The four-day week now entrenched

MPs vote for eight more Fridays off
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M Ps leave Westminster today for a three-week Christmas break after voting themselves a bit of seasonal good cheer in the form of another eight Fridays away next year.

But according to Don Dixon, Labour's chief whip, the people who should really be laughing their stockings off at the approval of a package of reforms to Commons procedures are ministers.

"I see no reason at all, half way through a parliament, when we have got the Government on the ropes, why we should give up any weapons.''

Mr Dixon's remarks, made from the backbenches, were totally at odds with support for the package from Ann Taylor, shadow Leader of the House, who said it was "not a dramatic revolution" but would make Parliament more efficient.

Tony Newton, Leader of the Commons, said the reforms were "a step forward in assisting the more sensible management of our affairs''. As for the Fridays - 10 in a full session - they were "in no sense Fridays off'', he said. "They are days kept clear of specific duties here at Westminster to enable MPs to discharge equally important duties in their constituencies and elsewhere."

To compensate, there will be Wednesday morning sittings in the four-day weeks. But the changes will not improve the bald statistics of sitting days.

In the last session, the Commons sat for just 154 days, making it the second shortest in the last quarter of a century. Measured in hours, it was the shortest.

The average length of a sitting day was 8 hrs 2 mins in the 1993-94 session. In 1976-77, the Commons sat for only 149 days but each was an average 9 hrs 10mins - at the 1993-94 hours rate the session would have lasted another 20 days.

The Commons traditionally starts at 2.30pm on Mondays to Thursdays with business running late into the night. Friday sittings are from 9.30 to 3pm.

From the New Year, the Government has undertaken to try and avoid sittings beyond 10.30pm. On the new four-day weeks, debates initiated by backbenchers will take place from 10am until 2.30pm, when "normal" business will resume with questions to ministers.

Even before yesterday's debate on the reforms got under way, Labour's Dennis Skinner was contrasting the 154 days of the 1993-94 session with the 220 days a year he reckoned most people work.

"Why should MPs be talking about a four-day week for themselves?" he asked during questions to Mr Newton. "If we could argue for a four-day week for all those workers outside, we could mop up those four million people who are on the dole.''

Mr Newton said the Bolsover MP might have his own way of working, but for others it included an enormous amount of work away from Westminster. "Most MPs work a six or seven- day week."

Though the changes were approved by comfortable majorities, Mr Dixon said the best thing would have been to have had an objective debate and bring the changes forward after a general election.

He said MPs had had 21 Fridays off this calendar year. "Outside bank holidays and weekends, we have had 87 working days off.''

Michael Jopling, the former Cabinet minister who chaired the select committee which proposed the reforms, said the public could not understand why MPs had to sit up half the night and sometimes all night. "I think these reforms will go some way to dealing with these concerns.''

P erhaps one of the reasons MPs seem keen to get away from Westminster is what one MP yesterday called their "third world" working conditions.

Denis MacShane, who became Labour MP for Rotherham six months ago after working in Geneva, said he was amazed at what he had found. "I have to operate in an office in which you could not swing a dead mouse. It is done deliberately so that the Executive cannot be put under scrutiny."

The jeers suggested Tory backbenchers thought this was a bit much from a newcomer. Their message for Mr MacShane was perhaps similar to that offered by Michael Howard: "Prisoners must not enjoy privileges as a matter of right, but should also have to earn them."

Mr Howard, the Home Secretary, was given a tough time as he announced a tighter prison regime following the unsuccessful break-out from the Whitemoor special security unit in Cambridgeshire.

Assailed by calls for his resignation, Mr Howard said in a statement that an investigation by Sir John Woodcock had revealed "a dreadful state of affairs''.

But he prayed in aid the non-resignation of past home secretaries after great escapes and insisted his policies were not at fault.

"It was not in any way beyond the remit of Sir John Woodcock to criticise me were he of a mind to do so.

"The fact is that he did not do so, and Labour cannot bring themselves to accept that."

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