A break too long

With the security situation at home and abroad deteriorating, EADT Political Editor Graham Dines argues that Parliament must be recalled in September from its 80-day break.

With the security situation at home and abroad deteriorating, EADT Political Editor Graham Dines argues that Parliament must be recalled in September from its 80-day break.

WHEN the second wave of bombs was discovered in London last Thursday, the Prime Minister's decision to speak to the media rather than MPs spoke volumes about the way Parliament is treated.

Parliament, and especially the Commons, should be sovereign. But as power is gathered to the executive away from the legislature, there is a marginalising of the role of MPs that is becoming highly undemocratic.

Mr Blair stood mid-afternoon in the briefing room at 10 Downing Street, flanked by the Australian Prime Minister John Howard, to gave details of the latest terror alerts.

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Even though Parliament was in session – Hansard, the official record of Parliament reports the House of Commons rose at 6.28pm – Mr Blair chose to pander to journalists rather than stand at the despatch box and be subject to questioning by the opposition as well as his own backbenchers.

But that's the style of this Government. Control the agenda through the media rather than through the highest democratic body in the land.

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And as he's been re-elected twice, perhaps the people don't really care. After all, the numbers voting at elections have declined sharply, surely a symptom of a lack public esteem for Parliament and parliamentarians.

Which is why there has hardly been an eyebrow raised about the length of this summer's Parliamentary break.

MPs have cleared off from Westminster for 80 days. Although accusing them of taking an 11-week holiday gets upsets them somewhat.

They insist they won't be soaking up the sun in exotic locations for the whole time, but will be hard at work in their constituencies from September onwards before they head for Brighton or Blackpool and the annual party conferences.

The length of the summer break was announced before the security situation deteriorated. And one of the reasons for the extra long non-sitting is connected with security.

Increased protection for MPs is being put in place in the chamber of the Commons – a permanent screen is being placed in front of the Strangers' Gallery to replace the temporary one put up after an incident last year when Fathers 4 Justice hurled purple powder onto the Prime Minister.

But it is quite frankly utterly ludicrous that Parliament is taking such a long recess. For the Prime Minister, his Cabinet and MPs to patronise Londoners for stoically carrying on their business while they themselves clear off shames our democratic institutions.

There is understandable anxiety in the capital. Terrorists are on the loose, but who is to say they'll target London again? Although our attention, thoughts and worries have been focussed on the capital, there are underground metros beneath the streets of Newcastle and Glasgow. It's not just the capital that has overcrowded commuter rail services.

As the IRA demonstrated, Britain's provincial cities are a soft target for the men of evil. You only have to recall the horrors of Guildford, Manchester, Birmingham, and Warrington as well as the military targets including Colchester.

Britons have died in top tourist destinations in Turkey and Egypt in the past 10 days. Spain is a likely target because the fundamentalists want to kick the infidels out of this former Islamist territory.

The number of overseas tourists to London has declined since July 7; shoppers are staying away to such an extent that the retail trade, already suffering from a decrease in spending, are posting ominous profits warnings.

Contingency plans will be in place to recall Parliament should circumstances warrant it. But if Parliament is not to fall further in the public's estimation, our 646 MPs and 500 plus peers must show they share the nation's concern by sitting in September.

There is a compelling case to be for a September sitting of the Commons and the Lords. There is a strong cross-party consensus that action is needed to strengthen anti-terrorist legislation – including a law to cover "acts preparatory to terrorism" – so why wait until the autumn to start the debate?

We don't want rushed legislation, because hastily drafted laws are usually bad laws. But the process could be put in place.

But a Bill could be drawn up in August and put before MPs and peers the following month. A recalled Parliament could then give it a second reading and then take time, during the break time during the conference season, to consider if any improvements could be made at the Bill's committee stage to take place in October.

Debating legislation earlier than planned – even if parts of the Palace of Westminster are in the throes of building work – will help reassure the public that their security is being looked after and send a message to the terrorists that this country will not be cowed by bombers.

Sir Edward Heath, who was buried yesterday, championed the authority of Parliament. It's about time Tony Blair recognised that speaking to journalists and addressing his party's unquestioning faithful at Labour's conference in Brighton are a fourth rate substitutes.

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