Ministers would quit if child-friendly hours ended

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Indy Politics

Several ministers and MPs have threatened to stand down from Parliament if the Commons votes to scrap its new family-friendly hours, after more than 240 members signed a motion calling for a review of the new regime.

Peter Hain, the Leader of the Commons, will try to defuse a growing all-party rebellion against the new working hours - which have ended most late-night votes - by offering a compromise which could result in MPs sitting late on two nights a week instead of one as at present.

But, in a letter sent to every MP today, Mr Hain will disclose that several ministers and up to a dozen backbenchers have told him they will leave Parliament if the Commons votes to return to the old system.

More than 240 MPs have signed a protest motion calling for an urgent review of the new hours introduced a year ago, under which the Commons sits at 11.30am from Tuesdays to Thursdays and rises at about 7.30pm. Many want to revert to the 2.30pm to 10.30pm working day, which still applies on Mondays.

In the letter, Mr Hain will offer to draw up a package of concessions to the critics to make the new regime work better. He will raise the prospect that the House could sit until 10.30pm on Tuesdays as well as Mondays. But he will oppose demands to turn back the clock to the old system and the traditional late-night votes. Ministers fear that this would be retrograde step which would send the wrong signal to the public.

The new way of working has transformed MPs' daily lives. Some complain they are unable to drop off their children at school, undermining claims that the new hours are family-friendly. Members of select committees complain that their new 8.55am start time clashes with statements or debates in the Commons chamber. Opening hours of Commons bars and restaurants are being cut, and some staff facing redundancy after a fall-off in evening trade.

Mr Hain chairs the Commons Modernisation Committee, which is expected to launch a formal review of the new working hours at the end of this year. Although the new system is due to run until the next general election, he will signal that some interim changes can be introduced this year to improve the running of the Commons.

Some ministers are worried that if a fresh vote were held now on the reforms, backed by MPs in October 2002, the Commons would vote to scrap the new system.

Mr Hain will say in his letter that he doubts whether the old system would command majority support among MPs. But he will acknowledge that there are deep divisions of opinion over the new regime. He will say his soundings suggest that MPs fall into four camps -- those who want to return to the old system; to keep the new hours; to adjust and improve the new regime and for the House to sit until 10.30pm on Tuesdays but finish early on Wednesdays and Thursdays.

The Commons leader will pledge to "explore a balanced set of changes" and "common sense alterations" to build "a new and durable consensus". But he will admit that it will be difficult to please everyone.