We should reform summer recess to avoid an empty chamber during crises in world affairs. Photo: Getty
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Parliament shouldn’t need recalling; it should meet throughout the summer anyway

We need reforms to parliament's summer recess in order to address the inevitable annual calls for it to be recalled over the break.

Hearing a procession of MPs, newspapers and broadcasters urging a recall of parliament is one of the annual summer rituals of British politics. Parched for proper domestic news, the political media likes to accompany its heightened interest in foreign wars and humanitarian crises with entreaties that MPs should be summoned back to Westminster to ruminate over them.

As George Eaton noted the other day, there is no shortage of MPs from all sides publicly calling on the Prime Minister to recall parliament in order to discuss the worsening crisis in the Middle East. Conservative MPs Conor Burns, Nick De Bois and David Burrowes, (as well as Lord Dannatt, former chief of the defence staff) are the latest to do so. David Cameron is, so far, unmoved.

Yet last year, parliament was recalled on two occasions: once to discuss the crisis in Syria and then to pay tribute following the death of Margaret Thatcher. Either of these examples seems to warrant MPs gathering now to discuss the grave situation in Iraq and Gaza.

Indeed, the House of Commons has been recalled from recess on no fewer than 41 occasions since 1949. The list is a roll-call of suitably august national and international events from our contemporary history, ranging from currency crises, the Korean war, Suez, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the 9/11 attacks and even the death of the Queen Mother.

There are two obvious reforms that could be considered. The first is to radically shorten the summer recess so there is more chance of parliament sitting when a major issue presents itself. This is unlikely as it suits governments and oppositions alike to keep MPs out of Westminster during the summer months while bills are drafted, batteries are recharged and backbiting is, temporarily, abated.

The second option is to earmark specific days that could be put aside throughout the summer break to discuss emergency business. The infrastructure and personnel needed to make this work are minimal. Given all the parties operate a rota throughout the summer, it is not a big leap to have a supply of ministers and their shadows and willing backbenchers ready to deliberate on whatever major issue presents itself.

This would re-establish the House of Commons as the crucible of our national conversation and it would address the problem of MPs looking as though they put their chillaxing time ahead of world affairs.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut.

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The future of policing is still at risk even after George Osborne's U-Turn

The police have avoided the worst, but crime is changing and they cannot stand still. 

We will have to wait for the unofficial briefings and the ministerial memoirs to understand what role the tragic events in Paris had on the Chancellor’s decision to sustain the police budget in cash terms and increase it overall by the end of the parliament.  Higher projected tax revenues gave the Chancellor a surprising degree of fiscal flexibility, but the atrocities in Paris certainly pushed questions of policing and security to the top of the political agenda. For a police service expecting anything from a 20 to a 30 per cent cut in funding, fears reinforced by the apparent hard line the Chancellor took over the weekend, this reprieve is an almighty relief.  

So, what was announced?  The overall police budget will be protected in real terms (£900 million more in cash terms) up to 2019/20 with the following important caveats.  First, central government grant to forces will be reduced in cash terms by 2019/20, but forces will be able to bid into a new transformation fund designed to finance moves such as greater collaboration between forces.  In other words there is a cash frozen budget (given important assumptions about council tax) eaten away by inflation and therefore requiring further efficiencies and service redesign.

Second, the flat cash budget for forces assumes increases in the police element of the council tax. Here, there is an interesting new flexibility for Police and Crime Commissioners.  One interpretation is that instead of precept increases being capped at 2%, they will be capped at £12 million, although we need further detail to be certain.  This may mean that forces which currently raise relatively small cash amounts from their precept will be able to raise considerably more if Police and Crime Commissioners have the courage to put up taxes.  

With those caveats, however, this is clearly a much better deal for policing than most commentators (myself included) predicted.  There will be less pressure to reduce officer numbers. Neighbourhood policing, previously under real threat, is likely to remain an important component of the policing model in England and Wales.  This is good news.

However, the police service should not use this financial reprieve as an excuse to duck important reforms.  The reforms that the police have already planned should continue, with any savings reinvested in an improved and more effective service.

It would be a retrograde step for candidates in the 2016 PCC elections to start pledging (as I am certain many will) to ‘protect officer numbers’.  We still need to rebalance the police workforce.   We need more staff with the kind of digital skills required to tackle cybercrime.  We need more crime analysts to help deploy police resources more effectively.  Blanket commitments to maintain officer numbers will get in the way of important reforms.

The argument for inter-force collaboration and, indeed, force mergers does not go away. The new top sliced transformation fund is designed in part to facilitate collaboration, but the fact remains that a 43 force structure no longer makes sense in operational or financial terms.

The police still have to adapt to a changing world. Falling levels of traditional crime and the explosion in online crime, particularly fraud and hacking, means we need an entirely different kind of police service.  Many of the pressures the police experience from non-crime demand will not go away. Big cuts to local government funding and the wider criminal justice system mean we need to reorganise the public service frontline to deal with problems such as high reoffending rates, child safeguarding and rising levels of mental illness.

Before yesterday I thought policing faced an existential moment and I stand by that. While the service has now secured significant financial breathing space, it still needs to adapt to an increasingly complex world. 

Rick Muir is director of the Police Foundation