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Speaker’s Statement

Volume 674: debated on Monday 23 March 2020

I wish to make a statement relating to parliamentary services, aspects of the Chamber and other parliamentary business. I ask that hon. Members bear with me, as it is longer than I would like.

On Chamber attendance, Parliament as a whole continues to follow the latest Government advice relating to covid-19, including advising Members and staff to work remotely where possible and limiting all but essential access to the parliamentary estate. I remind Members and those watching our proceedings that steps are being taken to preserve social distancing in the Chamber. As a result, attendance will be more limited than usual, but that does not curtail the commitment of hon. Members to fulfilling their parliamentary duties.

We recognise the need to improve our video conferencing facilities to enable those working remotely to engage in Committee proceedings. Regarding evidence sessions, these facilities are currently limited, not least because the management of these sessions requires expert operators to produce audio-visual output of a suitable quality for broadcast use and Hansard transcription purposes. The teams who make such arrangements work are currently under—I do stress—significant strain because of staff absences. Further work in this area will be taken forward as a matter of priority over the Easter recess. Once the current situation has settled, I will commission a review to ensure we can develop systems to ensure we are ready and able to be more agile in the future.

Some Members and key parliamentary staff are still required to work on the estate to enable the House to continue to fulfil its important constitutional role. As this is a workplace, it is important that they continue to have access to adequate canteen facilities. A number of venues have been closed, but in those that remain open, we are employing a range of measures to increase social distancing, while encouraging diners to use takeaway options where possible. The following outlets remain open: Tea Room, Terrace Cafeteria, Debate and Dispatch Box. The Members’ Smoking Room remains open, but there is no service. I can confirm that, from today, the sale of alcohol in House of Commons catering venues has been suspended until further notice. I took that decision on Friday evening. All those measures will be kept under constant review.

If Divisions take place from today onwards, until further notice, the arrangements will be modified to allow for social distancing. The entry of Members will be staggered, with entry at separate times for three alphabetical groups. Members will be able to record their names at any of the desks. A Division may take between 30 and 40 minutes to conduct in that way. Further details will be communicated via the Whips and announced again if a Division takes place. I want to ensure that Members feel satisfied that all the staff are trying to do their best.

I understand the wish of Members—particularly those not able to attend the Chamber—to fulfil their duty to hold the Government to account. However, I urge Members to think twice before tabling parliamentary questions. In particular, they may want to think about the impact of such questions on Government officials who are working incredibly hard to respond to the current crisis. If they are desperate questions, I will understand, but multiple questions will block not only staff members in this House but Government Departments that need to be carrying on with their duties, so please think twice. When a Member puts 60 questions down, that is not helpful to anybody or to this country.

I should also mention that names added to early-day motions that are not submitted electronically are not being processed. I am sure all Members will understand that, in these exceptional circumstances, some changes to procedural services have proved necessary, and further changes may be needed.

Finally, I want to again express my thanks to Members and staff across Parliament for their hard work in enabling this House to continue to function and for their efforts in limiting the spread of coronavirus among our community. We have some absolute heroes in this House who I want to thank on behalf of all of us.