MPs locked out for 11 weeks

The Parliamentary recess is a symbol and a symptom of the overmanned and under achieving public sector. Some of my Labour colleagues will tell you that MPs have to work very hard in the recess – they have to catch up with all the constituency business which the pressure of a Westminster session puts on hold. Don’t you believe them. Any efficient MP can manage the constituency visits, cases and correspondence whilst also appearing regularly in Parliament. August and the first half of September are not ideal times for visits in the constituency. In my case there is no District General hospital within my boundaries, the schools are on summer holiday, and many businesses over August will be short of staff as they take their well deserved summer breaks. It is easier to keep up to date than to allow a backlog to develop that needs clearing in the recess.

I do plan to take some time off in August, but I think it is quite wrong that I am shut out from my main place of work and prevented from carrying out my main duties from July 22nd until October 6th! That’s a massive 11 weeks. Why does the government want to keep Parliament out of action for so long?

Doubtless they see it as a chance to have some respite from questions, criticisms and debates which highlight mistakes and problems. As from yesterday MPs are prevented from tabling a subject for debate, from asking oral questions of Ministers in Question Times, from tabling questions for written answer, from tabling EDMs and signing them, from participating in a committee, from asking a Minister a question during a debate or making points in a debate. We will have eleven weeks with no Ministerial statements to Parliament explaining what they are doing or reporting on errors and difficulties, no time to examine the secondary legislation they will still be drafting and pushing through, and no time to raise matters of public concern.

For the government it is a chance to dominate the media by using their spin doctors each day to pump out a story or a stunt, uninterrupted by criticism or an alternative agenda from Parliament.

At the very least there should be a session at the start of September before the main political conferences. This need not be a legislative session, as we have quite enough new primary legislation and do not wish to encourage more. It could combine Question Times to Ministers, with Ministerial statements, and adjournment debates on topics that the government and the Opposition wish to raise. There need not be any votes, so MPs who wish to be away can stay on their fact finding travels or whatever else they are doing, whilst those of us who wish to hold the government to account have a Parliament in which to do it. Whilst we are about it, why not abolish the main conferences, which are outdated ideas, and ask each party to go over to a couple of long week-end conferences each year so people with jobs can attend without having to take a week’s holiday, and MPs could continue to do their job at Westminster.

Westminster is overstaffed and underemployed. It should meet more often to provide better value for money. It is entirely representative of Labour’s wasteful public sector.

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25 Comments

  1. Graham Doll
    Posted July 23, 2008 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

    Speaking as someone who works in our demoralised NHS, I welcome this 11 week break. We might be able to get on with our jobs, serving patients, without the constant hectoring, criticism and crackpot ideas from the clueless idiots in charge.

  2. David Eyles
    Posted July 23, 2008 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    You have just fingered one tiny aspect of the deep, deep problems in the administration and accountability of UK PLC.

    As far as the Houses of Parliament are concerned, I would like to see a return to PMQs twice a week. A Prime Minister who cannot afford the time to answer to the country twice a week in these fast moving times is at risk of becoming isolated and arrogant in weilding his considerable power – as we have seen for ourselves only too often over the last decade. The same applies to ministers.

    Of course you are right that too many excessive recesses are bad for our democracy. It means that legislation is guillotined and vital details are left undiscussed. How many times did that happen, especially during the debate over the Lisbon Treaty and related matters?

    But I suspect that the damage is more subtle and far reaching than that. You will be able to tell us better than most if the links between MPs and civil servants are severed by this lack of accountability. I suspect that if ministers are not held to account, then their civil servants will not be accountable either. And this leads to the increasingly poor service that all of us get from our government. It also leads to greater levels of incompetence that have become a by-word for this administration.

    The excuses that will be made are doubtless related to the increasing complexity of regulation and legislation. And the biggest source of that is the EU. We need a first term of a Conservative government to REDUCE legislation and all the direct and consequential costs that go with it. That gives ministers, civil servants and MPs on both sides of the House to do their jobs thoroughly. But where, Mr Redwood, are you going to start?

    Reply: I set out how I would deregulate in the Economic Policy Review.

  3. Blue Eyes
    Posted July 23, 2008 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    Given that Parliament seems to do nothing but write bad law, I am beginning to think that it should sit less rather than more. If it was actually doing its main job of holding the government to account then I might change my tune, but seeing as the government has so much control over what business Parliament discusses I don't regard that job as being thoroughly done.

  4. AlanofEngland
    Posted July 23, 2008 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    The Bruges Group states…"From 1st May 2008 to 15th July the EU has passed 282 laws which will impact on the UK. That is TWO HUNDRED AND EIGHTY TWO! Since May 2007 the total is 1,798."…what is there left for UK MPs to do when it just needs a rubber stamp? I don't think the UK talking shop makes any difference, does it?

  5. WitneyTory
    Posted July 23, 2008 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    A non-legislative session is a very good idea that needs more of a debate.

    Also, I hope, John, that you will continue to perform this public duty throughout recess, showing up the Government's mismangement of, inter alia, the economy of this country.

  6. Iain
    Posted July 23, 2008 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

    Or as the British state and excutive has no use of the building for the next 11 weeks, may be English people can take it back and use it as their Parliament !

  7. James
    Posted July 23, 2008 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    Our local BBC radio have had several local MPs on regarding the long break. Only one MP was against them being so long.
    He was the only one who talked sense, as indeed you do.

  8. Roy Swift
    Posted July 23, 2008 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

    Yes, it seems incredible in this day and age, MPs get more time off than teachers and school children. It is high time that something was done about it so that we could get greater value from our MPs. Goodness knows there are enough national problems to deal with. Whilst we are at it though, I would like to see some other related topics brought to the fore and dealt with at the same time. For example;
    Following the advent of the Scottish and Welsh parliaments not to mention the parliament in Brussels, we need fewer MPs, perhaps even half the current number. The Parliamentary term should be four years giving more frequent opportunities for the electorate to express its view. Unelected Prime Ministers should not be allowed, PM resignations should trigger a general election. The matter of MPs salaries and their expenses and allowances problems need a careful independent rethink so as to establish them on a basis which is fair to MPs and reasonably acceptable to the taxpayers.

  9. James G
    Posted July 23, 2008 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

    Labour MPs usually come from poorer and urban constituencies and they have a lot more casework to sort out Mr. Redwood.

    Tory seats probably only have problems when two 4x4s are parked over their front drive.

    Labour seats have REAL problems to deal with.

  10. Derek W. Buxton
    Posted July 23, 2008 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

    I am inclined to agree with the post from Blue Eyes. This government has sidelined Parliament, its favourite for announcements appears to be the BBC. I hope you enjoy your holiday, it would appear that you do take the job seriously but I have doubts about many others, in all parties.

  11. APL
    Posted July 23, 2008 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

    Graham Doll: "I welcome this 11 week break."

    On the face of it, it is tempting to agree with you. However, we are getting a break from the opportunity to interrogate government ministers and hold the government to account.

    The executive, can carry on making bad law, the laws from the European Union will still be passed into British Law by Statutory Instrument. The executive can still change laws and regulation without parliamentary scrutiny.

  12. Martin Cole
    Posted July 23, 2008 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

    Eleven weeks to devise a strategy to save the country.

    There are few of your calibre or abilities in Parliament and the fact that Brown now appears to have survived the last perilous weeks intact (tomorrow's by-election permitting) speaks volumes on the inadequacy of Britain's opposition.

    The potential of Declan Ganley's Libertas movement should not be underestimated in the context of the 2009 PR European elections and the growing disgust with all political parties could potentially damage all who cling too long to their failing prospects.

  13. Susan
    Posted July 23, 2008 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

    Nothing will change until the electorate stir themselves and complain. MPs will never vote to curtail their own expenses or their own holidays. We should devote time to overhauling the HoC rather than the HoL. There are too many MPs & too many extras. Cut the numbers drastically and give the remaining 400 a basic of 120k a year with no extras.

    The essential problem is that the independent committee which oversees MPs pay is paid even more than MPs and nothing like the £11,000 a year on which some households survive.

  14. mikestallard
    Posted July 23, 2008 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

    Actually, cutting the number of MPs might be a very good idea. The House seems always to be empty whenever I look at the Parliamentary Channel on TV.
    The other place that, I think, needs urgent reform is the Cabinet, which has over a hundred people who simply cannot discuss things frankly and openly because no group of more than, say, 15 people can chat openly about anything. It must be a place for speeches and instructions.
    And why so many Ministers? They never seem to accept responsibility (cp Ed Balls) so why bother?
    One of the very worst things that Blair did was to introduce the mobile phone instructions to MPs from Number 10. I am personally not sure, either, that the enormous influx of Blair Babes was not a serious step backwards either. They seem to have infantilized a Chamber that once was the hub of a Great empire.

    Reply: The Cabinet is limited to just over 20 Ministers – the rest are Ministers of State or PUSSs

  15. Derek
    Posted July 23, 2008 at 8:45 pm | Permalink

    It will be interesting to see if the government has added any new brands to its portfolio of banks by the time you return.

  16. AlanofEngland
    Posted July 23, 2008 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

    Well, James G, every constituency, Labour or Tory, has a large poor group. It's called "state pensioner". I live in a Labour constituency and not once has my MP ever replied when I have asked for her advice on "heat or eat" and "how much water can I afford to use" and "why has my NHS dentist closed and gone private" and "why do I have to wait 10 years until I reach the age of 75 before I get the TV tax paid for me", although my pension is no different? In my experience Labour have created the REAL problems I have to deal with. But I can't get any help, she's in denial.

  17. Acorn
    Posted July 23, 2008 at 9:31 pm | Permalink

    James, the REAL problems as you say, in Labour seats are invariably problems for the Department for Work and Pensions, MPs can do little but write to the appropriate DWP Minister. The MP will receive a pro-forma reply.

    By the way; 4×4; to the DWP, means four children by four different fathers. They are not vote winners on the door step in any constituency.

  18. Iain
    Posted July 23, 2008 at 10:21 pm | Permalink

    "This government has sidelined Parliament, its favourite for announcements appears to be the BBC. "

    There was a classic today where Ed Vasey got on the radio to dicuss Brown's Eco Towns only to find the BBC had been given the Governments new thinking on it while Parliament were still in the dark.

  19. Tim
    Posted July 24, 2008 at 12:41 am | Permalink

    John – I read Hansard and your website. I know that not only do you attend Parliament, you attend debates, speak in debates and frequently ask questions. Your website shows you to be thoughtful and enquiring about current issues.

    I absolutely agree – why shoudl Parliament take so long off? I understand everyone (including Prome Ministers!) need holidays but this is ridiculous.

    I know nothing of Parliamentary procedure. Couldn't you as an active backbencher propose to Parliament less holidays? Go on give it a try !

    Reply: I have, but there the Labour majority do not want to shorten the holidays.

  20. Sepoy Agent
    Posted July 24, 2008 at 2:10 am | Permalink

    Regarding the guillotine on discussion of legislation, that has nothing to do with lack of parliamentary time, but everything to do this government wanting to limit the amount of opposition to what it is proposing.
    I am afraid I incline towards the view that we are better off with parliament sitting less. Perhaps we should return to the medieval/tudor/stuart model of parliament being called together only when needed to pass specific legislation or more likely to raise taxation.
    That would fit in with part-time MPs and give them the chance to do a proper job as well, thereby giving them experience of the outside world.
    And, as has been said, we could cut the number of MPs to take account of the fact that domestic policy is largely considered by the Scotland/Wales/NI parliaments, and will be by the English parliament when we get a fair system here.

  21. William B.
    Posted July 24, 2008 at 3:32 am | Permalink

    I know not whether Labour MPs for poorer urban areas have a greater constituency workload than Conservative MPs, but even if that is so it does not seem much of a reason for a summer break from Parliament of 11 weeks. If their workload is so heavy that they need 9 extra weeks in the summer to deal with it (we can give them the other two weeks as a holiday) it would seem to follow that their constituents are let down terribly for the rest of the year. That of itself is sufficient reason to abandon the 11 week break and arrange the Parliamentary sessions around the reasonable requirements of members from all constituencies.

  22. John Birkett
    Posted July 24, 2008 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    I have long thought it ridiculous that recesses were so long but my published newspaper letters have never had the courtesy of a reply from MPs or MSPs. Every other organisation in the UK manages to stagger its personnel's holidays while continuing its operations. Only our MPs are so pusillanimous and/or incompetent that they are incapable even of that – and don't blame it on the govt, it is up to our MPs to put their own house in order and to show the executive that they are masters in their own House. As said, govt keeps going 24/7/52 so the legislature's control over it needs to be the same, especially by the committes, other than maybe two weeks p.a. for planned building maintenance.
    But certainly less might mean better (apart from scrutiny of EU directives) so how about 400 MPs sitting 3 days for 8 hours on UK business, with the 350 English MPs also sitting the other 2 days as the English legislature?

    Reply: I broadly agree and have set out a similar approach. Yes, MPs could demand more sensible sittings, but the Labour majority is guided by the governemnt and have no wish to change.

  23. James G
    Posted July 24, 2008 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

    Acorn, "invariably" you say?

    If I were a PR man like Cameron I would call that comment "out of touch".

    Also people in Labour constituencies (perhaps unlike Tory ones) don't know what is the remit of the council, the MP or a particular Government Department and usually their most high profile elected official (their MP) is who they turn too.

    I think you cannot deny that Labour MPs have much more constituency work than Tory ones. You need only look at the figures showing how many Labour MPs are employing 'caseworkers' and how many Tories are employing 'researchers'. Labour constituencies have more casework.

  24. Acorn
    Posted July 25, 2008 at 8:49 am | Permalink

    James G. Retired but not out of touch. I had a quite diverse ward as a Councillor, with a "Council" estate – to use the old definition – with an "index of multiple deprivation" down in the bottom 20%. As my then party had and still has a policy of delivering leaflets regularly with my contact details on them, I was one of the first to get called when there was a problem.

    The second and last paras of your 6:53 post, I would not disagree with and my number one job was explaining who had the "remit" and who to talk too. My top two casework problems were housing – overcrowded households – and benefits. Neither I or the MP, could do much about either. All we could do is pray for a lot more, four / five bedroom council houses.

    I did learn one thing. When you take casework like the latter to Senior Officers and they give you a silent, grimaced look; that means "you really don't want to get involved with this case Councillor, it is not going to end well; by the way, have you met Sid from our Fraud Department".

  25. APL
    Posted July 25, 2008 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    JR: "The Cabinet is limited to just over 20 Ministers – the rest are Ministers of State or PUSSs."

    Even so, it is a method to control parliament, with 20 ministers who have influence over all the MOS or PUSSs. There is a huge block of the government party who can be relied on to vote 'the right way'.

    Do you agree the Ministers of State should really be high ranking civil service appointments, likewise the Private undersecretary of State? (what I guess a PUSS is – in the context of Parliament )

    Reply: No, I think Junior Ministers including Parliamentary Under Secretaries should be MPs who are accountable to Parliament. They do most of the detailed Parliamentary work on legislaiton.

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    John Redwood won a free place at Kent College, Canterbury, and graduated from Magdalen College Oxford. He is a Distinguished fellow of All Souls, Oxford. A businessman by background, he has set up an investment management business, was both executive and non executive chairman of a quoted industrial PLC, and chaired a manufacturing company with factories in Birmingham, Chicago, India and China. He is the MP for Wokingham, first elected in 1987.

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