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New Sitting Hours

Volume 403: debated on Tuesday 8 April 2003

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If he will make a statement on the operation of the new sitting hours of the House. [107448]


Whether he plans to review the sitting hours of the House at the end of the Session. [107449]


This could be almost as enjoyable as being chair of the Labour party.

The House voted last October for new sitting hours until the end of the Parliament. As you might expect, Mr. Speaker, I have come to this job with a reasonable, no-nonsense approach and an open mind. I have no plans for a sudden reversal of the decision to change the sitting hours. However, it will take time for the effects to be realised and to decide whether some modifications may be necessary. The House will have ample opportunity to discuss all those matters in the coming months, and to decide whether to recommend a review before this Parliament ends.

May I welcome the President of the Council and congratulate him on his new post? We all look forward to his contributions. Does he realise that the mood of the House has changed significantly since the vote on this matter was taken? Will he now accept that we should not wait until the end of this Parliament, and that we should bring forward the review to the end of this Session, particularly so that we can review the operation of Tuesdays?

Sorry about the delay—I was in reflective mode there, Mr. Speaker. First, it would be only fitting, as this is my first time at the Dispatch Box since my right hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) left his post, to put on record my appreciation of the work that he put into the modernisation and many other aspects of the House. I am well aware of how highly he was regarded in all quarters and on both sides of the House.

Furthermore, so far as I can see from reading Hansard, I have to say that my deputy, the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office, also put on a superb performance following that of my right hon. Friend. I could only hope to emulate them, certainly not in all spheres, but perhaps in one. You will be pleased to know, Mr. Speaker, that on Saturday, I had £10 each way on Monty's Pass, so perhaps there are ways in which I can emulate the former Leader of the House.

With reference to the point raised by the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink), it is true that a fairly large number of right hon. and hon. Members have registered their objections in the form of an early-day motion. I think that that motion was tabled within 14 days of the original vote being taken, however, so it is perhaps not to be taken as a judgment made after reflection. Nevertheless, as I said, while I do not commend any agenda to reverse in any sudden way the modernisation of the hours of the House, this is up to the House itself. We all note that the intention of the House was to wait until the end of this Parliament, but the House being sovereign, it can decide, if it so wishes, to take a decision earlier.

I welcome my right hon. Friend to his present position. For me, after due reflection, the difficulties of the new hours include the potential for the increased departmentalisation of Ministers, the collapse of the informal workings of the House in the evenings owing to our shutting up shop at that time, the operating difficulties for Committees, the inability of my constituents to follow Line of Route visits except on Mondays, and the limited ability to hold meetings with outside organisations during the daytime. I could go on—[HON. MEMBERS: "Go on!"]—but I will not. Suffice it to say that I encourage my right hon. Friend in his flexibility, and I repeat the hope expressed by the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) that our review should take place sooner rather than later.

I hear what my hon. Friend says. Indeed, the first item that he mentioned—the social and political intercourse of the House, involving morale and bonding, and Ministers relating to Back Benchers—was a very important issue in my mind. That is why I partly voted against these changes in the first place. Nevertheless, whatever my individual views may have been, a decision has been taken by the House and we have to allow a reasonable time to see how the experiment has worked before we take a decision. If modifications arise from specific issues—including, perhaps, issues raised by the Procedure Committee—it will of course be possible to make those modifications earlier than we anticipated when the House decided to have a review at the end of the full term of this Parliament.

I welcome the Leader of the House to his position. We on this side of the House hope that he will have a longer tenure in it than he has in his previous jobs. He is the most travelled Minister in the Government, having been at Defence, Transport, Scotland and Northern Ireland, as well as having been party chairman. We hope that he will be Leader of the House for a little longer than he was party chairman.

As the President of the Council has realised today, a number of people would now welcome a review of the sitting hours before the end of the current Parliament—which is what the motion originally said. May I draw his attention to early-day motion 607, supported by a number of Members who originally supported the changes and now want a review? I hope the right hon. Gentleman will bear that in mind and give us a review. Although he says it is for the House to decide, it is of course for the Government to decide to find the time for us to discuss the matter.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his gracious welcome and his congratulations. It is true that during this Parliament I have accumulated—I sometimes think—more titles than Idi Amin. That has, in fact, a number of advantages: a moving target is always easier to hit, I suppose.

I will be here at the behest of my Prime Minister, my Government and the House to serve as best I can.

I do not think I can usefully add much to the answers I have given, other than to say that I note that the large number of Members who signed the early-day motion include some who have changed their minds pretty quickly. Nevertheless I think that all of us, whatever position we took, would accept that we should allow a reasonable amount of time for the experiment. I am sure that we will pay attention to any issues, problems and modifications that may arise, whether or not they concern private Members' Bills—particularly if they emanate from the Procedure Committee—and will be willing to adopt measures where appropriate, even before the expiry of the deadline set by Parliament.