Parliament and Politics: Backbenchers fear changes to sittings

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Indy Politics
BACKBENCH MPs on both sides of the political divide last night voiced their anxiety that plans to change the sitting hours of the House of Commons would disarm dissenters of their main weapon against the executive of the day.

Tam Dalyell, Labour MP for Linlithgow, denounced the proposals for shorter working hours balanced by the timetabling of government Bills, as 'a charter for the castration of the opposition'.

Opponents of the Maastricht Treaty are concerned that automatic timetabling of legislation could weaken their stand on constitutional measures, such as the stalled European Communities (Amendment) Bill.

Timetabling would do away with the need for a guillotine motion to curb prolonged debate and, as in the case of the Maastricht Bill, remove the threat of rebels combining with the opposition to defeat the Government.

Michael Spicer, a former minister and a loyal Thatcherite, said the constitutional point was fundamental in a country where the executive had such strong control over the legislature. Time and its 'unpredictability' was the only real element of power available to backbenchers and Parliament.

'That is what determines whether or not the executive does have to pause for thought before it brings legislation to the House,' Mr Spicer said. 'We should be very wary indeed about doing something which is good for the executive but therefore, almost by definition, bad for Parliament.'

Broadly endorsing the reforms proposed last February by a special all-party committee, Tony Newton, Leader of the Commons, said they had to be taken as a package, balancing the legitimate need of the Government to enact its legislative programme and the right of the Opposition to scrutinise it.

'The central equation in the report cannot be ignored,' Mr Newton said. 'If there is to be less time, then proceedings will have to be more structured, debate may be less open and the scope for obstruction could become more limited.'

After discussions with the other parties, Mr Newton intends to put resolutions on the changes before the Commons in the autumn. The key recommendations of the committee, chaired by Michael Jopling, a former Conservative chief whip, are that Commons business should end at 10pm on Mondays to Thursdays - doing away with all-night sittings - and at 2.30pm on Fridays. At the start of each session, 10 Fridays would be designated non-sitting days and on the preceding Thursdays the House should finish at 7pm. On Wednesdays the House would sit in the mornings, starting at 10am, chiefly to take private members' business other than Private Member's Bills.

Supporting timetabling, Jack Cunningham, shadow leader of the Commons, said he was in favour of more effective scrutiny of the executive, not quantity of time spent in the House. He favoured morning sittingson Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, with business ending at 9pm Monday to Wednesday and 7pm Thursday.

The Commons sits for more hours on more days than almost any other western democratic legislature. The average time of finishing is midnight.

'There is no evidence that we are conspicuously more effective . . . in checking the executive, scrutinising public expenditure, or stopping government legislation getting through,' Mr Cunningham said.

Fiercely opposed to timetabling, Mr Dalyell said: 'These proposals come from a government where, almost uniquely in British political history, neither the Prime Minister, nor many of his senior colleagues, have ever been in opposition. They don't know what it's like to be in opposition.'

Simon Hughes (Lib Dem, Southwark and Bermondsey) said to implement the report would be 'going in the right direction'.