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29 Oct 2002 : Column 737—continued

Mr. Tyler: I hope that the hon. Gentleman, with his usual fairness, has read the recommendations. A standard 10-minute limit on speeches is not proposed. The proposal is more elastic. It gives discretion to the Chair, but provides that the norm should be 10 minutes when there is pressure of time on a debate.

Sir Patrick Cormack: The recommendations give very little discretion to the Chair. Frankly, the hon. Gentleman is one to talk: he rabbited on for 20 minutes today and finds it very difficult to keep to a limit.

Mr. Bryant: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Sir Patrick Cormack: No, as I want to develop my arguments and deal with the main point, which is my reason for opposing this recommendation. Those hon. Members who have been here for a long time know that I like to give way. I enjoy the cut and thrust of debate, and like to be able to answer interventions. That is a good thing to be able to do, but it is very difficult when one labours under a limit.

I want to finish my speech in less than 12 minutes, so that other hon. Members can contribute. In the time left, I want to concentrate on the recommendation with regard to hours. It is true that, in the past, the House has sat at different times. It used to begin early in the morning in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, but in those days the Chamber was paramount. There were Committees, but nowhere near as many as now. In those days, hon. Members did not suffer from anything like as many conflicts, and their constituency work load was nowhere near as great as it is today.

I enter my office never later than eight in the morning, but even then I find it difficult to cope with all the demands on my time so that I can get to the Chamber at 2.30 pm. The hon. Member for East Lothian, as she spends more time in the House, will find that she becomes more involved in a variety of matters. My work in the House has caused me to be involved with heritage bodies and other organisations, and I have found that people—reasonably and properly—want to see me. They want to discuss with me the issues in which they are involved, and I need to have time for them to do so.

Moreover, I like to sit on Select Committees. At the moment, I am a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, but I had to say that I could not attend this afternoon's sitting. I consider the Chamber to be of paramount importance, and I felt that I had to be here for this debate. If we move to the new hours, that conflict of loyalties will be increased by factors of 10 or 100 for some hon. Members.

There is nothing to be said in favour of moving to the proposed new hours on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. I was not terribly happy about the change made to Thursdays, but it is now part of the parliamentary

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calendar and I accept it. I shall vote for the proposal that the House finish its business at 6 pm on Thursdays because I reluctantly accept that the House will not do away with the experiment.

Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme): The hon. Gentleman is fair minded and independent, but the shadow Leader of the House has proposed that it is logical to start proceedings at 9.30 in the morning. Several hon. Members have cast aspersions on the motives of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) in apparently wishing to out-modernise the modernisers. Does the hon. Gentleman think that the right hon. Gentleman really believes that the House should sit at 9.30 am?

Sir Patrick Cormack: I would no more seek to answer for my right hon. Friend than he would seek to answer for me. He must answer for himself. As I said during his speech, I disagree with him. I believe the proposal to start at 9.30 in the morning is profoundly wrong. I shall not support it, and I would not do so even if a three-line Whip were imposed.

I believe that being a Member of Parliament is not a job. It is a way of life and a vocation to public service. We are not here to serve our personal convenience or to pander to the media's every demand. We are here to be the tribune of the people, and must serve at whatever hours are reasonable. I do not object to the move by the Leader of the House towards ending the practice of sitting very late into the night, but we are here to serve our constituents, as the hon. Member for East Lothian said, and to debate the great issues of the day. Most of all, we are here to hold the Government to account and to scrutinise legislation. We shall reduce our ability to do those things if we accept these recommendations.

Some hon. Members have said that parliamentarians are not the flavour of the month, and that people do not attach to the Chamber the same importance that they once did. One reason for that is that hon. Members have become increasingly toothless over the years.

I have made many speeches in the House—from the Opposition Dispatch Box and from both Opposition and Government Benches. I have criticised Governments of both parties. My right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House is the best example in history of a gamekeeper turning poacher, but as a Minister he did not like to be held to account much. He was as brilliant on his feet as a Minister as he is as an Opposition spokesman, but circumstances change cases.

I have been in the House for more than 30 years—not as long as my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle—and in that time Parliament has become increasingly subject to the whims and caprices of the Executive. If we approve the proposed changes, we shall be giving up many of our freedoms as Back Benchers. We shall reduce still further the Chamber's influence on the nation's affairs.

Earlier, I mentioned the need to meet and talk to people from outside the House. I see nothing wrong with the possibility that some of those conversations might take place over lunch. Under the proposals, there will be no lunch hour. Those hon. Members who, like, me, want to be here on a Thursday, when the House sits at 11.30 am, have breakfast at about 11 and go through

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the day without a break. That happened last Thursday: many of us sat in the Chamber through the whole day as the House debated local government finance. The proposed hours will deprive many people outside the House of the opportunity to talk to and influence hon. Members. If we are truly to serve the people of the nation, we must be available much more readily than the proposals will allow.

The Modernisation Committee's report is like the famous curate's egg—good in parts. Several of the proposals will improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the parliamentary institution. I support those proposals wholeheartedly. However, if adopted, the limit on speeches and, more importantly, the change in hours would make Parliament much less influential in a relatively short period of time.

There will be also knock-on effects for those who serve us here. They will not have quite the life that they have now. The hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) was right to speak about the unanimity of the Commission in wanting to do everything possible to cushion staff from the effects of change, but effects there will be and they will not be to those people's advantage. I urge hon. Members not to support those proposals.

6.38 pm

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton): The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) spoke about the House making greater contact with the electorate. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House spoke about how the House needed to reflect a rapidly changing society. The hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) said that the electorate should not feel that we were out of touch with people and that what we did was irrelevant.

If our constituents heard this debate, they would be amazed at its self-absorption and introversion. They want hon. Members to debate and decide the issues of the day. Some Labour Members will disagree with me but, regardless of what they and Opposition Members think, I believe that it is not our working practices that fail to engage with people or cause reduced polls in elections, it is what we in this House do and fail to do.

People are worried about the legislation that we pass and the issues that we discuss. They do not care about amendments to Standing Orders that might turn one set of gobbledegook to another. They care about what we do. I stay in this House because I want to participate in changing the lives of my constituents for the better and to participate with colleagues in debating the issues of the day. That does not mean that I necessarily agree with my colleagues. In addition to being a legislature, this House is a forum. If it is a forum, it has to have proper debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) may say many things with which I disagree; my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Kelvin (Mr. Galloway), who is not here at the moment, may say many things with which I disagree; but it is essential that they have the chance to say them—and it is essential that they have the chance to say them in a way that could change minds in the House, but also communicate with people outside.

I support many of the proposals, but I am worried that some will make a genuine exchange of ideas in the House less possible. My hon. Friend the Member for

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East Lothian (Anne Picking) spoke about the need for meaningful debate. She is absolutely right about that. Indeed, what is happening this very evening has given us an opportunity to witness the way in which meaningful debate in the House is being eroded and damaged. My hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) did not take interventions; other Members did not take interventions, even with compensatory time, because they cannot look at the digital clock the whole time. That being so, genuine debate in the House obviously calls for self-discipline. We do not necessarily want Members making speeches of 20, 30 or 40 minutes, but to confine them to an arbitrary time limit on the basis of a mandatory time limit, as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House proposes, will damage genuine debate.

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