Belfast Telegraph

It's time to get real on recess ... crises never take a holiday

By Mary Dejevsky

Do our elected representatives get bored of the beach so easily? Scarcely, it seems, have they departed on holiday than some of them at least start agitating to come back.

This year they managed just a fortnight or so away before the first calls for a recall were heard. In the past week or so the pleas of a few have risen to a clamour.

With the emergency in Iraq and the Kurds calling for help in resisting the advance of the Islamic State, surely MPs should have a say in what action, if any, the United Kingdom takes? Is it not time to recall parliament? Well, yes and no.

Parliamentary recalls can be risky, as David Cameron's decision to bring back MPs last August demonstrated. Whether it was the shadow of Iraq, or the crossness of some MPs who did not want to return, the cause was lost and the UK swerved away from a new foreign embroilment.

In view of this experience it is entirely understandable that the Prime Minister is trying a different approach this year. He ended his break (a little) early, took ostentatious charge of the alarmingly-named Cobra committee and warned in Blair-like terms of the threat to the UK from developments in Iraq.

Once a rarity, however, recalls have been increasing. In 2002 parliament was recalled from its autumn conference recess to consider Iraq and weapons of mass destruction. In 2001 the recall followed 9/11, and in 1998 it was a response to the Omagh bombing.

What is happening now in Iraq and across the wider region is more of an international process than a national crisis. The humanitarian emergency in northern Iraq could be dealt with by the United States.

This does not mean, of course, that all is fine and wonderful with the parliamentary timetable as it stands. Even the most die-hard traditionalist must acknowledge that there are faults, and one of the most glaring concerns the summer.

The actual summer recess may be shorter than it was, but MPs return for less than two working weeks this autumn before adjourning for the month-long conference season. Thus six weeks becomes 10.

Shorter conferences, held at weekends or over holidays, as happens elsewhere in the developed world, should be part of the answer.

But that cannot be the whole answer. British politics has taken the academic year and crossed it with a Continental rhythm. Late June, early July is for end-of-term parties. By the last days of July political events have dried up.

A few hardy think-tankers fire off responses to current events, but they are the exception. Amazingly, this summer is no exception, even though the historic Scottish referendum looms on the horizon. The campaign, it seems, has simply transferred to the Edinburgh Fringe.

So here we are, a week before the August bank holiday, with the summer break (for those who can afford one) longer and more sacrosanct than ever, but crises, especially abroad, obstinately refusing to respect our time off.

One way or another, parliament has to change its ways. Either it must meet year-round, with holidays taken – as in the real world – by turns, or a formal standing committee should be formed to fill in for parliament when it is in recess.

The alternative is executive rule. The overheated language of David Cameron's Iraq warning should remind us of what a bad idea that would be.

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