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29 Oct 2002 : Column 783—continued

Kevin Brennan: I have listened with interest to what my hon. Friend says and support much of it, but his last remark is very unfair to those of us who have genuine concerns about the hours. For example, because of the timetable of the Select Committee on which I serve—I did not support the decision, but it was what the majority of its members wanted—I can never get to questions in the House on Thursdays, and I regret that very much. I am not going out to do a second job.

Peter Bradley: There are many competing calls on our time, and we simply cannot do everything that we would like to do; we have to make choices. We will still have to make choices about whether we start at 9.30 or 11.30, or whether we continue to start at 2.30.

I suggest that some hon. Members overlook the changes that have already taken place in society and, indeed, in the make-up of Parliament. We have not heard much—apart from what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West—about those who may not have the interests of Parliament uppermost in their minds. The hours and seasons of our sittings in the House derive from a time when the gentlemen who inherited the right to sit in Parliament and frame the nation's laws—they were men, they were usually gentlemen and they usually inherited the right—spent their mornings in the City, in the courts, in bed, not always their own beds; indeed, sometimes in the beds of fellow Members. In the summer, they spent long months on the grand tour or, indeed, on their estates.

The majority of Members no longer have those kinds of preoccupations, so it is time to change our arrangements, but a substantial majority still have; 24 per cent. of Members have remunerated outside interests. Some of them sit on the Labour Benches; a large majority on the Opposition Benches. I simply say that they should make a choice about whether their priority is serving their constituents in Parliament or collecting their pay cheques in the City. Whatever they decide, they should not have the right to dictate terms to the rest of us who are trying to do a proper job in the House.

I said earlier that these measures should be the beginning and not the end of a process. I have read all J. K. Rowling's novels, and every time I read about Hogwarts, I think of this place—it has the same mysteries, the same magic, and some of the malevolence.

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In fact, as I was looking at the shadow Leader of the House earlier today, I thought that there was no one whom he resembled more than the master of potions, Mr. Snape. If he has not read the book, I suggest that he do so. This is a place of arcane and archaic rituals, which do not enhance but suppress the quality of the debate: they suppress the originality of thought that we should treasure and cherish; they curtail the freedom of debate; and they exclude both the members of the public whom we serve and, as we discussed earlier, too many hon. Members as well.

Those debates are perhaps for another day. I support the programme of the Leader of the House and the Modernisation Committee, which they have discussed long and hard. I hope, however, that we will be assured in the wind-up speeches that that is the beginning of a process—perhaps a long process—and not an end in itself.

9.26 pm

Mr. Wayne David (Caerphilly): I have been a Member of the House for just over a year, and, by and large, I have been very impressed by it. It is undoubtedly a great privilege to be here. There is much to be said about the democratic tradition of which we are all part. There is a great sense of history in the House, the quality of debate is, by and large, of a high standard, and the Executive are held to account to a greater extent than in many other legislatures across Europe and the world.

Our scrutiny of legislation is thorough and comprehensive, and our business is conducted with a high degree of openness and transparency. I therefore conclude that there is not a case for fundamental change to our procedures. The essentials of our parliamentary democracy are sound. That is not to say, however, that there is no room for improvement. The House can be made more effective and more efficient, and the proposals of the Modernisation Committee show us the way forward. I want to focus briefly on some of the proposals.

In this evening's debate, the proposal to change the sitting hours of the House has been the most contentious. It is proposed that sittings on Tuesday and Wednesday should start at 11.30 in the morning and finish at seven in the evening. That is not a new suggestion—suggestions akin to it have been made many times in the past. I was reading in the Library that, in 1930, a Select Committee on the hours of meeting and rising of the House was specially convened, which examined the issue in some detail and concluded firmly:

The reason was given that

Members' priorities have changed somewhat since 1930, and many professional men and women are full-time Members of Parliament. The situation is very different.

There have been other attempts at change since 1930, and all have come to nothing. We now have a golden opportunity. Many arguments have been made today for change. I believe that some of the most convincing arguments have been those in favour of creating a more family friendly atmosphere in the House. I know that all Members have received a circular from the Equal

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Opportunities Commission, which produced firm evidence to show that candidates from all parties—both men and women—have found that the hours of the House are an obstacle to allowing their names to go forward. If we want to create a modern democracy and an institution that represents the people of our country in this new century, we must have systems of work to facilitate the maximum number of people putting their names forward for election. I believe that we live in a representative democracy. The House is the pinnacle of that democracy. It should not be an old man's or gentleman's club. We want a modern institution.

I have heard Members say that it is all well and good having family friendly hours, but only if one lives in London or the south-east. I come from Wales and it would be impossible for me to go home on a Tuesday or Wednesday evening. However, the issue is not about personal self-interest; it is about creating a modern institution that is best for everyone and about opening it up to make it truly representative.

As many Members know, for a decade, I was a Member of the European Parliament. I am sure that they will agree that many things in that Parliament are wrong and need to be profoundly changed. However, one of the good things is the sensible working hours for Members that allow a businesslike, non-clubbish atmosphere to be created. That is positive for democracy. Another positive element of the European Parliament is that, in a revolutionary sense, it produces an annual calendar, so that Members know exactly when they have to be in their places of work. We should definitely agree to such a modest advance.

I am also glad that Members seem to have given majority approval to the idea of having a 10-minute limit on speaking time. That also happens in the European Parliament. Perhaps there will not be so many great flights of oratory or so many Members intoxicated with the exuberance of their own verbosity, but we will have far more Members of the House thinking that they can make a genuine contribution to a debate. Rather than sitting for hours on end hoping and praying to be called, many more Back Benchers will definitely be able to make a contribution. They will be able to tell their constituents that they are here to represent their interests and will be able to show them Hansard to show how they are doing that. That would be a huge and positive step forward.

I wish to make two further points. The development of Westminster Hall as a lively debating chamber should be welcomed. It has been a success. Its atmosphere is special, and is very different from the confrontational atmosphere in this House. It adds to the sense of democracy in this place.

Finally, I wish to refer to the need for parliamentarians to connect with our public. It is incredible that we have not yet got a visitor centre in the House. I am pleased that a study will consider that point, and I have no doubt what the conclusion will be. I am also surprised that groups of constituents do not receive financial support from the House when they have to travel long distances to visit Members. That point should be considered too.

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I am also surprised that we have not learned as much as we could have done from the devolved institutions. For example, the Welsh Assembly, which was only established in 1999, already has a visitor centre, which has proved to be extremely popular. This place should be open on Saturdays, so that members of the public can, at least, look around to see what the mother of Parliaments looks like. We could do one thing that would, in many ways, be symbolic of the change. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has mentioned on many occasions the fact that visitors to this place are referred to as strangers. Let us drop that once and for all and call them visitors and our guests.

The recommendations before us are well thought out and well crafted. I sincerely hope that they will be adopted. They are not about making life easier for Members of Parliament, about reducing our work load or cutting back on our hours. They are about promoting democracy, enhancing accountability and ensuring that the House is seen as relevant by the people of this country. In short, they are about making the House a modern parliamentary institution.

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