The idle, easy going side of my character overwhelmed my principled self last week, when I finally surrendered the last vestiges of my independence as a tireless scrutineer of HMG. I gave my vote away to the Tory Deputy Chief Whip to add to the reportedly 250 other proxies he has collected unto himself. It’s all wrong. But  the options are: go against the Speaker’s advice and attend Parliament in person and then do nothing but sit in one’s office dealing with emails, and trip merrily down to the socially distanced (Not) voting lobbies once or twice a day to carry out the whips’ bidding; or to hand that most valuable Parliamentary asset, one’s vote, over to the Whips. What happened to electronic voting? It worked perfectly well, and at least it kept us involved with debates. The Proxy system has removed that last degree of engagement.

Now to be fair to the whips, they say that they will vote however instructed on my behalf. I would love to test that commitment out on some razor-balanced crucial vote, where my vote against the government would result in a defeat. Who could blame the silly old whip for getting in a muddle and casting my vote with the Government by mistake. “Awfully sorry, old boy. Just an admin error. Won’t happen again.”

The reality is that with Westminster Hall and Private Members’ Fridays now cancelled; with one’s contributions to debates, statements or question times allocated by secret ballot; with speaking times limited very often to two or three minutes; with backbench business debates ill-attended and largely irrelevant; and now having surrendered even that sacred vote; with all of that happening, you might well start to wonder “What’s the point in being an MP? What’s the point in Parliament? Are we really holding the Government to account, campaigning for our constituents or accepting collective responsibility for running Britain?” I fear that the answer may well be: No.  Is it not the case that -quite possibly for the best possible reasons-  backbenchers are becoming increasingly disengaged from Parliament? Would a wholly virtual Parliament (including electronic voting), not give MPs more engagement and anyhow be easier to reform once the Pandemic is over?

Now is the moment when we should be turning our attention to what kind of Commons we want to see when that glorious day comes. Should proxy voting be extended for all sorts of reasons beyond motherhood which was the only justification before Lockdown; should remote participation in debates become the norm; are speakers’ lists so convenient for busy MPs trying to plan their days, that that trumps the consequences for proper Parliamentary debate?

Then there are wider questions we should perhaps be turning our attention to. How should the Parliamentary day be arranged? How do we restore the highest traditions of Parliamentary debating? What’s the role of Urgent Questions; how about time limits on speeches? Should there be a House Business Committee? What role for Backbench Business Committee, petitions, opposition days? All of this needs discussing and deciding. And the time to do so is: Now. Once the Pandemic is all over it will be too late and we will risk either a blind return to the old ways of the old days (ignoring some of the best innovations, offered, for example, by the latest technologies), or even worse a sclerotic continuation of some of the innovations brought to our procedures and practices by Covid.

So I hope that the Speaker, the Commons Commission, the Procedure Committee will commission some urgent work on what we would like Parliament to look like when the crisis eases. Let’s decide what we want, what is best for Parliamentary scrutiny and legislation. Otherwise we risk just stumbling into it.

North Wiltshire MP and Commander of the Order of St John, James Gray, spoke in the House of Commons Chamber yesterday during the debate on Defence support for the Covid-19 response. Mr Gray first thanked all military personnel for all they are doing and further asked of the Secretary of State:

“Will he also acknowledge the huge contribution being made by St John Ambulance, which is training up to 30,000 volunteers, to the highest standard, to be vaccinators? Will he ensure that military planners and those on the ground work hand in hand with St John Ambulance, the Red Cross and the Royal Voluntary Service to maximise the contribution they can make?”

Mr Wallace supported Mr Gray’s statement and commended the collaboration between the military and St John Ambulance, responding that:

“It is another example of this not being just about the frontline or the front trench; often the skill we can bring is in looking after 200,000 or 50,000 volunteers and making sure they are used correctly, in the right part of the system. St John Ambulance will be able to deliver a very efficient group of volunteers, because that is its business and we look forward to working with it.”

Wiltshire and Swindon’s Police & Crime Commissioner, Angus Macpherson, and Inspector Doug Downing welcomed North Wiltshire MP James Gray to the new Community Policing Team hub in Royal Wootton Bassett on Friday. The revamped station was opened officially in July and James came to visit the new site and tour the facilities. 

Angus Macpherson said that: “We are very pleased with this development as part of the delivery of my Estate Strategy. Also, this week, we announced that work was commencing at a new hub for Warminster.  Plans for a new police facility in Tidworth are well in hand too.”

James Gray MP enjoyed the visit, commenting that:

“I was glad to be able to visit the new Policing Team hub and get a tour of the wonderful new facilities. It was great to see the work they have been doing and I am sure it will be a great addition to our community.”

A few good friends suggested that they would like to have a collection of my Columns over the years since 1997.  So I have put together a (heavily edited) collection and had them printed. Volume 1 covers 'Blair, Brown and Cameron’ (BBC1), and Volume 2 covers 'Boris Brexit and Covid’ (BBC2). If you would like a copy, perhaps as a stocking filler, drop me an email with your name and address, transfer some funds, or send me a cheque, and I will do my very bet to get them to you in good time for Christmas. It's £6 each or £10 for the two. That does little more than cover the costs, but if there is any profit from it then it will go to charity. Something to dip into over Christmas. 69596 James Gray A5 Flyer

Wiltshire’s vulnerable children will benefit from free meals during October half-term after Wiltshire Council agreed to ensure families struggling with food poverty in the county are supported.

Cllr Laura Mayes, Cabinet Member for Children, Education and Skills, said: “We know that many families are feeling the financial pressure during the COVID-19 pandemic, and we want to do all we can to support them.

“We want to ensure that children do not go hungry during these school holidays and want to ensure that Wiltshire families know that they will be supported during these difficult times by putting these measures in place. Therefore the council will be funding free meals during the October half term. This will be reviewed throughout the pandemic and we will continue to make sure that any child and family who needs help gets it. As we have done throughout, we will continue to work with our partners in the community and voluntary sector to make sure the needs of our residents are met at this unprecedented time. The work of our community groups has been, and continues to be, amazing and I must thank them for their tremendous support throughout the pandemic.

If you are entitled to free school meals or universal credit and struggling to pay for food over half term, please contact the Wiltshire Wellbeing Hub for support.”

James Gray MP welcomed the support, commenting:

“We are all facing tough times; and we must all do our bit to stop the virus and support those who need it most. The coronavirus outbreak has made the importance of good nutrition for children even clearer and I welcome the support offered by the Council to ensure that children do not go hungry during the October half term. I did not vote for the amendment in Parliament last week as I am hopeful that the Government will find an alternative solution through the benefits system rather than the educational one. I believe this is a great example of this work. Schools have enough on their plates as it is without adding this extra burden, and I know we need to look at other ways to tackle child poverty, including support through local councils.”