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Lord Sutherland of Houndwood: My Lords, will the Minister reassure us that moneys raised from such proceeds of sales will be retained in the educational budget? Especially if the moneys are under the command of local authorities, can we be reassured that they will be used for suitable school purposes—whether gymnasiums, books or musical instruments?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I am able to give the noble Lord that reassurance by giving an example of what has happened in the applications this year. Half of the 22 in 2002 were in school sites that had already closed; quite a number of the playing field application sales that I have received are from schools that have closed during the past 10 years. From the proceeds from the 11 playing fields sold from schools that were still in operation, we have built four new sports halls, two new all-weather pitches, better quality grass pitches, two new schools and much improved classroom and other facilities. From the 11 that came from schools that were closed, we have built three new sports halls, three new schools and a new autism unit.

Lord Addington: My Lords, the Minister has given us figures showing a decreasing number of sales. However, could she go a little wider and tell us what consideration has been given to the number of playing fields sold off by the NHS in that period, for example—or by any other government body? They are still basically playing fields and must be seen as a whole, not as individual units.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I cannot answer for the NHS from the Dispatch Box at this time. However, we are keen throughout government to ensure that facilities exist for community activities and sport. Part of the work that is done on the school playing fields side is to ensure that the use to which the playing fields that have been sold could be put does not include community use. In other words, we must

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ensure that neither the community nor the school itself nor other schools lose the benefit. That is a consistent criteria that operates.

It is refreshing to see that a large number of applications enable schools to provide better facilities indoor and outdoor, such as all-weather pitches, which then become used by the community. That is a very important part of this matter.

Lord Davies of Coity: My Lords—

Baroness Billingham: My Lords—

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, it must be one of them. The noble Baroness, Lady Billingham, can go first.

Baroness Billingham: My Lords, perhaps I may return to the original Question. Is it not the case that the Government have, for the very first time, published an audited account of the number of school playing fields that have been sold? That answers the original Question. Furthermore, the National Playing Fields Association is delighted with that and has congratulated the Government on reducing the sale of playing fields, which, in the previous administration, was far greater than it is today.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, my answer to that would be yes. We have produced a report which I believe is in the Library of the House; I shall confirm that to noble Lords. I should also be delighted to send noble Lords who participated in this Question a copy of the details we have published. The National Playing Fields Association is an important part of the group that advises me on behalf of the Secretary of State. I have met them and am delighted with the work that they do in helping us to ensure that our children have the facilities they need.

Baroness Seccombe: My Lords, the noble Lord—

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I am awfully sorry, but again we are well over time.

House of Lords: Thursday Sitting Times

3 p.m.

Lord Carter asked the Chairman of Committees:

    When the Procedure Committee will discuss the arrangements for Thursday sittings.

The Chairman of Committees (Lord Brabazon of Tara): My Lords, in July last year the Procedure Committee put forward a set of proposals arising from the report of the Leader's Group on the working practices of the House. Those proposals, which included changes to Thursday sittings, were agreed to by the House for a trial period of two Sessions. So the

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Procedure Committee may be expected to review the arrangements towards the end of that period unless further proposals are presented to it before then.

Lord Carter: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that Answer. I would be the first to agree that a number of the changes that we made—the 10 o'clock finish, the use of Grand Committee, carryover, and so on—should be given time to work through. However, the change on Thursday was a stand-alone change not related to those other changes. May I remind the House that the questionnaire issued by the Leader's Group on working practices revealed substantial support for an early start and an early finish on Thursdays? It is the one-and-a-half-hour break between 1.30 and 3 p.m., with the consequential disruption of business, that is proving so unpopular.

Question Time is certainly not the right time to discuss all the alternatives. May I suggest that when the Procedure Committee considers the matter, as I hope it will in the near future, it should consider all the alternative scenarios for Thursdays and present them in a questionnaire in order to see which one has the support of a majority of the House?

The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his Question. I am certainly conscious that the present arrangements for Thursdays do not attract universal favour. I did a canvass myself of the Panel of Deputy Chairmen, a reasonably representative cross-section of Members of this House, and not one of them liked the current Thursday arrangements. Most prefer the pre-Recess Thursday arrangements whereby the House meets at 11 o'clock for Questions and goes straight through to about half past seven. A minority wish to return to the old 3 p.m. sitting but I do not believe that that finds much favour.

Lord Renton: My Lords, will the noble Lord remind the Procedure Committee that membership of your Lordships' House is not a whole-time occupation and that many noble Lords and noble Baronesses have experience and expertise acquired from their other occupations which are of great value in this House? Will he therefore tell the Procedure Committee that having to sit on Thursday mornings deprives Members of the opportunity to carry on those valuable outside activities?

The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, it is not for me to tell the Procedure Committee anything and I would not dream of doing so. I am the servant of the Procedure Committee. This issue was of course debated last July when the changes took place. A vote was very much in favour of sitting at 11 o'clock in the morning. The issue seems to be not so much the sitting at 11 o'clock on Thursdays but whether the lunch break should take place or not.

Baroness Lockwood: My Lords, although I do not usually disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Renton, is it not a fact that because noble Lords have outside commitments, having to waste an hour and a half in

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the middle of the day makes them feel very deprived of useful service? They could usefully fill up that time. Is there not also a conflict between those who are London-based and those based in different parts of the country who have no alternative but to do their other work on Fridays?

The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, the noble Baroness is of course right. As I said, I do not think that there is a particular argument about rising at around 7.30 p.m. on Thursdays; that seems pretty popular with most people. It is a question, as I say, of the one-and-a-half-hour break in the middle of the day. The noble Lord, Lord Carter, suggests that the Procedure Committee should perhaps issue a questionnaire to your Lordships, as happened previously on this issue. I think that that is a very good suggestion. The next meeting of the Procedure Committee is on Monday. I do not think that it will be possible to have a substantive discussion of the issue then, but we could certainly do so at a future meeting of the committee and could indeed issue a questionnaire.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy: My Lords, what is the point of the House rising at seven o'clock on Thursdays in order to enable Peers who live a long way away to get home on Thursday evening when the House is going to sit on Friday at 11 o'clock?

The Chairman of Committees: It is my guess, my Lords, that not all noble Lords feel it necessary to come in on Friday. Too many do tomorrow.

Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, is the Chairman of Committees aware that I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Carter, that this matter is separate from the other aspects of the changes introduced last year and could be considered separately by the Procedure Committee? It is very clear to me that a large number of noble Lords would like to have the matter reviewed. There is slightly less agreement about exactly what should happen, but many would like at least a review.

This is not the only change that is proving less than popular. The 10 o'clock rule, for example, seems to be proving very unpopular with the Government. I speak as one who was here until 20 minutes to one this morning.


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