The House of Commons risks becoming a sad and diminished little replica of what is often misquoted as the ‘Mother of Parliaments.’ Government governs, and we backbenchers in Parliament scrutinise what they are doing. If - for perfectly correct practical reasons - we cannot do so, then we should be clear that we are not. We otherwise risk giving false legitimacy to what the Executive are doing.
I have been back for two weeks now (on and off), and the whole place is like a ghost town in a wild west movie. It’s a bit like being on detention in school after everyone else has gone home. (Not that I ever was, of course.) In normal times, 20,000 people a day swarm around the 3 great chambers, the 50 or so committee rooms, the allegedly 34 cafeterias, bars and restaurants (I have never got around to counting them). Journalists, lobbyists, visitors, think tanks, businesses, charities. It’s a hotbed of thought and discussion about the world and politics.
Not now. The cafeterias, the committee rooms, the lobbies and corridors are either closed or so socially distanced as to make any kind of interaction with each other impossible. (Why js Parliament alone in keeping 2 metres until the summer at least?) Committees, all party groups, lobbies - all are cancelled. The Palace is closed to visitors of any kind; staff are working from home; the odd journalist wisps by like tumbleweed. Worst of all is the Chamber which is so socially distanced that only 50 people all told (out of 650) are allowed in at any one time. Half a dozen backbenchers on either side earn the privilege of quizzing ministers over great matters and decisions by applying in advance to do so and being selected in some kind of Parliamentary lottery. This week the National Security Adviser, IR35, the Loan Charge, a vast infrastructure investment programme and fundamental changes to the planning system amongst many other matters went by with precious little real Parliamentary examination. Spontaneous intervention of any kind is impossible. As for voting - well the perfectly workmanlike electronic remote voting system has been abolished in favour of a half-baked replica of physical voting through the lobbies.
So we backbenchers sit in solitary bewilderment in our little eyries of offices while the great and the good get on with whatever they want to, until the voting bell rings when we dutifully wander over to the chamber to carry out our whips’ instructions. Well not me. It is, in my opinion, quite wrong for us to pretend that this is a fully functioning scrutiny system; that we are in some way improving legislation; that we have great opportunities to advance the causes of our constituents. The physical constraints in the Palace of Westminster make all of those fundamental and vitally important democratic functions impossible. We should not be shy of saying so.
We should be upfront about the constraints and go into self-isolating lockdown. If we cannot do our jobs properly; if the Executive are getting away with things and using us as a supine cover for it; then the people should know that that is the case. So I call on the authorities to recognise that Parliament is not doing its job; to be honest about the physical impossibility of it doing so; to be frank about the Executive running the country largely unfettered at this time of National crisis; and to look forward to a time - presumably after the summer- when scrutiny can once again function for real.
The Mother of Parliaments must never be a supine or covert cover for government.