We’re all adapting to new ways of living and working in the Covid emergency. I’ve begun writing my blog at weekends rather than on the train on Thursday evenings. It’s useful to have something that reminds me that it’s the weekend – all the days can seem the same at the moment!
But in fact there have been some big changes for MPs in the past few days: we were able to participate in the first digital session of parliament on Wednesday. To be accurate, it was more of a hybrid session, with a small number of MPs physically present in the chamber, and the rest of us joining remotely. Although to be even more accurate, most of us couldn’t actually participate at all, since the technology currently only allows 120 of us to be online at a time. But I must stay I was impressed at how smoothly the system operated. It will be getting more enhancements over the next few weeks, digital voting is being trialled now, and we’re all very excited about it.
I also chaired a parliamentary committee meeting remotely on Tuesday morning. It was a bit slower than normal (in fact, it lasted over three hours – that’s a long time for a meeting!), and I was relying simultaneously on my phone, iPad and laptop to keep a track of what was going on and have all the relevant papers in front of me. But again, I was surprised at how well it went. I must say remote working creates a much more peaceful atmosphere than when we’re present in Westminster – as you will have noticed if you watched Keir Starmer calmly taking Dominic Raab apart at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday.
Virtual meetings are working well too. I attended a meeting with the PCS union, who represent civil servants, to hear from the frontline about how they’re coping with processing over a million applications for universal credit that have flooded the system since lockdown. I was surprised to hear that most staff are still being required to attend the office, rather than working from home. Given applicants for UC are pretty well forced to do everything online (something Labour has complained about in the past – it’s a problem for those who don’t have access to computers and Wi-Fi), it’s absolutely astonishing that the department for work and pensions can’t actually support its own staff to work digitally. This week, I’d like to extend my thanks to all the staff who are processing claims for benefits in DWP, and also to staff of Trafford Council who are getting payments out to businesses and individuals.
On Thursday I joined a very troubling meeting with representatives of foodbanks from across the country, who described a shocking (but not surprising, given many people will be out of work) rise in foodbank use since the start of lockdown. A couple few weeks ago, the Food Foundation reported that 1.5 million people had actually gone without a meal since the lockdown began, and I’m also very concerned about the shambles that is the government’s voucher system for children entitled to free school meals. I know that schools in my constituency have had to step in when the government system couldn’t cope, to prevent children from going hungry. I just hope the government is going to reimburse those schools for the costs they’ll have incurred in doing so.
I’ve also been participating in some great digital meetings with Labour party members locally, and in interesting policy discussions, one with Baroness Helena Kennedy on human rights and the Covid emergency, and one with youth politics group Politika. This is one example of digital politics that I hope will out-live the emergency. These virtual Q+A sessions are proving to be a great way for me to keep in touch, and I’m determined to carry on holding them. They’ll be especially useful to update Labour members and my constituents about what’s happening in Westminster once parliament starts meeting physically again, and I have to spend much of my time in London.
My digital meetings are supplemented by a surge in courier and mail deliveries to my doorstep. Although I can do a lot online, my team and I do occasionally need to send documents to each other through the post, and so I’d like to take the opportunity to thank all delivery staff and posties. CWU union has designated this coming Wednesday 29 April national postal workers day, when we can all say thank you to our posties.