Blair plan for elected city bosses

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Political Editor

A radical overhaul of Prime Minister's Question Time and the first-ever introduction of directly elected city mayors are at the centre of a sweeping new agenda for political reform which Tony Blair, the Labour leader, is intending to unveil between now and the general election.

Mr Blair revealed in an interview with the Independent that he favours replacing the twice-weekly Commons Question Time - including the "absurd" ritual under which questions are put - as part of a big shake-up of "antiquated and out-of-touch" parliamentary procedures.

And he disclosed that he was strongly warming to the idea that Labour should bring in powerful, directly elected mayors for big cities - including London - in a move to restore public interest in town hall politics and act as a "modern symbol of local government."

Mr Blair said that he had already written to the Commons Select Committee on procedure proposing the introduction of a half-hour long once-a-week new-style Prime Minister's Question time. Mr Blair believes that TV's attention to the "personally abusive exchanges" on Tuesday and Thursday is a key factor in bringing Westminster politics into public disrepute.

He said: "There needs to be an acceptance that questions should genuinely hold ministers to account and elicit information." Mr Blair envisages running the new half-hour session - possibly on Wednesdays - for a trial period which if successful would lead to an end to the present Tuesday and Thursday 15-minute sessions.

The Labour leader, who said that he was "worried about the calibre of people going into politics at every level" said of Labour's proposal to follow European and US practice by introducing city mayors that it could play a vital role in what he wanted to see as a full-scale "revival of local government."

He acknowledged that a proposal for directly elected mayors would meet opposition from some Labour councillors and insisted that no final decisions had been made. But he added: "The party is discussing the proposal and I don't want to shut that discussion down. But I think we need to have a modern symbol of local government."

He declared: "My commitment to changing politics to a new and different politics is total. I want to change the political culture of Britain. It is old-fashioned and out of date."

Mr Blair said that his proposed shake-up of Commons Question Time was part of a wider range of changes to Parliamentary procedures which included the way in which bills passed through the Commons. He said he wanted to see many more special standing committees of the kind he abortively suggested to John Major should consider the present Asylum and Immigration Bill.

Mr Blair also gave a hint that he might not insist on all Cabinet ministers voting the same way in the referendum on electoral reform he has promised for the next Parliament.

Full interview, page 19