On Thursday in the House of Commons, the Leader of the House stood up and told us the February recess is cancelled. I’m hacked off about the whole thing. Cancelling recess is rubbish for democracy and rubbish for my constituents.
Throughout the 19th and early 20th Century it was not unusual for MPs to decamp to London for months and rarely even visit their constituency, but today we almost all live in or very close to the places we represent. Our role is not just to stand up in parliament and speak, but to engage with and support constituents and local groups.
A normal week for me involves flying to London on Monday morning and flying back some time on Thursday. The journey takes around five or six hours door-to-door. Fairly often I get an evening flight on the Thursday due to commitments in parliament that day.
Because the Government sets the parliamentary agenda at short notice, I rarely know which city I’ll be in next Thursday. This means I can only really organise meetings with constituents, charities, organisations and businesses on a Friday, or at the weekend. Or during recess. I believe we need to have set recess dates, published well in advance.
We have charities to visit and surgeries to attend. People come to see us to ask for our help with broken streetlights, immigration applications and social security issues. Some of the people we see are in the most desperate need. Although we all employ excellent staff, that doesn’t compare with hearing the stories directly.
How can we adequately represent the views of our constituents in the House of Commons if we hardly get any time to speak to them? How can we be champions for our communities when the Government’s agenda is keeping us from those communities?
And the most frustrating thing of all is that this mess was entirely avoidable. To begin with, Theresa May should never have submitted the Article 50 letter to the EU in March 2017. She knew then that there was a huge body of legislation that would need to pass before Brexit. She also knew that it would be very difficult to get a deal that would be acceptable to Parliament. Then she called a General Election, which cut the time for negotiation and legislation. Then she decided she didn’t need a negotiating mandate from parliament and would just fight for a deal that she thought would be the best one. And finally, in December, May pulled the vote on her deal, had to hold it in January, and lost by 230 votes.
Apparently it’s vital that the House sits during recess week to discuss important Brexit-related things, despite the fact that the agenda for next week is entirely made up of general debates. Those are debates that are not on legislation and that cannot create any change in law. They’re just an opportunity for MPs to talk about a certain issue. Like sports. Or beer.
In fact, there are items of business that the House desperately needs to get through before the UK leaves the EU. In order for UK legislation to function after exit day, the gaps that are created by the sudden disappearance of EU law need to be filled. A piece of secondary legislation needs to be passed to fix the law so it makes sense post-Brexit. This needs to be done for pretty much every piece of legislation that mentions the EU. There are hundreds, at least. Some estimates put it over a thousand. Secondary legislation is sometimes, but not always, debated. These debates cannot happen if the House of Commons isn’t sitting. The problem is though that the UK government has been pretty slow at generating these pieces of secondary legislation, which is why we’ve got this logjam. If the Government had started this process earlier, or held off submitting Article 50, then they could have ensured there was time to get through everything before their arbitrary Brexit deadline of March 2019.
Our constituents are losing out because the UK Government set an unrealistic timetable and didn’t make enough effort to meet it.
Kirsty Blackman is the SNP MP for Aberdeen North and depute leader of the SNP group in Westminster