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29 Oct 2002 : Column 762—continued

Mr. McCabe: Am I right in thinking that my hon. Friend wants to constrain the normal working day, but then create extra space for new activities? What is the value of that?

Huw Irranca-Davies: I will tell my hon. Friend what the value is. It is unbelievable to me that our organisation is supposed to represent the best in democracy, yet we cannot organise our core business to happen at times that other people recognise as the core working day. What else can we do in the evening? I can give one fine example—youth activities, with youth

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parliaments and young people getting involved in our democratic processes—and I am sure that our talented Ministers can produce others.

The changes will allow Parliament better to set the news agenda for the day, and I do not rubbish that, but that will not be of benefit only to the Government. It will be of benefit to the Opposition if the press have more time to digest and analyse their responses—okay, perhaps there is a flaw in my argument and that is not such a good idea, but it will give more time for the quiet man to be heard.

Amendment (d) to motion 3 suggests a more radical option of commencing at 9.30 am. I am sympathetic to that proposal, but in this tradition, at this stage, I think it is a step too far. Many hon. Members, myself included, find that the initial part of the day is useful for preparation for speeches. However, I believe that the case for an earlier start will become clear in the near future, especially if we have the evenings in which to prepare.

Amendment (b) to motion 4 proposes a twice-weekly session of topical questions. My name is on that amendment, and I welcome the fact that it is being debated on the Floor of the House, but my colleagues will excuse me if I do not support it. The Procedure Committee unanimously agreed that it should be debated, and that is right and proper, but allowing questions to be submitted with three days' notice will guarantee a far greater element of topicality than we currently have.

I am running out of time, so I will skip part of my speech. The production of a calendar a year in advance is so obviously needed that I am surprised that we are discussing it only now, in 2002. An earlier finish on Thursday would be most useful to MPs who serve constituencies further afield than the home counties—I would certainly welcome the opportunity to get back to my family a little earlier. The additional week at Christmas or Easter that I can use in my constituency will be a tremendous advantage to any modern-day MP.

The change to the summer recess has considerable advantages in terms of media and public perception. It is right that we should return earlier, then break for the conference season. It is also right that we should break a little earlier for the summer recess, which will enable me to visit schools and talk to youngsters about how my role is important to them.

I close by paying tribute to the members of the Modernisation Committee and the Procedure Committee and to all those who have contributed to the debate. To vote against the proposals would be to send a message to our constituents and the public at large that we are more concerned with tradition than with good government. To support the changes shows that the House is moving from the medieval to the modern. I commend the proposals.

8.8 pm

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): The hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) has given one of the most illogical speeches that I have heard this evening. He prays in aid of modernisation the practices of the past, yet in the past there was very little legislation. It is the sheer volume of legislation that we have to deal with today that dictates the hours that I believe we have to sit.

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With a 12-minute allowance, he said that he had to skip a number of pages of his lengthy speech, yet he argues in favour of a 10-minute allowance for speeches, which would ensure that there would be almost no debate at all.

Tonight we have heard some tremendous examples of what the House of Commons can provide. We have heard bravura performances from my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell) and, in his own and different way, from the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle), who was robust in dealing with interventions. However, we will not have any interventions if we are to have only 10-minute speeches.

Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, Cathcart): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Michael Fabricant: I shall give way to this one because I am sure that it will be a good 'un.

Mr. Harris: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the first-class speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) may well never have been delivered if it was not for the 12-minute limit on Back-Bench Members' speeches? That is the fact that surely every Back-Bench Member should welcome.

Michael Fabricant: The hon. Gentleman misses the point. It is up to the Speaker, the Deputy Speaker and the Chairmen's Panel to do just that. It is up to the Speaker to determine how many Members have asked to be called. Time limits on speeches can then be set to allow those Members to speak. The Leader of the House is suggesting that there be 10-minute limits, and that is just plain wrong.

Several hon. Members rose—

Michael Fabricant: I will not take a series of interventions because there is a time limit on speeches.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) asked the most profound question of all. She asked whether the proposals advance the ability of the legislature to question the Executive and call it to account. Will the legislature be better able to scrutinise legislation? I think that the answers to these questions are no. These proposals are all about making life easier for right hon. and hon. Members.

Some of the motions are good. For example, I think that the motions to introduce topicality will do considerable good. They will improve Parliament and make us more relevant. However, we must be clear about relevance and how we are perceived by the population. This evening, many Members have said that in the United Kingdom, in the United States and even in Australia, where there is compulsory voting, the numbers of people casting a vote, as opposed to turning up at a polling station, are falling. That is because Members and their legislatures are not seen as relevant.

I do not believe that any of the proposed changes, apart from those relating to topical questions, will improve the perceived relevance of the House.

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Going home at 7 o'clock and not properly scrutinising legislation will not improve the perceived relevance of this place.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the matter of topical questions. Does he agree that perhaps the one positive thing that we are discussing is handing back to Back-Bench Members some authority over the timings of the House, which at present is almost exclusively in the hands of the Executive of the day?

Michael Fabricant: My hon. Friend is right. For that reason I shall be supporting his amendment. His Committee recommended that there be topical questions on Tuesdays and Thursdays. It is interesting and, indeed, revealing that the Leader of the House chose to ignore that suggestion.

I agree with some hon. Members who would say that the Leader of the House is probably one of the best that we have had in 10 or 20 years, but I think that he insulted the House by a most extraordinary display at the opening of the debate. He said—Hansard will record this—XIf you vote for my proposition, on Thursday I will reward you by telling you when your Christmas holidays are, when your spring holidays are and when your summer holidays are." What a bribe, and what an insult to the integrity of right hon. and hon. Members—

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

Michael Fabricant: I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman.

What an insult. The right hon. Gentleman thought that we could be bribed so easily. That is dreadfully wrong.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) talked about there not being captains of industry in this place. There are many reasons for that, but none that has anything to do with the number of hours that we sit. I like to think that I have made a contribution to this place—others have made many other valuable contributions—but such contributions are not confined to what we do in the Chamber. Contributions are also made in Select Committees.

I am well aware that the Leader of the House said that 20 Select Committees meet when the House is sitting. However, the proposition that important Select Committees, such as the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, on which I serve, which is ably chaired by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), should sit at a time when there are questions and statements is absolutely wrong. It is bad enough already that we have to make the choices that we do. It is completely wrong that we should find ourselves in a situation where the House is weakened still further by Members being unable to be in the Chamber.

What alternatives are being planned? The second bribe that is offered by the Leader of the House is when he says, XDon't worry, we shall turn Parliament into a gentlemen's and gentle ladies' club. The House will not be sitting after 7 o'clock, but don't worry. The bars will still be open, as will the restaurants." I understand that

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the hon. Lady for Oscars, the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson), would go still further. It seems that we shall have a cinema club. In fact, we shall all be able to go out and enjoy the cinema. No doubt that is being encouraged by the Whips on both sides of the House to ensure, as my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle said, that the legions of people, as in XFidelio", do not go out trawling the streets for goodness knows what.

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