Sir John Redwood is MP for Wokingham, and is a former Secretary of State for Wales.
Well done, Mr Speaker. Our new Speaker has ensured that Parliament is able to meet again whilst observing the rules on social distancing. He led a team of officials in the work needed to install TV screens, create a Zoom network, and ensure that MPs who wish to contribute to a debate or statement can do so from their own homes. It was crucial that Parliament can meet during this pandemic to allow the exploration of options, questions to Ministers and the passage of any temporary laws needed.
We now need to ask ourselves how can we adapt and improve our virtual Parliament to undertake this mammoth job. Parliament’s contributions are much needed. Public policy is undergoing a revolution. Events are moving at high speed. The budget has been torn up, the UK is going to borrow vastly increased sums, the NHS has been transformed to concentrate on fighting COVID 19, much of the country is in lockdown and not working, and the Cabinet has to handle and balance an economic crisis brought on by the health crisis. Government needs to draw on the best scientific and medical advice to save lives and to contain an pandemic.
At times like these, Parliament has a particularly important role. MPs bring a wide range of experiences and training to bear on problems, with many different backgrounds and qualifications represented. We all listen to a wide range of opinion and experiences in our constituencies. It is Parliament that can test or improve public policy made at speed in this crisis in Whitehall. Some MPs will see that a given policy cannot suit a local economy based on tourism, or a self-employed hairdresser or a shop that acts as a pick-up point for an online business. The Government’s plans to offer grants and loans to businesses to keep them going left out important groups from the original drafts, and needed revision. MPs could explain how and why and persuade the government to improve their offer.
The mere fact that Ministers now have to think about how Parliament will respond to their statements and how it might question their policies will lead to more positive collaboration between MPs, their constituents and the Government. This will improve results. To make this work better, we need to adapt the current virtual Parliament.
One of the casualties of the new system is spontaneity. Before the changes, an MP could go in to the chamber without prior notice, and hope to ask a timely question in one of the question sessions. That is no longer possible. In a Ministerial speech an MP could intervene to seek clarification, or to challenge an argument or assertion. That is no longer possible. An MP who felt that the Government was ducking an important issue, or was using Commons procedure selectively to stifle debate could raise a Point of Order to highlight the concern. That too is no longer an option.
So what can be done, given the constraints of remote technology? It is right that the few with places in the very restricted chamber should not be given an advantage over everyone else joining in from remote locations. The aim is to limit numbers there in person.
The first thing that would help would be for the Government to allow more time. Two hours on Monday for debate on the wide-ranging controls placed on businesses and individuals to fight the virus was not generous. We could have done with a more detailed response from the Minister, who was limited by his own timetable.
Maybe when a Minister and Shadow Minister is speaking, MPs could indicate to the control system they would like to ask something through an intervention, and this could be displayed on the screens in the chamber for the Minister to give way if he wishes. We have all to get better at how we handle the new-look Question Times to make them worthwhile, and to avoid just reading out some prior statement which the Minister can easily sidestep.
Parliament is much needed, and it needs to be at its best. There is a great national conversation underway about how we can keep safe and earn a living. Ministers and officials have very difficult jobs to make judgements on imperfect information, and decide how to handle the twin crises of the pandemic and the economic consequences of it. Having to listen more to the commonsense of the British people as relayed through their MPs, and to consider policies made up in theory against the day to day realities, the requirement to explain can only be a good thing for all concerned.