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Business of the House

Volume 676: debated on Wednesday 13 May 2020

Thank you for your statement, Mr Speaker. It is obviously important that the House maintains social distancing in accordance with the guidelines.

The business for the week commencing 18 May will include:

Monday 18 May—Second Reading of the Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill.

Tuesday 19 May—Motion to approve a statutory instrument relating to the draft Human Tissue (Permitted Material: Exceptions) (England) Regulations 2020, followed by motion to approve a statutory instrument relating to the draft Victims and Witnesses (Scotland) Act 2014 (Consequential Modification) Order 2020, followed by motion to approve a Ways and Means resolution relating to the Finance Bill.

Wednesday 20 May—Second Reading of the Trade Bill, followed by motion relating to the membership of the Liaison Committee.

Thursday 21 May—The House will not be sitting.

Friday 22 May—The House will not be sitting.

I thank the Leader of the House for next week’s business and you, Mr Speaker, for your statement. I must admit I was alarmed to hear the Leader of the House say yesterday that Parliament was going to return physically. He said yesterday that we could not ask people to return if we did not also return, but he fails to understand that we are working—we continue to work. Our casework has increased massively. We might not be in the Chamber but we are still dealing with our constituents, as we always are when we are not here.

The House must lead the way in protecting the health and wellbeing of everyone who works in Parliament by following public health advice to the letter. House staff have done an incredible job, as the Leader of the House knows, setting up a hybrid virtual Parliament that ensures scrutiny of the Government while limiting the number of staff and Members who have to be physically present on the estate. Can he please explain why Parliament would contradict the Government’s own health advice by returning to business as usual in early June and allowing only physical attendance, and contradict the Government’s advice that those who can work from home should do so?

Will the Leader of the House confirm what assessment has been done to ensure that Parliament’s move to physical-only attendance can be done in a way that fully complies with social distancing guidelines? What advice has he received from Public Health England? Will he share it with all the parties? Has it been discussed with you, Mr Speaker, the House authorities and the usual channels? Will he confirm that all the business next week will make use of the hybrid virtual Parliament?

Is this a preview of the Government’s future policy? If so, as a matter of urgency, can the Leader of the House arrange for the Government to make a full statement on Monday on their guidance for society as a whole for returning to work safely? He will know that probably one of the best things to do is to ask each workplace to undertake a risk assessment so that staff and employees come back in a phased return.

Let us remind ourselves that no one asked to stay at home. It is what the Government asked us to do in response to a pandemic, and everyone has listened and understood the message, which is why people must be kept safe. I am sorry to say that the Leader of the House has further confused the message: “stay at home”, “stay alert”—to what? —“work from home”, “come to work”, “come in on Monday”, “come in on Wednesday”. It’s like a Commons hokey-cokey. We can all pull together but only if the Government provide us with answers and do not contradict their own advice.

I am sure the Leader of the House will ensure there is a statement from the Health Secretary on testing in care homes, given that the number of deaths has now risen to over 40,000. It seems that no one knows whether the Department of Health and Social Care, the Care Quality Commission or Public Health England is in charge of testing. Who is in charge of testing? Test, trace and isolate—we need to get the first bit right. Some of my constituents have said they have not even got their test results after eight to nine weeks. Can we have an urgent statement on the crisis in testing and care homes?

Our councils have done what they have been asked to do to protect local communities, yet we hear from the Treasury that they may have to make further cuts—that the Treasury is not going to bail them out any more—but councils have been asked to keep their communities safe, so please can we have a statement to ensure they will not be financially penalised if they have done what they have been asked to do?

The Leader of the House has mentioned the Liaison Committee motion, which is up for debate next week. It seems that there is no compliance with equal opportunities. Are the Government really saying that only men we want can apply? Of the paid Committee Chairs, 26 are men, seven are women and none are from a black or ethnic minority background. Why do we not just let the Chairs of Committees decide, as they have always done?

At Foreign Office questions, there was no update on Nazanin, Anoush and Kylie—who is mentally in a difficult place. They need clemency, and it is International Day of Living Together in Peace on Saturday, so could we have an update?

Finally, I too want to thank our brilliant nurses—it was their day yesterday—many from around the world and some of whom have lost their lives looking after us. Some 70% of nurses who have died were from the BME community, as were 94% of doctors who have died. I hope the Government review will report soon. We send our heartfelt thanks to their families: they gave their lives for us.

May I completely concur with the right hon. Lady in what she says about those who are working for us and who have lost their lives during this terrible outbreak of the coronavirus, and the public service that is given by so many so courageously in going about their daily work?

I want to answer what the right hon. Lady says about Parliament, because what she says is important and fundamental to us as a democracy. The Government’s advice is clear: work from home if you can. As you have made clear, Mr Speaker, many members of the House staff will be able to continue to work from home, even with the House of Commons operating in physical form. Indeed, very few additional Clerks will need to be present on the premises, Members’ staff will be able to continue to work from home, and the overwhelming majority of the House community will be able to continue to work from home—the exception being Members of Parliament themselves. Why is that? It is because the Government’s advice is that if you need to go to work, you must go to work.

We see in this Parliament—in this House today—the ineffectiveness of scrutiny in comparison to when the House is operating in the normal way. We have no flexibility of questions. The questions are all listed in advance, with no ability for people to bob, to come in and to join in the debate; no cross-cutting of debate; and no ability to advance arguments or take them forward. We simply have a series of prepared statements made one after another. That is not the House of Commons doing its proper duty and playing its proper role of scrutiny of the Government.

Then there is the other side of it: where are the Bill Committees? How are Bills progressing? What is happening to the legislative agenda that the Government were elected on in December? Or do we just ignore our constituents, ignore the voters and not get on with a proper democratic parliamentary system? The idea that our democratic system is not an essential one—is not the lifeblood of our nation and is not how the Government are held to account at a time of crisis—is one that is surprising. It is extraordinary that it should be held by Opposition Members; that they should not wish to be here, challenging the Government and holding them to account; and that they wish to hide behind a veneer of virtual Parliament, so that legislation is not progressed with. We have heard it from the Scottish shadow spokesman, when he says that a virtual Parliament is a second-rate Parliament. He wants us all to be second rate, whereas I want us all to be first rate—to get back to being a proper Parliament because democracy is essential. What we do is essential. Holding the Government to account is essential and delivering on manifesto promises is also essential, and that is what I hope we shall be able to do after we come back from the Whitsun recess, in line with what is happening in other parts of the country.

The intention is for schools to go back: how can we say to our schoolchildren, “You’re safe going back”—some of them—but we are not? How can we hide away while schoolchildren are going back? Is that the right message to give to our constituents? Are we a people set apart, a special class who are exempt from what the rest of the country is doing? No, we are not. We are the leaders of our nation, and we have a responsibility. That responsibility falls on us to come back, but we can observe social distancing. We can look at the Chamber as it is set out. We can look at the Division Lobbies that have been arranged by you, Mr Speaker, to make sure that the Clerks are safe and that Members are safe. That is the right way for us to proceed, so that there is proper democratic scrutiny and legislation may be brought forward in accordance with the mandate that the British people gave us. Stay at home, work from home if you can. We in reality cannot and that is why we ought to be coming back.

Let me move on to some of the other points made by the right hon. Lady, in particular the situation of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, which is a matter of concern to the whole House. I assure her that the Government are in contact with Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe and her family and will continue to make decisions in line with what we believe will produce the best outcomes. Without providing every detail of what the consular authorities are doing, obviously, Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s temporary release is a welcome step, but we remain extremely concerned about her welfare and that of all our dual nationals detained in Iran. We continue to raise all their cases at the most senior levels. We will continue to urge Iran to ensure that Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe receives any necessary medical care and that her treatment so far has clearly been unacceptable, including the lack of due process in the proceedings against her. It is important that Iran is held to account, and we urge the Iranian authorities to release her and allow her to come home.

Can we have a general debate on tourism and the movement of people? Due to the changes in guidance on unlimited travel to take exercise and enjoy open spaces, residents—particularly in tourism hotspots, where there are limited facilities open—have valid concerns about putting additional pressure on facilities and local hospitals. Like many MPs, I have had communications from constituents who are concerned about public health and putting their health at risk. I believe we need to revisit our distancing measures to ascertain how far people should be able to travel to take exercise and enjoy open public spaces. Can we have a debate on that issue, to ensure that we get some clarity?

I absolutely understand the vital role that the tourism industry plays in my hon. Friend’s particularly attractive constituency and his concerns that many people will want to go there. The Government’s guidance on second homes remains clear. Restrictions on travelling to exercise have eased, but it is not permitted to travel to a second home or to remain overnight in a holiday destination. As we ease restrictions, everyone must continue to follow the rules. As the recently published Command Paper states, the Government will announce easing measures for different parts of the country in line with the scientific advice. The Government’s objective is to return to our way of life as soon as possible, but it is vital that we do not waste the sacrifices that have already been made, and I understand why that is a particular concern to my hon. Friend.

I should first make it clear that yesterday, when I questioned the wisdom of going ahead with next week’s recess, I was in no way suggesting that the staff of the House should not get the leave to which they are entitled. I was simply wondering whether, given the current emergency, it might be possible to do that without closing the business of the Chamber completely. If we are to go ahead with the recess, I would seek an assurance from the Leader of the House that there will be no dramatic changes in Government policy while the House is unable to question Ministers, and that if such a change is required, the House will be recalled to consider it.

The Leader of the House is extolling the fantasy that on 2 June, we can go back to the way things were without special procedures being in place. If he genuinely believes that, I have some specific questions. How can 650 Members of Parliament possibly work safely in a building of this size and lay-out? What should happen to those who are shielding and have received a letter from the chief medical officer? What should happen to Members who belong to one of the identified vulnerable groups? What procedures will apply in the light of a Member becoming symptomatic or being diagnosed as having the virus as a result of returning to this place? Should Members in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland ignore the advice of their respective Governments to work from home?

In my view, to try to force Members to return to this Parliament in person without those questions being answered is unbelievably reckless, and it will place Members, staff and the wider public at risk. It will also disenfranchise many. I asked the Leader of the House some weeks ago what exactly requires the physical presence of MPs in the Chamber and what aspects of our job cannot be done remotely. I have yet to receive an answer. Is it therefore the case that his decisions are motivated not by necessity but by personal preference?

Yesterday, as the hon. Gentleman crackled through the ether, he was hard to hear, and it was hard to be clear what he was saying. His complaint was that we in the Chamber had an unfair advantage over those who were remote. Today, it is unfair that we should be here in person at all, because we should all be as disadvantaged as he is by being here remotely. That is explanation in itself of why we need to come back: the Chamber does not operate properly when it is done on a remote basis.

On the numbers, the hon. Gentleman suggests that the acres of space at the Palace of Westminster are not large enough for 10%, if not less, of the people who work here on a daily basis. The Chamber is marked out for social distancing. We can get 50 people into this Chamber, which, it has to be said, is often as many as are here for an ordinary debate. It is only on high days and holidays and Prime Minister’s questions that the Chamber is bursting at the seams.

As you so rightly said in your statement, Mr Speaker, there is no change to the social distancing advice. There is no change to the advice to Members’ staff to continue to work from home. The numbers coming into this estate are a fraction of what they normally are, because we have no tours, we have no commercial banqueting and we do not have the thousands—sometimes, tens of thousands—of people who come in every day. We are just requiring MPs to do their job, because, as the hon. Gentleman eloquently pointed out in his electronic communication, their job cannot be done properly from a remote distance.

The Backbench Business Committee has a number of outstanding older applications, but we also have significant demand for debates in Backbench business time on many different aspects of the Government’s response to the covid-19 pandemic. However, Members will want to hold those debates in an environment that is safe for House staff, their own necessary staff and themselves, with the logistics of getting there from all points of the compass safely and efficiently having been considered in a comprehensive and safety-conscious way.

The R rate—the reinfection rate—nationally is between 0.5 and 0.9. However, here in Gateshead, it is between 0.8 and 1.1, so we are not out of the woods. Verified cases in Gateshead are 478.5 per 100,000; in the right hon. Member’s constituency, they are less than a third of that. We are all in very different situations. We want to come back—but when it is safe to do so.

I am always grateful to the Chairman of the Backbench Business Committee, and I understand it is difficult for his Committee at the moment, with no time available for his debates. However, the Standing Orders do provide a certain number of days each Session, and over the fullness of the Session the Government will obviously look to provide those.

As the hon. Gentleman rightly says, there are differences across the country, and that is why the Government are looking to have regional alterations, as necessary, to ensure that everybody is protected and kept safe. However, that requires people to follow the Government’s guidance and to remain alert.

I congratulate the Leader of the House on his speech at the beginning, which he would undoubtedly have made from the Back Benches and not just from the Front Benches. We do need to be back in this House, because we cannot do the job remotely. I cannot complain about the Government not communicating properly, because it is not possible when I am working virtually. Could the Leader of the House therefore ensure that we get back as physically as possible as soon as possible, and could we have a written statement next week? And one other thing: will the Leader of the House confirm that, in future, all new Government policy will be announced in this House first?

I said yesterday—carefully—that I did not expect to bring forward further virtual Parliament motions. It is important not to forget the word “expect”, because things could change. However, the current expectation is that we will be back physically after the Whitsun recess. I note my hon. Friend’s point on Government statements, which is, of course, in full accord with the ministerial code.

Thanks to you and all your staff, Mr Speaker, for what you do to make these sittings happen.

May I ask the Leader of the House to outline the proceedings on the Northern Ireland abortion legislation, which was pulled from the schedule for debate this week? Ever mindful of the legal opinion of the Attorney General for Northern Ireland, will he further undertake to press the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to allow the legislation to be debated in its proper home and proper place—the existing, functioning Northern Ireland Assembly?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. He knows that we had to make the changes to the business this week because of the interest in the covid-19 debate. But he is also aware that there is a legal requirement to bring these regulations forward and have them debated. That is of course not a legal requirement for them to be passed by the House, which would be a different matter, and the House cannot be bound in that regard. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland was in the Chamber earlier. I would ask the hon. Gentleman to raise his questions with him directly, because what happens between this House and Stormont is going to be more a matter for him than for me.