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Long holidays hamper MPs' scrutiny role

Andrew Blick
28 May 2008

Andrew Blick (London, Democratic Audit): MPs hate being told that they spend too much time on breaks, but it needs saying. They are now on their Whitsun recess and all their work on scrutiny has come to an abrupt stop (though not the panicky cries and whispers of Labour members).

In case you were wondering, this is the Recess that comes between the Easter recess and the two-and-a-half months that they take off over summer. So they are probably working away in their constituencies and those in vulnerable seats are no doubt busy attempting to shore up their majorities. You could regard their time away from Westminster as the representative side of their responsibilities, only with the staff and other resources they get as MPs, it also weights the advantages of incumbency more heavily in their direction.

There is a bigger problem too. The balance of the work of MPs needs to be shifted firmly away from constituency campaigning towards the oversight of government policies and activities. Various recent reports – including one from the Hansard Society – have suggested that all MPs should serve on select committees to improve the quality of parliamentary scrutiny. Some MPs have risked incurring the anger of their colleagues by acknowledging the problem. Speaking about the long summer break, David Winnick recently told the Commons that it meant 'our main function of holding the Government to account in this Chamber does not take place for some 11 consecutive weeks. There are no oral questions, no statements and no debates...Select Committees can meet, but...few do.' As Leader of the House of Commons in October 2002, Robin Cook, told MPs 'It is not healthy for the elected representatives of the British people to be absent for three months at a stretch. Too much happens while we are away, and too many decisions necessarily have to be taken by Government in our absence'. At the time he managed to secure support for September sittings, but this part of the Cook legacy has since been lost. When the Modernisation Committee looked at the issue two years later, the convenience of members was uppermost in their minds and they ruled out an increase in total sitting time.

If MPs want to be valued, then they should should reform their House as well as their expenses. They should also not let up on demands from reformers like Graham Allen and insist that they should have a workable right to recall Parliament if a major incident occurs during a recess. That is when the Chamber can come into its own; its response to crises that flare up is usually pretty good. At the same time, the unfilled capacity of select committees to sit during recesses should be realised as a regular practice. They are the engine room for the ongoing detailed scrutiny of government that should take place all year round unchecked by recesses.

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