It says a lot about the low esteem in which the British Parliament is held nowadays that the move of Robin Cook from Foreign Secretary to Leader of the House of Commons has been widely regarded as a demotion.

In fact, Mr Cook's new job could turn out to be one of the most important in the government and the country - provided only that he is given the opportunity to implement some of the necessary reforms in the handling of parliamentary business that have been left unattended for many years.

It is not only the media and the public which are dissatisfied with the way in which the Commons works - a survey of MPs recently conducted by the Hansard Society showed that 128 of 179 who were questioned thought that Prime Minister's Question Time is “a waste of time” and only half considered that speaking in debates is worth the effort.

On the other hand, and by a large majority, these MPs praised the Select Committee system and said that it should be extended and made more independent of government.

It is in the Select Committees that MPs can focus on specialist issues, call civil servants and outside experts to give evidence and, often, reach consensus conclusions that pay little heed to party allegiances. The judgement on Prime Minister's Question Time seems harsh.

It may not be productive in terms of getting detailed facts and figures from the PM of the day but it plays an important part in testing the calibre of the occupant of No 10 Downing Street and the potential of the Leader of the Opposition.

Mr Cook, a dedicated parliamentarian, should use his new job to make reforms that will reestablish the House of Commons as a bastion of democracy.

Ray Fleming

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