It is quite right that Parliament has been recalled for a second time in this Christmas Recess to pass Lockdown Number Three into law. It is right that these things are scrutinised and approved by Parliament, not just by the Government. MPs must have a chance to raise specific questions about it all with the PM and Ministers, and this Recall is their moment..…. Sort of
For in a positively surreal way, the note from the Chief Whip recalling us all coincided with another note from Mr Speaker pleading with us all not to come back. It was a positively Alice in Wonderland moment. To be fair, the Leader of the House has now changed the rules with regard to remote participation in debates and statements, so that we can all have our say from home or our constituency offices. MPs have to log in electronically, ask for a chance to speak on a particular Parliamentary event; the names are selected at random by a computer and, if you are lucky, your name comes up.
However, perhaps because it can be done electronically, vastly more MPs than ever before are putting in to speak. It was 350 or so for the debate on this Lockdown. The PM’s Statement, the Statement on Education under Lockdown and then the substantive debate on the laws needed to make it all happen, all took place between 1130 AM and 7 PM including speeches from both Front Benches. So very probably no more than a hundred MPs were able to take part. And anyhow a time limited two minutes reading out a pre-prepared statement to one’s computer on the kitchen table hardly fulfils the highest standards of Parliamentary debate.
Not only is the debate pretty stilted, to say the least; but we are also effectively prevented from voting in person on the matter being debated. For a month or so at the start of Lockdown 1 we had a perfectly workmanlike remote electronic voting system. But the Leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg did not like it, perhaps out of concern that it would become a permanent fixture, and abandoned it. For a time it was only possible to vote in person in Parliament, but of course that cannot really be justified now that we are asking everyone else to stay at home. So they have brought in a ‘proxy’ system which in essence involves us handing our vote to the whips who vote on our behalf. I understand that the Government Deputy Chief Whip, for example, now holds about 250 votes.
I am afraid that, perhaps in line with so much else right now, the Parliamentary system is wholly unsatisfactory, and it cannot be allowed to continue. I am glad to serve on the Commons Procedure Committee which looks after these matters (or at least advises the Speaker and Leader, who may always ignore what we say). We are already turning our thoughts to how the Commons should look once the Pandemic is over. We are considering the elements of a proper Parliamentary debate; how to re-educate MPs who may have got a bit slack about the whole thing over Lockdown; and how to make the best use of some of the innovations we have seen as a result of the Pandemic.
The Commons is Surrealist, Alice-like for now. We must take steps to make sure that after the Pandemic is over we recreate it as the finest debating and decision-making chamber in the World. We more or less created Parliamentary democracy. We must now restore it.