Parliament and international crises

Lord Norton

Parliaments generally sit according to a set timetable.  International crises can occur at any time.  Events in South Ossetia are understandably causing widespread international concern.  They also illustrate the problem that attaches to parliamentary recesses.  There is no mechanism by which Parliament, short of a recall, can debate what is happening and question Government.  The response to events internationally must come from Government, but Parliament needs to be in a position to question it and, as appropriate, influence its thinking.

Parliament, not least the House of Lords, has members who are well placed to comment and to question Government.  Some of them, such as Lords Owen and Ashdown, are being utilised by the media for comments.  That, though, is no substitute for parliamentary scrutiny.  There is another eight weeks before Parliament resumes.  A recall at the moment may not be justified; it creates major logistical as well as practical problems: many members will be away and the Palace of Westminster resembles a building site.  Getting everything back in place for a meeting of both Houses is achievable – there have been various recalls during summer recesses – but expensive.

If Parliament was sitting, ministers could come to the dispatch box to make statements and be questioned.  What, then, to do during a long summer recess?  Should recesses be shorter (and, as a quid pro quo, more frequent)?   We have experimented with September sittings, but they proved unpopular and are not being repeated.  Should recalls be utilised more frequently?  They are usually only for a one or two-day sitting; there is no need to expect all or even most members to attend; and not all maintenance work in the Palace need to be interrupted.  Or is there something else that Parliament should and can do to ensure that Government is provided with an authoritative platform to explain its position and be questioned on it?  Or should we simply leave it to Government to respond to events and then answer for its actions when Parliament returns in October?

10 comments for “Parliament and international crises

  1. Adrian Kidney
    11/08/2008 at 11:38 am

    It’s a tricky one indeed.

    I understand the US Congress has a different recess system, which essentially goes something like four weeks in session, a week off, four weeks on, a week off, and so on…I could be enormously wrong though.

    I can see the benefit of that (particularly because Congress is independent of the Executive in the US), but it also, I think, means that work is constantly interrupted by these breaks and Congressmen spend half their time looking forward to the next break, and work ends up being piecemeal. The benefit of a recess is that MPs can focus on their constituency work which has built up over the weeks, and Government and Opposition spend the time recouperating and taking stock of the business that has passed and to come before the Queen dissolves and reopens Parliament in December.

    There have been calls, I know, for the Speaker of the House of Commons to have the power to recall Parliament, if prompted by a quorum of Members…

    Do you know of any other alternatives, Lord Norton?

  2. howridiculous
    11/08/2008 at 12:05 pm

    Dear Lord Norton,

    An interesting post.

    I, for one, am glad that Parliament is not sitting at this time. Our politicians are at their worst when they are pontificating about foreign affairs especially when those affairs have nothing to do with us.

    I should also imagine that the Georgians and Russians are glad Parliament is in recess. Their not having to act contrary to some of the ‘powerful’ and ‘eloquent’ speeches of British parliamentarians must be a huge relief to them.


  3. 11/08/2008 at 4:19 pm

    Lord Norton, that relates to a question I’ve wondered about, regarding the House of Commons. My understanding is that, when Parliament is dissolved when an election is called, the MPs cease being MPs unless/until they are returned by vote of their constituencies. If I’m correct on that, how are crises handled during the election campaign?

  4. lordnorton
    11/08/2008 at 9:30 pm

    Richard: You are quite right. Once Parliament is dissolved, MPs cease to be MPs (and have no access to their offices in the Palace of Westminster). However, ministers continue to be ministers and, in the event of a crisis, Government will be in a position to respond. Whereas there is discontinuity in the existence of the House of Commons, there is none in respect of Government. The Prime Minister remains Prime Minister until such time as he tenders his resignation to the Queen.

    Incidentally, though MPs cease to be MPs following a dissolution, peers do not cease to be members of the House of Lords and we retain access to our offices (as long as not employed for election purposes). It is also possible for the Appellate Committee (that is, the law lords) to sit following a dissolution, if authorised by the Queen.

    Howridiculous: There is always the danger of pontification. However, that may constitute a case for Parliament meeting, especially if the pontification is on the part of ministers. Parliament may in a crisis serve to stiffen the Government’s resolve (as in the Falklands war) or provide a platform for those critical of the Government’s action (as during the Suez crisis). I take your point, though, that a good dose of realism is desirable.

    Adrian Kidney: Giving members greater power over the decision to recall Parliament during a recess does form part of the ‘Governance of Britsin’ programme. I am not sure that there is a clear solution. Scheduled summer sittings are not likely to be popular, not least for the reasons you give. There may be a case for having more recalls, though – as I indicated – that creates practical problems. One possibility may be to designate occasional days during the summer that are reserved in case the Houses need to sit, so that members – and the House authorities – can arrange schedules, and work programmes, around those dates.

  5. 12/08/2008 at 6:44 pm

    Given that committees and written statements and their ilk often achieve much of the work of the parliament would some form of summer committee who provide skeleton cover be plausible? Or would it even be plausible to use such recess sittings as a time to trial remote working in debates of some kind? Even if just as something as humble as a message board and a conference call once a week?
    Though I suppose the danger is that any contentious issues would just invite debates in whatever forum that tend towards demanding a full scale recall anyway.

  6. Chris1234
    13/08/2008 at 7:20 am

    howridiculous: pontification is always a risk. However, the BTC pipeline runs not so far from South Ossetia, and BP has a 30% stake. The pipeline pumps 1 million barrels of oil per day; roughly half the UK’s national consumption. So a war in Georgia can have an effect on Britain’s biggest company and the price you pay for petrol, with knock on effects for the rest of the economy.

  7. lordnorton
    13/08/2008 at 9:36 am

    Alex Ingram: It is usual for select committees to be empowered to meet notwithstanding an adjournment of the House, so it would be possible for a committee to meet to take evidence on a particular crisis. That, I think, is far preferable to any attempt to operate electronically at some distance. And I rather share your view that such a mechanism may well be used to press for a recall.

  8. howridiculous
    13/08/2008 at 9:48 am


    I take your point about the war having a potentially adverse impact on our economic interests.

    The bigger issue I was trying to make is: what difference would a recall of Parliament make?

    Debating the current situation would be debating for the sake of debating. We are deluding ourselves if we think speeches in the Houses of Commons and Lords will have any impact on Russia and Georgia.

    Parliament should be recalled only in extreme situations when it can realistically make a difference to a policy outcome. It cannot do so in the current situation and so I don’t think it should be recalled.

    I tend to say ‘yes’ to Lord Norton’s final question: ‘should we simply leave it to Government to respond to events and then answer for its actions when Parliament returns in October?’


  9. Paul
    14/08/2008 at 9:44 pm

    I’m surprised to see that the “usual suspects” haven’t mentioned a recall yet. Still, they have until October 6th…

    Out of interest, do you have any figures on how much an unscheduled recall of Parliament would actually cost?

  10. lordnorton
    16/08/2008 at 10:38 am

    Paul: I also was rather expecting that we may be hearing some demands for a recall. On the costs, I have seen figures for the cost when both Houses sat in September. I would need to check my files to see if any data were produced on the cost of the last recall. There are several costs involved, not only in interrupting the work being undertaken but also in recalling staff and the travel and attendance of members.

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