Image Credit: Chris McAndrew, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/, no changes made.
After weeks of pandemic, Brexit and protest drama, this week in Westminster felt a lot calmer – for the most part that is. It was at PMQs where tensions were raised most. The leader of the opposition, Sir Kier Starmer, accused the government of continuing to act too slowly to the resurgence of Covid-19 in Britain. He outlined his disagreement over the way the government approached working with Labour’s Greater Manchester mayor, Andy Burnham, saying that he believes the prime minister has “crossed a Rubicon”. Boris Johnson returned fire by focussing on Labour’s plan for a national “firebreak” lockdown, saying that it was Starmer’s intention to “turn the lights out” across the nation.
Earlier in the week, the situation in Manchester made another appearance at the health secretary’s COVID-19 update to MPs. The Labour member for Manchester Gorton, Afzal Khan, informed the speaker that he found it difficult to describe the situation in Manchester without using unparliamentary terms, though he settled for ‘a complete shambles’. Concern over Manchester extended into the Tory backbenches with William Wragg, member for Hazel Grove, suggesting that the government were displaying potential insanity, whereby they are willing to attempt the same measures that have previously failed but are hoping for a different outcome. In following many of his colleagues over recent weeks, Wragg queried whether further restrictions were worth the impact on people’s lives – if the “medicine is worse than the disease.”
Rishi Sunak has been busy attempting to mitigate the impact of the restrictions on the economy and so found himself back at the dispatch box, already announcing changes to the brand job support scheme which aims to get the economy through the winter months. The chancellor stated how the job support scheme will widen, meaning that workers will now only have to work a minimum of 20% of their usual hours to qualify for support (down from 33%) and employers would have to contribute 5% of the cost to ‘top up’ their employees’ wages (also down from 33%). Meanwhile, the grants available for self-employed workers have almost doubled, taking overall Treasury support spending to over £200 billion since March. The shadow chancellor reflected on the exchequer’s response to the pandemic as a “poor patchwork of ideas” and took aim at the fact that the winter plan announced only weeks ago had been changed before winter had even begun.
Elsewhere in the week, Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch, who is seen as a rising star of the Conservative party, came to the Commons to outline to the House the findings of a government report into race disparity and the effect of Covid-19. Badenoch said that the report did find clear differences between the way different ethnic groups were impacted by the pandemic, both in economic- and health-terms, but that some of the excess health risk remains “unexplained” for many black, Asian and other ethnic minority individuals. The minister also stated that the government would now make it mandatory for ethnicity and race to be collected on death certificates to aid in collecting further data. Marsha de Cordova, shadowing for Labour, welcomed the government’s planned changes but wished for action that was “more than about just data.” Later in the week, Badenoch was again at the dispatch box for a general debate on Black History Month. Under questioning from Tory MPs and in response to a petition signed by over 350,000, the minister confirmed that it is against the law for schools to teach regarding “white privilege” as a fact, as part of teachers being unable to push a partisan political view.
On Brexit, the UK Internal Market Bill has been making its way through the House of Lords, where the government does not enjoy an outright majority. The bill remains seemingly unpopular with peers, including with bishops, of which the five highest bishops of the Church and seven more at the Church’s discretion traditionally take their seats in the Lords. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, expressed his concern that the bill may threaten peace in Ireland through breaking parts of the Belfast Agreement (often called the Good Friday Agreement by republicans). Lord Judge, an independent crossbencher, said that he found it “offensive to the House” that they were being asked to give ministers the “right to break international law” and laid down a motion condemning such a request. Not the entire House was against the government, highlighted by Lord Howard of Rising who suggested opposition to the bill was simply “the sour grapes of remainers.” Nevertheless, with Lord Judge’s motion passing by a majority of 226, the upper house looks certain to send the bill back to the Commons amended.
Finally, in Westminster Hall, Tom Hunt – Tory MP for Ipswich – pushed the government over creating a specific criminal offence for the theft of pets. He, along with MPs from both sides, detailed how the demand and price of pets, namely dogs (of course), has skyrocketed since March and it was now more of an incentive for criminals to target family pets. The government did not believe there was need for the change, saying that courts already take into account the impact crimes committed have on their victims, but offered to work with MPs to increase animal safeguards.