John Bercow: It's time to rethink the conference break
The disruptive conference recess leaves Parliament unable to function, and gives the executive freedom from scrutiny. It's time for change, writes the Speaker of the House of Commons
The motions have been mulled and the policy positions pondered. The last of what must have been hundreds of fringe meetings have been concluded. The warm white wine came and went, while most of the slightly sad looking sets of sandwiches were eventually consumed. The particular and peculiar rituals of the British party conference season have been re-enacted. Members of Parliament are now securely back at Westminster. The normal process of scrutiny and debate can be resumed, while party activists have returned to their constituencies to do what they do as a matter of personal routine, before contemplating attending their conference again next autumn.
If this sounds slightly harsh on party conferences as political institutions, it is not meant to be. They are truly significant events in their own right and have not, as some might be inclined to claim, been reduced to the status of either an elongated rally or simply a cash cow for the parties.
There is a proper role for the sorts of discussions that need more than one day to conduct, and it is encouraging that, after very many years when the membership of British political parties has been in relentless decline, this trend has evidently been reversed in the past 12 months or so, spectacularly in some instances. While others might be entirely content to see the party conference parade wither on the vine, I, for one, would not be among them. The conferences should be celebrated just as the act of serving as a party activist should be deemed a noble civic mission, and not an indication that the individual concerned is a tad weird.
There is, nevertheless, a legitimate complaint to be explored about their timing. Because while the “main” UK political parties – the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats – have insisted on holding their conferences so that they run through Mondays to Wednesdays, the House of Commons has had to be suspended for three whole weeks to allow this. This would be disruptive in any circumstances but, coming as it does a mere fortnight after the House has returned from the summer recess, it has an even more profound impact. It means that, for almost three months – virtually a quarter of the year, from mid-July to mid-October – the House is not sitting, bar two weeks, and hence the executive has freedom from legislative inquiry.
This is at best extremely unappealing and at worst deplorable. Nor can it be rescued by the suggestion that, in the summer months, “nothing happens” either at home or internationally. That has not been the case this year – with concerns about China rocking the world’s stock markets at one stage, and the emergence of a migration challenge for Europe of astonishing proportions – and it is rarely true in any year. Parliament should not be unable to function at this time because of conference season.
It would not be difficult to remedy this situation. The “other” political parties in the UK – notably the SNP and UKIP – have, of necessity, developed a model by which they hold their conferences from Thursday to Saturday, or from early Friday to Saturday. The agendas and the occasion do not seem to have been devalued by being at that end of the week. They seem to have had the time to hold serious debates and still attract media attention. Yet they did not oblige the House of Commons to shut up shop to enable their supporters to attend their conference.
I sincerely hope that the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties will now consider following this example. Both the Conservative and Labour conferences run from Sunday to Wednesday lunchtime, or three days spread over four. If they were to move to a Thursday to Saturday or Sunday format, then exactly the same length of time would be preserved, but the House of Commons would be closed for, at most, two Thursdays, and not three weeks. It is too late to do this for 2016 (the dates have been set and the venues booked) but autumn 2017 is a reasonable target. On this one, it is clearly time for a change.
John Bercow is Speaker of the House of Commons
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