Many constituents were in touch with me ahead of the vote in parliament this week to renew the legislation giving government ministers special powers during the coronavirus emergency. Parliament passed the necessary ‘primary’ legislation in March, but as the powers are quite sweeping, it was agreed they would be reviewed every 6 months. Some constituents and MPs feel however that ministers have too much unfettered power.
I understand why powers are necessary, so I didn’t vote against them, but I also agree that they should be subject to proper scrutiny. Unfortunately, we were left with a take or leave it choice, as parliamentary rules meant that it wasn’t possible for MPs to amend the powers. But with many Conservative MPs vociferously expressing concern, and a very unusual statement from the Speaker complaining that ministers were sidelining parliament, a few meagre concessions were agreed by the government to allow some more scrutiny to take place in future. I doubt it will be enough to satisfy angry MPs or worried constituents.
Meanwhile, the Speaker has been getting steadily more determined to force ministers to account for themselves to parliament. He’s made it clear that announcements have to be made in parliament before they are shared with the media. This is so that we can ensure that MPs can do our job properly, and raise the concerns of our constituents.
The result has been a rush of statements from government ministers, including two in three days from Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, which I had to respond to. The first was about the worrying rate of infection among university students; the second about future arrangements for training and FE colleges.
Preparing our response to a statement means my team and I have to work very fast to anticipate what the minister might say, devise the questions we want to ask, keep our fellow Labour MPs informed of what we are saying so they can also ask questions to back up our position, and have quotes ready for the media. As the shadow secretary of state, I receive a copy of the statement around 45 minutes in advance, which is helpful, but means another last-minute rush to adapt my speech if necessary just before I go into the chamber.
It’s all a bit nerve wracking, but though I’m not wasting my sympathy on him, it’s also challenging for the minister – he doesn’t know what I or other opposition MPs are going to ask him. Which may explain why Gavin Williamson this week managed to make no fewer than 4 mistakes in his responses to the two statements. On Tuesday night, I asked for two inaccuracies to be corrected, he said he would do so, but hadn’t by Thursday. Though he did correct another mistake that I hadn’t spotted – and then went on to make yet another mistake in the second statement. Hopelessly incompetent doesn’t begin to cover it.
The other big concern in parliament this week has been the news that an SNP MP travelled from her constituency in Scotland and attended a debate on Monday while awaiting the result of a covid test, which turned out to be positive. She them took a train back home on Tuesday. This is totally against the rules, she should have been isolating as soon a she realised she had symptoms, and MPs who were in close contact with her now also have to isolate. Luckily, I had not seen her at all, but unsurprisingly staff and colleagues who spent time with her in parliament on Monday are anxious and angry. The rules are confusing, but people need to be clear: if you have symptoms, book a test and isolate while you wait for the result, even if you start to feel better. The infection rate is still alarmingly high and climbing and it’s so important that people take all the required precautions.