Clash of Comments: Should MPs join junior doctors in sitting in Parliament six days a week?

Rob Middleton and Liam Mullally discuss whether MPs should be legislating on Saturday

Image: Maurice

YES – Rob Middleton

Before I begin, I should state that I am fully aware that the recent petition online calling for a six day week for MPs is clearly a jab at the policies of Jeremy Hunt regarding the working hours of junior doctors.

At the time of writing, the petition has amassed over 73,000 signatures. However, I am strongly considering signing it myself simply so I receive the begrudging response from parliament on the issue. And it would undoubtedly be hilarious to see how many MPs actually support considering the idea for a debate. I imagine the silence would be simply deafening.

The petition does make a good point, however. The Conservatives have made it very clear that they consider us to be “all in it together”, so if that is indeed the case, should they not be considering revising their own working hours? They are expecting everyone else to work longer, and politicians are not hypocritical at all. Not one bit.

Furthermore, it has recently been announced that the number of MPs is to be cut from 650 to 600. “How is this linked?” I hear you cry. The loss of those 50 MPs is equivalent to the loss of 82,500 working hours by parliament per year. That means a lot of sitting down and jeering that will be disappearing into the dark, depthless void.

An extra day worked by the current MPs would add 198,000 hours – assuming an average working day of 7.5 hours – and will more than make up for the deficit. Though perhaps we shouldn’t tell them it’s a deficit; things tend to get a little non-specific and shady when deficits are discussed by the government.

The extra 115,500 hours on top of that would ensure that the work is of the quality necessary for a good job. Everyone knows that the best way to ensure good work is to work for longer with fewer staff. If it’s good enough for the NHS, it’s good enough for our MPs, right?

This downsizing of the Commons is supposed to make the government fairer and more affordable. However, the appointment of over 200 new Lords, costing up to £300 per sitting each since 2010, suggests otherwise. If we really are to get value for money, MPs need to be working more to compensate for the inflated population of the House of Lords.

There’s also the issue of prediction models suggesting that the Conservatives will gain 20 seats from the changes in constituency boundaries, but I am sure that is just a coincidence.

The reasons for MPs working Saturdays appear to be two-fold: to avoid being hypocrites and to ensure we get value for money from our government. I cannot see the government being moved to even consider thinking about the possibility of them working an extra day by these reasons. But why should they? Saturday isn’t a working day. Not when your job doesn’t concern saving lives, anyway.

YES – Liam Mullally

The idea of MPs sitting in parliament on Saturdays doesn’t take much scrutiny before it starts falling apart. Aside from the fact that another day of MPs legislating feels like it might do more harm than good, many of them use their Saturdays to hold surgeries and address the needs of their constituents. If anything, it might be advisable for some MPs to spend less time in Westminster, and more in their constituencies. The job of an MP is not just a nine to five stint in parliament; it will vary daily, and often infringe on their weekends anyway. I’ve called a lot of politicians a lot of things in the past, but the majority of them aren’t lazy.

I also doubt that those behind the junior doctors’ petition actually want to see parliament sit for six days instead of five. They’re making a rhetorical point: just as it is clearly ridiculous to expect parliament to meet for another day, it is misleading to characterise the NHS as operating currently under a five day week. And, just as an additional day in parliament could only serve to harm constituents, a six day working week would only harm patients.

While my sympathies lie entirely with the junior doctors on the issue itself, the way in which the petition.parliament.uk petition was used is part of a worrying trend of misuse. However satisfying it might feel to force a parliamentary debate about a vote of no confidence for Jeremy Hunt for instance, the fact is that the petitions committee cannot actually call a vote. In reality, all that occurred was a minor debate in the second chamber about staff working conditions in the NHS – there was never any genuine threat to Hunt’s cabinet position, or to his policies. Other petitions from across the political spectrum, which have made it to debate, including “Block Donald J Trump from UK Entry” and “Stop All Immigrants and Close UK Borders until ISIS is Defeated”, provoke a similar response. They’re reactionary and unrealistic, serving as an easy outlet for public frustration. Often, and in this case in particular, the petition may as well read: “Jeremy Hunt is a prick”.

Giving the middle finger to the Tory front bench, vicariously via petition or otherwise, feels good, but it doesn’t achieve anything. The most dangerous thing about this petition, and others like it, is that it makes it easy to feel like you are contributing. It takes just a few minutes; you’ve signed, shown your disapproval for the government and you feel satisfied that you’re doing something good. Except, in reality, nothing has changed. On Thursday, Hunt was still able to impose his new contract on junior doctors without their agreement. The petitions serve a double purpose for the government: they make it easier for them to not take parliamentary petitions seriously in general, and encourage a sedentary population who won’t engage in more impactful forms of opposition.

For all its flaws, the petition.parliament.uk service is a valuable way of holding the government to account. However, when used as an outlet for frustration, not a genuine attempt to begin a parliamentary discussion, the petitions can work against those who write them.

One comment

  1. 23 Feb ’16 at 5:01 am

    Damien Devlin

    The petitioner stated that he had tried to contact his local MP at his surgery, and was informed that the MP didn’t do weekend work. Following Jeremy Hunts demand for junior doctors to work on Saturdays as part of their working week, the petitioner decided to take issue with this. The petition does not stipulate that the MPs work must be at parliament, Whatever work they do, meetings, consultation and surgery work can be done on a Saturday

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