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Friday, 26 April, 2002, 13:42 GMT 14:42 UK
Fresh grillings for Blair
Prime Minister Tony Blair
Blair is said not to like his Commons' appearances
Prime Minister Tony Blair is to break with precedent and face regular grillings from the chairmen of the House of Commons select committees.

He has offered to be cross-questioned over domestic and international issues, something he had previously refused to do.

This is quite a dramatic step

Robin Cook
Downing Street says he now accepts that because of Labour's very large majority his government must find new ways to be held to account by Parliament.

The move means Mr Blair will have to face some of his sternest backbench critics, such as Gwyneth Dunwoody, who heads the transport committee and Chris Mullin, home affairs.

But the offer was branded an "empty gesture" by the Conservatives.

"As ever with Tony Blair, he understands the principles but not the spirit of parliamentary accountability," shadow cabinet office minister Tim Collins said.

He said Mr Blair's inistence on having pre-arranged questions made it a pointless exercise.

'Mud wrestling'

Leader of the House Robin Cook insisted the move would make the prime minister more accountable.

He said: "This is quite a dramatic step.

Gwyneth Dunwoody, Labour MP
Mrs Dunwoody is known for her forthright approach
"No prime minister before Tony Blair has ever appeared before any select committee and so this is a breakthrough."

He said he hoped it would lead to a "mature, sensible exchanges looking at the real issues".

It would hopefully "get away from some of the party political mud wrestling, which might be good theatre but is actually rather bad for business and bad for the respect of parliament," Mr Cook told BBC Radio 4's The World at One.

'Fuzzy' area

Tony Wright, who chairs the public administration committee and has campaigned for greater accountability, said he was delighted by the decision.

"I feel a particular pleasure because I have been banging on about this for several years now," he told the World at One.

He had enjoyed a "long correspondence" with Mr Blair on the issue, to persuade him to take the plunge.

"I hope it is a recognition that we are reforming parliament now and making some steady progress certainly on Commons reform," Mr Wright said.

However, there was still a "fuzzy" area around the accountability of special advisors, such as Lord Birt who earlier this year refused to appear before the transport committee, Mr Wright said.

'Greater influence'

The prime minister's decision was welcomed by Chris Lawrence-Pietroni, acting director of electoral reform campaigners Charter88.

We have a prime minister's department in all but name

Charter 88
"Appearing before a select committee will give the public a chance to hear detailed discussion and questioning of the prime minister's work in a more constructive and less partisan forum," he said.

"Let us hope that this is another step towards greater power and influence for MPs and Parliament in holding the government to account."

He said the move was an "acknowledgement that we have a prime minister's department in all but name, and that the huge range of activity now centred in Number 10 must be accountable to Parliament."

Weekly joust

Downing Street said the offer had been made to the Commons Liaison Committee which is made up of the 34 select committee chairmen.

Mr Blair hopes to make his first appearance and answer questions before the summer recess.

The prime minister has always been perceived as disliking his weekly joust on the floor of the House of Commons with the leader of the Conservative Party.

Shortly after being elected in 1997 he cut the twice-weekly gauntlet to a single session.

He has always resisted calls from the select committees to appear before them, arguing that MPs could grill him every week already.

See also:

26 Apr 02 | UK Politics
Backbench rebels defeat Blair
12 Dec 01 | UK Politics
A time for questions
15 Oct 01 | UK Politics
No 10 'to rein in spin'
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