Image Credit: Jessica Taylor, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/, no changes made.
Brexit was nowhere to be seen in last week’s major events in Westminster – Coronavirus however dominated proceedings. On Tuesday at Health Questions, Minister Helen Whatley came under significant pressure from a number of senior Conservative backbenchers. Seemingly led by Sir Desmond Swayne and Sir Graham Brady, the latter of who is the previous Chair of the influential Tory 1922 Committee, they challenged the Government over both the scientific reasonings for and infringements upon liberty by measures such as the ‘Ten PM Rule’ for the closure of pubs and the ‘Rule of Six’. Providing more headaches for the Government than the Opposition, swathes of Tory MPs followed. Steve Brine questioned why under-12s were not excluded from the ‘Rule of Six’ as in Scotland. The Minister replied that the Government wishes to keep the measures easy to follow and later pointed out that exemptions existed for ‘Support Bubbles’ and necessary childcare purposes. Tories in ‘the other place’ (as the Lords is commonly referred to by the Commons) continued this trend, with Lord Lamont of Lerwick berating the Government over suggestions that people ‘report on their rule-breaking neighbours’. The Lord compared the rules to that of East Germany, when behind the Iron Curtain, and said that people are being asked to report their neighbours having a ‘seven-man barbecue as if they were building a bomb factory’.
Later that day, the Government went to the House to seek retrospective support over some of the new measures. Despite Tory anger with the Government, only 14 rebelled – something to remember as the ‘Ten PM Rule’ gets voted on over the next week. Labour abstained from the vote, which centred around the ‘Rule of Six’, allowing the motion to pass easily. Boris Johnson, however, took aim at Keir Starmer at PMQs for failing to whip for Labour to support the measures. He questioned the Labour Leader’s judgement saying that he has ‘supported, criticised and abstained’ on the rule, all within the same week.
Meanwhile, the Covert Human Intelligence Source (Criminal Conduct) Bill returned to the Commons for its second reading. The Bill aims to protect undercover operatives if they are forced to break the law on operations. A number of MPs, led by David Davis, accused the Government of pushing through the Bill in one day, as is currently planned. He stated to the Minister, James Brokenshire, that last time a security Bill was ‘pushed through in this manner’ he and others secured a legal challenge forcing a U-turn – it remains to be seen if Davis, the former Brexit Secretary, will take the Government back to court. On the other hand, many MPs raised questions on if the Bill would give operatives a ‘licence to kill’ or the ability to torture individuals to gain intelligence. Brokenshire attempted to allay concerns by making clear that irrespective of the legislation, no public body is able to go against the European Convention on Human Rights and there are upper limits that respect the ‘Right to Life’ where possible. Labour supported the Bill as they believe it provides certain safeguards and oversight on activity that isn’t new and has been performed by a number of public bodies, such as MI5, MI6, GCHQ and the Police, for over a century.
Finally, Westminster Hall has reopened for use for the first time since the start of the pandemic. Over nine hundred years old, it’s the oldest part of the Palace of Westminster and has played host to some of the most high-profile trials in history, including the trial and death sentencing of Charles I, William Wallace and Guy Fawkes. In the modern era, it has served as a venue for addresses by historical greats such as Mandela and de Gaulle as well as continuing its purpose as a venue for the lying-in state before a State Funeral. The Hall provides a chance for members to raise local or national issues which may not receive ‘air-time’ in the main Commons chamber.
The Labour member for Vauxhall, Florence Eshalomi, raised the issue of knife crime and, what she believes to be, the overlooking of women and girls who are impacted and/or groomed by criminals for use on county-line schemes. Eshalomi detailed how she had met three mothers mourning the loss of their children and how support schemes for victims of knife and gang crime are predominantly targeted at young men causing young women to fall through the cracks. Victoria Atkins, a Home Office (HO) Minister, said that targeted support for young women was a priority of the HO and that her department has provided £119 million for extra policing support to lessen violent crime and £200 million to help ‘turn-away’ individuals from being indoctrinated into a life of crime by organised criminal gangs.