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Business of the House

Volume 683: debated on Monday 2 November 2020

I should like to make a short business statement following on from the earlier announcement by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister.

Tomorrow’s business remains as previously announced. However, the first item of business on Wednesday 4 November will now be a motion to approve the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) (No. 4) Regulations 2020.

This will be followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Agriculture Bill and consideration of Lords amendments to the Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill.

The House will then be asked to approve the following regulations: the draft Blood Safety and Quality (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020; the draft Human Fertilisation and Embryology (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020; the draft Human Tissue (Quality and Safety for Human Application) (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020; and the draft Quality and Safety of Organs Intended for Transplantation (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020.

The business for Thursday remains unchanged to that previously announced, and I shall also make a further statement announcing future business on Thursday.

I thank the Leader of the House for his business statement. My party, of course, agrees with the business changing in this way. We have just heard the Prime Minister make one of the gravest statements. We are going to enter a lockdown of four weeks, and we are asking our fellow citizens to do something that they have not done before. The Leader of the House and the Prime Minister sometimes talk about “Captain Hindsight”, but was the Leader of the Opposition not Captain Foresight, because he called for a lockdown two weeks earlier? He did so because, as the Leader of the House will know, the number of deaths could be higher than it was in March.

We are asking people to stay at home, and many of our colleagues will be staying at home. The Leader of the House read out a list of legislation. In UK Parliament Week of all weeks, many of our colleagues cannot even represent their constituents. They are excluded from taking part in debates. They are excluded from voting. That is not only bad for their constituents; it is bad for democracy. Worst of all, we all have to line up together to vote. There is one simple way of dealing with that. May I ask him again to think very seriously, in this grave time, about us going back to remote voting? Those who can be here and need to be here will be here, but we must think about the safety of the House staff who have to marshal us into what we hope will be two different queues. I ask him to think very seriously, at this very serious time, about us going back to remote voting and to enable our colleagues to take part in debates on behalf of their constituents. I am sure he will agree that it is outrageous that they cannot represent their constituents. They must do that. He must look at this immediately, to save lives and livelihoods.

The right hon. Lady is aware that, just before the recess, the House took the decision to extend the current arrangements for virtual participation to March 2021, to ensure that people who cannot be here for a range of reasons can vote by proxy and participate in interrogative proceedings. I therefore think it is inaccurate to say that there are Members who cannot vote, because proxy arrangements have been put in place that allow them to do so. Those arrangements were agreed without either debate or Division, so they had consensus across the House. If there were to be any changes to our voting system, they should be introduced through consensus. As the right hon. Lady knows, I am looking at the option of expanding proxy voting to make it available to all Members of the House, regardless of whether or not they need to be away from the parliamentary estate. I hope to bring forward a motion to that effect soon, which the House will have an opportunity to agree.

It is important that Members are here and that the business of the House carries on. Why is that? We have to ensure that these new coronavirus regulations—some of the tightest restrictions on the freedoms of the people of this country ever introduced—are properly debated and that the Government are held to account. We have to ensure that constituency issues can be raised freely, fairly and clearly by hon. and right hon. Members. We have to ensure that the transition period legislation is introduced and passed into law by 31 December. It is crucial that we are able to do those things.

We found during the fully hybrid proceedings that we were not able to carry on with the full range of activities. I am glad to say that Westminster Hall has returned. We are operating a full schedule of business, so that democracy is allowed to flourish. I think the right hon. Lady underestimates the need for democratic accountability. Being present in this House is as important as any other essential service.

May I ask the Leader of the House to confirm—forgive me if I missed this—that the debate on the second lockdown on Wednesday will be a full day’s debate? I do not think that 90 minutes would really do it justice. In his statement earlier—in answer, I think, to the question from the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones)—the Prime Minister said that all the scientific information that underpins the decisions that the House is being asked to take would be published. May I ask the Leader of the House: by when will that information be published so that we can make a proper decision on Wednesday?

The motion on Wednesday will be a motion under an Act and it will be a 90-minute debate. I understand my right hon. Friend’s pressing for further time for debate and I would normally be very sympathetic to it, but immediately after I have finished, there is a day’s debate on the situation relating to covid, the Prime Minister has just answered questions for two hours, and on the Thursday before we went into recess there was a full day’s debate on the coronavirus. I therefore think that the time for debate has been as ample as it can be considering the pressures of business. One of the problems is that there is never enough time to debate all that one would wish to debate, but under the circumstances it is right to follow the normal proceedings of this House. I am sure that if a commitment has been given to publish information, it will be published in a timely way.

The measures to be debated on Wednesday will be for England only and it is not for Scottish MPs to determine what restrictions the people of England should suffer. But I do hope that the Leader of the House will understand the real anger and frustration that the people in Scotland will have when they look at what is happening. For months we have asked for an extension of the furlough scheme and for months we have been told no, but now that stricter measures are thought necessary in England, furlough is to be extended across the UK. Despite repeated questioning earlier, the Prime Minister was ambiguous about whether furlough would now be available to support measures undertaken by the devolved national Governments if such measures were not felt necessary in England. As it stands, we must therefore assume that if the measures proposed for England are discontinued on 2 December, furlough support will be ended in Scotland too—even if businesses there were still mandated to close. This is not acceptable and it means that we need an urgent debate on the inadequacy of the devolved settlement when it comes to dealing with this matter, and on the need for greater policy and fiscal competence to be given to the Scottish Parliament.

With England in lockdown and people being told by the Government to work from home if they can, I, too, ask the Government to lead by example and now introduce procedures to allow virtual participation in debates and electronic voting. Most people will find it difficult to understand why MPs are being encouraged physically to travel across the country and gather in one place when they do not need to do so. Certainly, representing our constituents is essential, but we do not need to be here to do that. The Leader of the House knows well that the technology exists to allow Members to fulfil their duties while working remotely. If this second lockdown is not sufficient, what will it take for him to authorise switching those systems on?

Well, it is very fortunate that we were able to hear the hon. Gentleman in full this time; the last time that he appeared, the technology did not work and we lost his dulcet tones momentarily. It is also worth reminding hon. and right hon. Members that the other place lost its remote voting system, and that hindered the progress of business. It is important that just as hospitals and schools provide essential services in health and education, so Parliament is performing its essential constitutional role of scrutinising the work of the Government, debating key issues, and, above all, making and changing legislation. Our role has been a vital one throughout this year and continues to be so throughout this month—a time when the House is holding the Government to account for their approach to tackling the widespread impact of coronavirus, legislating to shape the nation’s response to the pandemic and legislating in order for our country to be ready for the end of the transition period. Now is not the time to hinder the ability of MPs to scrutinise Ministers and legislation, but that is exactly what would happen if we were to follow the hon. Member’s suggestion for a full return to hybrid proceedings and ending elements of our business entirely. I therefore continue to say that we have our duty to do, and our duty is to be here, to hold the Government to account, and to legislate for the needs of our nation.

With regard to the hon. Member’s earlier point, I have referred him week in, week out to the many billions of pounds and the hundreds of thousands of jobs that have been protected in Scotland thanks to the United Kingdom taxpayer. It is unquestionably the case that the strength of the United Kingdom has allowed all parts of that United Kingdom to cope with the pandemic. That would have been harder to do that without that support and without that unity. It seems to me sometimes that the Scottish nationalists want devolution when it suits them, but that when there are bills to be paid, they want somebody else to pick up the bill.

Can I ask the Leader of the House to ensure that we have adequate time to debate the consequences of this new lockdown on those people who for many months have hardly seen their relatives in residential care? This is one of the most painful aspects of the covid emergency, particularly for people whose capacity is impaired by dementia or learning disabilities. It is hugely painful for them that their relatives are not allowed to visit them. We are apparently allowed to exercise with one other individual outdoors, so is there any way in which that could be extended to enable people to see their relatives in care homes, albeit using an outdoor setting?

I have the greatest sympathy with what my right hon. Friend is saying. I have referred in this House before to a constituent of mine who wrote to me about going to see a parent with dementia and having to do so from the other side of a window, which was difficult and upsetting. For people in these circumstances, it is really tragic that the coronavirus has made it so difficult for families to be together. In terms of time for debate, there is a debate immediately after this, and I hope that my right hon Friend will be speaking in it and raising this point, because it is one of such great importance.

The Government’s advice to clinically extremely vulnerable people is to stay away from their workplaces and work from home where possible. Will the Leader of the House commit to setting a good example and allow Members such as myself to participate in debates and votes remotely, as we could at the start of the first lockdown? I know that he is reluctant to do that, but as the Prime Minister has said, we must make sacrifices to save lives. This is not just about keeping MPs safe; we must also consider everyone who works on the parliamentary estate.

The hon. Lady has the opportunity to vote by proxy, and her vote can therefore be recorded. She also has the opportunity, as she has just shown, to participate in interrogative proceedings. On debates, the whole point of a debate is that there is a back and forth, and that requires interventions. It is not possible to do that remotely, and I must therefore refer her to the answers I have already given.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his response to the letter I sent on behalf of the Liaison Committee concerning what might change as tighter restrictions were applied. His letter arrived before the Government’s announcement. Is there anything in it that would change as a consequence of the announcement?

As I have referred to the letter, I think that a copy must now be put in the Library, if it has not already, in accordance with the guidance offered by “Erskine May”. The letter is, I think, an answer to my hon. Friend’s earlier letter. If he wishes to write to me again, he will get a further reply.

Can I urge the Leader of the House to provide a specific debate on dementia, for two reasons? First, we saw in the last couple of days the revelation that Sir Bobby Charlton is, sadly, now suffering from dementia. That means that half the team that started in 1966 have now been diagnosed with dementia, and several have died with it. It is about time, therefore, that the football authorities in this country and overseas took the dangers of playing football and concussion seriously, because, otherwise, we will be letting down a whole generation of footballers who need proper support. Secondly, as I understand it, there is now a nine-month waiting list in the Court of Protection, which means that, this year, many families whose relatives have been diagnosed with dementia will simply not be able to go to court to sort out their loved ones’ financial and health arrangements—they are simply waiting months and months and months to be able to get things sorted. That adds phenomenally to families’ anxiety and depression, so can we please have a debate on dementia—not as part of covid, but just on dementia?

I am extremely sympathetic to what the hon. Gentleman is saying, and I think it is an issue that is of concern to the whole House. I was unaware of the issue that he raised with respect to the Court of Protection, and I shall take that up after this session with my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor. Government time is very pressed, as I said in response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), and therefore it is difficult to provide all the time for all the debates that I would like to provide time for, but the cause that he mentions is one with such widespread support that it is very much one for the Backbench Business Committee.

The Leader of the House has been encouraged to lead by example during this lockdown. What example does he think it would set to those teachers and other key workers whom we are asking to go to work on the frontline if Members of Parliament decided that they could do just half their job elsewhere?

My hon. Friend puts it absolutely brilliantly. We have to lead by example. We expect our schools to remain open, and, as I have said in this House before and I will say it again, we see in this House the cleaners working every day and the security staff working every day. We should be joining them. We should be proud to be doing the same as them and working here physically. Duty may not be a fashionable word, but it is the right word to use. It is our duty to hold the Government to account and to legislate, and to do that properly, we need to be here.

During the last lockdown, secure procedures were put in place for MPs to work fully remotely. That is contrary to the image that has been created that we worked only part-time and that democracy ceased, which it did not. May I ask the Leader of the House again: should we, as rule makers, not lead by example and demonstrate through our own actions that this lockdown is different from being in tier 2 or tier 3? We all need to adapt our work practices to the new situation and put the safety of our citizens first and make sure that we recognise that covid is still a killer. We should lead by example and adapt our working practices.

I am surprised that the hon. Lady, my constituency neighbour, should ignore so much of the work that goes on in the House outside the Chamber. During the previous lockdown, there were no statutory instrument Committees and no Committee stages of the House upstairs, so legislation could only go through if it went through on the Floor of the House. There was no Westminster Hall, which is a major means by which the Government are held to account. She says that business carried on fully remotely—it did not. We did a fraction of our job and it is our duty to be fully back at work to ensure that there is proper accountability. To think that all that ever happens is in this Chamber is, I am afraid, a misunderstanding of how Parliament works.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need to ensure our constitutional rights and duties as Members of Parliament to attend this House, to put to the Government any issues that our constituents need to be raised and to retain a fully functioning legislature?

Yes, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have to have a fully functioning legislature. We have to be here to do that. Without being here, business simply was not getting through. We have the important date of 31 December by which time legislation to end the transition period has to be through. We have the very important coronavirus regulations to pass as well, and they need to be discussed and debated on the Floor of the House. The idea that this can be done properly in an absentee landlord way is absurd.

We have a comms issue with Debbie Abrahams that we hope to rectify before the end of the business question, so we go straight on to Marco Longhi.

Will the Leader of the House be kind enough to again reinforce the importance of this House continuing to meet in person? We should be setting an example as key workers. We are asking other key workers to go to work for us to keep this country going, so should we not set that very example by continuing to work here ourselves?

We have the most brilliant broadcasting team who have worked like billy-o to make a hybrid system operate and to allow virtual participation, but still we find that people do not come through. So my hon. Friend is absolutely right: we need to be here physically so that we can have proper accountability, and we need to be an example to the rest of the country. There is this feeling that seems to arise on the Opposition Benches that we are a separate type from all our constituents—that we are workers who can just not do it physically and allow others to take their role in hand. No, we must be here physically; we must do it thoroughly. My hon. Friend is absolutely right.

I have been overwhelmed with emails and contact from constituents very angry at the Government’s dither and delay and the mixed messaging and lack of support. The Leader of the House is absolutely right to say that I need to be able to represent that anger in Parliament—in the Chamber and in Westminster Hall—but I do not need to be here physically to do it. I do not need to get the train and put people at risk, and put people here at risk, in order to represent my constituents. Will he not build on the fantastic work that the House officials did in developing a virtual Parliament and let us be able to have a virtual Parliament that works for the people and keeps people safe?

The hon. Lady does herself an injustice, because she does need to be here, as she has just shown. The passion about her representation of her constituents comes across thoroughly and robustly when she is here in person; when it is remote, at this point she is cut off and we cannot see her sighs, her gesticulations and her concern. All of that goes—it is all cut off in its prime—whereas when she is here she is able to represent her constituents forcefully, and she can do so in a safe way because the House has ensured that measures have been introduced. There is a Perspex screen over there. The Dispatch Boxes—the gift of New Zealand given to us after the war—are cleaned after every Minister or shadow Minister has stood at them, ready for the next session. We have three-minute intervals to ensure the safe exit of people and entry of the new lot. The Commons has done a phenomenal job. The authorities, Mr Speaker himself and his Deputies, the Clerks, particularly, and Marianne Cwynarski have done brilliant work to make this a covid-secure workplace. Therefore, the hon. Lady should do what she does so magnificently and hold people like me to account.

The Prime Minister has just spelled out the terms of the second national lockdown, and I do hope the House supports these important measures. However, we are six months into a national crisis and yet the Cabinet-led decision-making structure has not fundamentally changed, and the bandwidth of government is being severely tested, impacting on other important issues such as a fully funded, integrated review. With at least another six months to go, could I suggest a review of how this crisis is being managed and by whom, with a separation of strategy design and operational delivery, and improved command, control and communication?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his comments. I think the question really is that we are dealing with a changing situation and changing facts, and therefore government has to be flexible in its response. He may be suggesting rather inflexible ways of managing the response to the crisis, which, of necessity, needs to have flexibility and adaptability at its heart.

My apologies, Mr Deputy Speaker; a thunderstorm seemed to interrupt us before.

I want to express my profound disappointment in the Government’s delay in announcing a national circuit breaker, which, as we have heard, will have cost lives and livelihoods. My concern is that the Government will have learned nothing from the first wave of this pandemic and will carry on with a privatised test, trace and isolate system, which has never been fit for purpose, is a key reason why we are where we are, and will unfortunately hit our cash-starved local authorities as they will be left to pick up the pieces from this Government’s incompetence. Will the Leader of the House ensure that the Government report directly to Parliament, not through the press, on what they will be doing differently in the second lockdown, including when local authorities can expect, as promised, reimbursements for the spending that they have already had to bear during this pandemic?

The testing capacity is now at 480,000, 9.6 million people have been tested at least once, and 30.5 million virus tests have been carried out, which is more than in any other European country. I saw my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care lurking behind the Speaker’s Chair, and I think he deserves a great deal of credit for the enormous amount of hard work he has done to get up to those 30.5 million tests. That is not to pretend there is not more to be done—there is, but what has been done so far is absolutely remarkable, from a standing start.

I think the expression of sheer despair from my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) in response to that answer has just demonstrated that we can see people’s reactions on screen.

The Leader of the House is waxing lyrical about how important it is for us to be here and fully play our role as representatives—I am asking my third question of the day, and I am more than happy to do that—but he cannot say that on the one hand and then allow only 90 minutes for the regulations to be debated on Wednesday. Surely at least half that time will be taken up by the Front Benchers. That means that there will be very little time and very few Back Benchers will be able to speak up on behalf of their constituents. That is just not right.

We are having a debate immediately after this session, we have had two hours from the Prime Minister, and we had a debate on the Thursday before the House rose. Therefore, a great deal of time has been made available out of the scarce resource that time is within this House for debating the coronavirus, and our Standing Orders provide for 90 minutes under an Act.

My right hon. Friend mentioned earlier the security staff, the Doorkeepers, the cleaners, everybody who keeps us safe in this place and the catering staff. He did not mention our personal staff who work in our offices. I would like to make a plea to him that he does not decide, or that it is not decided in this place, that we do not need those staff. We employ them because they do a job for us. I know we are supposed only to have two, and I do—and I only need two in this place—but I need them to work with me to prepare me and get things ready for when I am in this House. If I did not, I would have them in the constituency. I make a plea that we do not say to many young people who are our assistants here that they have to sit in their bedsits or small flats in inappropriate seating, in inappropriate rooms—maybe only on their bed—to work from home, because I do not think that is appropriate and professional.

My hon. Friend makes an important case for those who work for Members of Parliament. It is a matter for the House of Commons Commission, rather than for me personally, but I do know that the Commission will be urging Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority-funded staff to work from home between now and 2 December. I know that this will be difficult for some members of staff, as it has been before, but it is important to minimise the number of people on the estate to those who have an absolutely essential function here that is to do with the operation of the Chamber and the House at large.

A significant number of MPs, like myself, have been excluded from speaking in debates on legislation for the last five months, due to being at high risk from covid or having a vulnerable family member, and I take great offence at the inference of the Leader of the House that I am somehow shirking my duty by not being willing to travel hundreds of miles each way every week. With England going into lockdown, the Prime Minister has just said that the most vulnerable should only work from home, so I, too, call on the Leader of the House to restore and maintain full virtual participation until next year to ensure that all Members can fully represent their constituents throughout the covid crisis and the end of the EU transition.

Further to the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), I think the Government will regret holding a 90-minute debate on Wednesday. I appreciate the Standing Orders, but the Government are the Government and could make changes if they wanted to.

The Leader of the House mentioned duty, and our duty is to be here. It is about being not just here in the Chamber but in the Committee Rooms and in Westminster Hall, and the conversations that are had that allow us to do our jobs and hold Ministers to account. The Prime Minister said a lot today about next-generation tests—quick turnaround, 15-minute tests. If we can do it every week for premier league football clubs, given the importance of this Parliament sitting and doing the job that the Leader of the House rightly outlines, have he and the Commission examined the idea of weekly tests for Members of this House?

I would have enormous sympathy with those calling for more than a 90-minute debate if we had not already had so much time for debate. The overall time needs to be taken into consideration, given our challenging and full programme. I assure my hon. Friend that there will be more time to debate the issue over future weeks, and no doubt more statements by my right hon. Friends.

As regards testing, I hope it is not indiscrete of me—I look at my opposite number, the right hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz)—to say that the Commission did have a discussion on testing and we did have a presentation, and that it is something that is under consideration. We would, though, have to look at what other demands there were on the capacity.

I thank the Leader of the House for and fully support his statement on the forthcoming business. I understand the reasons he gave and they were very well put over. Will he confirm that debates in Westminster Hall—including the one scheduled for Tuesday 10 November that I have secured to highlight obesity and the covid outbreak and the need for urgent intervention—will go ahead? Will there be an opportunity on Wednesday to ask questions on the statutory instruments on blood safety, human tissue and the quality and safety of organs intended for transplantation?

There will be three hours available for the grouped debates on SIs, and Westminster Hall debates will continue. One of the really important reasons why we are continuing to meet in the way that we are is to ensure that the other activities that are so important in holding the Government to account and representing our constituents do continue.

Over the weekend, I mulled over the question of a second lockdown and considered the seemingly binary choice between lives and livelihoods. In that scenario, I feel compelled to support lives, but of course it is not that simple, is it? In his statement earlier, the Prime Minister mentioned that all the information available to him either is or will be available to us. In order to make a proper decision, surely we need to know what other options have been considered, because in truth it is not a binary choice. We need to know why those options were written off; the projections of the economic and health impacts of lockdown; and why we have chosen the course that we have chosen. That is really important so that we can make a proper decision on Wednesday, so will my right hon. Friend do everything he can to make as much of that information available to us as possible?

My hon. Friend said that he listened to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. I think that is the greatest reassurance that any of us on the Conservative Benches can have. There has not been a more freedom-loving Prime Minister of this nation in decades, if not in over a century. The most freedom-loving Prime Minister we could think of having has come to this very difficult decision. Against the Opposition’s siren calls to close us down ages ago, he did it when he was convinced that that was what had to happen. He did not want to take away our liberties and our freedoms, and he did so after proper deliberation and consultation and, as he said in his statement, with a heavy heart. That should give my freedom-loving friends on the Government side of the House and across the House the confidence that the Prime Minister has made the right decision on the best information, which I am sure will be published according to the schedule that he will set out.