Parliament recess: In context
From July 2nd the Scottish Parliament shuts down for its annual summer recess, before returning on September 4th – but what does this mean, and why does parliament take the summer off?
What is recess, exactly?
Recess is defined as a period of time when parliament is not dissolved (such as for a general election), but is not meeting for a particular length of time.
The dates of recesses are decided by MSPs on a motion from the Parliamentary Bureau that also sets Scottish school holidays.
Dissolution is the official term for the end of a session, or parliamentary term. The Presiding Officer determines the date when parliament is expected to be dissolved and members are notified of the date by the clerk.
Under the Scotland Act 1998 ordinary general elections are held on the first Thursday in May, every four years. However, the current term is a five year session, as was the 2016 parliament, in order to avoid coinciding with UK general elections.
Last year was unusual, as the Scottish Parliament was not technically in recess over the summer, after MSPs unanimously backed the Parliamentary Bureau’s Covid response plans for a majority of “virtual statement-led sessions” on Thursdays, as well as two statements in the debating chamber by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon on July 9th and July 30th.
Why does parliament take such a long break for the summer?
Like schools and universities, both the Scottish Parliament and the UK Parliament break up for the summer, in what is largely a tradition that has been carried over from parliaments that sat centuries ago.
The historical reasons for having a summer recess depended largely on which part of the country you were from, and more importantly which feudal class you belonged to: the nobility liked a summer recess for enjoying jaunts on the continent and enjoying London and Edinburgh’s social events, whereas farmers needed ‘all hands on deck’ during the important harvest in July/August.
What do they do with their free time now?
These days, few parliamentarians spend their summer recess travelling the world for months or tending to their harvests, and instead the summer recess is used to catch up on important case work in their constituencies.
Parliamentarians’ staff however, can feel a little bored, according to the Westminster jobs site w4mp.org. A blog titled ‘Staying sane over the summer recess’ reads: “One week into the summer recess and you may find that you are starting to twitch… A lack of urgent deadlines and an empty diary means that motivation starts to slide, and you even start looking forward enthusiastically to the party conference season.
“There is no middle ground if you work for an MP in Westminster. One day you are frantically running around to keep up with everything the boss wants to get finished before retreating back to the constituency; and the next day you are all alone in the office with just the filing and the tumbleweed for company.”
Some summer holidays have generated headlines, for all the wrong reasons.
Theresa May famously decided to call a snap general election in 2017, after a five-day walking holiday in Wales. When the then-Prime Minister decided to recreate that holiday two years later, alarm bells started ringing in Westminster, with politicians, journalists and the general public alike worrying that the Welsh countryside might once again inspire May to call another vote.
In August 2020, Boris Johnson was snapped erecting a 'glamping tent' without permission near a holiday cottage on the Applecross Peninsula in the Highlands. The Prime Minister was reportedly furious his holiday plans were leaked to the press, and returned home early – with some in the Tory party suggesting it was in fact the SNP’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford who revealed his whereabouts.
On another ill-fated holiday, Boris Johnson’s decision to holiday in Somerset last August, despite public warnings the Taliban would be in Kabul within hours, were criticised as a “dereliction of duty” by former senior military and security figures. His Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab also stayed in Crete until hours before the fall of Kabul, after being absent from public debate for more than a week as the Taliban swept across Afghanistan.
What if there’s an emergency?
There have been some holidays that have been cut short, however, especially those of sitting Prime Ministers.
David Cameron returned home from Italy in 2011 as riots broke out in London, and Gordon Brown abandoned his 2007 trip to Dorset after just a few hours to chair crisis talks over foot-and-mouth disease.
Parliaments can also be recalled, if there is a situation which requires legislative action. Most recently, the Scottish Parliament was recalled early in December 2021, during the winter recess, to hear an unscheduled covid statement from the Scottish Government. The UK Parliament is more frequently recalled to discuss international conflicts, such as the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban in August 2021, the Syrian Civil War in August 2013, the invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, and the September 11th attacks in New York the previous month.
How many breaks do MSPs get a year?
Each year the Scottish Parliament has five recesses, with the next scheduled breaks being 2nd July to 4th September 2022, 8th to 23rd October 2022, 24th December 2022 to 8th January 2023, 11th to 19th February 2023 and 1st to 16th April 2023.
The UK Parliament, on the other hand, takes six recesses a year.
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