Straw and Hewitt to clash in public over Commons hours

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A battle between the sexes has broken out in the Cabinet over whether the House of Commons should revert to its traditional late-night sittings.

A battle between the sexes has broken out in the Cabinet over whether the House of Commons should revert to its traditional late-night sittings.

A public showdown is looming between Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, who wants to return to 10.30pm finishes, and Patricia Hewitt, the Trade and Industry Secretary and Minister for Women, who wants to keep the new "family-friendly" hours introduced in January last year. The two ministers have been invited to give evidence before the Commons modernisation committee after MPs return from their summer break in September.

It would be highly unusual for members of the same Cabinet to state conflicting views in public and the request may cause alarm bells to ring in Downing Street.

The committee wants to encourage a "grown-up debate" as it reviews the vexed question of Commons sitting hours. MPs will vote on its recommendations early next year.

Mr Straw has written to Peter Hain, the leader of the Commons who chairs the committee, proposing a return to more traditional hours, with sittings from 2.30pm to 10.30pm.

The Foreign Secretary has been backed by John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, who believes the switch to earlier sittings has been a failure as it has denied ministers the chance to meet MPs informally at night at the Commons.

Ms Hewitt has won the support of fellow women ministers including Tessa Jowell, the Culture Secretary, who said that the reforms should not be reversed. She told The Independent: "I am dead against going back to the hours which look daft and old-fashioned to the rest of the world outside the Commons. We are talking about the right balance between our lives as members of parliament, parents and constituency MPs."

A Commons motion calling for the modernisation of the working hours to be reversed has been signed by 244 MPs from all parties. It was tabled by George Howarth, a former Labour minister, who said: "The Cabinet, like the rest of Parliament, is divided on the issue. But if we had another vote on it, we would win a majority to go back to the hours we had before."

That claim is denied by supporters of the new working regime, who say that some MPs have switched sides since the Commons voted for "family friendly" hours in October 2002. The Commons now sits from 2.30pm to 10.30pm on Mondays, from 11.30am to 7pm on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, from 11.30am to 6pm on Thursdays and 9.30am to 3pm on some Fridays. In an attempt to reach a compromise, the modernisation committee may propose that Private Member's Bills are discussed on Tuesday evenings instead of on Fridays. The proposal would meet the demand for more late-night sittings and give MPs more Fridays off.

The new "family friendly" hours will continue until the general election but a close vote is expected on whether to continue with the experiment.

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