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Leader of the House

Volume 603: debated on Thursday 3 December 2015

The Leader of the House was asked—

Sitting Hours

6. What assessment he has made of the potential benefits to the House of Commons of it sitting at 9:30am on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. (902513)

Sitting hours are decided on by the House. They are regularly reviewed by the Procedure Committee and decisions are made by hon. Members based on the options recommended following consideration of the relevant evidence. I say to hon. Members who want change that although this matter was decided on in the last Parliament, there is no reason why they cannot make representations to the Procedure Committee for further consideration.

Our staff have to be here at unreasonable, family-unfriendly hours. May I ask the Deputy Leader of the House what we are doing to ensure their health and wellbeing, and to be a considerate employer?

I do not speak on behalf of the Commission, but it is my understanding that the House is a very proactive employer in managing health and safety, and appropriate conditions for staff. Of course, we are employers of our own staff directly, and it is for us, as their managers, to ensure that they have appropriate conditions.

I thank my hon. Friend for those remarks, and I will take that advice. Does she agree, however, that starting at 9.30 on Tuesdays and Wednesdays would not only make the House more family-friendly, but allow some Members to see their family and children of an evening?

My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. These matters were debated extensively, and I think it is fair to say that there are probably 650 different opinions on what constitutes something family-friendly. Nevertheless, one of the important things that Standing Orders of the House do is ensure that all hon. Members have the chance to come to Question Time. He will recognise that the sitting hours of the Chamber are not necessarily the sitting hours of Committees and other such meetings. All these things need to be brought into the round.

We need to remember the need for schools to come and visit on Tuesday mornings before we make rash decisions based on the interests of MPs based in the south-east.

Does the hon. Lady agree that some of the coverage about the possibility of moving private Members’ Bills from Friday to Tuesday was absolutely ludicrous? Frankly the busiest and hardest-working day for most constituency MPs is Friday, when we are in our constituencies. We should be able to do that every week, and therefore look at dealing with private Members’ Bills on Tuesday evening.

The hon. Gentleman will know that this option was considered by the House in the last Parliament, and there was a vote on it. At the time, hon. Members decided not to pursue that option. Again, the debate can still be had.

For debates on assisted dying and the European Union Referendum Bill, more than 300 people appeared here on Fridays. If people want to turn up on a Friday, and the issue is important enough, they are perfectly capable of doing so. Does my hon. Friend agree that, if people want a 9-to-5 job, there are plenty of them available, and they should apply for one rather than be a Member of Parliament?

I should say that “9 to 5” is one of my favourite songs by the great Dolly. My hon. Friend is an advocate of many causes on Fridays, and I think he makes a fair point about hon. Members picking issues of significant interest that have attracted Members to stay here. Daylight saving is one example, as is assisted suicide, which has been mentioned, and there are other such matters on which hon. Members will find time to be here. It is for hon. Members to decide how they wish to fulfil their role, including in relation to the introduction of private Members’ Bills.

English Votes on English Laws: Divisions

2. What progress has been made on preparations for the first divisions of the House which will follow the new Standing Orders on English Votes on English Laws (902509)

Preparations for the first Divisions under the new Standing Orders have been under way for some time. The House authorities and the Government have worked together to put in place arrangements for the Divisions, including the use of tablets to assist in the recording of double majority votes. Hon. Members who were here in the last Parliament will have seen the use of iPads as a test ground for that.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Will she confirm that, going forward, every MP from every part of the UK will still be able to debate and vote on every piece of legislation in the Commons, and make it clear that the accusation that this will create two tiers of MP is simply not true?

I agree with my hon. Friend that every Member in this House will continue to debate on Second Reading, during various elements of Committee and Report stages, and on Third Reading. It is simply the policy that we have successfully introduced that, when it comes to matters that are devolved and that affect England or England and Wales only, it is crucial that measures have the explicit consent of the MPs from those nations involved.

If we are to have English votes for English laws, why, on non-devolved matters that particularly affect Wales, such as the future of S4C, can we not have Welsh votes for Welsh laws, with double majority votes for MPs from Wales?

We were very careful, in our proposals, to ensure that every Member could continue to debate and vote on matters, even if they affected only England. We are still the United Kingdom Parliament, and the Welsh Assembly was established to deal with devolved matters. The hon. Gentleman recognises that, as do we.

Prime Minister’s Questions

3. If he will bring forward proposals for Prime Minister’s questions to take place on Tuesdays and Thursdays in each week. (902510)

I take that as a nod and a wink to start a campaign—I appreciate the Leader of the House’s subtlety. We should go back to having two sessions of Prime Minister’s questions. This week, PMQs was lost, quite rightly, but if we had two sessions, the Prime Minister would at least have been here once, and he is the servant of the House, not a President. Will he encourage me a bit more to start that campaign?

I fear not. The practical problem is that, if Prime Minister’s questions take place on a Tuesday and Thursday, it would be difficult for the Prime Minister to represent Britain internationally. On the whole, I think that the full session on a Wednesday strikes the right balance. I regard yesterday’s decision to postpone questions for the week as something that would happen only in exceptional circumstances. In my view, we should stick with the current arrangements.

Has the Leader of the House had an opportunity to consider my suggestion to limit to 10 minutes the exchange between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, with no limit on the number of questions that could be asked in that time. Recently, that exchange has been taking up almost half the time available for PMQs—so that we can hear from Mary from Manchester or Olivia from Oldham. Will he look at this proposal and see whether we can get more Back Benchers in?

I have some sympathy with the hon. Gentleman, but I fear it is for the Chair to decide when to accelerate proceedings.

November Recess

We give careful consideration to how we manage the recesses across the year, but ultimately it is a decision for the House. My colleague the Chief Whip and I are always happy to consider the calendar across the year. We have a November recess because it was originally the time of the Queen’s Speech, and there were always two or three days either side for Members to spend time in their constituencies.

I appreciate that, but that is the point: it was previously the date of the Queen’s Speech, but that now takes place in May. I am still confused, therefore, as to why the Government feel that November is an appropriate time for this recess, especially given that it does not fit with school half terms—if that is what the Leader of the House was thinking: that people could spend time with their families.

The November recess is not particularly designed to be family time; it is for Members to spend time on important constituency work. Those who seek to take part in the important business that sometimes takes place here on a Friday will know that it is not always easy to find weekdays to spend in the constituency. It is sensible, therefore, to set aside a few days across the year primarily for constituency work.

Will the Leader of the House explain why the Government have not yet given the dates for the Easter recess, and can he guarantee that they will co-ordinate it with the school holiday and not make the same mistake they did with the November recess? Announcing the date would enable Committees to organise their hearings and MPs would be able to plan their time in their constituencies?

We will always do our best to give as much notice as possible, but our prime responsibility, as business managers, has to be to ensure that the Government’s business can be delivered across the Session. We will seek to strike the right balance and provide that information as soon as we practically can.

Back-Bench Business

The introduction of the Backbench Business Committee, as part of the Wright reforms, was a great innovation in the last Parliament. It is for the Committee to schedule business on the days allocated to it in each Session and for the Speaker, Deputy Speaker or Chair of the debate to manage them when they take place.

The Leader of the House has protected Back-Bench business very recently with a scheduled time limit for the debate. What is the policy of the Deputy Leader of the House on doing this? May I encourage her to do it far more often so that Members know when a debate is likely to finish?

I am not exactly sure of the procedure that my hon. Friend refers to. It is usually at the discretion of the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee to indicate the likely times of debates on each topic if the Committee chooses to split up its days. The concept of injury time for all business was considered by the Procedure Committee in the last Parliament, but the Committee agreed with the then Leader of the House that rendering uncertain the time of conclusion of debates in the House would be undesirable.

Leader of the House: Question Time

7. What assessment he has made of whether oral questions to the Leader of the House is an effective use of parliamentary time. (902514)

The oral questions rota is regularly reviewed to ensure that the Government and other answering bodies can be adequately scrutinised, reflecting any machinery of government changes and the quantitative evidence of Members questioning.

I am grateful for my right hon. Friend’s answer, but there are many important issues that need to be raised. Will he consider whether oral questions to the Leader of the House are the best use of time?

I am very tempted by the idea of merging questions to the Leader of the House with business questions, as we seem to cover a lot of the same ground. There are areas of activity where there is a case for allowing more time for scrutiny in the House. I intend to give careful consideration to the matter in the coming weeks. There may well be a case for change.

Has the Leader of the House made any assessment of whether we ought to have more time to put questions to him, given that today, for example, not all Members’ questions on the Order Paper will be reached.

I am very much in favour of all Members having the opportunity. It is a matter of ensuring that we make the best use of parliamentary time and have adequate time for scrutiny. If one listens to the topics covered in this short session today, it is not entirely clear to me why we could not take those as part of business questions and make this 15-minute slot available for another topic, such as Scotland or International Development, where there might be a case for an extended session.

Restoration and Renewal

8. What steps he has taken to assist the work of the Joint Committee on the Palace of Westminster (Restoration and Renewal). (902515)

As a member of both the Joint Committee on the Palace of Westminster and the House of Commons Commission, I have been working closely with fellow members of those Committees to ensure that colleagues in both Houses will be able to consider the recommendations of the Joint Committee in the new year.

Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the Committee does all it can to contain the costs, while ensuring that the House continues to meet within the confines of the Palace?

I agree with my hon. Friend. We have a duty to ensure that we deliver an effective home for our democracy, protect a world heritage site and do that at a cost that is right for the taxpayer. My aim is to avoid a period of change which creates disruption for our colleagues and high cost for the taxpayer, so we are working to find the best balanced solution for all Members.