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Last Updated: Wednesday, 20 June 2007, 09:39 GMT 10:39 UK
Rethink urged on MPs' e-mail ban
House of Commons in session
The report aims to revitalise the Commons chamber
MPs should be allowed to check e-mails during debates in the House of Commons chamber, a report seeking to revitalise the role of backbench MPs suggests.

It says more MPs might be willing to sit for the six hours they sometimes have to wait before being called to speak if they could "multi-task".

At the moment mobiles and other hand-held devices are banned.

The inquiry, headed by Commons leader Jack Straw, also calls for shorter speeches and more topical debates.

The plans are to boost the role of backbenchers and put Parliament "at the heart of popular debate".

The proposal to allow hand-held devices in the chamber was aimed at the "removal of unnecessary barriers to participation in debate".

Immediate steps to make Parliament more understandable, relevant and newsworthy are within the grasp of our elected representatives
Fiona Booth
Hansard Society

A weekly 90-minute debate on a "big issue of the day" should be held, and MPs should be allowed to ask ministers questions without having to give three days' notice.

The plans come from two 10-month inquiries carried out by the Commons modernisation committee into strengthening the role of the backbencher and into better use of non-legislative time.

Among concerns were that MPs were spending too much time doing constituency work, at the expense of their duties to scrutinise the government.

The report wants to put the Commons back at the heart of debate "on the key issues of the day" - by speeding up the debates and questions procedures and making them more up-to-date.

To make sure topical issues were being debated quickly, a new weekly 90-minute debate would be held "in prime time" on the big issue of the day.

And MPs would be able to ask topical questions of ministers, without having to give three days' notice first, during a 15-minute "open question" section in the usual departmental question times.

Media interests

Frontbenchers would have time limits on their speeches in many debates to allow more backbenchers to have a say.

Other suggestions include backbench debates on motions selected by ballot, greater flexibility on time limits on speeches and more discretion for the Speaker to grant urgent debates.

And, to help new MPs, a longer interval is suggested between their election and the date of the first sitting of the new Parliament, to allow more time for induction.

Mr Straw said Parliament had to realise it was competing with "many other voices and media interests" for the public's attention.

He said MPs were working harder than ever for their constituents.

"However, they are also faced with traditions that, for example, require them to spend a lot of time waiting to raise an issue in a debate," he said.

"That needs to change, to enable MPs to have more varied and timely opportunities to do so."

'May take time'

He also said they had to recognise the "constant media focus on a changing agenda" and Parliament had to be topical.

The recommendations have been welcomed by the Hansard Society, which promotes effective Parliamentary democracy, which says Parliament must become more "comprehensible to the public".

Its chief executive Fiona Booth said: "Achieving consensus on larger constitutional matters may take some time, but more immediate steps to make Parliament more understandable, relevant and newsworthy are within the grasp of our elected representatives.

"All it takes is the will to pursue them and so we urge MPs to support and implement these constructive recommendations."


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