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Conduct of Business After the Whitsun Recess

Volume 676: debated on Wednesday 20 May 2020

(Urgent question): To ask the Leader of the House if he will make a statement on the conduct of business after the Whitsun recess and if he will bring forward the necessary motions to continue the online participation of Members in the business of the House.

Mr Speaker, may I first recognise your commitment to ensuring that the House operates as fully as it can while adhering to guidance from Public Health England? Your dedication and that of the House Clerks and digital team have been instrumental in establishing the hybrid proceedings that allowed us to return after Easter but as you have always agreed, the present arrangements were only ever envisaged as temporary, because they fundamentally restrict the House’s ability to perform its functions fully. Complaints about our debates becoming stilted, scripted affairs are one thing, but the impact on legislative scrutiny is another.

Under the hybrid proceedings, the time this House is able to spend debating legislation faces being cut by around two thirds. I am sure all Members will agree that each and every one of the 36 Bills put forward by the Government in the Queen’s Speech deserves the proper level of scrutiny. We have to recognise that if we persist with the present arrangements, it will become harder to make progress in a timely fashion. That is why, in line with Government advice for those who cannot do their jobs from home, I am asking Members to return to their place of work after Whitsun.

We will not be returning to the crowded, bustling Chamber of old. We will be observing social distancing. As a member of the House of Commons Commission, I was reassured yesterday by the progress being made in making the parliamentary estate a covid-19-secure workplace. That work has been expertly led by Marianne Cwynarski, the head of governance and central services, and I particularly commend her for her efforts in ensuring that staff already coming in to work in the Palace have the support they need.

Only yesterday, Mr Speaker, you organised the test of a new system for Divisions that will ensure Members can vote while remaining 6 feet apart. We will minimise the number of other passholders on the estate, strongly encouraging MPs’ staff and others to continue working from home. We will continue to work closely together in consultation with Members across the House, not least the Select Committee on Procedure, on the appropriate next steps.

We will need to understand from the House authorities where adaptations can be implemented, as the Procedure Committee itself acknowledges is key, without prejudice to the House’s ability to carry out its business effectively. At the same time, we will want to ensure that any steps taken are in line with the Government’s advice to the country at large.

I will consider the Procedure Committee’s views very carefully and keep these issues under review, but I would finally like to reassure those Members with underlying health conditions who have been told to shield or are receiving specific Government advice about their health that we are working with the House authorities to see how they can continue to contribute to proceedings within the House.

Thank you for allowing this urgent question, Mr Speaker. I do not want this debate today to be all about Members of Parliament. Let us remember what has brought us to this point. Yesterday, the number of recorded deaths from covid-19 reached 35,341—a rise of 545 from the day before. Today, the Government’s response to that is to insist that Members of Parliament should undertake non-essential journeys—in my case, that is almost the entire length of this country—to stay in second homes. When that was done by leading Government advisers, it led to their resignation. If ever there was a case of do as I say and not as I do, then this is it.

None of us is blind to the inadequacies of online scrutiny. Like many Members I find it stilted and artificial, but if it is a choice between that, and putting the safety of Members, their families and the staff of the House at risk, that is no choice at all. This system should end only when it is safe to do so—and safe for all Members, not just those who live within driving distance of Westminster.

As trade union representatives explained to the Commission yesterday, the House of Commons is supported by approximately 3,000 employees. Is the Leader of the House really satisfied that we can bring MPs back from 2 June while discharging our duty of care towards those staff? How many staff will be able to return to work without risk to themselves or those with whom they live?

It is widely reported that the motivation for this over-hasty return is to get a support pack behind the Prime Minister on Wednesday afternoons. Today, it has even been reported that yesterday, the Leader of the House suggested to the Commons Commission that to get more MPs in, perspex screens should be installed between the Benches and between Members—someone has obviously told him how things are being done in Tesco these days. In recent weeks we have demonstrated that the business of this House can be done from behind a screen, as we do right now, but it is from behind a computer screen, not a screen of perspex, the only purpose of which would be to shield the Government from scrutiny and the Prime Minister from ridicule. The Leader of the House must think again.

The point made by the right hon. Gentleman about Prime Minister’s questions is fundamentally trivial and beneath him, and therefore I shall ignore it. I am very sorry that he does not think that proper scrutiny of the Government is an essential task in a democracy. I think that is an extraordinary position for a former member of a Government, and a leading figure in the Liberal party—if it has leading figures—to take. Democratic accountability is fundamental to how our system works.

The right hon. Gentleman, from his eyrie in the Shetland Islands, tells us that a remote system does not work well enough. He then says that we should none the less continue with it. As Members of Parliament, I think we have a duty to return to doing our work thoroughly, properly, and effectively, and that is what we will do, in line with Government advice and the five tests, and by ensuring a safe working environment. I reiterate my thanks to Marianne Cwynarski for what she has done. People working in the House, employees of the House, are able to work safely, and the numbers expected to come in are not thought likely to rise significantly when the House returns after Whitsun.

I thank the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), and you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. Last week the Leader of the House gave a fantastic performance about democracy and parliamentary sovereignty, but it was all style and no substance. If this was not so serious, I would have nominated him for a BAFTA.

We have had a joint Commission with the other place, and at a Commission meeting we had a briefing from Public Health England. Before his unilateral declaration that the Government will not renew the temporary hybrid proceedings, did the Leader of the House hold a discussion with Public Health England? What was its advice, and will he publish it?

May I correct the Leader of the House again? He keeps saying that if others are going to work, the Government expect us to go to work, but we are at work. We are at work at all times. The Government’s own advice is that those who can work from home should do so—that is still the Government’s advice, on grounds of working and travelling safely. Will he confirm that he is not contradicting Government advice, and will he say how Members are expected to travel down when there is a reduced service?

Everyone knows someone who has been a victim of this disease, including those who have not just suffered from it, but who have died. This is not a bounce-back virus, as the Prime Minister said; it is not about the survival of the fittest. We have a diverse workforce in our community here, which we encourage. What risk assessment has the Leader of the House asked to be made, to ensure that Members, and the extra House staff required for return, can return safely? Will he confirm that on returning to physical-only proceedings, proper social distancing measures will have been worked out and will be sustainable in the Chamber? What was the extra waiting time for voting at the practice voting?

This is not a battle of “Government good; everyone else bad”, or of “shirkers versus workers” as some Ministers have said. This is about Parliament being a good model employer. We need a phased return, so as not to overpower the NHS or House staff, and where everyone can be safe.

Finally, can the Leader of the House confirm that the parliamentary estate is covid-free? Does he agree with the scientific advice that it is about observed levels of infection and not a fixed date?

Most of those questions were actually answered at the Commission meeting—the right hon. Lady is a member—that we had on Tuesday. Unfortunately, because of a dodgy connection, we could hardly hear her during the proceedings of the Commission and perhaps she could not hear all the points that were made.

We had reassurance from the House authorities that, yes, this will be a covid-19-secure workplace by the time we come back after the Whitsun recess; that a risk assessment has been carried by the parliamentary authorities; and that enormous steps are being taken to help and to assist parliamentary staff. What is the House doing? Well, there is extra cleaning going on. The same mechanisms will be used to clean pads as are used on the London Underground to try and ensure there is safety there; the congestion charge is being paid for members of staff so that they can drive to work and the Abingdon car park is being made available. Considerable steps have been made by the House authorities, as the right hon. Lady knows, to ensure that it is safe to work here.

Is this in line with Government advice? Yes, of course it is. The key question for right hon. and hon. Members to ask themselves is: do they think that proper scrutiny and proper legislative processes are essential? If they are, we need to be here. If they are not, they can work remotely. It seems to me, unquestionably, that those proper processes are an essential part of our country functioning. Therefore, we cannot do our jobs properly from home and therefore that is in line with the Government’s advice.

I would like to thank my right hon. Friend for the work being done to ensure that Parliament is a safe working environment for all. Does he agree that while we have had to improvise due to the unprecedented situation we find ourselves in, we cannot effectively do our jobs from home? We should lead by example when asking the country to return to work. We could improvise further in Westminster, for example by taking advantage of more of the space available to enable more of us to participate fully and safely.

The Government’s advice is clear: work from home if you can. But what I and many others have increasingly realised is that this House cannot work effectively without meeting physically. Take last week for example: no debates on secondary legislation; no Public Bill Committees; no Delegated Legislation Committees. Compare that to a fairly standard and not particularly busy physical sitting week, such as the week commencing 2 March. That week the Commons considered the stages of four Bills instead of one and nine statutory instruments instead of none. In addition to Chamber time, the House held seven Delegated Legislation Committees and four Public Bill Committee sittings. I therefore very much welcome my hon. Friend’s valuable point that MPs’ work is absolutely essential and that we cannot do it from home.

The position taken by the Leader of the House is reckless, cavalier and downright dangerous. Surely it is his job to make sure that elected Members can represent the views of their constituents, yet he now proposes to force Members to make a choice between not standing up for those who elected them and putting their own health and the health of others at risk. The Leader of the House talks of an ancient right to enter Parliament, but what good is that right if it cannot be executed without endangering the lives of one’s family and constituents? Switching off the computer and barring Members from participating online will reduce the ability of Members of Parliament to scrutinise the Government. It is simply Orwellian to pretend that it will enhance it. Moreover, this will not affect everyone equally. Those who are older and suffer ill health will be disproportionately affected, as will those who live farthest away. Has he undertaken an equalities assessment of this proposal, and does he think that removing the existing arrangements is compatible with the laws of equality of treatment of persons in the United Kingdom?

May I draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to the remarks I made some moments ago when I said that I would like to reassure those Members with underlying health conditions who have been told to shield or who are receiving specific Government advice about their health that we are working with the House authorities to see how they can continue to contribute to proceedings within the House? We recognise the importance of that, but we also recognise the need for business to continue. I understand that the Parliament in Holyrood is still meeting, although with a third of Members turning up and moving all over Scotland to get there, so I slightly think that what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

If the Leader of the House thinks that this is safe, he is trying to kid everyone but he is fooling no one. This is about those Members of Parliament who have underlying health conditions, those over 70 who absolutely should not be going anywhere, those of us who have family members with underlying health conditions and those of our staff who face the same challenges. With so many Members with underlying health conditions, of that age or with family members who are at risk, how on earth can this possibly be right or democratic, and how can our constituents possibly be represented properly?

I think the issue is that members of staff of MPs do not need to come in. They clearly can carry on working from home. There is no change there, and numbers coming on to the estate will be limited. What I would say to the hon. Gentleman is that we are facing exactly the same issues as other workplaces where working from home is not good enough. These are not unique to us. We are in the same situation as the rest of the nation, and we should not think that Members of Parliament are some special priestly caste who must be treated differently. We should stand with our own constituents.

I welcome the comments of the Leader of the House. It is clear to me that although the House authorities have done a fantastic job in seeing us through the last few weeks, this is not a sustainable way to run Parliament in the future. May I seek my right hon. Friend’s reassurance that this model, which some people seem to think can be a model for the future, will not now be applied to projects such as restoration and renewal, which, in my view, would again create a situation in which Parliament simply could not function properly?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who has experience as a former Leader of the House and knows and understands how this place ought to work. The measures that we are using currently are a remarkable achievement by the House authorities in a very particular circumstance, and it is very unlikely that this way of operating would be suitable to other circumstances.

Just like our communities, this House is made up of people with a range of different situations who are following Government advice and Public Health England advice and shielding or self-isolating or who have childcare or elder care responsibilities arising from these unique covid circumstances, yet they are continuing to represent their constituents although they cannot be here in person. Will the Leader of the House tell us what arrangements will be in place to ensure that all Members can continue to take part fully in the work of Parliament, in person or virtually?

The point that the hon. Lady makes is a serious one, and it is being considered by my office and by the House more generally. Discussions will continue over Whitsun to try to work out how those people who are receiving specific medical advice or being instructed to shield may be helped to participate in proceedings once we return, and how the technology may work with regard to that, but the importance of the point is one that we understand.

I welcome the commitment from the Leader of the House to ensure that those Members who are vulnerable will not be disadvantaged and will be able to continue to represent their constituents in the House. Can he confirm that these arrangements will also be available to Members who, like many working parents, rely on grandparents who might be in the vulnerable category to supplement their childcare and therefore cannot travel to Westminster at this time?

We are listening to the representations that people are making about the difficulties that they face with regard to attending the House. The Procedure Committee has looked at a number of these issues and written to you, Mr Speaker, about the return to physical proceedings, and I have had representations from a number of Members.

The reality is that Parliament is most effective when it meets physically. The hybrid parliamentary proceedings have allowed only a small proportion of Parliament’s functionality to take place. As we have seen in this sitting, with Members being cut off, the hybrid proceedings have limited Members’ ability to represent their constituencies across the country. What we will do is to return physically in a way that is advised, and properly orchestrated and organised, in accordance with the recommendations from the Government and, indeed, from the House of Commons authorities.

I am grateful to be called in this urgent question. I am thankful to the Leader of the House, because I know that he recognises that we all have an equal duty to represent our constituents, but the travel to and from Westminster is not equal for us all. Indeed, taking a plane from Belfast is not as socially distant as we would like. I ask the Leader of the House to consider the issue that will be most vexatious and difficult to solve, which is voting. I ask him whether remote voting can continue, given that the ability to travel between Westminster and Northern Ireland is severely constrained, with less than two planes per day from Northern Ireland to London when ordinarily there would have been more than 20.

The issue with voting, as you have made clear, Mr Speaker, is that we can run one system or the other. The two systems are not compatible. We are looking to have a physical return of the House, and therefore to have physical voting. I think that is an important way of getting back to being a normal Parliament, with all the benefits that come from having physical voting.

Thank you, Mr Speaker; I am audio only, I am afraid. I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. I firmly believe, as Chair of the Procedure Committee, that the House should be allowed to have its say on these changes. It is important that an opportunity is provided for the House to do that.

Will the Leader of the House reflect on the resolution that the House passed on 21 April, which stays in place while Public Health England advice remains, and which allows for both virtual participation and parity of treatment for all Members? Is the Leader of the House intending to amend or rescind that resolution, or does he believe that it no longer applies?

I thank my right hon. Friend for the invaluable work that she and her Committee have been doing, and for the suggestions that they have made about how we can make the hybrid work and how we can get back to a real Parliament. We see in her absence the difficulties with a hybrid Parliament. I am glad that the technology was able to reconnect her, in voice only, but being here in the flesh does have advantages.

The motion of the House stands, but to allow it to be effective requires subsidiary motions that will lapse. Of course, the Government take motions of the House very seriously and wish to ensure that their details are reflected in the way the House operates, although sometimes these are matters more for Mr Speaker than for the Leader of the House.

I am pleased that the Leader of the House has announced that measures will be considered to protect MPs who have been shielding or carrying out caring responsibilities for vulnerable family members who are at high risk of coronavirus. Will we be advised on what the new measures will be before people decide whether they can come back early?

I will continue, as will others across the House, to listen to and reflect on the views of hon. and right hon. Members from across the House. Yesterday afternoon, the Procedure Committee wrote to me and the Speaker to set out its views on how we should return to physical proceedings. I welcomed the opportunity for further discussions with the Committee on Monday, and I am grateful for its work. I have also had representations from many other Members. This is a work in progress to finalise the details. Any changes in our procedures will need to be made by a motion in this House, and those cannot be made until the House meets again, so the assumption must be that we continue as we usually continue until such time as, or if, anything changes.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Across Scotland, we are dissuading people from travelling large distances, for fear of spreading the virus further and overloading rural communities. Does the Leader of the House understand that there are real concerns, beyond threatening the safety of MPs, that by removing votes unless we are physically present and insisting we return to that place we will undoubtedly undermine the public safety message, which has been key to preventing covid from spreading even more widely in our communities?

What is being proposed for the House is completely in line with what is being proposed by the Government generally; it is a question of working through the five tests and of those who can go back to work, because they cannot work effectively from home, being encouraged to go back to work. We are in the same situation as everybody else. Measures are being taken, have been taken and will continue to be taken to ensure that coming to the House of Commons is as safe as it possibly can be.