So the hardy perrenial of the summer recess has reared it’s head again, this time courtesy of the Speaker. In many ways I agree, parliament not sitting for twelve weeks is unhelpful to constituents and restrictive to effective democracy.
Many of our representatives use that time to engage in their constituency, maintain a profile with the electorate, and of course take the opportunity to relax and recharge. I don’t see the twelve weeks as the best way to facilitate that.
We need to think about what we expect our representatives to do, and how they achieve that; casework, representation at the national level, scrutiny of policy and performance and engaging with government.
Casework at the local level is well supported by having a significant amount of time in constituency, but at that level much of the casework should be handled by a more local representative. For national casework the MP needs to be engaging in London, with peers and in the central organisations. So we end up with MPs engaged well below the level that they should be. That has an electoral value in maintaining profile, making and sustaining relationships and generating the goodwill that can be leveraged come election time, but at the same time undermines local representation.
Scrutiny is completely undermined by the lengthy recess. In a media led policy space with ministers at liberty to modify and amend implementation on the fly we find ourselves disenfranchised. Ministers cannot be challenged in the house for far too long. The work of select committees is restricted; the machinery of government is not examined by those who should be examining and challenging the operational delivery of government.
Relating to the public, the electorate, over twelve weeks can be seen as both a benefit and a drawback. The recess allows the representative to attend and support large numbers of local events, maintain a public profile and be seen around the constituency, reminding people who they are and talking about what they do. It’s part of what gives an incumbent an advantage come the time for re-election. But it can be seen as a 12 week holiday. When MP performance is only measured on how well they do every four years it’s a crude measure of effectiveness. All that said, for those MPs who have long distances to travel, or large dispersed constituencies there is a lot more value in a longer period to engage in; unfortunately one size does not fit all.
The twelve weeks can be filled with valuable activity, and it would be a great shame to lose that, but the time could be broken down more usefully.
My view is that a shorter recess would be more useful, or perhaps a longer period over which to spread the time in constituency. Periods of two weeks alternating at parliament and in constituency, with potentially two periods of that throughout the year. I think that the electorate would be better served by a representative able to participate in London, rather than isolated from the role of parliament.
Of course if we’re electing representatives who have the skills and attributes to really perform at the national level, arranging time for a couple of weeks of holiday in amongst all of that shouldn’t be too much of a challenge. After all, the rest of the professional world has to achieve it.