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CORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE
To be published as HC 1370-iii
Sittings of the House and the Parliamentary Calendar
Wednesday 14 September 2011
Peter Ainsworth, Tony Baldry MP, Dame Anne Begg MP, Natascha Engel MP and Rt Hon Joan Ruddock MP
JONATHAN EDWARDS MP, MARY MACLEOD MP and PETE WISHART MP
Evidence heard in Public Questions 79 - 141
USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT
1. This is a corrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee, and copies have been made available by the Vote Office for the use of Members and others.
2. The transcript is an approved formal record of these proceedings. It will be printed in due course.
Taken before the Procedure Committee
on Wednesday 14 September 2011
Greg Knight (Chair)
Mrs Jenny Chapman
Mr Roger Gale
Mr James Gray
Mr David Nuttall
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Peter Ainsworth, former MP and Chair, Big Lottery Fund, Tony Baldry MP, Dame Anne Begg MP, Natascha Engel MP and Rt Hon Joan Ruddock MP, gave evidence.
Q79 Chair: Thank you for coming. As you know, we are conducting an inquiry into the sitting hours of the House and the parliamentary calendar-and we are ruling nothing out. We are allowing this inquiry to be as wide as possible to include all issues that may be, however distantly, associated with the question of sitting hours and the parliamentary calendar. If you think of something that we do not raise in questioning, but it is something that you wish to express a view on, please feel free to do so.
It is nice to see you again, Peter. I hope you are enjoying life outside this building.
Peter Ainsworth: All that I expected it to be.
Q80 Chair: You are probably being paid a lot more as well.
Do any of you wish to make an opening statement, or do you want us just to get on to questioning?
Joan Ruddock: I would very much like to, if I may, briefly.
Chair: Does anyone else; if they could just indicate? Okay, Joan, why don’t you start off then?
Joan Ruddock: First of all, many thanks for the invitation, I am delighted to be here and to have this opportunity. As you will be aware, I have sent you written evidence, and what I would like to do in these brief moments is just to highlight some of the things that are in that evidence.
As I said, just 10 years ago now, Ann Coffey and I both joined-as did you, Chair-the Modernisation Committee, which was then chaired by Robin Cook, and that brought in the major reforms, including changes to sitting hours, that we all are working within today. Both Ann and I retained our interest in these matters throughout the time that has passed since, and we always thought we should look again to see if we could gauge what support there might be for looking to further change. We thought that that opportunity arose with the new intake. We put three proposals before people: first, that there should be an earlier start on Tuesdays, i.e. 11.30am; another that there should be a Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday start at 10.30am, so everything matched Thursday-leaving Monday in place, of course; and the suggestion that people might want to consider an earlier finish on Thursdays.
We canvassed 554 people, but we left out Ministers. We got a 70% return on that canvass, with 46.6% favouring an 11.30 am start on Tuesdays, and 40.5% favouring a 10.30 am start on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. If you take them together and iron out overlaps-some people would support both options-you get 60.6% in favour of one or other of the earlier start options, and that is not including Thursdays because, as I say, that is a finish in a rather special case.
Many comments were sent to us, and I shall summarise them: more control over our time; more predictability of voting times and debates; Friday to be a constituency day; and move private Members’ Bills. I conclude that there is a significant consensus for change in the hours, and that earlier Tuesday starts would facilitate private Members’ Bills being taken on a timetable in the evenings, probably from 7.30 pm to 10 pm.
Q81 Chair: Thank you. Can I just ask you a number of questions for clarification? On Tuesday and Wednesday, are you suggesting a finish time of 7 pm?
Joan Ruddock: 6 pm.
Q82 Chair: What are you suggesting for Thursday? 5 pm?
Joan Ruddock: Well, we did not propose a time. We were saying Tuesdays to match the present Wednesdays, or Tuesdays and Wednesdays to match the present Thursdays. We simply asked if people needed-this is more the point-an earlier finish on the Thursday, because we knew that some people were in difficulties. My own judgment is that half an hour would probably make a difference to people. You would start half an hour earlier on a Thursday, and you would finish half an hour earlier on a Thursday.
Q83 Chair: Did you ask for or receive any comment from any Select Committee Chairmen about when their Committees would sit if the House was sitting in the morning on a Tuesday?
Joan Ruddock: No. We got a number of respondents raising the question of Select Committees. I think it is obvious that Members very much appreciate the work of Select Committees and want to make a good job of Select Committees. My only answer to that is that, of course, Select Committees are entirely free to arrange their meeting times-and they do all meet at different times, so there is already a variation. There are already Committees that, in my experience, have met and do meet when the House is sitting, whether that is in the morning or in the afternoon.
Chair: As indeed we do.
Joan Ruddock: Indeed.
Q84 Chair: A lawyer said to me once that silence always denotes consent. You have not mentioned Mondays. Do I take it from that that you are content with the current sitting hours on Monday?
Joan Ruddock: What we were looking to do was to find where there might be support for a consensus for real change. Both Ann and I deem-she comes from the north; I am from the south-that people need Monday mornings, they do travel and they need that time, so we made no suggestion about changing Mondays. However, from what we received, there were many radical comments saying that we should sit at 9.30 am every day, and another suggested that perhaps we could start at 12 noon or 1 pm on a Monday.
Q85 Mr Gray: Just briefly, it is quantitative research. You ask people questions and they answer in a particular way-and, of course, that is always open to interpretation. To what degree did you attempt any form of qualitative research? In other words, why was it that people were arguing for the particular things that they were arguing for? Rather than just anecdotally, did you carry out any statistical analysis of people’s reasons for coming up with these proposals?
Joan Ruddock: Not at all. I did not want to write to this Committee as an individual; I wanted to write to this Committee saying, "I have done a piece of work and I can demonstrate numbers who say that they would support these very specific changes." I thought that that was a useful piece of work to do. Of course, I would be interested in a lot more than that, but all I can tell you, Mr Gray, is that many people made comments, and many of the comments were around the sense that people cannot control their time sufficiently, that the hours are so long that they are perpetually tired, and that they would want the freedom to organise their time better in the evening. That is not to say that they do not want to work in the evening, and also no one is suggesting fewer hours-at least, we never were-but just bringing them forward in the day. There was a lot of anecdotal comment, but it is anecdotal; it is not scientific.
Q86 Chair: You do realise, do you, that if we were to say that Fridays be a constituency day, the press would say, "Now they want a four-day week"?
Joan Ruddock: If I might say so, Mr Knight, I think that we have to do what is right for Members of Parliament to enable them to do their jobs effectively. I think there are some occasions when we have to stand up to the press and explain ourselves. Most of us work extremely hard on Fridays in our constituencies. We only sit for 10 days of the year on Fridays anyway, and who in the media checks how many of us are here on a Friday, and do not our constituents clamour for us to be available on a Friday? I think this could be handled; I think it needs to be handled. I think that if you look at the Hansard Society surveys-I know you’ve had evidence from it-you will see how much time people are spending in their constituencies and how important it is to them. I think we need to recognise that and face the press down if we have to.
Q87 Mr Gale: I would just like to pursue that line a little further because, as Mr Gray said, this is quantitative, and I note that no question was asked of anybody relating to the hours of 2.30 pm to 10 pm. There is no information contained around that, but the Committee has already taken evidence from some Members, particularly those from outside London-of course, you are a London Member-suggesting that, rather than kicking their heels on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, they would prefer to sit later on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and possibly rise earlier on Thursdays. That does not seem to be accommodated in your research.
Joan Ruddock: No. If I might say so, that was because we already had the experience of going through the Modernisation Committee’s programmes years before. We had followed that up. We had talked to a lot of people before we sent our questions and we thought-this is a judgment we made-that we were likely to find the greatest consensus around the suggestions that we put. We put what we thought was most likely to get consensus, and if you look at the table, you will see that those supporting the status quo are just close on 30%-29.3%. We did ask people if they supported the status quo, and those are the people who wished to retain the hours as they are today.
Mr Gale: That was not quite what I said because the-
Joan Ruddock: No, sorry. I can certainly respond to people who would like to sit even more hours and occupy certain Tuesday nights, which they do at the moment anyway, and also Wednesday nights. It is my strong belief that those people are in the minority. We could always, if we wished to make changes, do as we do now on Wednesdays and Thursdays, when a certain amount of refreshment facilities, library facilities and one’s own offices are kept open in the evening. Everybody has the opportunity to go on working; nobody prevents that. It is just a question of when do you vote, and that is what holds most people here.
Q88 Mr Gale: Mr Baldry told me this morning that he thought that he had been invited because he had been here longer than anybody else-on that basis I think, so far as this panel is concerned, that that is correct-so let me put this to Mr Baldry personally. The leading question on the piece of paper I have in front of me says, "What are MPs for?", which begs all sorts of answers. Let me just lead you down a path: do you think it is possible to agree a job description for Members of Parliament in line with what was suggested by the Speaker’s Conference on parliamentary representation?
Tony Baldry: Probably not. There are five of us here, and I’m probably going to get only one opportunity to answer questions. I think that we are all servants to the House, and I have only two points that I want to make. I feel a bit like that character in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern-I was quite peacefully at my desk and sort of summoned to the Count, so I’m here. I really don’t mind when the House sits. I was the generation when we sat through the night on a regular basis. There weren’t any halcyon days, I should say. What would happen was that the payroll closed and the younger Members kept the House going. People of my generation then were all happily paired, but things have changed because we all now vote, I think. I have voted in nearly 90% of Divisions in this Parliament.
I have two requests. First, I think that the deal for starting earlier was that we would finish at 7 pm on Wednesday and 6 pm on Thursday. Therefore, if there is going to be Government business, such as the Finance Bill, that can run to "any hour", it should be tabled on Mondays and Tuesdays. In other words, if one is going to have the House finishing at 7 pm, what is really frustrating for colleagues, I think, is not knowing what is going to happen and planning on the basis that the House will finish at 7 pm on a Wednesday and then finding it doesn’t. There are some bits of business that, for historical reasons, can run to any hour, such as the Finance Bill, but I think that they should be on Mondays and Tuesdays.
The other request I have-
Q89 Chair: Sorry, before you move on, is there not another alternative? I have often wondered why the Finance Bill can run to any hour on Second and Third Reading. I can quite understand why that is the case on Report-to give the whole House an opportunity to have a say and perhaps to table an amendment-but is there not a case for looking at these exemptions again and curtailing debate on the Finance Bill on Second and Third Reading?
Tony Baldry: I think that is a matter for you, but if it is going to run to any hour I think, in fairness, that it shouldn’t run to any hour on a Wednesday.
My second request is in relation to Thursdays. I think that the Backbench Business Committee is a brilliant innovation. For example, there are two debates tomorrow in which I am particularly interested: on the Horn of Africa and India-fantastic. However, I do not think it was anticipated when the Backbench Business Committee was set up that these would be votable motions. What we have every week at present is not knowing until almost the last moment whether those motions will be critical of the Government and, therefore, whether they are going to be whipped. This is incredibly frustrating because, again, it means that one cannot plan one’s week. For most of us, Thursday evenings are an opportunity either to do things in the constituency during the working week when other normal people would do things, because they won’t necessarily want to do things on Friday, or they are an opportunity to do things with one’s family. But, again, if one does not know until Wednesday whether one is going to have to be here to vote, it gets extraordinarily frustrating. Therefore, my other request to this Committee is that Backbench Business should be as it was when you and I first came into the House, Mr Knight, when we had private Members’ motions that were, effectively, not votable-they were motions that were there. That is my only other request. In other words, there should be some certainty.
You may have a deal whereby you start earlier but, Mr Knight, you and I-you are a former Deputy Chief Whip-know only too well that it is the business of the Whips to get the Government’s business through the House. We all understand that, and any group of Whips, of whichever party, are shameless in wanting to do that, and they will just rack up the hours to do so, so unless there is some protection of time for colleagues, it will always get eroded. The fact of the matter is that following the change of hours, we have seen the erosion of time both on Wednesdays and Thursdays.
Q90 Chair: That is helpful to us. I do not particularly want to get too bogged down in to what the Backbench Business Committee should or should not do, because I think that might be the subject of some other inquiry at a later time. Does any other panel member want to come in on the back of those comments?
Peter Ainsworth: Only just to say that I have picked up, from speaking to former colleagues who are even now in the House, that there is a lot of frustration with having Members’ business on a Thursday. I think you have probably picked that up yourselves.
Q91 Chair: The concern being that they may be whipped; the concern being on the whipping.
Peter Ainsworth: Certainly on it.
Natascha Engel: May I clarify that? This is something that has been a real problem for us, and something that the Government Whips Office has put out is that it is the fault of the Backbench Business Committee that we are tabling votable motions on a Thursday. It is the Government who allocate us days. We have been arguing since the Backbench Business Committee was established that we want a regular day that is not on a Thursday. What you are asking for is to take powers away from Back Benchers. The power that we have as the Backbench Business Committee to table votable motions has been incredible in holding the Government to account. Without votable motions-so just as a general debate-we would significantly lessen the powers of Back Benchers. What we could do is to ask the Government to allocate us every Wednesday, or every alternate Wednesday, and we would then avoid those problems altogether.
The other thing is that I do not recall a time when Thursdays were a voluntary sitting day. Before the Backbench Business Committee existed, Thursday had always been a parliamentary working day. It is not the Backbench Business Committee that has suddenly made Thursdays about forcing Members to be in Parliament. My understanding was that that had always been the case.
Tony Baldry: I have no view on the first point but, on the second point, so far as the Opposition are concerned, they are in opposition. My recollection is that most Thursdays were previously one-line whipped because, of course, on the then Government’s side, Labour Members wanted to get back to their constituencies, and we had very few Government votes on a Thursday night during the previous Parliament.
Q92 Mr Gale: We are going to come back to the certainty of hours because one of my colleagues wants to come in on that. If you want to come back on that, you will have the opportunity to do so.
Can I just, slightly more seriously, get back to the "what are MPs for" issue, because we have taken quite a bit of evidence about the shift in the balance between constituency work and parliamentary duties? I think, somewhere along the line, it is important that we all understand what we are for and what the definition is. Dame Anne, you have not commented yet. Would you like to?
Dame Anne Begg: Yes. You referred to the Speaker’s Conference in the previous Parliament, of which I was invited to be the Vice-Chair. We were charged with looking at the barriers to participation in politics and to ensuring that we had a diverse Parliament, and at the barriers to people from more diverse backgrounds, as well as women and those perhaps traditionally not represented in the House of Commons, standing and putting themselves forward. Now, some of the things we have already heard. The hours of the House were certainly off-putting, and that applied to people with families-not just women, but young men with families as well.
As we explored those kinds of things, we realised that the role of an MP had changed over the years. I came in in 1997. Before that, the MP was expected to be in Westminster-that was their primary role-and the job was to be in Westminster. That has certainly moved in the past 20 years, and now I would say that there is an expectation among the general public that not only should MPs be seen in Westminster doing the legislative role, but they should also be seen being proactive in the constituency. It is trying to fit those two things into a working week that has made it very difficult for Members-not just Members with families, but all Members-to get the balance right, in that they need to be in their constituency but, at the same time, they need to be down here.
Now, the hours obviously determine which part of the country someone is in. I represent Aberdeen, which is a long way away. I am not going to nip home on a Tuesday evening to do constituency business, so Fridays are clearly very important for those of us who live further away. However, we also discovered that many people promise their constituency parties, when they get selected, that they will live in the constituency. Whatever combination of the hours you come up with, the agreement in the Conference was that the hours should change-there was not an agreement to what, but Joan has done a great deal more work since then to try and perhaps build that consensus. There needed to be a change in hours. Whatever happens, those with a young family need to have their family domiciled in London, but that is not the expectation for people in the constituency. I know that there are a number of new MPs who had thought they would be able to send the family to school in the constituency but, at year end, discovered that that was not possible, and that they needed the family down in London. That resulted in them being criticised in the local press. There is therefore enormous pressure on the individual MP to try to keep everyone happy and, in trying to keep everyone happy, they end up ignoring, or not being available for, their family.
Those were the concerns of a number of MPs who stood down at the last election, having only done one term in Parliament. They found contradictory stresses on where they should be at what time of the year, and on where the family should be to allow them to have as near a normal life as possible, so they were not in a position to say to other young women or young men, "Come into politics and stand as an MP; it’s a great job." They couldn’t make that recommendation, and unless you can get that recommendation, we aren’t ever going to open out the House of Commons to a variety of people from different walks of life.
Q93 Thomas Docherty: Going back, first, to Backbench business timetabling. From memory, when we return on the 10th or on the 17th-on one of the two Mondays-the business is going to be a motion on pensions and a Backbench business slot. I do not yet know the wisdom of the Whips Offices, but I would suspect that they will probably both be one-liners, in which case all you have is exactly the same issue on a Monday as you do on a Thursday. Am I right in thinking, Natascha, that the only way you would avoid this drop-off would be if you schedule the Backbench business in the middle of the parliamentary week? Is that a fair assessment?
Natascha Engel: I would start elsewhere with that question. I just think that whether it is Joan’s model or a different model, we need to be starting elsewhere: by going back to what we think the role of the MP is. It has dramatically changed, given that pull to the constituency and the changing nature of campaigning, as well as people’s expectations of us as Members of Parliament after "expenses". I think that those are very significant factors, and there is also the case work that we do. We have always done that, but the cases that we do now are individual contacts with constituents who have a vote. These are important matters for MPs when it comes round to election time. We must not ignore that that is a pull but also, I think, we need to be much more honest about what it is that we have been elected for: to scrutinise Governments and to hold them to account; to make laws on behalf of our constituents; and to represent political parties. I think that that is starting to be lost, and I think that we ourselves have done that because we are looking much more towards the individual constituency pull-the knocking on doors.
If we accept that there is such a thing as a parliamentary week-rather than shortening it on a Thursday because that’s the time we want to spend with our families and constituencies, or not coming down until Tuesday because there is a one-line Whip on a Monday-wherever you put the Backbench business is absolutely irrelevant. We are here doing our parliamentary business in a certain part of the week, and we have another part of the week that is for our constituency business.
I think the other problem is that there is no one solution that will fit everyone and there is nothing that the press is ever going to be happy with. The press is never going to be delighted at what we are doing. Whatever we do, we are not going to win. I think we need to be looking at what the role of the MP is-and that role is very different. I am not a supporter of job descriptions. I think that every MP must do it their own way and then be held to account by their own electorate-now, every five years. It is not about the amount of activity that we do, the numbers of hours that we sit and how exhausted we all are; it is about effectiveness and how we make our sitting hours so that the maximum number of Members of Parliament can be as effective as possible, and it doesn’t become a numbers game of how many EDMs you sign and how many PQs you put in. You kind of get the whole civil service machinery running on your behalf so that you get lots of credits on theyworkforyou.com, which is the current system. It’s about how do we, when we are sitting in Parliament during the parliamentary week, best hold the Government to account, and how do we scrutinise legislation on behalf of our constituents-that is where I would start.
Peter Ainsworth: Can I just add that I totally agree with that. I think that is the key issue, and I also think that your Committee has embarked on a completely impossible task? I am increasingly of the view that, given the current dynamics around Parliament and politicians, constituency pressures, and endless legislation coming through the pipeline from Governments, a Member of Parliament’s job is becoming increasingly impossible. I did not give up being a Member of Parliament because I thought it was impossible; it was rather fun, but you can have fun doing the impossible. I really think that this is an important inquiry, but I am afraid that I very much doubt that you are going to find any clear solutions. As Natascha has said, you have 650 with 650 different solutions-different people, different dynamics and different geographies. It is going to be incredibly difficult to find an answer.
Please let me say one other thing. Do not take too much account with respect to the press gallery here today. This is a very nice press gallery-I’ll find out tomorrow-but don’t take too much notice. You have to do what is right for what Parliament is here to achieve, and that means perhaps not doing as much, but doing what you do a darned sight more efficiently. May I throw in one suggestion? An end to filibustering-just stop it. Endless debates on programme motions-futile. Don’t move private Members’ Bills, in my view, but have deferred Divisions on them so that people can vote and don’t have to muck around with their diaries when you need to get 100 here on a Friday, which Joan and I have done on more than one occasion. There are tweaks you can make, but I don’t think you are going to solve the whole thing in a single inquiry, as it is too complicated, and some of the evidence from the Hansard Society in Bristol, which I saw earlier, suggests that that is the case, too.
Chair: We live in hope, though.
Joan Ruddock: I just wanted to contest what Peter said about there being 650 views. There are certainly 650 individuals working here-we are really, truly individuals-but the reason for doing the piece of work that I have done was to demonstrate that there are core hours and changed core hours around which I do believe that there is consensus. It is not just the piece of work I have done, because the Hansard Society finds that 51% of MPs are either not very satisfied or not at all satisfied with the sitting hours. The Mumsnet research that has been done with new MPs found that a quarter said that the stresses placed on their family had resulted in their considering quitting-a quarter already! Nearly two thirds say that being an MP has had a negative impact on their family. I think we need to recognise-I agree with Peter-that the job is kind of impossible, but let us try to put ourselves in a position in which, as Natascha says, we can be as effective as possible, and I think that would be helped by bringing forward the hours of the day and moving private Members’ Bills.
May I just say one other thing on private Members’ Bills?
Q94 Chair: Before you do, can I just put this to you, Joan and Tony, as ex-Ministers, and to you, Peter, as an ex-Whip, although anyone should feel free to comment? You do realise, do you not, that one of the problems of sitting earlier in the day will be that it will prevent Ministers from doing regional tours, because they will need to be in Westminster to be available to vote? Is that a price you are prepared to pay for finishing earlier, Joan?
Joan Ruddock: Yes, I think it is. I think the regional tours are not always as valuable as people suggest they might be, and sometimes they take place because the Government want their Ministers to be seen to be around. There are some things you can get from them, but I think that there needs to be a great deal of care when Ministers decide to go out to places. It is important to have that option to learn things but, in any Department, there are a number of Ministers. These things are organised now so that Ministers are not here at times when the House is sitting so they do not participate in certain votes. This is all organised, and I believe in a changed situation it could equally be organised. I think a more significant point is whether there is going to be more pressure on Ministers’ time to appear in the House if you have earlier hours. Again, I would say that, as a Minister, these things can be organised. At the end of the day, I, as a Minister, was working 100 hours a week, and I would not expect most Ministers to be able to cut their time, but they could just slightly reorganise it, and they get plenty of support from the civil servants to do that. However, I hope that we will just touch again on private Members’ Bills.
Q95 Chair: We will come on to that in a moment. Tony, do you want to add anything?
Tony Baldry: The reality is this that if the Government have a majority, as they do now, it is perfectly possible for the pairing Whip to make allowances for Ministers. However, you and I, Chair, were Ministers in a Government who did not have a majority. Indeed, it was sometimes confusing to know which ones on our own side were or were not going to support us. To be honest, that did make life unbelievably difficult for Ministers because, effectively-and I was a junior Minister in the Foreign Office at that time-the only time you were allowed to travel was during parliamentary recess and the summer Adjournment. That was the only time when Ministers could go overseas, and that pretty much made it impossible, so that is just one thing that one has to consider.
Whatever happens, the reality is that Members of Parliament have to accept that we are all going to be working about 100 hours a week. I have done nearly 30 years as a Member of Parliament for two sizeable market towns. Most weekends are involved in doing public duties. High Sheriffs come and High Sheriffs go; Lord Lieutenants come and Lord Lieutenants go; Mayors come and Mayors go-I have seen it all. One carries on, and that is the reality of life. I think it is just the practicalities of how the week works, and I think also the fact that we are all now very often trying to be in three places at once-Westminster Hall, the main Chamber, a Select Committee or a Standing Committee and all-party groups, and that is the reality. We are all much more hyperactive than we were when you and I were first elected-that is the reality of Parliament. I don’t think anyone is going to change that and I suspect the only thing for this Committee is the balance of when the working day starts and as I think Joan says, when the final votes are.
Q96 John Hemming: It strikes me, listening to the answers, that the question of the effectiveness of Parliament and the effectiveness of the individual MP conflict with each other. The question then is: to what extent could the sitting hours be changed to improve the effectiveness of either? Perhaps what we need is more deferred Divisions on a Thursday. I am slightly embarrassed because I have to go to another Select Committee in three minutes, so I might not be able to stay for all the answers. Whether that makes me effective or not, I will be back later.
Peter Ainsworth: Can I move on to the question of effectiveness? I was in the Whips Office at the end of John Major’s Government, so I was trying to prevent Tony from doing any less.
On Anne’s point, though-I saw Kitty Ussher’s evidence from last week on the whole question of family and so on-I think the reality is that however you configure the working week in Westminster and/or in the constituency, this is not a job that is ever going to be congenial for spouses, partners and children. I just do not see how it can possibly be. Maybe there should be a huge flashing warning sign in every party office everywhere throughout the country saying, "Don’t think of becoming an MP unless you have discussed it with your children and your partner", because there is no good way of doing it. The geographical dislocation ensures that, and the hours here are always going to be long.
Q97 Mrs Chapman: I just need to challenge you back on that because I have four kids, two of whom are very young, and they are based 250 miles away. They will stay there because that’s where I grew up, that’s where they grow up and that’s where their nana is-all that kind of thing-and it is not that bad. I think we talk ourselves into saying, "Isn’t this awful?", "This must be so difficult," and, "You’re neglecting your family,"-all this kind of stuff. But you can do it, and it can balance quite nicely: because of the hours here, we get school holidays off. Do you not think that sometimes we hype the hours that we do, that we don’t have to work 100 hours a week to be a good MP, and that sometimes we are sort of victims of our own myths that we create?
Peter Ainsworth: Well, there we are-that is why it is going to be impossible to resolve 650 different views. As for the school holidays, to be honest, when I was an MP-I did it for 18 years-there was this myth that as soon as Parliament rises, everybody pushes off on holiday. Well, the work goes on, particularly if you are a Minister or a shadow Minister. The issues do not go away; the constituents do not go away.
Q98 Mrs Chapman: You control it. You can plan it yourself.
Peter Ainsworth: The only holidays I ever had were when I was abroad, and even then the phone kept ringing.
Q99 Mrs Chapman: My point is that you can make the choices about that. You do not have to be a Minster. You do not have to-
Peter Ainsworth: Precisely. That is very much part of what I am trying to suggest. You have to understand the dynamics and recognise that there are limitations on the time you can give to other things and to be with your family, and you have to explain that to them as much as to anybody else.
Natascha Engel: I very briefly want to say that I do not think that this is a women’s issue either, because I think that men are equally affected when they have families of any kind. If you want to have a job in which you can take the kids to school and pick them up in the afternoon, don’t be an MP-do something else. I don’t think it is right for us to be looking at arranging our sitting hours around my children’s bedtime. It is a completely different job, and I knew what the job was when I came to do it, as did you all. This is a really important point: we should not be guided by family-friendly hours. We should be guided by what the role of an MP is and how we do it most effectively.
Chair: Thank you. We are very tight on time, so may I ask for short questions?
Q100 Tom Greatrex: Can I just briefly follow on from these points. Joan, I was intrigued by your quote about the family-friendly issues and using that in support of changing the hours, if I understood you correctly. I have two young children, but they live 400-odd miles away where my family home is. How is changing the hou rs going to make it more family- friendly for people other than those who are able to live in London ?
Joan Ruddock: I have not argued that case. What I did-I keep repeating this-was to try to find where a consensus lay for people who wanted to change the hours and bring the day forward. That was much more about people’s ability to control their time in the evenings. There is a lot of research that demonstrates that people become stressed and even depressed when they have a lack of control. It is the voting at night on Tuesday following Monday when people feel they have to be here. It is the uncertainty that Tony Baldry referred to. Now, with Wednesdays, 16% of our sittings in this current Session have gone beyond the 7 pm interruption, and have gone even beyond midnight-even to 2 am on one occasion. It is all of that-this lack of control-that causes people stress. The stress is what the people with young families particularly find difficult to handle, because they need more emotional strength to cope with the fact that this is an impossible job if you do have a family.
Q101 Mr Nuttall: It has already been mentioned that one of the problems facing this inquiry is the enormous number of options that are available. Can I just explore three things, some of which have been touched on?
First , it was suggested last week that one of the reasons why it is importa nt to sit late in the evenings is that it provide s valuable time for Members to socialise together. I wonder whether you think that is an important consideration. There is a danger, if the House finishes at 5 pm or 6 pm, that Members who do not have families will be kicking their heels and will be left in London with not a lot to do in the evenings.
Secondly, to what extent do you think we should provide for the needs of S tanding C ommittees and S elect C ommittees, which need to be factored into this? Thirdly, to what extent should we provide more time in Westminster Hall? Should we provid e more time in Westminster Hall, and what impact do you think that would have on Members?
Peter Ainsworth: On socialising, I do not pay my taxes to fund this place in order for MPs to cavort on the T errace in the like that I am only too familiar that they do , so I am not persuaded by the socialising argument. I want an efficient Parliament that gets through the b usiness and does it effectively, thoroughly and with expertise.
As for S tanding and S elect C ommittees, are you talking about the time clash there?
Mr Nuttall: Yes.
Peter Ainsworth: Let us have a look-I urge you to have a look-at the possibilities of pairing arrangement s for that . I think it is not beyond the wit of man to devise some means of dealing with people who are bunged on S tanding C ommittees but would rather be at a Select Committee, which are hugely important in my view . T hese S elect C ommittees should have parity with S tanding Committees, despite the fact that there is a W hip on the latter. There should be some sort of pairing arrangement possible there.
Tony Baldry: Socialising will adjust to whatever the hours of the House are. Nowadays I-and, I expect, quite a number of us-have breakfast every morning in the tea room with Mr Gale and Keith Simpson and various others. There is a regular group, and it is much better informed from being able to dissect the daily newspapers and so on.
I think there is something we perhaps must not lose sight of as we are talking about great efficiency. When I first came into the House, part of the reason for the long hours was because the Government of the day wanted to get their business through as speedily as possible, and really the only weapon the Opposition had was time. The only weapon the Opposition have had is to take up Government time and to debate points and so on. Over the years, that has all become much more managed with the timetabling of debates and so on and so forth. We just ought to be slightly cautious-we may in government one day and in opposition another-so that we do not arriving at a position in which there are not the opportunities for Back Benchers and Opposition parties to be able to use parliamentary mechanisms if they wish to demonstrate that the Government have got something seriously wrong. By and large, most things here are managed through the usual channels but, every so often, they go wrong. Not so long ago there was a row. Part of the row over the Finance Bill was something very simple about how many days the Government had allocated for Report stage, and once they had given another day, the Opposition were happy. We ought to be careful to recognise that time here is also part of scrutiny and the combat. It is particularly schizophrenic on the Government side because all of us on that side are trying to do two things simultaneously. We are seeking to help-or at least most of us are seeking to help-the Government to get their business through and to be loyal supporters of Government, while at the same time we want to scrutinise the Executive, so Parliament and Back Benchers need time to do both of those. It is never for those reasons going to be possible to have a neat nine-to-five process every day. We ought to remember that this is part of the conflict in this place. There is a contest here between Government and Opposition.
Peter Ainsworth: Very quickly, may I say that I disagree with that, because in the end the Government always win? However long somebody may get up and make a speech-
Tony Baldry: If that is the case, you could say, "Please could the Opposition go home," and that would be the end of it
Peter Ainsworth: I am not for a minute suggesting that we should suppress debate, but I am suggesting that debate can be as effective if it is brief. If it lasts for hours and hours on procedural matters that are of no interest to the general public, it brings this place into disrepute.
Q102 Tom Greatrex: Just one other question which is not so much about the hours in the day, but the days or the weeks. Would you like to see changes to the pattern of recesses , particularly in relation to the summer and conference A djournments? Is there a better way of doing that?
Tony Baldry: The previous system worked very well because we could use September to spend a lot of time in our constituencies and it worked very effectively. Then the media said that we were having three months’ holiday so, here we are - we are no sooner back than we go. Once you have sold that particular pass, I don’t think you are ever going to be back again. As a consequence , I suspect that we spend less time overall in our constituencies than we would other wise do. It is very frustrating, but that is the reality of the situation.
Q103 Chair: Joan, on that point.
Joan Ruddock: Yes. I doubt very much that we could go back on September sittings. They are universally unpopular with MPs, and for the good reasons that Tony Baldry has just outlined , because we all want to work in constituencies.
Q104 Chair: Aren’t yo u contradicting yourself there? You were saying earlier about Fridays that we should not give a hoot to what the press say and that we should go ahead and grasp it and say that we have a c onstituency Friday . Now you seem to be saying that we dare not give ourselves September off in case the press say that we are having a holiday.
Joan Ruddock: No, I am just saying that I do not think we are likely to go back. I am just saying that as a statement. I am not saying what the reasons are. The press may be part of the reason, but I think there is pressure from a lot of people: the Speaker, I believe, for example. Anyway that is irrelevant. What I am saying is that because I doubt that that can be changed, I would argue that should be looking at the whole summer recess and asking ourselves, for example, whether it should start earlier, because that would accommodate families in Scotland, where children’s holidays are much earlier in the summer, so starting earlier and returning in September could make sense. Frankly, I think the parties should get together and look at their party conferences because I think that this conference recess could be addressed, given the amount of time and money-and boredom for the public-arising from the party conferences. It will only ever be addressed if the parties all got together, but I would very much like to think that they might.
Q105 Chair: Drawing together what some of you said earlier about time wasting and the use of Fridays, may I ask you in turn what your view would be of any proposal to put private Members’ Bills on a Tuesday or Wednesday evening at the hour of interruption-that is currently 7 pm on Wednesday-and giving them priority at that time over any subsequent Government business, so they would come on at 7 pm, regardless of what the Government were doing, and we would deal with one Bill in an evening between 7 pm and 10 pm, with the Question being put automatically at 10 pm without the need for closure. What would be your view of that arrangement?
Peter Ainsworth: That would be Second Reading that you are talking about.
Chair: And subsequently, for those Bills that have cleared Committee, the remaining stages.
Peter Ainsworth: I was lucky enough to have two private Members’ Bills while I was here.
Mr Gray: Hedgerows.
Peter Ainsworth: Hedgerows, indeed. Thank you, Mr Gray, for remembering that one, which was balked at by my Conservative colleagues but subsequently became legislation-there are advantages to being in the Whips Office. Then, in the previous Parliament, I successfully passed a private Member’s Bill on to the statute book: the Green Energy (Definition and Promotion) Bill, so I have seen it work both ways.
My very strong feeling about this is to keep private Members’ Bills on Friday. Those who want to come here and debate them who are interested in them and the issues will do so. Others can go back to their constituencies and do all the things that we know have to happen there. However, defer the votes on them until a Wednesday, and then you do not have to have the nonsense of trying to get 100 people here and people cancelling constituency engagements to come back and hang around.
Q106 Chair: If you deferred a vote on closure, you would have to abandon the business, wouldn’t you?
Peter Ainsworth: You would have to timetable the business on a Friday-close the business at a fixed time and then defer the vote until a Wednesday, when everyone could have their say. If the Government do not like the private Member’s Bill in question, and they usually do not, they will still get their way because they have the majority.
Tony Baldry: The reality is I cannot remember the last time a private Member’s Bill on which the Government had put on the black spot got through under either Government, because it is perfectly possible to filibuster Bills out on Report and Third Reading. Colleagues, understandably, are pretty loth to give up Fridays to be here for business that they think is just going to get talked out-it is very frustrating. I think it is a separate issue, but I think that all arrangements in relation to private Members’ Bills need looking at because, frankly, at the moment it is pretty farcical. As a matter of interest for record, when was the last time that a private Member’s Bill that was not a hand-out Bill got through the House? I do not think you would get a David Steel-type Bill through the House nowadays.
Natascha Engel: May I follow that directly? When I was on a panel with David Steel talking about private Members’ Bills, I asked him whether, if he wanted to put through a private Member’s Bill legalising abortion, that would be possible today. When I asked whether anything had significantly changed, he said, "No, nothing has changed." The reason why I quite support having private Members’ Bills in the way that they are is that there is a sort of quality control at the moment. If an issue is really important-like the legalisation of abortion and the abolition of capital punishment-100 Members will come. Otherwise, I do not know how you would select the private Members’ Bills that are going to be debated and voted on on the Tuesday or Wednesday-[Interruption.] If you continue by ballot. I think, at the moment, it is quite a good way of determining whether a private Member’s Bill is worth pursuing or not.
Tony Baldry: The difference from when David Steel took his Bill through is that, in those days, Fridays were very often sitting days. The culture was that most Fridays were sitting days. It was an exception rather than a rule not to be sitting, and very often we were whipped on Fridays. Now, however, colleagues plan fixtures in their diaries a long time in advance, irrespective of Friday sitting days. It takes quite a lot to persuade colleagues to clear their diary to come back here to support a piece of business, whatever it is, particularly if they think its chances of getting through are pretty slim.
Joan Ruddock: I have got two private Members’ Bills on the statute book, both of which were opposed originally by the Conservative Government and then by my own Government up until the eleventh hour, so I do know quite a bit about private Members’ Bills. I think if I was to attempt either of them today, Mr Chope would just make mincemeat of them.
Chair: I will come back to you on that in a minute.
Joan Ruddock: May I just continue about why I think they should be moved? I think that MPs really value private Members’ Bills. Everybody wants to get one. It is a wonderful thing to get one, work it through and achieve it. An awful lot of MPs think that we should put a great deal more value on private Members’ Bills and that they should be treated much more seriously than they are at the moment. If they were moved into the middle of the week, they would be treated much more seriously and more people would attend. The Government would, of course, defeat Bills as they do today, but they would probably defeat them in a cleaner way because, as you suggest, Chair, they would be voted on at 10 pm.
Now, should they go on Wednesdays or should they go on Tuesdays? If they went on Wednesdays, it adds to the long-hours culture that the majority of people in the survey that we have done are complaining about. They would feel they had to stay until 10 pm on Wednesdays. That is not what I think the majority of people would like in terms of change. However, they would appreciate moving Tuesday forward and accommodating private Members’ Bills on a Tuesday night.
Dame Anne Begg: I think it is much more honest and clearer to make sure that Friday is a constituency day and that therefore the House is not sitting. That would therefore mean private Members’ Bills would possibly come in earlier in the week, if we moved the hours forward. However, I think that underpinning all of this-whatever you decide-it the need to give MPs confidence that they can make plans at least a week in advance. If you are looking at MPs who have caring roles, so long as what you decide on eventually will be what will be enacted, and will not change from week to week and from day to day-and there will not be a constant changing of when the moment of interruption will be-I think that that will go a long way to helping MPs plan where they are going to live and how they are going to lead their lives.
Chair: Thank you. May I say to our witnesses in waiting that we will be with them very shortly? We are coming to the end of this session, but as we are covering such a broad subject, I think that we were bound to have some slippage.
Q107 Thomas Docherty: Very briefly, there is a convention that, for private Members’ Bills, there is no time limit placed on speeches. Would you support changing that convention and putting in a time limit?
Peter Ainsworth: Absolutely.
Natascha Engel: Yes.
Peter Ainsworth: So many times, you come in on a Friday and there is some poor colleague who has a private Member’s Bill and you just know what is going on. There are criminals on both sides of the House-known people. Piers Merchant was absolutely notorious for turning up on a Friday and talking for hours simply to get rid of private Members’ Bills. It is a nonsense practice and it goes back to what I have said earlier: let’s get rid of this filibustering at all levels. It does not serve any useful social purpose whatsoever, and it impedes the business of the House.
Natascha Engel: You did not pursue the point about Westminster Hall.
Q108 Mr Nuttall: We had moved on a bit, but I personally would be very interested to know how we can make use of that.
Thomas Docherty: Would you put a time limit on Westminster Hall as well?
Natascha Engel: We have the additional issue of e-petitions now, which is an additional issue about how we use our time. For Westminster Hall, if you look at the Australian model of having another Chamber, we are not at present looking at having non-controversial Second Readings put into Westminster Hall and having serious senior Government Ministers responding to debates in Westminster Hall-raising the status of it. I think we need to look at all those sorts of issues, and at opening it up at times when it is not opened at the moment and being a lot more experimental with it. It could take an awful lot of pressure off the time in the Chamber if we looked at that. That is a debate for another day, but I just do not think we are using Westminster Hall as efficiently as we could be.
Mr Nuttall : We are looking at it.
Q109 Chair : Do any of you wish to add anything that you feel perhaps we have not covered?
Tony Baldry: I think that, once a year, we should have a commemorative all-night sitting so that the younger Members can just know what it is that they are missing.
Chair : On that note, I think that we will finish this part of our proceedings. May I thank you all for coming? If after today, but before we have concluded our deliberations, you think of anything else that you would like to draw to our attention, please do drop me a line. Thank you very much indeed.
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Jonathan Edwards MP, Mary Macleod MP and Pete Wishart MP gave evidence.
Q110 Chair: Thank you for coming and thank you for waiting. In any inquiry like this the questioning, and to some extent the answers, are bound to go off into a wider arena but that is what we want to do because as you heard me say, at the outset, this is a pretty wide-ranging inquiry and we are anxious to cover as much ground as possible.
Do any of you want to make an opening statement? No.
Pete Wishart: We appreciate the opportunity to give evidence. This is important work.
Q111 Jacob Rees-Mogg: Thank you. To the two representatives of minority parties-so, Mary, I am leaving you out of this one-from your experience as representatives of smaller parties , what impact do the h ours have on your effectiveness, and how different is it from what you expected before you were elected?
Pete Wishart: I think, for us-we are from Scotland and Wales-that the idea of family-friendly hours is not really applicable. I think "family-friendly" for us means getting down here as late as possible and getting back as soon as possible, and ensuring that the time that you spend in your constituency can be as quality as possible. With Mondays, the big issue for us is that we have to get here, which is why the 2.30 pm start is convenient. That gives us opportunities to make sure we can get flights or trains down here. I know we will get into the discussion about what we will do with Fridays, but having that security and certainty that you have your Fridays available and free for constituency work is something that I think that we particularly value. I know we will get to the debate about what happens in the evenings on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday but, as far as I am concerned-and I know for colleagues in the Scottish National party-we are here anyway. There is no place else for us to go. We tend to be around, and either we are going to be here discussing and debating issues in the House of Commons, or we are going to be elsewhere in London twiddling our thumbs and wondering what to do of an evening.
Jonathan Edwards: I would agree fully with that. To give you an idea, on a perfect run-without delays on the M4, or train delays or tube delays-it is a four-hour run from my home to Westminster, so you effectively spend a working day every week travelling back and forth. As Pete was saying, "family-friendly" for us is to come down as late as possible and back as soon as possible.
Q112 Jacob Rees-Mogg : Within that, what about Thursdays? Would you want any change on Thursdays? Would, as has been suggested earlier, half an hour make any difference?
Jonathan Edwards: It makes a major difference to my personal quality of life if I can get a train back at around midday on a Thursday, rather than leaving after a vote at 6 pm, because otherwise I am not home much before midnight, so at least I can get Thursday night home with the family.
Pete Wishart: I think, for myself and my colleagues, is that we want to spend as little time as possible here, in fact. What I have observed-I don’t know if it has been touched on in the course of your debates and deliberations-is how the nature of the week has changed in the 10 years that I have been down. Monday used to be a pretty slack day on which there was very little in the way of whipped votes. Though you would come down, and maybe there were general debates or Opposition days, the focus was really Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, and there would seem to be a lot more whipped business on the Thursday afternoon. That has now changed, and the emphasis is now Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, with Thursday being available for us to get home because there does not seem to be as much whipped business. That is a shift that I very much welcome. When you see that there is a general debate, or a possibility of no vote or a one or two-line Whip, on a Thursday afternoon, that is very handy and convenient because you know you can get home in the evening and perhaps even do a little bit of constituency or party work on the Thursday night.
Q113 Chair: Do you find, as an M P who has a domestic Parliament or a domestic Assembly, that your co nstituency work is getting less- rather than what is typical for England , where it is getting more- because you have someone else focusing on domestic issues?
Pete Wishart: I think it is different. I don’t know if it is less or more. Certainly we don’t have an interest in the same way as English Members in domestic legislation such as health, education and criminal justice, but all that means is that you do much more on all the other stuff. All of a sudden you find that there are other things that come your way that you have an opportunity to look at and to assist your constituents with. I don’t think the quantity differs at all with the fact that we do not have domestic Departments to look after as constituency Members of Parliament. However, certainly, it is a little bit more varied than what English Members of Parliament might expect in the course of their day-to-day activities representing their constituents.
Q114 Chair: Do you want to say anything about that, Jonathan?
Jonathan Edwards: I think that is a bit of a difficult one for me to comment on because I have been a Member for only a year and the Assembly has been in existence for 10 years. I am fortunate enough that the constituency I represent is also Plaid Cymru-controlled at the Assembly level, so we have a joint office and joint staff. I would say most of my constituency work is local authority stuff. The unfortunate thing is that constituents expect their Assembly Member and their Member of Parliament to deal with the same issues. We try and deal with that by issuing joint letters and being more effective that way.
Q115 Jacob Rees-Mogg: I just want to carry on about your role as constituency MPs and at Westminster . Do you think it is the case that the further away you are from Westminster, the more your constituents understand that you are not going to be available in the middle of the week , where as if you are only an hour away, you get lots of invitations on Tuesday afternoons and people are quite disappointed when you do no t accept? Do you think that, actually, it is helpf ul to you to have the distance?
Pete Wishart: I suppose in a curious way it is helpful, in the respect that most of my constituents appreciate the fact that I am in London representing them in the House of Commons. I cannot remember in my10 years of being a Member of Parliament that I have been able to accept invitations on a Tuesday or Wednesday evening, because we are down here. Increasingly, local organisations in our constituency understand and appreciate that we are not available as Members of Parliament. That is a little bit of a comfort when there is this expectation that we will be here and that we will not be available in the same way as perhaps Members in closer proximity to London might be.
Jonathan Edwards: I perceive that constituency work is increasing in volume because of technological advancement, so you have e-mails, Twitter and all this sort of stuff at the moment. I get casework through Facebook. As technology is expanding, you are more accessible, and the fact that we are down here does not stop e-mails from flying in. The volume is incredible-well over 100 a day, easy.
Chair: Mary, do you want to comment on the point about people expecting you midweek if you have a seat nearby?
Q116 Mr Gray: Before she does, may I add a supplementary to that? In particular, had you been fortunate enough to have won Ross, Cromarty and Skye, which you fought before you came here, do you think that your attitude would be different to what it is as a London Member?
Mary Macleod: I think that the constituency work has increased a lot over the years, as was discussed earlier, as well as just now. In terms of distance, even though I am a London MP, I am not massively expected in my constituency much during the week, although I do try and do early mornings sometimes and I certainly get there in the evenings if I can. I think that there is just generally a very high expectation of Members of Parliament among the public, and they expect very fast responses to e-mails and letters-they expect us to be there. But I think we just have to try and manage that by how we communicate back to them. In terms of distance, I am assuming that your constituency work load may be slightly less than mine. I have 5,500 case files on constituency issues in my first year, which is a huge amount of work. Perhaps with having the Scottish Parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Welsh Assembly, there is slightly less work for those to do, but I still think there are issues of how you travel and the time you actually spend in Parliament.
Q117 Mr Gray: What about the difference between Ross, Cromarty and Skye? Do you accept that there might be a difference? Your attitude might have been different had you been a Member of Parliament for the north of Scotland rather than being a Member of Parliament for London?
Mary Macleod: My view is that we should spend slightly more time in the constituency, so I would do away with holding private Members’ Bills on Fridays to make sure that we can get up to our constituencies, whether they happen to be half an hour or four hours away.
Q118 Mr Gray: I am sorry to press you, but the question is: do you accept there is a difference between the Member of Parliament for Ross, Cromarty and Skye and the Member of Parliament for Brentford?
Mary Macleod: Brentford and Isleworth. To some extent, because I can be slightly more flexible in terms of what I can do first thing in the morning, so I could potentially do constituency visits in the morning.
Q119 Mrs Chapman: I was wondering about work-life balance. With lots of jobs, people have very poor work-life balance, such as people who work shifts, police officers, nurses and things like that. Is it any different being an MP? Should we be trying to organise our hours to be more family-friendly, or should we just stick with what we have?
Mary Macleod: I think that people do become an MP knowing what the role is. When you get senior in any organisation, you tend to put in a large amount of hours. I used to work in the City, so I certainly know what long hours are. However, I still think that if we want to get a representative group of Members of Parliament in the House of Commons, we should look at how we can have a much more flexible approach in terms of allowing people who are the brightest and best to be part of Parliament. The issue about a lack of control of time does make it difficult for some people, so I do think the hours put some people off taking on the role as a Member of Parliament.
Pete Wishart: I always find the work-life balance question quite curious. My marriage survived 15 years of rock and roll and barely one year in politics. I think that wasn’t so much down to the fact that I was down here at Westminster, because I had been going on tour for months and months on end and would be recording in different parts of Europe and the world. However, as a Member of Parliament, there could be one constituency appointment on a Saturday and Sunday-I represent the eighth largest constituency in the UK-and it could be perhaps 40 miles away from my home, so that would be the whole afternoon or morning taken up. I think we can be over-focused about being down here and the work that we do in the House of Commons as a Member of Parliament when trying to address that work-life balance, but there are massive issues in the constituency now, too. I am probably similar to most people around this table in that you very rarely get a Saturday off-that is just impossible. If you are very, very lucky, you might get some time on a Sunday, but if that one appointment comes along and it’s 35 miles away in Aberfeldy and I have to get there, that is the day gone. That is when you get the difficulties-problems with relationships and arrangements that you may have in terms of looking after family-and I think we have to recognise that there is an issue with constituency work, as well as the work that we do in this House.
Chair: Maybe you should write a song about it.
Pete Wishart: Maybe you could play drums for it, Chair.
Jonathan Edwards: I haven’t got much to add. I’d just say that, in my experience, I try and keep Sunday free, as a point of principle, because that is the only time I get to spend with my family. I think it is much harder on them than on us because, obviously, they have a constant. We have been back for five weeks now, and obviously I have been away now for about 12 to 13 days because I’ve been up in Llandudno with our conference. It’s much more difficult on my partner and my child than on myself.
Q120 Mrs Chapman: So you are saying it is more about how you manage it and that what you want is certainty, rather than what the actual sitting hours are down here.
Jonathan Edwards: Yes.
Q121 Mrs Chapman: And you are not saying that, Mary. You are saying the opposite of that.
Mary Macleod: I am saying that because people do have to spend a lot of time in their constituency-because constituents expect it and we have lots of constituency issues-I think that we should be spending more time in the constituency.
Q122 Mrs Chapman: What does that mean for hours, in your view?
Mary Macleod: I would support putting private Members’ Bills on a Tuesday evening-or on an evening-and I would like to think that we could adapt the hours so that there is more of a fairly normal week. It could be starting earlier in the morning and finishing at around 7 pm.
Q123 Mrs Chapman: And that would apply to Tuesday particularly.
Mary Macleod: Yes.
Q124 Mr Gray: If, indeed, you moved private Members’ business to a Wednesday, would not that make Wednesdays longer rather than shorter?
Mary Macleod: No, I said Tuesdays.
Q125 Mr Gray: If you said Tuesdays, you are talking about cutting into the number of hours used for legislation and holding the Government to account. Let me just ask you one question: how many Fridays have you attended in the past 12 months?
Mary Macleod: One, I think.
Mr Gray: So it makes no difference.
Mary Macleod: But I am not talking just for myself.
Q126 Mr Gray: If you come here on Friday, the likelihood is that nobody is here, so the day on which we have it does not make an awful lot of difference to the work-life balance you are talking about. But if what you said earlier happened, and we moved private Members’ business to Wednesday evenings, let’s say, which would be the most obvious occasion, you would actually be making the work-life balance thing worse, not better.
Mary Macleod: Yes. I was wanting to move private Members’ Bills to, say, a Tuesday night, so that takes away-
Mr Gray: So reducing the amount of Government time.
Mary Macleod: But you are moving hours forward earlier in the day. I do think legislation is incredibly important, so we need that time to get the Bills through.
Q127 Mr Gray: I am sorry to press this, but you could still make it worse. Let us say, in that case, that we sat at 9.30 am on Tuesday and did private Members’ business on Tuesday evenings, as you are proposing, so we would go to 10 pm. To someone like yourself who does not normally come to Fridays, you would be making it worse, not better.
Mrs Chapman: No, because the vote would be at 7 pm, and then Mary could decide if she wants to stay for the private Members’ business or not.
Mary Macleod: Absolutely. I have such a large constituency-
Mr Gray: In that case, the private Members’ business has nothing to do with it. That is an irrelevant point.
Mrs Chapman: Well, in some respects that is true.
Q128 Chair: I think that the point that James is making is this-let me phrase it another way. Sometimes the Government put business on after the hour we are supposed to finish, so we have some Wednesdays when we go to 8.30pm, and some Tuesdays when we may go beyond 10 pm. If we had a situation in which private Members’ business came on at the hour we were supposed to finish but there was further Government business, would that not make things worse for you, because you would have to stay until the end, which could be a very early hour the following morning? With Private Members’ business being on a Friday, however, you can choose to ignore it. I think that that was what James was trying to ask.
Mr Gray: That is right.
Mary Macleod: But I still think that you can adapt the timing to get Government business through. You can do deferred voting. It is important to get the Government time in, but I still think that you can move private Members’ Bills to a time when the individual could choose whether to stay and contribute to them, which often I would like to do. Alternatively, you could do constituency work in your office, or you could, if you live anywhere within the region that you can get to easily, go home to the family or to work from home. What it is all about is more flexibility and control in the system so that people know that they have more options, rather than the position now that is very open-ended, which means that it is very difficult to plan your diaries and what you are doing.
Q129 Jacob Rees-Mogg: I do not quite understand why you are worried. On an average Friday, there are probably about 20 MPs here who are not a duty Minister. There are about 40 duty Ministers, so probably 60 people all together.
Thomas Docherty : Some 64 Members voted on the Friday just gone.
Jacob Rees-Mogg: Quite a lot of the time it is the same people who are there every Friday. The overwhelming majority of MPs use Fridays as a constituency day, so I do not really see why moving to another day would help people. It does not really make a lot of difference to the overwhelming majority of MPs because a lot of the Bills coming through are of no interest to most people anyway. It is not that there are a huge number of exciting Bills that people are queuing up to vote on. A lot of it is people making political points through the form of a Bill.
Mary Macleod: I am not sure whether you are saying private Members’ Bills are a waste of time, but if I do think that private Members’ Bills are important, I want them to be considered at a time when I have more of a choice to attend. My issue is that on Fridays, like most MPs, I have back-to-back constituency events-surgeries, visiting different organisations and dealing with local issues. I would like to go and contribute to some of those private Members’ Bills but, at the moment, I just do not feel that I have the choice.
Q130 Jacob Rees-Mogg: You came to one, but how many did you think that you would have come to? When you looked at the Order Paper, about how many did you think, "Goodness, that’s interesting"?
Mary Macleod: I couldn’t comment on that just now, but I am happy to give you feedback afterwards.
Pete Wishart: I think that it is a real pity that we have Private Members’ Bills on a Friday because they are real fun. We enjoy doing private Members’ Bills. Thomas and I were down at the West Lothian question debate on Friday and it was a really good debate. People were quite passionate about it and there were some important and valid points made. I only went because it was a relevant, necessary party interest that required a contribution. I would love to go to a lot more private Members’ Bills but I won’t-I refuse to give up my constituency day to come down and talk about Bills that are very unlikely to become legislation and will probably get by without my contribution. I would like to come to a lot more and I think to have the opportunity to do that would be a really useful and valuable thing. If we are getting into when they should be I see nothing wrong at all with the Wednesday evening. I heard some of the debate previously about how this may lead to an extension to the working day but, as I said in my initial contribution, I am here anyway. If it is a fun debate, I will go along and take part in it; if it’s rotten, I’ll go away home and do something different.
Q131 Chair: Is that a party view or your personal view?
Pete Wishart: It is a personal view, but I think if you were to ask any Scottish National party member the very same question, you would probably get roughly the same response.
Q132 Mr Nuttall: There are only two Fridays between today and the end of this year on which Parliament is sitting, as a matter of fact.
Jonathan Edwards: I was just going to say that I think there is a discussion about whether Parliament wants to make private Members’ Bills more important and meaningful. Under the current system, my Friday is blocked off for the constituency, and if I did not turn up in Carmarthen on a Friday morning, my staff would lynch me-and quite rightly. If you want to make private Members’ Bills more meaningful, they have to come forward earlier in the week.
Q133 Chair: And of course for you, with the House finishing at 2.30pm on a Friday, you would not get home until 6.30 pm.
Jonathan Edwards: Yes, that wouldn’t be too bad. The Thursday is an issue, when we finish at 6 pm and it is a three or four-hour trip back. I would never stay down on a Friday unless there was something of party interest of key importance meaning that we had to be present.
Q134 Mr Gale: Last Friday, there was a serious attempt to address the West Lothian question-
Pete Wishart: No.
Mr Gale: Last Friday, all but one of the Members present made a serious attempt-[Laughter.] There were exceptions. No, that is not fair; you were being very serious.
The Bill, however, was defeated by 40 payroll voters to 20. There were 60 Members of Parliament present to consider something that had been through Second Reading and Committee. The Bill was back on report, and it was killed. Whether you believe the rights and wrongs of that Bill, there is an argument that if that had been considered in proper parliamentary time, as opposed to on a Friday, the result might have been the same, but the debate would have been much broader. If Fridays are a no-no for most Members of Parliament-and I suspect they are-is there any reason at all why private Members’ Bills should not be taken during a normal sitting day in Westminster Hall? We take this attitude that Members have a right to be in the Chamber-no they don’t! If you are on a Standing Committee and there is something serious taking place on the Floor of the House, you have a choice: you are in the Standing Committee or you are on the Floor of the House-you cannot be both. Why cannot we take private Members’ Bills in Westminster Hall on, let us say, a Wednesday afternoon?
Chair: What about voting?
Mr Gale: You either defer the vote-
Chair: Okay, Pete Wishart to answer, but may I just make an aside to my Committee colleague? If you were dealing with the Report stage of a private Member’s Bill, you could not defer the vote.
Pete Wishart: That was one of the points I was going to make in response to that question. I also get the sense that if we did relegate private Members’ Bills to Westminster Hall, they would become almost like second-class pieces of legislation. We would not consider doing that with anything else at all. Westminster Hall is for general debates and Adjournment debates in which where we can bring up constituency issues-I think that that is the demarcation. If I have a private Member’s Bill-I was fortunate enough to have one a few years ago-I want it to be debated and discussed like real legislation, and if we are debating and discussing real legislation, that should take place on the Floor of the House.
Q135 Mr Gale: The House is always about priorities. I will concede that the one thing you cannot do is have a simultaneous vote in both Chambers. Other than that, there is absolutely no reason why you should not have a Division on a Westminster Hall vote at the same time as the main Chamber is sitting. Members have to decide all the time where they are going to be and what is most important to them. If we are seriously going to address this issue, surely we could do that.
Pete Wishart: I still take the view that for most Members of Parliament, if we are being honest with ourselves, if there is something going on in the main Chamber and something going on in Westminster Hall, the main Chamber comes first. I get the sense that if we decide to put private Members’ Bills in Westminster Hall, there will be an attitude, and a culture and feeling, that they are not the same as all other legislation. If you are lucky enough to get selected at the top of the private Members’ Bills ballot, you want that Bill to go through the same way as the Health and Social Care Bill or tuition fees-you want it to be addressed properly by the House.
Q136 John Hemming: May I just ask the question of whether it is legally enforceable and whether actually article 9 of the Bill of Rights Article 9 applies, rather than rather than which room this happens in? Rooms other than the Chamber have been used in the past.
Mary Macleod: I am perfectly happy for Westminster Hall to be used more-I think that it should be used more. There have been some great debates in Westminster Hall. I don’t think we use it enough. It could potentially be used for private Members’ Bills, and I disagree about always going to the Chamber. I look at the subject and topic, and if there is something in the Westminster Hall Chamber that is relevant to my constituency or something of interest, I will go to it. To me, it really is more about topic.
Q137 Thomas Docherty: A question to all three members of the panel. There was a suggestion last week from Sir Alan Beith, in his role as Chair of the Liaison Committee, that specific time should be set aside for Select Committees and Bill Committees when the House is not sitting in the Chamber. With your three different perspectives, what are your thoughts about that? This could be either having a Committee week, or having more slots when the House cannot proceed.
Pete Wishart: I think that the Select Committees of the House have been a disaster for the minority parties-a total and utter disaster. We are on fewer Select Committees than we have ever been on in the 10 years I have been a Member. I am no longer a member of any Committees; Jonathan is not a member-
Jonathan Edwards: Welsh Affairs.
Pete Wishart: Okay. Half of my group are not members of a Select Committee. The Wright proposals practically killed any meaningful contribution to the Select Committees of the House. If we were to do that, you would effectively be proposing that minority parties would not have the same type of input and engagement with the work of the House. I really do believe that we are going to have to revisit the whole Wright proposal and the whole structure of Select Committees because they are not serving the whole House at all. They are serving the Government and they are serving the Labour Opposition, but they are not serving the minority parties, and we should have a voice in the workings of the House. We generally get a place on Public Bill Committees-there is usually a place reserved for minority parties-because those Committees are bigger so, arithmetically, we are entitled to that position. That is the issue that we have with Select Committees, because arithmetically we are not entitled, because Wright dramatically and drastically reduced the size of Select Committees. These are real issues for us. I know it is not really for your Committee to look at this, Chair, but if we are talking about reform of Select Committees, remember that a lot of this does not apply to all the parties in the House. It applies to the Government and to the Labour Opposition, but not to the rest of us.
Chair: You have made your point very well and of course it is now a matter of public record.
Thomas Docherty: May I say to Pete that, if it helps, next time I am put up for a statutory instrument Committee, I am more than happy to give up my place for him?
Q138 Chair: You heard the earlier suggestion of a time limit on speeches for private Members’ Bills. Is that something you would agree with? Mary has nodded her head, just for the record.
Mary Macleod: Yes, I do think it is worth doing that. We waste a certain amount of time in Parliament, and often private Members’ Bills get talked out, so you question what the point is. I think that people should be able to say what they want to say within a certain time frame. If that allows many more people to contribute-even in general debates-I would much prefer that, rather than people not being able to get the chance.
Q139 Chair: One of the procedures used by a particular member who does not like private Members’ Bills was the device of presenting half a dozen or more Bills and timing them for debate to take up private Members’ time, allowing the debate to run and then withdrawing the Bill. Do you think that there is a case for saying that any one Member should have only, say, three Bills-[Interruption]-before the House at any one time? Mary interjected to say one, but may I just say that if you have a ten-minute Bill and you then ballot in the top 20, you would then have two? I think it would be unfair to say that your name is struck off the ballot and then, of course, you may want to present a Bill on a constituency issue. I think that three is the figure we thought might be fair. Is that something you support-restricting members to only three ongoing Bills at any one time?
Mary Macleod: I think it is a fair thing to do. Again there are 650 MPs-or 600, depending on the legislation-and it gives everybody a chance to get things through, so I would support that.
Pete Wishart: It is really curious because we all know who we were talking about when we are addressing this particular question. Sometimes Mr Chope seems like a one-man Government given the number of Bills that he brings forward. It is a creative way of looking at the rules and trying to subvert them, and obviously the agenda is to ensure that nothing progresses when it comes to private Members’ Bills. I know that it was good old Eric Forth who used to carry that torch before Christopher Chope decided that it was going to be his particular task to talk down private Members’ Bills. There was nothing you could do. If you had a private Members’ Bill and you knew that Eric was coming along, you knew you were stuffed, basically-there was nothing you could do to address that. So, if it is necessary to bring in some sort of procedure to stop that happening, I would support it, but you would just hope that colleagues would behave in a comradely, collegiate way and allow business to progress without resorting to those sorts of tricks.
Chair: Do any of my colleagues wish to ask anything else?
Q140 Thomas Docherty: Just to the two members of the panel from SNP and Plaid Cymru. Are you at all concerned that a debate is being held around the sitting hours that does not recognise the four nations of the United Kingdom? Is there any danger of a perception that this does not recognise that there are very distinct challenges or logistical issues? Is that a fair question?
Jonathan Edwards: This particular Committee’s work?
Thomas Docherty: Yes, the sitting hours that we are debating. Some colleagues from north of the border have suggested to me that we are having a debate about London MPs that does not reflect the fact that, as I think you touched on already, you could not go home. I think that Tom said that he could not go home to Rutherglen. Is that a fair observation?
Jonathan Edwards: Well, I think it is right and proper-obviously looking at it from our point of view-that you want to condense it as much as possible, even further than at the moment. I think that everything is up for negotiation. There is a tension with where people are located geographically, but we are very grateful for the opportunity today to present our case.
Q141 Mr Gale: Does that mean that you would sooner sit longer hours but fewer days?
Jonathan Edwards: My point of view is I want to condense as much as possible. I am more than happy to sit on a Wednesday evening if I can get home early on a Thursday.
Pete Wishart: I have not heard that before in this debate, and I can see that there is a particular issue with Members of Parliament, but when it comes to hours, we all have our own particular views. We heard interesting contributions today from the other people from whom you were taking evidence. I do not get a sense that that is the agenda. I think the sitting arrangements probably have much more influence and impact among other Members. I imagine there would be pressure from local constituency associations or organisations to go and do work in the evening and people saying, "You are available now if you finish at 6 pm, so we expect you to be along to a number of events." Jonathan and I would not get that type of pressure because we will still have to be here. I think that the sitting arrangements and the family-friendly hours, when it comes to what they actually mean to me as a Member of Parliament and how I conduct my work, are bigger questions for London MPs than for us from the rest of the nations.
Chair: I hope it is clear from today’s evidence session that we are listening to and taking all shades of opinion in the course of this inquiry. May I thank you for your valuable help and assistance? We do indeed have a very difficult job to do, but we are going to see if we can grasp it and come up with something which is, hopefully, acceptable. At least it will give the House an opportunity in this Parliament to express an opinion. If after today you can think of anything else that we have not covered, please do drop me a line. Thank you for your time. It is much appreciated, and I am grateful to you for coming today.