Readers may have noticed that, last week, the House of Commons took time off from debating affairs of state to debate its working hours. When these were last debated, some two years ago, the forces of modernisation triumphed and the House voted to end its sittings earlier in the evenings (and to compensate by starting earlier in the day). When they were debated again last week, the forces of modernisation were defeated and we resolved – so far as Tuesdays are concerned – to revert to the previous regime.
Those who follow the British Constitution will realise that, on each occasion, a majority of MP’s must have been on the winning side. It also follows that, because a few MP’s changed sides between the two debates, some must have been on the winning side twice. And, you would have thought, everyone would have had the satisfaction of winning at least once.
Spare then a thought for the Member for North West Hants who, not quite uniquely, was on the losing side each time, switching his vote from the side that lost last time to the side that lost this time.
Let me explain. When we debated our hours the first time round, I had no objection in principle to bringing forward the hours at which we sat, but I was worried by the congestion that this would cause in the mornings. In the mornings, before we changed the hours, we would sit on Select Committees, on Standing Committees and answer our constituents’ letters, emails and phone calls. Bringing forward the sitting of the House to the mornings would displace this important activity. And what we used to do in the morning, we would now have to do after seven – too late to catch the post or to talk to the Government departments and council officers we need to contact to help our constituents.
My arguments fell on deaf ears at the time, but they were used in last week’s debate. So why did I change?
In a nutshell, I was concerned at the impact of changing back on public perception of Parliament. Here was an institution that had opened a door onto the modern world, but then closed it. Here is an institution that people think is remote and out of touch, occupying a building straight out of Harry Potter and using expressions no one else has used for a hundred years. And it decides to go back to antiquated working hours.
Before we have the next vote, I expect to be approached by the protagonists of each side. “George, we have seen what happens to the side you take in this debate. We very much hope you won’t be supporting us this time.”