A MORE PREDICTABLE COMMONS CALENDAR
70. It is a strength of the British House of Commons
that its Members represent clearly defined local constituencies.
It is essential to the health of parliamentary democracy that
Members of Parliament should have adequate opportunity to be among
the constituents whom they represent. It is only that first hand
contact with the electors that enables MPs to speak with authority
in the Commons, to seek redress for grievances of individual constituents
and to hold Ministers to account for the impact of their policies
71. We reject the view implicit in some media comment
that MPs are at work when Parliament is sitting but not at work
when Parliament is in recess. Most MPs put as long hours into
a working day in the constituency as they do during a parliamentary
day and that work among their constituents is just as valuable
to the democratic process. It is particularly important to Members
with constituencies beyond commuting distance of Westminster that
there should be adequate opportunity for them to put in working
weeks in a constituency and this is only possible during the parliamentary
72. The British House of Commons spends far less
time in recess than most other democratic parliaments. The House
of Commons meets for more days than any of the parliaments of
the larger Commonwealth countries and indeed for twice as many
days as all of them except Canada. The typical pattern among European
parliaments is for the legislature to sit around 100 days in the
year, compared with 150 days for the UK Parliament. It is not
immediately apparent that the quality of British legislation is
superior as a result of our unusually large number of sitting
73. If we are to address the growing gap between
the electorate and politicians, which we have discussed earlier,
there is a solid case for arguing that more time should be provided
within the Commons calendar for MPs to be among their constituents.
We recognise the heavy pressures of parliamentary business and
our recommendations do not substantially alter the balance between
parliamentary weeks and constituency weeks. We do believe though
that it is possible to make more predictable arrangements for
the Commons calendar which would permit MPs to make more effective
use of the time when they are not at Westminster.
74. We recognise that the earlier MPs know the dates
of recess, the more productive use they can make of their time
in the constituency. It would also assist lobby groups and NGOs
in planning parliamentary events to know with confidence well
in advance when Parliament will be sitting. We welcome the recent
practice of giving longer notice of forthcoming recess dates but
believe it should be possible to go further. We recommend that
the Commons calendar should be announced a year in advance in
order that MPs can sensibly plan to make maximum use of time in
their constituencies. This would of course not prevent the
unscheduled recall of Parliament when a matter of national concern
arises during a recess.
75. By convention Parliament has taken short recesses
at the major holidays of Christmas and New Year, Easter and Whitsun.
These are not the best time for constituency work as so many businesses,
local authorities and schools are also on holiday. We recommend
that an additional week for constituency work should be included
in the first half of each year by being added to either the Easter
or the Whit recess.
76. It is a curiosity of the Commons calendar that
a majority of the non-sitting weeks come together in one unbroken
run from the end of July to the middle of October. This results
in an extended period in which there is no parliamentary scrutiny
and no opportunity for MPs to debate the issues of the moment.
It is a source of complaint by Members who cannot table parliamentary
questions for almost three months. It is a source of criticism
by the media who often assert, albeit unjustly, that MPs are on
holiday throughout that time.
77. We believe that Parliament could be more effective
if it was not absent for such a long continuous period. We recommend
that the Commons should rise in mid-July for the summer recess
and return in early September. The House would then rise in September
for a conference recess during the period of the party conference
season. This arrangement would end the prolonged period in which
there can be no parliamentary debate or parliamentary questions.
It would enable the media to report on Parliament throughout September,
rather than having to report the absence of Parliament. It would
have the added bonus of more fairly aligning the summer recess
with the school holidays.