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29 Oct 2002 : Column 759—continued

7.53 pm

Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster): There probably is no better example of why speeches should not be time-limited than the contribution by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), the Chairman of what was the Transport, Local Government and the Regions Committee when I was a member. On the other hand, having heard the efforts of the hon. Member for Wirral, West (Stephen Hesford), I can see that 10 minutes can be too long, and having a time limit may keep people on their feet for longer than they should be.

I wanted to speak today because I am an extraordinary person: I am somebody whose father was a Member of the House, so I speak on behalf of the children of Members. That is why I believe that there is great validity in the proposals put forward by the Leader of the House. When people accuse us of being stupid for sitting here late into the night, we have a duty to our electors to defend ourselves against those accusations and to live in the real world—I must say that I find it difficult to live in any other world. Why are we not talking about sitting until 7 o'clock on a Monday as well? We should have consistency, and I rather fear that despite all the sanctimonious comments to which I have been forced to listen throughout this debate, the congestion charge will have far more of an effect on the timetable kept to by Members than anything that is decided today.

One serious proposal is the extra day for Departments to prepare answers to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland questions so that the Government can discuss those answers with the Assemblies and the Scottish Parliament. My problem with the proposal is that, as one knows if one has ever tabled a question on a devolved matter, such questions are rejected. I am therefore curious as to why an extra day is needed for Ministers to decide whether a question is out of order and whether they will answer it. If questions on devolved issues are to be answered, I welcome the proposal, because at the end of the day it is British tax that is divided up under the Barnett formula.

Ian Lucas: May I respectfully suggest that the hon. Gentleman consider his drafting of questions? I regularly table questions on devolved matters, and I have never had a question rejected.

Mr. Wiggin: I suggest that the hon. Gentleman ask real questions about real issues in the Principality because he will find that it is extremely difficult to get a straight answer.

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Ian Lucas indicated dissent.

Mr. Wiggin: Yes it is. However, I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman can ask questions about devolved issues, and I wonder what Assembly Members think of his skills because I am sure that they fiercely defend their right to discuss devolved issues.

It is important to alter the summer recess, and I welcome the Government's suggestions for change. One of the most difficult tasks is to explain to electors why, for two and a half months in the summer, we are unable to put points to the Executive.

One criticism that I have of the proposals concerns the e-mailing of questions. The ability to table questions electronically would be a positive step, but it appears that it will not be possible to table them by e-mail. Instead there will be a special web-based formula. Why cannot we have e-mailing of questions? That is the format that most people would prefer, and we ought to have the most sensible and practical means of sending questions to the Table Office. I am also unhappy about the proposal for a fixed number of written questions for a named day because it would be constructive to have as much flexibility as we can muster.

One aspect of the operation of the House that I find most unpleasant is not tackled. I refer to the Speaker's list and the fact that one does not know when one is to be called or who will speak beforehand. The arrangements in the other House are sensible, and I wish that we would adopt them.

I shall not take my full quota of time because it is important that as many people as possible get to speak. If we could have more practical, positive and flexible opportunities, not only for Back-Bench Members but for all those who seek actively to represent their electors in the way highlighted by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich, we would do something sensible today. Unfortunately we are only tweaking the arrangements, but at least let us change them for our families.

7.57 pm

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore): If you will allow me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I will go straight for the jugular and tackle some of the most controversial issues.

This is not an attack on tradition—we all value tradition—and it is not change for change's sake. This debate should not be called XModernisation of the House of Commons"; its title should refer to efficiency or effectiveness. Modernisation for modernisation's sake is nothing. As parliamentarians, we should be trying to ensure that we have the culture, the environment and the framework to enable us to pass effective legislation on behalf of our constituents.

In contrast to what was said earlier by a speaker whom I greatly admire, my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), I do not regard myself, in this place, as somebody who is different from others. I have always maintained that we are exactly the same as the constituents who send us here. We are here doing a job, a privileged job, as their representatives and as part of them—not as a glorified, strange species that exists in a rarefied environment—and that is how we should present ourselves.

I turn first to one of the most contentious issues: whether we should start earlier and finish at 7 pm on Tuesday and Wednesday. If amendments (a) and (c)

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to motion No. 6 were agreed to, that proposal would be dead in the water. Efficiency is not about how many hours in the day one works. The macho concept that the more hours one works, the more productive one is, is outdated. The Government have led the way in tackling that attitude in industry. Surely it is not beyond the skills of those in this Chamber and of the administrative and support staff to organise our day in such a way that we can effectively carry out our work and still have a home life and be rounded human beings.

Let me restate the example already given of an MP who comes in at 8 o'clock in the morning and starts by opening her mail. At 9 o'clock or 9.30, she proceeds to a Select Committee or a Standing Committee sitting. Around midday, she breaks to meet someone for a cup of coffee—albeit a working cup of coffee—followed by a working lunch with the Church Commissioners. She comes into the Chamber to listen to ministerial statements—she is working very hard indeed—then away she goes for another tranche of Committee sittings. In the evening, she has the superpower to return to the Chamber to listen to the debate, to sit on the Bench for two, three or four hours, and then to contribute a superb speech displaying an intellect that is alive and an energy that is still going after 14 hours. She will not do this on only one day; she will do it on three days. I admire her. She is an example to us all—an example of the most ludicrous way of working I have ever heard of.

The organisation, no matter how busy or self-important it is, should be able to organise its working day more efficiently. The diligent MP I mentioned might be able to boast of the long hours to her constituents and the media, but surely it would be better if she were able to justify her existence by saying XI helped to pass first-class legislation, with a clear head, unclouded by a 14-hour shift—and, by the way, I also have a balanced family life which helps me to make fully rounded decisions."

John Mann (Bassetlaw): I am trying to follow the flow of my hon. Friend's argument about a balanced family life, but take my situation: my family lives in Nottinghamshire. How will the changes enhance my balanced family life?

Huw Irranca-Davies: That is a very good point, which highlights my lack of self-interest as a MP for Ogmore in Wales, a little further down the M4. I will not benefit from those changes either, but I would not deny the benefits to other MPs, and I think that their contribution will be more effective for the changes.

We must be aware that many members of the public do not believe in the fable of the hard-working MP. Instead, they believe in the fable of the old boys club, whose members include the MP who arrives late after his day job in the City.

Linda Gilroy: So persuasive has my hon. Friend been that as an MP for a far-flung constituency who started her day by representing the interests of her local airport in an Adjournment debate this morning, who wants to take part in the Adjournment debate on fireworks, and who has sat here for five and a half hours waiting to be

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called—making one or two interventions in the meantime—I now intend to listen to his speech, but then leave the Chamber to work on preparation in my office rather than remain here to speak.

Huw Irranca-Davies: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Perhaps I will answer some of the points she raises during the rest of my speech.

As I was saying, many people do not believe the fable of the hard-working MP, expecting Parliament to be an old boys club, in which the MP turns up late in the day after working in the City, shows his face in the Chamber, perhaps contributes to the debate, and then disappears. We know that that is not the truth, do we not? None the less, that is how we are perceived outside. The House of Commons has many fine traditions, but blind adherence to nonsensical long hours is not one of them. What about the tradition before 1570, when Parliament met from 8 am to noon; or the tradition dating from 1650 to 1700, when the House met at 8, 9 or 10 o'clock in the morning; or the tradition of sitting on Saturdays, which came to an end only in the 1730s, so that Sir Robert Walpole could have at least one day's hunting a week? Fine traditions all, but I am glad that we have got rid of some of them.

A survey showed that over the summer—the long summer recess—the Houses of Parliament were the No. 1 visitor attraction in the whole of the United Kingdom. I therefore welcome making Parliament more visitor friendly—a place in which my constituents might learn about the workings of the House, not just about the long tradition and the pageantry. We must change the emphasis from ancient to contemporary, from pageant to working government, and from the past to at least the present.

The hours must be changed to reflect modern working practices. That does not mean that we will clock out at 7 o'clock in the evening. I urge the Government to propose ways in which after 7 o'clock we could make constructive use of the Chamber, Westminster Hall and elsewhere in the Palace. There should be no compulsion on MPs to participate into the evening—that would fly in the face of everything I have said—but there should be scope to make use of these fine buildings and the facilities, to argue more in Adjournment debates and to bring Ministers to the House. We could win the PR battle about the old boys club operating here, but be in danger of losing the next one, which starts when the media turn around and say that the changes are all about letting MPs clock off at 7 o'clock. We need to counter that with effective proposals on how to make use of the evening.

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