My wife will tell you that it is rarely indeed that I admit to anything other than absolute certainty on any issue of current affairs. (Is that a failing, or in a Leader an asset? Discuss.) But the legitimate limitation of civil liberties in a Pandemic is causing me a degree of angst. I pride myself on being a libertarian - the state should be as small as possible, our freedoms as unfettered as possible, our rights as unassailable as possible. But what is “as possible”? I hate official bossiness; rules are there to be tested to the limit, if not actually broken.
Yet unless - in Malmesbury philosopher Thomas Hobbes’s words – life is to be ‘nasty brutish and short’, then we all accept the necessary constraints of society. Law is obvious. “Thou shalt not kill.” What about conventions? There used to be a sign on Glasgow buses “No Spitting.” When did you last see anyone on public transport spitting? (Maybe that’s why every overcrowded Glasgow bus had the ‘p’ scratched off). There used to be a sign in every train loo: “Gentlemen lift the Seat”. Was that an instruction or a definition? “Do as you would be done by” is (unenforceable) prerequisite of a decent and civilised society.
So what about Covid passports, then? They will be as essential for overseas travel as they have always been. Indonesia will continue to require proof of vaccination against polio; the Philippines, for meningitis; Brazil, for yellow fever. That is their right, and if you don’t get the necessary vaccine and carry a certificate in your passport then you won’t be let in. At the other end of the spectrum is the US, vehemently against any sort of vaccination credential system.
Domestically it may be different. If I go to a football match or a cinema or even a church service; if I travel on the underground or pack into a supermarket without social distancing; then I want to be relatively certain that I will not get Covid as a result. That of course means a degree of discrimination in favour of those who have had the vaccination or can otherwise prove that they are no kind of risk. OAPs would be welcome at rock concerts, but teenagers would not. A bit rum and certainly ‘ageist.’
What about workplaces? What about those who cannot be vaccinated - pregnant women, for example. And if, for very good reason the State does not provide some kind of guidelines, or a piece of paper, what is there to stop an employer, or a publican, or a theatre manager keen to secure sufficient bottoms on seats to make the production commercially viable inventing their own? Are we really going to force theatres into bankruptcy to accommodate those who can’t or won’t, or haven’t had their vaccination? Do our freedom loving instincts really trump the pub owner’s viability?
On the other hand, any state-run scheme would be plagued by privacy, security and political problems – not to mention legal ones, with ECHR Article Eight privacy rights, GDPR and the Data Protection Act all in play. Vaccine passports might even be ‘racist’ if more black people than white were excluded from events. Not only that, but how useful would vaccine passports be anyhow if a vaccinated person can still carry the disease? Maybe mass lateral flow testing may be the solution, even if that too has myriad problems associated with it.
We don’t want our return to normality to be ‘nasty, brutish and short’; but how many of our rights and freedoms are we ready to sacrifice in order to prevent it? I will have to make up my mind before any such passport scheme meets a vote in the House of Commons. (The SNP threatening to vote on this purely English matter may well push me toward a libertarian rebellion on it. Whips to note.)
At all events, I hope you my constituents can see why I am so torn on the issue.
The Speaker and Parliamentary authorities have done great work for 12 months or so keeping some kind of Parliament alive. It hasn’t been how I would like it and it probably isn’t even fulfilling its basic task of holding the Government to account. But last March at the beginning of the first lockdown, we really had no idea about what Coronavirus meant. Was it going to be a plague threatening the lives of the entire nation? Or was it going to be little worse than a bad bout of flu? Opinions have ranged backwards and forwards ever since. And historians will no doubt enjoy analysing what Britain got right or wrong, whether Sweden were right to try for herd immunity and why the EU’s vaccine procurement process seems to have been so flawed. (Is it not astonishing to see Germany apparently buying vaccines from Putin’s Russia? I think I might be reluctant to have that particular vaccine pumped into my veins.)
At all events, the true meaning of Easter must be one of hope. Easter Sunday and the Resurrection is the ultimate symbol of overcoming terrible times. Even nature has cast aside the filthy weather of this last winter and the daffodils and lambs gambolling in the fresh green grass symbolise an end to the past and hope for a bright future. The magnificent vaccination programme in the UK and the sharply improving figures for illness and death we all hope symbolises an end to the nightmare and a fresh start.
Parliament is on its Easter recess which ends on the Tuesday, 13 April, after which I very much hope it will start to get back to normal. My wonderful staff have been working from home for 12 months which must have been quite fun for a time, but will have got a bit boring after a while. So my plan - if the regulations permit it - is for us all to be back in the office in Parliament from 13 April.
Locally, I have not been allowed to hold my regular surgeries nor to fulfil the hectic round of visits and events which I am used to. Again, I hope that action packed Fridays and Saturdays in North Wiltshire will be allowed to start quite soon, and at all events by freedom day which, of course, coincides with the mid-summer Solstice at Stonehenge. So please do start asking me to any events that you might be planning after that time. The evidence is good enough for us to plan for the best, albeit being ready for the worst should it happen.
The worst would of course be a sharp increase in disease and any kind of further lockdown beyond 21 June. The two ways we can ensure that that does not happen are: first, by maintaining reasonable precautions, wearing masks and keeping away from each other as much as possible. Act sensibly and we can keep this disease under control, at least here in Britain. And second, with the virus apparently raging more or less out of control only 22 miles away in France and beyond, let us accept that overseas travel simply is not possible and that anyone who tries to find their way around the rules to sneak a holiday overseas is simply irresponsible and unfair to the rest of us.
The fresh start is just around the corner. So let’s not wreck it now.
With my warmest best wishes to you and yours, for a Happy Easter.
The Nation stands appalled by the brutal murder of Sarah Everard - made worse by the fact that the accused is a police officer; and that the whole thing was just so public. “She was just walking home.” Her death has also highlighted the dreadful level of violence against women. 85,000 women experience some form of sexual attack every year; in the year to March 2020, 207 women were killed and 9 out of 10 killers were men. These figures are a dreadful stain on our society.
Yet is there not something quite wrong about the way that Sarah’s sad death has become ‘politicised.’ Those people who walked slowly past the bandstand on Clapham Common during the day on Saturday - including the wonderfully understated Kate, Duchess of Cambridge – were showing their grief in a very real way. That must have been some comfort to the bereaved family. That is in sharp contrast to those who then chose to congregate for a Covid-spreading mass meeting in the evening, including some well-known activists who tried to make speeches, and who provoked the police into the four arrests they felt they had to make. The Police action is worthy of investigation; but so may well be the motives of those who were arrested.
I spoke in the Second Reading debate of the Police, Crime and Sentencing Bill on Monday (welcoming the fact that at least two out of three demands in the Ellie Gould case are included in the Bill); but was frankly disheartened by the way that some speakers were using Sarah Everard for their own ‘virtue signalling’ reasons; and by the way in which they tried to conflate the police action at Clapham Common with the clauses in the Bill seeking to prevent disorderly protests. They tried to argue that these provisions – for example preventing emergency vehicles being blocked, keeping Parliament open for MPs and a variety of other very mild upgrading of existing laws - were somehow so outrageous as to trump all the good things the Bill does. They also absurdly argued that the maximum 10 years sentence for destroying war memorials was higher than the penalty for rape (wrong - that is up to 27 years); and that the Bill did not mention ‘Women’. True - I thought legislation had to be gender neutral these days. The sentence for murder applies irrespective of who the victim or the murderer were.
All of that is absurd virtue signalling. After all, even if it were true, would that really justify killing off a bill which does so very much that is so very important in keeping us all safe from violent crime? I was disappointed that despite their posturing, Labour and the Lib Dems chose to vote against a bill which would do so very much to limit violence against women. I know that many of my Labour friends were deeply embarrassed at being whipped to vote against such a worthwhile bill, and only did so because they knew that they would lose. Hardly a very principled way of making the law of the land! It may well count against them in the forthcoming Hartlepool by-election.
I spoke seven or eight times in the Commons on Monday one way or another, and long for proper full physical presence to be reinstated. Zoom cannot replicate the presence and influence brought to bear on Ministers by a physical appearance in that cockpit of democracy, the Chamber of the House of Commons, where egotistical self-righteous posturing is quickly called out.
Was it really only 12 months ago that the WHO declared a Pandemic and the first Lockdown started? What a shock it all was, and how the months since have stretched out. Who would have believed that we would see almost 130,000 sad deaths in the UK, several million worldwide, that we would still be in lockdown 12 months later, shops and pubs closed, all international travel effectively banned? What a year it’s been, and we all hope we will never see another like it.
The previous 12 months had witnessed the Brexit negotiations and appalling turbulence in Parliament, the end of Theresa May and the rise of Boris, an Election (the second in two years); and a landslide victory for the Tories.
Then we had the final end of Brexit after some nail-biting last minute negotiations; its implementation and the start of our new life as a free trading country; the astonishing success of the vaccination programme perhaps highlighting how lucky we are to be free of the EU. It’s a 12 months which saw the end of Jeremy Corbyn but Labour’s disappointment with Keir Starmer; the total disappearance of the Lib Dems (can you remember who their leader is?); we saw a steady Budget by Rishi Sunak a couple of weeks ago, which was broadly welcomed by the City and the financial press alike, and some signs that the cost of Covid may not be quite as severe as the worst pessimists predicted. More recently we have had the most fundamental Review of our foreign, aid and defence policy in a generation; and now a root and branch review of immigration policy and our approach to illegal immigrants alongside genuine asylum seekers.
No-one can say that politics and public life have been dull for the last 24 months! But we’ve got through it; survived as a nation and a people, and in some ways are the better for it. What we need now is a period of calm stability. We need to see the gradual easing of lockdown, as our infections and hospitalisations and excess deaths reduce to zero; we need a total ban on travel overseas until such time as foreign countries can match our level of vaccination; we need a steady opening up of the economy; we need a return to normal life.
The overwhelming feeling is one of weariness. We have had too much excitement, too much volatility. Now what we need is stability, dullness……. The House will have finished its business soon after Easter, when we will Prorogue prior to a new Queen’s speech on 11 May. I hope that it is stuffed full of dull, worthy, uncontroversial (if important) bills which will make Britain a better place to live, but which will quite frankly bore us all silly. I want news bulletins to be packed with something other than politics and Covid.
We now need to steer the ship of state into clear blue waters, recover from our seasickness, give the crew a bit of shore-time and then we must put the old girl into dry dock for a welcome bit of refitting.
The whole area - the Nation - were repulsed by the tragic and brutal murder of young Ellie Gould in Calne, on 3 May 2019. Our hearts went out to her brave parents both at the time, and since then watching them – together with a group of Ellie’s school friends - campaigning for a toughening of sentencing for crimes like this one in several detailed ways. Mr and Mrs Gould have been clever, consistent and determined in their campaign and lobbying. They have been into Parliament several times; we had meetings with Priti Patel as Home Secretary and Robert Buckland as Lord Chancellor; we even had a chance meeting with Theresa May and a brief chat about it all; I have asked questions in the Commons, written letters on their behalf, and have had very many private conversations with the Government Law Officers about it.
And this week we saw the very positive results of it with the publication of the new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. Second Reading may be as soon as next week, followed by all the other stages in both Commons and Lords; and all being well it should become law with the Queen’s signature by the end of this year. I hope that her family and friends will be proud and pleased that they have achieved what can - at least in part - truly be described as ‘Ellie’s Law’, and which will for all time commemorate her sad death.
It will play a role, I hope in deterring others, and indeed in duly punishing murderers for their crime. Amongst many other very welcome proposals, the Bill will put into law very much of what the Gould family, and Ellie’s school friends were seeking. Seventeen-year-old murderers like Thomas Griffiths will be treated more like adults, especially when they are convicted after they have turned 18; and there will be no automatic mid-term review of their sentencing. Apart from anything else those ‘Reviews’ put the victim’s family through a further great deal of trauma.
One point which is not in the Bill is the change in the rules of premeditation which we sought. A criminal using a weapon which he finds at the scene of the crime (as in Ellie’s case) can use that fact in mitigation, and thereby achieve a lower sentence. The Goulds and I cannot really understand why that fact should make any difference. Murder is as culpable, irrespective of where the murderer found the weapon. The counter argument comes from organisations representing abused women, suffering from domestic violence, who may well grab a knife or a bottle in self-defence. Should their sentence really be as serious as that for a premeditated murder? I wonder if some middle way could not be found using the ‘self-defence’ mitigation? These are matters which the Lord Chancellor tells me he will consider further, although that will not be in time for inclusion in this particular Bill.
Overall, the Lord Chancellor has listened carefully to the points the Gould family and I made and is changing the law of the land as a result. I think that they can be proud that from the appalling tragedy of Ellie’s murder comes a very significant and worthwhile change in the Criminal Justice Law.
© 2021 Promoted by Nick Botterill, on behalf of James Gray, both of North Wiltshire Conservatives, 12 Brown Street, Salisbury SP1 1HE.