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Proceedings During the Pandemic (No. 4)

Volume 679: debated on Wednesday 2 September 2020

Before I call the Leader of the House to move the motion, Members will be aware that the debate on Second Reading of the Bill could have continued until 7 pm and that the next motion on proceedings during the pandemic has been tabled as a motion that is not debatable after 7 pm—a procedure sometimes referred to as “nod or nothing”. As such, a motion can be debated only if the previous business finishes before its full allotted time. A call list has not been prepared, but given that we now have time before 7 pm and I see present some Members who wish to speak, I shall call several colleagues to make brief contributions on the motion.

Motion made and Question proposed,

That the Orders of 2 June (Proceedings during the pandemic (No. 2)) and of 4 June (Virtual participation in proceedings during the pandemic) shall have effect until 3 November 2020.— (Mr Rees-Mogg.)

I thank the Leader of the House for tabling the motion and the Procedure Committee for its work on this issue. It is the right thing to do in the circumstances, given the difficulties that we still face with the pandemic, so Her Majesty’s Opposition support the motion.

In my role as Chair of the Procedure Committee, I welcome the fact that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has tabled this motion. There is no doubt that this Parliament is sub-optimal—we have used that term time and again about the way Parliament operates—but in the circumstances we are in and with the Government guidance as it is, this is the best that we make of the situation at this time. I urge right hon. and hon. Friends around the Chamber to agree the motion so that we can continue to make sure that Members who are unable to be here at this time can continue to participate. I urge the Government to look carefully at the guidance for workplaces to see whether it can be changed in ways that will enable us to change the way we hold proceedings in this place.

The SNP also fully supports the continuation of the provisions for virtual participation. I welcome the proposal that the provisions will run at least until 3 November, which gives us time to plan and prepare properly, allows the Government to progress with their business, and allows Members to participate as safely as they can. Even if some shielding restrictions have been reduced, parts of the country continue to go into local lockdown— we are experiencing some restrictions in my Glasgow constituency—and the more that Members are able to participate virtually, for whatever reason, the less pressure there is on the ancillary services here in the Chamber. The reality is that only 50 people can be in the Chamber at any one time, so enabling Members to continue to contribute to the scrutiny processes through the virtual system is welcome. Attempts to derail the Government’s progress and upset the cross-party consensus on maintaining that would be disappointing, so the Government can be assured of the SNP’s support for the motion.

I am going to disappoint the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) by breaking the consensus. It is a paradox that one of the great champions of Back-Bench rights, my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg), has been forced, now that he is Leader of the House, to introduce measures that massively undercut Back-Bench rights.

I have been in the House for 33 years; to call this arrangement sub-optimal is to use a very delicate phrase. This is the weakest House of Commons that I have ever seen. It does not do its job. The House of Commons, at its best, is far greater than the sum of its parts. It is an organic entity that reflects our constituents’ interests and pushes the Government to do better, govern better and make the right decisions first time, not after several preliminary attempts. It has been bled dry—I am being as delicate as I can about what others would call U-turns—and it gives Ministers a pathetically easy time. That is actually not a benefit to Ministers. Having to stand at the Dispatch Box to defend their case, and think through before they arrive all the weaknesses that might be in it, is a way for our Government to improve their case. Those who have been special advisers or Ministers in the past know exactly how the process works. It is one of the things that makes our Government, our Parliament and our democracy better than almost any other in the world.

That is particularly true given that, in late March, under the coronavirus emergency legislation, we gave Ministers huge powers, which were exercised almost straightaway to go into lockdown, and almost straightaway ran into problems because the Government had not had to face this House over several hours to talk about what would happen if somebody’s constituent has a disabled child or a mother they could not look after, or about all the other small, detailed things that make legislation work properly, keep it effective, and keep the confidence of the public.

Frankly, I am not bothered by the performance of the House in the next month, because it is September and we are not doing many very, very important things, but the House, the Government and the country face three massive sets of decisions. Decisions on the recovery of the economy will be critical before the end of October. That is when the various funding schemes run out and we face the brick wall in our economic future. We have Brexit still coming, and October will be the key month there—that is when the rubber is going to hit the road. And of course there is covid-19 running into winter; again, October will be the key time.

Unlike the hon. Member for Glasgow North, I do not think 3 November is a good date. We have to think about the decisions that this House and the Government will have to make during October.

That is the whole point: if we get into a second wave in the winter, and there are more local lockdowns and more people who are ill or have to stay at home and shield, that is all the more for reason for people to be able to participate virtually.

I will come back to participating virtually. I do not disagree that people should be able to participate virtually, but we have the worst of all worlds. At the moment, we have a Chamber that does not work. I have watched my colleagues in this Chamber make incredibly powerful speeches that would have moved the whole House under normal circumstances, and yet they have exactly the same effect as an Adjournment debate speech. That is what is missing; that is the problem. We are in the middle of some of the biggest problems this country has faced in peacetime, and we have a House of Commons that is not functioning. Parliament is not working.

I want the Government to look at ways of making it possible to use the Chamber better. There are small things we can do, like using the Galleries, but I think we should be testing every MP every day so that we can be sure that we can operate properly. People say, “But what about our constituents?” Well, that is what they want; I have had any number of communications in the past couple of weeks saying, “Why aren’t you going back to work? Where are you?” It is very important to do that. We do not have to do away with electronic voting, proxy voting and protecting the vulnerable—by the way, I count as a vulnerable Member in these circumstances—but we can make the House work.

My plea to the Leader of the House is this: by all means carry on for the next month, but before we get to November, when we have to make the decisions about covid—not after covid either has or has not blown up—about the next stage of the economy and about Brexit, we must ensure that we do it with a full and properly functioning House.

We are in exceptionally difficult times—we often say that, but it is the truth. We have to look at the issues and where we are. I understand the issues that the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) referred to, because they have been on my mind, and particularly those relating to Brexit, primarily because businesses in my constituency are asking me where we will be. They are three or four businesses in the agrifood sector that probably employ 2,500 people. It is very important that they have some idea of where they will be.

But I understand why we need to extend these measures to 3 November. I have to be honest: I support that, because I understand the reasons for it. It is not ideal. There will be burning issues relating to the economy, and those will become greater as furloughing decreases and pressure comes upon businesses, as the way they respond will have an impact on the high streets and our constituents.

Brexit is a burning issue for me, as a Brexiteer. I need to be able to go back to businesses in my constituency and tell them where we are going in relation to it. I am fearful that as we get closer to 3 November, all of a sudden—I said this earlier today to some colleagues—it will be the new year, and then this becomes a real problem, because at the end of this year we will be making many big decisions that will impact greatly on our people.

There is also the issue of covid-19. I am hoping—I say this with lots of prayer—that we will not have a second wave of covid-19. The fact is that we do not know, but we now know better how to respond to it, so there will be that ability, with the Government responding to clusters, but we need the support of our constituents to make that happen.

I make a wee plea to the Leader of the House, and it is one I have made before. One of the things that many of us in this House—indeed, probably all of us—enjoy is being able to take debates on specific subjects to Westminster Hall. I asked Mr Speaker about this. The Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns), is not here, but I spoke to him before recess. He made me aware, as he has made others aware, of the many outstanding debates that MPs want to bring forward on behalf of their constituents in Westminster Hall, where they have that opportunity. Is it not possible for us to have the opportunity to be involved in Westminster Hall debates between now and 3 November? There is a way of doing that. It is an opportunity that every one of us here enjoys.

Those are the points that I wish to make. I support the reasons why we have to extend these measures to 3 November—we cannot ignore them, because they are so important. But I believe that we must have other methods of answering questions that are relevant to the economy, to Brexit and to covid-19 and being able to participate in a bigger and better way in this House. We all have the privilege of doing so, and every one of us would like to ensure that that continues, but maybe in a better way between now and 3 November.

I am disappointed that, having come back thinking that we might move on and be able to accommodate more Members within this Chamber, we seem to be where we were in the summer. We are here to lead. We are expecting schools to go back, universities to go back and people to go back to work. With 650 MPs and only 50 allowed in the Chamber, that inevitably restricts the ability of Members to represent their constituents. We live in a difficult time. We also live in a time when Government legislation undermines the civil liberties of many people. We have certain areas of our country in local lockdown, yet those Members of Parliament are restricted in their ability to come to this Chamber because of how we are operating at this moment.

I am disappointed that the motion, had it come at 7 pm, would have been without debate and for an extension until November. We already see the number of cases reducing and the number of deaths and hospital admissions falling, and yet we will continue with the existing arrangement for several more weeks.

I apologise for contributing from the Opposition Benches, but there is no room anywhere else. Does my hon. Friend believe that the measures we are taking are proportionate, given that in the last two weeks of July five times more people died of seasonal flu, outside the season, than of covid-19? When we had Hong Kong flu, it carried off 80,000 people. Did we behave in this ridiculous way?

It is interesting that my right hon. Friend is over there, given the ten-minute rule Bill we had today. The key point is that we should be making progress. If the Government wish to continue, as they do, with the current arrangements, they should not go to November. The arrangements should come back to the House on a more regular basis to be debated and tested, because they affect the civil liberties of our constituents. If the House is willing to go along with them, fine, but just to shut debate down until the beginning of November is wrong. I hope that the Leader of the House, who has been a strong defender of the rights of Back Benchers in this House, comes back and tests the opinion of the House more regularly. I have to say that Back Benchers are restless; they do not have the say that they should have.

I agree with much of what my hon. Friend says and I think it is very good that we are actually having a debate on this matter. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will know that I felt strongly that we needed a debate on this matter, but I hope that he can confirm that, if the Government guidance on social distancing and other matters changes before 3 November, he will give the House an opportunity to consider what changes we could make at that time to the way our sittings proceed, based on that revised Government guidance.

My right hon. Friend makes a very good point, but I also make the point that this is the Parliament of the nation, and we should be deciding the guidance for what our citizens have to do, rather than it go through by edict or statutory instrument without proper debate. We need to be debating these issues and we are not doing so. At the moment, I do not think this House is in a position to call itself a proper Parliament. If we are to proceed in this way, the House ought to consider the motion on a more regular basis with a debate, and the Government should on those occasions put forward the reasons why we should stay as we are. As many Members have said, there are many big issues out there that we should consider, and I think that Parliament is going down a cul-de-sac by supporting this motion.

I very much agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Sir Robert Syms), and also with my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), because this motion is over the top. It was only at the end of July that we agreed to extend the arrangements until the end of September. What has happened since the end of July that has caused us now to feel the need to extend them until the beginning of November?

The motion is consistent with the knee-jerk way in which the Government are dealing with many of our constituents. Take, for example, last Saturday when at 24 hours’ notice the Government introduced an extension to the restrictions on evictions of tenants from 20 September until March of next year. That six-month extension was implemented without any impact assessment and without any notice. Now we are talking about having a much longer period of notice before we introduce changes to the way in which we operate in this House.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden made an excellent point in saying that we are on the cusp of being able to have a testing regime of the type that was spoken about by the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care yesterday.

He said that a 90-minute testing regime would soon be in place. If that is in place in the next two or three weeks, which I very much hope it will be, that would negate completely the purpose of the motion before us.

I hope that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, who is generally a great facilitator of parliamentary and legislative scrutiny, will agree that although the motion is likely to go through this evening there will, notwithstanding what is in the motion, be a review in which the Procedure Committee will be able to express its own opinion, so that we can take into account the emerging evidence and the ability to provide us all with tests. If we were all tested and those tests were pretty accurate, we would be able to set a much better example to those people who are going back to schools, the people we are encouraging to go back to factories, the people we are encouraging to get back on to public transport.

I will not speak at greater length now because I have a very similar subject on legislative scrutiny for this evening’s Adjournment debate and I would not want to eat into my own time.

I am extraordinarily keen that the House should get back to normal operation. Hon. and right hon. Members may remember that when we reduced the hybrid Parliament on 2 June, it was perhaps not the most popular motion I have ever brought forward to this House—that there was at that point considerable reluctance to limit hybridity. But I thought it was fundamentally important that we set the lead for the nation. We have in fact been back at work in this place since the beginning of June, and we have been primarily physical from that point; and I think that has led the way.

I would encourage hon. and right hon. Members to look at what the motion actually does, rather than what they fear it does. We have the limitation on Members sitting in the Chamber, being physically present, but that is under a motion that says, under “Participation in Proceedings”:

“The Speaker…may limit the number of Members present in the Chamber at any one time”.

That does not set the number at 50; the number is not set in stone. These arrangements—the little cards that replace our prayer cards—are not under Standing Orders; they are at the discretion of Mr Speaker, on the advice of Public Health England. The Commission discussed with Public Health England, the last time they visited us, how we could change that; how, with the change to three and a quarter feet, we could have more people in the Chamber, and the Commission said we could do that, on the advice of Public Health England, if we made our speeches sitting down and wore masks. Now, I must say to this House that my personal opinion is that it would be far worse to allow a few more people in here, and to sit down with masks on our faces to try and orate, in a most ludicrous fashion.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) is one of the most distinguished orators in this House, and I think he did himself a disservice when he said that his speeches were received now, in this Chamber, as if it were a very quiet Adjournment debate. I think that, with 50 in the Chamber, Members can have an effect on the mood of the House. Yes, it is not the same as that packed and bustling Chamber that we get for the Queen’s Speech and Prime Minister’s questions, but look around: here we are, on a Wednesday afternoon, and the House is not full. There are spare seats, even with social distancing. Many of the people who watch our proceedings know that actually, with a few exceptions, this is broadly as full as the Chamber usually is. It is not that all the 400-odd seats are taken every day; it is that there are a few occasions when the Chamber is full, and those few occasions, I absolutely accept, are less exciting than they normally would be. But it does not mean there is no holding to account. It does not mean there is no representation of our constituents.

I am listening to the Leader of the House and of course he is right to talk about this Chamber—this House of Commons—and it is about this House of Commons, but I wonder whether he would address the point raised by the hon. Member for Westminster Hall, otherwise known as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), about Westminster Hall, about the Backbench Business Committee, about the Petitions Committee, about the tapestry of debate in this place. Having been a Minister—a Public Health Minister, who spent most of his life in Westminster Hall answering debates—I know that is what keeps Ministers honest. That is what means that you have to be on top of your brief. Parliament is missing that tapestry, and therefore it is missing scrutiny—and not just on covid. There are many other issues that this place is missing out on because we have hobbled this place, and we are living a lie to the public at the moment. We have never worked harder, but we are not working hard here in SW1.

I gave the good news to the House at the last session before the recess that Westminster Hall will be coming back in October, and I believe that private Members’ Bills will be coming forward next week, so we are getting back to the normal pattern. I do not wish to pre-empt my statement tomorrow by indicating thoughts about Backbench Business days, but Members should listen carefully, as there may be good news on that.

We are back at work in this place. Many of us, I among them, have brought our staff back into the office from 1 September. Mr Speaker has rightly asked that we limit that to two members of staff, and I encourage Members to follow that, but we are back at work in SW1 and the opportunities for holding to account are there. Let me point out that when we brought forward the earlier proposals that we are now renewing, or in the emergency debate afterwards, I took more than two dozen interventions, if my memory serves me right, from Members concerned about what was happening. If that is not scrutinising Ministers at the Dispatch Box, I do not know what is.

I am a little surprised that the Leader of the House tried to draw a comparison between the presence of Members in the Chamber when we are having a debate in the later part of the day and the spontaneity of oral Question Time, which has been lost completely. I accept that he has done his best, as have the Speaker and the Deputy Speakers, to get as many people as possible into oral questions, remotely, as well as in person, but spontaneity has gone nevertheless and if a Member is unlucky in a ballot, their voice is silenced.

I am very keen that more Members should be present, and I would say that these motions are permissive—they are not compulsory; people do not have to appear remotely. However, it seems sensible to keep the opportunity for remote participation, because some Members may prefer to appear remotely if the area they represent is in a local lockdown. They would not be obliged to, because there is an absolute right to attend Parliament, but they may prefer that in those circumstances, and that ought to be facilitated. It ought to continue until we are confident that there will not be further local lockdowns. That is a reasonable position to have. It may be that the House will think that it should be more tightly drawn, but I do not think that is the consensus of the House at the moment. Members do not have to appear remotely, and I certainly encourage them to be here in person.

I do not think for a moment that we should do away with the ability of vulnerable Members to take part remotely, be it through voting or taking part in debate—it is too soon for that. There is no doubt about that. However, I wish to come back to the point about spontaneity and controversy in this House. Everything my right hon. Friend said before, resting on Public Health England and other “august” authorities, depended on ignoring what my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) and I have said about testing. If this House undertakes proper testing—it is now technically possible to test, in 90 minutes, every Member of the House every day, if need be—this House could return to being what it was before, in short order.

The problem with testing is that it tells us only whether someone has this virus; it does not tell us whether someone is in the process of developing it. Therefore, as I understand it—I am not pretending to be the Health Secretary—if someone tests negative in the morning, they may, none the less, have caught it the night before and be positive by the vote at 10 pm. Therefore, much as I wish that what my right hon. Friend was saying were the case, I do not think it is as straightforward as that.

With the greatest respect, that is an argument against the effectiveness of testing in any form, anywhere. Either we are going to accept the testing regime and live accordingly, or we are completely lost.

As I am sure my right hon. Friend is aware, the point of the 14-day quarantine is that after 14 days it is clear that you have not been infected and that a test indicating that you are clear will mean that you are completely clear. However, people who have the illness need to self-isolate for only seven days until the symptoms have cleared up, because after that point they are not infectious. Those two differentials show that the testing regime is worth using and also that it does not show that you haven’t got it until you have got it, if my right hon. Friend follows what I am saying.

The key points here are not only that we are getting back to work in this House, but that we were already back at work. We led the way. The letters that came into my office about what we were doing in June bear some reading. People did not think we were necessarily wise to be leading the way as we did, but we are back. We are firmly back. We are physically voting, and most business in this House takes place physically rather than virtually. None the less, to protect some vulnerable people, and to consider the situation of the nation as a whole, we have maintained some facilities voluntarily used by Members to allow for remote participation in some of our proceedings, and we are maintaining social distancing within the Chamber, which is in line with Government advice.

A number of hon. and right hon. Members have asked whether that can be changed before 3 November, and the answer is yes, of course it can. If the advice of PHE changes, Mr Speaker can change the arrangement of the House under this order immediately. There would need to be no delay and no debate. This is a facilitating motion to allow us to keep up with the best recommendations from PHE. I note that my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden does not have much confidence in that organisation, but I would ask him where else the advice is going to come from. Who are we going to take the advice from? I think we have to take it from the responsible Government body.

Would the House authorities and the Leader of the House also look at the question of whether we can optimise the use of the seats we have? Why do we have to keep to the rule that we cannot speak from certain seats, when we are desperately short of seats and want more people to spontaneously join in the debate?

My right hon. Friend has a record of making important and valid points in the Chamber, and that one is absolutely spot on. We must of course look at whether we can use those seats. As I look up to the Galleries, I note that according to “Erskine May” it is still possible to speak from the Galleries. It might upset the broadcasters a little, but I am not sure that that is everybody’s concern. If my right hon. Friend went up to the Gallery and sang “Rule, Britannia!”, I wonder whether the broadcasters would find a way of recording and broadcasting it. Perhaps he would like to do that.

I want to reassure the House that I, perhaps as much as anybody in this Chamber, want to get back to normal. I, as much as anybody in this Chamber, think it is right that we have been leading the way for the nation as a whole, but this motion is not as bad as it seems. It is permissive, not compulsory. It allows discretion, and it will allow the numbers to increase. Yes, it runs till 3 November, but bear in mind that proxy voting will come up for review before the end of this month. This is not the only time we will be able to discuss this and to think about it, but this seems to me to be the right step to be taking this evening.

Question put and agreed to.