Sitting hours and the Parliamentary calendar - Procedure Committee Contents

1  Introduction

The role of a Member of Parliament

1. We have recognised from the outset of this inquiry that the starting-point for any consideration of sitting hours and the Parliamentary calendar must be an appreciation of what it is that a Member of Parliament actually does.

2. Any well-informed reader of this report will recognise that the role of a Member of Parliament has changed constantly over the years, and will continue to do so. He or she will also know that there are as many different roles as there are Members of Parliament. Former Leader of the House Jack Straw, answering a question on whether it would be possible or desirable to codify the role of an MP into a job description, replied

It would be very much just generally descriptive because, after all, the job of the MP is to represent his or her constituents in the way that his or her constituents wish him or her to represent them, those constituents in that town, full stop.[1]

Each area's constituents will wish their MP to serve them in different ways; and each area's MP will have different ways of undertaking that service.

3. It is nonetheless possible to summarise the role of an MP in a way which is helpful to a consideration of what it means for the sitting patterns of the House. The Speaker's Conference on Parliamentary Representation, which met in the last Parliament and reported in January 2010, did so as follows:

81. An MP has a number of responsibilities. The main ones are:

  • as a legislator, debating, making and reviewing laws and government policy within Parliament; and
  • as an advocate for the constituency he or she represents. The MP can speak for the interests and concerns of constituents in Parliamentary debates and, if appropriate, intercede with Ministers on their behalf. The MP can speak either on behalf of the constituency as a whole, or to help individual constituents who are in difficulty (an MP represents all their constituents, whether or not the individual voted for them). Within the constituency an MP and his or her staff will seek to support individual constituents by getting information for them or working to resolve a problem.

82. In addition some MPs will:

  • Take on an additional role as a Government Minister;
  • Take on a formal role within Parliament, supporting the Speaker by chairing committees or debates; or
  • Have a formal role to play within their political party, for example, being a spokesperson, co-ordinating a campaign or advising the party leadership on a particular area of policy.

83. A good MP will make a positive difference to the community he or she represents. An MP can express the concerns of their community to Parliament and ensure people's experiences are recorded and understood. He or she can press for changes which will increase the community's wellbeing and prosperity. An MP has the authority to bring different people and agencies together to address an awkward problem. When someone has to take on 'the system'—perhaps to secure the right care package for a relative, or to correct a miscarriage of justice—an MP can often support them and help them through. An MP will bring their knowledge and understanding of their constituents' lives, concerns and interests, as well as their own life experience, to bear on their work.

84. It is important to recognise that a Member's responsibilities rest jointly and concurrently at Westminster and in the constituency. It is a modern requirement of the job that a Member has an office in both places and there is a strong public expectation that when not required at Westminster, Members will actively participate in the life of the constituency, including at weekends. Hence it is important to recognise that both Westminster and their constituency are places of work for MPs.[2]

4. This is an extraordinarily demanding role. The evidence we have gathered in the course of this inquiry—not only from Members themselves, but also from external observers and commentators such as the Hansard Society—shows clearly the enormous pressure which Members of Parliament are under from the competing demands of constituency, party and their role in the House itself. Members of Parliament work extraordinarily long hours. The Hansard Society's survey of new Members showed them working an average of 69 hours/week, with travel time of 8 hours on top of that.[3] Our own survey echoed those results, suggesting that most Members work 70 hours/week or more while the House is sitting.[4] MPs take few holidays, and may not be entirely "off duty" even then, often feeling that they need to stay in touch with events in the constituency even while away with the family.[5] The Hansard Society reported that responses to their survey on the question of the effect of becoming a Member on personal/family life were "universally negative"[6], a finding again backed up by our own survey of Members, which found that some 55% of Members were dissatisfied to some extent with their work/life balance.[7]

5. We do not make these observations in order to complain about our lot. All Members are here voluntarily: no-one has compelled us to stand for election and it is for us as individuals to find a way of coping with the demands of the job in a way which suits us, our families, and those who have sent us here—our constituents. Rather, we wish to demonstrate that we have borne in mind in the course of this inquiry the need for both sitting hours and the Parliamentary calendar to support, so far as possible, not only Members' work both in their constituency and at Westminster, but also the need for them to maintain some semblance of normal family life.

6. The issue emerging particularly strongly from the evidence to this inquiry was the huge increase over time in the constituency workload. Much could be said about the reasons for that: from the rise of "pavement politics" and campaigning on local issues, to the increased propensity to complain about poor service from state agencies, to the introduction of e-mail and improved ease of communication with elected representatives. Whatever the reasons it is clear that these pressures, once raised, are very unlikely to diminish. We have therefore focussed on what those pressures mean for sitting hours and the Parliamentary calendar. The growth in the constituency caseload has not in any way diminished the importance of a Member's work at Westminster (notwithstanding the finding of our survey that, given more time, significantly more Members would spend it in the constituency, or on constituency work, than on parliamentary work at Westminster).[8] But it does mean that Westminster sitting patterns need to reflect the growth of this call on Members' time, as well as Parliamentary work at Westminster and the need for a family life. As Tony Lloyd, appearing before us in his capacity as Chair of the Parliamentary Labour Party, told us,

One of the things that colleagues have said to me is that, of course, the nature of being a Member of Parliament has changed and continues to change. The various pressures—such as electronic communications and the capacity for people to communicate more—do not actually lessen the role of the Member of Parliament as constituency representative and, in actual fact, while you may talk about the work/life balance for some occupations, because MPs have almost two distinct working roles, that of parliamentary representative and that of constituency representative, it is really a matter of the work/work/life balance that we are talking about.[9]

7. We are also conscious of the fact that each Member of Parliament has a different way of working, and that in looking at the sitting hours of the House there are no mainstream options which are necessarily 'right or wrong', 'out-dated or modern', or 'effective or less so'. The whole issue is largely a matter of individual preference. We therefore acknowledge that there are differing views which will need to be resolved by the House. The current sitting hours were inherited by this House from its predecessor and it is right that the House elected in 2010 now have the opportunity to decide its preference about the hours that it sits. Individual Members should take their decision on the matter based on what they feel is the best working practice for them to better serve Parliament and their own constituents; and whilst issues of cost-effectiveness and value for money should certainly be an important factor in that decision, we would expect both the House administration and the expenses regime to support to as full an extent as necessary the conclusions which the House, collectively, reaches about its sitting patterns.

Our inquiry

8. This has been a long and thorough inquiry, in the course of which we have attempted to give Members and others as much opportunity as possible to have an input into our deliberations. We began with a call for evidence in March 2011, to which we received responses not only from Members and others within the House such as the trades unions and the Members' and Peers' Staff Association (MAPSA) but also from former Members and from external commentators and organisations such as the Hansard Society. We took oral evidence from Dr Ruth Fox of the Hansard Society and Prof Sarah Childs of the University of Bristol in June 2011, and followed that up with evidence from a number of Members and former Members in September 2011. We then drew the evidence we had received up to that point together into a consultation document indicating the direction in which it was leading us, which we published in November 2011. Finally, in January and February of this year we took oral evidence from the trades unions and MAPSA, the Chairs of the Administration and Finance and Services Committees, the Clerk of the House and other House officials, and the Leader of the House and Shadow Leader . We also pursued certain issues in writing with both the Clerk of the House and the Speaker.

9. We are very grateful to all those who have sent us written evidence and appeared before us in person. We received in the course of the inquiry a number of very interesting and radical suggestions, not all of which we have been able to follow up. We have nevertheless greatly appreciated the willingness of individuals from both inside and outside the House to bring forward their ideas, and we encourage people to continue to think radically and creatively about how the House of Commons, both through its sitting patterns and in other ways, can best enable its members to fulfil their many and varied duties as Members of Parliament.

1   Q 50 Back

2   Speaker's Conference (on Parliamentary Representation): Final Report, HC (2010-12) 239, 11 January 2010. Back

3   Ev w14 Back

4   Results from the survey of Members (published with written evidence) Back

5   Q 98 Back

6   Ev w15 Back

7   Results from the survey of Members Back

8   Results from the survey of Members, Ev w97 Back

9   Q 64; Ev w97 Back

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Prepared 20 June 2012