Commons traditions face axe

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The Independent Online
DRAMATIC changes to the workings of the House of Commons, which would sweep away decades of tradition, end late night sittings and give MPs more time at home, have been put forward to the Cabinet.

The move, outlined in a private letter from the Leader of the House, Ann Taylor, and circulated to the Cabinet, is the start of one of Labour's boldest acts of modernisation - designed to make the workings of the institution more attractive as a place of work for women. But it would put the MP for Dewsbury in direct confrontation with Betty Boothroyd, the Speaker of the House, who is concerned about changing the traditions of the Mother of Parliaments.

Ms Taylor's scheme represents the boldest attempt yet to transform the archaic hours and style of the Commons' proceedings. Proposals include:

t Early sittings with far more important morning business in the chamber.

t Parliamentary questions from 11.30 am. The paper accepts Cabinet would have to end early.

t Half-term breaks. Although school holidays are not standard throughout the country parents would welcome this and accept that dates will not be perfect. MPs already have a Whitsun break but could gain more holiday in October and February.

t Standing committees meeting when the House is not sitting.

t Votes starting at 1.30pm.

t Business to end at 9pm. This would be by agreement through the "usual channels" with the Conservatives.

The letter was sent to John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, by Ms Taylor, who heads the committee charged with modernising the House of Commons; she has asked for comments from her colleagues before compiling the Government's official position.

Ministers are aware of the sensitivity surrounding Parliamentary reform and are keen to proceed if possible by building a consensus. The Tories will, for example, be anxious to ensure the plans do not erode their powers as an opposition to filibuster. However Labour's huge majority gives them an unrivalled opportunity to change the way Parliament works.

After taking into account comments from Cabinet members, Ms Taylor will put the Government's proposals formally to the modernisation committee, which includes opposition MPs including the Shadow Leader of the House. Providing they can agree, the reforms will be debated and voted upon by MPs before the summer recess.

Modernisation of the political process, and attracting more women into Parliament, have been themes of Tony Blair's leadership. One of his first acts was to combine the twice-weekly ritual of Prime Minister's Questions into one session of double the length.

Ms Taylor's modernisation committee has already proved the engine of significant changes to the Commons traditions.

Earlier this month, MPs approved recommendations from the committee to sweep away the most archaic debating procedures, including scrapping the tradition of donning a top hat to make a point of order during a vote.

Under the old rules, if an MP sought to raise a point of order during a division, they had to speak "seated and covered".

MPs also backed changes so that a member will also no longer be able to shout "I spy strangers" in order to clear the public galleries and disrupt business, but will instead have to suggest "that the House sit in private".

Other changes which were approved without a vote included the abolition of preference given to Privy Counsellors' speeches in debates and the rule preventing MPs quoting from speeches made in the House of Lords

However reformers' hopes of introducing electronic voting into the Commons were dashed when the committee ruled that there was insufficient support among MPs for such a move.

Many MPs felt that the Commons vote gives them a valuable opportunity to speak informally to government ministers.