Prominent lockdown sceptic set to rebel

Steve Baker of the 'COVID Recovery Group' of Tory MPs says he will vote against the government keeping coronavirus restrictions.

Video Transcript

- First, though, we can talk to the Conservative MP Steve Baker, the deputy chairman of the self-styled COVID Recovery Group. Thank you very much for being on the program this morning, Mr.--

STEVE BAKER: Good morning.

- --Baker. So this week, Boris Johnson is expected to be pushing through the six months extension of the Coronavirus Act, which does things like give the police more powers. How are you going to be voting and why?

STEVE BAKER: Well, I expect to vote against. But the thing is with so many vulnerable people now vaccinated and record progress being made, people will be right to ask why the government is still seeking to hang on to these powers. To put it in context, under schedule 21 of the act, there's been a 100% record of unlawful prosecutions, 246 people unlawfully prosecuted. The act makes provision to, for example, postpone elections. But we're not postponing elections this year, so the government does need to answer why, as so many people are vaccinated, they're not relaxing restrictions in line with that data.

So this Easter, for example, it will be unlawful to stay away from home. And it will be unlawful to stay away from home with another household until the middle of May. So we need to be really careful here that the police don't end up in another invidious position where they're enforcing laws we've put in place to the surprise of politicians, who then seem to feign shock that the public have been, for example, turned around on our motorways and sent home with a big fine.

- You're talking there about the politicians feigning shock about the actions of the police. I mean, people would also be thinking about the Sarah Everard vigil. Do you think the police should be taking responsibility for, in some cases, perhaps being too heavy handed? Or do you put the blame at the feet of politicians?

STEVE BAKER: I think we politicians have got to take the blame here. The police obviously sometimes do make mistakes, and there have been instances, which I wouldn't defend, like using drones to pursue people. And clearly it's difficult to see how it was a wise decision to break up the vigil.

But that's not really the point. The point is the police are being put in an invidious position. As the Police Federation have said, as then Cressida Dick has said, we give them the law. We expect them to apply the law. We expect them to apply it equally to all, and we shouldn't be surprised when they do so. So of course there are occasions when the police, unfortunately, perhaps, go too far. But you can't blame them.

When we've passed-- rather, powers have been used under 118 acts of parliament to cope with coronavirus. So it's an extremely complex legal environment, something we've talked about before on your show. And the police have my sympathy. And it's we politicians and the government, in particular, of course, who control the business of the House of Commons, who need to justify every power they take and every power that they seek to hold onto, particularly whilst they're also quite rightly boasting of the great progress we're making on vaccinating people.

- You say that you're expecting to vote against when this comes before the House of Commons next week. How big a rebellion do you think we could see?

STEVE BAKER: It's very difficult to say until we've seen the exact detail of what the government's tabling and how the votes will come. But let's be absolutely clear because it seems that Labour and the SMP will vote for any old authoritarianism these days. It looks like the government will, of course, get their business with an enormous majority.

But I do think it's important that some of us do seek to hold the government to account with these extraordinary powers. It's obviously a very uncomfortable position for some of us to be in when it's our own party, and that's why we're trying to do it in a civilized way, asking reasonable questions. But the government will get its way. And at this stage, I wouldn't like to say how big any rebellion will be.

Of course, the plan out of these restrictions is a path to freedom. It's just it-- unfortunately, we believe, many of us believe that it squanders the advantages of our great vaccination program. So it's difficult to see how very many people will want to vote against a path to freedom. But we'll need to look at exactly the detail. But the Coronavirus Act itself, I am expecting to vote squarely against. I think it's excessive and disproportionate, and the government itself, now, isn't using its powers.

And where the police gain powers in the act, as I've said, it's 100% unlawful prosecution rate. So I think the Coronavirus Act should now go. That would not put the furlough scheme at risk. We've double checked that and had it confirmed by the House of Commons library. So obviously there's a lot to look at this week, but the government really does need to start taking advantage of their own great success on the vaccination program.

- At the same time, though, lots of people listening to you will be thinking the one lesson of the last year is that this virus is extremely unpredictable. Yes, the vaccination program has been a success so far, but we're aware of supply issues bubbling up over the next month. It is unpredictable. They say that they want to lift restrictions by June and get us back to normal. But again-- and we don't know when things like new variants, for example, could rear their heads. Is it not sensible for the government, in those circumstances, to extend they act?

STEVE BAKER: Well, it's sensible for the government to take proportionate powers. Remember the Civil Contingencies Act has far greater provision for scrutiny by parliament when extraordinary powers are taken. So one of the problems we've got here is in our panic and in our sort of blindness to all other factors, we've ended up with the government taking extraordinary powers with very limited parliamentary scrutiny. And we would not normally have approved such a thing.

So really what I'm saying is to the government, they really should now start looking at dramatically reducing the range of powers that they have, making sure that the law is clear to the public, and that the government has taken responsibility for that law so that the police aren't in an invidious position. But yes, of course, this is a tricky situation.

But the chief medical officers have been very clear with us that the vaccines are expected to still protect people from hospitalization and death, even with the variants. You know, that is a subject over which we've gone many times. We know that most of the protection comes from the first dose. The second dose is about longevity. That was a joint letter from the chief medical officers.

So people on my side of the argument are trying very carefully-- trying very hard to carefully base our arguments on what we're being told by scientists.

- There's a bit of a lot of debates among parliaments and among everyone, really, about holidays, about whether summer holidays should be permitted to try and open up the travel industry, or if actually, because our vaccination program may be speeding along, while others is a bit more sluggish, it would be more sensible to press the pause button on overseas travel. What's your position?

STEVE BAKER: I think with overseas travel, there's a very good case to look at it and say that actually, because of the situation in other countries, the government's got to take a very careful view. But what an extraordinary situation it is that you can't leave the country freely. I mean, these are powers-- whatever the government's decision, whatever the advice is, these are powers which should be taken with great trepidation and regular parliamentary scrutiny.

So I do think, in relation to international travel, I do think it's inevitable, with the situation where it is with other countries' vaccination programs being in such a different place, I do think it's inevitable that a different approach will be taken to the one domestically. But I think we've got to be sensible and proportionate on all sides of this argument.

But yeah, I mean, I do expect that if our vaccination program is proceeding at pace and people are safe because they're vaccinated, then they should be able to travel. But equally, I hope you won't mind, and I think your viewers would expect me to reserve my position a little to actually look at the data as it emerges.

- Yeah, that's definitely fair enough. Steve Baker, thank you very much for being on the program this morning. Always good to talk.

STEVE BAKER: You're very welcome. Thank you.