New Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has demanded “urgent talks” with the Government to ensure MPs can probe ministers over their handling of the coronavirus crisis.
Close to 10,000 people have died in UK hospitals since the outbreak started and Sir Keir, who replaced Jeremy Corbyn as opposition leader last week, said the Commons must be open for business after Easter – even if it means MPs asking questions over webcams.
Subject to scrutiny
In a letter to Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg, Sir Keir wrote: “Parliament has a responsibility to put questions to ministers at this time of national crisis.
“The best decisions are those that are challenged and subject to scrutiny. And by that process issues can be resolved, mistakes quickly rectified and individual concerns addressed, which will help save lives and protect our country.
“But if Parliament is not sitting or functioning effectively that cannot happen.”
The former director of prosecutions for the Crown Prosecution Service said Labour supported “many of the measures” implemented by the Government but set out a list of questions that “need to be answered”.
He called for clarity over an exit strategy from the lockdown imposed on the UK, along with answers over the “ramping up of testing” for Covid-19 and the supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) for frontline NHS staff.
Meeting with Rees-Mogg and Sir Lindsay Hoyle
The 57-year-old has requested a meeting with Mr Rees-Mogg and Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle next week to discuss Parliament resuming on April 21 so such questions can be put to ministers directly.
His letter comes after Home Secretary Priti Patel told reporters during a Downing Street briefing that she did “not know yet” whether the Commons would meet as planned in little over a week’s time.
Sir Keir added: “I am writing to request urgent talks with you and the Speaker of the House this week about how we can guarantee the return of Parliament after the Easter recess.
“I accept that it is difficult for Parliament to return to business as usual at the moment, but there are clear examples around the world of parliaments operating effectively by using new technologies and different models.”
Work has been commissioned by Mr Hoyle to ensure a “virtual” chamber can be up and running after the Easter recess so MPs can return to duty.
It could see MPs questioning ministers from their homes by webcam if the lockdown is still in place, with senior ministers signalling there is no intention to curb the social distancing measures.
The Palace of Westminster currently requires MPs and peers to be physically present to walk through voting lobbies when passing legislation, but the Speaker has indicated exceptions could be made to ensure Parliament can function during the pandemic.