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29 Oct 2002 : Column 750—continued

7.18 pm

Stephen Hesford (Wirral, West): May I begin what I hope is a short speech by referring to what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Anne Picking), who is not in her place now, as she suggested the way forward? My hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) said that there was an element of self-indulgence in some of this, and I agree, having listened to some of the contributions so far. However, I am open to doubt about whether it is self-indulgence for the reasons that he mentioned or whether it is a question of self-importance. Should we not focus on what is effective, relevant and representative?

Listening to the views of some of my constituents, I do not believe that defending some of the traditions of the House speaks for them. When they come up to me at constituency meetings, they ask, XStephen, how often are you down there? You work through the night, do you? You are there till 10 o'clock." They do not mean, XYou're my hero, you're fantastic, what stamina you must have, I voted for you because you're a muscle man"—[Laughter.] The House has reformed its procedures over the years, as has been mentioned. My right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), who is no longer in his place, said that

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changing the practices in this place would not make us more representative. I disagree. It would make us more recognisable to the people out there whom we represent.

Some of the major changes in Parliament, such as guillotining of business, were made in the 19th century. I am sure that, in debates at the time, Members claimed that an ancient tradition of Parliament was being taken away. The then Liberal Government introduced programming motions and guillotines to deal with Irish Members—Parnell and others—who were filibustering simply to gum up business. It cannot be right that the House cannot reform itself. That is the purpose of the proposals, and I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and all those involved on bringing them forward. This may never have been a popular subject in the House, certainly among those who have served here for many years, perhaps for a good reason—perhaps a feeling of loss, because it is what they knew as lads—but I say, XGet a life, move on, let's modernise ourselves."

The hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell) made what was, in some senses, an entertaining speech, but it did not entertain me; nor did it entertain some of my hon. Friends. He talked about Members who spoke with distinction, and he named three people, all of whom were men.

Mr. Robin Cook: He couldn't stand Thatcher.

Stephen Hesford: My right hon. Friend says that the hon. Gentleman could not stand Thatcher, and many people in the House would agree with that sentiment.

Mr. Wiggin: Sexist.

Stephen Hesford: The hon. Gentleman says that that is sexist, but sadly, the speech of the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle, which might otherwise have been considered entertaining, contained an element of sexism. It was an old-fashioned lads' speech about a lads' club that should not be changed.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien: The hon. Gentleman will recall that I had the privilege of listening to his extensive contribution on the Mersey Tunnels Bill recently. It was an example of a particular type of speech, which, I am glad to say, is not overused in this House. He nearly persuaded me to join him in the Lobbies on the issue of very short speeches.

Stephen Hesford: I am not sure what the relevance of that intervention was.

I want to pick up on two other matters, and I shall not repeat what other Members have said. One is from personal experience—mention was made of me going to the gym. As Members may know, I broke my leg earlier this year while playing for the parliamentary football team—

Mrs. Browning: How many women are in the parliamentary football team?

Stephen Hesford: The hon. Lady may be surprised to know that there are several women in the squad.

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In terms of notice for oral questions, I agree that the time limit of 10 working days or two weeks should be shortened. When I was incapacitated and had to rest in my constituency, my constituents were saying seriously, XStephen, you can't go down there, you can't travel, you can't move. How can you take part?" The answer, even in the 21st century, was that I could not take part, although I could table written questions. I suggest that in these days of video links, telephone conferencing and so on—this goes beyond the recommendations, so, in some ways, I am saying that the recommendations do not go far enough—

Mr. Forth: Come on.

Stephen Hesford: The shadow Leader of the House says XCome on", but let us think about dragging ourselves into the 21st century.

My main point is that if we do not reform ourselves, we do not make ourselves relevant to members of the public outside. I want to argue that point particularly in relation to female representation—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) says from a sedentary position that that is rubbish. Would she like to intervene and explain why?

Mrs. Browning: It is rubbish because men have families, too, and fathers in families are just as important as mothers.

Stephen Hesford: I am sure that the hon. Lady will agree—I thought that the Conservatives had realised this, being more caring and sharing these days—that her party needs more female candidates and more ethnic minority candidates. One of the reasons people are put off being Members of Parliament is the lifestyle.

Mrs. Dunwoody: Will my hon. Friend tell me how many seats there are in which the Labour party has difficulty in assembling a shortlist of candidates when there are vacancies?

Stephen Hesford: It is a question not of assembling a shortlist but of translating that into female representation in the House.

Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale): Is my hon. Friend suggesting that female Members do not want to work long hours? When I became a Member of Parliament, I realised that it was much more than a job—it was a way of life. My constituents come first. We should not be trying to cram all our business into shorter hours, as we will lose out, particularly if we go ahead with the proposals for Tuesday and Wednesday nights.

Stephen Hesford: I have only a minute left, and I want to draw the House's attention to a letter—I do not know whether every Member received it, but I hope that they did—sent out by the chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission.

Mr. Forth: Oh!

Stephen Hesford: Why does the right hon. Gentleman make a male chauvinist representation on all these

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issues? [Interruption.] I am sure that he will regard that as a compliment. The letter, from Julie Mellor, says that Members' attendance for the debate could mean

That would be a great lost opportunity to expand the representation in this Parliament.

7.30 pm

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough): It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Wirral, West (Stephen Hesford), who, I suppose, has proved why we need a time limit on speeches. I do not understand what he was going on about when he said that he was not able to speak in this place. I broke my leg in two places last week, and I am still managing to speak. It is not that difficult. I agree that the Opposition Benches are not exactly filled with retired VCs and major-generals, but we can still hop along and make a speech.

May I say to the Leader of the House that his appointment was a brilliant one? He is proving to be one of the best Leaders of the House that we have ever had. He is totally committed to this place. He loves it, as we all do. I have been here for only 19 years compared to his 30, and I will surprise him by saying that I agreed with much of what he said.

Quite a lot of myths have been expressed in the debate. We have heard some very good and amusing speeches. For example, we heard from the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), and it is true that Winston Churchill made some truly tremendous speeches, but most of them were delivered when he was Prime Minister or the Leader of the Opposition, so they would not have been affected by the proposed time limit. Let us be realistic. In the 1930s, when he spoke on the Government of India Act 1935 and on other matters, he spoke to a House that was nine tenths empty.

However, I accept the right hon. Gentleman's point—I hope that the House will take it on board—that there will be occasions when a limit should not apply. For example, in a defence debate on a matter of national security it would be absurd to limit a Back-Bench speech from a former Defence Secretary to eight or 10 minutes and perhaps prevent him from making a valuable contribution based on his personal experience. Mr. Speaker and his Deputies must have discretion to allow some Members to speak at greater length.

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