A flag flying at half mast in Westminster on the day of Margaret Thatcher's funeral in 2013. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

If lauding Thatcher was cause to recall parliament, why not Iraq?

The people’s representatives should be able to exercise their democratic role, whether it is convenient for the prime minister or not.

MPs from all parties have called in recent weeks for parliament to be reconvened to enable them to debate the ongoing crisis in Iraq. They have met with unbending opposition. But David Cameron’s decision to bring everyone back last year to eulogise Margaret Thatcher might make it difficult for him to resist indefinitely.

Members pushing for the House to be recalled before the recess officially ends on 1 September have been variously dismissed. The PM is “very much engaged from Portugal” they were told. “Recall is not on the cards,” pronounced a Number 10 spokesperson. “No need unless the PM wants to move on from humanitarian aid,” insisted a former minister. “Not for the moment, no,” ruled the Foreign Secretary.

Following the beheading of a US journalist, apparently at the hands of a British jihadist, the Prime Minister cut short his latest holiday in Cornwall but has since gone back. There are still no plans to bring MPs back from theirs.

There are signs that the pressure on ministers may yet become too great to resist though. That’s what happened to Tony Blair in 2002, who wasn’t at all keen to recall parliament to debate his long awaited dossier on the existence or otherwise of weapons of mass destruction. His hand was eventually forced by a combination of MPs and the BBC. The broadcaster offered those wanting to return a parliamentary-style debate at Church House, Westminster, if they wouldn’t be admitted to the House of Commons chamber. Blair eventually relented.

Even then, the hallowed constitutional rituals had to be observed, with the initiative coming not from MPs but the executive, and the PM “representing to the Speaker that the public interest requires” the House meet, and the Speaker formally making the decision.

Speak for yourself

Speakers may occasionally be surprised by a PM’s request – as the present incumbent, John Bercow, certainly was by David Cameron’s decision in April 2013 to recall the House of Commons just five days before it would reconvene anyway. The public interest apparently required that members be given ample and uninterrupted time to pay their tributes to Thatcher, who had just died. Whatever a Speaker’s private doubts, though, they invariably manage to satisfy themselves that the public interest does indeed so require.

When it comes to recalls, the Speaker’s modern-day role seems almost to betray its centuries of constitutional history. At each year’s state opening of parliament we are reminded that this is the person whom MPs elect to stand as fearless defender of their rights against the might of the executive. Yet when those MPs start clamouring to return from recess, the Speaker suddenly becomes a spineless figurehead, tamely allowing ministers to decide when the House meets and what it debates.

If any of them are currently on holiday in Turkey, they might perhaps pay a visit to that country’s parliament to see how a more assertive legislature does these things. The Grand National Assembly was reconvened last March – at the request of the main opposition party and to the unconcealed displeasure of then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – to hear corruption allegations against four former government ministers. Those visiting the Edinburgh Festival could call in on the Presiding Officer at Holyrood, the equivalent of the Speaker there, who can similarly convene the Scottish Parliament without waiting for a ministerial go-ahead.

There’s an important constitutional principle at stake here, and you’d hope a professedly modernising parliament might have addressed it. The people’s representatives should be able to exercise this part of their democratic role, whether it is convenient for the prime minister or not.

Well, the good news is that it was addressed. During Gordon Brown’s prime ministerial honeymoon period in 2007, a government green paper proposed that “where a majority of MPs request a recall, the Speaker should consider the request, including in cases where the Government itself has not sought a recall".

The bad, if not wholly surprising, news is that the House of Commons Modernisation Committee embarked in October 2007 on an inquiry into dissolution and recall, which subsequently disappeared into the Westminster equivalent of the Bermuda Triangle. Nothing was subsequently heard: no evidence taken, no report written, no recommendations put forward, nothing.

Body of evidence

It’s clear, then, that MPs who want the House of Commons recalled can’t rely on parliamentary procedures to make it happen. Precedents, though, could prove more promising. Depending on how you count, there have been between 27 and 41 House of Commons recalls since 1949, so there’s a wide choice.

The great majority would have little difficulty meeting most reasonable interpretations of major national or international importance/public interest. In 2013 MPs came back to debate the crisis in Syria, and in 2011 the riots that were sweeping across the UK. In 2002 it was Iraq, and in 2001 the terrorist attacks on the US. The introduction of emergency anti-terrorism legislation after the Omagh bomb led to a recall in 1998.

Alongside these there is David Cameron’s precedent-breaking insistence, to even the Daily Telegraph’s surprise, on recalling both Houses following Thatcher’s death – apparently on the grounds that he, and doubtless many others, judged her “a distinguished parliamentarian and formidable prime minister”. If he continues to reject calls to reconvene now, he may find this decision coming back to haunt him. That’s the trouble with precedents: once you lower the bar, it’s tough trying to raise it again the very next year.

Chris Game does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.The Conversation

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Leaving the cleaning to someone else makes you happier? Men have known that for centuries

Research says avoiding housework is good for wellbeing, but women have rarely had the option.

If you want to be happy, there is apparently a trick: offload the shitwork onto somebody else. Hire cleaner. Get your groceries delivered. Have someone else launder your sheets. These are the findings published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, but it’s also been the foundation of our economy since before we had economics. Who does the offloading? Men. Who does the shitwork? Women.

Over the last 40 years, female employment has risen to almost match the male rate, but inside the home, labour sticks stubbornly to old patterns: men self-report doing eight hours of housework a week, while women slog away for 13. When it comes to caring for family members, the difference is even more stark: men do ten hours, and women 23.

For your average heterosexual couple with kids, that means women spend 18 extra hours every week going to the shops, doing the laundry, laying out uniform, doing the school run, loading dishwashers, organising doctors' appointments, going to baby groups, picking things up, cooking meals, applying for tax credits, checking in on elderly parents, scrubbing pots, washing floors, combing out nits, dusting, folding laundry, etcetera etcetera et-tedious-cetera.

Split down the middle, that’s nine hours of unpaid work that men just sit back and let women take on. It’s not that men don’t need to eat, or that they don’t feel the cold cringe of horror when bare foot meets dropped food on a sticky kitchen floor. As Katrine Marçal pointed out in Who Cooked Adam Smiths Dinner?, men’s participation in the labour market has always relied on a woman in the background to service his needs. As far as the majority of men are concerned, domestic work is Someone Else’s Problem.

And though one of the study authors expressed surprise at how few people spend their money on time-saving services given the substantial effect on happiness, it surely isn’t that mysterious. The male half of the population has the option to recruit a wife or girlfriend who’ll do all this for free, while the female half faces harsh judgement for bringing cover in. Got a cleaner? Shouldn’t you be doing it yourself rather than outsourcing it to another woman? The fact that men have even more definitively shrugged off the housework gets little notice. Dirt apparently belongs to girls.

From infancy up, chores are coded pink. Looking on the Toys “R” Us website, I see you can buy a Disney Princess My First Kitchen (fuchsia, of course), which is one in the eye for royal privilege. Suck it up, Snow White: you don’t get out of the housekeeping just because your prince has come. Shop the blue aisle and you’ll find the Just Like Home Workshop Deluxe Carry Case Workbench – and this, precisely, is the difference between masculine and feminine work. Masculine work is productive: it makes something, and that something is valuable. Feminine work is reproductive: a cleaned toilet doesn’t stay clean, the used plates stack up in the sink.

The worst part of this con is that women are presumed to take on the shitwork because we want to. Because our natures dictate that there is a satisfaction in wiping an arse with a woman’s hand that men could never feel and money could never match. That fiction is used to justify not only women picking up the slack at home, but also employers paying less for what is seen as traditional “women’s work” – the caring, cleaning roles.

It took a six-year legal battle to secure compensation for the women Birmingham council underpaid for care work over decades. “Don’t get me wrong, the men do work hard, but we did work hard,” said one of the women who brought the action. “And I couldn’t see a lot of them doing what we do. Would they empty a commode, wash somebody down covered in mess, go into a house full of maggots and clean it up? But I’ll tell you what, I would have gone and done a dustman’s job for the day.”

If women are paid less, they’re more financially dependent on the men they live with. If you’re financially dependent, you can’t walk out over your unfair housework burden. No wonder the settlement of shitwork has been so hard to budge. The dream, of course, is that one day men will sack up and start to look after themselves and their own children. Till then, of course women should buy happiness if they can. There’s no guilt in hiring a cleaner – housework is work, so why shouldn’t someone get paid for it? One proviso: every week, spend just a little of the time you’ve purchased plotting how you’ll overthrow patriarchy for good.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.