Westminster Diary: Playing the waiting game is no longer an option
PUBLISHED: 10:21 09 April 2020
This week was a waiting game, at every level. At the national level, health experts encouraged us all to wait and see whether social distancing would buy the NHS enough time.
In our remote-working Parliament, MPs of all parties were pushing for answers but were ultimately left waiting too. By the end of the week, it was clear to even the most die-hard traditionalists that the current arrangements were not sustainable.
The government continued to hold its daily phone calls for MPs of all parties to raise questions. As the week went on, MPs were raising many of the same questions over and over again, with a mixed sense of appreciation, frustration and sympathy.
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Appreciation that we could raise questions with anyone in government at all (even if they weren’t representing any government department); frustration that no answers were forthcoming; and sympathy for the poor MP who gave up 90 minutes of their day, every day, to tell us all that “questions had been put to that department”, that “further guidance had been requested”, and that “MPs voices had been heard”.
On a personal level, I found it incongruous to see journalists having daily access to quiz whichever Cabinet Minister was fronting the No 10 press briefing, whilst not a single opportunity had yet been found for us MPs – with hundreds of questions from constituents – to quiz even one departmental Minister at all.
By the end of the week, as experts talked of green shoots in the battle against COVID-19, so Parliament took its first tentative baby steps towards the online world. MPs were told by email that, “once” the House returns from recess, and “if” the guidance remains that people should stay at home where possible, there would be “some” reforms.
By the week of April 20, and “assuming” Committees could be flexible on days, as many as 20 virtual committees “could” operate per week (this being the typical weekly volume of evidence sessions). Teams were also trying to find a solution to allow MPs to question ministers remotely.
COVID-19 has shown that modern global pandemics wait for no one; our democracy will need to work faster than this to keep up.
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