Tony Newton, Leader of the House, had just disappointed MPs once again during his weekly business statement by being unable to give the date they are impatient to hear. One of the oddities of parliamentary timetabling is that he was able to tell MPs a week ago that the Budget would be on 29 November, but cannot tell them whether in four weeks they will be packing for Tuscany or still loitering at Westminster.
'Mr Newton's inability to give a date for the recess today underlines the need for parliamentary reform,' Sir Dudley Smith, MP for Warwick and Leamington, said. Stressing it was not a personal plea, since his children were grown up, he went on: 'This is a fairly young parliament with many MPs with young children. It is grossly unfair to them that we should have to sit late into July before we get the adjournment.'
Unfair maybe, but not unusual, as each summer the Commons waits for Bills to return from the House of Lords. The difference this year appears to be how little of interest is going on in the chamber in the meantime. MPs are around the building, working in their offices or socialising on the terrace by the Thames, but apart from at Question Time, opening speeches and votes, the chamber is poorly attended.
Last week, the Government did not have enough backbenchers to keep its own debate on UK exporters going the full distance. Labour pretty well ignored it. And although the Government has an overall majority of only 15, on Wednesday at the close of a Labour-initiated debate on housing, the critical motion was rejected by a comfortable 81-vote margin.
There are also signs that ministers feel less of an obligation to attend the Commons. John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment, was on hand for a robust defence of housing policy, but Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, missed his last Question Time appointment, preferring a Helsinki trade seminar. Gillian Shephard, Minister for Agriculture, missed her last date with the Commons for a European Union council meeting.
Nick Brown, Labour's Commons affairs spokesman, puts part of the blame for the inactivity on 'reshuffle paralysis'. 'There's no enthusiasm for coming here or getting stuck into any real body of work in the department because they are not sure how the cards are going to fall,' he said.
Another factor, according to business managers on both sides of the House, is the switching of the Budget from March to the end of November. As a result, the Finance Bill entered the legislative chain at the same time as the other big Government Bills and was completed by Easter. In past years the Finance Bill has occupied MPs until the summer.
Mr Newton hinted he might be able to give MPs a recess date next Thursday when the progress of legislation was clearer. The biggest imponderable is the Criminal Justice Bill, which has taken longer in Committee than the whips intended and now faces a protracted Report stage. The Government hopes the Bill will get a Third Reading on 19 July so that MPs can deal with any amendments in time for Royal Assent on 21 July - the date most have pencilled in for the start of the recess. But peers, who will in any case sit a week longer, have already defeated the Government over compensation for criminal injuries. If further changes follow on the right to silence or trespass, Mr Newton could find himself disappointing MPs once again.
MPs later approved the installation of a sophisticated computer system at Westminster, giving all 651 of them access to a data and video system and live television feed of Commons proceedings - despite misgivings that this could lead to even fewer MPs bothering to go into the chamber.
Mr Newton and Mr Brown were united in their enthusiasm for it, though the latter protested that the expected seven years to cable the Palace of Westminster was 'absolutely ridiculous'.
Countering stay-away fears, Andrew Bennett, Labour MP for Denton and Reddish, said there was always a good attendance for Prime Minister's Question Time, which was already live on BBC TV. David Shaw, Tory MP for Dover, hoped the computer system could be installed in the palace speedily, despite the building's age. 'I really am fed up with mice in the tea room. I really am fed up with quill pens in the library.'
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