The Hybrid Parliament has set the right example - don't undo all that good work
The Hybrid Parliament has shown what can be done during a pandemic. Now is not the time to undo that good work
Jacob Rees-Mogg has laid down the law: those Members of Parliament capable of doing so must return to the Palace of Westminster after the Whitsun recess.
“Why is that?” he asked rhetorically in the Commons this afternoon. “Because the Government’s advice is if you need to go to work, you must go to work, and we see in this Parliament, in this House today, the effectiveness of scrutiny in comparison to what we see when this House is operating in the normal way.”
To correct the Commons Leader, the advice from the Government is not ‘if you need to go to work, you must go to work’. The new guidance refers to going to work if you are unable to work from home, and otherwise working from home where possible.
Notwithstanding that, Rees-Mogg was typically compelling. The Virtual Parliament is, as he was keen to point out, far from perfect. Currently, up to fifty MPs take part in debates in the Chamber while 120 max participate over Zoom, the video conference app. MPs often read out prepared statements, debate has been stifled, and there is limited to no ability to develop arguments.
“That’s not the House of Commons doing its proper duty, its proper role of scrutiny of the Government,” Rees-Mogg declared. How are bills progressing, he cried, what is happening to the Government’s legislative agenda. “Or do we just ignore our constituents, ignore the voters, and not get on with a proper parliamentary, a proper democratic system.”
Rees-Mogg was most convincing in his typically impassioned defence of the Commons as an institution. “The idea that our democratic system is not an essential one, is not the lifeblood of our nation, is not how the Government is held to account in a time of crisis, is one that I think is surprising and extraordinary that it should be held by members of the opposition,” he said.
Perhaps unusually for a sitting Cabinet Minister, he decried that the Government was not being scrutinised, so shackled are MPs by the Virtual Parliament they themselves enacted. “What we do is essential. Holding the Government to account is essential. And delivering on manifesto promises is also essential,” he said.
The most eye-catching strand of Rees-Mogg’s argument was on sending out the right signal to the public.
“How can we say to our school children ‘you’re safe going back’, some of them, but that we’re not? That we’re going to hide away while schoolchildren are going back? Is that the right message to give to our constituents?” he asked.
“Are we a people set apart, a special class, who are exempt from what the rest of the country are doing? No, we are not. We are the leaders of our nation, and we have a responsibility and that responsibility falls on us to come back.”
In June, some children will go back to primary schools, not all. They will be in Reception, Year 1 and Year 6. It remains the case that older people are more at risk of complications from the virus. In its own guidance, the Government said there is "moderately high scientific confidence in evidence" that younger children are less likely to become unwell if infected.
When Rees-Mogg said he was not minded to renew the current arrangements, thoughts turned to the many thousands of staff who work on the parliamentary estate. For them, the Commons Leader was keen to convey, nothing would ultimately change.
“There is no change to the social distancing advice. There is no change to the advice to members’ staff to continue to work from home. The numbers coming into this estate are a fraction of what they normally are because we have no tours, we have no commercial banqueting, we do not have the thousands sometimes tens of thousands of people who come in every day,” he said.
“We are just requiring MPs to do their job because... their job cannot be done properly from a remote distance.”
Rees-Mogg has no way of ensuring that MPs do not demand their staff return to Westminster, and is relying solely on their adherence to his advice.
The fact is, the Hybrid Parliament is not perfect. Some MPs have complained of feeling left out of the process. However, few contingency measures pursued by any employer, building or business in this current climate are ever likely to be as good as what has gone before. What Parliament demonstrated in implementing the workaround is a damn-near unprecedented adaptability that was not only swift but effective as well.
Yes, something has been lost in the process. That was always going to be the case. But Westminster is actually setting an excellent example about how flexible we must all be to continue functioning effectively.
There are some who do not seem yet to have grappled with the significance of the situation. Not to overplay the pandemic, but it is changing all of our lives right in front of us. For the foreseeable future, it will change how we interact, how we work, even how we express affection or gratitude. Workplaces will have to become Covid-savvy and in the process a little bit of the spark that went before will be lost.
Rees-Mogg also talks about the importance of implementing the Government’s legislative agenda as if there has not been a massive reset button cast by the events of the past few months. The economy is going through its biggest test that many can recall. The idea of implementing manifesto commitments at the time when the Treasury is shelling out hundreds of billions of pounds seems, frankly, profoundly optimistic.
Then there is the question of setting an example to the public. Arguably, any potential spread of coronavirus among our elected representatives would hinder people's appetite to go back to the workplace. Once dubbed superspreaders, these MPs would then depart to their respective constituencies.
And what about those who cannot take part in person? A number of MPs are either over 70, face health restrictions or family constraints that will prohibit them from returning to Westminster. Should they now suffer as a result, and miss out on taking part in democracy?
Jacob Rees-Mogg always has been a House of Commons man and a traditionalist at that. There are good arguments for why the new measures should only be temporary. But the current system, though flawed, has set a good example of how to keep democracy going at a time of unprecedented crisis. Returning to normal could undo all that good work.