Labour to scrap Commons questions

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The Independent Online
Prime Minister's questions, the twice-weekly gladiatorial contest which has become a staple of television news bulletins, could be abolished if Labour comes to power.

Tony Blair, the Labour leader, will this week back far-reaching proposals to reform Parliament, including the ending of the questions session. The move is part of the Opposition's pledge to reform a political system that Mr Blair believes has lost touch with the voters.

The Labour leader will speak at a meeting, organised by the pressure group Charter 88 and Labour front-bencher Derek Fatchett, designed to explore ways of improving the procedures and performance of the House of Commons.

The shadow Leader of the House, Ann Taylor, will call for a thorough audit of the functions that the Commons performs well and those in which it fails. Ms Taylor yesterday identified two areas in which the Commons under-performs: holding ministers to account and influencing and scrutinising legislation.

She added that ministerial questions - when Cabinet and junior ministers are questioned over their departmental responsibilities - tend "not to produce productive responses but seem to be more about point-scoring than anything else".

She added: "We need to take a more fundamental look at what Parliament's role is and how we can improve it."

Mr Blair's hostility to Prime Minister's questions is already on record. Last year he told the Select Committee on Procedure that he could see "a good case for a radical overhaul of Prime Minister's questions", and that the viewing public who see it "are in danger of getting a completely distorted view of our parliamentary process". He added that there was "enormous emphasis on Prime Minister's questions, which I regret is often at the expense of other parliamentary occasions of equal or greater importance".

Mr Blair's allies said yesterday that the Labour leader still felt strongly that Question Time had become a sterile ritual. He thought its inadequacies fitted into a wider pattern of political failings including the growth of sleaze and the Government's refusal to implement in full the findings of inquiries set up by John Major.

Mr Fatchett, the sponsor of Tuesday's seminar, said: "If we are talking about modernising other aspects of the UK, we need to talk about modernising Parliament". About 100 Labour MPs have said they will attend.

Ms Taylor will propose a committee, which may include people from outside Westminster, to examine the pros and cons of existing structures.

She believes that the Commons is good at representing constituents. It is also good at responding quickly, with ministerial statements, to national crises such as oil spillages or rail disasters. However, she sees inadequacies both in the way that ministers are held to account and in the extent to which MPs can influence, as well as scrutinise, legislation as it passes through committee stages.

Among the options being considered for Question Time is an amalgamation of the two 15-minute Prime Ministerial question sessions into one half- hour slot. This would allow the Prime Minister more notice of questions and MPs more opportunity to query the answers.

Many Labour MPs believe that the formalised initial question, asking the Prime Minister to list his engagements for the day, should be scrapped. Some of the innovations could be extended to ministerial questions.

Mr Fatchett will back a suggestion that select committees should take over the work of scrutinising legislation. MPs would then be able to take evidence on the effect of proposed new laws before they reach the Statute Book.

Labour accepts that the final decision on any changes will rest with MPs and that its approach cannot be prescriptive. However, if it wins the election, Labour, as the largest party, would have the major say in the reform of the Commons.