James Gray's A View From Westminster

Is it safe to go back in the (Westminster) water?

Just as the imposition of the Lockdown caused all kinds of controversies, so will its lifting. Should primary schools (partly) reopen on 1 June?

What about pre-school care which is so essential to so many working couples? What about secondary schools and colleges? If you can work from home, then do so (and good to see local company Avon Rubber reporting record productivity with their office staff all working from home.)

If you cannot work from home (construction, manufacturing), then go to work, but only if proper social distancing measures are in place. When should shops reopen? Why should DIY stores and garden centres be open but not department stores? The litmus test is a very simple one: can whatever it is happen with no, or at least limited, risk to all of those taking part?

So what about Parliament? The purpose of the House of Commons, let it never be forgotten, is to hold the Government to account; to hold Ministers’ feet to the fire; to make it difficult to do things which the voters would not want. We must not be used to rubber stamp what Ministers are predetermined to do. We are not there for ‘virtue signalling.’ The reality is that while I salute the House authorities for creating a virtual Parliament of a sort, (and the remote voting system works particularly well), it is also right to admit that it is simply not doing its job. You cannot link 650 MPs all keen to represent their constituents via the web and hope to achieve any worthwhile scrutiny. The virtual main Chamber is not only a waste of time; it also risks giving a false impression that Parliament is working.

So we need to get Parliament back properly in Westminster. It is true, nonetheless that I do have great reservations about the decision that we should all reappear in Westminster on 2 June.

If you cannot safely get us all into one Chamber, and into the thirty or so Committee Rooms around the Palace; if we cannot get together in the tea rooms and libraries to talk over the great issues of the day; if our staff cannot be there; if the public are excluded; if we cannot sensibly vote in the Lobbies anyhow, and if only 50 MPs are allowed in the Chamber at any one time; if all of those things must happen, then how will it all work in reality? That’s why I abstained in the vote. I want Parliament up and running properly, but I cannot really imagine how that will be done.

I have volunteered to chair some of the Bill Committees, and the Select Committees seem to be working reasonably well virtually. So I will be there, and will report back on how it’s working.

However, I suspect that it will only restart for real when the virus has passed, or at very least when we have a vaccine, or perhaps a reliable antibody test.

And that seems unlikely before the summer. So let’s do what we can for now, but perhaps not fool ourselves that it is going to be full-blown scrutiny nor law-making.

More important than that, let’s cancel the Party Conferences, and plan to start properly around 1 September when the schools go back, and then work right through until Christmas non-stop. We must nor risk being seen to be mucking about, and giving a wholly misleading impression that we are operating properly. We are not. Parliament is not there to legitimise the Government; but to scrutinise it and hold it to account. We cannot do that half-heartedly.