Speaker may be given power to recall Parliament as House works new hours

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The Speaker of the Commons could be given new powers to recall Parliament to debate national emergencies under proposals to be investigated by a powerful committee of MPs.

The Speaker of the Commons could be given new powers to recall Parliament to debate national emergencies under proposals to be investigated by a powerful committee of MPs.

The Speaker, Michael Martin, would be given the right to demand a recall of MPs to debate issues such as war in Iraq and set the length of emergency debates under the proposals to be brought before the influential Commons Procedure Committee.

At present, only the Prime Minister can recall Parliament during a recess. But ministers have faced growing pressure for reform from MPs since many Labour backbenchers were angered that they could not speak in the emergency debate on Iraq in September because the Government recalled Parliament for just one day.

Tony Blair agreed to the one-day emergency debate after weeks of pressure, which led to some MPs organising a breakaway television debate on the crisis.

The possibility of fresh reform comes as MPs prepare for new "family-friendly" hours, which start on Wednesday when Tony Blair faces his first lunchtime Prime Minister's Questions.

Under the reforms, late-night sittings will virtually disappear, and the Commons will sit from 11.30am to 7.30pm on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, while MPs will not sit on most Fridays.

Reforms also include reducing to three days the notice for tabling parliamentary questions and the introduction of new cross-departmental question-time sessions, which will start with a hour on youth policy later this month.

But Sir Nicholas Winterton, the chairman of the Procedure Committee, which oversees the way the Commons conducts business, said MPs of all parties were anxious to see further reform.

Many MPs felt the House should be able to control its time, especially in the event of an important but unexpected matter, such as Iraq, he said.

"If the Speaker gets responses from a wide cross section of members, it would be appropriate for him to approach the Government indicating that he felt that the House should be recalled.

"In addition he should have some say on the length of time for which it was recalled. Hundreds of thousands of pounds were spent in recalling Parliament for one day when a similar cost would have covered two days."

The committee will also consider restoring evening sittings in the Commons for debates on select committee reports and private members Bills. Other possible reforms include increasing the power of opposition frontbenchers and government backbenchers.

MODERNISED COMMONS AGENDA

MONDAY: Commons will sit 2.30pm to 10.30pm

TUESDAY, WEDNESDAY, THURSDAY: Commons will sit 11.30am to 7.30pm.

Question time will run from 11.30am to 12.30pm on Wednesdays, followed by ministerial statements, if any, and any 10-minute-rule Bills.

Main business will start at 12.30pm, with debates continuing until 7pm. Adjournment debates will be held each day from 7pm to 7.30pm.

FRIDAY: To allow MPs to do constituency work, the Commons will generally not sit, although occasional sittings will be held to debate Private Members' Bills.

Short backbench debates in Westminster Hall will be held beside the main Commons chamber, starting at 9.30am.

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