Medomsley Road, Consett
Across North West Durham, the shops are slowly starting to open-up again, and signs reminding people of social distancing measures decorate the doors and walls. The open-air markets on Middle Street in Consett and down in Crook both re-started last week, too. Queues at the drive through KFC and McDonalds were the talk of the ‘All New Consett Chartterbox’ – a local facebook group with about 20,000 members.
Even my own office in Consett has finally been able to take shape – its opening much delayed due to Covid-19. And, most importantly of all, on Saturday, as I headed back to Wolsingham, I was able to grab a battered sausage, chips, scraps and a can of D&B from Cravens Fish Shop for the first time in ten weeks.
There was much discussion about how and when Parliament should re-open, and the necessary measures that need to be put in place. I’m glad that last week the Leader of the House ensured that MPs who need to shield at home will now be able to vote by proxy, and contribute to questions in a hybrid model. As local facilities re-open, it’s vital that Parliament does so too, and that we crack on with the work that we were elected to do.
In pursuing the return to Westminster for those able to come, the public might not immediately notice much difference. The ‘spectacle’ element of Parliament – PMQs and the like will remain largely unchanged – save some of the questions coming via video link. Social distancing rules will leave the Commons chamber sparsely populated – in the way it has been in recent weeks – until it’s safe to reduce the spacing, and finally to remove the restrictions all together.
So what changes with sending Parliament back? Legislating. That’s why I’ve backed its return. With the Commons back, our manifesto can now be implemented, because laws can be debated and passed.
Without it, we’d have been stuck. For the consideration of legislation couldn’t take place before our return, because it wasn’t possible to have second reading and report stage debates in a virtual setting. Interventions and interaction are a key part of debate in the chamber. There was no way one would get the cut and thrust of debate with MPs sat at home, doing their set-piece speeches into their little screens. Virtual is fine for point scoring by the opposition, or for raising a constituency concern during the question sessions, but it doesn’t work for the real law-making part of parliament.
How debates take place in the Commons really does matter. You can see by the speeches, more often than by votes, where the Government will need to move to, as the will of the House takes a slightly different tack. This can now take place and, because it is, I can hold my head high as I socially distance on the high street in Tow Law, Willington and Stanhope, knowing that we’re getting things done.
Bill committees of 16 MPs can now convene, and vote too. Sounds dull – but it’s where line-by-line scrutiny of laws in the Commons takes place. This means a lot to me personally because I’ve just been allocated my first Bill Committee – on the Immigration Bill.
Moving from our open-door immigration policy with Europe to one that means we can choose who comes to the UK, based on the need of Britain and what the individual can contribute, was in our manifesto and is a cornerstone of taking back control of our borders. This legislation would have been severely delayed if Parliament hadn’t come back.
The Trade Bill, in place to ensure that we can carry over agreements with other countries as we leave the EU, wouldn’t be possible without the return of Parliament. Without its measures in place, we’d be massively hampering our ability to trade internationally after we exit the transition period.
Our manifesto also committed to a review of the 2005 Gambling Act, which it described as “increasingly becoming an analogue law in a digital age.” Loot boxes, 16-18 gambling, the explosion of online gambling (turbo-charged by Coronavirus): I’m sure that I’ll write more about all this in later pieces but, without the return of Parliament, new legislation couldn’t happen, reviews would be further delayed and our failure would come back to haunt us.
And small but significant things, such as the law to exempt parish town and local government from business rates on public toilets – which matters to local councils in my area and will be even more needed if there is a domestic tourism boost during the summer – would also have been stuck in the system without the return of Parliament.
People need to be aware that our political opponents have many reasons to opposing the return of Parliament, far beyond their vocal concern for the welfare of MPs.
More delay now would frustrate our ability to get Brexit sorted, because the trade and immigration legislation wouldn’t be in place. This would smash our ability to deliver on our broader manifesto commitments on levelling-up throughout the country – playing into the hands of the SNP and other opposition parties who cry ‘Westminster isn’t delivering.’
Don’t be duped: the opposition would like nothing more than the first substantial majority Conservative Government in a quarter of a century to have its hands tied. I don’t want to be turning to my constituents at the local elections next year or the next general election, after they voted with the promise of something different, were we to fail to deliver on important promises we’d made to them.
And finally, as we – hopefully – slowly and safely emerge from Coronavirus, it’s vital that the Government and its response is properly scrutinised and lessons learned. That can happen in two ways: by proper debate in Parliament, with Select Committees digging into the detail, or by a never-ending stream of headline-grabbing chatter in the media. After recent weeks, it’s pretty clear that we need the proper scrutiny to take place in this area, too
Parliament’s back. Now, we’ve got to deliver.