Sir George speaks on Modernising the Commons
20 Nov 2000
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire): I shall make a brief contribution, which I begin by picking up a point made by each of the previous three speakers, who all observed that some of the debates in Westminster Hall could appropriately be replied to by a Secretary of State. The debate on Rover, for example, and some of the foreign affairs debates could usefully have been answered by a Cabinet Minister. That would help to change the perception of Westminster Hall. Perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office, will reflect on that.
Although we are dealing simultaneously with two proposals from the Modernisation Committee, they are different in objective and character. The motion on Thursday sittings has as its objective a better balance between our time in the House and our time in the constituency. It seeks to achieve that by re-engineering Thursday sittings so that they start and end earlier, so that many, but not all, Members of Parliament are in poll position on Friday mornings in their constituency.
The other motion concerns Westminster Hall and is aimed at better enabling us to hold the Government to account, by increasing the length of the frontier that they have to patrol.
I welcome the fact that these are agreed reports. I am convinced that that is the best way to proceed on matters concerning the House, and not, as happened a fortnight ago, with a substantial part of the House in disagreement.
On Westminster Hall, I speak as a supporter of the original experiment, although I am sensitive to the anxieties of my colleagues. I start from the position that I am basically in favour of bringing Ministers to account as often as possible, and I welcome any opportunity that gives me the right to ask them to explain and justify what they have been doing. Westminster Hall has enabled that process to take place. We have been able to cover many more subjects, and Ministers have been pressed on many more sensitive issues than would have been the case if debates were confined to the Chamber.
When one looks at the Government's plans for the future of Westminster Hall, paragraph 13 in the report is slightly oblique. I was grateful to hear the Leader of the House say that it is not the Government's intention to use Westminster Hall to push through yet more legislation. Paragraph 13 is, as I said, somewhat oblique, but the reassurance given by the Leader of the House is welcome.
Like other hon. Members, I have attended debates in Westminster Hall on several occasions. At present, Westminster Hall lacks character. It is rather like moving from one's room in the Palace of Westminster to a new room at Portcullis House. No doubt in the course of time, Westminster Hall will acquire atmosphere and character, and we will get more accustomed to it.
Westminster Hall may not get wide coverage in the national press, but it certainly receives substantial coverage in the local and regional press and on regional television. People watching regional television do not, for the most part, understand the difference between a debate in Westminster Hall and a debate in the Chamber. As far as they are concerned, it is a debate taking place in the House of Commons.
It would be helpful to know what progress is being made with disabled access to Westminster Hall. At present it is not good. Perhaps when the Minister winds up, he could bring us up to date.
I agree with a lot of anxieties of my right hon. and hon. Friends who think that this Chamber has been undermined, bypassed and marginalised. That is the case, but the reasons why go far broader than the establishment of Westminster Hall and have more to do with how the Government treat Parliament.
I turn now to the report on Thursday sittings. At first sight, it might seem to be a rather thin report, but I suppose that the arguments have been rehearsed in earlier publications and debates. At first sight, £3.70 seems to be a lot of money for six rather short paragraphs and an essentially unexciting annexe. My view is that the Thursday change is probably irreversible now that the majority of Members has adjusted to the change in the week. There are some difficulties at the beginning of Thursdays, but it will be difficult to turn back the clock.
I know that several hon. Members want to extend the Thursday pattern to other week days. Indeed, the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) raised that issue in an earlier intervention. It might be helpful to remind the House of what the then Leader of the House said about the proposals to extend to Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays the changes that we have made to Thursday sittings. That evidence was given in the Modernisation Committee's first report entitled, "The Parliamentary Calendar: Initial Proposals". On page xxvi, the then Leader of the House said:
The Committee may also consider whether all sitting days should start in the morning and conclude by 5 pm or 6 pm. While this might suit those Members whose constituencies and homes are within easy distance of London, there are many Members who would not be able to get home each evening however early the House rose. In this respect the House is not like most other organisations. MPs have to work both in London and in their constituencies.

The conclusion of the then Leader of the House was:

It will be up to the Committee to balance these competing interests, but the Government is not persuaded that a change of sitting hours to normal office hours is in the best interests of the House, individual Members or the Government.

So it is not the case that the resistance to change Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday sittings simply comes from Conservative Members.
My concern about Thursday sittings is the knock-on effect of the changes, especially on the parliamentary week. I am concerned that business gets compacted into Tuesday and Wednesday. I happened to look at this week's all-party Whip. There are six meetings today, including the rehearsal of the Messiah by the Parliamentary Choir. There are 14 all-party meetings on Tuesday, including that of the influential football group, and nine on Wednesday, but only one on Thursday--that of the British Russian group.
I think that I will give away no trade secrets if I say that the same pattern is followed with party committees. There are four meetings on Tuesday, five on Wednesday, but only one on Thursday--that of the Association of Conservative Peers, who are, of course, unaffected by our Thursday pattern of sittings. The reason why groups do not meet on Thursday is that Members of Parliament tend not be here. That has been reinforced by the business that the Government choose for Thursdays, which tends to be unwhipped. This Thursday, we will have an important debate on Europe, but it will arise on a motion for the Adjournment. Two Thursdays ago, we debated a Liaison Committee report. Last Thursday, we dealt with the remaining stages of a relatively uncontroversial Bill. I think that I am right in saying that there have been no serious votes on Thursdays since the recess.
The risk is that Thursdays will go the way of Fridays and everything will be crammed into sittings late on Monday and on Tuesday and Wednesday. I am concerned that that has been reinforced by the Prime Minister's unilateral decision not to hold Prime Minister's questions on Thursdays, because PMQs on Thursdays tended to stretch the week well into Thursday afternoons. Restoring Prime Minister's questions to twice a week would help us to have a better balanced parliamentary week.
I am conscious, as are other Members, that there are many other calendar issues to which the Committee will no doubt return. Some of my hon. Friends who serve on the Committee--my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) is here--have an interest in what happens in Canada, where the shape of the parliamentary calendar is known several years in advance. Many other Members want to review the very long summer recess. I hope that the issue of tabling written questions during the recess will not go away. I am happy to go along with the experiments and to roll them forward into the next Parliament, but I put down a footnote about what is happening to our Thursdays.

 
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