GETTING AN EARLY START
54. There is nothing sacrosanct about the times of
sitting of the House. They have changed over history to accommodate
shifts in social custom and business practice. In the past decade
there have been a number of amendments at the margins in response
to the Jopling Report
and subsequent proposals.
55. In reforming the hours of Parliament, the important
consideration is not whether they will be more convenient for
MPs but whether they will enable MPs to do their job more effectively.
The package we propose will broadly maintain the present volume
of sitting hours from Monday to Thursday. The objective is not
that MPs should do any less but that they should be able to do
their job better.
56. The House of Commons does not sit until well
into the afternoon. The major debate of the day is in effect an
evening debate often not starting until half-past four and sometimes
even later. Historically this was convenient in an era when MPs
were unpaid and Members could do a day's work in the City or in
the courts and still be present for the start of main business
in the House. Overwhelmingly the modern House consists of full-time
MPs who are on the precincts from early morning and are often
at work in Standing or Select Committees. But the hours of Parliament
have not changed to reflect that substantial change for the better
in the character of parliamentary representation.
57. The problem with the traditional times of sitting
is that major events such as statements, Prime Minister's Questions,
or opening speeches come quite late in the normal working day.
As a result parliamentary events do not set the day's agenda of
public debate as often as they should, but frequently respond
to an agenda that has already been set before the House meets.
At the other end of the day the principal vote in the Commons
comes at night. The consequence is that the key votes in the House
of Commons cannot be adequately reported on the same day or be
covered in most editions of the morning papers on the next day.
58. The proposals on sitting hours in the Leader's
Memorandum on Modernisation
attracted more responses from Members than any other section.
The views expressed reflected a wide range of opinion from complete
support to total opposition. We have had to conclude that there
is no prospect of securing consensus to any arrangement of sitting
hours, including the status quo.
59. In approaching our proposals for modernisation
of sitting times we have been guided by two objectivesto
make the sitting hours of the Commons effective and consistent.
To be effective it is necessary for the House of Commons to make
more use of the earlier part of the day. To be consistent it is
desirable for each day to follow, as much as is practical, the
same pattern of hours.
60. We recommend that on Tuesday, Wednesday and
Thursday the House should sit at 11.30 a.m. for oral questions.
Any statement would therefore be taken at 12.30 pm and we hope
would normally last for around an hour, enabling opening speeches
to commence around 2.00 pm. As a result, the principal events
in the parliamentary day would take place earlier and would have
a better opportunity to set the agenda of public debate and media
reporting. This would include the opening speeches of the day
which would be rescued from the relatively late hour of the day
in which they are made. We discussed the desirability of sitting
at 9.30 am from Tuesday to Friday but this view did not find favour
with the majority on the Committee.
61. Strictly speaking, it is not necessary for the
Commons to rise earlier in the evening if it is to sit earlier
in the morning. It would be possible for the House to sit even
longer hours and retain the present closing time. Yet the Commons
already sits on more days and for longer hours than nearly every
other chamber in the democratic world. Its sitting hours are the
longest of any chamber in the European Union. There is no compelling
reason why a more efficient Commons should sit still longer hours.
62. Nor would it reflect the changing composition
of the modern Parliament. Parliament now attracts MPs at a younger
age and with a better, although inadequate, balance between the
genders. This is a welcome improvement in Parliament's representation
of the diversity of our nation. However, if this trend is to continue,
Parliament must join other modern workplaces in seeking to ensure
that its working practices allow people a healthier work-life
balance. As the Equal Opportunities Commission observed in their
evidence to us, "While recognising the unique responsibilities
MPs carry, it is unhelpful in engaging voters in the democratic
process if the impression is given that becoming an MP is incompatible
with family responsibilities".
63. The timing of sittings should be selected to
make Parliament effective, not to make life easier for MPs. However,
there is no reason why sitting hours should be more inconvenient
or more disruptive of family life than absolutely necessary. We
recommend that main business should end on Tuesdays and Wednesdays
at 7.00 pm. On Thursdays main business should end at 6.00 pm which
would better enable Members to travel that evening to their constituencies.
We recommend that sitting hours on Mondays remain as at present
in order that Members have good time in which to travel down from
their constituencies and that the same sitting hours should apply
on the first day back after a recess if that should be a Tuesday
or Wednesday. These new hours do not represent any change
to the total number of hours of sitting on the four main days
of business which would remain broadly constant. The majority
of British MPs turn in a working week of over sixty hours and
will continue to do so whatever times are chosen for sittings
of the House.
64. Changes to the sitting hours in the Chamber will
require consequential changes for other parliamentary procedures,
such as meetings of Select Committees, Standing Committees and
Westminster Hall. It is already established practice for all of
these to meet during sitting hours in the Chamber and the problem
of overlap need not be exaggerated. Apart from exceptional moments
such as Prime Minister's Questions most MPs are already engaged
in parliamentary work outside the Chamber for most sitting hours.
Indeed both Westminster Hall and committees already accommodate
the earlier sitting hours on Thursdays.
65. We recommend that committees and Westminster
Hall should not meet during Question Time or statements. We
can see a positive benefit in the new sitting hours for committees,
as their members will be able to attend Question Time, statements
and even opening speeches and still be able to commence a committee
sitting earlier in the afternoon than at present. We attach a
schedule which provides an example of possible sitting hours for
committees and Westminster Hall.
66. Just as most Members are on the precincts in
the morning before the Chamber sits under its present hours, we
recognise that many Members will remain on the precincts after
the House has risen under the new hours. We recommend that
the facilities of the House, such as the library and the catering
services, should continue to be available in the evenings for
67. The increased demands of constituency work on
Members have made it even more difficult for Members from outside
London to be present at Westminster on Fridays. Most Members typically
work a six-day week with four days in Parliament and the equivalent
of two days in their constituency over the weekend. The experience
and opinion which Members gain from their representational work
in their constituency bring an authority to their contributions
to debate in Parliament. We recommend that constituency work
should take precedence on Fridays and the practice of Government
motions on the adjournment on Fridays should be discontinued.
The introduction of Government debates in Westminster Hall has
provided an alternative forum for the class of topics which might
previously have been reserved for such Friday debates.
68. This will leave Private Members' Bills as the
sole business to be conducted on Fridays. In the next Session
we will want to review Private Members' Bills, including the possibility
of whether they could be transferred to another slot in the week
which might be more convenient for Members.
69. We are concerned that the present arrangements
require the attendance of the Speaker for the start of every Friday
sitting, even though there is often no role for him other than
to be present at Prayers. Mr Speaker also has a constituency role
to fulfil, and is ably supported by a team of three deputies who
normally preside over the remainder of each Friday sitting. We
recommend that Standing Orders be amended to permit the same freedom
to the Speaker as other Members to be present in his constituency
on Friday. We recognise that from time to time there will
be major business on a Friday where the Speaker himself will judge
it appropriate to be present.
12 Report from the Select Committee on Sittings of
the House, Session 1991-92, HC 20-I (1991-92). Back
Modernisation of the House of Commons: A Reform Programme for
Consultation, December 2001, HC 440. Back
Ev 58. Back