The current sitting of the House of Commons began on 2 June. Despite the triple whammy of a coronavirus pandemic, a hobbled economy, and the looming risk of a no-deal Brexit, the summer recess began on Wednesday 22 July. So what exactly have Somerset’s MPs been up to over the six-and-a-half weeks preceding the summer recess? Here’s a roundup we’ve put together for you.
Dr Liam Fox, Conservative MP for North Somerset: During this session, Fox spoke frankly about the damage to international relations being done by China’s imposition of National Security Legislation in Hong Kong. Fox spent a fair amount of time sounding positive about Brexit, too, emphasising the ‘benefits’ of the UK joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership as we look to compensate for the economic and strategic negatives of leaving the world’s largest trading bloc (the EU).
On 20 July, the Government’s Trade Billreached the Report Stage (the final stage before it goes to the House of Lords for consideration). There was a scramble to attach three amendments which would have: (1) established Parliament’s ability to scrutinise trade deals (tabled by Conservative Jonathan Djanogly); (2) shielded the NHS from trade negotiations; and (3) protected British farmers from inferior imports. Conservative MPs voted down every one of these amendments. Bizarrely, however, and despite his keen interest in trade, Fox didn’t vote at all. Perhaps he has his eye on a bigger prize: Director General of the World Trade Organisation in the autumn.
Marcus Fysh, Conservative MP for Yeovil: Fysh was ordered to make an apology to the House after he neglected to register a number of unpaid directorships in international investment companies. The Commissioner for Standards expressed concern that Fysh had failed to declare these directorships during his time as a member of the International Trade Committee (2016 – 2019). In a report compiled by the Committee for Standards, Fysh argued that the value of these companies is only potentially in the “small amounts of millions” and that a reasonable person would conclude he was not unduly influenced by his unpaid directorships. The Committee on Standards disagreed. In any case, Fysh accepted his prescription and delivered an apology on the floor of the House on 22 June. An aggravating factor in all of this is that Fysh was found to have adopted a “deprecatory” and “patronising” behaviour towards the Commissioner for Standards and the Registrar of Members’ Financial Interests. He will need to make a written apology to them, too.
Ian Liddell-Grainger, Conservative MP for Bridgwater and West Somerset: On 1 June, the leader of Somerset County Council, David Fothergill, launched an online survey entitled One Somerset. Facing extreme financial pressure at County Hall, Fothergill is pressing ahead with plans to form a unitary authority. However, and despite being a fellow-Conservative, Liddell-Grainger was scathing about Fothergill’s unitary bid during the coronavirus pandemic, labelling it “insensitive”. Bridgwater and West Somerset’s MP didn’t stop there: he also requested a review of Somerset’s existing Unitary Authorities (Bath and North East Somerset, and North Somerset), which he labelled as “struggling.” For Fothergill’s unitary bid to proceed to the next stage, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, Robert Jenrick MP, will need to write a letter inviting him to submit a business case. At the time of writing, Fothergill has not received this invitation.
James Heappey, Conservative MP for Wells: As Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence, Heappey has enjoyed a busy session in the House, being inundated with complex written questions. One from Stewart McDonald MP on 2 July seems, retrospectively, quite interesting given the recent publication of the Russia Report. McDonald asked Heappey if he had information on allegations that the Russian Government had paid Taliban-linked fighters to target US and UK troops in Afghanistan. Heappey acknowledged that Russia presents a challenge, but said the UK continues “to collaborate with allies and partners […] to fully and robustly respond”. Russian interference in our affairs remains a clear and present danger.
John Penrose, Conservative MP for Weston-Super-Mare: Penrose was full of praise for the Chancellor following his Summer Statement earlier this month, barely concealing his joy in Rishi Sunak’s plans to subsidise his trips “down the pub”. In other news, the Parliamentary Constituencies Billmade its way through the House (at the time of writing it is in the House of Lords for its second reading). This Bill is an attempt to ensure that “every vote counts the same”, as per the Conservative manifesto pledge to Protect Our Democracy. In a long and complex debate, Penrose skilfully made the case that boundary changes are never easy, but often necessary as populations change. On the other hand, Wendy Chamberlain MP argued that there’s only one thing which will guarantee that all our votes count the same: proportional representation.
Rebecca Pow, Conservative MP for Taunton Deane: (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs). The last six-and-a-half weeks have been very busy for Pow, who regularly receives written questions. Of particular note was a question submitted by Caroline Lucas MP about Project Speed (part of the plan to rebuild the country following the Covid-19 pandemic). According to some, Project Speed will usher in “the most radical reforms to the planning system since World War II”. Lucas wanted to know if the Government had assessed the impact of Project Speed on environmental protections and regulations. Pow said that no such assessment had yet taken place, but committed to conducting one “as part of the usual policy-making process”. However, she believes that Project Speed “provides an opportunity to deliver better outcomes for nature”. This topic is certain to be raised again after the summer recess.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, Conservative MP for North East Somerset: (Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons). Rees-Mogg is an exceptionally busy MP and, whatever your view of his politics, he has dedicated himself admirably to the House. On Tuesday 1 September the House will resume business, opening with the Non-Domestic Rating (Public Lavatories) Bill. This prompted various lavatory puns from MPs, including a joke from the Speaker of the House, Lindsay Hoyle MP, who shared his delight that Rees-Mogg had “flushed” his business through. As usual, Rees-Mogg couldn’t resist the temptation, either, bringing a little Latin flourish to proceedings with his “pecunia non olet” (Ed: ‘money does not stink’, which seems rather ironic in the context of Russian donations…)
In other news there was a debate on the restoration of the Palace of Westminster. During the discussion Rees-Mogg made one of his many customary excursions into the 19th Century and shared some historical titbits about the Victorian builders of the House. Without missing a beat, Chris Bryant MP suggested that he should write a book on this period. Rees-Mogg responded that indeed he had already done so, adding that “it is still available, probably heavily discounted, in all second-hand bookshops.”
David Warburton, Conservative MP for Somerton and Frome: Warburton has said very little in the House recently (in fact, he has been quiet since January). However, we might forgive him for this, since Warburton sadly lost his father earlier this year. According to letters he is sending his constituents, his father died without his family close by, because they were all strictly following Government guidance on social distancing. However, whilst he hasn’t spoken in the House for some time, he has certainly taken part in the voting process, loyally turning up to vote with his Conservative colleagues to ensure that every opposition amendment was blocked. On the Government’s Finance Bill, Warburton voted against adding a new clause which would have made UK-based international companies pay taxes on profits earned here in the UK. On a separate issue, Warburton voted to exclude migrant workers from the new protections laid out in the Domestic Abuse Bill. The cup of kindness overfloweth…