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Summer Recess (Duration)

Volume 467: debated on Thursday 8 November 2007

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Watson.]

I obviously accept that a recess, long or short, is not meant to be a holiday, although the word “recess”, as I am sure my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House of Commons knows, is not a word that one hears much outside Westminster. Members of Parliament undertake constituency work during the break, especially during the summer. That is not in doubt. I am sure that my hon. Friend does; I do, and virtually all if not all hon. Members’ offices are kept open, be it in the House of Commons or in the constituency. Correspondence continues to flow back and forth, and surgeries for most of us continue to take place in August and September as in any other month of the year.

Nevertheless, that does not alter the fact that 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. They cannot happen during the period when we are not sitting. Select Committees can meet, but I believe that I am right in saying that few do. If meetings of Select Committees occur, it is clearly not on the same basis as when the House is sitting. Written questions can be tabled. My hon. Friend looked puzzled when I mentioned Select Committees, but I believe that few sit when the House is not sitting. How many meet during the summer recess no doubt my hon. Friend can tell me. The fact that written questions can be tabled on certain dates is welcome. It is one advance on what occurred previously, but it is not a substitute for parliamentary activities.

I do not dispute that a summer break should be longer than the other ones. That will come as a relief to some hon. Members who may feel that I am advocating just a two-week break—nothing of the kind—but is 11 weeks really necessary? This year we broke up on 26 July and came back on 8 October. Next year’s dates are 23 July to 6 October.

I welcomed the recommendation of the Modernisation Committee. The Committee reported in 2002:

“Parliament could be more effective if it is was not absent for such a long continuous period”—

namely, from July to October. The Committee made the point that the arrangements that have continued over the years and which we are now back to meant that there was no parliamentary scrutiny and no opportunity for Members of Parliament to debate the issues of the moment. That is obvious, unless the House is recalled. I have been a Member for many years and I remember the House being recalled a few times, with every justification, but of course recalls are the exception. We were recalled for reasons such as the invasion of Kuwait, and the invasion of the Falklands long before that. They were not happy reasons.

As we know, the House agreed in October 2002 to accept the recommendation to sit in part of September. It was carried by a large majority. The two Front-Bench teams were in favour. There was no great dissent, and the House accepted the recommendation of the Modernisation Committee. The result was that we sat for two weeks in September in 2003 and the following year. For the life of me I can see no reason why that situation should not continue.

I do not remember Members complaining that they could not do their constituency work, which is the usual reason for not being in this place, or that the change was inconvenient. It was accepted that we had an opportunity to do the work for which we were elected—holding the Government to account in debates and oral questions. Once again, we do not do that for an 11-week period.

Perhaps fortunately for Members who were not keen on September sittings, the security screen was erected in 2005. I do not dispute the need for it, but that was the reason we did not sit in September that year. My hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) asked whether the situation would be permanent and whether we would no longer sit in September. He received a rather ambiguous reply, and the fact remains that since then there have been no September sittings and there is not the slightest indication that the Government and Opposition Front Benchers have any intention of reinstating them.

My amendment that we should sit in September was defeated, but Members on the Government and Opposition Benches were in favour of the Modernisation Committee’s recommendation in 2002, which was carried by a large majority. I do not want to be insulting so I hesitate to say this, but it is almost as though there has been a stitch-up between the Government and Opposition Front Benchers. At business questions, the shadow Leader of the House does not complain about not sitting in September and the Government are clearly not keen to do so. It could be cynically said that no Government are enthusiastic for Members of Parliament to sit for longer—perhaps I should share that view if I had a senior Government position—but neither the Government nor the Opposition seem keen to return to sittings in the late summer or early autumn.

When Robin Cook was Leader of the House and proposed the Modernisation Committee recommendation, he made the point that the recess period would not be any shorter, so the September sittings did not mean that the House met more frequently. We broke up earlier in July to accommodate the arrangements for September sittings in 2003 and 2004, but I differ from Robin Cook because I am in favour of a shorter summer recess. If I had to choose, however, between what happened in 2003 and 2004 and what has happened since, I should choose the former—obviously. If we must have a long recess, we should at least sit for some time during September.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate and on his interesting contribution, to which I am listening intently. I, too, am in favour of a shorter recess and, like him, am appalled that Parliament does not sit for a period of 11 or 12 weeks. The general public do not understand why Parliament cannot meet during the early autumn.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right and he anticipates a point that I was about to make.

Apart from the construction of the security screen in 2005, various reasons, or excuses, are given for our not meeting—for example, the party conferences. Nothing is set in concrete, however. If the leadership of the main parties represented in the House of Commons wanted different arrangements, I am sure that the party conferences could meet at different times. It is not holy writ that the Liberals, then my party and then the Conservatives should meet for their conference at the time they do. The dates can be changed. The argument about the party conferences is a weak one.

It is also argued that building work must be done. Of course, there is bound to be maintenance work in a building such as this. However, would I not be right in saying that maintenance work is carried out in many large buildings around the country? There is nothing exceptional about the House of Commons. In other places where maintenance work takes place, it is very unlikely for the employees to be told to go away for 11 weeks on paid leave. Work carries on despite the fact that the builders are in. The same would apply here.

I want to make it clear that I am not arguing for a recess of, say, two weeks. I suggest a recess of six or seven weeks, or eight maximum. At least that would be shorter than the current summer recess. That would allow us time for holidays—I certainly take a holiday—and to do the constituency work that it is perhaps more difficult to do at other times of the year. I would say that I am being reasonable.

The hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) made a very valid point. The public’s perception is that we take 11 weeks’ holiday. I suppose that if they come to our surgeries or receive acknowledgments or replies to letters, common sense dictates that it is unlikely that we are on holiday. Moreover, I suspect that all but one or two Members would find 11 weeks on the beach or anywhere else rather boring. My main argument is based around the fact that we are not carrying out the functions that we were elected to do in the first place. I have gone into that, but I also believe that we do ourselves a disservice, given the impression that the public have.

My hon. Friend’s point about public perception is absolutely right. I put it to him that if we care about the way our profession is regarded, the recess is something that we can do something about. It does not require the passing of legislation; we ourselves can do something about it.

I welcome my hon. Friend’s point. He has been a strong advocate of a shorter summer recess. We could do something about that and we did so on the two occasions that I have mentioned. I am sure that he would not disagree that there is a cynical feeling that we want a high salary and expenses—the perception of them is totally distorted, as if the expenses go into our back pockets—and that we go away for 11 weeks at one time of the year.

I am not very optimistic—far from it— but, all in all, I hope that those on the two Front Benches will reconsider the matter and that we will not indefinitely have summer recesses of 11 weeks like those of this year and next year. I look forward to the comments of my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House. I know that she does not decide on this matter but, in so far as she may be able to communicate privately to her more senior colleagues the strong feelings of some of us, that will be very useful indeed.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) on securing this Adjournment debate. Last night when I told my brother-in-law that I was responding to a debate on this topic, he said he felt that in terms of long recesses we were not doing very well. He is a university professor and I think that they have 16 weeks to do their non-teaching work.

I begin on a note of agreement with my hon. Friend. It is on record that I supported him when he moved an amendment in favour of September sittings last November.

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Lady, but it is rather important that she addresses both the Chair and the microphone. I know that she is being courteous to her hon. Friend, but that makes it difficult for those who are reporting our business.

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I voted for September sittings alongside my hon. Friend and I saw the value of the case that he made. However, the vote was lost overwhelmingly by 122 votes to 354. I remind him that that was a free vote. It is important that he accepts that the House has expressed a clear opinion. The decision was taken in the light of the experience of 2003 and 2004.

Of course I remember the vote. I remember when I win and when I lose—needless to say, when talking about free votes, I lose more often than I win. However, it is interesting that when a decision was taken on September sittings on 29 October 2002 and Front Benchers on both sides of the House said that they were in favour of them, the motion was carried by 411 votes to 47. That shows the difference when Front Benchers are in favour.

My hon. Friend has been a Member for longer than I and is more conscious of the long history of the matter. He is to be commended for his consistency and persistence on the issue. He spoke about the matter last year, in 2005 and in 2003. However, raising the issue annually, rather than once in a Parliament, might be unlikely to be very fruitful. William Wilberforce moved the anti-slavery Bill 12 times, but I know that my hon. Friend does not think that this is an issue of the same significance.

May I remind my hon. Friend of a few facts? It is planned that the recess in 2008 should be 75 days long. That is a shorter time than in each year between 1998 and 2002, when we had more than 80 days on recess. Even when there were September sittings in 2003 and 2004, the recess lasted 77 and 70 days respectively. My hon. Friend knows about the increase in the number of hours that we sit because he has referred to it on other occasions. In 1995-96, the House sat for 1,278 hours. Ten years later, partly because of the advent of Westminster Hall, we sat for 2,184 hours.

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 time—that 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.

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.

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.

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?

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 so—and very effective it was, too.

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.

I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes about Select Committees.

One of the issues that my hon. Friend raised—indeed, it was raised by the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) and by my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South—concerned 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, including—and I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North that it is very significant—holding 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 constituency—not dipping in and out—so 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.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes past Six o’clock.