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Thursday, 6 July, 2000, 16:19 GMT 17:19 UK
Head-to-head: Modernising parliament

An all-party group of MP has recommended reducing late-night sittings in the House of Commons, and suggested that votes currently taken after 2200 should be delayed until the following Wednesday afternoon.

At the moment, Commons sittings can drag on from one day into another, forcing MPs and ministers to hang around in the House until dawn.

Nicholas Winterton MP, a Conservative who sits on the committee, says he cannot countenance plans which will neuter backbenchers and make parliament the poodle of government.

But Labour's Lorna Fitzsimons, a fellow committee member, argues the plans will at last drag the Houses of Parliament into the 21st Century.

Lorna Fitzsimons, Labour MP for Rochdale and chair of the women's group of the Parliamentary Labour Party:

These exciting proposals are the product of three years' hard work, and I'm delighted that finally we may be a step away from dragging Parliament into the 21st century.

For the first time, we are moving away from the notion that we can equate the effectiveness of Parliament with the number of hours worked - the public knows that's nonsense anyway.

In the rest of the world, the idea of productivity is based on what you do, not how long it takes you to do it.

Parliament shouldn't be about spending four hours making a speech which could be made just as effectively in four minutes.

It shouldn't be about arguing over whether to include the word "etcetera" in a bill until four in the morning - and I think I would be hard-pressed to come up with an example of a piece of legislation which had been improved by an all-night sitting in which we argued over that sort of thing.

The idea that opposition is only about embarrassing the government, rather than amending legislation to help our constituents, is erroneous.

Any opposition member worth their salt would recognise that these proposals are great for them.

For the first time they have the chance to choose where debate is focused - and government will no longer be able to hide behind arcane practices.

And it's great for backbenchers, too - at the moment I admit I don't tend to sit in debates for ten hours on the basis that I may or may not get called upon to speak.

Instead, I'll go and lobby a minister, or speak to civil servants, because it's a more effective way of getting things done.

Under these plans, MPs will be able to plan their time much more effectively.

How effective is working a 17-and-a-half-hour day?

How much quality attention can we really give government bills if we're exhausted?

Yes, the proposals will make the House of Commons more family-friendly - I'm fed up with falling asleep on the phone to my husband - it's become a family joke.

And yes, Westminster will become more women-friendly if these proposals are adopted, and it's probably true that the large number of women who've come in to the Commons this session have driven through reform.

We tend to be more practically-minded, and have reacted against the masculine "playground politics" that we found when we arrived.

But it's not just about women MPs.

The bottom line is that these proposals will improve the working environment for all Members of Parliament.


Nicholas Winterton, Conservative MP for Macclesfield:

These are monstrous proposals, which decimate the opportunity of backbenchers to have a meaningful role in our democracy.

Backbenchers will just become pawns in a voting game under these plans, particularly the idea of allowing MPs to vote on issues a week after they've been debated.

The way an MP votes will become completely divorced from the nature of a debate - whatever happened to the idea of people being influenced by persuasive argument?

I can see these plans would be terribly convenient for ministers, and voting on a Wednesday afternoon, which is what is being proposed, would certainly do wonders for the prime minister's voting record!

But it would mean Parliament by remote control, and it would utterly undermine the spirit and purpose of the House of Commons.

Supporters of the proposals argue that the idea of timetabling, or "programming" the legislative agenda in meetings between government ministers and shadow front bench will benefit the opposition.

But what about the independent-minded backbencher who may not always agree with his party's line? He will be neutered.

I've been a backbencher since I came into Parliament, and I've greatly valued being able to influence legislation in that role.

This is another example of a government doing everything they can to bypass and marginalise Parliament.

The increase in hours and late sittings has arisen because ministers are trying to pack too much bad legislation into sessions - "trying to squeeze a quart into a pint pot."

But this is no solution.

The House of Commons doesn't exist to be "family-friendly", it's here to do a job, and MPs should be committed to work for their constituents.

These plans amount to a destruction of our democratic process.

My colleagues and I have sought for three years to find a consensus on the way to modernise Parliament, but this is a bridge too far, and I cannot support the plans.

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See also:

06 Jul 00 | UK Politics
Tories attack MPs' hours change
15 Apr 00 | UK Politics
Commons breastfeed ban under fire
19 May 00 | UK Politics
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