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British lawmakers long for party days

LONDON -- Parliament's late-night culture of hard drinking, boozy debates, and midnight votes could make a comeback if a large segment of disgruntled British lawmakers get their way.

A campaign is growing in the Palace of Westminster to ditch the new "family friendly" working hours and revert to more nocturnal sittings.

Many MPs, or members of Parliament, argue that their timetable, which gets most House of Commons business wrapped up by 7 p.m., has destroyed the raucous, clubby atmosphere of political life.

They are demanding a return to the good old days.

"It has made the place like a morgue," Labour Party lawmaker Dennis Turner said.

His Conservative colleague, Michael Fabricant, agreed, saying, "Certainly in the evening it can be like the Mary Celeste" -- referring to the mystery of the brigantine found abandoned at sea in 1872.

Prime Minister Tony Blair's government overhauled Parliament's working practices in January 2003, arguing that the electorate was turned off by the arcane, fusty environment.

MPs now sit their traditional hours on a Monday, from 2:30 p.m. until 10 p.m., or later. But on other days, when the chamber opens at 11:30 a.m., they aim to complete business by early evening.

Key announcements are made shortly after noon, rather than 3:30 p.m., allowing the government to set the news agenda early. Modernizers argue that the earlier hours promote a better work-life balance, are better for MPs with children, and set an example to the business world.

But 246 lawmakers from all parties have signed a motion demanding a reconsideration of those hours, prompting the Commons modernization committee to hold a review.

No date has been set for a decision.

Until January 2003, Parliament's nine bars and 18 eateries thronged with activity until late in the evening.

With debates often continuing into the wee hours, MPs would retire for a pint and a game of pool in Annie's bar, secure in the knowledge that the division bell would summon them back to the chamber to vote.

On summer nights, lawmakers would spill out from the Stranger's bar onto the terrace overlooking the River Thames to drink, gossip, and scheme.

The Debate, a light and airy cafe under the glass roof of Portcullis House, is favored by young researchers. The menu offers fare such as cream of butternut squash and thyme soup, or Singapore fish laksa with l'epi de France bread.

Older Parliamentarians prefer the Churchill Rooms, sitting under chandeliers in leather-backed chairs bearing the Parliamentary crest.

"When we were sitting until 10 p.m., members of all parties used to come together, and it created a much more dynamic and lively atmosphere where you could have political and sociable discussions," Turner said.

With the majority of lawmakers living far away from their constituencies, many would prefer working and socializing late than returning to a solitary London apartment.

Lawmakers also complain there is no longer time in the morning for attending committees that scrutinize government departments.

"There are too many clashes between select committee meetings and standing committees and the business of the House," said Fabricant, who believes a consensus is beginning to grow around a compromise of sitting late on Tuesdays, also.

But that view is not unanimous.

Patricia Hewitt, who is the minister for women as well as trade secretary, said a return to the old ways would alienate the public.

"The sight of MPs voting at 10 o'clock at night, with MPs often the worse for wear debating and voting, only confirms Parliament is in another world and it is not part of the normal world," she recently told The Guardian newspaper.

"Late night politics, and the yah boo that goes with it, puts off a lot of potential women candidates and the wider public. They just think it is a life that they don't want to be part of."

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