William Wragg is Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, and is MP for Hazel Grove.
Back in the olden days, when the public were reassured by a Yorksireman smoking a pipe, a week was a long time in politics. Today, two days is plenty of time for a policy to not only unravel, but for an Olympic-medal-winning-cartwheeling-somersaulting-volte-face to be performed.
Christmas is cancelled. Dismiss from your minds warm thoughts of seeing your loved ones for the first time in months. Don’t hug granny – you murderous irresponsible hordes fleeing before the midnight hour. SAGE has spoken and the Government has decreed.
I had a frustrating conversation with a long-retired, but still highly regarded, expert last night. He began to intone and I answered his questions timidly.
“When events change, I change my mind. What do you do?”
“I would like to know when exactly the events changed. Was it this weekend, last Monday, the week before that perhaps?”
“When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, Sir?”
“I would like to know what the facts are, and when they might have changed.”
“When the information changes, I alter my conclusions. What do you do, Sir?”
“I would like to have access to the same information that you do”
“When someone persuades me that I am wrong, I change my mind. What do you do?”
“I would like to have the opportunity to be persuaded and I find debate and questioning to be an essential part of that effort.”
Needless to say, the conversation wasn’t particularly productive and I went to bed with the answers I gave causing me more questions.
Now of course, when the facts change, actions must change. And in the context of our Parliamentary democracy, when the facts change, the law is changed.
But in this instance, as with many throughout the pandemic, the law will not be changed by parliamentarians following a debate and vote, but rather by a Minister acting with executive authority, most often under the provisions of the entirely unironically named 1984 Public Health Act.
I heard a good analogy for our times recently. We are living in a pressure cooker, in which grief, poverty and isolation fester, threatening an angry explosion. Now, whatever its rights and wrongs, no matter how imperfect its inhabitants, Parliament is the valve on top of that pressure cooker. The pressure is eased when these matters are deliberated and voted on by MPs.
“Now that the House of Commons is trying to become useful, it does a great deal of harm,” said Oscar Wilde. I dare say that is the attitude of every Government in recent times. However, better scrutiny that is both considered and fair leads to better government, and better government carries the confidence of the people.
The plain fact is this: Parliament debated and voted on the original rules that were to be in place to govern Christmas, along with the revamped tier system. Parliament should do the same for these new rules and additional tier. This should be welcomed by all, regardless of how they might vote, because it will carry greater legitimacy among the public who sent us to Westminster to be their representatives.
The term hero is overused. Instead, many selfless acts during the pandemic have been done through a sense of duty, whether professionally or civically. If a person can go to work diligently in a supermarket or a care worker can attend to the vulnerable, an MP can turn up to Parliament and do their duty – a duty which they presumably professed to their electorate upon being given the singular honour.
Other than those who are clinically vulnerable (who should be given remote access to debate by the way), let us not allow Parliamentarians to be accused of putting their health before the health of our democracy. A little inconvenience for us this week, is nothing given the inconvenience to others.
As a senior Minister said a few weeks ago, MPs should share the burden of decision. Absolutely! Allow us to do so again.