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Friday, June 5, 1998 Published at 08:25 GMT 09:25 UK

UK Politics

'Black cap for the top hat'

Some famous parliamentary traditions, including calling "I spy strangers" and the wearing of opera hats to call a point of order during a division, look to be on their way out.

The Leader of the House, Ann Taylor, announced the possible removal of some of the Commons oldest traditions during a debate on the modernisation of parliamentary procedures.

Ms Taylor said: "I know some members may feel that they look particularly fetching in the opera hat, but it really does make the House of Commons look ridiculous."

Ms Taylor's new opposite number Sir George Young found that he could agree that the opera hat's days were numbered saying it was "time to put on the black cap for the top hat".

MPs were considering the recommendations of the Select Committee on Commons Modernisation. They passed all the committee's recommendations without a vote.


The only remaining problem was what to do with the two hats that are kept in the Commons for members who use them to draw attention to themselves in order to raise a point of order during the hurly burly of divisions.

Ms Taylor suggested one could be kept on display for visitors, while the second could, perhaps, be sold off to raise money for charity.

Sir George responded that selling the hat off, even for charity, would amount to privatisation.

Another suggestion came from Labour's Andrew Bennett (Denton and Reddish). He challenged Mr Skinner to mark the historic decision by becoming the last MP to wear it during a division.

To the delight of the government benches, Mr Bennett said: "I can see the arguments for it going to charity in the end, but I think the best way for this House to send it off would be for us to have a division on one of these issues tonight and get Mr Skinner to wear the hat to finish it off. I think that would be a really appropriate way for it to go."

'Not a bad package'

Speaking on the proposed modernisations, the Labour backbencher, Dennis Skinner said: "All in all its not a bad package."

[ image: Dennis Skinner: glad to see the back of the opera hat]
Dennis Skinner: glad to see the back of the opera hat
Mr Skinner was relieved that the abolition of calling "I spy strangers" (meaning members of the public, who were, in years gone by, not allowed to watch Parliament debate) would not mean that MPs would lose the right to interrupt proceedings in order to clear the lobbies of strangers but merely the language would be changed to become less archaic.

Calling "I spy strangers" is a tactic used by some members to filibuster Bills to which they are opposed.

On the matter of the hat Mr Skinner, proud of his working class roots, confessed he could never bring himself to wear it. "I'm glad to see the back of it," he said.

Further steps

Other modernisations under debate included ending the traditional precedence given to privy councillors when calling MPs to debate.

Greater flexibility in the legislative process should be encouraged, allowing some Bills to be carried on from one parliamentary session to the next, if the House considered it desirable.

The ban on using direct quotations from the House of Lords should be dropped.

MPs should be encouraged to attend, in their entirety, debates in which they take part.

The suggestion that MPs should be referred to by their name and not by their constituency was dropped. It was considered that MPs are in the Commons to represent their constituents and are not there on their own account.

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