Several articles and comments have appeared recently about how much time MPs are spending away from Westminster and the importance of ensuring a full Parliamentary timetable to deal properly with government legislation. It has also been claimed that the current government, because of disagreements within the coalition, is finding it difficult to agree new legislation and that therefore the future Parliamentary timetable may have few new laws for MPs and Lords to consider.
There are a number of points I would like to make about this.
Firstly we do not necessarily need to have a lot of new legislation. In recent years many complaints, rightly in my view, have focussed on the avalanche of new rules and laws which both the public and private sector have been subjected to. There have been for example new education bills virtually every year and people in the teaching profession have complained to me, and other Parliamentarians, with some justification, that they have barely time to get to know one new set of rules before they are replaced by different requirements. There have also been constant changes in the criminal justice system affecting the work of prison staff, probation staff, the police and those involved in the work of our courts. In some instances a period of stability rather than constant legislative change is preferable.
This is not an argument however for Parliament to sit for fewer days. A great deal of time could be well spent in reviewing existing legislation and deciding what is no longer working well and looking at arguments for scrapping or amending existing rules. Much time too could be usefully spent in pre-legislative scrutiny, looking carefully at whether new legislation being proposed is well thought out and justifiable.
However I would also like to attack the view that if an MP is not sitting in Parliament in London then they are not working. This is a common view in parts of the national press which year after year sneers at MPs for going off for long holidays with their “buckets and spades.” Having been an MP in the past and having represented a constituency in the North-East some 300 miles from London I know that this is far from being true. Indeed without a proper knowledge of the constituency and without proper time to meet constituents in firms and local businesses, in schools, hospitals, voluntary organisations and community groups it is simply not possible to be an effective public representative. Knowing how people in different localities and communities are affected by government decisions and rules is vital if MPs are to scrutinise legislation and government actions in an informed way. The constituency provides the oxygen, the life-blood of Parliamentary work.
It is an irony that at a time when the image of Parliamentarians is low that in practice most MPs give a better constituency service now than at probably any previous time in history. In the past many MPs visited their constituencies only occasionally. Nowadays virtually all MPs have constituency offices, hold regular advice surgeries and many, again rightly in my view, live in their constituencies and can fully experience life and conditions in their local communities. These are welcome developments which need to be recognised while seeking to build on them for even better representation in the future.