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Sat, 24 October 2020

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In forcing the return of Parliament, Boris Johnson risks sending a dangerous message to bad employers

In forcing the return of Parliament, Boris Johnson risks sending a dangerous message to bad employers

In forcing MPs to return to Westminster, Boris Johnson risks sending a dangerous message to bad employers, Labour MP Chris Elmore writes

5 min read

Insisting that all MPs return to Parliament in an arbitrary way puts the health of older and vulnerable Members and staff in jeopardy – and risks giving license to bad employers to put undue pressure on their own workers

MPs are set to physically return to the House of Commons en masse tomorrow to scrutinise UK Government Ministers.

After the past week, which has seen journalists muted at daily press briefings, government scientists gagged by the prime minister, and a sledgehammer smashed through Number 10’s public health advice to protect a single advisor, the need for this scrutiny could not be more urgent.

But this past week has also shown us that, despite repeatedly saying he is following the science, many of the decisions the prime minister is taking are inherently political. It’s clear that the UK Government has, on occasion, bent the rules or re-written them to get themselves out of difficult situations which has caused consequences which have, at best, been overlooked and, at worst, been flatly ignored.

My constituents – and the wider British public – won’t have failed to notice that Boris Johnson hasn’t exactly performed well against the new Leader of the Opposition, Keir Starmer, at prime minister’s questions. After several weeks where his government’s record was forensically taken apart “like a Duplo train set” (not my words – the Telegraph’s), at the final PMQs before last week’s brief recess, a rabble of socially-distanced Conservative MPs were bussed in to flank him in the chamber.

The memo for support clearly cut through to Matt Hancock a little too well though as his heckling of Starmer nearly got him thrown out altogether. This attempt to get back to a more adversarial style of PMQs did give rise to the suspicion that Downing Street was becoming slightly too keen to get all MPs back to Parliament – whatever the cost.

Former Conservative Minister, and now Chair of the Education Select Committee, Robert Halfon MP, has said that it would be “democratically unjust” to disenfranchise those MPs physically unable to attend the Chamber on Tuesday due to personal circumstance. Sadly though, the attitude we’ve seen from ministers and the prime minister’s chief advisor over the past few weeks doesn’t leave us with much hope that the government cares one ounce about the views of their backbenchers. More than 60 Conservative MPs have now called for Dominic Cummings to go and one minister even resigned in protest. And what is the response from Number 10? Suck it up and get on with it.

Moving Parliament online was never going to be easy, but I’ve seen first-hand how much effort went into creating a system that provides MPs with opportunities to hold ministers to account, while protecting their health and that of the many thousands of Parliamentary staff. The truth of the matter is, insisting that all MPs return to Parliament in an arbitrary way puts the health of older and vulnerable Members and staff in jeopardy, and worse still, sends a message that bad employers can put undue pressures on workers, who can only work from home due to personal circumstances beyond their control. 

It is staggering that the prime minister is content with the grave risk his rush to return to a physical Parliament sends to employers at a time when many businesses are, quite rightly, desperate to get back up and running

We know that this virus affects people differently. We also know that many people, including people with pre-existing conditions and black, Asian, or minority ethnic communities, have a greater risk of dying if they contract this terrible disease. The UK Government knows this too and yet it is still pushing ahead with an unworkable system which flies in the face of everything they have been telling businesses and the wider public.

Put simply, the plan to have all MPs back on the Parliamentary estate is discriminatory and risks giving license to bad employers who won’t take reasonable measures to allow their staff to work from home if they are shielding or live with those who are. After the Cummings affair, we’ve seen how much critical public health messaging can be rapidly undermined to suit the whims of ministers. Yet it remains staggering that the prime minister is quite content with the grave risk his rush to return to a physical Parliament sends to employers at a time when many businesses are, quite rightly, desperate to get back up and running. 

At the weekend, the Procedure Committee, of which I am a member, warned that physical proceedings should not take place on Tuesday. It is ludicrous to think that MPs could be left in a situation where we may have to go to Parliament to vote to reinstate hybrid proceedings.

Given that the House of Commons’ Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle MP, has said categorically that MPs will be unable to vote safely using the division lobbies, it is clear that the current plan is completely unworkable.

Before Number 10 makes its next move, the Prime Minister needs to stop and think: shouldn’t he ensure that all MPs can be treated equally before prioritising his own political self-interest? 

 

Read the most recent article written by Chris Elmore MP - Digital pandemic of misinformation threatens our best hope of defeating Coronavirus

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