Britons debate their lawmakers' 11-week holiday

Lebanon is in flames, Iraq is on the brink, war looms in east Africa, world trade talks are in tatters. Oh, and British MPs are off on vacation. For 11 weeks.

It's a 76-day recess for members of Parliament this year, that's one-fifth of the year off for public servants who earn in excess of $100,000 per year. Not surprisingly, ordinary Britons, who earn on average less than half that amount and get around five weeks of vacation per year, are not happy.

"Most self-employed people get less than three weeks a year," says David Gilbody, who runs his own marketing firm. "And we don't get sick leave."

"What worries me is in the event of a crisis who makes the decisions? With the current crisis in Lebanon it could escalate and it would probably take at least a week to recall Parliament."

Strangely, some MPs have joined the protest. Some are furious that they should just walk off the job when such momentous events are shaking the Middle East.

Others are embarrassed at the luxury of long, languid weeks stretching ahead, and worry that the constituents who gave them the job in the first place will take a dim view of their absence. Chris Mullin, a Labour MP, told parliament recently that the 75-80-day recesses "bring us into such discredit with our constituents."

In their defense, most lawmakers stress that they do not fritter away their summers on golf courses, beaches, or the couch. Most are far too restless for indolence. Ian Gibson, a Labour MP, plans to spend his summer working on several reports, debating the Middle East with constituents, and then lecturing in New Zealand.

"You need to be sheltered from the stormy blast at some point but I don't think we should get as long as we do," he concedes. "Everyone feels exhausted and wants to get away. But I think six weeks would be enough."

Mr. Gibson worries that with parliament away, there will be no chance to debate British policy on the Israel-Lebanon crisis. Prime Minister Tony Blair has firmly supported the US strategy of refusing to call for a cease-fire until the elements of a broader settlement for the region are in place. That has angered many, including those in his own party. "Most people in Parliament want a cease-fire now," says Gibson.

On the opposition side, MPs are fretful that they must go almost three months without being able to challenge government ministers. Edward Garnier, the Conservative home affairs spokesman, whose vacation began last week with a spell sitting as a judge, says it is frustrating that he cannot grill ministers in Parliament for the whole of August and September. It's particularly exasperating this year, given the flood of measures on prisons, immigration, criminal justice, and homeland security being fast-tracked by the government, the shadow home affairs minister adds.

Mr. Garnier, who plans a week-long sailing break and a holiday in Scotland with his family over the summer, concedes that everyone needs time off so that they can go back and "associate with their families without the distraction of Parliament."

But he adds: "This government must be held to account every day of the year and ministers must be available to be held to account every day of the year."

Yet over the long summer break, they won't always be available. Of the top ministers, Blair will reportedly holiday in Barbados while Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett heads off on a caravanning tour of France. Finance Minister Gordon Brown has a new baby to get to know, while most other cabinet ministers appear destined either for Scotland or continental Europe.

There is usually a flurry of returns at the end of August before most MPs disappear again for the three-week party conference season in September. Parliamentary business does not commence again until October 9.

But if the Lebanese situation deteriorates, there is a chance that Parliament could be recalled in September, or even earlier. And once MPs are back from their holidays, one of the first issues that the leader of the House Jack Straw wants debated is whether to open Parliament in September, rather than October, every year. Those long summer holidays could become a thing of the past.

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