Jurassic House

November 08, 2002 ,

THE BBC's On the Record programme titles feature the Palace of Westminster in the shape of an animated dinosaur, an image which many MPs referred to this week.

The House of Commons was discussing its hours of sitting, and concluded that they must change. No more votes at 10pm and beyond. The House will now conclude its business at 7pm, other than on a Monday.

Also, we will come back in September for two weeks before the Party Conferences.
This latter change makes a lot of sense. The summer recess is too long, and leaves the government free to take decisions without proper scrutiny, often resulting in a recall of parliament anyway.

But what about the hours? Aren't MPs slacking off by knocking off at 7pm?

The answer is no, because the Chamber will sit earlier from 11.30am onwards. In fact, the vast majority of MPs have mornings full of activity anyway. It is a mistake to think that all an MP does is sit in the Chamber. There are numerous other jobs that fill the day from answering constituency letters, to attending committees, doing media interviews and meeting ministers and constituents.

Several arguments were put forward in favour of changing the hours. The House of Commons can seem like a pleasant open prison (though not as pleasant as Jeffrey Archer's one) with electronically tagged MPs tied to its precincts by their pagers. Some say the change would make it more ‘family friendly', but that is academic to most MPs whose families do not live in London.
Some argued that it would make parliament look more modern and relevant to the public, and easier to get coverage for its work on the media.

That may or may not be true, but it isn't the most important reason to change the hours. The only really relevant reason to do so is if it improves the quality of the House of Commons' scrutiny of government.

It was because I did not think it would achieve this, that I voted against the change in hours. Some people seem to think that makes me the dinosaur, but my main reason was simple.
The House of Commons already meets in the morning on a Thursday. That is the time when the Select Committee of which I am an MP sits. It means I am unable to attend important question sessions with ministers in the Chamber.

As a backbencher, it prevents me from being able to scrutinize, for example, the Treasury when Gordon Brown comes to the House to answer questions. I deeply regret that, and I believe that these kinds of clashes will become more common.

However, the change in hours was agreed, narrowly, on a free vote. I hope that I am wrong and that those who argued in favour are right.

Then in a year's time the new relevant House of Commons will have risen in the public's esteem, and old dinosaurs like me will be threatened with extinction.

Whatever happens, I will not be buying a pipe, a pair of slippers and a tin of cocoa for the evenings in London. There are still plenty of questions to prepare, speeches and articles to write, and yes, maybe on the odd evening, a theatre visit.