HC Deb 29 March 1999 vol 328 cc724-5
39. Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham)

If she will make it her policy to announce the likely dates of periodic adjournments at the start of each Session. [77408]

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett)

I understand that hon. Members would prefer to have a greater degree of certainty about Parliament's timetable, and recognise that that would contribute to efficient management in the House and for individual Members. However, it is not possible to predict the progress of business with sufficient accuracy to give so far in advance dates as precise as those sought by my hon. Friend.

Mr. MacShane

I find my right hon. Friend's answer disappointing. I realise that she has inherited a ramshackle system for running this place—probably one that William Rufus would have recognised—but if we are to modernise and to have joined-up government, we need a modernised Parliament and a modernised parliamentary calendar. No other Parliament in the world has a system as absurd as ours, in which we do not set dates. The system is unfair on Members with families, and on Members who want to plan things in their constituencies and to undertake other political and parliamentary business outside the House. Can we consider the matter again and try to institute a parliamentary calendar that stands for a year, allowing for emergencies and special exceptions? That would be welcomed by all Members of the House.

Mrs. Beckett

I understand the attractions of a more fixed calendar. However, my hon. Friend will be aware that, broadly speaking, the House has a pattern of sittings with which hon. Members are familiar. We try to give as much notice as we can. For example, on 4 February, I gave notice of the weeks that would be included in the Easter and Whitsun recesses. In recent years, the warning for the spring recess has been 67 days on average. In one year, notice was only seven days; I gave 116 days' notice, so I think that we are moving in the direction that my hon. Friend wants.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

Could not the right hon. Lady move a little further towards her hon. Friend, who expressed such disappointment in her original reply? Will she give the House the full dates of the Whitsun recess? She has told us the week, but she has not told us which days before and after that week might be included. Will she also give us a target—for example, the end of June—by which date she would hope to announce the dates for the summer recess?

Mrs. Beckett

I understand that for the past 10 years the dates of the summer recess have not been announced before the middle of June. I take the right hon. Gentleman's point about giving greater notice, but I fear that the progress of business is sufficiently uncertain that at present I am not able to give him the extra dates for which he has asked. I shall do so as soon as I possibly can.