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29 Oct 2002 : Column 709—continued

Caroline Flint (Don Valley): I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way, and I hope to catch your eye on this point later, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I represent a seat in south Yorkshire and live there with my family as well. One of the difficulties in the debate is that we all have different types of family: some of us have children,

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some do not; some of us live in London, some do not and some of us have constituencies nearby while some do not. It is not possible to have Xone size fits all", but we can give greater meaning to the parliamentary week. If, when I go home at the end of the week, I am not tired because of sitting here until 10 or 11 o'clock at night, but have had a reasonable working day instead, I can better be a good mother to my family as well as a good MP to my constituents.

Mr. Forth: Far be it from me to comment on the hon. Lady's stamina. [Interruption.] I do not believe that such a consideration should be a principal determinant of the hours that we sit. When I came here in the 1980s as an obscure Government Back Bencher—admittedly as a much younger man—I was here very late a lot of the time, and I adapted and adjusted to that. [Interruption.] It has made me what I am today. Although that is a factor—indeed, all these matters are factors that we must consider—I do not believe that it should be the main determinant in deciding how we sit or work.

Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow): I recognise that that is not the main or determinant factor, but does the right hon. Gentleman concur that if Members have responsibility for families, working from 9 am to 11pm or midnight precludes having a life of any description? Of the 30 Members of Parliament on the Benches directly behind him, only two are women. We know of one Member who resigned recently because of this issue, so making our democracy more representative should be a factor that flits across colleagues' minds when they vote.

Mr. Forth: Of course that is a factor and each Member will decide how important it is to them in the context of their parliamentary work and their parliamentary duties. I have no difficulty with that proposition.

Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Forth: I will, but I really want to move on. I said that I did not want to get too bogged down in this issue and I meant it; but it is obvious that it is very much on the minds of Members, so I shall give way to my hon. Friend. However, I want to make progress.

Gregory Barker: I have three young children, who live in the constituency with my wife. I do not know what time Labour Members put their children to bed, but if we do not finish voting until 7.30, what time during a school week could we go home to see our children even if they lived in London? It is complete nonsense to say that the proposals are family friendly; they are about slacking off to go to the theatre or do whatever else Members might want to do, rather than being in this place holding the Government to account as our constituents expect of us.

Mr. Forth: I am grateful to my hon. Friend because he illustrates well the range of views that Members bring to

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this matter. That probably explains the wide range of responses to the survey carried out by the Leader of the House.

Mr. Kaufman: The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) said that if changes were made it would be easier for us to go to the theatre, so I am rapidly being converted to new hours for the House.

However, does the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) agree that it is bizarre to the point of being ultra-ludicrous to suggest that there is any way whatever that we can reform the hours or procedures of this place so as to turn being a Member of Parliament into a job comparable with any other job?

Mr. Forth: I am most grateful to the right hon. Gentleman.

I want to wrap up this part of my speech and move on. One of the conceptual difficulties that I have with the debate is that many Members seem to want to compare both our role and our environment with those in an office block or a factory. They see the House as a place where we clock in, pass as much legislation as possible and clock off.

Mrs. Mahon rose—

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate) rose—

Mr. Forth: I shall give way in a moment, but I want to move on.

The debate illustrates—as it needs to do—our approach to our role in this place and, equally important, how we see the role of Parliament and of the House of Commons vis-á-vis the Government of the day. I do not see this place as a legislative factory and I do not believe that we should measure ourselves by the ease with which the Government get their way—quite the opposite. My avowed intention in this place is to make life as difficult as possible for the Government in order to try to ensure that what they do is properly scrutinised and that they are properly held to account.

Mrs. Mahon: I want to try to be helpful. In the real world, people outside this place work nights; they work shifts. Factories work 24 hours a day. Dare I mention firefighters, nurses, the police and local authority workers? May I also kill the myth about people not wanting to work in this place until 10 pm? I am sure that hon. Members will agree that for many women that is the only time that they can work. When my children were small, I worked at nights—12 hours a night—for many, many years.

Mr. Forth: I am grateful to the hon. Lady; she brings a rounded perspective to the matter. Many people outside would find this debate bizarre. People are often forced to work unsocial hours—sometimes through choice, but not always. In a funny way, if we work the occasional unsocial hour, we reflect the life style of many people outside. The idea that everybody Xout there" works a neat nine-to-five day and thinks that we are a bit odd for working in the evening strikes me as strange.

Glenda Jackson: Surely one of the incomparable differences about the unsocial hours that the House

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works is the fact that it is unusual in other workplaces to find subsidised drink, subsidised food and television sets that are almost invariably tuned to sports programmes—almost exclusively football. If the right hon. Gentleman and, indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) are confusing work with waiting until the Division bell sounds, I have to say, as a woman, that that is the antithesis of work.

Mr. Forth: The hon. Lady gives a very interesting description of the lifestyle of her colleagues. I, for one, will not intrude at all on that analysis, but it stands on the record and will return to haunt her—and them, I have no doubt—in future.

I want to move on as rapidly—

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West) rose—

Mr. Forth: I really do want to move on, because I want to go quickly through the resolution in the name of the Leader of the House, which sets the framework for today's debate. At this point I can switch to positive mode, which we are urged to do these days, and present the smiling face of the Opposition, because I want to stress that we agree with a number of factors, and many of the phrases, in the resolution.

Of course we welcome

The only thing that I regret is the cautious tone. I should have preferred it if the Leader of the House had said, XWe will publish all Bills in advance for pre-legislative scrutiny unless, as an exception, some sort of unusual or emergency circumstances preclude that". I would prefer it to be done in that way, but we will take at face value what the Leader is saying here and we welcome it, because we want more pre-legislative scrutiny and we believe that that will help us in our duties.

I wish that I could believe that there will be Xmore flexibility in programming" of Bills. If the Leader of the House is prepared to have discussions with us in the usual way about the proper scrutiny of Bills in Committee, we shall be more than willing to participate in those discussions. The difficulty that we have with what has happened recently is with the ruthless, routine timetabling and guillotining of Bills, so that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) said a short time ago, so many of them are not properly scrutinised.

We also enthusiastically endorse sittings in September because it will give the House more opportunity to hold the Government to account instead of giving the Government the free ride that they have traditionally had for two and a half months during the summer. I am still intrigued, although I will not press the point at this stage, as to why what we thought was three weeks of Government agony in September has suddenly slipped to two, but that perhaps is too obvious to need further comment or analysis.

We will be proposing that the House meets at 9.30; I have given my rationale for that. We will seek to oppose the idea of written ministerial statements, which, although it appears to be a technicality, seems to give some sort of endorsement to the idea that Ministers should do more and more by written statement instead

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of coming to the House and being accountable by giving oral statements. We will oppose the carrying over of Bills, for the reasons that I gave, and we will oppose the absurdity of deferred Divisions, which again we are being asked to endorse this evening, and programming, because we want to continue to make the point that we believe that these matters are wrong and diminish the effectiveness of the House and of parliamentary scrutiny.

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