Sitting times for Britain’s House of Commons will change from early next year.
This article is extracted from The Backbencher email newsletter published by The Guardian.
The Guardian’s political editor, Michael White, hopes he is wrong to be sceptical about the reforms to parliament’s working hours.
Today was the last prime minister’s question time to be held at 3 o’clock. It’s difficult to remember now, but five or six years ago prime ministers used to arrive on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 3.15pm for two sessions a week – two different accountabilities, as opposition and backbench MPs might put it. Tony Blair unilaterally changed it to one session of 30 minutes: the same amount of time but only one period of accountability. It annoyed quite a lot of people, but we have got used to it.
Since then Labour has been modernising – the word they always use for changing – parliamentary procedures. They have done it with a greater degree of consensus than Mr Blair’s original decision on PMQs. Since there are so many Labour MPs, and since so many of them have not been in parliament very long, it has been an opportunity for Labour to dramatically reshape the way parliament works – as well as the composition of the Lords, of course.
Anyway, what we are getting from January is PMQs at 12 noon and a much shorter parliamentary day. It is going to last from 11.30am to 7pm on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and finish at 6pm on Thursdays. For the last few years, the Commons has risen at 7pm on Thursdays and there have been far fewer Friday sittings. When I was a lad it was quite common for the house to sit until 11 or 12 at night, and even stay up all night occasionally.
Now, speaking as an old lag down at Westminster, I am rather sceptical about these changes. The point about old parliamentary procedures was that they allowed backbench MPs to speak – not necessarily the opposition, but members of the awkward squad on their own side: people like Dennis Skinner and Tam Dalyell, Alan Clark and others on the Conservative benches, people who knew parliamentary procedure.
It enabled them to call ministers to account in awkward ways: ways they could not get around, ways they could not manipulate. I think that many of us are rather afraid that we have created a legislature which is much more amenable to the will of the executive (in other words the government) than it was in the last century.
It does not happen in the United States because the legislature, Congress, is very separate from the executive, the White House. In Britain, you have to be a peer or an MP in order to be a member of the executive. We are much more fused: it is a hangover from the 17th and 18th centuries. My worry is that these changes – which are all in the name of progress and making it easier for women to be MPs and other laudable things – what we are really doing is weakening the balance of the constitution. I hope I’m wrong, but it remains to be seen.
New Labour has had large majorities, and basically loyal ones; not like previous Labour governments in the 1970s, which were always facing revolts; not like John Major, who had a majority of only 21. That had its bad aspects, but at least you couldn’t say that the government could afford to ignore parliament. We do feel – many of us who have been around a while – that the balance is wrong at the moment. But as I say, I hope I am wrong.