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"A new way of life" article for the Christian Socialist Magazine

Thursday, February 13, 2003

Christian Socialist Magazine

January 2003

It wasn’t long after I was first elected to parliament in June 2001 that I realised I hadn’t so much taken on a new job as a new way of life. Not only did the parliamentary day mean getting back to the London flat any time after 10.30pm but constituency demands mean regular working time on Saturdays and occasional Sundays. And it wasn’t long before I was fed up with longer serving MPs telling me how lucky I was not to have been there in the old days when sittings to the early hours of the morning were common. I thought it was a good that things had improved since then, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t be better.

The discussions that have raged over the last year around changing the hours that the Chamber is sitting to allow earlier finishing times on three days a week have been heated. The use of the term “family friendly hours” to describe this has little meaning for the large number of MPs whose families are miles away in the constituency. It also presented an easy target for the press despite the fact that the total hours in a week remain virtually the same - they are just shifted to start earlier in the day.

So why did these changes command the support of the majority of MPs. The main motivation for me was improved efficiency. My select committee started at 9.30 in the morning which made for some very long days and I couldn’t see how this could possibly be helpful to good government. Too often debates seemed to continue for their own sake until the 10pm deadline to make sure those MPs who had gone to have dinner somewhere weren’t disturbed. The famed ability of MPs to speak at length on almost any subject probably comes from being asked so often to keep a debate going.

Of course teething problems are to be expected as individuals adjust and we find ways of handling the many competing demands on our time. MPs who have spent the last 10 - 20 years with their lives arranged around these hours are struggling to adapt and there is more opportunity for clashes for MPs. Select committees, bill committees, meeting constituents, interest groups and lobbying organisations all compete for time. Crucially I hope that the changes will make parliament an easier place to work for those with caring responsibilities and thus make MPs more representative of the rest of the population. As the House of Commons continues it slow process of modernisation I hope all MPs will eventually come to see the benefits of what I regard as sensible efficient work practices.

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