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Hybrid Proceedings (Extension of Temporary Orders)

Volume 676: debated on Tuesday 12 May 2020

Debate resumed.

Question again proposed,

That the Orders of 21 April (Hybrid scrutiny proceedings (Temporary Orders)) and 22 April (Hybrid substantive proceedings (Temporary Orders) and Remote voting (Temporary Orders)) shall have effect until 20 May 2020.

The time limit for speeches is three minutes. I advise hon. Members who are speaking virtually to have a timing device visible.

Along with others, I pay tribute to your efforts, Mr Speaker, and to those of the House staff and the Procedure Committee, in bringing in these temporary virtual arrangements and putting into place the practical measures here in the House of Commons to improve safety for those who are present in person.

The virtual proceedings have served a purpose during the most acute stage of the crisis, but as the nation gradually returns towards normal life, as the Leader of the House rightly said, it is important that this place moves back towards normality at least at the same pace. The amendment of my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg), which was not selected for technical reasons, sought to bring in hybrid voting mechanisms, and I thought that it was also an important recognition that we ought to be able to return gradually. Not only is this about the leadership that this House owes to the country; it is also, as has been said by both the Leader of the House and the shadow Leader of the House, about the quality of scrutiny and the effectiveness of Parliament. So much of what we do here depends on personal contact—however socially distant—and on the ability of Ministers to sense the strength of feeling.

I strongly endorse the comments of the Leader of the House. I very much welcome his commitment to bringing this temporary measure to an end on 20 May. He may not know this, but I can tell him that that is my birthday. I am profoundly grateful for this early gift that he has promised me, and look forward to supporting it.

May I place on record my thanks to you, Mr Speaker, and to all the staff across the House Commission and the Clerks for all the work that they have done? I have been intrinsically involved as a member of the Procedure Committee and as an Opposition Whip, so I have an inner knowledge of the scale of the work that has taken place, and am truly grateful for it.

It has already been made clear by my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House that we are in favour of extending the motion. I am just confused by the announcement of the Leader of the House. May I ask when he planned to consult the Procedure Committee about not extending the motion? It would have at least been courteous, and up to now he has been extremely courteous in consulting the Committee. Would he approach the Chair of the Committee to ensure that we have perhaps a private discussion with him to understand his rationale?

What equality impact assessment has the Leader of the House done regarding Members being able to come back to the House, given that they may have childcare or caring responsibilities? Right across the UK, we have seen people struggling to go back to work following the Prime Minister’s announcement—in England, I stress, but not in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland—because they do not have childcare provision.

What assessment has been made of Members’ health in order that they are able to come back into the Chamber? We cannot simply suggest that we can return on 1 June and that nothing changes. This Chamber is set up for 50 Members of Parliament. How does the Leader of the House propose to manage—in consultation with you, Mr Speaker—to ensure that the Chamber is usable for 641 voting Members? Is he suggesting that the Public Health England advice is going to change for the management of the Chamber? He did not make that clear.

May I also ask the Leader of the House what discussions he has had through the usual channels, or generally with the smaller parties, to explain his rationale for this announcement? It seems that we have jumped from having a procedure that is working—I accept that it is not pleasing everybody and that it is stifling some of the debate, but it is allowing for some scrutiny—to now saying that the House will return in June, when there has been no announcement about such a lifting of restrictions across all the nations of the UK. The Prime Minister, despite ignoring advice from the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish Governments, said that he would respect the advice given from those nations. 

Are Members from those nations expected not to come to the House? I speak as a Welsh Member who has checked to make sure that I can come here, but the advice in Scotland could well be different. What will happen with travel arrangements for Northern Irish Members? In the earlier transport statement we heard from Members about the pressures on air travel. With great respect to the Leader of the House—I genuinely mean that, because he has been truly courteous to the Committee in recent weeks—I ask him to explain in more detail how, with literally two weeks to go, the practical management of the Chamber, including in the Lobby and indeed where we are now, will work.

As Chair of the Administration Committee, I have the great pleasure of working closely with you, Mr Speaker, and the wonderful members of the House staff who made this hybrid Parliament a reality. They are to be congratulated and celebrated for their efforts. This is a technically brilliant fix. However, when it comes to holding the Government to account—and the Opposition—it is absolutely hopeless. We need to be in this place, eyeballing Government Ministers, the Leader of the Opposition and shadow Ministers and holding them to account. When we are not in this Chamber, we need to be discussing and transacting our constituents’ business in the Division Lobby, the corridors and around the Estate. This is where Parliament should be.

I am afraid that we are in danger of bringing ourselves into disrepute. I sat through part of the last debate and saw a co-ordinated and, yes, legitimate attack from our colleagues north of the border on the Prime Minister because he had asked people to return to work. I point out to those colleagues north of the border that, whether they like the Prime Minister or not, and whether they respect him or not, he is not asking anyone to do something he is not doing himself. Whether or not they approve of what he is doing or what he says, day in and day out he is going into work to lead the country. He did that day in and day out except when he was ill.

It does show a lack of self-awareness to sit in your front room and attack the leader of this country for having the temerity to ask that people go back to work. We all have absolute heroes in our constituencies, working at the Co-Op, at Sainsbury’s, at Tesco, in our hospitals, driving our trains, policing our streets and clearing our rubbish. What right do we have to ask them—and teachers—to go back to work if we are sitting in the comfort of our own home, not leading from the front but directing operations from behind? At the end of the day, our constituents—not all of them, but most of them—will expect us to be here, promoting not ourselves or our own agenda but their agenda. There is an economic tsunami heading towards this country and the rest of western Europe. We need to be here day in, day out, in person—physically—protecting and promoting the interests of the people we represent.

To pick up the point about our constituents’ expectations, I suggest that the constituents we all represent will expect us to order our business in a way that allows us all to contribute on an equal footing. That is the essence of how Parliament is supposed to function, and it must surely have a bearing on how we order our business going ahead.

I too add my thanks to those members of staff and others who have worked so hard to make these virtual proceedings technically possible, while I recognise their temporary nature and limitations. I hope, though, that we will see this as an opportunity to learn lessons and see what might be possible for the future, to show that as a Parliament we are able to accommodate those with caring responsibilities, who are on parental leave or who are suffering from illness, and to allow them to continue to represent their constituents as they would want to but for those limitations.

None of us knows what the future will hold over the next few weeks. If there is to be any suggestion of a renewal of these provisions, I make this plea to the Leader of the House: there should be proper and better consultation with the small parties than there was ahead of the implementation of these procedures. The smaller parties have been able to have a voice through them, but principally as a result of your good offices, Mr Speaker, and for that I place on the record my appreciation and that of my colleagues.

Let us not pretend that this has been an exercise in holding the Government to account in the way that we might normally have expected—and that is principally because of the attitude of the Government themselves. That is exemplified when we consider the Prime Minister’s statement to the nation on Sunday. That should have been made first here to this House; there would have been every opportunity to address the nation after that.

But the biggest limitation and my real concern is the range of business that the House is able to deal with. There are no Westminster Hall debates and the Backbench Business Committee is not functioning, but still the world continues to evolve. Israel is considering the annexation of the Occupied Palestinian Territories; we have very little opportunity to have a say on that. In Hong Kong, China is walking ever further from the joint declaration. These are all matters of great importance; whatever we do after the recess, this House must be allowed to have our voice in respect of all of them.

I do not take personally at all the fact that my amendment was not selected for debate; I appreciate that I might well need to choose a better modal verb if I am to resubmit it for any future motion.

A rumour is going around that I have been somewhat grumpy over these proceedings. I try my best to cheer people as I go around this place, but sometimes I fail, given the challenges I meet from some Members at least. However, I fully acknowledge the hard work and effort that has gone on—the Herculean effort—to ensure that at least some form of scrutiny and good work can continue in this House. That said, I am afraid that a virtual Parliament is, in comparison with normal times, virtually nothing. We should not be blinded by the technology as an end in itself.

I have made many a poor speech in this Chamber. Perhaps the one I am giving briefly this afternoon will rank among the worst, but at least it has been elevated by the surroundings in which we find ourselves, rather than being part of a series of disjointed monologues given in front of bad curtains. That is the image of Parliament being created today.

It is necessary for us to lead by example and return to our place of work. Many of our constituents are also anxious to do so, even with adaptations in their workplaces. I think of my father, a Hotpoint engineer, who has spent his time going around houses fixing washing machines, getting on with it quietly. It is a nonsense to assume that we can conduct our affairs sat in our living rooms. It is an insult to the public.

I know that certain procedural matters may be inconvenient to deal with at the moment, given these temporary Standing Orders, and I am not necessarily going to test them to their limits this afternoon, Mr Speaker, and leave you in an invidious position. I welcome what the Leader of the House has said. We must return at the pace—indeed, ahead of it, perhaps—that we expect of the rest of the country. But let us not delude ourselves into thinking that these provisions have in any way allowed us to scrutinise Government enough. Think about who welcomed them: those who wish to diminish the Westminster Parliament, as we have seen from some contributions so far, and, just perhaps, Ministers who quite enjoy a lack of scrutiny.

I call the Leader of the House to wind up the debate for the Government and request that his speech is no longer than two minutes.

I am grateful for the support that this motion has and grateful to the shadow Leader of the House and the Chairman of the Procedure Committee for all they have done in helping us to ensure that this has worked. The hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) made slightly the wrong point, because he said that we should be entirely virtual, and it became harder and harder to hear him as he said so. That is one of the reasons we need to come back, because the last bit of private wire may be the bit that cuts people off in their prime, and therefore being back would be advantageous.

The hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) made some important points. I am always happy to speak to the Procedure Committee and have a discussion on how we look to do this. I will make one really important point, which is that there is a fundamental, absolute right of Members to attend this House. It dates back to 1340, and it is improper for anybody to molest any Member coming to this House. Regardless of any rules that there may be, the right to attend this House is a constitutional principle of which we should remind all Members. If we are back physically after the Whitsun recess, there should be no question of any Member being stopped from coming by any authority outside Parliament.

Our coming back will be based on advice from Public Health England and will maintain social distancing. Mr Speaker is working on how we will have Divisions under these circumstances, but I agree with those Members who have said that we have to lead by example. The rest of the country is being asked to go back to work where it cannot do so from home. That is clearly a position that we are in, and we must be alongside the whole of the rest of the country, as long as it is safe so to do.

I announced to the House earlier this afternoon my provisional determination that a remote Division would not take place on this motion. I am aware of some opposition to the motion, but I am not satisfied that the demand is sufficient to warrant a remote Division today. I say that bearing in mind that the House will return to this matter next week. My determination that the Question will be decided without a remote Division is final. I will collect voices in the usual way, but the voices will not and cannot trigger a remote Division. Reliance on the voices alone will not be considered with the principle of parity of participation. That is made clear in the new guidance issued to Members today, in which Members are asked to make submissions to my office in advance on whether it is necessary to hold a Division on the Question designated for remote Division.

Question put and agreed to.