How can they justify this recess?

CHRIS FISHER, EDP Political Editor The House of Commons went into its summer recess last night. The conflicts in south Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan suggest that a recall is quite a strong possibility - and one must expect that only a few days will pass before an obscure backbencher looking for a bit of publicity demands that the House be summoned back.

CHRIS FISHER, EDP Political Editor

The House of Commons went into its summer recess last night. The conflicts in south Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan suggest that a recall is quite a strong possibility - and one must expect that only a few days will pass before an obscure backbencher looking for a bit of publicity demands that the House be summoned back. But it is not scheduled to sit again until October 9.

Nice work if you can get it, you might suppose as you make your way to your place of employment in hot and sticky conditions. Is there any stronger evidence than the long summer recess that MPs can be their own worst enemies? It makes them such an easy target. And those telling them that include the leader of the Commons, Jack Straw. He recently emphasised that the recess is unacceptable not only to the general public but also to “active” MPs.

His comment invites questions. How many MPs merit the adjective he used? The vast majority in my opinion. One of the follies of the summer recess is that it undermines the hard work that the typical MP puts in when the Commons is sitting. It is not just a matter of working long hours at Westminster and of travelling between the Commons and the constituency. Many MPs also devote a lot of time to surgeries and other constituency engagements. The job has become a lot more demanding over the past decade or so as, through changing social attitudes and the provision of more forms of communication, MPs have become more accessible and visible. Many constituents are now inclined to treat their MP as their first rather than their last point of call. To some considerable extent an MP today is a glorified councillor, counsellor and social worker. It is all very different from the times - which stretched to this side of the second world war - when some MPs still thought seriously about making only an annual visit to their constituency and generally sought to have as little as possible contact with the people living in it.


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But today's MPs have to take the blame for the fact that the summer recess will once again stretch into the middle of autumn. How can this arrangement really be something that is imposed on them? If they had wanted to take only August off and then return to the Commons, what could have stopped them from voting for that and making sure it happened?

On the initiative of former Commons leader Robin Cook, September sittings were introduced. But the experiment lasted for only two years before being suspended to allow the introduction of the security screen that protects MPs in the chamber from any protesters who have managed to get into the Strangers' (that is, visitors') Gallery.

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With that shield in place, however, what's the explanation for the fact that MPs are once again having a summer recess of the traditional longevity? Officially it's all to do with further maintenance work. But Mr Straw's words on this are more than a little interesting. “The excuse this year, when I inquired into it, was that it was too late to do anything about it because they'd already planned the maintenance for this year - and that may or may not be correct,” he declared in the Commons a month ago.

There will be substantial maintenance work in the recess. Many of my journalistic colleagues in the Press Gallery will have to move to temporary accommodation next week because their rooms are being refurbished. But that wouldn't stop the Commons from functioning properly, and if any major work in the chamber itself were due to take place, Mr Straw would have surely mentioned it.

Another point he did make was that he is hoping for a vote early in the next session “on whether the House wishes there to be September sittings”. But if that wish were met, what would the result be? Mr Straw said that being in favour of September sittings “puts me in a minority among some colleagues”. Only some? Or among all MPs?

It is of course possible that some MPs who don't want September sittings would actually vote with their heads (containing acute awareness of the feelings of their constituents) rather than their hearts, and that could deliver Mr Straw the majority he wants.

He also had a specific warning for his fellow Members. The deal secured by Mr Cook, had, he reminded them, introduced half-terms in exchange for sitting in September. This year, MPs have taken the former but are getting away without the latter.

This cannot continue. Something has to give, and it should be the long, uninterrupted summer recess. No MP should need telling that would make sense.

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