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House Business during the Pandemic

Volume 676: debated on Thursday 4 June 2020

Application for emergency debate (Standing Order No. 24)

I seek leave to propose that the House debate a specific and important matter requiring urgent consideration, namely the conduct of House business during the covid-19 pandemic.

I place on the record my appreciation, and that of all Members, for the efforts of Mr Speaker and his Office in keeping us all safe—Members and employees of the House—during this most difficult time. Of course, we debated this matter and divided on it on Tuesday. The sight of Members queuing for that Division was a truly memorable one. As we shuffled round the lawn in Palace Yard waiting to join the queue in Westminster Hall, I could not help but feel that it looked more like exercise hour in a category C prison for white collar criminals than the mother of Parliaments. The implications of the Government’s decision to insist on our physical attendance should have been clear to everyone at that point. Anyone who still harboured any doubts should have had them dispelled by the sight of the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy as he struggled to get through his time at the Dispatch Box yesterday.

It is my earnest prayer that the Secretary of State does not test positive for covid-19, but the result of his test is not really the issue. He illustrated perfectly the way in which we are all subject to pressures to carry on when we should not. Doing so when we are physically present in Westminster exposes ourselves, our families and our constituents to risk. I have no idea how many people the Secretary of State may have had contact with on Tuesday, but it does seem likely that some of them will have returned home after the conclusion of business, blissfully unaware that they could have been in contact with someone who may have been infectious. That is how infection spreads.

The Leader of the House also told us on Tuesday that he would bring forward a motion to allow Members who are shielding to participate remotely. It was later announced that this would be extended to allow such Members to vote by proxy. That did not go ahead yesterday, and the Government have today tabled a different and more restrictive motion on proxy voting that would exclude its being made available to those who are shielding for the benefit of close family members. There has still been no time made available to debate these motions, so the House is given a choice of take it or leave it—as high-handed a fit of pique as any of us are ever likely to see.

One of the first rules of politics is that when you are in a hole, you should stop digging. A debate under Standing Order No. 24 will allow the Government, and the Leader of the House in particular, to explain to the world why they refuse to put down their shovel.

The right hon. Member asks leave to propose a debate on a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration, namely the matter of the arrangements for the conduct of House business during the covid-19 pandemic. Mr Speaker is satisfied that the matter raised is proper to be discussed under Standing Order No. 24. Has the right hon. Member the leave of the House?

Application agreed to.

Hon. Members do not need to stand, but I take note that there are clearly more than 40 here.

The right hon. Member has obtained the leave of the House. The debate will be held on Monday, and a further statement about timings will be made later in this sitting.