Baroness Jay to take on Tories over peers' hours

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The government will press ahead with plans to modernise the House of Lords despite the decision of peers to block moves to introduce more family friendly working hours.

The government will press ahead with plans to modernise the House of Lords despite the decision of peers to block moves to introduce more family friendly working hours.

Baroness Jay of Paddington, the Lords leader, will set up a new group which will advise her on reform and ways to overcome the opposition of Tory peers.

The Leader's Group will look at changes such as plans to start Thursday sitting three hours earlier at 11.30am rather than 2.30pm so that Westminster staff and peers could go home to their families earlier.

But both Tory and Liberal Democrat peers threw out similar proposals at a meeting of the Procedure Committee this week, arguing that it would be difficult for peers who had outside interests to come in earlier. They also warned that any changes to the working hours would undermine the upper chamber.

Lord Carter, the chief whip, said peers from all sides had urged him to insist on changes. "There is an innate resistance to change of any sort, I'm afraid. We have to keep trying and have made a number of changes over the years. I think eventually we will get them, but the pace is glacial.

"It's not just our backbenchers - it's the Liberals and some Tories who came to me and asked if they could have the hours altered on a Thursday, like the Commons, and sit from 11am to 7.30pm. I said I was willing and put a paper to the Procedure Committee which was rejected by the Conservatives and the Liberal spokesmen. Our people voted in favour.

"But it was not an elevating debate and there was no recognition of the staff who work here and who were very much in favour of a guaranteed one early night a week."

Peers, many of them elderly, have been forced to stay in the Lords until late at night since September to take part in votes. Labour backbenchers in particular have been told to cancel all engagements for November because the Government wants to avoid losing any more votes in the remainder of the parliamentary session.

The new intake of younger life peers also complain about lack of office space and rules such as not being able to use a mobile phone in the corridors. This causes inconvenience for peers who have to leave their businesses to attend the Lords when business starts at 2.30pm.

Baroness Jay said she realised the Lords was not made up of full-time professionals like the Commons. "But we are under enormous pressure from our backbenchers on this," she said. "They look at what is happening down the corridor and see MPs having their final vote at 7.30pm on a Thursday and say why are we still here at 1am?"

The Leader's Group will also be asked to look at other changes, such as the ending of voting during the committee stage of Bills and ending procedural rules which oblige peers to take the committee stage on the floor of the House, a practice which is extremely time-consuming.

MPs are due to vote on a series of proposals from the modernisation committee next Tuesday. The blueprint for reform includes the timetabling of Bills which would mean sittings would usually end at 10pm.

* The Labour MP Sylvia Heal is to become a Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons following Michael Martin's election as the new Speaker. Mrs Heal, the MP for Halesowen and Rowley Regis, joins fellow Deputy Speakers Sir Alan Haselhurst and Michael Lord.