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?