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House of Commons Commission

Volume 676: debated on Tuesday 19 May 2020

The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—

Isolation of House Staff: Gemma White QC Recommendations

With reference to the July 2019 recommendations of Gemma White QC on tackling the isolation of House staff, what plans the Commission has to implement those recommendations while staff are working from home during the covid-19 outbreak. (902786)

Good day to you, Mr Speaker. In February this year, the House of Commons Commission agreed to establish the Member Services Team, which will deliver the recommendations of Gemma White QC, including on the isolation felt by MPs’ staff. I understand that the team is already working with Members’ staff to see how their ideas for greater mental health support can be delivered. The MST is also currently recruiting two MPs’ staff advisers to tackle the issues raised around isolation.

I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. I know, Mr Speaker, that you are well aware of the excellent cross-party work that members of my team —Stephanie McTighe and Chloe Mclellan—have done on the issue of staff wellness and support, including by giving vital evidence to the board of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. The Gemma White report highlighted that constituency staff often deal with vulnerable constituents, many of whom can be suicidal and in deep distress. Those existing challenges are now compounded by the fact that staff are working from home. Will my hon. Friend meet my team and I to discuss their work and how staff wellbeing can be made a priority, and to ensure that the Commission does all it can to support staff in our constituencies so that we can continue to serve our constituents in a safe and supportive way?

I thank my hon. Friend very sincerely and commend her for the work she has been doing across the House. I also thank her staff, who have inputted greatly into the work on this terrain. I draw attention to the fact that £4,000 has been made available from the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority to help with those very issues, and I encourage her to use that resource as much as possible to ensure that her staff are assisted. The employee assistance programme is already available to MPs’ staff for counselling and support. I encourage all Members from across the House to access those services and that resource, and do everything possible to ensure that their staff are kept safe and secure.

Hybrid Proceedings in Parliament

What assessment the Commission has made of the effectiveness of the implementation of hybrid proceedings in Parliament. (902789)

Whether the Commission plans to bring forward proposals for the continuation of hybrid proceedings after the end of the covid-19 lockdown. (902799)

The Commission has made no formal assessment of the effectiveness of the implementation of hybrid proceedings in the House. I should like to put on the record—on your behalf, too, Mr Speaker, as you have led on these issues—our appreciation of the broadcasting service and the digital service for delivering the hybrid functions and services at breakneck speed. It is quite extraordinary that they have done it under these circumstances.

The Commission has no responsibility for making changes to the House’s procedures. That is a matter for the House itself. The hon. Lady may wish to make a submission to the Procedure Committee’s current inquiry into the operation of proceedings. The Commission has responsibility for the staff of the House and the provision of services to Members and their staff on the estate. It is currently working to ensure that the House meets the Government guidelines to become a covid-19-secure workplace.

Thanks to you, Mr Speaker, the parliamentary digital service, the Clerks, the Commission, the House authorities, broadcasting and other staff in the House, the digital Parliament has been a huge success, but now the Leader of the House wants to abandon it and instead insists that 650 MPs—potential super-spreaders—should travel from across the country to cram into Westminster, putting constituents and staff at risk. Why would the Government choose to ignore their own advice that those who can work from home should, unless it is to cast a protective cloak around their floundering Prime Minister?

I thank the hon. Lady for that question, and I note her long-term interest in this issue. Unfortunately, it is a matter not for the Commission, but for the Government. The Commission’s responsibility begins and ends with our obligations and service to the staff of the House. I note her concerns, and she may wish to take them to the Procedure Committee. There are likely to be further announcements about the operation of the hybrid virtual proceedings in the course of the next couple of days, and I encourage her to engage fully with all debates and discussions concerning them.

I echo what has been said, and I thank you, Mr Speaker, for making hybridisation happen in a Parliament where just getting TV cameras in took centuries. Given that social distancing is here to stay, it will take 40 minutes of votes to incorporate it into our jobs. We are told, on issues from ending air pollution to destroying capitalism, that we cannot go on with what was happening before. Is there any reason why the Government seem in such indecent haste to rush back to the bad old days? Is it to disguise the drubbings that the PM is getting every Wednesday from our new leader by having a few more of his own around him to cheer him on?

Unfortunately, the answer is going to be pretty much the same as the previous one. That is a matter for the Government; it is not within the responsibilities and obligations of the House of Commons Commission. All I can say to the hon. Lady is that I note her concerns. We have obligations and responsibilities to the staff of this House. The staff unions have been making representations to the Commission on behalf of their members. I encourage her to take up these issues with the relevant Ministers.

Covid-19: Parliamentary Estate

The House Service is currently working in conjunction with Public Health England to ensure that we meet the Government guidelines to become a covid-19-secure work- place and to build on our existing measures to ensure that all those working on the estate can do so safely. That is underpinned by the completion of a covid-19 risk assessment, which will be shared by all those working on the estate if the House returns after the Whitsun recess. The successful introduction of those measures will help to reduce the spread of covid-19, and they have been supported by those on the estate.

I thank the Commission and, indeed, the staff in Parliament for the work they have done in enabling Members to participate virtually while complying with Government guidelines to stay at home. Of course, returning to normal proceedings would involve not just 650 Members but several thousand staff on the estate, many of whom are currently shielding. As my hon. Friend will know, it is almost impossible to travel more than about 10 metres in Parliament without touching a door handle. So what work is the Commission doing to ensure that both staff and Members stay safe and do not become super-spreaders?

The House is doing everything possible to ensure that we do become a covid-19-secure workplace. But my hon. Friend is right to note that if we do abandon these virtual proceedings tomorrow, it will be necessary for 650 Members to travel from all corners of the United Kingdom to participate in proceedings in an environment that will be very, very challenging in order to ensure that we can maintain social distancing requirements. All I can say, again, is that this not a matter for the Commission—it is a matter for Government, who are driving the “return to this House” agenda. I encourage her to take this up with Ministers to ensure that we do have a safe environment and that we do nothing further to put our constituents at risk.