Previous SectionIndexHome Page

29 Oct 2002 : Column 702—continued

Mr. McLoughlin: The right hon. Gentleman's motion, if the House passes it, will introduce these changes in January. When will the procedures to allow visitors to view the Chamber come into operation? Obviously, there will be a long delay. When does he expect a glass-fronted gallery to be built so that visitors can see the Chamber?

Mr. Cook: The hon. Gentleman is correct that it will take time to put the changes in place—I would not deny that—but planning has begun, and he is aware of some of the discussions that are taking place. I hope that we will see progress during next year.

Lynne Jones rose—

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) rose—

Mr. Cook: I have already given way to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Lynne Jones), so I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas).

Ian Lucas: A great advantage of the current Tuesday and Thursday sitting hours is that people from constituencies such as Wrexham can travel down the same day, see the House before it sits, visit stunning parts of the House that I was not aware of before I

29 Oct 2002 : Column 703

became a Member, such as the other place and the Robing Room, and then see the House at work at a later hour. My concern about the proposals for Tuesdays and Wednesdays is that all those people who live outside the metropolitan area will have that ability removed from them.

Mr. Cook: I am well aware of the immense attraction of this place as somewhere to visit. Indeed, visitor numbers have increased with each passing year, and I believe that they can continue to do so. I would have thought that the ability to take constituents round the Chamber while we are sitting in circumstances in which what is happening may be explained to them has serious attractions for my hon. Friend. After all, we want this place to be valued not as a piece of architecture or as a place with an interesting museum history, but as the beating heart of a working democratic constitution.

Sir Patrick Cormack rose—

Mr. Cook: The hon. Gentleman has done more to cherish this place as a museum than any other, so I certainly give way to him.

Sir Patrick Cormack: Parties of visitors may be taken round when the House is sitting, but whatever glass menagerie is put up, it will not be possible to take them into the Division Lobby or through the Members' Lobby in the same numbers as now, and the present line of route will have to be changed considerably. As the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) said, if the House of Lords sits at similar hours, parties would not be able to go into the Robing Room and other such places.

Mr. Cook: The House of Lords will have to make its own decision. I believe that there are many ways in which we can make a visit to the House more meaningful and more educational. It is extraordinary that we still have no interpretative visitor centre for people who come here, and one of our key proposals is to ensure that we provide such a service.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) rose—

Mr. Cook: If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I must make progress.

We should not be frightened from change by being apologetic about the hours we work. The British Parliament sits on more days than any of the major European Parliaments. Typically, we sit for 150 days each year compared with an average across Europe of about 100 days. We sit longer than any of the Parliaments in the major commonwealth countries. Whatever the sitting hours of the Chamber, most Members of the House will continue to put in 60 hours of work in most weeks.

For me, the important question is why the Commons should not sit in the morning. I attach much more importance to that question than to the question of when we stop in the evening. I do not think it unreasonable that MPs should be free to leave the building, if they wish, around 7.30 pm after voting. We are all busy people, and most of us will be back at our

29 Oct 2002 : Column 704

desks early the next morning. Against that background, stopping at 7.30 pm can hardly be regarded as some kind of half day.

We should not kid ourselves that the public respect us for our commitment to public service when we stay up well into the night. On the contrary, they often think that it is daft. They see it as further proof that politicians live in a world of their own, and certainly are not representative of normal people.

In its statement of policy, the Conservative party states:

I warmly welcome that outbreak of robust common sense, but it will read rather oddly if the majority of Conservative MPs vote to keep our present abnormal hours. Perhaps they should listen to the views of Conservative voters. Today's poll found that, by a thumping majority of nine to one, voters think that Parliament should sit for the hours that we have proposed. Even among Conservative voters, support for stopping in the evening at 7 pm ran at more than 80 per cent.

The final verdict on the reforms must rest with the public who sent us here. There cannot be a responsible Member of the House who is not concerned about the decline in public respect and esteem for Parliament. At the last election, three out of five voters under 35 failed to vote for any Member in this Chamber. Unless we increase the voting habit of that generation as it grows older, we will be faced with a long-term challenge to the legitimacy of the House.

Many different issues must be tackled if we are to restore faith in party politics as relevant to people's lives. The media could assist by factual reporting of the serious substance of our debates rather than portraying politics as a celebrity-driven soap opera. However, we need to accept responsibility ourselves. Part of the difficulty in engaging those younger voters is that they see our procedures as quaint, our lack of new technology as out of touch, and our working conditions as eccentric. The package before the House will make the Chamber more effective at scrutiny, our proceedings more relevant, and our working conditions more normal.

Of course I recognise that all Members have a deep affection for this place. It is because of that genuine affection for the traditions of the Commons that some Members find it difficult to give up the way in which we have always done business. Those of us who support change do so because of our love of this place. I love the Commons, but I do not want it to dwindle gently into a museum attracting visitors on the strength of its heroic history. I want the Commons to remain the great forum of our nation, in which the views of the public find voice and in which their opinions are heard. I want the Commons to derive its authority from the respect and trust of the public, and because of that authority to remain the crucible in which Governments are forged and are broken. To retain that public support, the Commons must accept reform. I ask all those who share my love of this place to demonstrate it tonight by voting to bring the House into the 21st century.

29 Oct 2002 : Column 705

4.35 pm

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): I am happy immediately to echo and endorse the sentiments expressed by the Leader of the House. It should be understood that there is no difference across the House—nor could there or should there be—in that we all share an interest and commitment in ensuring that this place plays its full and proper part in the parliamentary process. That much we share.

I have not been in the House for as long as the Leader of the House, but I have been around for about 19 years. Indeed, there are those who occasionally accuse me of spending too much time here; I cannot imagine why. That is my commitment to the House. All that I say today will be predicated on my judgment, and that of my right hon. and hon. Friends, as to whether or not the proposed changes enhance the role of the House of Commons vis-á-vis Government. Our principal criterion will be that. It will not be the convenience of Members of Parliament, or even the response to opinion polls. I know how wedded the Government are to opinion polls, focus groups and so on, but however important a role those may play in many people's minds, I do not think that some judgment about the Government's perception of this place should be the definitive factor.

If we consider parliamentary democracies around the world—if we look to the North American continent, to continental Europe and to the continental Parliaments that have chosen to emulate our proceedings and history—we realise the sad truth. No matter how differently those democracies approach their politics in terms of consensus or confrontation, in terms of sitting hours and in terms of behavioural pattern, all around the world electorates are losing faith in the political process.

I do not accept the analysis so often presented to us—the suggestion that if only we can change the image of the House, the electors will come flocking back to the polling booth. I think we can dismiss straight away any notion that if we turn up at 11.30 am instead of 2.30 pm, or 9.30 am, and install glass corridors along which people can walk and see what we are doing, the electorate will be enthused and turn out to vote more often. We must find some other solution.

I want first to draw attention to some of the key phrases in the Select Committee's report. I shall then consider the motion in the name of the Leader of the House and say a few words about the important proposals tabled in my name and those of some of my right hon. and hon. Friends.

Paragraph 7 states:

There is no argument there. We believe that: we believe in the most effective possible parliamentary scrutiny of what the Government of the day are doing, and we seek to strengthen the power of scrutiny.

The report continues—what the Leader of the House has just said echoes this—

29 Oct 2002 : Column 706

I am sure that Members throughout the Chamber can heartily endorse that proposition too. Where we may differ is in our view on whether what the Government—thinly cloaked as the Modernisation Committee on this occasion—propose will make the House of Commons more effective in scrutinising the Government and holding them to account.

According to paragraph 35,

The Leader of the House made much play of that, in support of his proposal for what has come to be known as carry-over or roll-over. I challenge what he has said, at its most fundamental level. He has said that there is a lack of legislative time, meaning that the Government must be able to carry over their Bills from one Session to another. There are a number of flaws in that argument, the most obvious of which is that the Government are actually reducing the amount of time that the House sits. They want to do away with many Friday sittings, and they have already done away with the time after 10 o'clock in the evening, which the Leader of the House and his supporters much derided. The Government have systematically reduced the time available to this legislature for scrutinising legislation and holding the Government to account.

Worse than that, due to the systematic and ruthless programming of Bills—in other words, automatic guillotining—the Government have given themselves lots of time in which to legislate. So the argument that the Government are somehow pressed for time within a Session simply cannot be sustained. Time is freely available to the Government, and if they wanted more time within a Session, they could restore it by reversing all the things that they have already done. The analysis of the Leader of the House therefore holds no water at all.

The current end-of-Session buffer provides some form of discipline on the Government of the day. It forces them to prioritise their legislation, and to propose only those Bills that they believe are important. The Leader of the House wants to remove that discipline, so that the Government can legislate as much as they want, unconstrained by the end-of-Session buffer. That is our principal objection to the idea of roll-over. That good example shows that the right hon. Gentleman's argument—that this proposal will somehow enhance the role of the House simply—cannot be sustained.

Next Section

IndexHome Page