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I thought that it might be interesting to look at what goes on in other countries. I am not sure whether the pattern that emerges confirms particular nations stereotypes. The Parliaments in the two countries in Europe that have had democracy for longest sit for a long timethat in Italy sits for 197 days, and that in Greece sits for 248 days. At the other end of the scale, the German Bundestag sits for only 38 days, while the Austrians sit for 28 days. I do not think that the British Parliament is wildly out when one considers the rest of Europe.
Mr. Mullin: I think that the Minister misunderstands. The issue is not the length of time or the number of days we sit; it is the big gap over the summer. The fact that it will be 75 days next time, instead of 80, is not something that I would boast about much outside this place, if I was her.
Helen Goodman: I realise that it is also the fact that the recess is in one big chunk that concerns my hon. Friends the Members for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), and for Walsall, North. However, the fact is that unless we shift the time significantly, and square the circle of all the other things that have to be done, it is difficult to see how we could make the recess significantly shorter without having September sittings.
Of course I understand that Scottish colleagues would like the recess moved forward significantly into July, to coincide with Scottish holidays, but the fact is that two years ago there were discussions about changing the timing of the party conferences, and the problem with getting the party conferences moved around the parliamentary timetable is that the conferences have been planned even further in advance than the parliamentary timetable.
Mr. Hollobone: Surely the Minister must understand that the general public are completely turned off by the party conferences? Would it not be far better to hold them all in one week and get it all over with, and then have an early resumption of sittings in this place?
Helen Goodman: I do not think that the general public are turned off by all the party conferences, and I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman suggests that they are. At the core of the argument made by my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North, is the issue of accountability. His central concern is that there is a long period of time during which the Government are not properly accountable. I feel that he is really over-egging that point. As he has pointed out, written questions are now answered during September, which is an innovation. The fact that that was made a permanent arrangement was coupled with the decision to end September sittings on a permanent basis.
As my hon. Friend noted, if it is necessary, Parliament will be recalled. It was recalled in 1998, 2001 and 2002. It should please my hon. Friend that in The Governance of Britain, which the Government published in July, it was made clear that we will look at proposals to enable the House to be recalled at the request of the House, rather than simply at the request of the Government. I should think that that would go some way towards reassuring my hon. Friend that Members of the House can be more proactive in holding the Government to account.
Finally, my hon. Friend said that Select Committees do not meet on the same basis in the recess. I was puzzled by that. This September, for example, the Select Committee on the Treasury held hearings on Northern Rock, which was the issue of the moment; it was absolutely right that it should deal with the subject swiftly. It was able to do soand very effective it was, too.
Mr. Winnick: I did not want to criticise Select Committees in any way; I sit on one. We do not, in the main, meet during the summer recess, but obviously that is a matter for the Committee. I said that Select Committees do not sit on the same basis in the recess, and obviously they do not. The Treasury Committee met because of the Northern Rock crisis. I appreciate the role that my hon. Friend the Minister has tonight of defending and justifying the decision on the long recess, but the fact remains that Select Committees do not meet each week during September, and during October until the House sits, and I am sure that she is not suggesting otherwise. When there is a particular crisis, or a report that must be produced, the Committee will meet. I believe that I am right: Select Committees can hardly meet on the same basis when the House is not sitting.
One of the issues that my hon. Friend raisedindeed, it was raised by the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) and by my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, Southconcerned the fact that the public do not understand the word recess. We should therefore give a clearer exposition of what happens in the recess. The question of how best to fulfil the role of Member of Parliament has almost as many interpretations as there are MPs. There are many aspects to that role, includingand I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North that it is very significantholding the Government to account; legislating; and, if one is a Government Member, supporting the Government in getting their programme through and delivering their manifesto commitments. Opposition Members should, quite rightly, oppose Government proposals and, moreover, encourage political debate on those matters.
All of that is rooted in our role as representatives of our constituencies. Of course, I have not been a Member of Parliament as long as my hon. Friend, but it is useful to have a good, solid period of time that one can devote in a concentrated manner to the constituencynot dipping in and outso that one can follow things through without being pulled back to Westminster to deal with issues in the House. He knows as well as I that if we simply had a recess that coincided with the holidays, whether the July holidays in the case of the Scots or the August holidays in the case of the English, we would have the problem of not being able to meet all the people and listen to their concerns, and we would not be able to visit organisations across our constituencies. The time to do that properly and to think about what our constituents tell us is important in enabling us, when we do come back, to fulfil our other roles to the best of our ability.