Backbenchers call for tougher powers

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Senior backbenchers attacked the Government yesterday for failing to give them better accountability and tougher powers to scrutinise ministers, while pressing ahead with plans to make hours in the House of Commons more family friendly.

Senior backbenchers attacked the Government yesterday for failing to give them better accountability and tougher powers to scrutinise ministers, while pressing ahead with plans to make hours in the House of Commons more family friendly.

In a hard-hitting report, the Liaison Committee warned that it would continue to demand the changes despite ministers rejecting the need for reform.

"This [reform] is our aim. We believe this is the test by which the public will judge the effectiveness and value of Parliament. This is not something that will go away," the committee's report warned.

The committee, which consists of all the select committee chairs, published its report after Margaret Beckett, the Commons leader, opposed calls to change the way in which MPs are appointed to select committees by party whips.

MPs were so angered by the Government's refusal to adopt their recommendations that they also took the unusual step of calling Mrs Beckett to give evidence to the committee.

The report added: "We believe that in its reply the Government has missed an opportunity of reforms which would have been greatly to its credit. It is strange that the expressions of support for increasing the effectiveness of select committees are not matched by things that might make a real difference - not even by select committees at Westminster having some of the powers which the Government has been happy to see in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast."

The committee's veiled criticism of the Government's support of the introduction of shorter working hours for the Commons will annoy some female backbenchers who have argued for the reform.

But it will play into the hands of the Tories who have made the Government's "contempt" for Parliament an election issue.

William Hague, the Conservative Party leader, has promised to restore twice-weekly Prime Minister's Question Times, saying that Tony Blair's decision to cut in half the number of times he answered questions from MPs showed a "total disdain for the House of Commons and proper democratic accountability".

Mr Hague has also promised to end the system whereby party whips appoint MPs to sit on select committees.

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