‘Due to Covid’ has become the new ‘due to Brexit’
In recent debates in the House of Commons I’ve been struck by how often Coronavirus features in the contributions from fellow MPs, even when it is not the subject being discussed. I make no criticism of them for this. It is a tremendous crisis that is affecting all our lives and it is consuming the 24/7 news cycle, not to mention MPs’ casework. It has a much better claim to be the biggest challenge we’ve faced since World War II than did the Brexit negotiations, about which the same was said at the time.
Yet I can’t help but think if we were pulled in the direction some opposition MPs and pressure groups would like us to go in, we would be passing legislation for the short-term that would fail to deal with any of our long-term challenges.
Take the Immigration Bill. From various quarters we are asked to amend it so that we can continue to bring in care workers from overseas. This is defended on the basis that the crisis has highlighted the vital role social care workers from other countries have been playing. I agree that these workers are providing a vital role – and it is worth remembering that those already here from EU countries will be able to get settled status to stay. But social care needs a long-term solution that would see it properly funded and well-regarded. If we simply continue what we have been doing for decades and bring in workers from abroad to fill our short-term requirements, it will only delay us finding the solution we really need.
Similarly, some voices want universities to be able to chase ever higher numbers of international students, to whom they charge high fees for low contact time. To my frustration, the universities who do this most are often those that have failed to make the progress they should have in widening access to under-represented young people in the UK. They should ask themselves why they have become so reliant on international fee income – the fundamental problem won’t be fixed by changing the Immigration Bill.
The week before, in the Agriculture Bill debate, we were pressured by external organisations to amend the legislation in ways that would ‘protect’ British farmers, given the pressures they were facing ‘due to Covid’. But the measures were incompatible with WTO rules and would have harmed our farmers by damaging current and future exports in the long run.
We’re wise enough to know that the fall in some crimes as a result of lockdown does not mean we need fewer police. And when I look at the lobbying that arrives in my inbox from pressure groups every day, I can’t help but notice the measures they are asking for ‘due to Covid’ are largely things they also wanted previously ‘due to Brexit’. In fact, they are things they’ve wanted for some time.
Introduce a universal basic income. Extend the Transition Period. Scrap HS2. All arguments that have failed to persuade now re-packaged with the magic words 'due to Covid'.
Undoubtedly, the virus has shone a spotlight on areas we need to improve. It will change some things forever although not, in my judgement, everything.
The Government is therefore right to press ahead with its legislative programme and stay focussed on solving the long-term challenges – from agriculture to infrastructure – that were present long before we had even heard of Covid-19. Laws made during a crisis are unlikely to age well in normal times.