Leading Article: A professional Parliament

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The Independent Online
JOHN SMITH's premature death has revived the debate about the unnatural working lives forced on Britain's Members of Parliament. Those who become MPs must not only have the physical stamina necessary to work into the small hours night after night; they must also sacrifice any hope of a normal social life outside their work, and tread their way past the tempting twin solaces of the whisky bottle and the secretary. Until recently it has been too easy to say that these are simply the terms of the job - that politicians know what they are taking on when they stand for Parliament, and the continued competition for seats proves the bargain is still a good one.

Mr Smith's heart attack, combined with the spate of recent Tory political scandals, illustrates the inadequacy of this response. Not only are some MPs unable to stand the stresses; worse, the conditions of working at Westminster are harming the performance of even the most robust. If they are to do their jobs properly, politicians must have adequate sleep, access to their families and to friends outside Westminster, and at least an occasional chance to spend an evening seeing the plays, films or operas that help to make the rest of us into more rounded people. They also need more time to devote to constituency business.

The reforms proposed by the select committee chaired by Michael Jopling are undoubtedly a step in the right direction. The committee's recent report recommends that Commons business should 'as a general rule' end by 10 o'clock on weekday evenings. Roughly half the Fridays of the working year should be kept free for work outside the chamber, it suggests; and on Thursdays MPs should be given a chance to leave for their constituencies by 7.30pm.

Outsiders will see these recommendations as the very least that can be done to restore a semblance of normality to MPs' lives. But even these proposals are likely to be controversial. Sadly, some politicians have reached a point where the other calls on their lives - whether from family, home or friends - have withered away so far that Parliament is all they have left.

It will require considerable public spirit

for those who have nothing to go home to but a lonely service flat and a cup of

cocoa in front of Newsnight to support a reform that will make their evenings emptier still.

Similar resistance is likely to an equally important parliamentary reform: the restructuring of prime minister's question time. Many MPs will complain that John Major supports a change to the knockabout style of the traditional Thursday grilling only because he is a less adept parliamentary performer than his predecessor. Paddy Ashdown's support, however, bolsters the case for reform. Mr Ashdown is right in seeing the popularity of question time on New York cable television and as a cult programme for young Dutch viewers as a cause for concern, rather than celebration. To foreigners, question time is no longer a showcase of British democracy; it is merely a good joke.

The leader of the Liberal Democrats suggests that prime minister's questions should adopt some ideas from the Lords. Half an hour should be set aside, he believes; subjects, usually no more than four, should be decided in advance; and supplementary questions should have to follow the subject at issue.

At first sight, this change would make question time less effervescent and less taxing to the Prime Minister, since supplementaries would no longer be a technique of surprise attack, and more of the proceedings would be read from briefing notes than at present. But questions are so routinely evaded already that the institution no longer serves its cross-examining purpose. Instead, under Mr Ashdown's more structured proposal, the Prime Minister would no longer be able to escape with a single pithy line. Each question would lead to a mini-debate, in which his responses could be probed more searchingly.

Both of these reforms - the restructuring of question time and of the Commons working week - would make Parliament a more professional legislature, but not necessarily a less interesting one. Westminster would still have its television devotees abroad - for its strengths, however, rather than for its weaknesses.

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