Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.
Life of Liberty?
The first Parliamentary Committee I ever sat on was the 2010 Public Bill Committee that repealed the plans for Identity Cards by the previous Labour Government.
A copy of the Bill, with the signatures of all the Committee members, is framed on my wall at home. In October of the same year, after launching a campaign against the questionable Google Street View mapping of our home WiFi protocols, I initiated a debate in the Commons urging action to be taken against ‘the privatised surveillance society’.
All this is mentioned because I am no slouch when it comes to protecting our individual freedoms and privacy. Like most Conservatives, rightly, we are always wary of the big state, the small fiefdoms or large multinationals interfering and monitoring every aspect of our lives.
However, when it comes to dealing with COVID-19 and the choice between potential life or liberty, I part company with libertarianism.
If a Matt Hancockian app wants to monitor the last 200 people I have spoken to, for contact tracing and quarantine purposes, then I cannot see what all the fuss is about. If a Hancockian drone comes down through my window and watches me during my morning absolutions or observes how I make my very large, strong mug of coffee, I just don’t care – as long as it is helping combat the disease.
If police officers are shouting at people with loudhailers and disbanding picnickers in local parks, then, good! Far from criticising the police, we should be hailing them for doing their bit to stop the spread of coronavirus and, whilst we’re at it, thanking these officers for putting their own health and that of their families at risk every day, because of the actions of a few selfish people.
If we are required to stay in lockdown beyond the end of May, this is not a threat to our liberty, but the safeguarding of our lives.
By their very nature, these emergency measures will not be around forever. Rather than getting involved in esoteric intellectual arguments about freedom, let us revert to, arguably, the most cherished human value of all – the preservation of human mortality. As the old Talmudic saying goes, “whoever saves a single life saves the whole world”, or perhaps put more simply as Opus once sang, way back in 1985, “Live is Life”.
Time for a new Broadcasting Education Channel?
Some alarming figures this week from the respected Sutton Trust suggested two thirds of pupils have not participated in online learning.
Another survey from Teacher Tapp (the YouGov of educational polling) has said that 55 per cent of teachers in disadvantaged areas believe that the average pupil is learning less than an hour a day, whilst just two pe rcent of teachers from the same areas, think their pupils have adequate access to online learning.
In my own constituency of Harlow, one headteacher told me that up to 200 pupils are not online, and another that eight percent of his students were not not able to use the internet at home.
It is good that Gavin Williamson has announced free laptops and 4G modems for certain year groups. There should also be a national “Laptops for Learners” campaign, encouraging businesses to donate unwanted laptops to schools and children. However, the provision of laptops and mobile dongles requires getting them into the homes, set up and used – not always easy.
For this reason, whilst Coronavirus continues, we need a new kind of ‘Broadcasting Education Channel’ on our TV screens. When the original Open University was established, the lectures were originally on television.
BBC Two or CBBC, for example, could put all the education tools they have – whether it be their own, the DfE Oak Academy or Google Classroom – for broadcast for a few hours a day. At least then, many of the children who don’t have access to online learning would be able to participate in some of the education being offered to their better off peers.
Four weeks at home so far and it is inevitable that unusual things start to happen.
On Sunday morning at about 4 AM, I literally woke up in a cold sweat. It was not Coronavirus, but a strange dream about a senior MP in her prime. She had decided to run against the Speaker and was asking me to support her campaign.
I drift back to sleep and all I can remember is more of the MP and the Carlton Club (nothing untoward). I’ve given her a lift there a few times, so it must have been in my subconscious.
I should add that I have massive respect for the current Speaker, who is doing an extraordinary job under the circumstances, and the MP in my dreams has absolutely no such intentions. Perhaps I should not have eaten cheddar and crackers late the night before, whilst watching Star Wars: The Revenge of the Sith.
Later in the day, I get a message from a journalist who has seen a TV broadcast I did via Skype. He asks why it is that the puppet, Sweep, is on the bookshelves behind me.
I explain that a crowning achievement of my childhood was attending the Sooty and Sweep show, live on stage, as they were my favourite puppets of the age.
Sweep has been strategically placed in front of some Hitler biographies, which unfortunately before his appearance, made the Twitterati very happy after a Newsnight interview a few weeks ago. Apparently, I am in good company. David Cameron also made the same mistake.
Rather than moving the books and upsetting my order, I thought this puppet would sweep away the Nazis and solve the problem nicely.