HC Deb 20 May 2003 vol 405 cc839-40
26. Norman Baker (Lewes)

What plans he has to propose that the Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons review the sitting hours of the House. [114242]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Ben Bradshaw)

None at present.

Norman Baker

I understand why that is, given the commitment from the former Leader of the House. I voted for the change in the hours with some enthusiasm, but like, I suspect, many other Members I feel that they have not turned out quite as we anticipated then. I understand that the Minister may not wish to return completely to the old system, and I would not support that, but will he consider, for example, returning to a 2.30 pm rather than an 11.30 am start for question time, while retaining the present starting and finishing times?

Mr. Bradshaw

I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House would welcome any specific points that any Member may wish to make about how the current hours could be made to work better, but as my right hon. Friend said when the issue was last discussed during questions, he is in no hurry to revisit it, given that only six months ago the House expressed its settled will on a free vote.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

May I join those who do not think that the new hours are working very well? Indeed, I think that they are working against the democratic process.

May I also ask why, when I take junior schoolchildren on to the Terrace, I need a letter of permission from either Black Rod or the Serjeant at Arms to take a school photograph? That rule serves no useful purpose—and surely we, as elected Members, are as trustworthy as appointed Officers.

Mr. Bradshaw

I imagine that the rule was established to protect Members from unwanted photography, but I will take up my hon. Friend's point because it has also affected me when I have entertained school parties here. I see no logical reason for such a formality.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

We must all hope that the hon. Gentleman is protected from unwanted photography at all times.

Will the hon. Gentleman take careful note of the point made by the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), which reflects the extreme concern felt by many Members throughout the House about the dismal failure of the new arrangements? They have allowed the Government to get off scot free too often.

Mr. Bradshaw

I do not accept that. Question time has become much more topical, and there are the new crosscutting questions in Westminster Hall. Taking the package as a whole, we see that the amount of scrutiny of Government has increased, not decreased, as the hon. Gentleman seemed to imply.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

Does the Minister not accept that large tranches of very important legislation are leaving the House without being debated? There is not even the fallback of allowing some sections of the Finance Bill to be discussed up the passage in another place. Will the Minister urge the Leader of the House to review the position at a relatively early date? We want to know about experience with the new sitting times. Could we not use the time available on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings to ensure that the House does its proper duty, and that legislation is scrutinised adequately before going on the statute book?

Mr. Bradshaw

As I told the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), the suggestion of a review is interesting. I am sure that if the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton)—as a member of the Modernisation Committee and as Chairman of the Procedure Committee—has a specific proposal, he will wish to pursue it further. I think there is potential for use of Tuesday and Wednesday evenings to good effect, but to suggest, as the hon. Gentleman did, that the overall modernisation package means less scrutiny of Government—

Sir Nicholas Winterton

indicated dissent.

Mr. Bradshaw

It seems that I have impugned the hon. Gentleman. I am glad he accepts that scrutiny has become better rather than worse as a result of the package.