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29 Oct 2002 : Column 699continued
The present late start in the day dates from an era when MPs were unpaid. The hours were convenient for MPs who could do a day's work in the law courts or the City and still be at the House in time for the main debate. Today, the vast majority of MPs, certainly on the Labour Benches, are full-time professionals. We are paid enough by our constituents for them to expect us to work full-time. Most MPs are now on the precincts in the morning and there is no reason why our sitting hours should not change to reflect that reality.
Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax): I have read the Modernisation Committee reports very carefully and I cannot find any reference to consultation with the staff, who would undoubtedly be affected by changes in sitting hours, or with their trade unions. If I have missed such a reference, will my right hon. Friend point it out?
Mr. Cook: My hon. Friend raises a very important and fair issue. Indeed, the House of Commons Commission discussed it last week. If the Chairman of the Finance and Services Committee catches your eye, Mr. Speaker, he will wish to address the issue. He will be able to assure the House that the Commission has given an undertaking that there will be consultation with the staff on how we go about the changes and that we will want to ensure that no member of staff is disadvantaged.
I want the House to be a responsible employer. Personally, I do not take pride as an employer in hours that require many members of staff to be here late at night and some of them to be here for a number of hours after we have gone home in order that they may complete the day's business.
Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough): I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for mentioning me in dispatches. In the event that I do not catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, may I assure him and the House that the prospects for the staff are of the utmost concern not only to the Commission, but to Members of the House overall? I hope to make a very important contribution on their behalf if I do indeed catch your eye.
Mr. Cook: I think that that was the most elegant note to the Speaker that I have ever heard, but in the event of its being unsuccessful, my hon. Friend has been able to put his very important point on the record.
Mr. Cook: I fully understand that the hon. Gentleman has views on the matter, and I do not expect to find him in my Lobby at the end of today. It is fair to say that the Commission is divided, and I do not believe that I represented it as reaching a common position on the hours. However, we have a common position that if the House votes for change, we must ensure that our staff are consulted and not disadvantaged.
Mr. Cook: Let me continue a little further. Under current arrangements, exchanges in Parliament on major policy take place in the afternoon. We are all professional communicators; no one in the Chamber would plan a press conference for 4 pm. If we are serious about the elected Parliament of the people setting the agenda for public debate, we need to start earlier in the day so that questions, statements and opening speeches are made in the middle of the day rather than when many of our constituents approach the end of their working day.
Every week, I field complaints from the Opposition that the broadcasting media have speculated about the content of a forthcoming statement in the lunchtime bulletins. I agree that Parliament should be the first to hear policy announcements. Such announcements should be made to Parliament at a time when the lunchtime bulletins can report what has been said rather than speculating about what might be said.
Mr. Cook: My hon. Friend makes a fair point, and I join him in deprecating any early release of information. [Interruption.] I have done that repeatedly. The earlier statements are made, the better the chance of ensuring that they are rightly heard first in the Chamber.
Mr. Cook: I am deeply distressed by the suggestion that my proposal might interrupt press lunches. Given that weighty argument, I shall reflect on whether I should proceed with it. Of course, the hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to vote for a 9.30 am start, which the Conservative amendment proposes. I regret that there are practical problems with that, not least for the Speaker's team, which must reach a view about the procedural matters on which they may have to rule when the House sits. I cannot therefore commend the amendment to my colleagues. That is perhaps a pity for the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, because I doubt whether he will receive much support for the proposal.
Mrs. Dunwoody: In view of my right hon. Friend's points, I want to ask him about two matters. First, will he assure us that Ministers will not make all their public statements before 9 am on the various media? My second point relates to my right hon. Friend's proposal about Ministers' ability to make written statements, which deprives us of the right to question them. Will he assure us that Ministers will not make public statements on the media and then put their statements to the House of Commons in writing?
Mr. Cook: I disagree with my hon. Friend's last point. Our proposal on written statements accepts one of the Procedure Committee's recommendations. If she examines its report, she will read that the Committee commends the proposal because it makes such statements more transparent and more convenient for hon. Members. Every week, several written statements are published in Hansard. They are currently disguised as responses to planted questions. Frankly, it is much more open, grown-up, dignified and transparent to be open about their being written statements, and separately identifying them in Hansard, where we could all read them the following day. I regard that as progress.
I understand that many Members will want to continue to work in the precincts in the evenings, long after the House has risen. For their benefit, the Modernisation Committee has recommended that the Library, the Dining Room and other refreshment facilities should continue to be available in the evenings, as at present. I speak as one who once was locked in the Library by a security guard who assumed that all sane Members had gone to bed and was startled to be phoned up by a Member he had taken prisoner. I would not wish any colleague to be locked out of the Library or, for that matter, locked in.
In practice, the majority of Select Committees already meet during sitting hours of the Chamber. Last week, 20 Select Committee meetings were held while the House was sitting, most at a time that would have prevented the members from hearing any statement in the House. I believe that the new hours will be for the convenience of the members of those Committees, because they may use any part of the afternoon after 2 pm, secure in the knowledge that they will also have been able to attend Question Time and the first statement of the day.
I understand and sympathise with the concern of Members that the new sitting hours should not result in restricted access for the public. The Modernisation Committee wants more, not less, access for the public. We do not believe that the Chamber should be shut to the visiting public while we are sitting. That is why we have recommended that the line of route should be adapted so that it can operate while the House is sitting as well as when we are absent. Other Parliaments successfully provide glass-fronted galleries, which enable conducted groups to see the Chamber at work and to listen to guides or MPs without disrupting proceedings. Planning for such an innovation is in hand. Seeing the House while it is sitting, rather than an empty Chamber, will be of much greater educational value to the public and to school children.