HC Deb 11 March 2003 vol 401 cc161-4
29. Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

What assessment he has made of the impact of the House's new sitting hours on scrutiny of Government business. [101898]

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

It would be premature to attempt an assessment of changes that the House introduced for the remainder of this Parliament. My own impression is that the parallel measures of modernisation have enhanced Parliament's role of scrutiny, especially through Question Time becoming more topical. I hope that the other measures that we introduced will command the same degree of support.

Sir Nicholas Winterton

The right hon. Gentleman has led the Modernisation Committee with considerable distinction and a great deal of commitment, and we respect him for that. However, will he accept from hon. Members, like myself, who have had considerable experience over many years, that there is a problem for a large number of Members of Parliament adequately to scrutinise legislation because of the many other things that are going on outside the Chamber? When we are squeezing the full week into two and a half days, it is difficult for Members to find time adequately to cover debates in this place—something that remains important. Will the right hon. Gentleman look at the matter again and perhaps consider holding a debate on, or a review of, the new rules and sittings before the end of the current Session?

Mr. Cook

I certainly do not accept that we have a two and a half day week. As Leader of the House, when I programme business I do so for the full four days and I expect Members to make themselves available for those full four days. Long before the hours were changed, Select Committees and Standing Committees frequently met at hours during which the House itself was sitting—normally after 4 o'clock. Committees now have the opportunity to sit earlier in the afternoon. There may be a particular problem at present, due not to the change in hours but to the large volume of legislation and the large number of Standing Committees. However, that problem will ease as the months proceed and I anticipate that, as that happens, some of the present difficulties will resolve themselves.

Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

Does the Leader of the House agree that the hours issue was part of the overall modernisation package, which was designed to improve scrutiny, and that some hon. Members focus on hours because they find fundamental change difficult in their own personal way of doing their jobs and working? Indeed, is it not the case that some hon. Members suggested that they could not cope with the change after only two or three weeks? May I fully endorse the view that they will need some time to become totally accustomed to the new hours and that those hours should be considered in the wider context of scrutiny, which now involves using the whole Palace of Westminster—Westminster Hall, Select Committees, Standing Committees and the Chamber—more effectively?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the very important work that is done by hon. Members in Select Committees, Standing Committees and Westminster Hall, and I personally regret that that very important work does not attract the same attention as work in the Chamber. I would add that I fully agree with my hon. Friend that the point of changing the hours was not to make life more convenient for us, but to make the Chamber more representative of those in the world outside who elect us.

I welcome the fact that, by moving our hours earlier, we are able to set the media agenda earlier in the day. There certainly have been at least a couple of occasions in the past few months when our votes at 7 o'clock have been much more fully recorded in the next day's papers than they ever would have been if they had taken place at 10 o'clock in the evening.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

If the Leader of the House is so confident that his new hours have met with wide approval, why will he not give the House another opportunity to vote on them, rather than saying that they should be revisited only in the next Parliament?

Mr. Cook

I am saying that precisely because that is what Parliament itself agreed to last October and, certainly in the case of Tuesday sittings, by a very large majority indeed. [Interruption.] I am sorry—Thursdays. I have seen no evidence to suggest that, if the matter were put to the House again, there would a majority for abandoning the 7 o'clock end.