HC Deb 26 July 1999 vol 336 cc16-7
42. Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West)

What assessment she has made of the impact of the experiment in relation to sittings on Thursdays. [91380]

45. Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North)

What assessment she has made of the experiment in relation to Thursday sitting hours. [91383]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Paddy Tipping)

The Modernisation Committee published a report last Monday that concluded that the majority of hon. Members consider that the experiment has been a success and should be continued in the next Session.

Dr. Starkey

Does my hon. Friend agree that, far from reducing the hours that the House sits—a misleading statement often made by the Opposition—the changes mean that a full day's business can be taken on Thursdays? On average, the House has sat for an hour longer a day since the experiment began. Is not that further proof that this Government are more open to scrutiny than the previous Administration?

Mr. Tipping

My hon. Friend is right to say that the report from the Modernisation Committee makes it clear that the same important topics are being discussed and that substantive motions have been voted on. Most important, it shows that, on Thursdays, there has been, on average, an extra hour's business. That gives the House more time to discuss important matters.

Dr. Gibson

Has my hon. Friend any evidence that the questions asked on a Thursday are classier, sharper and more political than questions asked at other times? Has he any evidence that the work done on a Friday by hon. Members who can get home to start the weekend's constituency work earlier has had benefits for our constituents?

Mr. Tipping

Hon. Members have to balance the needs of the House with those of their constituents. Finishing at 7 pm on a Thursday allows hon. Members to spend a full day extra in their constituencies. I have watched how my hon. Friend performs on a Thursday, when he is sharp and to the point. The Modernisation Committee report also found evidence that takings at the bar on a Thursday night have fallen. Perhaps my hon. Friend, given his sharpness and clarity on a Thursday, does not indulge on a Wednesday night.

Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford)

Is the Minister aware that the picture is very different if the time devoted in our proceedings to procedure motions and timetable motions is subtracted from the total hours that the House sits, and that in fact less time is given to real Government scrutiny? Will he explain the benefit of taking up the House's time with measures such as the Railways Bill, which we considered last week and which cannot proceed in the time available?

Mr. Tipping

If the hon. Gentleman looks at the facts, he will see that fewer procedural motions have been tabled under this Government than under the previous Administration. He should reflect on the comments of the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), who last week rightly described the hooligan elements in the House whose actions have led to a greater focus on procedural motions. People outside the Chamber want a House of Commons that debates the core issues, not silly game-playing.

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)

The Liberal Democrats welcome the extension of the Thursday sittings experiment. It is rare for a measure to be popular with hon. Members and to the best advantage of the country.

Does the Minister agree that further changes are needed to ensure that the House is even more effective at holding the Government to account, at passing sensible legislation and at providing proper representation? Will he undertake that the pace and development of the Modernisation Committee's work will be maintained?

Mr. Tipping

A number of measures have made major changes to the House's work. In particular, I believe that the focus on pre-legislative scrutiny will have a profound and long-lasting effect. I am delighted that the Westminster Hall experiment will begin when we return for the next Session. That will allow an opportunity for further modernisation, and give Back-Bench Members a chance to raise matters of constituency importance. There has been change, and there will continue to be change.