Coronavirus and why Parliament must stay open to scrutinise – Tom Richmond

SCRUTINY of Ministers matters – even at times of national crisis when there is a desire, on the public’s part, for Parliamentarians and politicians to unite.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson at a daily press conference.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson at a daily press conference.

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It’s why Boris Johnson is holding daily press conferences. It’s why Chancellor Rishi Sunak was rebuked by the Speaker for not informing MPs first about his economic rescue package – and the sections of society, like housing tenants facing eviction, who had been inadvertently overlooked.

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And it’s why Gavin Williamson – the Education Secretary – had such a tough time in Parliament when he announced the shutdown of schools. A necessary decision, the Minister’s lack of detail about the practicalities caused a lot of unnecessary angst for teachers, parents and pupils alike.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson.

It is for this reason that the Houses of Parliament should remain open for as long as possible during the Covid-19 pandemic and take all sensible precautions to do so – MPs led by example over social distancing at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday.

The tone of these exchanges were also productive – the Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn asked valid questions that Boris Johnson treated respectfully and with great courtesy.

And it is why they will still matter as the pandemic’s economic and social repercussions develop – the Government does not have all the answers and informed exchanges, and scrutiny, can only help to enhance the decision-making process in these unprecedented times.

This is also applicable when Parliament and politics returns to some normality, hopefully sooner rather than later, and issues like the Northern Powerhouse return to prominence.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps.

It is the responsibility of Grant 
Shapps who, understandably, is pre-occupied with his primary job as Transport Secretary and the consequences of coronavirus on planes, trains and buses.

But while I know that he was very proud to take on the Northern Powerhouse brief last month – and is committed to this region – this has not been reflected in his Parliamentary appearances since he was given the dual role in the Cabinet reshuffle.

When he took transport questions for an hour last week, the words ‘Northern Powerhouse’ did not pass his lips. And when he opened the Budget debate on Tuesday, there were just two passing references – and this in relation to ‘Northern Powerhouse Rail’.

This is not to criticise the Minister. Far from it. It is also neither the time nor the place. But, at some point, dedicated Parliamentary time will need to be found for detailed questions on the Northern Powerhouse – and for a select committee to be set up to scrutinise policy.

Mps led by example over social distancing at PMQs this week.

For, as this week’s rapidly moving events have demonstrated, scrutiny of Ministers – and those in power – is crucial when it comes to responding to public concerns from coronavirus to protecting jobs and safeguarding the country’s best interests.

And it is an observation that I hope is taken in the spirit in which it is intended.

EVEN though the SNP control the Scottish Parliament, they had an endless list of demands for Chancellor Rishi Sunak when he did make it to Parliament, after his Downing Street press conference with the PM, to set out an “unprecedented package” of measures to help businesses through the coronavirus crisis – including £330bn of Government-backed loans.

Yet, when the Richmond MP responded with great courtesy, most of their MPs couldn’t even be bothered to listen because they were faffing about with their mobile phones.

TALKING of Rishi Sunak, it is 10 days since he confirmed – in his Budget – that he was reviewing the Treasury’s so-called Green Book that has left so the North so disadvantaged when it comes to infrastructure investment.

The test will be if reforms meet the challenge now set out by Thirsk and Malton MP Kevin Hollinrake: “One of the reasons the A64 has not been dualled is that, according to Highways England, it was competing with the Oxford to Cambridge corridor and the lower Thames crossing. How ludicrous is that?”

THE North was certainly failed by Chris Grayling who popped up in the Commons this week to welcome “incentives for the purchase of electric vehicles” that were in the Budget. Yet some things never change. The former Transport Secretary made no reference to trains. He probably doesn’t realise that he was ‘in charge’ of them for three years. Typical.

EVERY cloud. There is some great work being championed by Yorkshire’s ‘Customer Whisperer’ Kate Hardcastle to promote the virtues, and value, of local shops.

Meanwhile Waterstones sent out an email reporting “unprecedented online demand” while its branch in Leeds was hastily having to restock its shelves with puzzle and crossword books. If coronavirus lifestyle changes reacquaint people with a love of books, and reading, it’s one very small silver lining.

FINALLY a challenge – how can we make the most of the country’s coronavirus closure? First a commitment to pick up – and dispose – litter left discarded in local neighbourhoods. I’m sure this can be done without contravening social distancing protocols.

Second, a clever manufacturer devising a latch or catch that can be fitted to wheelie bins so rubbish doesn’t spew out everywhere when they’re either blown over in the wind or the councils can’t empty them because staff have caught the virus. Further suggestions are welcome but, in the meantime, over to you.