After three months off, MPs return to reform Parliament

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Indy Politics

MPs return from their three-month summer recess today to prepare for a year in which the face of Parliament will change dramatically.

MPs return from their three-month summer recess today to prepare for a year in which the face of Parliament will change dramatically.

So will its average age: the 751 hereditary peers are due to lose their right to speak, vote and enjoy free parking and the best club in London when the current parliamentary session ends next month.

Although 91 hereditaries will survive, the others may yet have one last hurrah by delaying the bill which will sign their death warrant after 900 years. A close vote is in prospect when the measure comes up for its third reading on 26 October.

Down the corridor in the Commons, the gossip on the first day of term will be more prosaic: the big talking point is that the school dinners are being cooked in temporary buildings in the courtyard while the kitchens are being renovated.

The classroom monitors, otherwise known as the whips, will be anxious to find out whether the Labour boys and girls are going to misbehave in the coming year. An early test will come over welfare reform in the next few weeks, the "spillover" period from the parliamentary year which began last November.

A major Commons rebellion is in prospect over cuts in disability benefit and has been fuelled by the Government's defeat on the issue in the Lords last week. More than 70 Labour backbenchers are threatening to vote against the move and the scale of the revolt will tell us something about the authority of headmaster Blair.

A lot has happened during the summer hols, giving the boys and girls plenty to chatter about. Peter Mandelson is back in the cabinet and, after a joyous weekend surveying his new pile at Hillsborough Castle, will answer questions on Northern Ireland tomorrow.

Michael Portillo came out during the summer and hopes to come back to the Commons in a by-election in Kensington and Chelsea before Christmas, caused by the death of the colourful Alan Clark, who will be sorely missed.

The Liberal Democrats return to Westminster with a new leader. Charles Kennedy, a veteran of Have I Got News For You? on television, admits he will suffer a wee bit of stagefright when he asks his first question as leader during Prime Minister's Question Time tomorrow. The question is: will be nice or nasty to his friend Tony?

The Queen's Speech, expected on 17 November, will probably mark the start of the last full parliamentary year before the next general election, widely expected in the spring of 2001. The occasion may have less immediate impact on ordinary people's lives than the England-Scotland football match on the same day, but the eventual impact of the legislation will be as far-reaching.

The Home Office will be the "engine room" of the Government in the coming year: Jack Straw's team will have to work overtime to pilot through at least seven separate pieces of legislation.

The measures will allow mandatory drug-testing of arrested suspects; restrict the right to trial by jury; reform the freedom of information and race relations laws, the funding of political parties and the conduct of elections; and lower the age of homosexual consent to 16.

The Queen's Speech will also be notable for what it will not contain: ministers have decided not to risk a government bill to abolish fox-hunting, despite Mr Blair's apparent promise of early action. They fear a bill would become ensnared in the Lords, even after the hereditaries have been banished to their stately homes.

That will not end the matter: an aggrieved Labour MP will almost certainly bring in a backbench bill in the new year, and put the Government under pressure to find parliamentary time for it. But the prospects of a ban before the general election are receding fast.

There is little doubt which politician had the most difficult summer: John Prescott. Although the Deputy Prime Minister kept out of trouble when he minded the Downing Street shop during Tony Blair's holiday, he had a disastrous Labour conference. Some images stick and Mr Prescott will forever be haunted by his 300-yard car ride from his hotel to the conference centre to make a speech urging people not to use their cars.

Then he had to cope with the Paddington rail crash, on which he will make a statement to MPs today. The tragedy has put a new question mark over his plans to sell off 51 per cent of Britain's air traffic control service. Many Labour MPs return to Westminster ready to warn him that safety in the skies must not be put at risk by the proposed partial privatisation.

Although some ministers are wobbling, Mr Prescott is determined to press ahead. But he will have to work hard to ensure the sell-off does not scupper his wide-ranging transport bill, which will also set up a strategic rail authority and bring in congestion charges for motorists in town centres.

Europe will inevitably loom large, starting with a fierce clash today between Mr Blair and William Hague over plans for further EU integration published yesterday in a report to Romano Prodi, the European Commission president. Mr Hague will signal that he will give no quarter in his crusade to "save the pound", despite the irritating noises off from Kenneth Clarke and Michael Heseltine. After two barren years, Tory pupils will return to Westminster grateful that they finally have a hymn sheet, following the launch of new policies at their Blackpool conference.

Mr Hague will hammer home his "common-sense revolution" and seek to exploit public disquiet that Labour has not delivered on its promises to improve public services.

A repeated line of Tory attack will be over the "arrogance" of the Blair government, a trend which is showing up increasingly in both parties' private polling. The Tories are convinced the voters have "rumbled" the Government, although there is little sign yet of this translating into the opinion polls. The Tories' biggest worry is that people have switched off from politics and are just not listening.