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House of Commons Commission

Volume 673: debated on Thursday 19 March 2020

The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—

Electronic Voting

1. To ask the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire, representing the House of Commons Commission, what recent assessment the Commission has made of the potential merits of introducing electronic voting. (901624)

2. To ask the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire, representing the House of Commons Commission, what recent assessment the Commission has made of the potential merits of introducing electronic voting. (901625)

The commission has had no recent formal discussions on the potential merits of electronic voting. Colleagues on the Procedure Committee have examined what practical and procedural changes to Divisions might be necessary in the context of the covid-19 outbreak and I thank them for their work on that. I know that they will continue to keep the situation under review. Any decision to implement electronic voting would need to be agreed by the whole House. The commission’s responsibility for this matter would be limited to the financial and staffing implications of such a decision.

The SNP has long advocated modernising this place so that votes do not take hours. As a still relatively new Member, I am shocked by the archaic practices that we, as Members, have to undergo in order to vote. Does the hon. Member representing the House of Commons Commission ever see this House leaving the late 19th century?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. In my almost 20 years in this House I have probably spent the best part of a week traipsing around the Division Lobbies, exercising my democratic obligations as a Member of the House. It is a week that I am certain I will never get back. Last July, the Procedure Committee began an inquiry into the merits of electronic voting, which was interrupted by the general election in December. So far, no decision has been made to reopen that inquiry, but I encourage my hon. Friend to beat a path towards the Procedure Committee to encourage it to take up the inquiry again. Knowing of his determination, I am pretty certain that he will do so.

Last week, the Leader of the House declined the idea of an increased use of deferred Divisions. Given that we are in a changing landscape, that guidance has changed and, even within this Chamber, we are now self-distancing, will the commission reconsider that position?

The commission is acting with the most up-to-date medical advice from Public Health England. If at any point it was felt that we could not continue with Divisions in their current form, all feasible alternative arrangements will be looked at and put in place. I think my hon. Friend will have noticed just how responsibly this House has responded to the requests for social distancing. We just have to look around the Chamber and observe how we have positioned ourselves. I shall leave Members to form their own view about the wisdom of packing out the cramped Division Lobbies if there are any further Divisions in this House. I note that there has been none this week, and I know that it is the intention of Whips throughout the House to ensure that we will be using the Division Lobbies as infrequently as possible.

Covid-19: Access to House of Commons

3. To ask the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire, representing the House of Commons Commission, whether the Commission plans to further restrict access to the House of Commons in response to the outbreak of covid-19. (901626)

The control of access to the House of Commons is vested in you, Mr Speaker, and not the commission. Mr Speaker announced additional access restrictions on Monday 16 March, following the statement by the Prime Minister to prevent the risk of exposure to coronavirus. This includes restricting access to passholders and to those attending for business reasons, such as witnesses to Committees. Those measures were implemented with immediate effect. Updates on Tuesday and yesterday outline further measures to prevent the risk of exposure to covid-19, including stopping all non-essential access to the estate, and from today closure of several search and screen points around the estate.

I tabled this question when there were rumours that Parliament would be closed and that we might not be invited back after the recess. Things have now moved rapidly beyond that, and we have to appreciate the members of staff who support us in keeping this place open so that we can do the vital job of holding the Government to account during this crucial period. May I invite the Minister to pay tribute to those staff who support us?

It is, in fact, me who will be invited to congratulate the staff around the estate. Every effort possible is taking place to ensure that staff are kept safe and that their exposure to risk is as minimal as possible. The hon. Gentleman is right to identify that every effort will be made to keep this place open so that we can fulfil our democratic obligations, but that will always be done with the safety of all who use this estate in mind, and will constantly be under review.

Covid-19: Remote Working

4. To ask the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire, representing the House of Commons Commission, what support the Parliamentary Digital Service is providing to hon. Members and staff of the House of Commons to enable (a) remote working and (b) video conferencing during the outbreak of covid-19. (901628)

Enabling remote working for hon. Members and staff is a key priority in the Parliamentary Digital Service’s response to covid-19. One focus is the provision of emergency laptops to Members’ staff who are normally equipped with desktop computers. Currently, a reasonable stock of laptops is available, but it should be noted that market supply has been severely disrupted. As of close of business on Wednesday 18 March, 56 laptops had been provided to 41 hon. Members’ offices. Other IT equipment has been made available as requested, such as headsets for Skype for Business use. The Microsoft Office 365 suite of tools is available remotely via personal devices and parliamentary computers. Part of that suite is Microsoft Skype for Business, which offers one-to-one video conferencing facilities. No more extensive video conferencing service is yet deployed.

I am sure that we all agree that the Parliamentary Digital Service provides amazing support for Members of Parliament in our wide-ranging and very demanding requirements. But our jobs are changing; I am not going to be able to have face-to-face contact with any constituent for the foreseeable future, and my staff will all be working from home, so we need to have support for a broad range of new applications. The Commissioner talks about laptops and hardware. I want to know that PDS will have the resources to support a wide range of new applications, such as video conferencing.

I thoroughly agree with the hon. Lady. I think that all Members of the House will now know the value of being able to keep in contact with constituents through video conferencing and other remote methods. All I can say is that the PDS digital support desk will continue to offer a 24-hour-a-day service. Undoubtedly there will be delays due to the volume of calls from people working remotely, but the team will make a real effort to deal with all calls as soon as they possibly can. As I said in my original answer, the PDS team want to ensure that as much facility and resource as possible is given to hon. Members, and I am sure that they will be working to secure and achieve that.

I meet a variety of organisations at Westminster, and would now like to do this remotely. However, the Skype system to which the Commissioner has referred only supports connections to those with parliamentary accounts. This helps me to link with my team, but will the Parliamentary Digital Service consider making Skype accessible to those outwith the parliamentary network? As a new MP, I also have new staff joining my team. What are the learning and development team doing to offer critical training for new starters—for example, on the Department for Work and Pensions, and so on? Will there be opportunities for those training sessions to be available remotely, as opposed to face-to-face as they have been up to now?

Every effort will be made to ensure that people are connected, and all facilities will be used to keep Members of Parliament in contact with their constituents. The PDS support desk is looking at the very issues mentioned by the hon. Lady, and hopefully progress will be made on all that. I think that the lesson here—this seems to be required from all Members—is ensuring that we can work remotely, that all our staff are as connected as possible, and that we continue to provide a level of service that we feel is commensurate with our roles as Members of Parliament. I am pretty certain that all Members will be providing that service in the weeks to come.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s energy to move us from the 19th century, particularly during these difficult times. The move to digital is important, but the telecoms companies are concerned that the sudden deluge from the entire nation moving to a digital platform will overpower those platforms themselves. Has he considered any contingency plans in case we do need to return in full back to the 19th century?

All I can say to the right hon. Gentleman is: let us not go back to the 19th century. Let us hope that our 21st-century resources and infrastructure are able to cope with the increased demand that Members of Parliament and other people across our community will make on them. It is beyond my remit as a member of the House of Commons Commission to be able to comment on the failings of some of the infrastructure and its ability to withstand some of the demands that will be placed upon it.

All I can say to the right hon. Gentleman is that in the House of Commons, staff in digital services will do everything possible to ensure that we continue to be connected with our constituents. I would suggest to all Members that if they have any concerns about being able to work remotely or concerns about the ability of the network to withstand things, please get in touch with the 24-hour services available from digital services. I am sure everyone knows the number: 2001.

The challenges of the last few days and weeks have thrown up why we need to modernise this place and why we need to get on with restoration and renewal. I understand that the Commission is meeting on Monday to discuss next steps. Is it not time that we gave the sponsor body the powers to get on with dealing with the Northern Estate, make sure it is in the hands of proper professionals who can get on with the work and make sure that we are resilient for this sort of situation in the future and for many years to come?

I commend the hon. Lady’s creativity in being able to shoehorn restoration and renewal into question about digital facilities. She is absolutely right: the Commission will meet on Monday to consider further measures when it comes to restoration and renewal. The hon. Lady is very closely connected to and interested in this work, and those measures will be communicated when we have concluded our meeting on Monday. It is something, even in the current conditions and with the crisis that is facing us, that the Commission takes very seriously, and we will continue to inform the House of ongoing statements and work in relation to restoration and renewal.