Covid restrictions giving ministers ‘pathetically easy time’ in the Commons

Ministers are being given a “pathetically easy time” in the House of Commons due to Covid-19 restrictions on the chamber, a senior Conservative has warned.

Former cabinet minister David Davis was joined by Tory colleagues in criticising a Government motion to continue virtual proceedings in the Commons until November 3.

He insisted a “full and properly functioning” House is needed by October as key decisions on the Covid-19 response, the economy and Brexit are due to be made.

Attendance in the Commons chamber has been limited to 50 MPs at any one time in line with social distancing requirements, with MPs able to contribute via Zoom to parts of proceedings but not all.

Lists are drawn up of who can speak in questions sessions and debates, and Westminster Hall debates are not expected to restart until October.

Prime Minister’s Questions
Prime Minister’s Questions

Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg insisted ministers are being scrutinised and he is “very keen” for more MPs to be in the chamber, with the motion allowing remote participation for those who cannot attend.

He added any change in Public Health England advice could see social distancing rules in the chamber relaxed before November.

Mr Davis, who was first elected in 1987, told the debate: “This is the weakest House of Commons I have ever seen. It does not do its job.

“The House of Commons at its best is far greater than the sum of its parts, it’s an organic entity that actually reflects our constituents’ interests and pushes the Government to do better, to govern better, to make the right decisions first time out not after several, er, preliminary attempts.

“I’m being as delicate as I can about what others would perhaps call U-turns.

“It gives ministers a pathetically easy time.

“Now that is actually not a benefit to ministers – having to come and stand at the despatch box and defend your case, think through before you arrive all of the weaknesses that might be in it is actually a way that our Government improves its case.”

Mr Davis said he was not concerned about the House’s performance in September as he does not expect it to be doing “many very important things”.

He added: “But the House and the Government and the country face three massive sets of decisions on the recovery of the economy, which will be critical before the end of October – that’s when the various funding schemes broadly run out, and that’s when the brick wall in our economic future faces us.

“We have Brexit still coming, and frankly October is going to be the key month ahead.

“Covid-19 running into winter, so again October is going to be the key time.”

Mr Davis later suggested testing MPs daily for Covid-19 to allow it to fully return.

Conservative Sir Robert Syms (Poole) expressed disappointment that more MPs were not allowed in the chamber, adding: “We’re here to lead.

“We’re expecting schools to go back, universities to go back, people to go back to work, and we’re 650 MPs and only 50 allowed in the chamber – that inevitably restricts the ability of members to represent their constituents.”

Prime Minister’s Questions
Prime Minister’s Questions

Conservative former minister Sir Christopher Chope said it was “over the top” to extend the arrangements until November.

For the Government, Mr Rees-Mogg said the Commons is not the same at the moment but insisted having 50 MPs in at any one time can make a difference.

He added: “It doesn’t mean there is no holding to account, it doesn’t mean there is no representation of our constituents.”

Conservative former minister Steve Brine stressed the importance of Westminster Hall to “keeping ministers honest”, adding: “We are living a lie to the public at the moment – we’ve never worked harder, but we’re not working hard here in SW1.”

Mr Rees-Mogg insisted the Commons is “getting back to the normal pattern” with Westminster Hall debates returning within weeks, adding: “We are back at work in this place.”

He encouraged MPs to ensure they have two members of staff in their Westminster offices, in line with guidance from Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle, adding: “We are back at work in SW1, and the opportunities for holding to account are there.”

Mr Rees-Mogg suggested the opportunity for virtual contributions are expected to continue “until we’re confident there won’t be further local lockdowns”.