I find myself in a rather odd position right now. Yesterday Westminster voted 350-258 to end all virtual proceedings and force MPs to return to the House of Commons on 2 June in order to resume business as normal. Usually this would be a great thing, in fact I slated the government for trying to prorogue parliament back in September (or as it is now known, ‘the before times’) so it feels a little odd for me to be opposed to the normal resumption of Westminster in all it’s convoluted and ridiculous ‘glory’.
Very simply, it is not safe for our MP’s to go back. Much as it isn’t safe for most workplaces to go back. One of the key tenets of reopening – certainly in Scotland – is that employers must ensure that social distancing measures can be observed. While that may be possible in an office building, or in a manufacturing plant, it cannot be done on a construction site or in fact in the House of Commons. For anyone who hasn’t seen the pictures of what it looks like to try and cram 650 MPs into the Commons I would encourage you to look it up. It is simply not feasible to maintain any kind of distance when the House is full.
With social distancing in place, the House of Commons can accommodate 50 MPs. The government wants to squeeze in 650; it doesn’t take an epidemiologist to realise that is a really fucking stupid idea. Furthermore, there is the issue of MPs from the other three countries of the United Kingdom: they too are expected to attend Westminster despite different rules being in place. Government advice in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland remains ‘stay at home’, maintaining a three-nation approach despite England’s recent divergence.
For our MPs to travel to work in Westminster would be to undermine the devolved governments, to imply that the crisis is over and ultimately endanger our representatives, their families and the public. SNP MP Pete Wishart recently criticised the Secretary of state for Scotland, Alistair Jack, and Scottish Labour’s only MP, Ian Murray, for doing exactly that. They were in parliament on May 20; they should not have been. The same outrage that was directed at Catherine Calderwood for flouting lockdown restrictions must now be directed at these two men for needlessly endangering the public and travelling when they should not have.
A DUP MP also raised the issue that flights from Northern Ireland to London have now been reduced to only two a day, as opposed to the approximately 20 which could once have been expected. The exceedingly obvious safety issues of flying in the middle of a global pandemic aside, there is no reason why MPs need to be in the House in order to do their jobs effectively.
The House has been operating in a hybrid capacity. It is full of as many members as it can hold whilst still socially distancing and the rest of the members are video conferencing when it is their turn to speak. Voting is done remotely and the chamber has never been so calm and so civilised; gone is the braying and the hooting which has for so long been a hallmark of one of the world’s oldest democratic institutions and which lent it so little credibility. In recent weeks, the UK’s parliament has come dangerously close to becoming a place for civilised debate and scrutiny. The time it takes to vote on a motion has been slashed to only 15 minutes instead of the up to an hour it has taken previously.
Which prompts the question: why change it back? Westminster is a disgrace, regardless of your constitutional leanings; the conduct encouraged within is shameful and reflects badly upon us all. The Prime Minister is struggling to waffle, bluster and mumble his way through questions in quite the same way without his cheerleaders backing him up and drowning out the opposition. My recurring nightmare of Michael Gove doing cartwheels aside, the House could regain a little credibility by embracing the 21st century, and letting go of the traditions and procedures it clings to so fervently in the face of effective democracy.
Perhaps most worryingly is the fact that Public Health England is yet to carry out an inspection of the House of Commons and it has not yet been deemed safe to return. This is a worrying yet recurring symptom of this government’s approach to the pandemic. Policy before science. Policy before health. Policy before safety. They claim they want to return at the same time as schools in England to show it is safe. The simple fact is that it is not safe, and this comes at a time when up to 1500 schools in England are rebelling against Westminster and refusing to reopen on the 1st of June as they had been instructed to, prior to an embarrassing government u-turn. There is no good reason to demand the return of our MPs at this moment, they can and have been doing their jobs effectively from their constituencies. This is simply another distraction from the shambles that has been the UK government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Image: UK Parliament via Wikimedia Commons