Inside Parliament : A working week devolves to four days

MPs' duties in the House are switched to Jopling hours Tories ready to oppose devolution `lock, stock and barrel'
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The "spirit of Jopling'' became tangible in the Commons yesterday as MPs were given advance notice of their Easter and Whitsun holidays and told of eight extra Fridays off. Only Dennis Skinner protested, telling Tony Newton, Leader of the Commons, it would be easier to "come here and tell us when we are sitting".

The new year has seen the introduction of changes to procedure recommended by a select committee under Michael Jopling, a former Tory Cabinet minister. The main purpose is to end the spectacle of MPs legislating at hours when they can scarcely stay awake.

Fridays off and earlier Thursday nights will be replaced by morning sittings on some Wednesdays. MPs will also be given more notice of future business - and holidays.

Yesterday, along with his usual statement of next week's business, Mr Newton told MPs what they would be debating in most of the following week. The first Wednesday morning sitting, reserved for backbench debates, will be 25 January, the Easter break will be 7-18 April and Whitsun 25 May to 6 June.

Mr Skinner, Labour MP for Bolsover, called for a statement to explain the plans to everyone else who would like a four-day week. "If we introduced one for the real wealth-creators, the workers who provide the goods and services, we could probably mop up those 4 million people unemployed."

But Mr Newton said suggestions that it was a four-day week were "utterly ludicrous". MPs wanted to work in their constituencies in conjunction with their duties in the House.

Tony Blair appeared in desperate need of flesh to put on the bones of his devolution plans at Question Time as John Major accused the Labour leader of risking the break-up of the United Kingdom.

Displaying a form of anger usually reserved for his acidly personal exchanges with Paddy Ashdown, the Prime Minister said the Government would oppose proposals for a Scottish parliament and a Welsh assembly "lock, stock and barrel, from this day forward''.

Prompting a call from Margaret Ewing of the Scottish Nationalists for some proper definitions, Mr Major asserted that the United Kingdom is a nation, or, as he put it "a single national institution".

All the Labour front bench seemed able to offer in defence of its plans was decentralist talk in the 1974 Conservative Party manifesto and by Kenneth Clarke, the chancellor, when he was a prospective parliamentary candidate even more years ago.

Opening the bout, Mr Blair asked why, if devolution was a dangerous proposal, the Tories had such a policy in 1974. The manifesto said devolution would free Scotland from the "rigours of centralism" and was the "opposite of separatism".

But Mr Major said the Labour leader was being "very defensive" and with good reason. "The nature of devolution with a tax raising assembly will place Scot against Scot, Scot against Briton in other parts of the UK, leave Scotland as the highest- taxed p a rt of the UK, leave Scotland losing inward investment and Wales too, were they to have such an assembly.

"And were Scottish MPs to be given the right to deal with, for example, education and health in Scotland, it would not be proper for them to come to this House and vote on education and health in so far as England and other parts of the UK is concerned."

Mr Major said that the 1974 proposals contained no tax raising or executive powers and addition he was "not even in the House then". [He did contest the elections in that year though, as a candidate in St Pancras North.] Offering a little logic, Archy Kirkwood, Liberal Democrat MP for Roxburgh and Berwickshire, said that Mr Major was rightly convinced of the merits of subsidiarity in Europe and Northern Ireland. "Why does he set his face against using the self-same prin c iple for the governance of Scotland when in the 1992 election 75 per cent of the electorate in Scotland voted for parties favouring a system of greater legislative control over Scotland's affairs?"

Mr Major said the difference between the UK and Europe was that the UK was a "single national institution, a national state ... we are a single government entity. We have been since 1707 and I am not going to set us on a path where that might be broken up."

The only MP to really needle the Prime Minister was Dennis Canavan, Labour MP for Falkirk West, who urged him to justify his ridiculing of the idea of a Scottish parliament as a form of "dangerous teenage madness". When doing so, he should bear in mind "that the idea has been supported by prominent Tories such as former prime ministers Home and Heath, the current defence secretary [Malcolm Rifkind] and the current Scottish secretary [Ian Lang]. "What is the Prime Minister going to do about these dangerous teenage madmen?" But Mr Major was stuck in angry mode and rather than match Mr Canavan's spiky humour, bid him to "engage in some grown-up politics".

MPs ended the day with a sparsely attended debate on behalf of those who are not grown up - discussing the possibility of child care for the Commons. Trade unions representing the 1,300 Commons staff favour a voucher sheme to help with the cost of child care.

Alan Beith, for the House of Commons Commission, said a survey of MPs and staff had found only a marginal preference for an in-House facility over vouchers. Many staff made "inticrate and often expensive" childcare arrangements. Any scheme would help recuitment and retention of staff.

Jean Corston, Labour for Bristol West, said when she arrived at the Commons in 1992 she had been surprised there "a rifle range [in the basement] but not a creche".