Revolution as MPs get free-vote on where they sit

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PARLIAMENTARY DEBATE will take on a new guise next week when MPs from opposing parties will be able to sit next to each other during debates for the first time.

From Tuesday, backbenchers will use the refurbished mini-chamber in Westminster Hall for debates on uncontroversial subjects and constituency matters. More than 50 MPs will be able to sit in the chamber, which was re-built at a cost of nearly pounds 1m.

Given the new chamber is laid out in a semi-circle, modelled on the Scottish and Continental-style parliaments, speculation is mounting over who MPs will choose to sit next to when no longer constrained by the divisional arrangements of the Commons.

For example, not only may Old Labour MPs such as Robert Marshall-Andrews and Gwyneth Dunwoody suddenly find themselves drawn to the Liberal Democrats over their frustration about the Government's plans to restrict the right to a jury trial, but on future debates on Britain's military interventions Tony Benn and Tam Dalyell could share their desks with Tory grandees such as Sir Peter Tapsell.

It is exactly this type of co-operation which was envisaged when the Commons modernisation committee drew up the new sitting arrangements.

Crucial to the arrangement is the fact that no votes will be allowed to be called in the mini-chamber.

Margaret Beckett, the Leader of the House of Commons, said: "We hope this will add a new spirit to Parliament and lead to more constructive and interesting debate. If debate is followed by a vote, people cannot express themselves in the same way. In the Commons, because of its adversarial nature, there is always an element is the clash, the theatre and the row. We hope this place will have a different tone.

"Shouting at each other is not what good parliamentary debate is about."

Backbenchers will be able to call so-called adjournment debates. This will mean that they can debate a subject of their choice, with a minister responding, on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings.

On Thursday mornings, MPs will also be able to scrutinise select committee reports.

The various committees produce more than 150 reports each year, but only 10 per cent of them are ever debated due to the previous shortage of parliamentary time.

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