HC Deb 06 November 2001 vol 374 cc104-6
43. Caroline Flint (Don Valley)

What proposals he has to reform the timetable of the business of the House. [10353]

47. Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South)

What proposals he has for reform of the pattern of sittings of the House; and if he will make a statement. [10357]

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Robin Cook)

I recognise the wish of many Members for sitting hours and a parliamentary calendar that are more predictable and allow them better to balance their commitments to Parliament with those to their constituencies and families. The Modernisation Committee will address these matters in this Session. I announced the dates of the next recess in our first week back, and I will make every effort to announce parliamentary recesses as early as possible to allow Members to plan their time more effectively.

Caroline Flint

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Does he agree that timetabling of business is a good way to ensure better scrutiny of the legislation that we take through the House, and that the Opposition could make good use of that process? Is he not shocked, as I was, to hear that the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) is advising his masters not only to have their MPs do one day a week, but to pass legislation unscrutinised to the House of Lords?

Mr. Cook

I would not wish to suggest that anything that the right hon. Gentleman proposed would necessarily shock me, but I was startled to see that he had suggested to his Leader that the Conservatives be organised on a one-day-a-week rota. I have no objection to their organising themselves as they wish, but I hope that they will not then object if we try to achieve reasonable hours for those on the Government side who come to Parliament four days a week.

Mr. Mullin

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it cannot be right in a democracy for the Government to be awarded a holiday from scrutiny for nearly three months every summer? Has not the time come to consider September sittings?

Mr. Cook

The issue of September sittings will have to be part of any overall review of the parliamentary calendar. The Modernisation Committee in the last Parliament suggested that September should be used for Committee weeks for Select Committees to sit. So far, relatively few have taken the opportunity of that invitation. My hon. Friend may wish to discuss that with the members of his Select Committee.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that instead of talking about timetables and changes to the timing of business, a more effective way for the House to perform its function of scrutinising legislation would be to enable every Standing Committee that has charge of a Bill to take outside evidence before it begins the scrutiny of the Bill for which it is responsible?

Mr. Cook

I understand the case that the right hon. and learned Gentleman makes. There is provision in Standing Orders for that to happen, and I hope that in the case of one or two Bills that will come before us in this Parliament, that practice will be invoked. I hope that we can move to a situation in which more Bills are published in draft long before they reach Standing Committee. That would give an opportunity for the Select Committees and the public to comment. To achieve that, we need a rolling programme of legislation, rather than one crammed into a tight Session that provides half a year for legislation.

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire)

Does not the right hon. Gentleman have a dilemma, however, in that the word "reform" means different things to different people? To the Opposition and the country at large, it means changing our procedures to be more effective in our scrutiny of legislation, whereas to some hon. Members on the Government side, it is a euphemism for fewer votes, less work and early nights. Will the right hon. Gentleman give us an assurance that in any package of reform that he agrees to bring before the House, his overriding aim will be to improve the scrutiny of the Executive by the Chamber, not merely to court popularity with Members on his own side who do not like working after 5pm?

Mr. Cook

That is remarkable effrontery on the part of Front-Bench Members who are scheming to send imperfectly scrutinised Bills from this place and urging their leader to call them here for one day a week. For the record, there was no overall reduction in the hours that we sat during the past Parliament, and no one seeks such a reduction. However, it may make sense for us and for the scrutiny of legislation to ensure that those hours conform to the working practices of the world outside. We would possibly get more respect from our constituents if they saw us living in this century rather than two centuries ago.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

Would not our commitment to our constituents be greater if we were full-time Members of Parliament and some of us were not involved in other activities, and if we reduced the 13-week summer break when we are Members without a Parliament and cannot use the avenues available to question the Executive? I hope that those points will be seriously considered when we modernise our procedures.

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend is a sterling example of a full-time Member of Parliament. I—and, I hope, others—take to heart his observation that those who are not necessarily as full time as he should be careful about casting stones at others.

I do not believe that there is any appetite in the House or among our constituents for us to spend less time in Parliament, but there is a case for ensuring that the time when Parliament sits is more evenly spread. I am willing to consider that if we can reach a consensus.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

I am sure that the Leader of the House accepts that providing adequate time for opposition is a vital part of our democratic process. Will he confirm that the Modernisation Committee, which he chairs and on which I sit, and the Procedure Committee, which I have the honour to chair, are currently considering ways in which the House can scrutinise the Executive and hold them to account more effectively, not least through altering our method of dealing with oral and written parliamentary questions? Does he accept that all Opposition parties have a vital part to play in the effective operation of the United Kingdom's democratic parliamentary system?

Mr. Cook

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's comments, which underline the fact that the Modernisation Committee has managed to proceed in a way that is not party political but acknowledges our common commitment to making a success of Parliament. I hope that the debate on modernisation will not proceed on the basis of antithesis between Government and Parliament. It remains my guiding principle that good scrutiny makes for good government. We need an effective Opposition and effective scrutiny in Parliament to achieve that.

The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire was asked—

Forward to