Inside Parliament: Hours reform schemes take MPs back in time: Morning sittings of Parliament dismissed as failure from the Sixties - Newton suggests progress being made at last

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With Government and Opposition business managers inching towards agreement on a change in Commons sitting hours, one old hand offered a reminder yesterday of why the last experiment with morning sessions came to nought.

Under the Jopling plan, MPs would sit from 10am on Wednesdays in exchange for fewer Friday sessions. But Sir Dudley Smith, Conservative MP for Warwick and Leamington, recalled that morning sittings failed in the 1960s 'because people did not turn up and do their jobs, on both sides of the House'.

Tony Newton, Leader of the Commons, told MPs that he hoped to 'map a way forward' on a change of hours before the summer recess. Like most MPs, Mr Newton talks of 'reform' of parliamentary procedures, but this assumption of an improvement is not shared by all members.

More than two years ago, an all- party committee chaired by former Tory minister Michael Jopling recommended that the main Commons business should finish by 10pm. But, as a quid pro quo for this escape from late-night sittings, government legislation would have to be timetabled, in effect an automatic guillotine to counter any delaying tactics.

Pressing the case once again during a debate on change initiated by the Liberal Democrats, Mr Jopling said MPs had shown considerable patience. 'The block on the report's progress comes from a very small number of members. I think the Labour whips office is one of those areas where there is a small redoubt of opposition.'

Suspicion in this quarter is understandable.

Automatic timetabling reduces the ability to harry a government with guerrilla tactics, surprise votes and prolonged debates.

Former Tory whip Michael Brown, MP for Brigg and Cleethorpes, seemed conscious that one day the parties could be on opposite sides of the chamber. While acknowledging the case for 'more sensible hours', he warned: 'There will be occasions when MPs who do not command a majority in the division lobbies may rue the day when they throw away some of the seemingly arcane procedures.'

Mr Newton is in the middle of negotiations with Nick Brown, Labour's Commons affairs spokesman, on the Jopling plans. 'Those talks are taking place in an extremely constructive way,' he said. Discussions with Archie Kirkwood, the Liberal Democrat chief whip, will follow.

Labour would not 'sacrifice its rights and hand over the whole management of business to the executive', Mr Brown insisted. He advanced the idea of non-adversarial examination of technical parts of Bills, for example on tax management, law reform and the environment, with specialists able to give evidence.

Opening the debate, Paul Tyler, Liberal Democrat MP for Cornwall North, came under fire from both sides as he lamented that Parliament had become 'so demeaned by party games'. To shouts of 'speak for yourself' he said: 'This institution is seen as old-fashioned, irrelevant, and its members as lazy, badly behaved and self-indulgent.'

David Winnick, Labour MP for Walsall North, was not alone in finding it an 'odd' speech from someone who was the MP for Bodmin for a few months in 1974 and then out of the Commons for 18 years.

'If this is such a terrible place, why did he spend so long trying to get back?'

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