HC Deb 25 October 1999 vol 336 cc738-48

[Relevant document: The Third Report from the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons on Thursday Sittings (HC 719).]

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

I beg to move, That, in the next session of Parliament, the Standing Orders and practice of the House shall have effect subject to the modifications set out below:

  1. (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. (2) proceedings on business on Thursdays shall be interrupted at Seven o'clock; and
  3. (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).

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

I understand that, with this, it will be convenient to discuss motion No. 3.

I also announce that the Speaker has selected the amendments in the name of the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton).

Mr. Tipping

In moving the motion, I will not detain the House long as it is almost identical to the one that was agreed on 16 December 1998, providing for an experiment with advancing Thursday sittings by three hours. I shall also refer to the motion to give Standing Committees greater flexibility.

Since December 1998, we have had the experience of seven months of Thursdays and an assessment by the Select Committee on Modernisation of that experiment. As the House will know, the Committee concluded: Although some Members of the House continue to have reservations, it does appear that the majority of Members consider that the experience has been a success". Before I deal with those reservations, I should remind the House of the benefits of the experiment.

For many hon. Members, bringing forward Thursday sittings by three hours has enabled a better balance to be struck between Westminster duties and constituency commitments. Much serious business has been dealt with on Thursdays, including some Opposition days. Moreover, the House has sat nearly an hour longer on Thursdays than it did in the previous year, before the experiment. Those who argue that the Government are trying to reduce accountability to the House perhaps need to digest that fact.

The experiment has also shown that, on one day a week, it is possible for the House to do a full day's business within what most people might consider to be normal working hours. I do not think that that that is a bad or small achievement for modernisation.

The Modernisation Committee's report on the experiment records the practical aspects. I realise that the experiment has required some adjustments in Standing and Select Committees' Thursday morning sittings, but have to confess that I had not anticipated how imaginative individual Committees would be in using the greater flexibility in Committee meeting times—which we are also asking the House to renew today. Perhaps we have learned the merit of giving each Committee the freedom to adjust its own sitting pattern to the business of the House and the other commitments of its members.

The second motion, on Standing Committees, will continue that flexibility. The hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton), who is Chairman of the Procedure Committee, has tabled three amendments to extend that flexibility even further. If he is minded to move his amendments, I assure him that the Government would welcome such flexibility, and would accept the amendments.

I stress that the motions provide for a further Session's experiment. Therefore, the renewal would not be permanent, but be only for another Session, in which it will be possible to fine-tune the procedures and minimise any further difficulties. I hope that the Government's acceptance of the amendments will be a real demonstration that we are keen to make progress and to take people with us.

The change in Thursday sittings has been a significant modernisation of our sittings hours. So far, the experiment has proved worth while, and I see no strong pressure to revert to sitting from 2.30 to 10.30 pm on Thursdays. I therefore ask the House to continue the arrangements in the next Session.

5.48 pm
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

The two motions both relate to Thursdays and the experiment that began earlier in the year. The first motion relates to continuing the experiment, and refers to the Modernisation Committee's report—which steered a path between two opposing views. One view was that the experiment had been a success and should be made permanent, and the other was that the experiment should not have started and should be abandoned. The Minister mentioned the lively debate that we had just before Christmas, when, at the end of the debate, the House decided to go forward with the experiment. The report advocates a third way, in that it neither abandons the experiment nor suggests that it should be made permanent.

The report brings us up to date with the experiment. In paragraph 9, it quite fairly makes the point that The evidence we have received … is largely anecdotal rather than formal". The report also makes the point, in paragraph 12, that statistics can be interpreted in different ways. The table shows that, on Thursdays, fewer Government Bills have been debated, but that there have been more Government Adjournment debates. Nevertheless, in its conclusions, the report quite fairly states: Although some Members of the House continue to have reservations"— I certainly have reservations about the fact that there are now relatively few all-party meetings on Thursdays, thereby downgrading Thursday a little in the parliamentary week— it does appear that the majority of Members consider that the experiment has been a success. This is personal vote territory and I am happy to go along with the recommendation on the basis that we are carrying forward the experiment, not making it permanent.

Motion No. 3 is consequential on motion No. 2. I was delighted to hear that, were my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) to move his amendments, the Minister would be minded to accept them. That gives additional flexibility and is a sensible response to the experience of Standing Committees.

I hope that this may be a more consensual debate than the previous one. I shall support the motions.

Mr. Shaun Woodward (Witney)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Have you received a request from the Deputy Prime Minister to come to the House to make an apology for a news conference that he has given this afternoon outside the House about the railway summit, and to make a statement to the House about the outcome of the summit?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

No such request has been received. The hon. Gentleman will know that the Chair is not responsible for the business of the House. It is always possible that a request to make a statement on that matter will be made or that the hon. Gentleman will find some other way of raising the matter during our proceedings.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Were you or Madam Speaker aware that the Deputy Prime Minister was apparently saying something of some importance outside the House? Were you surprised that no request came from the Deputy Prime Minister to say something in the House rather than outside?

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall not get into the substance of the debate, but I know that you realise that the Transport Sub-Committee took detailed evidence from the Deputy Prime Minister on the contents of the meeting last week. What he said is recorded in the Committee report in considerable detail.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I am grateful to the hon. Lady. I can only repeat that no request to make a statement has been received. It is entirely up to the Minister concerned whether he believes that that is the appropriate course of action. I can make no further comment on that.

5.52 pm
Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

I have a small point to raise and I apologise for troubling the House with it. The Speaker's procession is important to parliamentary life. I do not have to explain or justify that to hon. Members. I should like to explore with Madam Speaker whether it would be possible for the procession to stay at its traditional time. Some might find that a surprising request, but a principle is to be breached by the morning sittings in Westminster Hall, which, the document says, are not Committees, but the House of Commons sitting, albeit in Westminster Hall and with no mace and no prayers. That is the fiction—I do not mean that disparagingly—that is being put to us. It should not be beyond our capacity to arrange for the Speaker's procession to be restored to 2.30 on Thursdays. All that I am asking is for that to be considered. It would clearly be helpful and appropriate.

Mr. Tipping


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. We are having a debate. The hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) was making a speech, to which the Minister may reply in due course, but I suspect that there are other contributions to be made first.

5.54 pm
Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

I am not sure whether the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) was giving way to the Minister, but you are right, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to say that the Minister will have an opportunity to reply to the hon. Gentleman's important point.

I am pleased to be able to contribute briefly to this short debate on Thursday sittings and the meetings of Standing Committees. I should like to speak to my three amendments and to move them when appropriate. I hope that you will give me advice on when it is appropriate.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. It would be perfectly in order for the hon. Gentleman to move his amendments now.

Mr. Winterton


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order; I stand corrected. We are dealing with two motions together, so it is in order for the hon. Gentleman to speak to his amendments and then move them formally later.

Mr. Winterton

I am grateful for that sound advice. I thought that I could speak to my amendments now and then have an opportunity to move them formally a little later.

I want to follow the comments of my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House about Thursday sittings and the agreeable opening remarks of the Minister. There is still debate in the Modernisation Committee on whether the experiment is a good thing. After seven months of the new Thursday sitting times, some hon. Members are still uncertain as to whether they are appropriate and have been a success. I suspect that the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) may seek to catch your eye later, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am not stimulating her or encouraging her to speak, but I know that she has strong views on the subject and played a major role when she was a member of the Modernisation Committee.

I have two hats in the debate, because as well as being a member of the Modernisation Committee I am the Chairman of the Procedure Committee—a job that I greatly relish and regard as a privilege. The hon. Member for Upminster (Mr. Darvill) did not succeed in getting in to speak during the major debate that we had at the end of last week, but I suspect and hope that he intends to speak today.

There is still some uncertainty. The Committee had a full debate on the subject. The Leader of the House and the majority on the Committee were sensible to strike a happy balance between the traditionalists who want to return to the former procedures of the House—

Mr. Forth


Mr. Winterton

My right hon. Friend is clearly one of those, although he does not sit on the Committee. There are also those who feel that the new way of operating has been a success, enabling the House to perform its role properly, while allowing some Members of Parliament to return to their constituencies and fulfil their important responsibilities there. I go along with my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House in wanting to give it another 12 months so that we can see, in the light of real experience, how successful the experiment has been. The statistics that the Minister drew to the attention of the House are relevant, showing that some of the views, concerns and opposition might not be entirely justified. It is important that the experiment should proceed.

I am grateful to Madam Speaker for accepting my three amendments on the sittings of Standing Committees. There are certain times when all Members of Parliament, whatever they are doing at the time, should be able to come to the Chamber. One such time is Prayers. There may be only a dozen, 20 or 30 Members present—although I am glad to say that attendances are generally higher than that—but, as long as Prayers are part of our procedures and the parliamentary day, all Members should have an opportunity to take part. That is why the amendments have been tabled.

Mrs. Dunwoody

When these changes were being considered originally, was not it always the firm intention that every Member of Parliament should have the right to be present in the Chamber for the whole of Question Time and prayers?

Mr. Winterton

The hon. Lady is right, and I am sure that the original timings failed to appreciate that Members would need to come from Committee Rooms that are some distance from the Chamber. If the adjournment of Standing Committees does not take place until the sitting of the House begins, clearly Members will not be able to come from the far-flung reaches of the Palace of Westminster—from Standing Committees and, in due course, from Westminster Hall sittings—to be present.

My amendments would ensure that people could be in the Chamber before prayers, but I am concerned that we may not be providing sufficient time. On Thursdays, there are not only questions, but business questions, which can be followed by important statements or private notice questions. Those who have been in the House for some time—such as the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) and me—will know that Question Time and statements can sometimes continue until 5.30 pm or even longer, on a normal parliamentary day. On Thursdays, that would translate to a different timetable, but it would still mean that some Members who would wish to contribute, or merely to listen to what was going on, would not be able to do so.

I am grateful to the Minister for showing flexibility on the timetable, and I hope that he will indicate that there will be a continuing disposition towards flexibility so that if, as the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich said, there are reasons for further adjusting the times that the House meets, the Government—perhaps through the Modernisation Committee—will be prepared to look at that and to propose further amendments.

The House must look at its procedures from time to time, and clearly the motions deal with matters that have received a great deal of support across the House—particularly from the Government, but also from the Opposition. However, I am not seeking to speak in any way for the Liberal Democratic party, as the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell)—who has notes in front of him—clearly wishes to speak in this debate. I welcome the flexibility and the agreeableness of the Minister's approach, and I shall be happy to follow the splendid example of my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House.

6.4 pm

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)

I thank the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) for giving me such a warm introduction.

I support the extension of the Thursday experiment, and I hope that it will become a permanent institution of this House, as it introduces more sensible working practices. For all the reasons that have been given, I believe that it is right to continue the experiment, and I look forward to a debate at the start of the next Session in which we can confirm that permanent Thursday sittings should be in our Standing Orders.

The measures giving flexibility to Standing Committees have been welcomed, and I hope that the Committees will learn to use that flexibility to its fullest extent. I am content for the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Macclesfield to go forward. Like the hon. Gentleman, I am a member of the Modernisation Committee and the Procedure Committee, and I believe that we are inching towards practices which more clearly reflect the modern society in which the House operates and the terms and conditions that we would expect for Members of Parliament.

6.5 pm

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

The only aspect of this matter that I welcome is the fact that the experiment is being extended for a further provisional year, so that we might have an opportunity to come to our senses subsequent to that. I say that because there is a hidden matter here which dare not speak its name. Hon. Members speak with approval about truncating Thursdays because—perhaps for understandable reasons—many want to get away from this place; it is obvious that a large number, if not most, do not particularly like being here. I sometimes wonder why they went to such great efforts to get elected.

Mr. Stunell

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Forth


Hon. Members

Don't encourage him!

Mr. Stunell

It is not my intention to encourage the right hon. Gentleman. However, does he acknowledge that the House has sat for additional hours as a result of the changes, not reduced hours?

Mr. Forth

No. This is the sleight of hand that is being practised. It is one thing to claim that the House is sitting for more hours on Thursdays, but the hidden casualty of this has been Fridays. The number of Fridays on which the House sits has been reduced dramatically, apart from those allocated to private Members' Bills—which I very much welcome and enjoy, as not many Members here will know.

The Minister, in his coy but charming way, referred to the balance between Westminster and constituency time. The implication is that there is something undesirable about time that Members of Parliament spend at Westminster, and something positive and good about the time that Members spend in their constituencies. The tragedy of that argument is that—in so far as we, as Members of Parliament, conspire to downgrade the time that we spend at Westminster—we contribute to the lesser respect with which people at large and the media have for what we do at Westminster. If we demonstrate time and again that we want to get away and spend less time here, how can we expect people outside to have respect for what we do?

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

I understand that the right hon. Gentleman's constituency is about 18 miles from Westminster; mine is 318 miles away, as is the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew). I understand that it takes the right hon. Gentleman 30 minutes to get back to his constituency; it takes me almost six hours from door to door. In the light of that, does he think that some of us can quite rightfully ask for more time in our constituencies when we spend 12 hours at least every week travelling back and forth?

Mr. Forth

I understand what the hon. Gentleman says, but I do not totally agree. Previously, I had the honour of representing a constituency in the west midlands, and there was some travelling time involved in getting to and from there. However, I would not have argued any differently then from now. I have a clear view of the priorities that a Member of Parliament should hold. The vital part of a Member of Parliament's work is here at Westminster, trying to hold the Government to account and scrutinising legislation. Constituency duties, important as they are, should be fitted in around that.

Mrs. Dunwoody

When I was first elected here, I represented a west country seat, and many of us who had a very long journey—mine took more than five hours by car—were extremely irritated when we were told that the Scots should always have preference, because they needed to get home. Since they flew, which took less than an hour, and we spent many hours on the road, some of us find not entirely realistic the suggestion that only by going home on a Thursday night can one fulfil one's duties.

Mr. Forth

I accept what the hon. Lady says, although we may be on the way to resolving the Scottish problem in a way that we did not altogether anticipate.

I accept the motion, which says that we will review the matter further at the end of the next Session, but I want to flag up the fact that we are in danger of losing Fridays almost completely as part of the parliamentary week. I would deeply regret that, because anything that diminishes the time available to the House for deliberation and scrutiny is to be regretted.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

There must be quite a number of Conservative Members or former Members who wish that my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) had spent more time away from the House. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman is not being taken in by his own propaganda, as those of us who have the honour of being elected here consider that our duties are first and foremost at Westminster. That does not conflict in any way with our constituency duties. There is no substance to the idea that Labour Members consider Westminster an occupation of two or three days and that our main duties are in the constituency. We have always recognised that our job is first and foremost here. That is why we stood for election in the first place.

Mr. Forth

That would be all very well if there were no such thing as what I gather the Government call constituency weeks.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

They have been abolished.

Mr. Forth

I hope that they have been. I hope that they are a matter for some shame among Government Members. The fact that the Government were prepared, in the hubris following the general election result, to say, "Don't bother about Westminster; go off to your constituencies," is a shocking illustration of their contempt for this place.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

Many Labour Members were allocated constituency weeks but never took them up. I was allocated one and did not take it, and the same goes for hundreds of Labour Members.

Mr. Forth

Of course I accept what the hon. Gentleman says of himself, but if he really wants to pursue the matter, a perusal of the voting records for the first year or two of this Parliament might reveal a different story. Perhaps he and I could amuse ourselves by considering the voting records of the 417 Labour Members elected in May 1997 to see whether they bear out what he says. I am sure that he was here almost all the time, but I wonder about some of the other 416.

Mr. Mackinlay

Why does not the right hon. Gentleman take heart from the fact that sometimes experiments are abandoned? That is precisely what happened with constituency weeks. Let us move on.

Mr. Forth

I wish that most of the experiments that we have here were abandoned. That would give me great joy, but I do not hold out too much hope.

Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton)

In the so-called move towards more modern practices, is not public access to Parliament one of the casualties? There is less opportunity for people to see their elected Members and sit in the Gallery or, most importantly, for school parties and others to be taken around both the House of Lords and the House of Commons. That can really happen only on a Tuesday morning now. Our action in consulting our own convenience is detrimental to the people who sent us here.

Mr. Forth

I could not agree more. We run a risk of being perceived as putting our convenience ahead of the access that our constituents have traditionally had and still want.

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

Does not the next item on the Order Paper reinstate Wednesday morning access to the Chamber and deal with the point made by the hon. Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton)? The right hon. Gentleman need not worry about access to the Chamber.

Mr. Forth

My hon. Friend was talking about Thursday mornings, because that is the item that we are debating now. I would not have had Wednesday morning sittings in the first place, and neither do I agree with the so-called Main Committee or Westminster Hall sittings, about which I will have more to say later or on a subsequent occasion, as I have now been to Canberra and seen the original and realised what a deception was practised on us when we were sold that false bill of goods.

6.8 pm

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)

I agree with the tenor of the observations of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and understand his unease about the present pattern of Thursday sittings. I, too, am glad that the experiment is to run for another year.

I sympathise with the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours). On Friday, I travelled to a trustees' meeting in the Lake district, in a constituency adjacent to his. I had to decant from the train at Preston because of the tragic accident suffered by the Royal Air Force at Shap, and the journey was pretty prolonged. I recognise the fact that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst and I are both London Members and that some other hon. Members' constituencies are a considerable distance away.

There are problems—not connected with travel—with Thursdays for London Members, too. I receive almost 3,000 invitations a year in my constituency, and I regularly attend business questions, and, frankly, the fact that one does not know whether that will happen at 12.30 or later inevitably takes a great chunk out of one's working Thursday and is a complication. The private convenience of London Members is not decisive in the balance, but I mention it to make it clear that there is an alternative point of view.

I agree with the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) that experiments can be reversed.

Paragraph 13 of the Modernisation Committee's report says: The number of meetings of all-party groups and backbench committees on Thursdays appears to have gone down in this Parliament compared with the last. I do not know where that word "appears" comes from—either it has gone down or it has not—but I take it that the meaning is that it has gone down. The paragraph goes on to say that perhaps we are having more such meetings on Mondays.

I have a separate problem with all-party groups: at the last count, there were 266 of them and rising. The figure is becoming ridiculous. There is no way in which outside groups can get a decent attendance by Members of Parliament if there are 266 all-party groups competing for our attention on Tuesday, Wednesday and part of Monday. I hope that, when the experiment is monitored in a year's time, the present practice and performance of all-party groups will be examined.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton

It is becoming increasingly difficult to get a room in which to hold a meeting on a Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is another problem that the Modernisation Committee should consider, because of the shortened week and the fact that there are now virtually no all-party group meetings on a Thursday?

Mr. Brooke

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. I entirely agree that any examination of the all-party group issue in a year's time should be comprehensive and take in all considerations.

I have made the point that I wanted to make, which relates to paragraph 13. I am glad that the experiment will be given another year's run, and I look forward to the review.

6.20 pm
Mr. Tipping

I am slightly anxious because during the previous debate I was described as emollient while in this debate I have been described as coy but charming. There are two more debates this evening and I feel rather exposed.

We have had a helpful debate. There has been an understanding in the Chamber about the need for flexibility and there is flexibility within the motion on Standing Committees. It will have occurred to many Members that, apart from a slight prescription, the House is giving Committees the opportunity to meet when they want. One of the opportunities that Select Committees and Standing Committees may want to take in future is to meet when the House is not normally sitting during holiday periods. No group has yet taken that opportunity, but I do not think it will be long before groups of Members take it.

Members work hard, and one of the themes that have run through the debate has been the desire to be in the House to pursue business and causes. There is also the desire to have the opportunity to listen to constituents and other ordinary people as well as to know the tone and mood of Parliament. I was slightly surprised when the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) said that a consequence of that is that Fridays have changed. The right hon. Gentleman has been in the House longer than I and he will realise that the changes have come from the Jopling report. He and other hon. Members have recognised that it seems from the experiment that we have had so far that on a Thursday the House is meeting for an hour longer than previously. I think that during the experiment next year we shall be able to judge more thoroughly what sort of business is taken on a Thursday.

My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) mentioned the Speaker's procession. I think that he was talking about his desire for a Speaker's procession on a Wednesday. If a later motion is approved, it may well be possible for Madam Speaker to recommence the procession on a Wednesday. Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays will be similar meeting days. It is a matter for Madam Speaker. There are others in the Chamber with greater influence than I. I am sure that my hon. Friend's point has been heard. The traditions of the House are important. As the hon. Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton) said, it is important that people have the right to come and appreciate these traditions and to see the House at work. If we are minded to go forward with the Westminster Hall experiment, Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays will be available for constituents to visit the House in the morning.

I have different experiences from some hon. Members of people who visit the House on a Thursday. Some groups who have come on a Thursday have been delighted to have the opportunity to see Question Time in the morning and then discuss what they have seen over lunch. We have the opportunity of giving people choices.

I want to stress that I am keen that we are flexible on this matter. We have been able to take amendments this evening and I think that there will be further changes. The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) said that this is a sensible third way forward. I am grateful for his comments. Perhaps I can return the compliment in buckets and say that this seems to be the common-sense approach.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered, That, in the next session of Parliament, the Standing Orders and practice of the House shall have effect subject to the modifications set out below:

  1. (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. (2) proceedings on business on Thursdays shall be interrupted at Seven o'clock; and
  3. (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).