Hats off as MPs get modern

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The Independent Online
SWEEPING changes to the Commons, which will end one of the chamber's most arcane traditions and limit the length of some speeches by MPs, will be made public tomorrow.

The moves, agreed by the Commons' modernisation committee, will mean the end of the rule - in evidence only last week during the fox hunting Bill debate - whereby an MP wears a top hat to raise a point of order during a division.

The Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, will also be given much greater discretion to limit the length of MPs' speeches in shorter debates.

The report comes as David Clark, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, prepares a separate initiative which would send civil servants on secondment to the House of Commons to shadow backbench MPs. These short-term assignments would be introduced to help civil servants gain a better understanding of how MPs work, including their constituency workload.

The moves to modernise the Commons are the first stage in a series of changes which could revolutionise the way our parliamentarians work.

The cross-party committee, chaired by Ann Taylor, Leader of the House, will propose that Betty Boothroyd should have discretion to limit contributions to as little as eight minutes. At present, there are very limited circumstances in which the Speaker can limit MPs to 10 minutes. The greater discretion granted to Ms Boothroyd would mean she could choose the time limit as long as it was not less than eight minutes.

The committee will also propose scrapping the convention rule whereby Privy Councillors must be called to speak first in debates. Under the new plans, Ms Boothroyd would take several factors into account, including seniority, expertise and status as a Privy Councillor, but would have discretion not to call Privy Councillors if she felt others deserved precedence.

This proposal caused the most controversy on the committee, with one MP refusing to endorse the recommendations.

Ms Taylor's committee has decided that, in place of the top hat, MPs who wish to raise a point of order should sit in one of two specified places in the chamber - on each side of the House.

The modernisation committee has already produced several suggestions for improving legislation, including allocating more time for consultation and an agreed cross-party programme to improve scrutiny of Bills.

Later this year Ms Taylor's team will tackle the issue of electronic voting for MPs, the implementation of which could allow parliamentarians to vote at the touch of a button or via a swipe card, either in their seats or the voting lobbies. MPs might be permitted to vote in other parts of the Palace of Westminster but not from outside Parliament.

Contrary to several reports, the committee is not reviewing the pageantry of the State Opening of Parliament under which the Lord Chancellor walks backwards from the Monarch, while negotiating the steps leading from the throne in the Lords.

Those arrangements do not fall under the jurisdiction of Ms Taylor's committee, which is restricted to procedures in the Commons.

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