Time Gentlemen, please
12 Jan 2003
"How are you adjusting to the new regime, George?" constituents ask me, nudging me in the ribs, as I get back from the House of Commons with its new user-friendly working hours. Reports of the House of Commons disgorging hundreds of testosterone-charged MP’s at 7pm, who then head for Soho, have clearly reached Hampshire.

I am making the transition slowly. Having spent some 29 years with the Chamber sitting from 2.30 to 10 pm, the change to 11.30 to 7 has been destabilising.

The first casualty has been lunch. With Question Time at 11.30, followed by statements at 12.30 that can last for an hour, it can be 1.30 before one leaves the Chamber, to a chorus of rumbling stomachs. If you want to speak in the main debate after the statement, as I did in the first week of the new timetable, you have to stay in the Chamber until you are called and then, as a courtesy, you have to listen to the next speaker. Lunch that day was taken at 5.30.

The truth is that the new regime helps most those who represent seats in or close to London; or those who represent far-distant seats, but have chosen to locate themselves and their families in London, spending the week-ends in the constituency. They can both get home at a reasonable hour.

The MP for North West Hants falls into neither category. With a debate ending at 7pm, followed by two votes, I cannot be sure of catching the 7.35 from Waterloo to Andover without sprinting across Westminster Bridge at a speed that my GP would discourage. If I catch the 8.35, the next train, I don’t get home until 10pm. I doubt if Lady Young would regard this as a user-friendly time to appear. With Standing Committees or Select Committees meeting at 8.55 am, that means the 6.50 am from Andover the following morning, allowing South West Trains some margin for error. So I stay in London during the week, returning on Thursday with four shirts needing to be cleaned.

Well then, I must have lots of spare time in the capital for recreation.

It doesn’t seem to work out quite like that. There is the same amount of work to do now as there was before; but some of that work used to be done in the morning, or early afternoon. Much of that time is now unavailable because it is spent in the Chamber; or it is taken up by the Committees that now meet earlier because the Chamber has started earlier. So the work that was done in the morning is now done, guess when, after 7pm.

Is the change reversible? Almost certainly not. Anyone proposing in the next Parliament that the House should revert to a 10pm finish would be a candidate for a Bateman cartoon.

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