Wednesday morning 11am: back to sleep : Inside Parliament

The word "historic" was much bandied about yesterday as the House of Commons met for the first of its new Wednesday morning sittings. But by 11am, with barely a dozen MPs in the chamber raking over the embers of the Pergau dam affair, "soporific"

seemed a more apt description.

More than 30 members were present at 10am when the debate began, including Michael Jopling, the former Conservative minister, whose name is now synonymous with the changes. He and his committee set out to stop MPs having to legislate into the small hours. Wednesday morning sittings, devoted to short backbench debates, take the place of up to eight additional Fridays MPs will have off before the summer recess. In terms of hours, though, the House will be sitting longer.

John Marshall, Tory MP for Hendon North, effused over sharing "this moment of hist-ory'' as he opened a debate on legal aid. The reformers, notably Tony Newton, Leader of the Commons, will hope history does not repeat itself. The House last sat regularlyon Wednesday mornings in 1967 under Harold Wilson's Labour government.

Richard Crossman, the then Leader of the Commons, speculated in his diaries that the innovation would be the cause of his downfall. He records that while his own side was divided on morning sittings, the Conservative opposition was against them, and so were officials, the Speaker and "the journalists who have to go and report them".

Mr Crossman added: "It is a half-measure which I would never have dreamt of introducing if I hadn't inherited it."

Crossman's morning sittings were said to have been particularly resented by lawyer MPs who wanted to be in court. Yesterday several of their successors were present for the legal aid debate but one was not in good humour and turned on his government.

Interrupting Mr Marshall's tirade against the "obscenity" of taxpayers' help for the likes of Ernest Saunders, David Ashby, Conservative MP for NW Leicestershire, said legal aid for the apparently wealthy was a "mere pinprick'' in the total amount granted. He blamed the spiralling cost on legislation passed in the 1980s and 1990s which had "doubled the number of offences, doubled the number of courts and doubled the amount of legal aid that has to be granted as a result ...We are responsible for it".

John Taylor, Parliamentary Secretary to the Lord Chancellor's Office, looked ahead to a Green Paper on legal aid to be published in the spring. Aid cost £685m in 1990-91 and will exceed £1.3bn in the current year. But in future it will be cash- limited.

Mr Taylor rejected claims that this would mean money running out as "scaremongering". He added that legal aid dated back to 1495: "In the reign of Henry VII there was a provision on the statute book for the representation of poor people in the courts. The only trouble is, and here there is an echo of the problems we face today, the Act did not attempt to define what a poor person was."

The coincidence of Burns Night and Scottish questions was neatly exploited by Dennis Canavan, Labour MP for Falkirk West, who called for the anniversary to be made a national holiday.

The Secretary of State, Ian Lang, said Scots did not need such an event to remember their greatest poet. "We have continued to celebrate his works since his death almost 200 years ago, and I am sure we will do so for many years to come."

Mr Canavan wondered whether that "negative and disappointing reply" had anything to do with the fact that Robert Burns "was an ardent sup- porter of a Scottish parliament and fierce critic of the Unionists who used treachery, bribery and skulduggery to destroy Scotland's last parliament".

He added: "Why are the Tories' prospects dim? Could it be the reputation of Ian, Allan, Hector and Jim, such a parcel of rogues in a nation?" All four are Scottish Office ministers.

But Mr Lang had been doing some serious boning up. "Now I know what the poet meant when he spoke of a `rhyming, ranting, raving Billie'," he replied to Tory glee. "Let me say this: `Hale be your heart, hale be your fiddle, lang may you elbuck, jink an' diddle'.

"As for Burns being a supporter of a Scottish parliament ... he wrote in the Dumfries Volunteer: `Be Britain still to Britain true, among ourselves united, for never but by British hands will British wrongs be righted'.''

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