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Wednesday, 30 October, 2002, 10:04 GMT
MPs back Commons reforms
The Houses of Parliament
The Commons reform plans divided MPs
MPs have voted to reform the working hours of the House of Commons and end the centuries-old tradition of late-night debates.

Members backed Commons leader Robin Cook's proposal to start the chamber's eight-hour day three hours earlier, at a more family-friendly 1130, on Wednesdays and finish earlier on Thursdays, by a majority of 77.

Changed hours
Monday: 1430-2200
Tuesday: 1130-1900
Wednesday: 1130-1900
Thursday: 1130-1800
Friday: 0930-1430
To gasps of surprise, his proposal for the Commons to start at the same time on Tuesdays was also approved, by a majority of just seven.

Modernisers say the changes are crucial to make the chamber seem more relevant and "up-to-date" to the voting public.

Only Mondays will now have the traditional late start, to allow MPs to return from their constituencies.

Shadow Commons leader Eric Forth's plan to start five hours earlier, at 0930, on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays was rejected by 441 votes to 94, a majority of 347.

Tony Blair at Prime Minister's Question Time
Prime Minister's question time will move to noon on Wednesdays
However, MPs have agreed to have a shorter summer break, returning to Parliament in September rather than October.

And a motion approving modernisation in principle was backed by 411 votes to 47, a majority of 364.

MPs also backed a general time limit of 10 minutes for speeches, and more topical question times with a shorter timescale for tabling questions.

But a proposal for a twice-weekly question time session on a single topical subject was defeated by 283 votes to 256, a majority of 27.

Ironically the move to change their hours was finally approved just before 2400 GMT, following a six-hour debate.

The new sitting hours are due to come into force in January.

Prime minister's question time will move from 1500 to 1200 on Wednesday and ministerial statements on key issues will be taken at 1230 instead of at 1530pm or later.

Commons leader Robin Cook
The public regard Commons hours as 'daft', says Mr Cook
Mr Cook told MPs the vast majority of constituents thought it was "daft" they sat late into the night to debate and vote on bills and government legislation.

They were paid enough to be expected by their constituents to do a full-time job, which started in the morning, he added.

Mr Cook argued that Parliament would lose its authority if it is seen as "out of date".

He said most members of the public did not believe MPs were effective in their jobs.

Mr Cook said he was not trying to "covertly cheat" MPs out of their summer holidays by bringing them back to work in September, rather than October.

Instead the House would rise two weeks earlier in July which would help parents whose children return to school in August.

Mr Cook said: "I love the Commons but I don't want it to dwindle gently into a museum attracting visitors on the strength of an heroic history.

"I want the Commons to remain the great forum of our nation in which the views of the public find voice and in which their opinions are heard."

But opponents claimed the new hours would make MPs appear "lazy" and prevent them from gaining "valuable experience" by doing other jobs.

Mr Forth dismissed claims that the reforms would encourage voters back to the polling booth, stressing these were "half-baked proposals".

He attacked plans to start sittings at 1130 as the "worst of all worlds".

After the vote, Mr Cook said he was "very pleased" and hoped the Commons could now set the agenda for public debate.

The BBC's Shaun Ley
"The end of an era"
Austin Mitchell MP & The Guardian's Simon Hoggart
look back on the changing world of the Commons
See also:

30 Oct 02 | Politics
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