'You adapt your technique' - Veteran Yorkshire MP Barry Sheerman on being away from the Commons for almost a year

The green benches of the House of Commons are usually packed like sardines full of MPs wanting their voice to be heard, especially during historic moments such as the Prime Minister imposing what have been described as “Draconian” measures by some on citizens.

But for nearly a year now, the chamber has been desolate, even at the most momentous of occasions.

While some MPs have been able to physically make interventions, in a socially distanced manner, others with health conditions or who are older have been forced to stay away.

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And for veteran 80-year-old Huddersfield MP Barry Sheerman - who has been a parliamentarian for 41 years - the wrench has been heartbreaking.

Huddersfield MP Barry Sheerman. Photo: JPI Media

“I’m one of the most active parliamentarians in terms of speeches, interventions, all that sort of stuff,” Mr Sheerman said when speaking to The Yorkshire Post this week, having just received the first dose of the coronavirus vaccine.

“I do it because I love it, I spent 10 years being a chair of a select committee and that takes you out of the House for a long time, you’re upstairs in the committee rooms doing inquiries, but once that finished I said ‘what’s next?’, and I just wanted to be a good parliamentarian.”

Labour’s Mr Sheerman has become known for his fiery interventions, one in particular was levelled at former Attorney General Geoffrey Cox in September 2019, when Mr Sheerman accused Mr Cox of having “no shame” over the prorogation of Parliament.

And he has tried to keep up the passion via video link beamed onto TV screens in the Commons.

“I got quite a few comments on a speech I made last week on the Brexit deal,” he said. “Okay, it was online, and it was only three or four minutes, but you adapt your technique.”

Mr Sheerman said he had not let being away from the chamber stop his involvement, taking part in private Zoom meetings with health ministers to get updates on the pandemic, or select committee sessions on the future relationship with the EU.

But he said: “The real frustration is, and what I’m really missing, is just walking around the constituency. Not just a formal visit but popping into a factory, popping int a charity, popping into an office, all that stuff.

“And plus the fact that even if you’re able to do something it’s not the same with the mask on, or a visor on, so it’s the grass rootedness of the job that I think we’re missing the most.”

But he added that techniques had been adapted, and he was checking in with local business and organisations in Huddersfield via phone more often.

“We have a really good system where we say look, there’s a number here, if you know of anyone in trouble - a business, or a family with kids who go to bed every night without food - this number will always be picked up and Barry Sheerman will phone you, that’s a copper-bottom or gold-plated guarantee.”

Mr Sheerman said even though he had received his first vaccine dose - and his appointment for his second dose had not yet been cancelled - he did not expect to return to the chamber quite yet as he had vulnerable family members to consider.

And by the time the third national lockdown is over, he will have been away for around a year, a situation he described as “terrible”, prompting him to have had tense exchanges with Leader of the House Jacob Rees-Mogg over allowing MPs to participate remotely.

“We have a perfectly good system where you can vote electronically, and you could participate in nearly every debate. But Rees-Mogg stopped us doing most of the debates, we were still able to do statements and question time but not other major debates, but that’s now changed.”

Mr Rees-Mogg has been reluctant to allow remote participation to continue. In November he said MPs risked looking like they want “special treatment” by calling for virtual participation to the House of Commons to be extended.

At the time Mr Sheerman said Mr Rees-Mogg was “suboptimal” and said: “My responsibility, my key and prime duty, is to my constituents. He [Mr Rees-Mogg] is the man that's stopping me serving as a full Member of Parliament.”

Speaking this week, he joked: “By the time we get back in, we’ll be popping the champagne.”