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Business of the House

Volume 675: debated on Wednesday 6 May 2020

The business for the week commencing 11 May will include:

Monday 11 May—Motion to approve the fourth report from the Committee on Standards, followed by a general debate on covid-19.

Tuesday 12 May—Motion to approve a statutory instrument relating to the draft Criminal Justice Act 2003 (Early Release on Licence) Order 2020, followed by a motion to approve a statutory instrument relating to the Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2020, followed by a motion relating to the renewal of the temporary Standing Orders on hybrid proceedings.

Wednesday 13 May—Remaining stages of the Agriculture Bill.

Thursday 14 May—The House will not be sitting.

Friday 15 May—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the week commencing 18 May will include:

Monday 18 May—Second Reading of a Bill.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, and I thank the Leader of the House for the business statement, which takes us up until 18 May. I think we have all adapted to the new way of working. I am still having difficulty in muting and unmuting. Mr Speaker, I do not know if that is something you want to carry over after we come out of this, so that you can mute and unmute us.

I want to start by thanking the team, digital services and everybody from the House staff for working on the remote voting. I voted three times, and all three times I was successful. Joanna Dodd was very helpful to me and a great support, so I want to thank her for her help. All we need now is a way to lobby Ministers virtually, and then I suppose we are done with virtual proceedings. But we do await the Procedure Committee’s report on how the voting is taking place before we take it any further.

I think that Foreign and Commonwealth Office questions are on Monday. Nazanin is out, but she is not home, and Anoosheh and Kylie are still incarcerated. Could I ask the Leader of the House to ensure that we get a proper update on Monday? There is plenty of time to ring Tehran to ask if some clemency can be exercised for our dual nationals.

The public health advice at the start of covid-19 said that it affects our senior citizens, so it is quite surprising that our care homes are only now coming to the forefront. Actually, they have been at the brunt of most of the difficulties that are faced. Could I urge the Leader of the House to ensure that perhaps the mobile testing unit visits the care homes, because they are finding it difficult to get their tests? As care homes have said to me, they are almost forgotten, but they are there looking after people at the end of their life when their families cannot be there; they said they are the forgotten ones. Could he also guarantee that care home staff get their personal protective equipment, and that they will be recognised equally with NHS staff; I am sure he will agree that they should be?

Could I ask the Leader of the House to ensure that there is a statement on the total number of beds that are available in the Nightingale hospitals? It is important for us to know for the next step whether there is capacity so that the NHS can withstand any changes. If the Government had released the 2016 pandemic Exercise Cygnus report—or at least its conclusions—it might have helped with the next stage.

I do not know whether the Leader of the House has seen the next stage from the Irish Government, but they have different sectors—community health; education and childcare; economic activity and work; cultural and social; transport and travel—and all that is going to be set out from 18 May until August. Each one of them has five stages, and it is all subject to the science advice.

It is a pity that the Prime Minister could not use the debate on Monday to come to the House to explain what the next stages are. The Leader of the House knows about the sovereignty of Parliament—he is constantly saying how important Parliament is—and, Mr Speaker, I am sure you will agree with me that that would have been more appropriate. In the meantime, could I ask that the Leader of the Opposition has sight, under Privy Council rules, of the strategy the Government are going to set out on Sunday?

Last week, I raised the fact—I know that it was difficult for people to hear me—that we are not getting responses from Secretaries of State. I wrote to the Secretary State for Education. Could we have an urgent statement on the support that schools are getting in terms of PPE and the school voucher system? I understand that Wonde has offered its help to the Government, but that has been refused. This is really difficult, with some teachers parcelling up food because children are not able to access vouchers.

I would like the Leader of the House to ask the Health Secretary to apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Rosena Allin-Khan), the shadow Minister for Mental Health. How many times have members of the black, Asian and minority ethnic community and women heard that remark? To compare her to a white male, almost telling her to behave the same way as a white male, is totally unacceptable. I would be grateful if the Leader of the House asked him to apologise. She is on the frontline of the covid crisis, and she deserves an apology.

We are in a unique situation, but the whole country has shown great spirit and resilience—the same sort of spirit and resilience that we will be celebrating on Friday, to mark 75 years since VE Day. Let us remember those who sacrificed their lives—their spirit and resilience—so that we can live in peace. We will always remember them.

The right hon. Lady is right to remember 8 May. I know that you, Mr Speaker, will be laying a wreath on behalf of the whole House to commemorate those in the service of the House— Members and non-Members alike—who died during the war. Commemorations will go on across the country, although obviously in a more limited way than would otherwise have happened. She is right that we will remember them.

The right hon. Lady mentions remote voting. I have a letter from the Chairman of the Procedure Committee—as do you, Mr Speaker—and I believe we will be able to vote remotely next week. I am glad to say that that is in place, and the testing seems to have worked reasonably well. Even I was able to do it, so it is relatively straightforward.

The right hon. Lady, as always, mentions Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. I am glad to say that there are Foreign Office questions on Monday, and I will ensure that the Department is aware that this question will be raised and that some answer will be expected.

With regard to testing in care homes, obviously, what is going on in care homes is a matter of the greatest priority for the Government. The deaths that have taken place are a terrible sadness. Testing is being and has been extended. The Government’s target of 100,000 was met last week. All patients discharged from hospital will be tested before going into care homes, so there are improvements taking place.

It is part of the success of the Government’s strategy that the Nightingale hospitals have not been fully utilised. One of the main aims—and, indeed, one of the five tests set out by the Government—was that the NHS should be able to cope with the number of people who had to go into hospital, and that has happened.

The right hon. Lady asked for the next stage to be set out. The Prime Minister said earlier in Prime Minister’s questions that a statement will be made on Sunday, so that people know for the beginning of the working week what the new procedures will be. With the House sitting as it currently is, for three days a week, that is perfectly reasonable in the circumstances, although I am aware—as are you, Mr Speaker—that the ministerial code expects statements to be made to the House in the first instance where possible. I am sure that the House will be kept fully up to date. The debate on Monday, which is the Government responding to requirements from the House—with requests coming to me in particular as Leader of the House—is a method of ensuring that the House is kept fully informed and can debate these issues.

I reiterate my thanks to the Opposition for the serious-minded way in which they have approached this crisis and the cross-party working that there has been, including with the Scottish National party. I hope that relations of that kind will continue. It is not for me to promise briefings outside the House of Commons—that is not my responsibility—but the good will and the positive contribution that has been made is very important.

I have no doubt that announcements will be made in relation to the opening of schools in due course. It would be wrong of me to pre-empt those, because I do not know what I would be pre-empting, so I would be making it up as I went along; I had better not do that. With regard to PPE, we will follow the advice, and the advice at the moment is that in school settings, PPE is not a requirement.

As regards the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, I think he is doing a simply magnificent job. We are very lucky to have somebody who has shown such personal commitment, effort and hard work in the job that he has done and in minimising and dealing with the effects of this terrible, unexpected and unprecedented crisis; I am not, therefore, going to ask him to apologise. In the cut and thrust of debate, people are entitled to say things and that is perfectly legitimate.

The right hon. Lady was right to say at the end of her contribution that the resilience we showed 75 years ago is what we are showing now.

The House authorities are indeed to be warmly congratulated on working at speed to get the hybrid system that we are using now up and running. I believe that, this morning, Mr Speaker authorised electronic voting, which is a welcome way to ensure that business can continue to be conducted. We must, though, emphasise the temporary nature of these measures and the unshakeable primacy of meeting, debating and voting in person. Will the Leader of the House therefore give some thought to a hybrid voting system to complement the hybrid Chamber system? Those present could vote in person, and there could be an expanded role for proxies and electronic voting for those who are absent.

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and assure him that I, too, am looking forward to returning as soon as possible to the tried-and-tested means of a physical Parliament, which has significant advantages over a virtual Parliament. Although it has been necessary to begin to look for alternative solutions on a temporary basis to ensure that scrutiny can continue, it is intended only to be temporary. I am grateful to the Procedure Committee for its swift assessment of the House’s voting system, but we want to get back to a fully physical voting system, not a hybrid system.

May I commend our digital team for perfecting electronic voting? I am pleased that we now have a system of voting that is simple, safe and secure, and unlike the Leader of the House I look forward to it becoming a permanent aspect of our procedures.

A lot of disquiet has been expressed—including by you, Mr Speaker—that a major statement of Government policy in relation to the crisis should be made first to the press rather than to Parliament. I had expected that there might be something on today’s Order Paper to indicate a Government statement on Monday. Will the Leader of the House confirm that there will indeed be such a statement to the House, and that it will be made by the Prime Minister himself?

Neil Ferguson’s resignation shows the importance of the Government leading by example. At a time when we are obliging many in the population to endure the privations of lockdown, it seems very off-message for us to be talking about how we can get out of it. Will the Leader of the House tell us what actually requires the physical presence of MPs in the Parliament building? What is it that cannot be done remotely? I believe we should embrace the technological changes made necessary by this crisis and try to make them work better, not engage with them with stubborn resistance and insist that they are but temporary. To that end, I return to the point that I raised last week: we talk of a hybrid Parliament, but in fact what we have achieved is the ability for some to join the physical discussion in the Chamber remotely. The entire thing is still contingent on a physical meeting taking place in the Commons Chamber.

Surely it is now time to consider making use of the digital platform to allow a fully virtual sitting of Parliament. I know that our staff have the expertise and capability to make that happen. It would ensure that there are not two classes of participant and that all Members—including you, Mr Speaker—are on a level playing field. Does the Leader of the House know of any reason why this cannot be done under the provisions currently agreed? If there is a reason as to why the current Standing Orders prohibit such an experiment, will he take the opportunity of the review scheduled for next Tuesday to introduce whatever changes are necessary to make this happen?

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s comments with regard to the digital voting, and for the tribute he paid to the House staff for doing that. I re-emphasise its temporary nature. We have proceeded with almost unanimous consent to achieve a hybrid Parliament. We would not have done so had people thought this was a sleight of hand—a prestidigitation—to try to change our procedures on a permanent basis. It has been important to maintain the good will of all parliamentarians.

As regards the statement on Sunday, I think the Prime Minister’s answer at Prime Minister’s questions was the right one. Although the week starts on a Sunday, the business week starts on a Monday, therefore the announcement is being made in preparation for the business week on a Monday. It is therefore the right time to do it, but I can confirm that there will be a statement on Monday. [Interruption.] I notice some giggles in the Chamber, although, Mr Speaker, I am not sure I am meant to notice the giggles emanating from the Chair. It slightly surprises me, because I do not think there are any plans for the House to meet on Sunday.

As regards the hybridity of this Chamber, this House must lead by example. The Government have set out in their guidelines that those who cannot work from home are entitled to and ought to carry on working, especially those in crucial roles. To pretend our democracy is not crucial undermines and undervalues the whole purpose of our democracy. What goes on here—the holding to account and the legislation—is essential, and when we are asking other people to work and to go to their places of work, we should not be ones who are exempt from that. I am glad, therefore, that we have made a hybrid system work.

Can I thank my right hon. Friend for giving the assurance that there will be a statement on Monday, because that will enable Members to be able to ask questions on the statement, which they would not be able to do if it was just a mere introduction to a debate without the ability to intervene? May I also ask my right hon. Friend what he will do to ensure that the system of named day written questions works for the benefit of Back Benchers and their constituents? A host of named day questions are not being answered on time or at all, and I am sorry to say that the Department of Health and Social Care is the worst offender. One question that it has answered was from me, asking how many it had not answered. When that came in on Monday, it showed that figure to be more than 100, and I do not think any of those questions have been answered since, and a whole lot more are in the queue. Will my right hon. Friend do something to help us on that?

One of the reasons why everyone likes and admires my hon. Friend so much is that only he would think up the question of asking how many questions had not been answered. It is a splendid question that should be asked regularly, although most politicians might not be able to give an accurate answer. It is really important that written questions and named day questions are answered. I would, however, ask the House to have some sympathy for the Department of Health and Social Care under these very extraordinary circumstances. Whereas I would normally go in with all cudgels waving, I think with that particular Department under the current circumstances, a degree of latitude is allowable.

Good afternoon from a bright and sunny Gateshead. The Backbench Business Committee would welcome any indication of whether Backbench Business debates will be included in the House business programme any time soon. If so, how much time is likely to be allocated to facilitate such debates?

We received and considered 10 new applications yesterday, all on different specific aspects of the Government’s response to the covid-19 pandemic. I realise that a general debate on the Government’s response is to be scheduled for Monday, but there is a real appetite to discuss, debate and question particular aspects, such as the job retention furlough scheme, the impact on black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, support for the tourism sector, universal basic income, support for families, mental health support for frontline workers, education of vulnerable children and the business interruption loan scheme. All those are requests that we have dealt with, and Members have a thirst for having those topics debated in detail and getting good responses from Ministers. With your indulgence, Mr Speaker, I remind all MPs that they can add their names as wanting to speak in debates on any application, whatever side of the argument they are on. The Committee wants party balance and both sides of the debate.

On the covid-19 response, could special consideration be given to making sure that domiciliary care workers who go from home to home to look after vulnerable people are tested? I am really concerned, and I think a lot of those domiciliary care workers are concerned, that they might not know they have covid-19 because of asymptomatic positives. That is an aspect of where precedence should, I believe, be given to care workers.

Anyone who now needs a test is able to get one, so I can give some comfort on domiciliary workers. As regards Backbench Business debates, I understand that the hon. Gentleman has also written to me. These debates are important and we want to get them back as soon as possible, but in the short term the priority has been scrutiny and legislation. The hybrid Chamber is not a perfect substitute for the normal Chamber and our normal working practices, and the technology and capacity does not yet facilitate Backbench Business debates; however, I think that it is a strong argument for our physical return. I do not know what the announcement will be on Sunday, but I do feel that Parliament has a leadership role in whatever is announced, and we should always be slightly ahead of what we are expecting the British public to do.

It is unsurprising that the SNP should prefer the virtual world to the real world, Mr Speaker, but that is perhaps for another day. The Leader of the House, because he is a diligent constituency MP, will know the significance of horticulture for our economy. It provides some £1.5 billion for our national finances, yet it is in serious trouble in this crisis. The Horticultural Trades Association estimates that £200 million of perishable products will be lost unless action is taken quickly. Will the Leader of the House therefore arrange for a Minister to come to the House to speak about how the sector can be assisted, perhaps by an adjustment to the loans scheme, special grant funding and the reopening of garden centres with all the necessary precautions?

It is always my wish to facilitate my right hon. Friend, and I am glad to say that there will be Treasury questions on 18 May followed by Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions on 19 May, when these important issues may be raised, but I recognise and agree with him that the horticultural sector is a crucial one.

The idea that workers will hear the Prime Minister on Sunday and change what they were going to do on Monday, and that businesses up and down the land will suddenly be able to respond from Sunday to Monday morning is utterly preposterous. The reason the Prime Minister is making the statement on Sunday is that he wants to avoid the House of Commons. You, Mr Speaker, are quite right to have already told him off on that basis. I am begging the Leader of the House to please make sure that we have more time to ask questions of Government Ministers. At the moment, we end the day early and we are not sitting on Thursdays. Ministers are not coming to the Chamber enough to answer questions, which we have in buckletloads in our constituencies. In my own patch yesterday, we had a horrific incident where one man was murdered and three others were stabbed. We want to talk about the issues that are happening in our constituencies. We need to challenge the Government on these issues and we cannot if the Prime Minister will not even come to the House.

Well, the Prime Minister was in the House earlier on, but I accept what the hon. Gentleman is saying in that a virtual Parliament is not a substitute for the real Parliament. Apart from anything else, we are missing the constant chirruping from the hon. Gentleman.

Like me, the Leader of the House must have received many emails from constituents whose holidays have been cancelled and who save annually for just one holiday. Some travel companies are refusing refunds completely while others are offering refunds after 10 to 12 weeks. I know that Ministers are working on this with the industry, but may we have a statement on how we are going to protect our constituents’ statutory rights?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this matter, which, as he has said, has been a concern for many who made travel plans prior to the covid-19 outbreak. There has been no change to either the package travel regulations or EU regulation 261, so consumers retain their right to request a refund. In line with existing legislation, the Government have been clear that if a consumer asks for a refund it must be paid. We recognise the challenges that businesses are facing in processing large volumes of such requests and the regulator is taking a balanced and proportionate approach to enforcement to help manage and mitigate covid-19 impacts. We have been clear, however, that it should not be unduly difficult for passengers to receive a refund and this should be done in a timely manner.

I would like to check with my right hon. Friend what consideration he gave to using the proxy voting for baby leave system for Members of Parliament to vote during this time as opposed to an electronic voting system. My grave concern is that if there are technical problems, Members of Parliament may not be able to vote in some very critical votes in the near future.

I am very grateful for my right hon. Friend’s question; she herself was such a distinguished Leader of the House. The issue is the technical problems one rather than the proxy one. The proxy vote would not necessarily have helped because it would have brought people to the House, we would have had Divisions, and that would not necessarily have solved the problem that we were trying to address. But there are measures in place for technical problems. A Member who is having difficulty voting on the Members’ hub will be able to text or email the relevant House office leaving a telephone number. House staff will immediately call the Member back on that number and, once they have performed the necessary checks and are satisfied that it is indeed the Member, arrange for the Member’s vote to be recorded.

More broadly, the changes that have been made to allow for the creation of a hybrid Parliament are strictly temporary and will last for only as long as a completely physical Parliament is impossible. Within that time, Mr Speaker, if you think that a Division is not working properly, you have the ability to stop the Division for it to be re-held at a later stage. In addition, people will always be able to check their vote because it is a public rather than a private vote.

Fifty per cent. of bed and breakfasts do not pay business rates, the events industry often does not pay business rates either because it uses outside spaces, and language schools are excluded from the Government’s support for tourism. I have tried to raise this issue with Ministers directly in writing, but the Government have not reissued the document, “Government ministers and responsibilities”, which lists the private and direct contacts for Ministers, since 11 October 2019, and we are ending up getting generic responses from civil servants. Will the Leader of the House make sure that that document is reissued to us, either publicly or privately, so that we can directly contact Ministers and their private offices rather than just the Department?

I am genuinely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point, which has recently been a matter of correspondence between the shadow Leader of the House and me. We hope to be able to reissue the list of email addresses that can be used by Members later today, but certainly within the next few days.

As a former small business owner, I understand how vital it is to get people who are furloughed back to work as soon as it is safe for them to do so in order to support the economy. A strong export market is particularly important for companies in my constituency such as Perkins and General Electric. May I therefore ask the Leader of the House when he could find time for discussing global supply chain resilience post this coronavirus lockdown?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that issue and for her characteristic championship of her constituency and its businesses. The Government are very aware of the importance of global supply chains. That is one of the reasons we have taken a decision to ensure that the supply chains between Great Britain and Northern Ireland are supported, for example. The Secretary of State for International Trade recently attended the G20 trade ministerial meeting, where she called for trade to keep flowing and the maintenance of the supply of essential goods and services during this unprecedented time. I also note that the crisis has demonstrated the excellent job that many have done in keeping supplies going, including supermarkets maintaining essential supplies that people rely on. There are understandable concerns about this issue, but it could be raised in the debate on Monday.

I have a particularly harrowing case in my constituency: a young couple who had a taxi business, Leanne and Fraser Gair. They now have no income whatsoever and have fallen through what I might call the floorboards of the safety net. Will the Leader of the House be kind enough to agree with me that it would be helpful if a Minister came to the House to outline to Members like me how we can speedily try to help these people, pick them up off the floor and get them going again?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very fair point. I think all of us as constituency MPs have businesses that we would like to provide more help to and that find they cannot apply for the scheme they want. The Treasury has made enormous strides to help people. There are Treasury questions on 18 May, when this matter can be raised. The schemes are enormous and widespread, but there are some who fall through the cracks.

I would like to thank the Speaker, my right hon. Friend and the right hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) for all their work on electronic voting. Have we test-proofed the systems to ensure they are robust against cyber-interference?

The issue of cyber-security is indeed important. I can assure my hon. Friend that Mr Speaker has taken a personal and strong interest in this matter. The Procedure Committee has done a full assessment of the proceedings and confirmed that they are ready to deploy. We have taken proper advice from Government sources on cyber-security to ensure that the system is as robust as possible, but there is the final safeguard that Members’ names are published. They are therefore able to check that their vote has been properly recorded, in the highly unlikely event of any cyber-attack.