Sitting hours and the Parliamentary calendar - Procedure Committee Contents

2  Overall sitting patterns (the Parliamentary calendar)

Total number of sitting days

10. We begin by considering the House's overall sitting patterns. The evidence which we have taken suggests that the current balance between the number of sitting days and the number of non-sitting days across the year is broadly correct. As we have noted above, the amount of constituency casework Members deal with has increased enormously. Yet the importance of work at Westminster has not diminished and there is no room for any reduction in the total number of sitting days in a year. The Government certainly wishes to get the same amount of business through the House and the Backbench Business Committee is seeing great pressure on the time it is given by the Government and for which it is responsible. We conclude that the number of sitting days, and sitting weeks, should remain broadly the same as at present, that is, about 150 days, spread over about 34 weeks, per year.

Distribution of sitting days

11. We have, however, heard suggestions that the distribution of those days across the year could be improved to maximise Members' ability both to scrutinise Government and to serve their constituents. There is widespread agreement that the introduction of a "half-term" break from sitting at Westminster in February, has been welcome; similarly, the short recess in November, which replaces the time previously spent at that time in prorogation, has been welcomed by Members. Conversely, though the two-week September sitting is unwelcome in its current form, it is accepted that it is undesirable to leave Government unscrutinised by Parliament for almost three months.

12. We found a general consensus that both very long periods at Westminster and very long periods away from Westminster are to be avoided. We therefore put forward in our consultation document two options for the overall sitting patterns of the House:

  • a pattern resembling the current calendar, with two/three week breaks from Westminster sittings at Christmas and Easter and one/two week breaks in February and at Whitsun; and
  • a pattern of four/five weeks at Westminster followed by a week in the constituency.


13. We additionally considered the issue of the summer recess and September sittings. The evidence we received from Members concerning September sittings was mixed. There was little—if any—enthusiasm for them, with many considering that little of substance was achieved in that two-week period and that any benefit in presentational terms was outweighed by the financial costs of setting the House up for Members to be brought back for just eight or nine sitting days before a further three-week recess. Many also regretted the loss of opportunities for constituency work in September, particularly in schools. The view in other quarters was that any move to return to the long summer recess would not only be difficult in presentational terms, but would also create a long period when the House would be unable effectively to fulfil its task of scrutinising Government and holding Ministers to account. Additionally, as the Leader of the House pointed out in his evidence to us, "there is no easy option of simply abolishing September sittings":[10] those sitting days would need to be found somewhere, probably at the end of July. That would be particularly unwelcome for Members representing Scottish constituencies who had school-age children, since the Scottish school holidays begin in early July and finish in mid-August, leaving little overlap with a summer recess which does not start until late July.

14. We asked the Clerk of the House, in his role as Chief Executive of the House Service, for an estimate of the marginal cost of September sittings. He replied

[…] work for the Finance and Services Committee on estimating the additional cost for the works programme of the two week September sitting has suggested that an additional cost, of the order of £1.5 million, mainly on the capital budget, arises from having to manage some projects within the tighter timetable caused by breaking up the long Summer recess. We cannot determine accurately the total financial consequence, or risk impact, of breaking up the long recess as costs will vary from project to project, and hence from year to year. The key factor for the Parliamentary Estates Directorate (PED), however, is certainty about the Parliamentary calendar to allow for effective planning.[11]

Questioned further in oral evidence, the Clerk of the House put that figure in context:

[…] the total impact of changes at the margins of sitting patterns would probably be quite small. There is a figure in the paper about the impact, for instance, of not having a September sitting, or having one. We tried to work out a figure for that—about £1.5 million on the capital budget—that is out of a total spend in the House of Commons of well in excess of £200 million, so these are not enormous impacts.[12]

15. The sitting pattern in September is dictated chiefly by the timing of the party conferences. We considered various options for dealing with this fixture in the political calendar: from simply ignoring them and continuing to sit regardless, to sitting around them (on, say, a Tuesday and Wednesday while the conferences were held from Thursday to the following Monday), to inviting the parties to move their conferences either forward to the first three weeks of September, or back to late October/early November.

16. Regrettably, all these options have proved either undesirable or impractical. The political parties (those who responded to us) were unwilling to move their conferences either forward or back, citing concerns about the effect on other events (such as the Trades Union Congress conference, which takes place in early September) and about the practicalities of holding one conference during the October half-term break. Nor did they feel able to move them into even an extended long weekend.[13] Sitting around the party conferences would be little better than sitting for two weeks in September and then breaking for three weeks; and neither the Leader nor the Shadow Leader was prepared to countenance continuing to sit while the conferences took place.[14]

17. With some regret, therefore, we conclude that the only viable options for the House's sitting pattern across the summer recess and into October is either to sit for two weeks in mid-September, as currently, or to revert to the pattern of a long summer recess and move those two sitting weeks elsewhere. Early in this Parliament the House agreed to "[ask] the Government to put to this House specific proposals for sitting periods in September 2010".[15] The House has not, however, had the opportunity since the general election, when many new Members were returned, to debate the question of whether September sittings should become the norm. We have now had two years of sitting in September since the last general election, time for all Members to judge its desirability. The House has already agreed to a motion providing for a September sitting in 2012.[16] We recommend that the House should be given the opportunity to vote on whether the House should continue to sit in September from 2013 onwards.


18. The responses we received from Members showed a clear preference for a sitting pattern across the rest of the year which resembles the current calendar. Such a pattern provides an appropriate balance between the length of time spent at a stretch by Members at Westminster and in the constituency. An additional benefit of this pattern is that it enables those Members with school-age children to spend time with their families in school holiday time, an important factor in ensuring that those with young children are not discouraged from standing for Parliament. Subject to the House's decision on September sittings, we recommend that the House should continue to follow the current overall sitting pattern.

10   Ev w58 Back

11   Ev w56 Back

12   Q 211 Back

13   Ev w50, Ev w59, Ev w95. Back

14   Q 240, Q 274 Back

15   Votes and Proceedings, 15 June 2010 Back

16   Votes and Proceedings, 21 February 2012 Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2012
Prepared 20 June 2012