Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons Second Report


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 and legislation.

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 recess.

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 days.

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.

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Prepared 5 September 2002