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EDITIONS
Monday, 8 July, 2002, 13:17 GMT 14:17 UK
Commons reforms hit roadblock
Houses of Parliament
Cook reforms are meeting opposition

There can be no doubt about Robin Cook's determination to modernise the way parliament works.

And you would think Tony Blair's modernising government would be hugely enthusiastic about his proposals to drag the place into the 20th, let alone 21st, century.

But, not for the first time, it appears the whips are doing their best to stymie his efforts.

Tony Blair at Prime Minister's Question Time
A question of question time timing
Their last operation saw defeat for his plan to change the way select committee chairmen were selected - and, in the process, weakening Downing Street's influence.

That setback came on what was supposed to be a free vote. But the whips were accused of leaning on backbenchers to kill off the plan - another flurry of control freakery in many people's eyes.

Lobby fodder

Now it appears the whips are opposing his desire to bring forward Wednesdays' prime minister's question time to noon instead of three, and to end each day's business at seven.

They claim this would end up with MPs only putting in a three day week in the Commons, by knocking off after PMQs, and even risk undermining their huge majority on some key votes.

The last can be immediately discounted. After all, if a vote is important enough it is the whips' job to order enough MPs into the chamber. They are not exactly short of lobby fodder.

And, in any case, this argument is a bit rich coming from an administration that has so ordered business and downgraded the Commons that many backbenchers already work a three day week.

Mondays and Fridays are already virtually written off in terms of Commons business.

Two day week

Friday has always been seen as a travelling-cum-constituency day. But, thanks to the lack of business on a Monday, many MPs don't bother travelling back to London until Monday evening - or even Tuesday morning.

Commons leader Robin Cook
Whips are against Cook
Perhaps the whips are worried that Mr Cook's proposals would lead to a two day Commons week.

Well, the answer is in their and the government's own hands.

The two issues of the arrangement of the working day and the actual amount of time MPs spend in the Commons are separate.

There may be practical arguments against MPs working a nine-to-five, Monday-to-Friday week, for example - but shortening the working week is not one of them.

If the business is important enough and the whips give the appropriate orders, MPs will have to attend when they are required.

That is what whips do and it is a matter of growing puzzlement why they appear so opposed to any real change.

They can't fear they may be losing their grip can they?

See also:

15 May 02 | UK Politics
12 Feb 02 | UK Politics
12 Dec 01 | UK Politics
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