HC Deb 10 February 2004 vol 417 cc1265-8
34. Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con)

What analysis of the way in which time is used in conducting House business is to be carried out by his office. [153632]

The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Peter Hain)

My office keeps a watching brief on the way in which the House conducts its business, and I am always open to suggestions from Members on how it could be better arranged.

Mr. Jack

I note the work undertaken by the right hon. Gentleman to review our sitting hours. May I have a reassurance that, before reaching a firm and final conclusion, he will think carefully about how the House uses its time? On occasion, debates are kept going simply because a Division has been predetermined, although if discussions could have taken place earlier, better use could have been made of Parliament's precious debating time, and perhaps two items of business could have been dealt with rather than one. Will he consider that and the procedures of the House to ensure that we make the best possible use of our time and facilities in determining when the House sits?

Mr. Hain

I understand the right hon. Gentleman's point, which he made with force. The difficulty lies in balancing Members' desire for predictable timing of votes so that we can all arrange our work accordingly with avoiding the spinning out of debates which, as the right hon. Gentleman implied, sometimes occurs. I am certainly willing to consider all good suggestions from him or anyone else.

Mr. Stephen McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green) (Lab)

I am delighted to hear that my right hon. Friend is always open to suggestions. Is he aware of the growing body of opinion that the change in the Tuesday hours has not been wholly satisfactory? Were the recent arrangements to be modified, would he consider whether those for Tuesday could revert to something similar to the previous system, without in any way damaging the other modernisation initiatives?

Mr. Hain

I am happy to assure my hon. Friend that I will look closely at that and other suggestions; indeed, I have my ear bent regularly about such matters. It is a listening ear—I know that the next question addresses the same issue—and I want to achieve a position whereby everyone is not dissatisfied with the outcome, even if everyone is not wholly satisfied.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con)

Does not the analysis that my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) mentioned show that the Leader of the House is simply not providing adequate time to debate the really important issues? I shall give three examples. When I asked the Leader of the House for extra time to debate the Higher Education Bill, he refused. As a result, many Members missed out, yet during the same week we had a debate on truancy that nobody attended.

Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab)

I did.

Mr. Heald

Well, seven Members attended, all of whom were photographed on the front page of The Times. I asked him for extra time to debate the Hutton report, but he refused. Only half the Members who wanted to speak got in that day, yet in the same week we finished early on Thursday and Monday. I asked for more time for the local authority finance debate, but he refused, and not a single Conservative Back Bencher had an opportunity to speak. Is it not time that he ensured that business management has priority over the news management in which the Government are engaging?

Mr. Hain

As the hon. Gentleman knows. under the existing sitting hours we have in fact spent more time scrutinising Commons business than in the previous year. On the specific points that he raised, he pressed for two days' debate on the Hutton report, but when it was published and he and others realised what its contents were, at the previous day's business questions he did riot press the matter again, even though I reminded him about it. When he looks at what really happened, he will see that all these measures had plenty of time for scrutiny, as such measures have always had in the past, under Governments of all colours.

35. Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab)

What plans he has to take private Members' Bills after 7 pm on Tuesdays. [153633]

38. Mrs. Janet Dean (Burton) (Lab)

What plans he has to take private Members' Bills after 7 pm on Tuesdays. [153636]

The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Peter Hain)

I am aware that many Members favour this option, which the Modernisation Committee will consider as part of its review of sitting hours.

Joan Ruddock

Does my right hon. Friend accept that even London Members such as me have to make constituency appointments for Fridays many months in advance to accommodate all the demands? The result is that Members, and indeed Ministers, often find a conflict between local loyalties and having to attend this House for a private Member's Bill. Does he agree that, if such Bills were taken on a Tuesday evening, more Members could participate in those vital debates, and constituents could be certain that their Member of Parliament was available on a Friday?

Mr. Hain

My hon. Friend makes her case persuasively, and hers is one of the many arguments being put to me about how we could adjust the existing sitting hours that meet with widespread consent. Many Members, including her, have said to me that moving private Members' Bills to Tuesday evening would have the advantage of freeing up Fridays for constituency business, and would perhaps allow such Bills to be debated by more Members than are currently able to turn up on Fridays. There are counterbalancing arguments, and it is precisely this issue that I want to look at more closely.

Mrs. Dean

Does my right hon. Friend also agree that, besides freeing up Fridays, moving private Members' Bills to Tuesday evenings would also allow more time for consideration on Tuesdays of Select Committee reports and other non-voting business?

Mr. Hain

Again, that suggestion has been made to me in recent weeks, and I am looking at it very seriously. It struck me during my extensive consultations in recent weeks with Members of all political persuasions, and Ministers, that very few people are now arguing for going back to the old hours on Wednesdays. [Interruption.] Well, some may be, but there is not a large body of Members doing so. I am simply reporting to the House my findings in the light of such consultations. However, there is a focus on Tuesdays, and if we could reach agreement on how to handle Tuesdays, and if there were widespread consensus—I am not saying that we need unanimity—there would be a case for having an early vote on the matter. However, if there is not a consensus, I do not want to rush into a vote, leaving behind a bitter division on the hours, so we need to continue our discussions. In doing so, we can take into account the views of my hon. Friends the Members for Burton (Mrs. Dean) and for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock).

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con)

Does the Leader of the House accept that the findings of the questionnaire issued by the Procedure Committee, which I chair, will give good guidance to him and the House on future sitting hours? Does he agree that the Procedure Committee's report on "Procedures for Debates, private Members' Bills and the Powers of the Speaker" is an important report? Will he tell the House when hon. Members will have an opportunity to debate that report, which was published towards the end of last year, on the Floor of the House?

Mr. Hain

I am always up for good guidance from the hon. Gentleman and I usually get it and am grateful for it. We are examining the Procedure Committee report and I want to reflect on it further. I also believe that the survey will be valuable in informing the investigations of the Modernisation Committee and, in the meantime, it will help inform me about how the feeling in the House is spread. I am already getting a pretty good idea from the regular verbal representations made to me, not to mention the discussions that I have in my office, including one that the hon. Gentleman attended, if I recall correctly.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall) (LD)

Reverting to Tuesday evenings, does the Leader of the House recognise that there is a demand from both sides of the House to ensure that we have enough time for proper scrutiny of private Members' Bills? If we allocate consideration of such Bills to Tuesdays, can he assure me that the aggregate total time available will not be a reduction on the current position? If anything, we need more time to be able to do the job properly, particularly given the raised expectations among the public about the importance of private Members' Bills, which are not being met by the current method of delivery.

Mr. Hain

When the proposition was first put to me, the 13 Fridays allocated for private Members' Bills equated to 22 Tuesday evenings for an exactly similar time. Of course, there are about 36 Tuesdays in a calendar year, so there is an issue to be dealt with there. However, I do not disagree for one moment that private Members' Bills deserve a fair wind and proper scrutiny. It is one of the arguments being put to me, but, as I have already said, some counterbalancing arguments are also being put to me by business managers, Ministers and others who argue that the hon. Gentleman's preferred method is not a satisfactory way of proceeding. It is one of the issues that I shall have to bottom out.