The Whitley Pump interviewed Matt Rodda in a socially-distanced telephone call on Friday 27 March. Parliament had closed for an early recess the previous Wednesday and we wanted to ask him about the adjustments that he had to make to the normal pattern of an MPs life.
During recent weeks have you been commuting from Reading to Parliament or staying in London? Social distancing must be challenging in and around Parliament. How did you manage it during your commute and in Parliament?
I’ve been going up to Parliament but not as much as I normally would. I’ve tried to continue to do my job but reduce the amount time spent in London by a little bit to try to use that as a way of social distancing.
This week [week commencing 23 March] I went up on Monday because I thought it was very important to be there for the debate on the extra powers that the Government has been given to respond to the coronavirus problem. I spoke in that debate and I maintained social distancing. We spread ourselves out in the chamber and MPs only attended if they wanted to; there wasn’t a heavy whipping system or anything.
It was important, with the additional powers that the government has been given, that they need to be held to account. I think the government needs to be open and consult on this and regularly review the powers they’ve been given. I would have been happy for the powers to be reviewed every few weeks or every three months. We managed to get a compromise where things are going to be reviewed every six months.
Other than that, I went up the previous week for two days; I normally go up for three or four days. I was trying to reduce my time there and speak on things which I really needed to contribute to.
I have also avoided travelling at peak times and people have been spreading themselves out in the train carriages.
There are no remote working facilities in the chamber. Select committees have set up a system for meetings and some will continue to sit during the Easter recess to hold the government to account.
I have spoken to the Speaker, from my perspective and as a local MP for this area, about the importance of Parliament to continue sitting, even if it is done remotely or a rota system. It is very important in a democracy that the Government is held to account and also that there is an element of consensus and the best way to gain that is for all parties to be involved.
Government during the crisis
Would a government of national unity be appropriate at this point and is that a better way of holding the Government to account?
I don’t think we have quite reached that point yet. I think so far, there has been constructive criticism by opposition parties not just ourselves [Labour] as the official opposition but from Conservative back benchers and that has been quite effective. I have spoken twice about the need to help the self-employed. Others have also chipped in and that does seem to have put the Government under more pressure to act more quickly than it might have done.
What is the Labour representation on the COBRA Committee overseeing the Pandemic apart from of Sadiq Khan, the London Mayor?
The First Minister of Wales Mark Drakeford is the second Labour representative.
What are your concerns in relation to your shadow portfolio during the pandemic crisis?
Transport is one of the sectors which is being affected most significantly. In my area of buses, I have been lobbying for immediate help for all bus companies including Reading Buses, taxi services and some other forms of local transport. I have been lobbying the Government on a number of these things and I will continue to do so. I think it is very important that we try to make clear to ministers how particular industries are affected by this. So far, in fairness to them, I have had quite a helpful response from ministers I have approached.
The results of the Labour leadership elections will be known on 4 April
Who are you supporting to be the leader and deputy leader of the Labour party and why?
I nominated Emily Thornberry and Dawn Butler because I’m impressed with both of them in different ways. I think they will both be outstanding in the leader and deputy leader roles. However, Emily didn’t make it through to the final round and I have transferred my support to Keir Starmer.
I think he’s the best candidate now and I hope he wins. He will be in a good position to take the party forward and to be very effective in the coronavirus period.
Back home in Reading
What will you be spending your time doing for the next month?
It’s similar to a normal recess but just more intense really. Normally during the recess period I do quite a lot of community work but this is quite limited at the moment. I am busy with a lot of case work, inquiries from residents who have problems and community based work which I can do online. Case work includes really difficult issues like people who are stranded overseas or have concerns about different aspects of the epidemic.
My team have been working long hours trying to catch up with everything. We’re also trying to alter the way we operate, offering a service to people even if we can’t hold physical surgeries. Soon we will be having a phone-in surgery, to replace physical surgeries, and we will be doing more on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
At a time of national and local emergency, what do you think are the key issues for Reading?
I think there are two main issues. One is the difficulty of trying to reduce the impact of the epidemic. It’s so important that we work together to support the Health Service by flattening the peak of the epidemic, by distancing ourselves from one another. That can be really difficult if you have small children or if you live in a flat and you are on your own. I am urging people to support the advice of the senior medics and it is so important that we social distance ourselves from one another and carry out other hygiene measures including washing your hands.
The second related one, is to try to reduce the social and economic damage of the epidemic. I am supporting the hubs that the Council and Reading Voluntary Action are running to get volunteers to help vulnerable people with getting shopping in and other tasks like collecting prescriptions and also to support public services like Reading Borough Council, the Police and other local public services at this difficult time as they are trying to manage and help people.
The other economic aspect is the affect on people’s work. I was very concerned at the beginning but I am slightly reassured the Government has taken the type of action we were recommending. I would have liked them to have been quicker. There have been some positive actions such as paying 80% of the wages of furloughed workers, offering loans and grants to businesses and extending financial support to self-employed people. I would like the Government to go a bit further and I still have some concerns. I am running a petition about help for the self-employed in particular. There are still some issues with this policy, some people will have to wait until June to get any money, which is a long time to wait without an income.
There are so many things in the background that are still continuing. There are other things that will reappear such as the need to fight climate change.
What is your opinion on the preparedness of the NHS and the Royal Berkshire Hospital (RBH) in particular in relation to protective equipment ?
I am due to get an update from the RBH. I have been in contact with the Health Service and the Department of Health at various points in the epidemic. I have been speaking about the need of getting personal protective equipment and I have also had the concerns of medical staff passed on to me. I have spoken in Parliament about this and I am concerned about the need for proper protection and concerned about delays getting the kit to people.
Public Health England, the Government Agency which deals with this, are recommending a lower level of protection than the World Health Organization and I have asked questions about this because our staff need the best forms of protection.
RBC local Labour leadership seem to have been seeking to exclude some opposition parties from local decision making at this critical time. Do you have anything to say about this?
Bear in mind that a quarter of my constituency, Woodley and Earley, is in Wokingham borough. What I have noticed locally is that there has been lot of cross-party co-operation.
I know the official opposition on Reading Borough Council, the Conservatives, are working quite closely with the ruling Labour group. Councillors at ward level are also working very effectively together.
I am very keen to work across party with people and most local councils are doing that. That’s how it should be at this time. There is also a role for constructive opposition.
- Matt Rodda home page, at Hansard and They Work For You
- Matt Rodda petition
- Matt Rodda speaks in Parliament about the new coronavirus bill
- Parliament TV 18 March 2020 – Opposition Day debate Statutory Sick Pay and protection for workers. Matt Rodda’s contribution is at 14:41
- Public Health England & World Health Organization Coronavirus information
- Hansard Online
- Parliament Online
- Register of members interests
- MP expenses at the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority