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Business of the House

Volume 676: debated on Wednesday 20 May 2020

I will now call the Leader of the House to make a business statement, which I will run until 1.20 pm.

The business for the week commencing 1 June will include:

Monday 1 June—The House will not be sitting.

Tuesday 2 June—Second reading of the Parliamentary Constituencies Bill.

Wednesday 3 June—Consideration of a business of the House motion, followed by all stages of the Corporate Insolvency and Governance Bill.

Thursday 4 June—Remaining stages of the Sentencing (Pre-consolidation Amendments) Bill [Lords], followed by debate on a motion relating to the EU’s mandate for negotiating a new partnership with the UK.

Friday 5 June—The House will not be sitting.

I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the business statement. There we are, we are sitting up until Thursday with a hybrid, virtual Parliament, so it can be done. First, will he ensure that the Government make a statement on the guidance on people returning to work here safely on the first day back? The advice from the scientists is that lockdown should not be eased until track and trace is in place and that we should look at the observed levels of infection, not just at the fixed date. Does he agree that even the testing has not been got right and that the Government have extended it? Can he say whether there are enough home tests for the House and whether enough masks will be available? At this point, I, too, want to pay tribute to Marianne Cwynarski and everybody on the House staff, who have worked so hard to keep us safe.

Like us, following the Leader of the House’s outburst last week, which came with no consultation, what our teachers want is a discussion and time to prepare. They have been given a confused message, because the British Medical Association has said that the children are not safe to go back. Let us remember that teachers have been at work looking after our children now—they have been looking after key workers’ children—and they are the best people to say whether they are ready or not. The Government cannot compare this country to Denmark, because Denmark has not had as many deaths as we have had here. So what advice have the Government given teachers, particularly on the inflammatory disease affecting children? Given that a poll of almost 30,000 members of the NASUWT found that just 5% said that the schools were safe to return to and 81% of parents said that they did not want to send their children back, may we have an urgent statement from the Education Secretary when we return on the evidence that it was safe for children to return? I say that given that a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies told the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee that the decision on schools was “political” and not based on science.

On Monday, we voted on the Second Reading of the immigration Bill, which contains swathes of Henry VIII powers. As the Leader of the House is a believer in parliamentary sovereignty and parliamentary democracy, does he think that is appropriate? Will he guarantee that Government time will be given to debate any statutory instruments that are prayed against by the Opposition? We clap our care workers into the NHS, but with this immigration Bill the Government are, in effect, clapping them out of the country.

A constituent of mine is the general manager of an SME—small and medium-sized enterprise—employing 65 people. Indirectly, they support the NHS, the Nightingale hospitals, manufacturing valuable items that people need quickly. They had a five-week wait, and their bank refused them a loan—just 20%—though they are a profitable company. They and many other businesses are struggling to find a way to stay open. If I forward details to the Leader of the House, will he take that up with the Chancellor, please?

Last week I asked about dentists. Will the right hon. Gentleman follow that up with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care? It was mentioned in the House on Monday, but we did not get a response. The regulatory body has been checking on personal protective equipment for dentists returning—again, small businesses hoping to help our country return to normal. There is an issue about their PPE. Will he ensure that major PPE companies fast-track the powered air-filtered PPE face masks particular to dentistry? We have not had an answer to that. Dentists could get back to work to protect our constituents, some of whom are having to pull out their own teeth.

I thank the Leader of the House for his response last week on Nazanin and Anoush. It was very helpful. Will he make sure that the Foreign Secretary ensures that all British citizens abroad are able to get consular visits and advice? No one is asking for a fanfare when the ambassador visits, but we want Nazanin, Anoush and Kylie to be visited. At this time, they deserve clemency, and the Leader of the House knows that this is an important day for them. I remind all hon. Members to light a candle for them all today.

Finally, Mr Speaker, it is National Epilepsy Week. I thank you for your statement on Mental Health Awareness Week, which was very helpful. Let us hope that we can all encourage everyone to look out for each other.

I completely endorse what the right hon. Lady said about Epilepsy Week and mental health: we do indeed need to look out for each other, particularly at a time of lockdown, when many people are suffering, and loneliness is a particular and difficult problem, especially for people who are shielding and must take particular care. That is obviously at the forefront of the Government’s mind.

With regard to Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, consular work continues, but it is not always best to argue this on the Floor of the House, if the right hon. Lady will forgive me for not giving more details on this occasion.

To come to the more politically controversial issues, on the guidance for Members coming back, they know what the national guidance is—the guidance provided for people returning to work, on how they should try to come back to work, what the procedures are and how they should try to distance themselves socially. Members who are already here will see in the House how much marking out has been done to help people to stick to the guidelines.

The work done with members of staff has been exemplary. It is reassuring to know that the number of House staff expected back with MPs returning after Whitsun is not expected to change significantly from the number currently coming in to facilitate the hybrid Parliament. The burden on our staff is not the burden; the burden is on us as Members of Parliament and therefore it is one that we should undertake, because we are like the rest of the country in these circumstances.

The right hon. Lady asked questions about schools and wants a statement from the Secretary of State for Education. He responded to an urgent question last week. I hope it is not indiscreet of me to say, but he was himself very keen to make a statement, although the scheduling did not allow for that. He is keen to report to Parliament, and to keep Parliament up to date. There is, however, a real issue with the widening attainment gap, with schools not being open. That is why it is important for schools to open—if they can—in accordance with the five tests that the Government have set out.

With regard to praying against SIs, most Henry VIII powers are subject to affirmative SIs, rather than negative SIs, and are therefore automatically subject to a process in the House. The general policy of the Government, however, as of many previous Governments, is that when SIs are prayed against by the official Opposition, usually, if it is a reasonable prayer, debating time will be found. That is an important constitutional matter, but it is also why we need a physical Parliament back because there would not be any time for praying against statutory instruments if we were not back. I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for making my argument about the essential need for Parliament’s returning reasonably soon.

I am obviously sorry to hear about the difficulties that the right hon. Lady’s constituent is facing. I would point out that £11.1 billion is being paid out in furlough money and £7.5 billion in loans backed to 80% by the Government. That is major support for industry, and I think the Chancellor has done a quite phenomenal amount in getting support to businesses, but I would happily take up the specific case with the right hon. Lady, and likewise for the dentists in her constituency. I cannot claim to be an expert on the type of PPE that she is referring to, but I am sure there are people in Government who are and who can get her a proper response.

During this lockdown, we have seen numerous cases of broadcast media interviewing people in a manner that suggests they are independent experts, whereas they are in fact partisan political activists. That, of course, culminated in the notorious “Panorama” programme last month, but there are many other examples. Can we therefore have a debate on the guidelines that broadcasters are meant to use in order to provide their viewers with an informed picture of what they are actually watching?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has written to the BBC asking for an explanation of that “Panorama” programme, which seemed to have Communists in the background giving advice on how the programme was structured. I did not realise there were any Communists left in this country, but the BBC managed to dredge them up. He is absolutely right to ask for a for a debate—[Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) heckles, Mr Speaker. It is so unlike her; she is normally so ladylike and does not heckle. I would say that yes, it is a free country, but the BBC is obliged to be impartial. It has charter obligations. The issue regarding debates is that when the House is back in real form, there will be more opportunity and more time for debates, which I hope will satisfy many hon. and right hon. Members.

Let me take up where I left off 25 minutes ago. I have still not had an answer on whether the Leader of the House believes his proposals for Parliament’s return are compatible with the equalities legislation of the United Kingdom, and I would like him to comment on that matter. I also have two further points, Mr Speaker.

First, we are told that Public Health England will again inspect the building during recess and advise on whether and how business can be conducted safely. What happens if Public Health England says that that cannot happen? Do the Government then intend to override the public health advice given by their own agency? Would it not have been more sensible to make these decisions after rather than before determining whether they can be implemented safely, or is this a case of wishful thinking taking the place of evidence-based policy? If the advice is that the number of hon. Members must be restricted, on what basis will the Government determine who can attend and who cannot?

Finally, I turn to the question of remote voting. While everyone can see that online participation in debates is not ideal, although it is better than no participation at all, that is not the case with online voting. The process is simple and secure. This is not an abstract or theoretical question: the system is there. It works. Why on earth switch it off when there is no need to do so? It is accepted that voting cannot be the same as it used to be, with hon. Members crammed into Lobbies, queuing to give their name to a Clerk. I know that a physical vote has been trialled; indeed, I have seen the pictures, and I think once the public see how that is proposed, we will be in danger of exposing this Parliament to even greater ridicule. So why is the Leader prepared to go to any lengths, it seems, no matter how ridiculous, not to continue with the system that is already in place and that works?

The hon. Gentleman is, of course, a separatist, and he gives the game away when he refers to “even greater ridicule”, because he does not wish this Parliament to be the Parliament of the United Kingdom. He wants to separate himself from it and therefore uses every opportunity to ridicule it, which I am not sure is entirely helpful or reflects the views of the majority of Members.

As regards remote voting, there was a very clear undertaking that it would be temporary. The consensus reached within the House to allow the hybrid Parliament was based on consent, on the basis of it being temporary. If people want to make an argument for the longer term about remote voting, they are absolutely entitled to do so, and no doubt the Procedure Committee will look at it, but that is an argument for another day. I would be acting in bad faith if I did not deliver on the commitment to those who never wanted remote voting in the first place that it will stop at the point at which we return to a physical Parliament.

As regards how numbers will be kept down, there is a well tried and tested pairing system, and discussions are going on between the Whips. I expect that any Member who is concerned about coming here will not have to attend or will not be whipped to attend.

With regard to Public Health England, Mr Speaker, you and the spokesman for the Commission are probably better placed to answer these questions, but Public Health England has been involved in many discussions. The House authorities have liaised very closely with PHE throughout the whole process. That is why these markings are down on the floor. That is why, Mr Speaker, your plan for effectively a roll-call Division is being tested—it worked rather well yesterday—rather than using the Division Lobbies. That is on advice, which is being followed, and we are acting in line with other businesses that are planning to come back to work. Finally, as regards the hon. Gentleman’s question on whether we are obeying the law, of course the House of Commons and Her Majesty’s Government are obeying the law.

My right hon. Friend was undoubtedly correct in his answer to the shadow Leader of the House a moment ago when he said that the Government’s support for employment, business and industry has been extraordinary and hugely impressive, especially in the retail, leisure and hospitality industries. However, many companies that supply those industries are not covered by those provisions, which risks risking the future of those industries, because they are experiencing difficulties. Can we have a debate in Government time on the future of the UK hospitality and leisure industries and the companies that supply them?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s reference to the support the Government have given. I really think that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has managed to be stunningly innovative in providing support for businesses in a way that, historically, is not what Finance Ministers across the world manage to do. His achievement is of historic proportions, and I am grateful for what my hon. Friend said. As regards a debate in Government time on the hospitality industry, that is one of the great virtues of our coming back to a physical House—there will be more opportunity for debates, and we will have to see whether such a debate can be slotted in or will fit into any of the other discussions that will be taking place.

Welcome to a very warm and sunny Gateshead. I note from the Leader of the House’s statement that a general debate on Thursday 4 June has been facilitated. The members of the Backbench Business Committee and applicant Back-Bench Members across the House will be disappointed to learn that there is no place for any Backbench business debates if the House returns in the first week of June. In particular, there are many aspects of the Government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic that Members across the House wish to see aired, with answers to concerns and questions gained from Ministers. Could the Leader of the House facilitate that as soon as possible? Could he confirm that, if we return on 2 June, Select Committees—one of which I sit on—will still be meeting virtually, so I will have to travel 300 miles to attend Select Committee meetings virtually from my office in Westminster?

If the hon. Gentleman’s background is anything to go by, the sun is very bright in Gateshead—almost blindingly so. On the last point, the motion for Select Committees runs until 30 June and is then renewable at your discretion, Mr Speaker; that is therefore a matter for you, and it would be wrong of me to trespass on your prerogatives. [Interruption.] I am being heckled by Mr Speaker!

As regards the debate on 4 June and the motion put forward in relation to the European negotiations, there is a statutory obligation on the Government to provide time for that, so it is not like a Backbench business debate. However, I have a great deal of sympathy for what the hon. Gentleman says. I understand that there is a widespread demand for a wide range of Backbench business debates, as we see in these sessions every week, and once we get back to normal, there will be more opportunity to ensure that we get back to complete normal, rather than semi-normal.

I thank the Leader of the House for the reassurances he has given on safety so that Parliament is able to return physically as soon as possible. Areas of the country such as Stoke-on-Trent, where we need to level up our economy, could be hit hard by the impacts of coronavirus, so may we please have a debate in Government time on continuing and redoubling the levelling up agenda, so that we see investment into areas that have historically missed out?

I am grateful for the points made by my hon. Friend from, I assume, his wonderful constituency, which I visited for a Conservative tea last year, when we were still able to move throughout the country. There is serious economic disruption as a result of coronavirus and, as the Office for Budget Responsibility has outlined, without the package of unprecedented measures, the impact would be much worse. Councils have been given £3.2 billion of extra money and there is a further £2.6 billion in deferred business rate payments coming from central Government, but I agree with my hon. Friend entirely that we have to think of ways in which to grow the economy of our whole nation. I encourage him to speak to the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, but I add once again that once we are back normally there will be the opportunity to have these important debates.

Hull’s proud status as a maritime city is at risk of being tarnished because of the damaging actions by P&O Ferries, which appears to be using the covid-19 crisis to replace UK seafarers with exploited Filipino workers who are paid much less and forced to work much longer hours, putting at risk the safety of everybody aboard the ferry. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) has raised this issue before, and the situation is now even more urgent. May we please have a statement in the House from the maritime Minister on how the Government are going to protect UK seafarers’ jobs?

This issue has indeed been raised in the House before and is something that the Government are aware of. I will take it up with the Department for Transport so that a fuller answer can be prepared for the hon. Lady.

I am sure the Leader of the House will have seen the sad news today of potentially thousands of redundancies at Rolls-Royce’s Derby plant. In the light of the large amount of redundancies that might keep happening, will he be able to find time for a debate on how we can best support people to find new work after this crisis is over?

My hon. Friend raises a point that will affect many of us in many constituencies. As the Chancellor explained to the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee, the effect of the coronavirus is of the greatest seriousness and depth, and the Government and Parliament will want to consider and debate very carefully how we recover from it. Of course, I reiterate that once we are back normally, there will be so much more time for debate.

May we have a statement on the importance of having a disability-inclusive covid-19 response? It is Mental Health Awareness Week, and a letter written to the Prime Minister by the all-party group on disability, which I chair, has been co-signed by 101 parliamentarians from both Houses. The letter advises that people with disabilities need additional support at this time. Many are lonely, anxious and isolated. This is an urgent matter that the House should address.

I absolutely accept that it is a very important issue and that support for people with disabilities is crucial. The Government have a good record of supporting people with disabilities over the past few years, and that is something we will continue. The instance of covid-19 is a further reason to remember and to help people with disabilities.

May I appeal to the Government for a statement on the plight of people, many approaching retirement, with endowment mortgages that are due to mature in the middle of this covid crisis? Such a statement would give the Government the opportunity to urge companies such as the Prudential to extend the maturation date until normality returns and the yield enables people’s mortgages to be cleared in the usual way.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to refer to people with endowments and the difficulty that they face. Having spent a lifetime—before politics intervened—in financial services, I can say that there is never an obviously right time to redeem investments, so the difficulty would be the Government intervening and setting a new time and that time not necessarily being any better than the existing time. I think that my giving financial advice from the Dispatch Box would be singularly unwise, but I will take up his point with the Treasury.

The Leader of the House has said that MPs being in Parliament will enable proper scrutiny. If that return to Parliament has to be physical, can he tell us what provision will be made for MPs and their staff who have childcare or caring responsibilities? I know that he is not a fan of the nanny state, but not all of us have nannies.

Not all have six children, either, which I am very lucky and fortunate to have. I absolutely understand, therefore, child caring responsibilities—all my children are quite young. The nursery in the House of Commons is open. Members of Parliament are key workers and therefore schools are available in England for their children. As regards MPs’ staff, they do not need to come back to Parliament. Speaking for my own staff, they are working extremely well and extremely hard from home. This is the first time that I have ever had the opportunity to thank them publicly for the remarkable work that they do for my constituents in North East Somerset. I am sure that many feel the same about their parliamentary staff, and they do not need to come back to the parliamentary estate.