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Business of the House

Volume 674: debated on Wednesday 25 March 2020

The business for the week commencing 20 April will include the following:

Monday 20 April—The House will not be sitting.

Tuesday 21 April—Second reading of the Immigration and Social Security Co-Ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill.

Wednesday 22 April—Second reading of the Finance Bill, followed by a motion relating to the membership of the Liaison Committee, followed by a motion relating to the membership of the Scottish Affairs Committee.

Thursday 23 April—Debate on a motion on errors in payments made to victims of the Equitable Life scandal, followed by a debate on a motion on human rights in Kashmir. The subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 24 April—Private Members’ Bills.

The provisional business for the week commencing 27 April will include:

Monday 27 April—Consideration in committee of the Finance Bill (day 1).

Tuesday 28 April—Continuation of consideration in committee of the Finance Bill (day 2).

Wednesday 29 April—Opposition day (8th allotted day). There will be a debate on a motion in the name of the Scottish National party.

Thursday 30 April—Business to be determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 1 May—The House will not be sitting.

Hon. and right hon. Members will appreciate that I am announcing business as if this were business as usual. I am grateful to parliamentarians and parliamentary staff for coming together to support the completion of emergency legislation essential to fight covid-19, including the Contingencies Fund Bill that will allow expenditure of £260 billion on account. Once the Coronavirus Bill and Contingencies Fund Bill receive Royal Assent, and subject to the House’s agreement, Parliament will rise for the Easter recess later today.

It is obviously important that Parliament is able to sit after the recess. Further discussions will therefore continue in Government, with the parliamentary authorities and with Members to ensure that Parliament operates safely for all those who work here. The legislature must be able to continue its vital democratic functions of conducting scrutiny, authorising spending and making laws, including the Finance Bill. Although my business statement is made with the aim of bringing the House back as normal on 21 April, we will continue to keep the situation under review in line with medical advice, and I will make further announcements about the plans for business when we return, as necessary.

I thank the Leader of the House for his statement. Let me start by wishing Prince Charles a speedy recovery. I know that he has tested positive for coronavirus, and that our gracious sovereign is also in self-isolation. It was good that Prince Charles was able to have a test. Many of our front-line staff do not have that test. The Prime Minister said earlier that he wants to protect the NHS. The staff need protecting and they deserve our gratitude, so will the Leader of the House do all that he can to ensure that tests are available for them?

The Leader of the House will know that Labour Front Benchers and those of the other Opposition parties are working constructively together, and I hope that will continue when we go into recess. Many of the fiscal measures have come through because our constituents, some of whom are absolutely desperate, have contacted us to ensure that we put their cases forward. I am slightly concerned about the Leader of the House’s caveat on 21 April. I know he will do all that he can to ensure that Parliament returns on 21 April, and we know that we are able to operate, albeit with a skeleton staff.

May I ask him about voting, because that is another area that hon. Members have concerns about? I am sure that he would be the first to agree that we need to hold the Government to account. We found new ways of voting during the Brexit debate, and therefore I wonder whether negotiations could continue through the usual channels, because clearly voting arrangements must reflect the wishes of the House. I have raised with him the possibility of questions. We know that questions are not answered during recess—and in the light of your statement, Mr Speaker, there is no way that the civil service can cope with 60 questions at a time, and we do not ask for that—but given the unusual times, will the Leader of the House look at ways in which urgent questions can be answered, whether that is through questions or more MPs’ hotlines?

May I ask the Leader of the House about the Boundary Commission report, which was published as a written statement yesterday and is to be decided by Order in Council? We both know that it is not for the gracious sovereign to be involved in a political decision, so will he ensure that any oral statement comes back to the House so that the House can decide on that?

I am tempted to say that I have received an email from the Leader of the Opposition, but I want to pay tribute to him and thank him for all his work, and particularly his family and his staff. They have worked very hard. My right hon. Friend must have done something right, because he has seen off two Prime Ministers.

Finally, I want to thank everyone here—the reduced staff who have enabled us to carry on working here and to carry on business—and I want to wish every single hon. and right hon. Member and their families well. I hope that they will be healthy and safe.

The right hon. Lady rightly sends the House’s good wishes to the Prince of Wales—God bless the Prince of Wales—and, indeed, to the Queen. We will come back on 21 April, which is, of course, Her Majesty’s actual rather than official birthday, so let us hope that affairs are in a better state by then.

The right hon. Lady referred to tests, and I reiterate what my right hon Friend the Prime Minister said earlier: there is an absolute determination to increase testing as fast as possible. That is of great importance, and it is being worked on.

The Government are extremely grateful for the co-operation from Opposition parties. When Opposition parties co-operate with the Government, it is not always seen because what they achieve is done behind the scenes, but the Opposition parties have contributed considerably to the Coronavirus Bill and to ensuring its passage through the House. I thank them for a model way of working in very difficult times.

On the voting issue, Mr Speaker, you came up with proposals for how we would vote had we voted this week, which I think were sensible, but, yes, there is more work to be done and we will have to discuss working practices when we get back, depending on how affairs look on 21 April or shortly before. The right hon. Lady referred to the written statement on the Boundary Commission. When we get back, there will be opportunities for normal scrutiny once we are back fully operational.

I am delighted to see that the Leader of the Opposition is back in his place, so I, too, may pay tribute to him. I perhaps have a particular admiration for him, which may surprise him—

Indeed. When I was first elected to Parliament, there was a distinguished figure who sat at the far end of the Opposition Benches. He was in Parliament the whole time, he spoke regularly, and he was a very committed parliamentarian. Then he became leader of his party. As a new MP, I sat on the far side of my Benches, observing affairs, and although I do not have the right hon. Gentleman’s level of ambition, I too ended up on the Front Bench. It seems that those corners are good ones to sit in.

But there is a principled point behind this. Those of us who sit in the far reaches of the House are often very independent minded. We have a great commitment to public service, which the right hon. Gentleman unquestionably has, and strong principles about how we think this country might be better governed. It is no surprise to anybody that the principles held by the right hon. Gentleman and by me are different, but we are both committed to ensuring the good government of this country. The model that he has shown of how a Back-Bench Member may make an enormous contribution over many years, and then lead his party with distinction, is one that should be remembered. Principles in politics are fundamental to how we do what we do, and how we achieve it. I pay a most sincere tribute to the right hon. Gentleman, and I note what he said to the Prime Minister earlier: this is not retirement; he is merely moving to a different part of the Front Bench in a few weeks. [Interruption.] I understand that that is what has been asked for— “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find.”

The right hon. Lady is right to pay tribute to all the people who have kept the House operating. They have done a terrific job. The security teams, the Doorkeepers, the cleaners—as the Leader of the Opposition said—and, of course, the Clerks, have worked marvellously well to ensure that we are operating, and flexibility is being shown to ensure that scrutiny may continue via Select Committees. Finally, the right hon. Lady wished everybody good health. We always ask people how they are, as a normal courtesy wandering about our daily lives. At the moment, when we make that inquiry we really mean it, and I, too, wish everybody good health.

I completely understand the need to send Parliament off for recess early, but huge questions are yet to be resolved, such as ensuring that all NHS and social care workers have access to the highest quality PPE that is consistent with international standards, or the massive increase in testing that we need, and have been promised. Like many other hon. Members, I have constituents who are stranded around the world in places such as Peru. I urge the Leader of the House to ensure that the Government live up to their promises on all those matters, keep our NHS and social care workers safe, and bring home those who are stranded abroad at this difficult time.

Those matters have, of course, also been raised with the Prime Minister, and in answer to a question from the shadow Leader of the House, we are liaising with other Departments to ensure hotlines for Members to call, which may speed up the process of holding the Government to account.

Scottish National party Members send their best wishes to the Duke of Rothesay, as he recovers from coronavirus.

I warmly welcome the decision that the House will adjourn for recess today. It is important that we set an example. We have been doing that in the way we sit in the Chamber, and it is now important that we return to our constituencies and, like everyone else, engage in social distancing, stay at home, and save lives. On behalf of SNP Members, especially the small number of us who have been here this week, I wish to extend our immense gratitude to all the House staff, including the Clerks, the security staff, the cleaners and the catering staff. It has been a trying time for them all, and none of us would have been able to do our job without their support.

The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that any business listed for the week of 21 April must be extremely provisional. If Parliament is to be brought back when the crisis is continuing, that must be done in a way that respects whatever guidance is still in force regarding social distancing. As I said earlier in the week, it might be the case that anyone who comes to London from constituencies outside the metropolitan area will have to self-isolate when they go back to those constituencies, if the epicentre continues here, and we must bear those logistics in mind. I would be happy to share with him an absolutely first-class research briefing that the Library compiled about practices in other Parliaments elsewhere in the world and how they are dealing with this. We should thank the Library service for its work in these times.

I welcome the indication that there will be an opportunity to convene the Scottish Affairs and Liaison Committees and of an SNP Opposition day as soon as time realistically allows. Finally, I echo the call of the right hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) about parliamentary questions. In particular, I wonder whether Members who tabled a named day question that would have been answered when the House was sitting—tomorrow, Friday, Monday or Tuesday—might still have those questions answered, and whether some provision will be thought about if we are into an extended period of closure beyond that.

The Duke of Rothesay and the Lord of the Isles will, I am sure, appreciate the good wishes from the SNP. I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s point on the guidance from the Library. That is very useful, and the Library is a wonderful resource that we have. As regards questions, it is important that the Government are held to account, and I can assure the House that we are looking at ways in which questions may be continued. My only caveat is that Ministers are exceptionally busy at the moment, and it is important that people are reasonable in what they ask for.

In these tough economic times for people, a number of our constituents will be tempted to take a payment holiday on their mortgage. Unfortunately, those holidays will not be paid holidays, but unpaid ones. The reality is that the interest on the mortgages will continue to accrue and will need to be paid when things return to normal.

The one area that does not seem to be offering any payment holidays whatsoever is our credit card companies, which are already charging exorbitant interest charges anyway, even though the Bank of England has slashed interest rates. Will my right hon. Friend arrange for the Treasury to do something about that to prevent many of our constituents falling into terrible debt from which they may take years, literally, to recover?

My hon. Friend is right that the usurious rates charged on credit cards can trap people into high levels of debt, as may the high overdraft fees and interest rates that have recently been introduced. It is a serious matter. I am sure that the banks are aware that the rest of the country is doing its best to help, and they will note that they received a lot of help in 2008. I am reminded of a parable about that, but time does not allow.

I appreciate, as we all do, that we should not be meeting physically in this place. It is not the right thing to do, and I accept the decision has been made that we should rise early for recess, but I am uncomfortable that, as a Member of Parliament receiving hundreds of emails all the time from constituents who are worried, as the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) said, about a whole raft of different things that are as yet unanswered by the Government, I will not have the opportunity to ask a question and receive an answer over the recess. In this modern age, when all of us are Zooming, left, right and centre, with our constituents—many people all at the same time is perfectly possible—surely it must be possible for us to fulfil our democratic function at this time of great crisis and to put questions to the Government and get answers.

I will make the hotline numbers available for each Department as soon as we have them—we have most of them already. The other thing to remind right hon. and hon. Members of is that not every question to a Ministry needs to go through the parliamentary question process. Ministries will answer written and emailed inquiries as well. If right hon. and hon. Members have any difficulties getting replies, they should please contact my office, even during the recess, and I will do everything I can to facilitate speedy answers.

The Leader of the House has suggested that we will have Second Reading of the immigration Bill on the first day back. With your indulgence, Mr Speaker, there of course may be urgent questions or statements on that day about the coronavirus and subsequent updates. Those, however, are often time-limited. Will the Leader of the House consider us having a day, or two days, to discuss the many issues raised on both sides of the House in a general debate, or something similar, on coronavirus, with the Bill perhaps being dealt with later?

I think the message from the statement that I have made is that there is important and urgent business for Parliament to carry out, and that we need to be back to do that. That will of course include discussing the consequences and the continuation of action needed because of the coronavirus.

Dozens of constituents have contacted me because they have been stranded abroad. They feel abandoned and let down by the slow pace of Government action in bringing them home. Many are now fast running out of medicine. They are feeling stigmatised because as “foreigners” in a lockdown in those countries they are being accused of having imported the virus there. They are also being forced to go into civil hospitals where the conditions are so dire that if they did not have the virus beforehand, there is a high likelihood that they will contract it. Will the Leader of the House assure me that there will be a ministerial statement, or perhaps a debate, after the recess, so we can go into the detail of the actions taken by the Foreign Secretary and hold him to account, as constituency MPs?

When this crisis has ended, there will be many processes to look at what has happened, but I reiterate what the Prime Minister said not that long ago: the Government are making every possible effort to help people to get home. I took up with the Foreign Secretary the points made during my previous business statement. The Government are doing what they can in these difficult circumstances to help not only the hon. Gentleman’s constituents but the country at large.

Mr Speaker, I hope that you will allow me to ask the Leader of the House the question that I would have asked the Prime Minister. In these times of an expanding NHS and rapidly emptying car parks, there is a great opportunity for our car park operators to do the country a national service by offering some of their places free for NHS staff. That includes station car parks, which are close to A&E hospitals. Although many of us are making good progress on that locally, it would be much easier if the Government could co-ordinate it, so that every car park operator in the country reached the same agreement during this temporary crisis.

I understand the difficulties that we are in, but I have to disrupt the consensus: I do not think it is right for Parliament to go into recess early, and I am worried about how long it will be until we return. I hope that the Leader of the House will guarantee that we will return on the date in April when we are due to do so, because concerns remain about the lack of testing for NHS staff, the fact that we still do not have details on support for the self-employed, and the fact that the Health Secretary does not believe that he could live on statutory sick pay of £94 a week, even though that is what we expect people across the country to do. There are so many issues that we need to discuss, notwithstanding the fact that we have just given the Government unprecedented, concentrated power, unchecked until the House returns. Will the Leader of the House assure us that we will return, and that when we do Members who are not present will be able to participate electronically?

It is of the greatest importance that Parliament sits to hold the Government to account. We are rising two and a half days early, in effect, and the business for next week was not urgent, but the hon. Gentleman’s point is extremely well made and one with which I have a great deal of sympathy.

The Leader of the House has spoken about hotlines that are available for MPs to use, but is he aware that more than 700,000 people are waiting in a queue for the Department for Work and Pensions to assess them for universal credit because they are being laid off due to the insecure nature of their work? Will he tell us the current waiting time for Members contacting the DWP on behalf of the huge number of constituents who are in desperate financial need?

I understand that there is about half an hour’s waiting time for contacting the hotlines at the moment, but the DWP has faced the most enormous increase in volume of inquiries; every day, it is receiving many more than it normally receives in a week. The work that it is doing to help people is really remarkable and deserves praise rather than criticism.

I note what the Leader of the House says about accessing hotlines for Members of Parliament, but, with the greatest respect, it is not civil servants who should answer our questions, but Ministers. Given that it was possible last night for journalists to question the Health Secretary by video link, why is it not possible for us?

If hon. Members send emails to Ministers, Ministers routinely reply. We do hold Ministers to account by correspondence.

I share the concerns of others in the House about the inability to table questions over the recess, and more generally the reservations expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting). I will give one example to illustrate those concerns. The excellent trade union Community has many members working in online retail. The Government have made the decision that they should continue to work, because they are a critical sector, yet it is not clear what protections and guidance on social distancing and its enforcement are available to employers and trade unions working in that sector. The ability to ask a question about that would hopefully get a clear answer from the Minister and enable the sector to move forward in a positive way.

The hon. Gentleman has now asked that question, and I will ensure that it is passed to the relevant Minister for answer.

I have to agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting): closing this place down early without putting in sufficient measures for online debate and questions is foolhardy at best. We have a system of named day questions, which already limits the number of questions we can ask, so that 60-question scenario cannot happen. Will the Leader of the House liaise with the parliamentary authorities so that named day questions can continue throughout the recess, so that at least we can have questions in public? Then the question is only asked once, rather than having numerous pieces of ministerial correspondence.

There is no limit on non-named day questions; it is only on named day questions that a limit applies. Select Committees will be able to carry on their work and do so remotely, so scrutiny is being continued.

The Leader of the Opposition was right to praise cleaners. My 90-year-old mother, Beryl, is a former cleaner, and when I took her to Cardiff city hall when I was first elected and showed her the grand marble hall, her reaction was to say, “Imagine having to clean this.” We should all remember that in politics in every time. However, unlike in her day, many cleaners these days are self-employed. That is not by choice, and they are not very wealthy, unlike the kind of self-employed people the Chancellor was talking about yesterday. The Prime Minister said that within a couple of days we would have an answer. Does that mean that we will have an answer from the Government for self-employed people on Friday?

First, may I wish the hon. Gentleman’s mother good health at the age of 90? I hope that she is staying at home and following all the advice, although sometimes persuading mothers to do what they are advised to do is not easy. Cleaners are very important. The Prime Minister said that an announcement would come out soon, and I think he implied 48 hours, which would get us to Friday, so, reading into what the Prime Minister said, I think the hon. Gentleman’s question answers itself.

Following up on the point made about answers to named day questions, I tabled a question last week on behalf of the Cystic Fibrosis Trust, asking what special provisions would be put in place to ensure that people would have priority access to hospital and to testing. I was told on Monday that the Government would not be able to answer in the time available. Does that mean that I am not now going to get an answer until the end of April, or is there any way we can at least ensure that those questions are carried over?

I must confess I would have a certain sympathy with the Department of Health and Social Care at the moment for not answering questions with its normal efficiency. We as Members have to be reasonable in the matters of scrutiny that we are asking for. I suggest that the hon. Lady write to the Department on that question.

If construction workers cannot afford to stay at home they will go to work, and if the Prime Minister does not close construction sites they will stay open. Will the Leader of the House pass on to the Prime Minister that he must ensure that every construction worker, whether employed or self-employed, can afford to stay at home? Will he also pass on the message that construction sites absolutely must close?

This matter was raised during Prime Minister’s questions. The advice from the Government is very clear. If people cannot work from home, but can work observing social distancing, which is being about six feet away each other—something that we are doing pretty well—it is safe to go to work. That is an important part of the Government’s message: “Stay at home, but if you can’t stay at home and you have to work away from home, then observe social distancing.”

I am extremely concerned at the implications of closing Parliament early. The irony will be lost on no one: builders across the river in Battersea are going about their business as normal, with the sanction of the Government, yet the Government are closing down Parliament and stopping us scrutinising in the normal way. Normally in times of crisis, Parliament is recalled, not closed down. Considering that the Leader of the House is doing something so extraordinary, should he not also be announcing extraordinary new measures so that we can hold the Government to account remotely?

Parliament is not being closed down. The date for returning has been set for the same date as was always planned. The business that we had in front of us was not pressing: on Monday next week, we were to be discussing the relief of rates on public toilets. It was therefore reasonable to suspend those days, because they were not for essential business. However, we will come back on 21 April and we will deal with essential business. Members may continue to hold the Government to account by correspondence, and Select Committees will be able to carry out inquiries.

The rise of the House tonight means that we will not have questions to the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport tomorrow, yet of all the questions that remain, there are two key digital ones. First, in terms of the provision of some kind of digital Parliament in case we cannot come together again, I urge the Leader of the House to work with the House authorities on that in an open-source way so that we can see the attempts being made and where they are going.

Secondly, and most importantly, social distancing must be accompanied by a digital coming together, yet our telecoms networks will be facing unprecedented demand. So far, all we have had is vague assurances from operators, which do not match my experience of designing and dimensioning networks, or my constituents’ experience. I urge the Leader of the House to give some kind of digital access guarantee to everyone who is socially isolating and to work with the sector to make sure that happens.

I assure the hon. Lady that the Government and others will consider how Parliament can work differently, if we need to in April, and work out how that can be done. Whether the Chamber can be run on a digital basis is something that I would question, though with regard to her second point, she is absolutely right: there will be pressure on people who are supplying goods and services now suffering from excess demand. That is in the nature of what is currently happening, and there will be pressure on those businesses.