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Hybrid Proceedings (Extension of Temporary Orders)

Volume 676: debated on Tuesday 12 May 2020

I have not selected the amendment.

I call the Leader of the House, who is asked to speak for no more than five minutes.

I beg to move,

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 motion extends the decisions of the House on 21 and 22 April to allow the continuation of remote participation in proceedings of the House and remote voting until the Whitsun recess on 20 May. I shall not dwell on the detail of those motions, but rather use my time to explain, briefly, the reason for their extension.

The current arrangements have allowed scrutiny of the Government to continue and, remarkably, remote voting to be carried out for the first time today. The motion allows the House to agree a short extension to the current arrangements. The Government have been consistent in saying that the arrangements are temporary. As yesterday’s Command Paper set out, it is only right that Parliament has set a national example of how businesses can continue in these circumstances. We have done so admirably, thanks to the patience and commitment of both staff and Members, and will continue to do so until the Whitsun recess, but it is clear that soon Parliament must set an example for how we move back, gradually, to a fully functioning country again. Our constituents would expect nothing less.

Although we must move in step with public health guidance, it is vital that when we are asking other people to work and to go to their places of work if they cannot do so from home, we should not be the ones who are exempt from that. Indeed, we should be leading by example. It is my expectation that I will not have to renew the temporary Standing Orders again. I am grateful to the House for developing the temporary procedures, and for the immense amount of work by staff here to make the arrangements work. However, it is my belief that this House cannot be as effective in carrying out its constitutional duties without Members being present. Debates are inevitably stilted; they lack interventions. I cannot think of any previous occasion when I have spoken for so long without receiving any interventions. I begin to fear that I am boring the House, and I can think of no greater sin.

No, I am not allowed to give way under the current arrangements.

Debates are inevitably stilted and time is restricted by the understandable limits of the technology—although the people operating the technology have done a truly fantastic job in getting us to where we are. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] I know that the feeling is shared across the House. All these factors restrict our ability to conduct effective scrutiny and to pass the volume of legislation required by the Government. I therefore think it essential that we move back to physical ways of working as quickly as possible.

I understand that some Members have concerns about how long we keep these measures in place, and that is why it is so important that we agree only a short extension. It is essential that we move back to physical proceedings as soon as practicable in order that this House can do what it does best: the cut and thrust of debate and the flexibility to hold the Government to account and to legislate on behalf of the people of the United Kingdom.

May I thank the Leader of the House for setting out the Government’s position? The motion before the House today will mean that the temporary orders of 21 and 22 April have effect until 20 May, which is until we rise for the Whitsun recess. The hybrid scrutiny proceedings, the questions, statements and urgent questions, the substantive proceedings which apply to legislation and the remote voting, which was tested earlier, will continue to operate for what is effectively a week and a day.

The hybrid proceedings in the House seem to have progressed. I know that right hon. and hon. Members are becoming expert at talking to themselves, effectively. As the Leader said earlier, there are no interventions. We have had a vote, and I want to place on record my thanks to the Procedure Committee, which published its report on 8 May. It has informed the process, and I will pick out a couple of points it made. It was satisfied with the “robustness and security” of the system and the safeguards in place to allow you, Mr Speaker, to intervene where you felt there was cause for concern. In all the practice sessions, I have voted successfully. I voted, was informed that I had voted and received a text to that effect.

These are temporary orders. We want to be here in Parliament, but we want to make sure that everyone is safe. Many Members are finding it frustrating that they cannot ask supplementary questions or even intervene, and there is no scope for debate. The essence of parliamentary debate is the fact that we are listening to each other and can take part in those debates. Similarly with Back-Bench debates and Adjournment debates, we find it difficult to raise issues on behalf of our constituents, but the orders are only until 20 May.

In any event, it should not take a crisis such as this pandemic to make sure that we reform ourselves, and I hope some of the new procedures that have been brought into effect might be carried over. I place on record the remarkable feat that has been undertaken by the Clerks, the staff of the House, the broadcasting unit and the digital services all working together. If they were producing a car, that car would have gone from zero to 100 mph in about five seconds. It has been absolutely amazing. Mr Speaker, you have ensured that that has all progressed. The Opposition are grateful to all those people. It showed that Parliament could continue and safely, so Her Majesty’s Opposition support the motion.

I call Karen Bradley, Chair of the Procedure Committee, who is asked to speak for no more than three minutes.

This is my first contribution under the hybrid proceedings. It was a shock to me not to be bobbing up and down to catch your eye, Mr Speaker, but of course we do not do that anymore, because we have equality of treatment between people in the Chamber and those who are contributing virtually.

I put on record a thank you to everybody who has been involved in allowing Parliament to restart, Members to contribute from wherever we are in the country and all Members to be part of proceedings. I know what a mammoth task it has been to develop the proceedings that we have and to allow people to be able to contribute virtually, as well as physically in the Chamber. I thank you, Mr Speaker, in particular for the work that you have done leading on that very important matter.

There is no doubt that the situation we are in today is sub-optimal, given the lack of interventions and spontaneity and the restrictions on the period for which the House can sit. These are not issues anyone wishes for; there are technical reasons why we cannot sit for more than two hours at a time and need breaks to allow the technology to be reset. We have to agree, however, that given that it was from a standing start, what we have brought into place has been remarkably successful, albeit that we all agree that it is not as effective as the physical presence of Members in Westminster who can do the jobs that they were elected to do here in Parliament.

It is also important to make the point that these will be decisions for the House. These are decisions that the House will make, and it will be for Members to decide what they want to see happen in the future. I welcome the fact that the orders are being renewed, and I want to remind Members that the Procedure Committee is holding an inquiry at the moment and would welcome contributions from Members, particularly in light of the announcement from my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House about the intention not to renew the orders after 20 May. It will be very important that we hear from Members. I also know, Mr Speaker, that in any event you and the teams in the House service are looking to improve how we manage this, including the fact that we have gone from a 30-minute break to a 15-minute break and are looking to have longer for scrutiny.

The Procedure Committee supports the renewal of the motions today and we look forward to looking further at the work that is going on and to hearing from Members.

I begin by acknowledging the efforts of our staff in digital services and elsewhere. They have worked tirelessly—[Inaudible.] But let us not pretend that these things are ideal, or that we have made the fullest use of the technology available to us.

As I have said before—[Inaudible]—this gives Parliament the opportunity for Members to join remotely, if they can. The entire enterprise is centred on a meeting in the House of Commons Chamber, which means that whether we like it or not there is a division between those who are present and those who are not. This creates two classes of Members and it disadvantages those who join remotely. This is, of course, compounded by the fact that the final link in the digital chain is a domestic broadband connection that often fails, leaving Members unable to participate fully or at all. The way around this would be to take proceedings wholly online and to have a virtual meeting, as has happened in many other legislatures, including the national Parliament in Scotland. This creates a level playing field with everyone getting the same access, so I cannot understand why there is such resistance even to trying it on a pilot basis while we have the technology in situ.

The fact that things are not working as well as they might should provide an impetus for improvement, innovation and development. Sadly, though, there are some who experience schadenfreude at the imperfections of the current system. Their conclusion is to abandon it altogether. The constant insistence that these measures are only temporary and the hankering after getting back to how things used to be undermine the efforts of those who are trying to live in the 21st century.

I, too, hope that the public health emergency is temporary, but I want to see what part of these necessary arrangements can be used to improve our procedures in the long term. One of these is the process of voting. It seems that we have now perfected the technology to allow Members to vote in a manner that is safe, simple and secure, yet there are those who insist that we must be allowed to vote in the way that they always have, by queueing in a Lobby corridor and manually being counted by a Clerk. They want to do this no matter if it puts themselves, their colleagues and their staff at unnecessary risk. They think they are defending the right to vote, but in fact they are making a fetish out of a 19th century tradition rather than a democratic principle.

I say let us look at this through the other end of the telescope. If electronic voting works, why can it not be available to Members even when the emergency is over? Providing they sign in to the Estate, why not vote from their offices? Why not group votes together at the end of a session, making it quicker so that MPs have more time to discuss their constituents’ concerns rather than idling in corridors.

We should also change how we hold the Government to account. Today, our business comprises two statements, one urgent question and one debate, but all about the same thing. This is the way things used to be: different Departments doing different things, a multitude of concerns and each with their allotted slot. But everything has now changed. Now there is only one issue. All Departments are focused on the pandemic. Everything we do and say from now is conditioned by that reality, and it is time that we had a more ambitious approach to reforming how we discuss these things.

Finally, I note that we are being asked to agree this extension for one week, and I see later on the Order Paper that the Government intend to go ahead with the Whitsun recess.  I ask the Government to consider the wisdom of this and how it will look to the public. If Ministers are encouraging people to go back to work, is this really the best time for MPs to have a holiday?

I remind Members that we have a lot of staff here who have been working under a lot of pressure, and that we should take them into consideration when we make statements.

Debate interrupted.