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Will Westminster's Working Hours Modernise After Today?

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Joan Ruddock MP will today lobby her colleagues for a change of working hours in the House. It's quite a modest request really: she suggests close of day at 6 or 7pm midweek for business in the House, enabling MPs to get back to their young children in time to read them a bedtime story if they are within commuting distance, while the workaholics can continue with parliamentary business. She warns that the pressures will magnify when the present number of MPs is reduced, increasing their workload.

Joan, a long-time campaigner for modernising working hours in the House, surveyed 554 MPs to judge their level of support for change and had 388 responses from fellow Members who appear in favour of earlier starting and finishing times on Tuesdays - Thursdays. Joan will present these findings to the Procedure Committee to show that a majority of MPs would prefer working 11.30am - 7pm on Tuesdays, and/or 10.30am-6pm on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays (60..8% Labour, 56.9% Conservative and 66.6% Liberal Democrats). Disappointingly, only 123 out of 305 Conservative MPs responded to the survey, despite this government's pledge to modernise Parliament, compared to 227 out of 257 Labour MPs and 30 out of 40 Liberal Democrat MPs. Ministers were not surveyed.

Joan is the feisty former Minister of State for Energy, and Minister for Women, as well as a former CND chair, who we can credit to a great extent for our present kerbside recycling collection. As a press consultant promoting recycling around 2003 or 04, I remember meeting Joan and listening as she described how she once cornered Gordon Brown as Chancellor of the Exchequer to make fiscal changes in support of her plans which seem quite humble now; she wanted all local authorities to ensure that every household had a collection of at least two types of recyclable waste by the year 2010. Most local authorities in the UK must have surpassed that.

However, getting her own House in order and reducing its late night sittings has been a greater challenge for Joan, who is married to Labour MP Frank Doran. She contacted me following my recent post on the working hours of MPs to thank me for highlighting the issues, and to inform me of this report entitled, Sitting Hours of the House.

Joan, who was elected 24 years ago, tells it straight, describing her efforts to modernise Westminster over the years, along with fellow MP Ann Coffey, as well as Robin Cook:

I had some knowledge of the House before I arrived and had always worked long hours under pressure. However, I quickly discovered that the House was the least efficient working environment I had ever encountered. I also found working in the Commons divorced from everyday experience, unhealthy and inimicable to the maintenance of a private life.

I was determined to do what I could to help modernise the institution. In 2001 I joined the Modernisation Committee, which was taken over by Robin Cook later that year. Ann Coffey, MP for Stockport, was also a member of the Committee. Together we pushed for a radical set of proposals, many of which were adopted by the House in 2002 and took effect in January 2003. A few important proposals did not get the backing of the Cabinet and were not put to the House. One of the reforms adopted - namely the earlier Tuesday sitting - was reversed in 2005.

Both Ann Coffey and I remained determined to revisit the modernisation programme if the opportunity ever arose again. We saw that opportunity last year with the large turnover of MPs in the 2010 election and the great loss of public confidence following the expenses scandal.

When I came to the Commons in 1987, over 40% of sittings went to midnight or beyond, including all-night sittings where the next day's business was lost. Over the next decade these late sittings were reduced to around 5%, but the House still met 2.30pm to 10.30pm Monday to Thursday.

Surveys indicate that MPs admit to being exhausted much of the time and stressed by their jobs, with personal lives suffering as a consequence. Starting and finishing formal business earlier would give MPs more control over the remaining hours of the day. Most would continue to work, but in their own way; those who can would chose to go home.

The role of an MP has changed radically during the 24 years I have been in Parliament. The advent of a second debating chamber, increased work in Select Committees, the increased pressure of 24 hour media, e-campaigns and particularly the demands of constituents have all made our roles more complex and demanding. These changes are irreversible and will get worse when the number of MPs is reduced to 600. Time management is at a premium and that is why so many MPs seek more control of their time, as well as more predictability in the parliamentary day.

When Tuesdays started at 11.30am in 2003-2005, the rest of Parliament's work was adjusted accordingly and it worked. When Tuesdays started at 11.30am in 2003-2005, the rest of Parliament's work was adjusted accordingly and it worked. Furthermore, Thursday's arrangements illustrate that it would be possible to run Tuesday and Wednesday from 10.30am. Wednesday's Prime Minister's Questions might be seen as a special concern, but departmental question times could be rearranged so that there was an hour-long session preceding PMQs on Wednesdays and a half hour on Thursdays.

Starting Thursdays at 10.00am would enable those few MPs with especially difficult journeys to reach home that night. If Tuesdays started at 10.30am or 11.30am PMBs could be taken that evening. Bills would be timetabled, normally voting at 10.00pm (a Bill could be held over until the following week in exceptional cases by agreement).

Friday sittings should be ended, enabling every MP to be in his or her constituency, demonstrating that attending to constituency matters is a key part of the job.

I hope that the outcomes of Joan's survey is heeded when she presents her written submission to the Procedure Committee.. The House has adjourned later than 2am on one occasion in the last year, and frequently sits between 10pm - midnight. No wonder some MPs are exhausted! We expect organisations to have a duty of care towards their staff, so who is responsible for the well being of our MPs? The constituency association are their employers, in effect, but they have no right to parliamentary decision making, so it is up to MPs to decide.

Astonishingly, Joan says she had no wish to reduce the number of hours worked - which are often around 80 hours per week, but the hours in which they are worked.

We should support the needs of MPs to have a happy family life. If it wasn't for the fact that Joan and her husband are both MPs and can perhaps juggle their diaries to meet up for lunch, they may find it difficult to spend much time together as Frank's constituency is in Aberdeen North - the opposite end of the country to Joan's London constituency of Lewisham Deptford.