of the Chairmen's Panel, of which, as the right hon. Lady knows, I happen to be a member.

I say to the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) that I have been in the House for 28 years and, like him, have been a Back Bencher throughout. I hope that, in many ways, I reflect the interests not only of Back Benchers but of the House in the standard that I have maintained.

Mrs. Beckett

It is clear that many Opposition Members disliked the proposal for the House to sit from 11.30 am but felt that its doing so, with questions at 2.30 pm, was a better bargain than it sitting at 11.30 am and Committees beginning at 9 am. It is also clear that they did not intend to support either of those options for change at that time. Indeed, it should be clearly on record, lest there should be any misunderstanding, that the proposal for the way in which the decision should be put to the House was agreed by the Committee.

Mr. Hawkins

Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Beckett

If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will get on.

Sir Peter Emery (East Devon)


Mrs. Beckett

I shall of course give way to the right hon. Gentleman, who is a member of the Committee.

Sir Peter Emery

I am sorry to interrupt the right hon. Lady, but I find somewhat strange her statement that some members opposed absolutely any movement on the proposal to sit at 11.30 am. We were willing unanimously to agree the report because the alternatives to sitting at 11.30 am were clearly set out in the report. If we had all opposed any proposal to sit at 11.30 am, we would have opposed the report. The right hon. Lady should not therefore claim that I would oppose the concept of the House sitting at 11.30 am. There was an overwhelming desire of the majority to move in that direction. The Committee was trying to ensure that that could be done in the way that most benefited the House.

Mrs. Beckett

I understand the right hon. Gentleman's point. There is not so much difference between us in our recollection of what took place in Committee. The manner in which the decision was to be made was very clearly discussed. Representatives of the Conservative party recognised that the proposal might—it is still very much "might"—be agreed by the House, and preferred other options, but that did not necessarily mean that they would vote for such proposals.

The third option concerned the entirely different issue, which was raised in several quarters, not least by Madam Speaker, of whether the Committee had examined the very different sittings pattern of some other Parliaments. That reminds me that I did not deal with the point raised by the hon. Member for Macclesfield about Madam Speaker's views. He will be as conscious as I am that those views were expressed by Madam Speaker at an early stage, before the Committee had discussed matters with her, and are on record from that time. We took careful account of her concerns and of the alternative proposal that came from various sources, including from Madam Speaker, for a different sittings pattern which I can most easily describe as block weeks, whereby Parliament would sit for a specified period of weeks and would then have a non-sitting week.

The Committee asked the Clerk to draw up a potential schedule on the same underlying premise as the experiment that had previously been considered—that the House should sit for as many hours as it does now, and that it should do so without changing the broad pattern of the parliamentary year as we know it. On that basis, the potential schedule was intended to give us an illustration of what block-week sittings would mean. As the House can see from the report, they would be a move away from the pattern of sittings that has been developed since the cross-party Jopling report almost 10 years ago, and would also increase the periods of no effective scrutiny.

Our examination of the alternative proposal suggested that a complete reconstruction of our entire parliamentary year, including the pattern of our recesses and of the party conference season, would be required for such a proposal to be practicable. The Committee did not feel able to recommend that to the House at present, although some members did find attractive the option of revisiting the parliamentary year. It did not seem to be an experiment that could readily be given an early trial in the House, as it gives rise to much more fundamental considerations.

The ultimate view of the Committee was that the House should be given an opportunity to consider whether it wanted an experiment along the lines originally proposed by my predecessor. Further, it was recommended that if such a proposal were defeated, the House should have the chance to fall back on the variation represented by keeping Question Time at 2.30, although with an 11.30 start in the Chamber, rather than being able to fall back only on the status quo. That decision on the proposed experiment, in accordance with the view expressed by the Committee, lay behind the motions tabled by the Government, on which the House is invited to participate in a free vote. I shall return to the subject of the vote shortly.

I shall touch on two other issues. First, the Committee proposed that, within the pattern of the experiment, consideration should be given to providing a non-sitting week around mid-February, because of the heavy load that all hon. Members carry during the Session from the Christmas to the Easter break. Again, the intention was not to diminish scrutiny and debate overall. Clearly, it will depend on the progress of business whether we can suggest a move along those lines this year. In general terms, many hon. Members would find it helpful for the effective planning of their work if they had the flexibility to undertake other commitments in a non-sitting week during that period.

Secondly, the Modernisation Committee's first report last Session recommended greater flexibility about when Standing Committees could meet and, in particular, that they should be allowed, as are Select Committees, to meet when the House is not sitting. The present report repeats that recommendation, and suggests that a period in September could be designated for meetings of Select or Standing Committees, if their members so choose. Again, the proposal is intended to provide greater flexibility and effectiveness in our parliamentary work.

Mr. John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West)

The right hon. Lady says, "if their members so choose." In the case of Select Committees, it is clearly the choice of members whether they meet in September. With regard to Standing Committees, the Government would take the initiative. How would they consult members of Standing Committees to see whether they wished to meet in September?

Mrs. Beckett

Through the usual channels, as I envisage it. Lest there should be any doubt in the hon. Gentleman's mind, may I say that that was a unanimous recommendation from the Modernisation Committee in the previous Session, before I was a member of the Committee. As I understand it, the proposal was not envisaged as an instrument that the Government might use to force Standing Committees to sit at other times. A number of hon. Members were expressing the wish for greater flexibility in the operation of Committee weeks, and the recommendation was intended to give expression to that thought.

Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

In that connection, does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the points that has been frequently raised with us—in the Chamber and as members of the Committee—is that there would be an opportunity in parts of the summer recess to table, and perhaps receive answers to, parliamentary questions? At present, that element of scrutiny is seriously lost for a significant part of the year.

Mrs. Beckett

There is no doubt that the Committee's thinking was that that would create the possibility, should hon. Members want to make use of it, of enhancing the scrutiny available to them during that period.

I want to say a little more about the on-going work of the Committee and in particular about the proposal to which I alluded earlier—for a body analogous to the Main Committee in the Australian Parliament.

Today the House is not being asked to experiment with a parallel forum or Main Committee, but the Committee seeks the views of Members and their initial reactions to the discussion of these ideas already undertaken. Such a parallel forum might be a Committee of the whole House which would sit apart from this Chamber, which any Member could attend and which might meet at the same time as the main Chamber of the House, but only to discuss agreed business and non-controversial matters. Any matter that became the subject of dispute could not be decided, but would return for decision to this Chamber.

Mr. Hawkins

The right hon. Lady will be aware that the report mentions the difficulties in terms of media coverage of Committees. Does she agree that, if there were to be a Main Committee experiment, it would be crucial to ensure that media coverage of debates was commensurate with traditional media coverage of debates in the Chamber? Does she also agree that, with reducing media coverage of significant business even in the main Chamber, there are dangers that the media might concentrate on the trivial at the expense of the important?

Mrs. Beckett

Again, those are matters that can be explored by the House. With respect to the hon. Gentleman, I do not think that anyone envisaged that any forum in the House would be discussing the trivial, although there might be greater opportunity to discuss in more depth some of the serious issues for which there is not always as much time as hon. Members would like.

The initial work done by the Modernisation Committee suggested that uncontroversial Bills, Adjournment motions, Members's daily Adjournment debates and debates on Select Committee reports all might be suitable for being taken in a Main Committee, which would perhaps free up time on the Floor of the House and would certainly provide more opportunity for scrutiny and debate.

One other minor reform—which I might, on another occasion, recommend to the House, and should mention for completeness—is that we might provide for Lords messages about Bills to be received when the House is not sitting. I do not know whether hon. Members are aware that the other place already has such provision for messages from this House. An effect of making parallel provision would be that Lords Bills and Lords amendments could be printed and made available to Members of this House earlier than is sometimes the case at present. It would certainly avoid delays, if the sittings hours of the two Houses were different, in messages being received from the Lords. I am considering that issue and may table a motion to create a similar, reciprocal structure to that which exists within the House of Lords.

I am sorry to have taken so long, but I have taken a number of interventions. Before I finish, I must say something about the timing of the debates, how I intend to vote in a free vote and what I recommend to other hon. Members who support modernisation and want an experiment for change in our procedures.

I am sorry that an amendment has been tabled by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young). As Madam Speaker has pointed out, it will be voted on before the recommendation put to the Committee by the Government. I am particularly sorry because the Committee agreed, as it says in the report, that we should put the Government's proposal to the House and—to avoid there being no option other than a return to the status quo should that be defeated—that the alternative of the House breaking for Question Time at 2.30 pm should then be put to the vote.

Mr. Pike

Does not the way that we are voting mean that we unfortunately have to eliminate the compromise, because the main proposal would otherwise be eliminated? Is it not unfortunate that we are doing things that way round, because it is exactly the opposite of what the Committee wanted us to do?

Mrs. Beckett

It is of course a matter for hon. Members to decide how they vote, but my hon. Friend is correct that the Committee envisaged at that time that the proposal to break was preferable as a fallback for the House to consider—to agree to or to reject as it chose—than having only the option of the Government proposal and the status quo. The tabling and selection of the amendment for debate reverses that.

Since the production of the Committee's report, and since seeing today's Order Paper and hearing of Madam Speaker's decision, I have given careful further thought to my own view and to what view I would recommend to the House. I am very sorry indeed to have to say that the moving forward of our decision in such a manner—by those who, as we are all well aware, do not support and indeed resist a proposal for change—places us all in a dilemma.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton


Mrs. Beckett

With respect to the hon. Gentleman, my remarks are almost at a close.

I am sorry to find myself in such a position, but I am so concerned that the option to which the amendment would give force might bring the experiment into disrepute—and might lead to its termination rather than to its success—that I fear that I must vote against the amendment. I recommend that every hon. Member who wants our procedures to be modernised and wants change that might be effective in respect of better completion of our work take the same view. I am sorry to have to say that—there appeared to be other possibilities—but that seems to be the position.

I end as I began, by recommending to the House that we conduct an experiment by bringing forward our Thursday sittings. We all know that there are strong views in the House on that matter, and that there are different views. I hope that those different views will all be treated with respect, but it appears that those of us who want the experiment to proceed should vote against the amendment and for the sittings of the House (No. 1) motion.

5.18 pm
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

I beg to move the amendment standing in my name and in the names of other right hon. and hon. Members from both—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

Order. The right hon. Gentleman cannot move the amendment at this stage. We must deal with motion on the Order Paper first. When we come to the next motion, he may move his amendment.

Sir George Young

I am much obliged, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I can see advantage in the way that the votes will take place.

Sir Peter Emery

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The amendment is to the first motion, not to the second. Presumably, as the first motion has been moved, the amendment has to be moved to that motion.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

We are currently dealing with motion No. 3 on the Order Paper, concerning the approval of the Committee's report, which is not the motion to which the amendment refers.

Sir George Young

There is some merit in the way that the votes will take place. It will enable the House to decide which of the two alternatives it prefers before going on to decide whether it wants change. The amendment allows the House to take that decision, which might have been denied to the House had we approached the matter in the other way.

I begin by thanking the Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury, both the right hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor), who chaired our initial deliberations on the subject, and the present Leader of the House for the way in which they presided over the Select Committee. They both had to cope with a wide range of sincerely held views on the Committee, reflecting the differing interpretations of the role of a Member of Parliament and of the appropriate allocation of available time for our duties.

Some of those differences could be traced back to the different dates of entry of Members into the House, some to the fact that Opposition Members understandably have a perspective different from that of Back-Bench Government supporters'. Other differences were due to some members of the Committee having additional responsibilities in the House. Some have constituencies in or near London and others do not, and some Members have their main office here and others have it in their constituency.

Those varying perspectives of members of the Committee drove us to different conclusions. The Select Committee is not directly recommending this change, as is clear from paragraph 72 of the report. We had a lively but manageable debate. None the less, if I were running a dating agency, there are some combinations that I would seek to avoid.

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West)

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that, although Labour and Liberal Members from the 1997 intake were members of the Committee, no Conservative Members from the 1997 intake were on the Committee? Therefore, he cannot deduce from the evidence of the debate in Committee that people's views were related to their year of entry; they were rather more closely related to the party that they represent.

Sir George Young

I stand by the proposition that I asserted. If the hon. Lady analysed her Back-Bench Labour colleagues she would find a similar difference in interpretation of the role of an MP according to date of entry. That different perspective is not confined to those on the Conservative Benches.

I also commend the Clerks on their work, particularly the section on the Main Committee. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery) for providing coffee on a Wednesday morning.

I start by making three general points which provide a framework for the debate. I am concerned at the loss of influence of the House of Commons in recent years. I want to see that decline reversed, so I ask: are these proposals likely to assist in that objective?

Let me read a quotation: Our Parliament may have its quirks and faults, but it is hard to find another country today whose Parliament is so central to its national life. In Britain, Parliament is where things happen. It is the voice of the people of Britain, fighting out all the complexities of our national issues which in some other countries are settled in smoke-filled rooms. That was said only two and a half years ago in June 1996 in a speech to the Centre of Policy Studies by my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), then Prime Minister. I honestly do not think that the Prime Minister could say it today.

Parliament is not central to our national life. The papers have stopped reporting it, the radio has reduced its coverage, Ministers increasingly bypass it, and until recently, Labour Members were sent away from it. We even debar ourselves from discussing some of the live issues of the day.

At best, the proposals before us do nothing to address that central issue which ought to be at the heart of the Select Committee's agenda; at worst, they may even add to the problem, which brings me to my second point.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross)

As someone who has served in the House for rather a long time also, I should say that the picture that the right hon. Gentleman paints of a golden age in 1996, described by the then Prime Minister, bears no resemblance to the experience that most of us had either then or for many years before it under the leadership of that Prime Minister and his immediate predecessor.

Sir George Young

Does the right hon. Gentleman seriously assert that during the past 18 months there has been no change in the role of Parliament in our national life? If so, he is in a minority.

The proposals received a terrible press in July, for which the Government have no one to blame but themselves. The proposals before us originate from the Government and have been through the Select Committee, and it was the Government who launched them on the public before the Select Committee even discussed them.

On 1 July, The Independent quoted the right hon. Member for Dewsbury as saying of the package of changes: It reduces the pressure points during the session and adjusts the arrangements to make them more family friendly. That led to the headline:

Extra family time for overworked MPs". The Daily Mirror used the same quote from the right hon. Lady to prop up its headline: Four days a week for MPs". The Evening Standard had the same quote: MPs set to spend more time with the family". Even The Guardian said: Reform plan offers MPs longer break at week-ends". BBC On Line said: MPs to get more time with families". As I said, all that happened before the Select Committee even considered the proposals. So far from the reforms helping to elevate the status of the House, the way in which the Government presented them made that task harder.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton

Is not one of the problems facing the House the fact that this is a House of Commons matter, yet we are considering Government proposals? With no disrespect to the Leader of the House, for whom I have great admiration, I am not sure that I believe that the Committee should be chaired by a member of the Government and Cabinet. That is the problem. We are debating Government proposals which the Government want to get through when it should be entirely a House of Commons matter; proposals should be put forward by the House of Commons through the Modernisation Committee.

Sir George Young

My hon. Friend tempts me way beyond my negotiating brief, but I shall touch upon his point in a moment.

Helen Jackson

I realise that the right hon. Gentleman was not a member of the Committee in its early stages when it published its first report on the legislative process, but does he agree that the recent report is totally in line with the basic principles agreed unanimously after much argument and debate—not on party lines—and that the Modernisation Committee was about improving the way in which Parliament carries out the legislative process and the way in which it is presented? Because of the sensitivities, the Committee said: Our approach is to recommend various options to be tried out always on an experimental basis. That is what the Modernisation Committee is doing. It has been working on a cross-party basis, and if the right hon. Gentleman is saying that that will no longer operate, people outside the House need to know that.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Many hon. Members wish to speak. We do not have all that much time and if interventions continue at this rate and at this length, many people will be disappointed.

Sir George Young

I revert to the point that I was making. The Select Committee learned a lesson, which was that we should present any proposals for change on the basis of enabling us to represent our constituents more effectively, not to spend more time with our families. The Opposition's press notice last week was a wiser one, with no references to anything friendly or familiar; none the less the media simply looked up the previous coverage and panned the proposals.

My third point relates to that just made by my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton).

Caroline Flint

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Sir George Young

No, in the light of Mr. Deputy Speaker's injunction, I want to make progress.

These recommendations come from a proposition that emerged not from the Select Committee but from the Government. Of course, they are not to be condemned because of their source, and they should be judged on their merit. But any Select Committee, and particularly the Modernisation Committee, will want to develop its own agenda and not just accept the Government's. The Jopling proposals came from within, not without, and went ahead with all-party support. The House of Commons should control the Executive, not the other way around, particularly on this sort of issue.

Against that background, I come to the proposals for Thursday and my amendment.

Mrs. Beckett

Yes, the Jopling proposals came forward on an all-party basis, but it was the Leader of the House of the day who put forward the proposals. Those proposals, which most hon. Members will feel have improved the work of the House, would never have been carried through had it not been for the fact that we, as the Opposition, overrode the concerns of our traditionalists who did not wish to see that modernising step. We had the courage to grasp the nettle and support the Government, even though it was argued that the change was in the Government's interests. It is a pity that the right hon. Gentleman cannot do the same.

Sir George Young

I am not prepared to override my hon. Friends' objections, because I share them.

The Government proposition that we are now debating is in appendix 1, paragraph 11. I should have preferred a much more rigorous analysis in the paper of the then Leader of the House—first outlining the problem, and then relating the solution to the problem—but none was forthcoming. To substantiate the proposal that there should be no whipped business after 7 pm on a Thursday so that hon. Members can get back to their constituencies for a full Friday, the Government should have outlined how often votes after 7 pm currently occur. In the previous Parliament, there were two such votes between the Queen's Speech and dissolution. Between 13 March 1998 and the summer recess, it happened three times. Since we returned from recess, there have been no votes after 7 pm on a Thursday.

The disadvantage of the proposed turbulence in the morning, in which moving forward the sittings of the House will disrupt activities currently occurring in the morning—a matter to which I know other hon. Members wish to speak—is not counterbalanced by a corresponding benefit in the evening. The problem of hon. Members having to stay in the House to vote after 7 pm is a minor one that could have been dealt with through the usual channels. The entire foundation on which the argument for change is constructed is, therefore, essentially a weak one.

Under the Government's proposals, hon. Members also will not know whether they can get away at 7 pm, as the Government's offer relates only to whipped businesses. There could be business after 7 pm, announced the previous Thursday, in which hon. Members will have to take part, whereas they had thought they would be able to get away. The House will therefore face the paradox of rising early on a Thursday so that hon. Members can get to their constituencies, even on those Thursdays when the House will sit the next day.

The case against change is a more powerful one and is made primarily in paragraph 62. The proposed change would allow less time to apply for private notice questions and statements. Statements will also be made in the middle of the day, at lunch time. There would also be the problems that Madam Speaker mentioned in her letter. Moreover, it is not true that hon. Members are currently inactive between 11.30 am and 2.30 pm on a Tuesday. That work will still have to be done—it would be displaced, not abandoned.

I should like to dwell for a moment on the final reason listed in paragraph 62. The Procedure Committee, chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton), is in the process of establishing the reduced pressure on the House, as certain matters will no longer be debated in this place but in assemblies and a Parliament elsewhere—the so-called devolution dividend. If the House wants to consider greater certainty and less business on a Thursday evening, that would be the appropriate forum to do so, when we could consider the objectives that I understand Labour Members want to achieve without causing dislocation in the morning.

We have to consider the proposal also against the background of what has already happened in this Parliament to Thursdays—which is a factor that the Government have ignored. Moving Prime Minister's questions to Wednesday removed Thursday's main anchor. The 3.15 to 3.30 Thursday slot was always well attended—I think that it was as well attended at the Tuesday slot—after which many hon. Members stayed on for business questions. Subsequently, the Conservative party held its main Back-Bench meeting, at 6 pm, when business and whipping were announced. Votes were then held, at 7 pm and/or 10 pm. Thursday was therefore a card-carrying member of the parliamentary week.

Moving Prime Minister's questions to Wednesday has changed all that. The best way in which I can make the point is by referring to last week's all-party notices. There were four meetings on Monday 7 December; 20 on Tuesday 8 December; 16 on Wednesday 9 December; and only four on the Thursday, of which only one was in the afternoon. As for the Conservative party's own Back-Bench committees, there were six on Monday, five on Tuesday, three on Wednesday and none on Thursday. It is therefore as if one of the two walls holding up the parliamentary week has collapsed. The building is now listing and is held up by one wall instead of two, compressing ever more business into Tuesday and Wednesday.

The proposition before the House will make a difficult situation worse, by further eroding Thursday. The proposition makes it explicit that Thursday will end earlier than the other weekdays.

Mr. Hawkins

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Sir George Young

Yes, but for the last time.

Mr. Hawkins

While my right hon. Friend is reflecting on the changes to Thursday, will he once again recognise that the change to Prime Minister's Questions was announced unilaterally by the Prime Minister? That change has added to the lack of scrutiny of the Executive by the House and by the nation. Those of us who are traditionalists believe that many of the Government's changes have been introduced entirely to bypass such scrutiny.

Sir George Young

I very much regret that the change was made without consultation. I remember, when replying to the first debate on the Loyal Address under this Government, deploring the change.

If there is to be change—the House may have gathered that I do not favour change—I prefer the option that will do the least damage to Thursday: which leaves Standing Committees to meet at 10.30 am and not 9; leaves questions, private notice questions, statements and business questions where they are, at 2.30 pm; and does less damage to the rhythm of the parliamentary week. The reasons for choosing the option are stated in the report, in the section containing the views of Madam Speaker and the Chairman of Ways and Means.

My preferred option involves splitting a Thursday by having questions in the middle and not at the beginning. We could have two half-day Opposition days or a couple of debates on different subjects on either side of questions. Last Thursday, for example, there was one debate on alternatives to prison and then another one on the new deal. Those debates could have been held on either side of Question Time without doing any injury to our procedure.

Other hon. Members may want to develop the case for the Opposition amendment, particularly those who have the responsibility of chairing Standing Committees and are worried about the implications of starting at 9 am for them and for the staff of the House.

I should like to say a very quick word on the Main Committee—a subject that deserves a debate on its own on another occasion. I hope that the Leader of the House will confirm in her reply that there will be such a debate. There are some key questions about the Main Committee. What will be the impact on the Chamber of the establishment of a Main Committee? Are the lessons of Main Committees established by other Parliaments applicable to this one? Is it the right response to the challenge that I outlined at the beginning of my speech—of restoring the status of Parliament in the life of the nation? Is it the right response when other constitutional reforms are under way, specifically reform of the second Chamber? Those are the key issues that have to be addressed in relation to the Main Committee.

I should like finally briefly to mention future work. Two duties are performed by Parliament. The first is the legislative process—implementation of the manifesto, and changes to the legal framework of life. The second is the holding of Government to account—interrogation of Ministers, scrutiny of their Departments and audit of expenditure. Much of the Select Committee's work has been focused on the first duty, as demonstrated by its proposals on carry-over of Bills and on Standing Committees meeting in September for pre-legislative scrutiny. I hope that, in the interests of balance, the future agenda will focus on the second function—scrutiny.

When the right hon. Member for Dewsbury held my job, she said: Parliament does not anymore hold Ministers properly to account". There are many ways of dealing with that deficiency, some of which are mentioned in appendix 4 to the memorandum from the Liaison Committee. I am interested in taking that agenda forward. The details need not be sorted out today. However, I believe that our agenda should be refocused on the responsibilities that I have outlined.

I hope that the House will not agree to the changes proposed by the Government. However, if it does want change, then change as proposed by my amendment would be the better way forward.

5.38 pm
Mr. Clive Soley (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush)

I really do not think that Conservative Members, particularly those who served on the Modernisation Committee, have helped themselves by the way in which they have conducted this debate. I say that for the very simple and straightforward reason that, although Committee members recognised that Conservative Members did not want change, we both acknowledged and respected that position. However, we also knew and believed that it was our duty to take them along with us whenever we could, and that is what we tried to do.

For Conservative Members now to speak in this debate in a manner designed to undermine the proposed change sends a clear message to me and to all my colleagues—that we who represent the majority view in the House and who believe that the modernisation of Parliament is essential if we are to preserve this historic institution in which we believe so strongly will have to modernise Parliament, with Conservative Members adding minority reports to our work. That is, in effect, what they have done today. It would have been more honest, more straightforward and more simple if they had done that at the very beginning of the process.

Opposition Members should remember that a majority of the House favours reform, and that we have always tried to work by consensus. It is up to not only the majority party but the minority party—in this case, the Conservative party—to prove that it is prepared to work towards a consensus. It takes two to make that bargain and stick to it.

As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House pointed out, the purpose of the reforms is to make Parliament—not the Government—more effective. That is what we set out to do, although the point has been lost in part of the debate. The fact that some of the press coverage of the lengthy report focused on one or two statements about family-friendly practices says more about some of the briefings that went on, and, sadly, a lack of journalistic effort to understand what the report was about, than about the proposals.

I was pleased, as were all members of the Committee, that Madam Speaker made it clear that, although she had reservations about some of the changes, she and her staff would do everything possible to make them work. We also want to place on record our thanks to the staff of the House, who will also seek to make the changes work. The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) talked about the disruption that starting at 9 o'clock in the morning would cause to the staff. I am puzzled about why the argument is always put that way around. It would be possible to comment on the inconvenience to the staff of finishing at midnight. The argument is not that simple. Why are Conservative Members so anxious not to sit in the morning? There are several answers, some of which have been suggested.

Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton)

From my limited experience as a former member of the Chairmen's Panel, I believe that it is wrong to ask the Clerks of the House to come in as early as 7.30 in the morning to prepare for Committees. It is difficult enough to travel to London early. They sometimes have to work late. We should be considerate to the staff because they give us such excellent service.

Mr. Soley

That is the hon. Lady's point of view, but it is normal in society to go to work in the morning and go home in the evening. That is a standard working practice which is common in Parliaments throughout the world. I hear and understand what the hon. Lady says, but it is not like that in the rest of the world. I am not suggesting that we have to be like others; I am just saying that we are different.

Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow)

I am a Member of Parliament now, but I was a member of the staff once. I used to have to leave this place at ridiculous hours. That is unfair. It discriminates against anyone who wants to be in the real world and have a real life. On a more serious note, on one occasion when I left work at 2 o'clock in the morning, I was attacked on my way home. That would not have happened if I had had normal working hours.

Mr. Soley

I am grateful to my hon. Friend.

Mrs. Ann Winterton

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Soley

No. I want to make progress, because I know that many people want to speak. I hope that the hon. Lady catches your eye later, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Let me put the issue in context. The Government have embarked on a major programme of constitutional reform. I appreciate that the Conservative party does not like that. We are reforming the House of Lords, local government, regional government and the government of Scotland, Wales and London. As a result of the work of the Modernisation Committee, we have already improved the scrutiny of European legislation. We shall have to do more such work. The suggestion that the workings of the House of Commons cannot be reformed is ludicrous. Going on like that will destroy this institution.

I have said many times that the House of Commons has a famous reputation around the world. It gained that reputation in the 19th century and the early part of this century. It began to lose it after the first world war, because many other countries copied us, but they jumped ahead whereas we stood still. The Conservatives would go on standing still if they could. It is up to the Labour party, with, I suspect, the support of the minority parties, to ensure change.

Mr. Jenkin

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Soley

I shall make a bit more progress and then I shall give way.

People outside do not understand why we have late-night sittings. Most people know that it is common sense that good legislation is not made late at night and that the Government cannot be held effectively to account then. The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire talked about Parliament being a proud part of the tradition of the previous Prime Minister. I remember, as does he, how the Conservative Government organised their business so that much of it came up late at night when it would not be noticed. We were told that that was supposed to be Parliament acting more effectively. The Conservative Government slipped unpopular measures through after midnight when there would be relatively little questioning and the issue would not get into the media.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

The hon. Gentleman is putting up an Aunt Sally. We are not debating late-night sittings; we are having, I hope, a civilised discussion about two alternatives for Thursdays. Late-night sittings do not enter into it.

Mr. Soley

The hon. Gentleman must have missed part of my argument. I was talking about people not understanding our late-night sittings. That is an important issue which is related to morning sittings. Conservative Members protest that we have Committees in the morning. One of the problems that we have to face is that the work of the Committees and the expectations and work load in the constituencies have increased. One reason why the Chamber is frequently nearly empty is that we have a lot of other Committees. What are we going to do about that—abolish the Committees? We have to think more radically and jump over that to come to other solutions.

Many people wonder why uncontentious debates take place on the Floor of the House, often with only a few people present. When they look down on the Chamber and see only four or five people, they ask what is going on. We need to address that. Many people question the unpredictability of Members' commitments, particularly on Fridays. In any democracy, a Member of Parliament cannot guarantee being in a particular place at a particular time. Democracy ought to be unpredictable to an extent; however, it is nonsense to think that we cannot tell people whether we can be present elsewhere on a Friday. Members of the Canadian Parliament can say whether they can be in their constituency months in advance. They can deliver on such a promise in all but the most extreme circumstances.

We also rightly complain about the lack of media coverage of this place. I have regularly been the first to point out the problem, and shall continue to do so, but we do not do our case any good by arranging our debates so that Back Benchers—those who are not members of the Government—do not have a cat in hell's chance of being reported in the media after 5.30 pm. I entirely agree with Madam Speaker and others that we cannot shape the Chamber around the needs of the media, but it is absurd to go to the other extreme and take no account of those needs. I want Back Benchers to be able to make speeches that are noticed in the media. That can happen, but we need to change, as well as the media.

The debate about the use of time in the House has bedevilled us for years. There were arguments under the previous Government about how to change the hours of the House of Commons. Even they recognised that legislating in the early hours of the morning was not a convincing practice for the public. The debate about time is more sophisticated than it seems, because it also involves what subjects need to be debated on the Floor of the House. Only by addressing the problem from that angle can we begin to deal with it.

The proposal for a Main Committee or alternative Committee—we can call it what we will—is important. I urge hon. Members from all parties to consider the proposal and examine how it works in Australia, Canada and one or two other places before deciding whether we should use it here. If the vote tonight goes as I hope it will, the Modernisation Committee will continue to examine the issue. Any proposals will have to come back here for approval. I believe that a Main Committee would enable us to do more to hold the Executive to account, because there would be more opportunities for Back Benchers to raise many of the issues that are not currently raised.

One example that should appeal to the hon. Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton) is that there should be more debates on Select Committee reports. Such debates and more Adjournment debates—not at midnight, but between the Minister and the Back Bencher in the Main Committee—might even get into the main regional news programmes on television and radio. Would that be a bad thing for Back Benchers? I think not; it would be a good thing.

Mr. Jenkin

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Soley

The hon. Gentleman has been very persistent, but he had better be brief, as I am trying to save time.

Mr. Jenkin

I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is making interesting and worthwhile points, particularly about how the House might be better reported. My misgivings are that the previous Administration would never have dreamed of using their majority to impose their view on the Opposition on a matter of such magnitude as the timetabling of business in the House of Commons—with the exception of the guillotine. Our problem is that Britain does not have a written constitution. The one guarantee of the power of the House is that such reforms have always been on a strictly consensual basis. The Labour Government are using their majority to pursue a constitutional reform programme that could be described only as a form of elective Stalinism.

Mr. Soley

I have two brief points in response to that. First, if the hon. Gentleman really does believe that in 18 years the Conservative Government did not drive their business through, I must say that they had me fooled for a long time. Secondly, there was consensus on the Committee, but it was broken today; that is a pity. The Conservatives have damaged themselves by that, because many hon. Members on both sides of the House wanted an agreement to be reached.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In the light of what the hon. Gentleman has just said, are we debating Government business or House of Commons business?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

The hon. Gentleman knows that that is not a point of order, but a point of debate.

Mr. Soley

I shall let it pass as largely irrelevant to the issues at stake, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) drew my attention to a fact sheet about the hours of sittings in the House of Commons over many centuries. Of course the hours have varied widely. This has probably been one of the longest periods in which we have not changed them. The House has sat on Saturdays and Sundays, in mornings, afternoons, evenings and at night. It was a flexible, changing institution. Sadly, the Opposition are now saying that we should not change anything, in remembrance of some golden age. However, things are never quite what they were. Meanwhile, the rest of the world has changed, as has much of what we do. We have been left with a model of Parliament that is a less than adequate means of holding the Executive to account and of giving Back Benchers the rights that they need to do their work.

Back Benchers have many roles. They are expected to do much more in their constituencies than previously. They do much more work in Committees. I would like us to do more outside the United Kingdom. Only twice in my career have I been an observer at international elections. It is one of the best things one can do and the countries that are emerging out of authoritarian rule appreciate it, but we can fulfil such duties only if we consider the role of Back Benchers, set it in context and modernise our working times.

Sir Peter Emery

I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but I think is misleading the House, and he is not known for that. He is suggesting—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would like to think about what he has said. I am sure that he did not intend to make quite that accusation.

Sir Peter Emery

The hon. Gentleman's remarks could be construed as not giving a fair interpretation of the Opposition's intentions. He is suggesting that, by agreeing the amendment, we would be going back on what was agreed in the Committee. However, without the amendment, the two points that were made in the Committee would never be put to the House because, if the first motion is agreed to, everything falls. The amendment is necessary to put the alternative before the House.

Mr. Soley

The right hon. Gentleman knows that that is not right. [Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman intervened, so perhaps he should listen.

More important, my general point related not just to the fact that the Opposition tabled the amendment, but to the tenor of their comments in the debate. I remember working hard in the Select Committee and sometimes being criticised by my hon. Friends, who will cheerfully refer to the stick that they gave me from time to time, for trying to get the Conservatives on board. Suddenly, I find what I suspected—that they would not stay with it. That did not surprise me, but I felt that I had a duty to try to take them with me. When they return to the Committee, they need to think more carefully about how they participate in order to give the Committee confidence that we can work on a consensual basis. If we cannot, as I said earlier, it will be better if we acknowledge that Tory Members will write a minority report and vote accordingly. There is nothing wrong with that and it would save a great deal of time. It is important to have said that, because the Tory party should not be allowed to get away with what it is doing today without comment.

Mr. Butterfill

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Soley

No. I am about to conclude.

As I said in my opening comments, we have embarked on a major constitutional reform which is long overdue. We must also undertake a major reform of the House of Commons. On one level, I would quite like to say that we should make the constitutional change first and then reform the House of Commons, but that is neither realistic nor practical. Today, we are asking the House to try an experiment—no more than that. If that experiment works well, we will stay with it. If it does not, we can drop it, but the request is to try that experiment in order to modernise our proceedings in a way that the vast majority of hon. Members want and people outside expect. Above all, we owe it to the history of this place, which frankly was much prouder some time ago than it has been in recent years, and I blame the Conservative party for much of that.

5.57 pm
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

I start by following the final remarks of the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley) in trying to put our discussion in context. I was struck by the description of some hon. Members as traditionalists. I do not know who is owning up to being a traditionalist. It is certainly not exclusive to the Conservatives; indeed, one hon. Member is raising his hand; the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), who is not in her usual place today, is certainly a traditionalist. Some take pride in that, but what tradition are they seeking to advance?

As the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush pointed out, tradition is all over the place. In the 16th century the House sat in the mornings and had Committees in the afternoons. In the 17th century it regularly started at 7 am and sometimes even at 6 am and was fixed day by day. In the 18th century the House sat at 12 noon. That was changed to 3 pm and then 5 pm. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Aldridge—Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) for pointing out that on one occasion the House met at 10 pm because hon. Members wanted to go to the Spithead Review. So ad hocery has been the name of the game.

At the turn of the century the House sat at 3 pm. That changed to 2 pm and then to 2.45 pm. During the war, in order to adapt to the special circumstances and to save energy, the House sat from 11 am to 6 pm—quite a normal working day. After the war, it started sitting at 2.30 pm with 9.30 am as a speciality on Fridays, and recently there has been some moderation around the middle of the week. We have only become set into a particular pattern in comparatively recent times, so I challenge the traditionalists to tell us which tradition they are seeking to follow. Anyone outside watching the debate will feel that the issue of when and how to meet on Thursdays is a storm in a teacup.

As the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush rightly said, we should be discussing the wider issues. I shall refer only briefly to the proposals for Thursdays, as I believe the argument is a red herring.

Incidentally, to demonstrate that the power of Prime Ministers has a long history, I can tell hon. Members that the House sat on Saturdays in the 17th century and continued to do so until Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole abolished Saturday sittings because he wanted to secure at least one day's hunting a week.

The first paragraph of the report is the most important. It says: The purpose of reform is to make Parliament more effective. This means allowing Members to make the best use of their time, and to balance their various commitments in the House and its Committees with the increasing workload and demands of their constituencies. The purpose of reform is not to reduce our work load, but to make it more productive. I hope that hon. Members from both sides of the House will agree that the Modernisation Committee has made some—albeit slow—progress. We have sought to find ways in which to achieve more effective scrutiny of legislation, as our previous reports—our principal work under the previous Leader of the House, to whom I, too, pay tribute—demonstrated.

We have also sought to make the Government more accountable. The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) said that the power of Parliament had been reduced in the past 18 months and that we had been less effective in holding the Government to account. Where was he in the previous 18 years? He was in the Cabinet, so perhaps he did not notice what Parliament was doing. He certainly cannot have noticed what happened under the then right hon. Member for Finchley, who had an extraordinary perception of the role of Parliament, which she largely regarded as a rubber stamp.

The Thursday proposals are modest. On balance, I prefer option 2 to option 1, but I really do not mind. Let us do something about Thursdays, for goodness' sake. It is ridiculous for those who sit on the two Front Benches to spend all their time arguing about how we decide which option is better. It is absurd that we cannot treat two propositions equally and then choose between them. I hope that the Modernisation Committee will, in due course, consider how we should put different options on a level playing field, as happened when the House considered Sunday trading, for example.

Our yes-no procedures make it extremely difficult to adopt a balanced attitude to the options on Thursday sittings. Both have advantages and both have disadvantages, but they are both considerably better than the status quo. I want us, after this debate, to move on.

I wholly accept the other principal recommendations in the report. A non-sitting or constituency week in February would be extremely welcome, as long as we are given another week in which to ensure that we are not letting the Government off the hook. The same applies to the designated Committee weeks in September. Those weeks may coincide with the Liberal Democrats' party conference, but it would give me great pleasure as Chief Whip to have an excuse not to attend it for one day.

The right hon. Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery), to whom I pay tribute, drew our attention to the experiences of other Parliaments. A consensus developed in the Committee—across party lines and involving both newer Members and old lags—that it would be sensible to examine the procedures of the House in a Main Committee or second Chamber. Such a Committee would not remove the supremacy of this Chamber—far from it. It would ensure that we had more time to consider those issues that can be debated and decided only on the Floor of the House.

I hope that hon. Members have read the report. If they have, they will have seen the details of the 400 hours of discussion that could easily have been transferred into a less formal setting with no reduction in accountability. That time would be better spent in scrutinising difficult legislation effectively and in considering private Members' legislation. The real bonus of a Main Committee would be that it would allow us to discuss all those issues that are crowded out of the House. A number of distinguished Chairs and former Chairs of Select Committees are present—

Sir Patrick Cormack


Mr. Tyler

I take the view that Chairs may call themselves what they want. They could be Chairpersons, Chairmen or Chairlords for all I care.

It is important that the work of Select Committees sees the light of day and is given proper scrutiny. Each year, only about 12 of the 60 or 70 important Select Committee reports are debated—in limited time—on the Floor of the House. That is a scandal. A Select Committee report, despite all the hard work that hon. Members put into it, will have only a one in five chance of being properly debated.

Mr. Keith Darvill (Upminster)

The hon. Gentleman may be aware that the Procedure Committee is examining the role of Select Committees, particularly in relation to financial procedures. If the Committee recommends a greater role for Select Committees, that would provide hon. Members with a further way in which to hold the Executive to account—scrutiny of the Executive would be enhanced if the Main Committee considered Select Committee reports.

Mr. Tyler

That is exactly my point. To have Ministers respond to the criticisms, concerns and anxieties of a Select Committee that has worked hard in examining the work of Departments would be an excellent way in which Back Benchers on both sides of the House could hold the Government to account.

If such discussions were moved into a forum that is more appropriate—not only in terms of the numbers who can easily participate in the debate, but in format—and if we followed the experience of other legislatures, I believe that hon. Members' doubts would soon disappear. While I was on holiday in Australia, I took a day out to go to Canberra to meet the Clerks and other participants in its Main Committee. The Speaker of the House of Representatives had been one of the biggest critics of the Main Committee when it was set up, but he had been completely converted—he believed that it had enhanced the reputation of Parliament.

The hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush mentioned the media. In Australia, the media are as likely to televise an intelligent discussion in the Main Committee as they are the often rather silly to-ing and fro-ing in the Chamber. For example, the specialist media found a discussion in the Main Committee on youth suicide was much more enlightening than such a debate would have been in the more confrontational atmosphere of the Chamber. I am not suggesting that such a forum would be a wonderful panacea, but the House should examine the idea carefully.

I give one example of how a Main Committee could make a major improvement to the way in which we handle our business. The Wednesday morning Adjournment debates are very useful, but the maximum attendance is probably only 15 or 20. If those debates were held in a Main Committee, Ministers could still be held to account, but the House could use Wednesday mornings to consider private Members' Bills. That would be much better than using Fridays, which are a disaster—there are voting problems and great uncertainty about what will come up when.

It would be a huge advantage if private Members' Bills were considered in the middle of the week. [Interruption.] Conservative Members are pointing out that the Government would not like that, but I hope that Labour Back Benchers would like it. I know that Liberal Democrats would welcome the ability to have good debates on private Members' legislation instead of having them kicked into the end of the week. That would also allow us to be consistent in our Friday commitments to our constituents. I believe that most hon. Members want certainty in their parliamentary lives.

Sir Patrick Cormack

Is the hon. Gentleman advocating no Friday sittings at all?

Mr. Tyler

Friday sittings can never be abolished because we may always need them for flexibility. However, our consistent approach should be that we only have them when we absolutely must and, I hope, by consensus—not just because the Government have got into a mess in the management of their business.

I do not want to state that the Australian example—or, indeed, the Canadian example—is a model that we must follow precisely, as there will be Westminster variations. Far more legislation is undertaken in the Main Committee in Canberra than would be appropriate here. However, there is one basic rule there that would be helpful—there is never a Division in the Main Committee. If the point is reached in any discussion where anyone at all calls for a Division, the matter comes back to the full Chamber. That is the right approach.

If, in a more consensual atmosphere—in a smaller, but still prestigious part of the building, with public and media access—we have the principle firmly established that those discussions take place without a Division, and that if a Division is called, it is automatically adjourned back to the Chamber, that would be a huge advantage.

The House of Representatives has been very careful to give the proceedings of the Main Committee equal status to those of the main Chamber. It is not just a Committee, or even a Grand Committee—it is comparable to the main Chamber. For that reason, the proceedings of the Main Committee are bound with the weekly equivalent of Hansard. The media and the public see the Committee in that way.

I wish to refer to the way in which we manage our business and its impact on access to the House. Some concern has been expressed about the extent to which the public can have access to the House, and the Thursday change could alter that. However, knowing that the public could come here on a Friday—almost invariably—would be a huge asset.

Sir Patrick Cormack

The hon. Gentleman is quite clearly advocating no Friday sittings, other than in an emergency. He wants Members back in their constituencies—so that they can then come back on a Friday to show their constituents around the House. Is that it?

Mr. Tyler

s: The hon. Gentleman may have difficulty in arranging visits from constituents during the week. I have never had that problem.

There are current proposals for August and September which would preclude the free access of our constituents to this House—a far more sweeping change than anything suggested in the report. Anyone coming from our constituencies in August or September is likely to be charged between £6 and £7 per head. Hon. Members may have experience of arranging visits of comparatively large parties to the House of Commons in August or September. We are not likely to be here, so perhaps some do not. However, for a lot of families, that is the only time that they can come here. It is the same for youth groups, although school parties tend to come during the school year.

The proposals which, apparently, have been approved—although they have never been before the House, as far as I am concerned—will lead to our constituents being charged for their democratic access to the Houses of Parliament. Few people will be able to afford the proposed £6 or £7 a head. If any hon. Member is concerned about public access, the proper target is not the report—it is somebody within this building who has apparently decided that the 20 per cent. of visitors who come here in August and September who are British citizens will no longer have free access.

In summary, it is unthinkable that a radical, reforming Government should modernise the House of Lords in this Parliament to make it more representative and more accountable for the 21st century and not make this place more accessible, more representative and more accountable.

6.14 pm
Mr. Robert Sheldon (Ashton-under-Lyne)

The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) adopted a rather more leisurely tone than we have heard before in the debate. I am more relaxed than some hon. Members about whether we start Question Time at 11.30 or 2.30—it is not the crucial issue of our time, and we can take it sensibly. It is only an experiment, and, after six or nine months, we can look at it again. A number of experiments have been undertaken which have been changed as a result of our perception of them. We ought to, as it were, lower the tone of the debate, and get down to some sensible discussion of how we can improve our business.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley) rightly said, we must look at the role of Back Benchers and how we hold the Executive to account. That is what is important—not whether we meet at 11.30 or 2.30 for questions. That is a minor matter. I have my own views—mainly because I have seen 11.30 questions at the end of a Session, and they were rather poorly attended. I accept that that is not a good analogy, and I will be interested to see how it might work. I am slightly in favour of continuing the present system.

Like many others, I work here on constituency matters. I have a large mail, and one should finish off one's mail quickly—first thing in the morning—so that the rest of the day is free. That may make it difficult to have morning sittings. I chair three Select Committees, which makes it more difficult for me than for many others.

Mrs. Ann Winterton

The right hon. Gentleman asserted that we have had experiments before in this House, upon which votes have been taken and which have been subsequently changed. I must admit that I cannot recall one.

Mr. Sheldon

The Crossman reforms were undertaken—including some very silly ones—and a number were subsequently altered. We have seen that happen, and it will happen again. I have no objection to that.

I wish to comment on the role of the Member of Parliament with his or her constituency. My enormous advantage—and that of other hon. Members—is that I represent a constituency. I am the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne—that is what I am known as. I am against lists, because I want to be responsible. I know full well that I can offend an awful lot of people, and it will not make much difference to my large majority. However, that is not the way in which I operate. I want every individual who walks into my advice bureau to lay their troubles to one side, and know that someone is looking after them. That individual approach is important. It is a question not of votes, but of responsibility.

The major problem of this Parliament is that there is a large majority, and the House of Commons is not designed for a large majority. It is not designed to have such a large number of people with nothing very much to do. I have been in 10 Parliaments—five in opposition and five in government. Admittedly—and unfortunately—I have not spent as long in government as I would have liked. Nevertheless, I have had an opportunity to see things from both sides.

Dr. Starkey

Could my right hon. Friend cite any Member of Parliament who has come to him and said that they had nothing to do?

Mr. Sheldon

I must apologise. I used that expression in the conventional sense of the House of Commons doing what it has always done—allowing Members to bring their views to the Prime Minister and leaders of the Government, and to alter the affairs of state. I am not referring to looking after constituents. Constituencies are important, but they should not take up so much of a Member's time. Duncan Sandys, who was accused of not visiting his constituency, said that he represented Streatham in Parliament, not Parliament in Streatham.

I am in my constituency every weekend—that is enough. Constituents can see me, and I can look after their affairs and respond to their correspondence. Nobody has accused me of failing to represent my area, and I am proud of that. That does not mean that Members should ignore their position here—this is where we were elected for. We are Members of Parliament—not councillors, who live and work in an area every day. That is their job. By all means let us converse about the big issues, but Members must not spend too much time on that.

There are 418 Government Members, of whom about 350 are Back Benchers. That is a very large number. In a normal situation, with 350 Government Members, there are only 280 Back Benchers, and they have much greater influence and involvement. When they question a Minister, they have much more power. Now we have a problem, in that attendance in the Chamber does not reflect the voting in the country as a whole, because Back Benchers do not feel that they need to be here. I suggest that an important criterion for judging the success of any alteration is how it affects attendance in the Chamber. We shall see what happens at the end of the summer.

My predecessor, Lord Hervey Rhodes—a wonderful man, of whom I had an enormously high opinion—never used to have anything to do with his local authority. His advice to me was not to have anything to do with mine. That was possible in the 1950s and until the early 1960s, but much legislation now involves local authorities, because they get so much of their money from central Government. I now represent parts of two local authorities, and sometimes they disagree with each other, which creates problems for me, but I have to live with those. One has to represent the authorities in discussions with Ministers.

We must have an understanding of local problems, but not at the expense of our work in the House. This is a debating Chamber, in which issues facing the country must be argued. Poorer attendance means poorer reporting. We cannot blame the press for the empty Press Gallery when we do not attend ourselves. There was a time when The Times had a large reporting staff here in its own special room, and all one's speeches were reported; now it does not even report Ministers' speeches. Many hon. Members feel that they can exercise more influence through a letter to a prominent newspaper than by making a contribution in the House, and that is very sad.

The first priority is to impress on everybody the importance of the House of Commons. There is a wonderful quotation to the effect that the greatest ambition of an Englishman is to be elected as a Member of Parliament. With the change of "Englishman" to "Briton", I would accept that wholly. It was never my aim to be a Member of Parliament—that was far too lofty an ambition—but circumstances so fell out that I was fortunate enough to come here. I have never ceased to be astonished at my good fortune.

It is crucial to retain the elements of Parliament that have established our reputation all over the world. Whenever we travel abroad, an assumption is made, not out of deference to us, that we understand parliamentary matters well, because of our long history.

One of the important changes we have made is the establishment of Select Committees. I have been associated with them for well over 30 years, as a member or a Chairman. I well remember Michael Foot speaking against Select Committees and saying that they would detract from the House. To a certain extent he was right. There is no doubt that sending people upstairs to debate important matters means that they cannot be here in the Chamber, but there had to be some way of holding the Government to account; it was not enough to make a brilliant speech and hope to change policy, or to ask a question which could be dodged by a clever manipulation of words.

In a Select Committee, one can ask a question again and again, until the Minister or official is forced to give an answer. I remember my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport, when he was in the Public Accounts Committee, banging the table and saying, "I've only got one minute, and I'm going to get an answer, yes or no." Those asking questions in the Committee were given only 15 minutes, because there was such a demand to speak, as people realised that they were doing something important. The reluctant civil servant said, "Yes."

The battles are fought here, and the decisions must be made here, preferably with a large attendance, but it is difficult to hold the Government to account with a handful of hon. Members behind one. In a crowded House, one can have much more impact. That is what we must try to achieve.

The most important change that I support for Select Committees is, strangely, to put their proceedings on the internet. At present, reports are not put on the internet until corrections have been made, three weeks later. Minutes of evidence are not part of the functioning of the House. A Select Committee can get real answers from, say, the Home Secretary or the Governor of the Bank of England, and there is a bit in the press, but nothing in the House until three or four weeks later.

Uncorrected minutes of evidence should be put on the internet. I have arranged for that to be done overnight, if necessary. The reporters can do that, but we are tied down by questions of privilege. The newspapers, television and radio can use uncorrected minutes of evidence, but the House of Commons cannot. That is absolute nonsense. I am arguing with the legal people, and I have put some points to the various Committees and to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, who has been sympathetic, so I am hoping for some change.

That is important, not only because the House can then consider that evidence at Question Time the following day, but because people can see what has been said, and take it as part of the political discussion of the day. When Chairmen and members of Select Committees appear on radio and television, they are a bit apprehensive about saying what was discussed, because they do not have the transcript. They know that what they say is not privileged, so they are careful. If they had the transcript, they could do exactly what the press and the other media do.

I want draft Bills to be scrutinised by Select Committees. That is important, because the Committees build up expertise that can be tapped. I know that we are putting enormous pressure on Select Committee members, but fortunately they are doing very well, and feel that, as the Opposition—if I may say so—are not doing as good a job as they should, part of the scrutiny is being done by Select Committees, and that is of enormous value to us all. Pre-legislation should go to Select Committees.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush was right to say that we need to see reports of debates. On Main Committees, I have nothing against matters going upstairs, but I am a little uneasy about having a replica of the House of Commons. We used to have Standing Committees for regional affairs in which Ministers would respond, so one could argue the case for certain things happening in the north-west, for example. That system was quite popular. I do not know why it was dropped. Perhaps it was taking up too much ministerial time. We do not want anything too overblown, but particular matters could be devolved to Committee Room 14, say.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton

The right hon. Gentleman is making an excellent address, and bringing to our debate a balance and a knowledge of what goes on here. He has highlighted the importance of Select Committees, but does he believe, with the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), that more Select Committee reports should be debated here, and if so, how can that be done?

Mr. Sheldon

As I was arguing, that could be a matter for one of the debates in Committee Room 14, but there may be other ways to do it. I have already told my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House that I would like to see more debates on the Floor of the House, but, if that is not possible, debates in Committee Room 14 may provide an alternative.

In my 14 years as Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, I have used part of my annual speech to ask other Select Committees to consider expenditure. If Select Committees considered expenditure and concluded that the Government had got it right, nothing more would need to be said, but the Committees do not consider expenditure. I understand the difficulties, because the issues are complicated and the accounts are set out in a way that is hard to understand.

However, with resource accounting, the process will be much easier. For example, child benefit and other expenditure will be entered as an element in resource accounting, and Government programmes will be expressed in terms of money, so that the relevant Select Committee can consider the programme and relate it to the amount spent. Select Committees cannot do that now, because the accounts are expressed in staff or stationery costs. If programmes can be examined by reference to their cost, that becomes an important issue to consider.

We are discussing a trial scheme, and the test of it will be attendance. If such sittings are well attended, I will support a permanent change, but if they are not, we will have to think again.

6.32 pm
Sir Peter Emery (East Devon)

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) on his remarks. I found myself unable to disagree with almost anything he said. He is a man of great experience, and new Members should pay particular attention to his comments. I also congratulate the Leader of the House on the way that she acted as the Chairman of the Committee. She did so with charm and understanding, and she put up with one or two of us who might not be the easiest Members to control in a Committee. She did so admirably, and the House should recognise that.

We sometimes do not achieve a proper debate in the House, but in following the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne, I wish to highlight one of the issues he raised—the lack of attendance in the House. One innovation has reduced the numbers of Members attending the Chamber and the time that Members spend here: in every Member's office is a television set, so that we can all see what is going on in the Chamber. Members can sit in their offices, and do not need to be on the green leather Benches. Members have often said to me, "I saw what was happening in the Chamber on the television, and I thought that I had better come in." They should have been here from the start, but unfortunately that modern and convenient asset has done much to empty the Chamber.

In future, I hope that the Committee will consider one simple change that would assist us in holding the Executive to account. We should ensure that written parliamentary questions could be tabled when the House is not sitting. They would not have to be answered every day, but perhaps they could be answered and published in Hansard once a week or twice a month. Members often want to be able to put questions to Ministers during, for example, the summer recess or the Christmas break. If bombing were to be carried out in Iraq and the House were not recalled, Members would have a hundred and one questions to put to Ministers. The Executive would not be held properly to account if those questions were not answered until 11 January. We should find a way in which written questions can be put and answered when the House is not sitting.

We have heard some argument to the effect that the Committee's report was unanimous, and that it was unfair of the Opposition to table an amendment. It was a unanimous report, but paragraphs 72 and 73 make it clear that there are two aspects for consideration. Motion 5, tabled by the Leader of the House, can be considered only if there is an amendment. The concept that motion 4 will be defeated is nonsense. Once it is passed, motion 5 falls, and the House loses the opportunity to choose between (a) and (b), but the Committee intended that it should be able to choose.

Mrs. Beckett

I am sorry to have to take issue with the right hon. Gentleman, especially in view of his kind remarks about me, which I much appreciate. I have heard several Conservative Members muttering about choice, and it seems to have escaped their notice that, if the amendment they have tabled were to be carried, there would be no opportunity for the proposal in motion 4 to be put to the House. Only one motion can be carried, as one will knock out the other. The matter is quite straightforward.

Sir Peter Emery

I am delighted that I gave way, because I wish to clear the matter up. The right hon. Lady appears not to be entirely au fait with the procedures of the House. If motion 4 were passed and no amendment had been tabled, the House would have no opportunity to consider the alternative, because every other motion would fall. However, if the amendment to motion 4 is put, the Government are in a clear position to defeat it, and then motion 4 will be put—as the right hon. Lady desires—unamended. That is as simple as can be.

Mrs. Beckett

indicated dissent.

Sir Peter Emery

The right hon. Lady shakes her head, but which point does she not understand? If the House wishes to consider the possibility of questions at 2.30 and Standing Committees not meeting at 9 am, the only way in which that can be done—given the procedure adopted by the Government—is to defeat the Government's first motion.

Mrs. Beckett

With great respect to the right hon. Gentleman, what the Government did was give effect to the decision of the Committee, which was that, first, the House would consider the experimental proposal by the Government. If that were defeated, the House would consider the alternative. I can understand it if Conservative Members have thought better of that proposition, but they assented to it in Committee, and that is why the Government have tabled the motions as we have.

Sir Peter Emery

I have—[Interruption.] If I may continue, I must tell the Leader of the House that, if that is what she was saying, the Select Committee was misled. [Interruption.] I should like to finish. I can deal with only one intervention at a time. The Committee was determined to ensure that two options should be available to the House. If I had believed that we would not be able to debate the alternative, and that the Government would table the motions in the way they have, I would have objected to the whole report.

The Committee went to great lengths to ensure that two options would be available. My colleagues on the Committee certainly took the view that we should have the opportunity to allow the House to vote on which alternative it wanted. That was my interpretation.

Mr. Tyler

I have not signed the Official Secrets Act, so I do not think I am betraying any great confidence by saying that I put a proposition to the Committee when it appeared to have reached an impasse. I proposed, simply, that, once the two options were before the House, we should be able to deal with them sequentially, so that there would be a clear choice.

That is precisely what the Leader of the House has done. She has put the main recommendation of the Committee on the Order Paper. If hon. Members think that the second motion is better, they may, quite simply, vote down motion 4, and vote for motion 5. All that those on the Opposition Front Bench, and one or two curious allies, have done is try to reverse that process. I cannot think it a sensible use of our time to argue that point. Let us get on with the debate, and then we can decide on alternative 1 or alternative 2.

Sir Peter Emery

I have never had a high opinion of what the Liberal Democrats say about the right way of dealing with things. It is immensely important to understand that, without the amendment being tabled, the House would have had no chance to show by a vote the number of hon. Members who want the alternative rather than the Government's option. To anyone who believes, as the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) appears to do, that we can vote down the first motion, I can only say, "Come into the real world." The chances of defeating a Government motion are negligible.

Mrs. Beckett

With the greatest possible respect to the right hon. Gentleman—and with a promise not even to attempt to intervene on him again—may I remind him that, as members of the Committee will be well aware, Opposition Members so little supported the notion of an experiment that they were not going to vote for the proposition at all? How the opinion of the House would have been reflected in that way, I do not know.

Sir Peter Emery

I did not attend the last meeting of the Committee, but there was no doubt that the majority wanted to change to meeting at 11.30 am. I accept that, and, as a pragmatist, I know that there is no way in which that change can be defeated.

The House has not even started to consider the difficulties of the Government's motion. Standing Committees would meet at 9 am. It is all very well to say that people go to work in an office or something like that at 9 am, but the preparation of the work of Standing Committees is pretty rushed for the Clerks even if they are to be ready for a 10.30 am start. Any amendments tabled up to the closing of the House the night before must be marshalled, got to the printers and prepared for the Committee. If that is to be done in the morning before the Committee sits, the staff will have to come in not at 9 am or at 8.30 am, but at any time from 6 am. Does that make sense? Are the Government really happy to force that on our staff? It is wrong.

No one has considered what the Government motion means to the way in which the House operates.

Dr. Starkey

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Sir Peter Emery

This must be the last time.

Dr. Starkey

I am a little behind hand, but I was trying to find a reference in the report. The right hon. Gentleman has talked of the difficulties for staff in preparing for Standing Committees. Can he confirm what paragraph 50 of the report says? It makes it clear: If the standing committees were to meet as early as 9.00 am, we think it would be desirable to impose an earlier cut-off time for the timetabling of amendments, so that the papers for a Thursday morning meeting could me made generally available on a Wednesday evening.

Sir Peter Emery

I understand that that is a simple statement, but what would the hon. Lady do if a Standing Committee sat until 7 or 8 pm? Could there be an earlier cut-off time? The Committee would not be able to discuss amendments that had arisen from debate if that were so. I do not see that that makes any sense at all.

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith (Wealden)

It would reduce the power of the Committee.

Sir Peter Emery

It would, as my right hon. Friend so rightly says, reduce the power of the Committee.

Let me turn to what the proposals mean to the work of the House. If we meet at 11.30 am on a Thursday, questions will run until 12.30 pm. We shall then have the business statement, which will run, under normal circumstances, until about 1 pm or 1.15 pm. Is that the moment at which Ministers or Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen will wish to stand up to make the main speech on the debate of the day? Will they want to do that in the middle of the lunch hour? Is that sensible? Is that what people want? Is that what Ministers really want? I do not think so. It has not been fully thought out

. The amendment would simply make it certain that our Standing Committees can continue as normal from 11.30 am until 1 pm.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton


Sir Peter Emery

From 10.30 am until 1 pm. If we began at 11.30 am, we could have the main speeches of a debate. We could then break for questions at 2.30 pm, having had our Standing Committees meet as normal. After that, any statement could be made.

That does not alter the revolutionary factor of change. It has been suggested that the amendment is an attempt to defeat the whole modernisation of the House. It does no such thing. It ensures that the House can operate more sensibly and reasonably, for the convenience of hon. Members. When it was suggested in Committee that the Conservatives were always against change, I reminded hon. Members that I spent my 14 years as Chairman of the Select Committee on Procedure trying to drag procedures into the 20th century, never mind the 21st.

The Jopling Committee was Conservative led, and proposals went to it rather than the Procedure Committee, so that senior Labour Members could deal with them. That Committee was unanimous, but its recommendations were delayed for two and a half years—not by the Conservatives, but by the then Deputy Chief Whip of the Labour party, who objected to any modernisation and change. The Conservative Government could have forced change with their majority, but they chose not to do so, because the Conservative party has always believed in carrying the vast majority of the House rather than forcing procedural change over substantial opposition.

Mr. Derek Foster (Bishop Auckland)

The right hon. Gentleman labours under a grave misapprehension. He and I have been in this place a long time, and he is immensely experienced. We sat together on the Select Committee on Trade and Industry when God was a lad, and he was a distinguished Chairman of the Procedure Committee. However, I must tell him that it was not the Deputy Chief Whip who frustrated him. My deputy was acting on my authority, as I was the Chief Whip at that time; I conceded only when it was obvious that my party would win the election, and that it would be to our advantage to have shorter hours. I thought that that was a good negotiating posture.

I have immense respect for the right hon. Gentleman's arguments, and I urge my younger colleagues not to dismiss them as though they were being made by a man who does not know what he is talking about. The right hon. Gentleman knows a great deal about these matters, and we should listen carefully to him.

Sir Peter Emery

I am most grateful to the former Labour Chief Whip, who is equally distinguished, and a man of great character. A man who can get up and take the blame, which is normally passed on to his deputy, and say that it was him and not the deputy, is a man worthy of great respect. For the right hon. Gentleman to say that the only reason for Labour's agreement was party political is to admit more than I would ever have suggested was behind that agreement.

Let me now discuss the possibility of having a Main Committee or some other Committee. After many years here, I believe that any action that detracted from the importance of the House—the Floor of this Chamber—must be deprecated. However, having said that, I believe that we have to find another way of dealing with some of the mass of matters that—because of pressure of time and because we do not want to sit after midnight so that everybody can speak—are not currently debated, especially reports of Select Committees and the individual private Members' motions that were once a feature of Fridays in the House but have now disappeared.

I acknowledge the possibility of a Main Committee, as long as it does not detract from the Chamber, enabling a whole host of matters which are no longer debated by the House to be considered. If that is what would happen, the proposal is worthy of close consideration.

I finish rather as the Leader of the House finished. The right hon. Lady said that she found it most difficult that the Opposition had tabled an amendment to her motion; and that it was with some sadness that she had to advise the House to vote against the amendment and for her motion. May I suggest that, if there had been no amendment, she would have urged her colleagues to vote for her motion—motion 4? I believe that she would have done so.

Mrs. Beckett

indicated assent.

Sir Peter Emery

The right hon. Lady nods. If that had been the case, the House would never have had the opportunity of deciding whether the arguments that I have advanced ought to be tested in a Division.

In an early-day motion, 48 hon. Members—a considerable number—have urged that the House should not move away from having questions at 2.30 pm. It is interesting to note that, almost without exception, the Chairmen's Panel perceives no terrible difficulty being caused to the modernisation by holding to 11.30 am and 2.30 pm. I urge hon. Members to think much more fully, not about the glib party political aspects, but about the working of the House. It is the working of the House in which I am interested. If it is passed, the motion will not help the working of the House—in fact, the reverse is true.

6.54 pm
Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West)

I hope that the right hon. Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery) accepts that all of us are concerned about the working of the House; it is just that we have different opinions about how to make the House work best.

I sat through the start of the debate when Opposition Members were making great play of the fact that the public should have respect for Parliament. I agree, but have to tell them that they are completely out of touch with the public. The public would not find it unreasonable that people should sometimes be asked to come to work at 7.30 am. The reason why doing so in London is difficult is that the vast majority of people in London are coming to work at precisely that time. The public do not find it reasonable that the House should habitually work in the Chamber from 2.30 pm to 10.30 pm, or beyond; nor, if they realised it, would they find it reasonable that sometimes debates are kept going artificially until 10 pm, because hon. Members—on both sides—are attending important dinners and cannot get back until 10 pm.

The public would not think unreasonable the notion that both staff and Members of Parliament have families and family commitments. I know that one member of the Committee is fortunate enough to have his spouse here, but most of us are not in that position.

Mrs. Ann Winterton

Would the hon. Lady give way on that point?

Dr. Starkey


Mrs. Winterton

I am most grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. May I ask, first and foremost, on what she bases her research into what the people out there want? I have not had a raft of letters suggesting that we should come to work at 9 am.

Secondly, if she and other hon. Members wanted a nine-to-five job, perhaps they should not have stood for Parliament. It is the greatest honour to represent constituents in this place; it is a way of life and not just a job.

Finally, I should like to point out that I did 12 years as a wife living in the constituency and bringing up children—the best job that any woman can do. I was able to do that while my husband was a Member of Parliament and, subsequently, I was able to join him in Parliament. Perhaps hon. Members should think of their constituents first, rather than their own way of life.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The debate is in danger of becoming a little personal. It is better that the subject is dealt with in the round.

Dr. Starkey

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Suffice it to say that I acknowledge that my constituents mostly talk to me about matters of direct concern to them; but when they talk about Parliament they find it extraordinary that we work in a way that is completely alien to the workings of any other organisation in the country. The way in which we work does not enhance my constituents' respect for Parliament. Most members of the public would find it extraordinary that hon. Members should suggest that lunch time is an immutable event that occurs between 1 pm and 2 pm; that no change can be accommodated; and that it is more important than the efficient working of the House.

As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley) said, the Modernisation Committee's report and the Committee's raft of previous recommendations have all been aimed at ensuring that the House works more effectively. The recommendations relating to draft legislation, the scrutiny of European legislation, the conduct of debates and setting time limits on speeches to allow more hon. Members to participate are all designed to reform parliamentary procedure so that we can be more effective. Procedures should be designed to be helpful: that is what they were designed to be, but the House has changed and procedures need to be changed too; they should not make life more difficult or make it more complicated for Members of Parliament to participate in debate.

I agree that the essential job of a Member of Parliament when at Westminster remains to legislate, to scrutinise and to hold the Government to account. However, the way in which we do that needs to change, and the measures that the Committee has suggested would achieve that. A balance has to be struck between Members' duties here in Westminster, in their constituency and as people.

I am sorry that my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) appeared to attempt to outline the job description of a Member of Parliament. All hon. Members do their jobs in different ways, which is absolutely right. We are accountable to our electors for the way in which we balance our activities. I do not think any hon. Member should set down a pattern of activity balancing constituency duties with parliamentary responsibilities in Westminster, and imply that every hon. Member should follow it. My right hon. Friend quoted the aphorism—which the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) mentioned frequently in Committee—about Members of Parliament being at Westminster to represent their constituencies and not in their constituencies to represent Westminster. That is an aphorism, and repeating it often does not make it true. I do not think it is true, as I believe that Members of Parliament have dual roles.

Mr. Sheldon

I agree that that saying is often repeated, but I quoted the original.

Dr. Starkey

I understand that. My constituents believe that the role of a Member of Parliament is twofold: first, hon. Members must represent their constituencies; and, secondly, they should represent Westminster in their constituencies and form a vital link between the two. If former Conservative Members who lost their seats at the last election had been more effective links, explaining to their constituents what was happening in Westminster, some of them might still be here.

Mr. Derek Foster

My hon. Friend is speaking total unmitigated rubbish. When the swing is against a Member of Parliament, it does not matter how good he or she is. My hon. Friend will realise that when she has been here a bit longer. Some superb Conservative Members of Parliament disappeared at the last election not through any fault of their own, but because the political swing was against them. Those of us who have been around a bit know also that many of my hon. Friends will not be here after the next election, no matter how good they are at their jobs. It has nothing to do with one's effectiveness as a Member of Parliament: I am afraid that it depends on the swing of the political pendulum.

Dr. Starkey

My right hon. Friend is entitled to his opinion.

Mrs. Beckett

I have great respect and affection for my right hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster), the former Chief Whip. However, he will be as aware as I am that, although his remarks are true in the sense that many hon. Members of good record lose their positions in this place through no fault of their own, the kind of service to constituents that my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) has just described is extremely pertinent in the case of hon. Members who represent marginal seats.

Dr. Starkey

I am grateful for the support of the Leader of the House. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland is entitled to his opinion. [Interruption.] I am afraid that you have not read the first report of the Modernisation Committee.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. May I assist the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey)? I hope that she will not find it irritating to learn that we try to address each other in the third person in this place. We say not "you" but "the hon. Member" or "my hon. Friend" or "my right hon. Friend."

Dr. Starkey

My right hon. Friend is entitled to his opinion and I hope that he will accept that I am entitled to mine. It is for others to decide who is right.

Mr. Derek Foster

One of my very good colleagues, the former Member for Keighley, who was killed in a road accident, always stood for a marginal seat—and did so from the Floor of the House. If I called a vote at 4 am to see who was here, he would always appear. He always won his marginal seat because he fought for it from this place. He did not return to his constituency as often as many of my colleagues returned to theirs.

Dr. Starkey

I do not find that argument particularly convincing. The evidence is in my postbag that my constituents appreciate—

Mrs. Beckett

I am afraid that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland is wrong. The former Member for Keighley did not always hold his seat. He left this place and then returned to represent a different constituency.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I am sorry to delay the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West but I think it might assist the debate—for which there is limited time—if we made some progress.

Dr. Starkey

I shall move on to my next point, which I hope will not be quite so contentious.

Members of Parliament are also people. Whereas it was the norm 50 years ago that Members of Parliament were men whose wives stayed at home and looked after their families, that is not the case today. Fortunately, a considerable number of Members of Parliament are women and even more Members of Parliament reflect the more modern pattern of family relationships in which men and women share domestic responsibilities. It is not unreasonable that we should take account of that arrangement in the House. I do not think it is sensible for the Government to tell employers to take account of the fact that their employees are people with family commitments or to profess support for the family, and then expect individuals—men or women—to work the sort of hours that are completely inconsistent with their demonstrating any commitment to their families. Those points were rehearsed in the innumerable letters to the Committee as reasons for changing the parliamentary calendar, and the Select Committee report has attempted to respond to them.

I shall try to move on quickly. I wish to refute the assertion made by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young), who opened for the Opposition, regarding the so-called "devolution dividend". I think it is a matter of debate as to whether the establishment of a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly will reduce the volume of business that comes before the House. However, it is absolutely irrefutable that, although we wish to discuss a huge amount of business in this place, we do not have time to do so.

Select Committee reports are the most obvious example. Statistics show that only 10 per cent. of Select Committee reports are debated or simply mentioned in debate. It seems to me to be a gross misuse of the enormous effort and expertise that is devoted to producing those reports that 90 per cent. of them are never discussed or referred to in the House. Notwithstanding the existence of the European scrutiny Committees, there is pressure for more time to debate European legislation on the Floor of the House. I understand that there are about eight times as many requests for Adjournment debates as there is time for them.

Ministerial statements are made about important policy matters. However, I would have welcomed a ministerial statement, for example, on the paper produced a considerable time ago about water charging. That policy has now been expressed in legislation, but a ministerial statement at that time would have allowed hon. Members to express their views about the paper well in advance of the introduction of legislation. That was not possible as there was severe time pressure on the business of the House and that subject was not deemed sufficiently important. Even if there is a devolution dividend, I think it will be more than compensated for by the huge amount of other business that the House will want to discuss. The so-called devolution dividend is a red herring.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) said that he was not fussed as to whether Question Time occurred at the beginning or in the middle of Thursdays. I am very fussed about that because it will make a huge difference. The proposal to move business on Thursdays forward by three hours en bloc while retaining its present order is designed to make the House work more effectively. Several hon. Members referred to the fact that Thursdays have been downgraded. I do not believe that that is because Prime Minister's questions have been moved to Wednesday. I think it is because, although Thursday business continues until 10 pm, we are mindful of the fact that hon. Members wish to return to their constituencies. There is therefore enormous pressure on the Government to schedule slightly less important business—if I may put it that way—for debate on Thursdays so that votes do not take place late at night. The consequence is that Thursdays are badly used.

The proposal put forward by the Leader of the House—that we move everything forward by three hours—would effectively recover Thursdays as sensible days for serious parliamentary business. That would reduce the pressure on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and allow us to have three full days of business in a week, which, in turn, would reduce the probability of the Government's having to timetable serious business after 10 o'clock, as occasionally happens on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. We would therefore be much more likely to finish at 10 o'clock on those days. We could deal with serious business—Government or Opposition—on Thursdays.

That is why the Conservative party's suggestion that we should have questions at 2.30 pm is effectively a wrecking measure to try to ensure that any experiment will be a disaster and we will therefore revert to the status quo.

Finally, there is no disagreement on the Committee about the fact that the House ought to be the pinnacle of our democracy and worthy of public respect, but those of us who want change believe that Parliament has to evolve if it is to retain that respect. With one notable exception in the 17th century, the tradition of Parliament has been to choose evolution, not revolution. These are evolutionary proposals and I strongly hope that the House will seize the opportunity to move forward and evolve. Otherwise, it will remain pickled in aspic and become ever more distant from the public whom it purports to represent.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. No speech so far has been shorter than 16 minutes. It would be helpful if we could have shorter speeches.

7.11 pm
Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey). It is important in such a debate that every case be put. Although I fundamentally disagreed with every word that the hon. Lady uttered, it is important that her remarks should be on the record.

I am in my 28th year in the House and it remains today as big an honour to represent my constituency at Westminster as it was when I was first elected at a by-election in 1971. I had little expectation of preferment then and I have little expectation of preferment today. I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House would admit that I am a House of Commons man. I have a view of my own and whatever side of the House I have been sitting on, I have never hesitated to put that view.

I say to the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West that I believe in this House. As the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon), who is highly regarded not only in his constituency but in the House and throughout the country, has said, our duty lies primarily here in the House to hold to account the Government of the day and to scrutinise as best we can the legislation that they propose. I believe also in my constituency duties and I work very hard in my constituency. That is why I have been returned, but my constituents expect me to represent them at Westminster, to act in their best interests and to try to hold to account the Government of the day—even my own, and I found that difficult enough.

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley) has left his place. I hope that the Leader of the House will accept that I believe that the Modernisation Committee can work best if there is common ground between all its members, whatever their party allegiance. I therefore regret the aggressive and rather unfair presentation that the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush made of the way in which Conservative members of the Committee behaved over the report and the tabling of the amendment.

I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery), who gave an accurate explanation of our action, which we took to ensure that our view could be voted on. If we had not tabled the amendment, the House would not have voted on our option that on Thursdays the House should sit at 11.30 am, Standing Committees should not meet before 10.30 am, and questions should be taken at 2.30 pm followed by business questions, private notice questions and ministerial statements. It is vital that the House vote on that proposal.

Mrs. Beckett

I am reluctant to take up any of the hon. Gentleman's time. He is right to say that we tried to proceed on common ground. Although my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley) is not here to speak for himself, I understand the reasons for his concern. I remind the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) and other Conservative members of the Committee that if we had not sought to achieve as much common ground as possible, Labour members of the Committee could have insisted that the option of having questions at 2.30 pm was not included in the report. It was included only in deference to those—the hon. Gentleman and the right hon. Member for East Devon were among them—who expressed the view that it ought to be put before the House to find out whether hon. Members wanted to reject the option proposed by the Government.

Mr. Winterton

If a majority of members of the Committee had insisted that our option not be included in the report, there would not have been a so-called unanimous report; there would have been a minority report. Perhaps the right hon. Lady is saying that in future we should not seek to work through consensus and that there could be a series of minority reports. I would regret that, and I think that she would also regret it. The attitude and tone of the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush led me to believe sincerely that that may be the only course of action that the Opposition can take in trying to ensure that the House's view, as against that of the Government, is properly registered.

I want briefly to address the issue of Standing Committees sitting in September. During the debates in Committee, I felt that that would be an undesirable development. Although Select Committees can meet in September, that decision is made by all members of the Committee. If Standing Committees met in September, that would be a Government-driven decision which would cause difficulty for many members of Committees. As the Leader of the House knows, September is the favoured month for delegations to the Inter-Parliamentary Union and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association to visit countries throughout the world.

Speaking as a senior member of the Chairmen's Panel, I believe that the proposal would cause problems also for Committee Chairmen who voluntarily seek to manage the business of the House, which is a heavy responsibility that takes up a great deal of time. I hope that some of the newer Members will, when they vote, appreciate the problems that could arise from that proposal.

Part II of our report, which deals with the second, parallel Chamber or Main Committee, seeks to get a reaction from hon. Members and members of the public who are interested in the way in which the House operates.

Like the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne, I have been the Chairman of a Select Committee. In fact, I was the subject of a rather interesting rule of which the House had apparently no knowledge until it was applied, and I was not reappointed to that Select Committee in 1992. However, that is water under the bridge, and I lived to fight another day. As one door closes, another one opens. [Interruption.]The door might have been slammed in my face, but others opened, not least in that I now have the opportunity to chair the Select Committee on Procedure.

The right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne is right to say that not enough Select Committee reports are debated on the Floor of the House. Many of those reports are very well researched, as the Committees take evidence from a wide range of experts. The House would benefit from the wider debate that could take place were those reports given greater exposure, as the right hon. Gentleman suggested. It is my view—a view shared by the right hon. Gentleman—that the only way Back Benchers from all parties can hold the Government of the day to account is through the work of the Select Committees. More time must be found to debate Select Committee reports, but like my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon, I agree that we should not take the focus away from this Chamber.

If we can learn anything from the parliamentary procedures and experience of Australia, I am sure that we will want to do so. If there is clear evidence that a parallel Chamber is an advantage, I assure the Leader of the House that I shall not stand in its way. In fact, I might well support it, but these are early days in that debate, and we have much evidence still to hear.

The right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne now chairs the Liaison Committee with great distinction. What he said should be read and digested by all hon. Members, not just the newer ones—although the 1997 intake on the Government Benches might like to consider it. He outlined the true role and function of a Member of Parliament, and I am grateful to him for the tone and content of his speech.

I hope that it will in no way embarrass Madam Speaker if I quote Peter Riddell, the political columnist of The Times, who wrote in the section entitled "Week in Westminster" in The House Magazine: Madam Speaker delivered a formidable, persuasive and multi-salvo broadside against the proposals for changing the hours for Thursday sittings". As the Leader of the House said, I fully accept that Madam Speaker, in our valuable meeting with her, went on to say that if the House introduced changes, she and the staff of the House would do their very best to ensure that they were implemented successfully. However, I shall also quote from Madam Speaker's letter to the Committee in which she said: It might well be sensible for the Committee to take evidence from House Departments in order to assess the implications properly With one or two exceptions, the Committee took no oral evidence. I believe that that was a very grave error of judgment.

Mr. Butterfill

Was there any assessment of the likely cost of the changes? Before the House votes on the proposals, it is important that we know what they will cost the public.

Mr. Winterton

My hon. Friend has only to read the report to see that no facts are given about the cost of the changes, and the Leader of the House made none public in her opening speech.

I hope that I shall not embarrass the Chairman of Ways and Means if I say that, at a very full meeting on this subject last week, Panel members of all parties were outspoken in their support for the arguments deployed by him in his letter of 21 July to the then Leader of the House. They made it perfectly clear that they were disappointed that the views expressed on behalf of the Chairmen's Panel had carried so little weight with the Government and the Committee.

The letter from the Chairman of Ways and Means stated that it was

the Panel's belief that there will be substantial inconvenience to members, Chairmen and staff if the House agrees to the Government's proposal that standing Committees should meet at 9am … an earlier cut-off time for the tabling of amendments, if implemented, will be a distinct disadvantage to committee members who often rely on the availability of Hansard covering the previous sitting. I should point out to hon. Members who have not sat on many, or any, Standing Committees that when tabling amendments it is important to have an accurate report of what has occurred in earlier sittings. If we are to bring forward the cut-off time for the tabling of amendments, with everything that goes with it, the House will not only be inconvenienced but will not be able to hold the Government of the day to account in the way it should.

The Chairmen's Panel went on to say: There appear to be obvious impracticalities about arranging the selection of amendments late at night or in the early morning … It is unrealistic to suppose that the hands of business managers"— the Leader of the House is very much a business manager—

could be tied to the extent that sittings of standing committees after 7pm would be prohibited by standing orders, but the Panel would be exceedingly unhappy if the perceived benefits of bringing forward the whole parliamentary day on Thursdays were not to be extended to the members, Chairmen and staff of standing committees. Standing Committee Chairmen might not only be caused considerable inconvenience, but would gain no benefit from the so-called improvements. They could not leave at 7 pm because the business managers would insist that the Committees continued to sit, as they can, after 7 pm. I want to make it perfectly clear that Standing Committee Chairmen receive no additional pay or responsibility allowance. They do their job out of love, affection and respect for the House. I have served on the Chairman's Panel for 12 to 13 years, and I greatly enjoy my work, which I believe is a valuable contribution to the work of the House.

As I said, we are also concerned about the proposal that Standing Committees should have the freedom to meet during recesses. I have dealt with that subject, but it is vital that the House should understand the problems that could occur if that proposal went ahead.

We are talking about the House's ability to hold the Government of the day to account. As I said, I am a House of Commons man. I have not adopted the position that I have in order to frustrate the Leader of the House or the Labour Government. I believe fervently in the integrity of this House and in the need for Members of Parliament to be able to do their job properly. I have a nasty feeling that these proposals may well be the first step towards the creation of a professional, career politician, working what the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West would describe as normal working hours—that is, 9 to 5. That is not the role of Members of Parliament.

Dr. Starkey

Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that I have never suggested in the Select Committee that this House should work from 9 to 5? Will he kindly withdraw any suggestion that I might have made such remarks?

Mr. Winterton

The hon. Lady should look at tomorrow's report of this debate. She has talked of the normal working day. Working from 9 to 5 is a normal working day. We do an exceptional job; it is not normal, but it is vital to this country's democracy. I plead with Labour Members to think very carefully about what they are doing. They will not always be in government; they may sit on the Opposition Benches in future. I was very concerned about the Jopling proposals. The right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster) is absolutely right to say that the change of rules and procedures played entirely into the hands of the Labour party, which clearly knew that it would form the Government after the 1997 election. Let us not make the same mistake again.

7.31 pm
Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West)

I welcome the on-going work of the Modernisation Committee and its important and long overdue contribution to the national debate about how we modernise our political system, enabling it to serve us better in the next millennium. I give notice that I do not intend to take interventions, to speak for more than six minutes or to be as self-indulgent as some other hon. Members.

This is my third opportunity to call for a radical overhaul of procedures in this place. I speak now with a little more wisdom and experience than I could in my maiden speech or in the excellent debate in November on the Modernisation Committee's previous report, which gave us pre-legislative scrutiny, which we are piloting, and a far clearer, better and more understandable Order Paper.

In listening with care to hon. Members with considerably more experience than me, I am reminded of the advice that a very senior Labour Back Bencher gave me when I first arrived in this place. It went something like this: "When I came here, Martin, I was just like you—breathing fire and brimstone, wanting to turn the whole place upside down. Funnily enough, as the years went by and I found myself in a position to influence change, I somehow did not want to do so." I assure all hon. Members and you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I remain a passionate advocate of change.

I support the recommendations in the excellent report and, of course, those in the motion, especially the ones to sit earlier on Thursday and to provide more flexibility for Standing Committee sittings. We have heard much about how much more the Committee could do and how it is important to provide more time on the Floor of the House to debate Select Committee reports. As a member of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, whose chairman, the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke)—for whom I have great respect—I see in his place, I heartily endorse that.

We can go further still. We spend much time looking at early-day motions, yet they are no more than political graffiti. If the Main Committee's proposals came into force, would not it be possible for time to be made available to debate on the Floor of the House an early-day motion on a matter of some import to which, for the sake of argument—I am open to suggestions-50 per cent. of hon. Members lent their names? The Modernisation Committee is absolutely right to state that this process is evolutionary, that we must consider new suggestions and ideas and that, in many ways, we must return to the fact that this House once was, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley) said, a truly flexible and changeable institution.

It is a matter of some regret that this debate falls on the one day of a family event—the Westminster kids club Christmas party—in the Houses of Parliament. Many of the recommendations are about family life and admitting that, perhaps, we should challenge the machismo culture of our politics in this place. I learned my politics on building sites, representing building and transport workers. I can deal in machismo politics, but that does not make it right. There is nothing to commend a Minister having to stand at the Dispatch Box throughout the night, following a full day's work in his or her Department, and somehow answering questions the next day.

I am reminded of something that occurred to me a while ago. If the IRA or some other terrorist group put a drug in the House of Commons water supply which made us tired and Ministers more irritable and less effective, it would be an act of treason which, until recently, carried the death penalty. Yet somehow in our procedures, we have enshrined sleep deprivation to the point of a constitutional requirement. That is nonsense. No business, private enterprise or rapacious capitalist, so admired by Conservative Members, would run his or her operation in such a way.

It is okay to have family life; it is all right for a Member of Parliament to be married or to live with someone and to stay married or living with someone. It is all right for a Member of Parliament to have children and know their names—hon. Members may take that any way that they like—and occasionally spend some time with them during school holidays. My commiserations go to colleagues from Scotland—the fact that the Whip on the Front Bench is Scottish has nothing to do with it—who are severely disadvantaged by the Scottish school calendar.

None of us takes great pleasure in the vultures of the press who circle over Members' private lives, although it is almost inevitable that the hothouse atmosphere in this place, the pressure of hours of working, the way in which we conduct our business and the confrontational nature of our politics will destroy family life.

Opposition to the very modest proposals among Opposition Members has something to do with non-family outside interests too. At one time, one could just about make a case for a Member of Parliament having business interests and other forms of income, but that is certainly not so now. My comments and criticism apply to hon. Members on both sides of the House. We are well rewarded; more than twice the average white-collar wage comes our way—plus allowances.

The work of a Member of Parliament has changed. Statistics show that we deal with 50 times more letters and contacts than we did in the 1950s. If there is one thing that I have learnt in my short time in this place, it is that representing 70,000 people is a full-time job. If we have outside business interests, we cannot serve effectively our party in this place or in our constituency, our constituents, and our bank managers—our three masters.

Opposition to changing the hours of work has far more to do with the very comfortable commercial interests to which some hon. Members have become accustomed. It is about time we came clean, stopped the crocodile tears and the hypocrisy, agreed the recommendations and took this place into the 21st century.

7.39 pm
Mr. John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West)

I am sorry that, to some extent, a party issue has developed in this debate. This should not be a party matter. We need to—and should—debate the subject free of party prejudice. I speak as a member of the Chairmen's Panel, which has tried to consider the measures objectively. Through you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, we have submitted our views, which are shared by members of the Panel irrespective of party affiliation. Indeed, the amendment, about which hon. Members have complained, has been signed by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody). That shows that it is not just a party matter; nor should it ever be.

Much in the report is interesting. Some people think that members of the Chairmen's Panel are reactionary, that they are all old and smelly like me and that we will resist all proposals for change. That is not true. For example, I think that the proposal for a Main Committee is extremely interesting. It could free up time for debate in this place. Having been a Back Bencher all the time that I have been in Parliament, I know how frustrating it can be for Back Benchers to sit in the Chamber all night—sometimes all through the night—and still not be called to speak. If we could have more time for genuine debate in the House on matters of great importance, that would be an advantage, so I am keen to explore and take further evidence on the subject of the Main Committee, which could be a workable proposition for us.

Much of what we are about is designed not to release Conservative Members to do private work, as the hon. Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter) suggested, but to reduce the time that we spend in this place and to give hon. Members more time in their constituencies. However, I share with the right hon. Member for Ashtonunder-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) the view that our job is essentially in this place.

In the 15 and a half years that I have been here, I have gone to my constituency every Friday, most Saturdays and some Sundays—although I try to keep Sundays as a family day—and I think that that is adequate. If I spent much more time in my constituency, my constituents might become suspicious that I was trying to ingratiate myself with them to get re-elected, and that I considered that a higher priority than doing the job that I was sent to do in Parliament.

What I have done so far has not been entirely unsuccessful. I know that my seat is relatively safe, but the swing against me at the last general election was less than half the national average, so I must be doing something approximately right.

Many of the proposals will make the work of the House much more difficult. I shall focus particularly on the idea that we should start Standing Committees at 9 am. As someone who chairs several Standing Committees, I think that that would be extremely difficult, for various reasons. Hon. Members have mentioned the problems that it would create for the tabling of amendments and for the work of the Clerks, who would have to get in very early to deal with the procedures of the day.

Although we Chairmen readily accept the load that is put upon us, we would have to get in well before 9 o'clock to prepare for the work of the Committee that day. I always get in at least half an hour before any Committee that I am chairing. I come in from outside London every day, so that would be an additional burden to me and would mean that I had to travel in the rush hour, although that is not the main problem.

The main problem is that, if Committees sat earlier, many of the other activities in which we engage in the House would become virtually impossible. For example, I serve on the Select Committee on Trade and Industry and on other Select Committees, notably the Unopposed Bills Committee. The Trade and Industry Committee, which used to sit only on Wednesdays, now usually sits on Tuesdays as well. On six of the eight Tuesdays in this parliamentary Session, the Trade and Industry Committee has sat on Tuesday morning.

It is already difficult for someone like me, who is on the Chairmen's Panel, to combine being a member of a Select Committee with my responsibilities on the Panel. If we go down the route proposed, it will become impossible.

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon)

The hon. Gentleman is a distinguished Chairman of the Finance Bill Committee, on which I have the privilege to sit. Does he agree that the time up to 10.30 am on Thursday is crucial for preparation for that Committee? We rely heavily on outside experts, and their views often come to us that morning, immediately before the Committee sits.

Mr. Butterfill

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point. I intended to refer to it, as well as to some of the problems of major Bills.

Some hon. Members do not fully appreciate how much preparation is necessary for the Committees, on the part not just of the Chairmen and the Clerks, but of the Back Benchers who serve on them and the Front-Bench spokesmen, who need time to prepare. We are compressing the parliamentary week in effect into almost three days, which means greater pressure to sit late, especially on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

If we have sat late in the House the night before, it will be a severe problem to meet early on Thursday morning. With such pressure on us, it will become almost impossible for any hon. Member to serve both on the Chairmen's Panel and on a Select Committee. Regrettably, some hon. Members will have to decide between the two, which we would greatly prefer not to have to do.

It is suggested that we would always be able to get away early on Thursdays, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) pointed out, that is by no means the case. Those of us who serve regularly on Committees, particularly those who are Chairmen of Committees, know that the Committees frequently sit well after the House has risen.

I carried out an analysis of the sittings of the Finance Bill Committee, which I frequently chair and on which I have served for most of the years that I have been in the House. Last year, the Committee sat one evening until 12.1 am. That was an exceptional Finance Bill Committee, because the new Government compressed the Bill into a short period. This year was more typical. On successive Thursdays, the Finance Bill Committee sat until 10.30 pm, 10 pm, 10.40 pm and 10.52 pm. On Tuesdays, we sometimes sat later. One Tuesday, we sat until 2.1 am.

Given that that pattern is likely to continue, especially for major Bills, a large number of hon. Members will sit late on Thursdays and will not get any of the supposed benefits of the reforms. I urge hon. Members to think seriously about the burdens that they will place on the staff of the House, those who run the Refreshment Department, those who serve the House in various roles and the costs of the House.

If we do that, we may find that the proposal that Standing Committees should not sit until later and the amendment is worthy of serious consideration and should not be condemned out of hand as a party move. It is certainly not a party move for members of the Chairmen's Panel. We feel that we have a debt to repay after many years in the House, and we try to make this place work as successfully as we can.

7.48 pm
Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

I shall take careful note of your request to keep our remarks brief, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I know that other hon. Members want to speak, so I shall speak for no more than three or four minutes.

The opportunity to speak in the debate is a form of catharsis for those of us who have sat on the Select Committee twice a week for the past six months to prepare the report. Some may feel that the report is a mouse rather than a lion—that comment was made in Committee by the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler). Many Labour Members, and others, I hope, believe that the report is the start of other improvements in the House, rather than the beginning of the end, as some Opposition Members would have us believe.

The acrimonious tone of the debate this evening does not reflect the atmosphere in the Select Committee. In the main, we came up with consensus. Although there was always disagreement about when Question Time would be, I hope for unanimity on other parts of the report. Hon. Members should reflect that by trying to make the measure work, if and when it is passed.

The measure is part and parcel of the modernisation agenda, which is not about making this place less effective, but about making it more effective. We have two roles. First, many changes could be made to the legislative role to make Back Benchers more effective. The second role concerns how we scrutinise the activities of the Executive. If we are to get a Main Committee, the measure should go through. I pray that it does; if it does not, the Modernisation Committee will have to start again, because this is a stepping-stone process.

On that point, some of us would argue that the measure provides continuity rather than discrete change from Jopling. We were not Members of Parliament at the time, but Jopling saw the benefits of tidying up Thursdays, and the measure takes that to a natural conclusion.

There is a degree of bitterness and disagreement here, which was not the case in the Select Committee. I hope that we can wash some of that away and move on to the things that the House can do even better, if and when the measure is passed and we move on to the possibilities of a Main Committee and to the other issues that have been referred to, and on which I want to concentrate.

Statutory instruments are used increasingly to bring legislation into effect. That process should be opened up, and perhaps the Modernisation Committee would consider that. The way in which Select Committees report, or fail to report, has been mentioned many times. The devolution dividend may bring real benefits to the Procedure Committee, and members of it are indebted to the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton), who is about to leave, for his chairmanship. The tabling of questions when the House is not sitting should also be considered.

All those things can follow, but if we do not pass the measure we will be back to the drawing board. I ask hon. Members to bear in mind the fact that many of us think that modernisation is needed. Conservative Members sit on the Modernisation Committee, although they may not want to call this modernisation. I hope that they will bear in mind the fact that there is overwhelming demand for change—not only from hon. Members, but from our constituents, who find some of our processes bizarre and impossible to explain. They think that the changes are to do not with being family friendly, but with the way in which democracy should be functioning.

I hope that we get the measure through and that we can sell it to people, rather than being told by the press that it is about taking extra holidays. It is about making this place more effective and making it work in the way that it should. I hope that there is less bitterness in the future.

7.53 pm
Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet)

A change to sitting hours needs to be considered in the light of its contribution to improving Members' ability to discharge their duties both to the House and to their constituents—scrutinising legislation, holding the executive to account and debating issues of national of local importance. The author of those words tabled observations and objections to these measures under eight headings and in a personal comment. The author was Madam Speaker. Since she became Speaker of the House, she has made it her bounden duty to defend the interests of the Back Benchers.

I am deeply saddened that this has been turned into a party issue. It is not. Those of us who serve on the Chairmen's Panel—two of my colleagues have already spoken—voted unanimously to support the letter that the Chairman of Ways and Means sent to the Committee. Of all parties, we did so because we believed that these measures, if implemented as stated in the motion tabled by the Leader of the House, would damage the interests of Back Benchers and make it not impossible, but profoundly difficult, for the servants of this House, who serve us so well, to do their job.

Those of us who serve on the Committee regard our non-partisan position, and prize it, very highly indeed. I have served for six years as the chairman of an all-party group that was not, on occasions, uncontentious. It was my proud boast that party politics never entered into things, and that has to be true with members of the Chairmen's Panel. If we were seen to be in any way partisan, the Committees that we chair would rightly have no confidence in us.

I ask the House to accept that the points that I shall make are simple and totally non-party political. This is a political issue. The politics are about the right of Back Benchers on both sides of the House to hold the Executive to account. This is a battle, but it is between the Executive and Back Benchers—not between Labour, Conservative or Liberal. Nor should it be.

If the measure goes ahead, it will be immeasurably more difficult for Back Benchers to table amendments in Committee. If we are told that we have to sit at 9 o'clock, we will. If I have to come in at 7.30 am, that will make very little difference. I do not often see the hon. Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter), who accused Conservative Members of wanting to do other jobs, when I collect my mail at 7.30 in the morning. If I have to come in then to study amendments, and to read the legislation to make sure that my bit of the job is done well, I will do it, but for me to do that, the Clerks will have to come in much earlier.

With great respect, the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) missed this point completely. The cut-off point which the Committee has recommended will be so much earlier that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) said, the papers and Hansard from previous sittings that are needed to table sensible, intelligent amendments will simply not be available.

It is significant that two of the three Privy Councillors who have spoken—the right hon. Members for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster) and for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon)—expressed sympathy with those views. It is the duty of the House to hold the Executive to account.

Mr. Derek Foster

I appreciate the House's indulgence. I should have put my name down to speak, but I did not expect to be able to attend the debate.

I want to announce to my colleagues that I shall vote for the Conservative amendment, because I have listened to the arguments and they are very persuasive.

Mr. Ivor Caplin (Hove)


Mr. Foster

They are not persuasive to my hon. Friend, but they are to me. Forgive me, but I have been a Member of the House for rather longer than he has. I was Opposition Chief Whip for 10 years, fighting the Conservatives night after night. I was fighting the Liberal Democrats, too, and I will do so again. In my considered view, the Conservatives are right and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is wrong. I have told her so, and she is angry with me, but I have said, "Tough." This is a free vote—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The right hon. Gentleman is experienced enough to know that he is now making a speech rather than an intervention.

Mr. Gale

The right hon. Gentleman was making the point better, and with more force and more experience, than I can. He is known on both sides of the House to be a gentleman of enormous principle, and I believe that he is right.

One issue has not been covered thoroughly, and I want to touch on it. When I was first elected to the House 15 years ago, on four mornings a week members of the public could visit the mother of Parliaments, and see it in all its glory and all its workings. On three of those mornings, they could be taken around the House by their Member of Parliament. I say "three" because many Members of Parliament have a long distance to travel on Monday, or they do constituency business on Monday morning. Therefore, Monday tended not to be the favoured day, and it still is not.

As a result of the move of Prime Minister's Question Time, without any consultation with Madam Speaker, two things have happened. First, there is now only one day when our constituents can attend Prime Minister's Question Time, whereas there used to be two. Therefore, half as many people see twice as much, and that is undesirable. Secondly, constituents who have come a long way cannot now do as they used to and go around the House in the morning, have a picnic lunch and attend Prime Minister's Question Time in the afternoon. That has been denied them.

This, we are told, is a people's Parliament. If it is, why are we about to be asked to vote to deny our constituents yet another morning when they could visit the House? In effect, groups of school children—tomorrow's Members of Parliament—will be confined to one morning of the week—Tuesdays.

For those reasons, and because we have a duty to defend the rights of Back Benchers, I shall be voting for the Opposition's amendment. But it will be for those reasons, not for party political reasons.

8.1 pm

Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands)

Today we have a chance to grasp the nettle of parliamentary reform, building on the success of the Jopling changes. Before us today is a limited proposal to allow business to end at around 7.30 pm on Thursday, and only on an experimental basis. I hope that the Modernisation Committee will bring forward more radical proposals in the near future.

With so many new Members elected less than two years ago, we have the opportunity to think the unthinkable; to consider how best to deliver the legislative process, and how best to use hon. Members' time in the Chamber, in Committee and in our constituencies.

When my father came to the House more than 30 years ago, the demands and pressures of the constituency were far less great, and the needs of a Member's family were very much on the back burner. It has obviously become fashionable for some Opposition Members to sneer at family-friendly practices.

During my father's first term in Parliament in a marginal seat, I was still at school and I hardly saw him, except occasionally first thing in the morning and, to my embarrassment, if I was coming in at night rather later than I should have done. Now, as the mother of a 12-year-old daughter, I hope that things have moved on a little.

If, as Members of Parliament, we want to be well-rounded individuals—I do not mean the sort of roundness that comes at Christmas—we must be in touch with real people's lives. For them, family life is important, and I believe that family life should be important for Members of Parliament too.

Therefore, I applaud attempts to synchronise parliamentary recesses and adjournments with school holidays, despite the problem of Scottish holidays. How can we attract sensible, intelligent people to stand for Parliament if one of the requirements of the job is to give up any hope of normal family life.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings)

That could be said of nurses, doctors, paramedics, policeman and people who serve in the armed forces. Are we to assume that none of them have good family lives or care about their families? They are exceptional jobs, like this one, and exceptional jobs require exceptional commitment. It is as simple as that.

Charlotte Atkins

But we have a chance to change all that. We have a window of opportunity with new Members who are not hidebound by tradition. I sometimes think that this is rather like a scene in "Yes, Minister", where Humphrey might say, "Well, we can keep all those Members really tired and away from their constituencies and families." Then the Minister says, "But can we get away with it?" To which Humphrey replies, "Yes, we can. All we have to do is call it tradition." We can get away from such hidebound traditions by looking at the practicalities of the issue.

We have heard from a number of people that that is impossible, but where there is a will, there is a way. We can build in sufficient flexibility for, shock horror, Members of Parliament to be able to attend parents' evenings, the school nativity play in which their child might be starring, and even to plan school holidays without feeling that they are particularly privileged.

As Members of Parliament, we delight in lecturing businesses, small and large, about modernisation, efficiency and family-friendly practices. How can they take us seriously if we do not live up to the demands that we make of them?

Does it make any sense to ask Members to vote at 10 o'clock on a Thursday night with the result that those who want a full day in their constituencies have to drive through the night? No doubt that is what my near neighbours from Congleton and Macclesfield will have to do, because our last train is at about 8 pm. How many hon. Members have nearly fallen asleep at the wheel?

Sir Patrick Cormack

Does the hon. Lady not accept that some hon. Members on both sides of the House who have been in this place for quite a long time have had reasonably successful family lives, have brought up their children and known them, and have come into the office every morning, as I still do, between 7.30 and 8 am, and stayed there most of the day? Can she not accept that there are experiences other than those that she has had over a brief period?

Charlotte Atkins

Yes, I can accept that, but that is not the norm. People outside cannot understand why we persist in these practices. A month ago, I went to Castle primary school in Mow Cop in my constituency where I spoke to a number of 10 and 11-year-olds about parliamentary life. They were bewildered when I said that the start of the official parliamentary day was 2.30 pm. That view is not confined to 10 and 11-year-olds. Their parents are also bewildered by the sort of practices and confrontational behaviour that we experience in the Chamber. That is reinforced if they are or their parents come to this place. They see that we value their visit so much that we create no facilities for visitors, ensure that they cannot come during the recesses and can only visit at certain times. We should ensure that they have proper facilities, not crowded corridors, in which to meet their Members of Parliament and have a proper hearing.

I am not suggesting, as was suggested, quite wrongly, of my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey), that we should have a 9 to 5 parliamentary day. That would be ludicrous. That is the sort of thing that has been rehearsed in the media. Clearly, that is not being suggested. We need to strike a balance between the needs of Members from different parts of the country. However, a 7.30 finish on a Thursday would make sense for those who want to return to their constituencies.

I was pleased to hear an Opposition Member say how he always used to return to his constituency for Friday and Saturday. [Interruption.] In my father's day, 30 years ago, it was the exception for Members to live in their constituencies and to give the sort of attention to constituency business that that hon. Member so honourably did.

Let us vote for this moderate experiment. What are we scared of? I hope that it will create a firm foundation for future reform. [Interruption.] We must show that we are willing to consider creating the modern Parliament that we need to achieve the modern Britain that we aspire to create.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Hon. Members should not have private conversations during the debate. The hon. Lady is addressing the House and she is entitled to the courtesy of a hearing. [Interruption.] That is a matter of opinion. It is not appalling to me, and I want to hear what she has to say.

Charlotte Atkins

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have concluded my remarks.

8.9 pm

Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam)

This has been a fascinating debate in revealing so many contrasting views on the wonderful world of Westminster. I should start by saying that I do not yet feel myself to be a Westminster man but a Sheffield man who has the good fortune to represent my constituents here. On Fridays, I do not visit my constituency, I go home. On Mondays, I come away again from my home. It is very much that way round rather than in any other direction.

I hope that this place does not run like the boarding school that it often seems to be, in that prefects who have been here the longest get the most say over what happens. I should prefer it to be run rather like a business or modern organisation in which new people with fresh perspectives and new ideas are welcome and often able to set the agenda, because they have come in from outside with a different view. I hope that we are a representative democracy, representing all views, spectrums and genders, rather than the gerontocracy that we may sometimes appear to be.

I should class myself as a radical moderniser. Like the hon. Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter), I am waiting for that outlook to change, with the dramatic realization that things are done the best way that they possibly can be and should not change at all ever again. I await that moment.

I am fully aware that I have only 18 months' experience in the House. However, having been through our consideration of the European Parliamentary Elections Bill and its attendant shenanigans, I feel that I may have had an accelerated learning process in studying the House's more arcane procedures, which I hope—if other reforms are passed—will never have to be used again. Nevertheless, with my 18 months, I have not yet swung away from that modernising view. Currently, I see no prospect that I shall do so.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) said in his speech that the Committee's proposals are a small step, and that, in deciding whether to choose option one or option two, we are angels dancing on the head of a pin. We are considering a small part of a bigger agenda, which is discussed comprehensively in the report. I hope that the House will soon be considering some of the bigger changes.

The hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) was right to say the proposals are about evolution. The evolution model is a very good one to use in considering modernisation. Students of Darwin will know that evolution is all about an organism's response to a changing environment. Our environment is changing significantly in two key aspects: first, the legislative process; and, secondly, the role of hon. Members.

Hon. Members have to be more responsive on the legislative process. New things are coming along—we must respond to European directives, international conventions and technology changes. I recently spent time with Centrica, which is the British Gas successor, and was told about its efforts to enter the electricity market. It desperately needs legislation on reforming that market. Centrica knows that, because of how the House works, there is no prospect for two or perhaps three years of getting that legislation. I know of other businesses that are in a similar situation, in which a swifter response by Parliament is required to meet their requirements. I do not believe that our current structures allow us to make all the necessary responses.

I am firmly of the view—speaking on the legislative process as an Opposition Member—that quality should be a more significant factor than quantity in deciding the House's business. We need better time management—which both the current report and previous reports dealt with—rather than only having more time. I do not believe that having more time in which we do not do anything useful will gain us much, although other heads in the House say that the time weapon is an important one. As I observed Parliament before being elected as an hon. Member, it did not seem to me that, particularly the Government of Baroness Thatcher, were significantly diverted from their path because the Opposition were able to sit up all night complaining about the Government's actions, yet losing every Division and failing to change anything.

The second key category of change is the role of hon. Members—which has moved on. I very much feel that I am a public servant, answerable to the public and paid for by the public. I believe that the public have a right to their view on what my job should be. To me, their view is that they expect me to be with them at certain times. Earlier today, for example, I spent time with some young people from Sheffield—young Sheffielders—who wanted to talk to me about the political process. They are not interested in coming into the Chamber and listening to our debates, and no wave of a magic wand will suddenly make them interested in them. I cannot turn around and say, "Sonny Jim, you ought to come and listen to our debates." That is not what they want. They want me to be with them, talking about politics in their terms. I want to have the time to do that.

I honestly believe that I will do as much for the public process by being outside the House debating and talking with my constituents in their schools, youth clubs and communities as often I will do in this place. Having that time is not only about me promoting myself in my constituency but about the public good. I believe that such time is significant.

I believe also that my experience outside the House with people in my constituency informs my contributions in the House and gives me a much better balance, stopping me from getting out of touch and developing "Westminsteritis" in which I see everything from the Westminster perspective. Such experience benefits particularly hon. Members from more distant constituencies, where people's views of life, of London and of events here are very different from the reality.

I deal with my constituency work in Sheffield. My office there is close to my constituents. I do not have the option in the morning of going through my constituency mail here; it is dealt with in the constituency. I believe that dealing with it there gives a better service. Many other new hon. Members have organised themselves similarly. It is perfectly reasonable, especially if one is operating at some distance, to have Sheffielders in a Sheffield office that has open access to deal with constituency work. I work with them on Mondays and Fridays, but, during the week, they deal with the work in Sheffield.

We have an alternative to evolution: extinction. We can moan all we like about how the media ignore us—whereas in a golden age they avidly took down every word that we said—but I do not believe that that moaning will improve matters. The reality is that most citizens would rather watch politics in the form of a media stunt somewhere rather than as a dry statement in the House. In a Stalinist state, one can control the media and insist that all citizens sit in front of the television and watch our proceedings from beginning to end. Fortunately, in our liberal society, we do not have that option.

It is very important that we evolve to cope with events outside the House. We may not like those developments, but they are the reality and the environment in which we live. The issue is very much one of evolving to work and cope with that environment, or of becoming extinct—ever less relevant, so that we are simply talking to ourselves about how we feel spurned, how no one is interested in us any more and what a shame it is that we cannot return to the golden age of 10, 20 or 30 years ago, depending on one's perspective.

On longer-term proposals, I should prefer the House to consider the parliamentary calendar from scratch. I was very interested in the notion of blocks of working at Westminster and blocks of working in constituencies. I find that option very attractive for myself, not only for my family life, which is a consideration for all hon. Members, but because it would enable me to give my constituents—the ones whom I was talking about, such as young people and various groups of workers—a firm time commitment and to spend a considerable period of my working life with the people who elected me to this place and pay my wages.

I should like the block system to be introduced. However, I think that we have also to consider matters such as the summer recess, to consider the whole system from scratch. The report rejected the block system, largely because it left in place the summer recess. I should be perfectly happy to have a couple of weeks holiday in August and then to work the rest of August and September, as other workers do. There is nothing wrong with that. The long recess should not be set in stone or obstruct more significant reform.

I like also the idea of having different weeks for plenary sittings, for Committee sittings and for constituency work, as that would reflect the work that we really do. As for the summer recess, as far as I am aware, the Thames no longer fouls up so badly that we are required to leave this place. London is no longer uninhabitable in the summer, when we have to go to our country homes—from here to Sheffield—for some decent air. We could also make better use of that wonderful Terrace if we were here in the months when it is most usable, and no longer regret the fact that it has been left abandoned as we all head off. Being here in the summer would therefore have considerable advantages, and we should put the option on the table rather than exclude summer months entirely.

The key thing for hon. Members such as myself, with my working practices, is to get right the balance between constituency and Westminster. One type of work is not to be excluded by the other; it is all about balance. I hope that in our proceedings, both today and in future, we shall, as a representative Chamber, be able to reach views which—although some hon. Members will disagree with them—allow us to move forward and perhaps to create a House that is genuinely fit for the 21st century—which is the phrase that is always used. We should certainly create a House that is able better to deal with business and to respond to the people who elect us, pay our wages and perhaps remove us from here.

8.19 pm
Mr. Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey)

I welcome the opportunity to discuss modernisation of the House and fully support the changes sought by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. However, I am glad that the Committee's proposals are only initial ones. My right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) has left the Chamber. He asked earlier about receiving Select Committee minutes overnight. Perhaps he does not know that new technology permits immediate conversation of voice-to-type. Obtaining minutes is therefore not an issue, as technology will produce the minutes. We also do not need stenographers as technology is changing so rapidly that it can service democracy much quicker.

I have a small favour to ask of my right hon. Friend. In future reports on modernisation, will she provide financial models so that we can see the likely cost to the House of proposed changes?

Reform of the House should start with an examination of the nature of the Executive—the role of the Prime Minister and the Cabinet. Those roles are undergoing changes as we move to elected assemblies in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, as well as in the English regions over the next 10 years, together with the possibility of an elected upper House.

The Prime Minister is frequently referred to as the chief executive of UK plc. As a new Member, perhaps I could present a different perspective. No chief executive of a FTSE 100 company has 22 directors of the board, as we have in the Cabinet. We have more Cabinet members today than when we ran the empire 100 years ago. No chief executive of a FTSE 100 company, having asked his senior management to work a 14-hour day, then rewards them by giving them more work in red boxes that they have to read by the morning. No chief executive of a FTSE 100 company makes his middle managers—us—work at least 12 hours a day and frequently 15, 16 or more for less than £65,000 a year. At 10 o'clock, 11.30 or even 1.30 in the morning in the Lobbies, there can be upwards of £27 million worth of senior management voting. They vote on issues on which many of them have failed to speak—or even attend the debate.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

The hon. Gentleman's analogy is interesting. Inadvertently or not, he has made it clear that he regards Members of Parliament as analogous to middle managers. He appears to be missing the point that we are here to hold the Executive to account, not to assist it in its management functions. That is true of hon. Members on both sides.

Mr. Wyatt

That is our role in a modern democracy, but how best do we do it? We are the middle managers between our constituency and the Executive. [HoN. MEMBERS: "No!"] Opposition Members can disagree.

There will be some hon. Members who have prepared speeches for tonight's debate but who will not be called to speak. It is a shame that those speeches cannot be published in Hansard. It seems absurd to go on with such a system.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton

I speak from the heart.

Mr. Wyatt

So do I.

The House of Lords divides the time available by the number of Members wishing to speak. Why do we not follow suit?

No chief executive would arrange such strange working hours and then allow most of his employees a 10-week break in the summer. It is not clear to me why the House of Commons is different from the rest of the country. Most people seem to manage with two weeks' holiday in the summer.

We have a working day that no union member and no member of the CBI would adhere to. Why? We need root-and-branch reform of the House of Commons if we are to modernise the country. We should be leading, not following. In everything that we have done to modemise the House, we have been reactive rather than proactive. The tail is wagging the institution. That cannot be right.

I look forward to the day when the House sits from 9.30 in the morning until 8 o'clock in the evening from Monday to Thursday. I should like to see financial models of the cost of such a move.

The current system actively discourages me from having any sort of family life. Is that right in a modern Parliament? Are we proud of it? I am not. It is a relic of the past. We send the wrong signals to the population. We want the best people here. To ensure that, we must give them the best facilities and the best systems. We do not have that.

Funnily enough, I have no contract of employment. I find that rather bizarre. It is true that I am Whipped to my delight and am here to vote and to be on-message—whatever that means. However, my constituents—the reason that I am here—do not have the foggiest idea what their expectations of me should be. They do not know whether I should live in the constituency. They do not know whether I should be holding weekly, fortnightly or monthly surgeries—or no surgeries. They do not know whether I should have a local office or whether I should be spending hours visiting schools, businesses and voluntary services. It is time that the House considered whether there should be a memorandum of understanding spelling out our responsibilities.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire)

Beyond pathetic!

Mr. Wyatt

My speech is going down famously among the Conservatives.

This wonderful building—it is a wonderful building—is out of date for serving a modern democracy. We must convene a committee immediately to plan for a new Parliament that might kick-start us, albeit late, into the 21st century.

8.25 pm
Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton)

The hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt) made an interesting speech. I shall read some of his comments with great interest in Hansard tomorrow.

I should like to pick the hon. Gentleman up on one or two issues. I was horrified that he described Members of Parliament as middle management. There seems to be a basic misunderstanding of our role. We all stand on a party ticket, but once we are elected we must represent the whole of our constituency, not just those who voted for us. We are certainly not middle management. We are here to represent our constituents to Ministers or to whatever organisation our constituents have problems with. I felt that I had to correct that.

We have had an interesting debate, with strong views expressed. I have intervened once or twice—perhaps rather fiercely at times, but that reflects the strength of my views. I have been here for only 15 years. Surprise, surprise—before I came here, I managed to have a normal family life, and have continued to do so since I was elected. Although some newer Members appear not to like the terms and conditions of this place and our role here, hundreds of people stand at every election, and would willingly swap with us.

I regret that the debate has been rather polarised. At times, it seems to have broken down on party lines. This is a matter for the House of Commons—for the Back Benchers. We are here to keep a check on the Government. Having been on the Government Benches for many years, I find it sobering to be in opposition. Many of the young bloods on the Government Benches may find themselves in the same situation one day. Their role is to keep a check on their Government on behalf of their constituents.

Two of the most telling contributions this evening have come from two Privy Councillors on the Government Benches—the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster), a former Labour Chief Whip, and the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon). I hope that the new Members, who are every bit as much a part of this place as those of us who have been here a little longer, will consider carefully what those two experienced Members said, because it was most telling.

The other non-polarised view was that of the Chairmen's Panel. The members of the Chairmen's Panel give their time voluntarily, and take on onerous duties to play their part in the House. I hope that those who have listened to the debate will give weight to what they said.

8.29 pm
Sir George Young

With the leave of the House, I shall respond to some of the points that have been made. The hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt) opened up a new quarry, and many of us will spend Christmas reading his speech to see how we can best deploy some of his arguments.

In the light of the debate, I ask the Leader of the House whether we can have a separate debate on the Main Committee. Many speeches touched on the issue, but the debate has focused on Thursdays. When we return, perhaps on a Thursday, may we have a proper debate on the Main Committee, and encourage hon. Members to focus their minds on it?

I regret that we spent so much time on procedural issues. I genuinely believe that our approach has enabled the House to choose between two options, but I agree with the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) that those who have listened to today's debate may take the view that the Modernisation Committee was conducted with the same tone. It was not. It was a fairly harmonious, conciliatory process. I very much hope that, after a seasonal break and with some good will, the Committee will resume in the new year in a spirit of co-operation.

The hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley) suggested—I think in some anger—that Opposition Members on the Committee should compile a minority report. I hope that, on reflection, he will feel able to withdraw that remark. He will not find four more conciliatory Conservative Members than the four who sit on the Modernisation Committee. We made a number of concessions, and we will approach our future agenda with good will.

The high point of the debate was the speech of the former Labour Chief Whip, the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster). He blew out of the water the Government's moral case that Labour Members had agreed to Jopling because it was the right course of action for the House. He made it quite clear that they agreed to it only when they thought that they would win the next election. They agreed to it out of base partisan motives, not the high-minded motives that we had been led to believe.

The main debate has been about whether Standing Committees should sit at 9 am or 10.30 am, and whether Question Time should be at 11.30 am or 2.30 pm. The balance of the debate has gone very much with the amendment. The right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) made a bridge-building speech, and we heard many speeches from those who chair our Standing Committees, including my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton), my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery) and my hon. Friends the Members for Bournemouth, West (Mr. Butterfill) and for North Thanet (Mr. Gale). Those of us who sit on Standing Committees have a duty to listen to those who chair them. Their unanimous view was that the 10.30 am option is better than the 9 am one.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet took us through some of the procedural consequences, and the implications for staff, if we invited Standing Committees to meet at 9 am. If we are to change, I hope that we make the right change, and heed the advice of those who chair our Standing Committees.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet also mentioned the views of Madam Speaker. I understand all the sensitivities about that, but the real discourtesy to Madam Speaker would be not to refer to her views but to ignore them.

I conclude with a word of caution. I very much hope that the Government do not take the view that they can use their majority in the House to alter the way in which the House works. That would be a sad break with tradition, which, if abused, could undermine the ability of the legislature to hold the Executive to account. Against the background of the debate, and given that there is a free vote on both sides, I very much hope that those who have listened to the debate and take our procedures seriously will agree that the amendment is the right way forward, and that they will vote for it.

8.38 pm
Mrs. Beckett

First, let me respond to the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) by saying that, like him, I regret the tone of some of the debate, and hope that, in future, the Select Committee will return to its customary comradely tone. I shall certainly bear in mind what he said about the Main Committee. At first, it was not entirely plain to me whether he had proposed an early debate on the matter. Perhaps that is what he means, and we can certainly discuss that through the usual channels.

I regretted, and was perhaps a little surprised by, the tone of some of the debate, but I suppose that I should not have been. Despite what he said a moment ago, the right hon. Gentleman in his opening remarks made the ridiculous proposition that in some way in the past 18 months this Parliament has become less central to the life of the nation. That suggestion was comprehensively blown out of the water by the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan), who made the pertinent point that it was complete nonsense, and that the role and treatment of Parliament had been changing for many years.

One or two speeches suggested that there was something strange about the Government making proposals to a Committee and seeking their endorsement. The right hon. Gentleman picked up on that in his closing remarks. As you will remember, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that is neither strange nor unusual. The most recent example that I can call to mind was in the 1993–94 Session, when the then Government sought changes in the Standing Orders for the consideration of deregulation orders that were put to the Procedure Committee; so there is nothing unusual about that.

Nor, indeed, do the Government have any intention of using their majority to dictate to the House. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will confirm that our conduct in the Committee does not support that suggestion. Although it is not unusual for the Government to propose changes to Standing Orders and so on, it is unusual—and we were advised that it might not be possible—for the Government to put alternative motions to the House.

However, the Government did just that, giving effect to the considered and unanimous decision of the Select Committee at paragraph 73 of the report: If the House rejects the Government proposal, we recommend that for this experimental period the alternative scenario"— the one in the right hon. Gentleman's amendment— be adopted. The Government have gone further than would have been necessary had we chosen to use our majority, and decided to give the House the choice of the alternatives on a free vote.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster) commands great respect and affection in the House, and he continues to command mine despite my strong disagreement with what he said this evening. Not only did I disagree with my right hon. Friend this evening; I disagreed with him over the Jopling proposals, and did so forcefully. As he has put his views on record and referred to mine, I would say to the House openly and bluntly that I have had the advantage of serving in the House for a slightly longer period. I have also had the advantage of serving in the Government Whips Office, in a Government who had no majority.

On the basis of that experience and the rest, I can say that the notion that in some way time is the weapon of the Opposition is a myth. As I said to the then shadow Cabinet, very rarely does the House change what the Government do in that way. Instead, we kill a few hon. Members on both sides. That may be considered a suitable occupation for a modern House of Commons, but I have never thought it so.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Beckett

No, I have only two minutes.

I remind the House that we are considering proposals for an experiment. The delay in introducing the Jopling proposals has been mentioned, but the principal reason for that delay was that the then Government initially wanted to make a permanent change in the Standing Orders. I hope and believe that my advice as shadow Leader of the House to the then Leader of the House had some influence—I suggested that it would be a mistake to make permanent a change of which the House did not have experience, and that it would be wise to proceed through evolution and experiment. That is precisely what the Government are recommending tonight.

The debate has made it clear that the real choice is between what I would describe as no change or proper change. I do support the mish-mash and half-baked experiment that is—in my view; and it is my view alone—almost bound, and perhaps even intended, to fail. The House has a choice between the status quo and a good proposal. I urge the House to support the motion, but not the amendment to it.

It being four hours after the commencement of proceedings, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER proceeded to put the Question already proposed from the Chair, pursuant to Order [15 December].

Question agreed to.


That this House approves the First Report from the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons on the Parliamentary Calendar: Initial Proposals (HC60).