MPs press for 'family friendly' working hours

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Indy Politics

Radical plans to end late-night sittings in the House of Commons are being drawn up by MPs in the most serious drive to date to make Parliament more "family friendly".

The Commons Modernisation Committee voted yesterday to seek proposals for reform that could lead to the Palace of Westminster having regular office hours for the first time. If the far-reaching reforms win approval in May, MPs could see their working day end at 7pm, with a final cut off at 10pm for emergencies.

Members of all parties have pressed for change, and a petition calling for regular hours, signed by 187 MPs, is understood to have persuaded the committee to take action.

MPs were furious that, since Christmas, there have been 32 sittings after midnight as the Government has tried to get its legislative programme through Parliament.

And several of Labour's women MPs with young children have announced that they would stand down at the next election because they cannot cope with Parliament's late hours.

Regular late-night votes and the lack of childcare facilities have prompted many to abandon their political careers to concentrate instead on looking after their families.

Under the options ordered by the Modernisation Committee, the main political parties would agree to so-called programme motions to allot specific time for debates and votes. The regular use of programme motions would end the current situation where the timing of votes is uncertain because MPs can talk for hours to filibuster legislation.

Unlike government enforced timetabling of Bills, which can be used to silence both Labour rebels and Tory opponents, the programming idea would allow time for criticism and proper scrutiny, its supporters claim.

Electronic voting would also be introduced to speed the process and allow several votes to be taken at the same time. Voting currently takes place by MPs physically walking through the voting lobby in the Commons, with each vote taking 20 minutes.

At present, there is nothing to stop all-night sittings in the Commons and MPs are frequently kept up until 1am as opposition members attempt to ambush the Government with "guerrilla" tactics.

However, Tory, Labour and Liberal Democrat members of the Modernisation Committee have agreed that it is in MPs' interests to conduct more of their business during the day.

The options for reform will be influenced by the success of the recent experiment to allow the House to sit from 11am to 7pm on Thursdays. If the pilot is deemed to have worked, similar "family friendly" hours could be extended to Tuesdays and Wednesdays. The Commons rarely sits on Fridays. Late hours are likely to be retained for Mondays, as many MPs have to travel long distances to get to London after the weekend in their constituencies.

Anne Campbell, the Labour MP for Cambridge who submitted the petition to Margaret Beckett, the chairman of the Modernisation Committee, welcomed the vote. "I'm pleased that progress has been made. We still have a lot of work to do to build on the powerful drive for reform that we now have," she said. "We had 187 MPs sign the petition and they were from all parties. With such a large number of people supporting it, there must be a good chance of real change."

Paul Tyler, the Liberal Democrat member of the committee, said the opposition parties were willing to negotiate the reforms as long as the Government agreed to look at how to space out its Bills throughout the year.

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