I’ve been self-isolating at home this week, after a Lords’ colleague with whom I share an office, succumbed to Covid. 

It’s not just venomous political ideas that circulate at Westminster. The two Houses have members throughout these islands, sharing political opinions and hot air. They are purpose-made, lockdown-exempt, Covid super-spreaders.

We all have our own experiences of lockdown. A key issue was whether we could work effectively away from Westminster. For fifteen months, “working-from-home” was encouraged.

Living in rural Gwynedd, I had it much easier than did city-dwellers.  The most dramatic change was not having to travel to London every week. I discovered that three-quarters of my parliamentary work could be undertaken quite adequately by Zoom. This saved the taxpayer £700 a week; and saved me an immense amount of wear-and-tear. I also experienced significant health improvement – which I attributed to Arfon’s excellent air quality, compared to the atrociously polluted atmosphere in London.

The National Wales: "The two Houses have members throughout these islands, sharing political opinions and hot air. They are purpose-made, lockdown-exempt, Covid super-spreaders". Photo: PA"The two Houses have members throughout these islands, sharing political opinions and hot air. They are purpose-made, lockdown-exempt, Covid super-spreaders". Photo: PA

Undertaking Parliamentary duties by Zoom was a two-edged sword. Participating in formal debates was as effective (or ineffective!) as if physically present in the Chamber. Voting was even easier, though inevitably accentuating the danger that members voted without having heard the debate. But there’s nothing new in that – in the Commons, the Lords or even in Cardiff Bay.

Oral question time by Zoom benefitted from a certainty of getting “called” if listed; offset by less spontaneity. Tabling written questions was unchanged.

The serious down-side of working from home was in the formal Committee work of the House.  When scrutinizing draft laws line by line, members need the ability to intervene on a minister’s response – to challenge what is being asserted and expose weaknesses in the Government’s position. This is how the shortcomings of new laws are identified; it helps Governments avoid pitfalls; and it clarifies the intention of legislation, which may be helpful for the courts. The formality of Zoom-facilitated debates seriously eroded this process.

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Another downside is the loss of the informal discussion which takes place behind the scenes when members exchange  views and learn  from one-another.  And while the semi-formal parliamentary “All-party-Groups” made strenuous efforts to maintain their profile, by Zoom, their effectiveness and “reach” was restricted.

But parliamentary work has to continue so that the Government remains open to scrutiny. Since September, Westminster has returned to some form of pre-Covid “normality”, though the age profile of the Lords leaves many members vulnerable to Covid, requiring face-masks and distance-keeping.

I tried to re-engage with this new format; but it’s unsatisfactory. Driving seven hours from Caernarfon to Westminster is tiring; London hotels increase potential exposure to Covid, as does rail travel. My level of attendance is declining; and my ability to contribute is eroded. Our Senedd continues to provide arms-length participation by Zoom; but not Westminster.

It’s difficult enough trying to represent Plaid Cymru in the Second Chamber as a one-man-band. Covid has turned “difficult” into impossible. A time may be approaching when both I, and my party, will have to make fundamental decisions: a minor biproduct of the pandemic; but one which may have consequences. 

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