Members of Parliament will not be forgiven if we flout the rules we are asking others to respect
The government has announced that 'hybrid' sittings of Parliament will end later this month. UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor
Virtual proceedings are not perfect. But if Members of Parliament cannot set an example and respect the request to stay at home, why on earth would anyone else think that they should bother?
Let's be honest – there are few more unedifying sights, especially during a global crisis, than the sight of Parliament talking yet again about itself. So it was with some trepidation that I approached the writing of this article.
As a member of the Procedure Committee, and an Opposition Whip, I’ve seen first-hand the amount of work that has been done by Parliamentary staff to ensure that business in the House of Commons can continue, even with the restrictions of lockdown. Innovations such as electronic voting – which we’d previously been told would be impossible – were rolled out within a matter of weeks. The work that has gone on behind the scenes has been extraordinary.
Of course, as the restrictions change, and lockdown is loosened and – eventually – lifted, things must return to normal in the Chamber. But I was concerned to hear the Leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg, suggest that Parliament could return as usual as soon as the beginning of next month.
I appreciate that proceedings at the moment are not ideal. As everyone currently working from home knows, a conversation via video call is just not the same as one that takes place face to face. There have been the usual technical hitches, appearances from kids and pets, and even the odd swear word. More substantively, restrictions on timings mean we have been able to ask far fewer questions than usual.
Until the safety of everyone who works on the Parliamentary Estate can be guaranteed, the hybrid proceedings must continue
But ultimately, at this crucial and defining moment for our country, we have been able to scrutinise the work of Government ministers whilst obeying the important regulations that have been put in place for the sake of all our safety.
There’s no point pretending that Parliament is a normal workplace. But our unique position doesn’t mean we should flout the regulations we are asking other people to respect. Rather, it means it's even more important that we do model the correct behaviour during the pandemic. If employees of the only workplace that regularly appears on television sets in living rooms up and down the country cannot set an example and respect the request to stay at home, why on earth would anyone else think that they should bother? And where on earth does this sit with the Government’s message that “those who can work from home, should work from home”?
And of course, there are practical considerations. What about MPs or staff that have to shield or have underlying conditions? Or those that are single parents? The English Education Secretary has made clear that he’d like schools in England to return on the 1st June, but other nations of the UK are taking a more measured approach. So what should MPs without childcare do? Like so many other parents across the country, they will be forced into an impossible situation. Should Members and constituents across the UK simply have to accept that vast swathes of the country will go unrepresented in Parliament because the Leader of the House has decided he’s had enough of video screens?
It's not just MPs who are affected by these offhand decisions. We may be the most visible employees on the Parliamentary estate, but we would be unable to do our jobs at all without an army of hidden support. There are thousands of members of Parliamentary staff – from cleaners, to research assistants, to committee clerks – who will also be expected to return en masse to work.
Given that the Government has asked us to refrain from using public transport, I wonder how Jacob Rees-Mogg is expecting those people without handy access to a ministerial car to get there? It's hard not to assume that this is the latest of a series of decisions made over the past few days with seemingly no consideration given by ministers as to how their actions might affect people whose lives don’t look like their own.
Of course there is an argument for the gradual easing of restrictions and allowing those who cannot work from home to return to work if they can do it safely. But MPs simply do not fall into this category. Like so many others, we have found alternative ways to do our jobs and until the safety of everyone who works on the Parliamentary Estate can be guaranteed, the hybrid proceedings must continue.
Every day, all over the UK, the vast majority of people are doing the best they can to protect each other and get through this crisis safely – from our amazing key workers who risk their lives every day to protect the sick and dying, right down to those ordinary families who are choosing not to see dearly missed loved ones because they do not want to put them at risk.
We have asked so much of the people of this country already over the past two months, and there are difficult times still to come. We will not be forgiven – and nor should we be – if we let an over-inflated sense of our own self-importance put the lives of others at risk.