To ask the Leader of the House of Commons if he will make a statement on participation in debates.
I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to this urgent question.
Throughout this year, the pandemic has posed unprecedented challenges to the everyday functioning of our parliamentary democracy, but thanks to your tireless efforts, Mr Speaker, and those of the House staff on whom we all rely, so much more has been possible than some might have feared. During the initial lockdown, the hybrid proceedings allowed scrutiny to continue, even if it were not possible for the Government to proceed with their legislative agenda in a timely manner. During the period after Parliament returned in June, we were able to resume legislative scrutiny both in the Chamber and in Committees, even if other aspects of our normal work, like Westminster Hall, remained silent. During recent weeks, Westminster Hall has resumed its work, even if it has not yet been possible for all Members to take part.
Throughout this year, our approach has been to maximise what is possible within the limitations placed upon us. This is a continuing process, and our arrangements remain under review. In practice, that means applying two principles consistently. First, we must continue to explore what more is possible. To that end, I have worked with the House authorities throughout the year in support of their efforts to surmount the technical and capacity constraints that they have faced. Secondly, both Parliament as an institution and Members individually should follow both the letter and spirit of public health guidance.
As an institution, we have treated Parliament as a workplace no different from any other in making it covid-secure. As individual Members of Parliament, we are no different from any other key worker up and down the country seeking to discharge their responsibilities within the constraints imposed by the pandemic. We as MPs want to do the best we can for our constituents within the context of varying personal circumstances and experiences, and of course developing national and local guidance.
In last week’s business questions, my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) made a brave and moving appeal to be allowed to contribute more to our proceedings through virtual participation. This followed the appeals of a number of other Members. While my understanding is that capacity constraints prevent us from extending Westminster Hall debates to Members participating virtually, my hon. Friend has certainly convinced me that we should seek to do more to support additional virtual participation in the Commons Chamber.
I have therefore decided that, in line with the Government advice that the clinically extremely vulnerable should not go into work, we should work with the House authorities to find a solution. I am exploring how we can support additional virtual participation in the Commons, despite capacity constraints, for those who are clinically extremely vulnerable, and aim to bring a motion before the House. This is the latest step in our work to maximise what is possible within the limitations placed upon us, enabling the Government to legislate and the House to conduct scrutiny, thus enabling us, together, to carry out our collective duties to the British people.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. As someone who is shielding with his wife, who is herself clinically extremely vulnerable, and having, with others, raised this issue with you, Mr Speaker, with the Whips and with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House last week, we think that the Government have been wrong to forbid Members with proxy votes to contribute virtually to Chamber debates. After all, we have been able to ask the Prime Minister questions, we have been able to ask Secretaries of State questions, and we have been able to participate in all votes. It therefore makes little sense to us that we could participate in the debates only if we appeared in person—something that is not possible if shielding or living with people who are. Of course we accept that there is a balance to be struck between continuing the essential work of Parliament and accommodating the exceptional situation of the pandemic, but the current measures do not strike that right balance. They have, however inadvertently, created a hierarchy of MPs, which few MPs welcome.
I welcome this announcement from my right hon. Friend, in so far as it goes, and look forward to hearing how the review pans out. Many colleagues across the House will also be pleased at the announcement. However, he is still excluding Members who are shielding with wives, husbands or partners or who are themselves clinically extremely vulnerable. This exclusion is insensitive to family situations, and I ask him to think again, because it makes even less sense now, given his announcement to the House today. I suggest that there is little room for procedural purity in a pandemic. Will he therefore meet me, virtually, so that we can discuss this further?
I can certainly answer the last bit of the question first. I would always be delighted to meet my hon. Friend at any point, and we can do it virtually or simply by telephone, if that is convenient for him. As Leader of the House, I have made it clear always to all right hon. and hon. Members that it is my role to have as many meetings as right hon. and hon. Members want, so it would be a pleasure to see my hon. Friend. He raises a very important point and one on which I have the greatest sympathy with him and other right hon. and hon. Members: it is, of course, difficult for those with family responsibilities and those with obligations both to themselves and to others who are concerned about their safety and the safety of members of their family. There are, however, a number of constraints on what can be done practically, so these are the considerations we have to take into account before making the decision as to what we are to do in this Chamber and how we are to react to all the various circumstances of individual Members of Parliament.
First, it is important that the House of Commons is a covid-secure workplace, and— very much under your auspices, Mr Speaker, but also under the House authorities’ —that has been ensured. Great steps have been taken since March to ensure that covid security is of the highest level. I think there would be few workplaces in the country that can compete with that. That is important because ensuring that people who come into this place are safe has been your highest priority, Mr Speaker, and also, of course, the high priority of the Clerk of the House of Commons, who has the technical legal responsibility for the safety of this place.
The second point is that it is important that legislation passes and that the Government are held to account in an effective way. There, I look at what happened in May and June, when a number of activities were cancelled altogether: we did not have Backbench business days and we did not have Westminster Hall, but we had three days a week primarily of Government business. The Government business was very heavily truncated and Ministers, to my mind—and I think of many right hon. and hon. Members —were not fully or properly held to account during that period. It was, in the words of the Chairman of the Procedure Committee, “sub-optimal”, a word that became very fashionable. My right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley) is very much a leader of fashion, and certainly in linguistic fashion she set the tone with the word “sub-optimal”. But it also meant that Government legislation was not getting through in a timely manner. Government legislation is not just important from the point of view of Government, it is important from the point of view of democratic propriety. The Government were elected just about a year ago on a manifesto and they have a duty to the British people to deliver on what was proposed, in addition to ensuring that we are prepared for 31 December, which is quite an important date, because on that day the transition period ends and legislation has to be in place to ensure that. Unfortunately, with the fully hybrid proceedings, that was not working and that is why we had to move back to a more physical Parliament to ensure that we could deliver on the manifesto commitments, ensure that the Government were held to account, allow for Backbench business debates and get on with business.
There is one other very important and fundamental point which I would like to make to my hon. Friend, because I am sure he will understand it and will sympathise with it. As Members of Parliament, we are key workers and we must behave as other key workers do. Last week, I had to write to a constituent of mine in exactly the same position as my hon. Friend. The Government guidance is that if you are living with somebody who is clinically extremely vulnerable, it does not mean that you should not go to work in a covid-safe environment. That is the advice of Her Majesty’s Government to our constituents, and I do not think it would be right of me to stand here and say that we should treat Members of Parliament differently from the way we are treating our constituents. Indeed, I believe it is of fundamental importance that, as we carry out our duty as key workers, we must consider how other key workers are operating, and we must be shoulder to shoulder with them. So to ensure the legislative programme and proper accountability, we are able to make further steps to allow more remote participation, but we are not able to make remote participation unlimited, much though I think everybody sympathises with my hon. Friend and other Members in similar positions.
I thank the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) for securing the urgent question and you, Mr Speaker, for granting it. Why did the Leader of the House think it was necessary to make some sort of announcement on Twitter without having the courtesy to let the House know? He will know that I wrote to him on Friday, along with the chair of the Human Rights Committee, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), and the Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), to ask him to look again at participation of hon. and right hon. Members in debates. The Leader of the House has been warned on a number of occasions that this would happen, and on each occasion he has said no, no, no, without even considering what we have been saying.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman: everyone was moved by the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) when she asked at business questions why she was not allowed to take part in the debate—if she had been able to, imagine how someone going through what she is going through could have informed that debate.
I have previously raised the point that there are two classes of Members, and that that is undemocratic. The right hon. Gentleman says that it is our duty to be here but it is our duty to represent our constituents, and the Leader of the House is suppressing and extinguishing the voices of right hon. and hon. Members in that debate. Effectively, he is saying that all Members are equal but some are more equal than others. Where have we heard that before?
Will the Leader of the House now accept that he has excluded hon. Members from doing their democratic duty for their constituents, and will he please revert back to the world-leading system that worked? Such debates should be for every Member, not just a certain class. Why should hon. Members be identified as clinically extremely vulnerable? That is a privacy issue.
The contacts of the hon. Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson) may well have been identified and isolated, but he did not have a proxy and he was in the queue—that means that he has exposed all hon. Members who were in that queue. Will the Leader of the House look again at remote voting? He said that the system broke down, but that was once and it was corrected. We are so far down the road from the start. The Lords are actually undertaking seven to eight hours of virtual proceedings and they are now looking at the second Chamber. Debate is controlled by call lists, anyway, so will the right hon. Gentleman look at Westminster Hall and Public Bill Committees, which involve small groups and could be done by Zoom? Will he also confirm how long the proposed changes will last and commit to cross-party talks before they are removed?
Finally, I wish a speedy recovery to the Prime Minister, the hon. Member for Ashfield and all other Members who are isolating.
Indeed. We all wish all hon. Members who are suffering from covid a speedy recovery and let us hope that those who are isolating have not caught the disease.
I really would not hold up their lordships’ House as a model. Having a voting system that collapses is deeply unsatisfactory and meant that their business for a day was lost. That was a failure of their system—
That is the risk of sedentary interventions; one hears part of them, but not necessary all of them in their fullness. I point out to the hon. Member for Brent Central (Dawn Butler) that that is why “sedentary chuntering”, as the former Speaker used to call it, is invariably not wise.
I turn back to the substance of the points made by the right hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz). She did indeed write to me over the weekend. It was important that these issues were in the public domain and being considered and that the Government, as they said they would, were keeping them under review. As I also said, I was very moved by the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch). How could one not be? She is a remarkable person. It has to be said that my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Dame Cheryl Gillan) has also made similar appeals of a very moving kind.
It is important to recognise that the Government do listen to what right hon. and hon. Members are saying. The Government recognise the strength of arguments put forward and that there is a special set of people with the most troubling conditions who, under the current rules, which came in Thursday a week past, are being advised not to go to work. That was not the case before then, so when my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham made her requests, the Government guidance was not of that kind; it had changed by the time my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford made her appeal. It is an appeal that many Members feel should be answered, and that is what we are trying to do.
The right hon. Member for Walsall South rightly calls for there to be equality among Members, and indeed there is. Every Member who is not extremely clinically vulnerable is in the same position as other key workers, which is that, as long as their workplace is covid-secure—that is a fundamental qualification—they are not expected to stay away from work. I reiterate the point that I made to my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) that we should expect to behave and be treated in the same way as other key workers. That is fundamental. The nation is facing this virus together, and there is not a different situation for us as opposed to other key workers.
I am not saying that anybody is shirking; I am simply saying that we are in the same position as other key workers, as I think is right and proper.
On the issue of people revealing their medical conditions, I have of course thought very carefully about that because I know that many people would not want to reveal what their medical condition is. The issue is that either we would have to have an entirely virtual Parliament with all Members Zooming in—otherwise one could say, “That person has something wrong and that person doesn’t,”—which we found from experience did not work, or we would have to have it for a very small group.
The very small group have a choice. They are free to contribute, with a very wide range of rights, in interrogative proceedings in a way that allows our business to be carried out properly. The limitation remains only in those areas of business that need debate and the flow of debate. Exemptions will be made for a limited number of people, who will have the choice whether to tell the House about their need to contribute virtually because they are severely clinically vulnerable.
If I may use you, Mr Speaker, as a case in point—I hope you will forgive me—you have brought your diabetes to the attention of people by being open about it, and some Members wish to do that. I absolutely understand that other Members do not wish to, and nobody will be forced to reveal a medical condition if they do not wish to do so.
I think the whole House will welcome the flexibility that is following on from my right hon. Friend’s review of the situation. May I put it to him that it might be better, when he has developed proposals in consultation with you, Mr Speaker, and the House authorities, for them to be put to the House for debate, with the possibility of amendment, and for it to be for the House to decide what instructions to give you on what should be allowed?
I think there is something inelegant—perhaps I am taking the words that my right hon. Friend would have used were he still a Back Bencher—about the Government saying what Back Benchers should be able to contribute in this House. We pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for the way he has conducted himself as Leader of the House; he has been helpful to most MPs most of the time. As he said on Thursday:
“With debates, we need to have the proper holding to account of Ministers, which is the purpose of the debates, and to have the interventions that make a debate, rather than a series of statements. It is a question of striking a careful balance, in these difficult times, between ensuring that Parliament can serve its constituents in full and making sure that Members can complete their duties as safely and as effectively as possible.”—[Official Report, 12 November 2020; Vol. 683, c. 1071.]
Those words match what our hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) said, and others. I think the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft) spoke in the same way. I put it to the Leader of the House that the sooner the review allows extra flexibility, the better. We are not asking to go back to a fully virtual Chamber.
I am extremely grateful to the Father of the House for his question and his, I think, generous comments. I will certainly interpret them that way, though they may have been slightly two-edged. It is very important that the House comes to a decision on this, and it is a matter for the House how it should be done. There will be conversations in the normal way, as there always are, and I hope that it will not be indiscreet of me to say that I spoke to you, Mr Speaker, on Friday after Thursday’s business questions. The House always comes to its own decision. The Government may propose, but it is for the House to dispose, and I am sure that the House will come to its conclusion in due course.
Well, at least the Leader of the House has now accepted that, if Members are not able to be physically present, it is because of legitimate concerns they have about their own and the public’s health, rather than because they are work-shy and trying to avoid their responsibilities. Maybe we should be grateful for small mercies, but really, this is far too little, far too late.
The Leader of the House keeps suggesting that MPs are key workers, but that does not mean that we need to be in the Chamber in order to do our work. Indeed, in any other workplace, we would be criticising employers that did not provide facilities for their workers to work from home, especially when we know them to be available. Introducing virtual facilities on a restricted basis is not going to work. Members should not have to disclose private information about their health in order to have the right to represent their constituents. That is why he must trust that, if a Member chooses not to be here, it is for a proper and honourable reason, and he must therefore allow all Members to take advantage of the virtual facility.
I am afraid I disagree with the hon. Gentleman. The default position should be that Members attend the House to carry out the business of the House. We are key workers, and we have a job to do. I am slightly surprised that the Scottish National party values democracy so lowly that it does not think that it is important to be here and to be actively involved in the democracy of our nation. I know that the SNP is not perhaps the greatest admirer of this Parliament that we could find, but they are still Members of it, and they are here to represent their constituents—or at least some are—and this is an important contribution to the national debate.
The reason for making exceptional provision is exactly that—it is exceptional. It is exactly what other workplaces are doing to help, aid and assist those who are not able to turn up for work because of the Government’s advice, which is that if someone is extremely clinically vulnerable, they should not go into work. That is being facilitated. I disagree with the hon. Gentleman; it is not a matter of choice for MPs. The default position is that Members should be here to do their job. That is their duty. There are some people in exceptional circumstances who need alternative arrangements to be made, and the House of Commons is quite correctly facilitating those and helping them to work from home, to ensure that they have a good connection and to participate. I hope we will agree to help them participate in a broader range of our activities.
I thank the many Members who contacted my Committee following our call for evidence, wanting to see exactly this change. I am sure that they were very pleased when they saw the news on Twitter last night. I repeat what my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) said: this should be a matter for the House and needs a full debate. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that these changes will not impact on the work of Select Committees? It is very important that they are able to access digital services to carry out their important work.
My right hon. Friend is right to raise that point about Select Committees. There is a limit to the broadcasting resources within the House and what they can do. That is why it has not been possible to extend this to Westminster Hall. Select Committees can continue to meet virtually. I would be nervous to give absolute carte blanche, because if every Select Committee wanted to meet at exactly the same time on one particular day and the Chamber was also in action, that may stretch the resources. Assuming that Select Committees arrange their affairs in such a way that a reasonable number of them are sitting at any one time, I do not believe that these proposals will make it harder for Select Committees to meet.
My right hon. Friend is right to explain that there is a balance in terms of the resources there are to ensure the participation of Members in the various activities that take place. Sometimes it is thought that all that goes on in Parliament takes place in the Chamber, but of course that is not the case. Business was not getting through in May and June because of the inability for other aspects of business to take place that are not necessarily seen, particularly the work in Public Bill Committees and statutory instrument Committees.
The Leader of the House will know that I am a long-serving Member of Parliament and an active parliamentarian who so much wants to be back in the Chamber doing the job that I have been doing for over 40 years. But can I say that, if anything is sub-optimal here, it is the Leader of the House? The fact of the matter is: he knows it is the Speaker’s view—Mr Speaker, I hope I can quote you on this—that this is not a safe environment for us to attend. That is the fact of the matter and that is the truth. I would have to say to the Leader of the House that my responsibility, my key and prime duty, is to my constituents. He is the man who is stopping me serving as a full Member of Parliament. Indeed, I would not be able to do my Select Committee if it had not been for, not him, but the Speaker and his intercession. The fact of the matter is he is sub-optimal—he should resign.
Order. Leader of the House, just one second. I did not know that was going to be raised. I think I need to put clarity around what I did say. If people are vulnerable, I did say that I do not want vulnerable people to be put at risk. Let us clear that up. This is a covid-secure workplace.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. That clarification is extremely helpful because the Clerk of the House, I think, would be extremely nervous if it were being said that this were not a covid-secure workplace. The work that has been done to ensure that has been absolutely extraordinary, and we ought to thank once again the House authorities, but also the Doorkeepers who have stewarded our Divisions, the security staff and the cleaning people who have worked incredibly hard and who have been here even when we have not been. The hon. Gentleman has expressed his view very clearly. It is not one I share.
I am slightly embarrassed by the kind comments about my question on Thursday because others—my good friend, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Dame Cheryl Gillan), and my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron), whose UQ it is—have been raising this issue for some time and really it is they, rather than I, who deserve plaudits. That said, may I thank the Leader of the House for calling me on Saturday to advise me of his intention to allow Members who are clinically extremely vulnerable to participate in proceedings here in the Chamber? I am looking forward to being able to raise important issues on behalf of my constituents as and when I can during the rest of my treatment.
I am sorry if I missed it, but could the Leader of the House confirm when the changes will come in? While I absolutely recognise his points about the technical challenges of participation in Westminster Hall, could he please reassure the House that he will continue to explore options for participation in the second Chamber? While here, will he join me in thanking the extraordinary efforts of the digital and broadcasting teams, who have done amazing things to allow Members to be here by, as the Prime Minister puts it, the “magic of modern technology”?
My hon. Friend is enormously gracious in her thanks to the digital and broadcasting team, who not only have managed to introduce this new system since March, but have had to move offices at the same point and kept it going seamlessly. It is one of the smaller teams within the House service, so I think what they have managed to do is absolutely phenomenal.
I hope to introduce the motions as soon as possible. They are being written, I think, by wise Clerks as I am speaking. It is important, I think—I hope this answers my hon. Friend’s question about Westminster Hall—to recognise that, if we do it quickly, it must be limited. If we do it for the Chamber for the extremely clinically vulnerable, that can be done quite quickly; if we were to try to look at Westminster Hall, that would take considerably longer because we would need additional resources. But, as I have said before, things are under review, particularly for those whom the Government are advising not to go into work, and that is the extremely clinically vulnerable. So, yes, it will be done quickly and we will keep Westminster Hall under review.
Since the Leader of the House deliberately chose to exclude some MPs from debates, I have been trying to do my work in different ways. However, for example, it has taken up to five months to extract a response to my letters, not just on covid issues but on matters that are equally vital to my constituents, such as the combustible cladding scandal and the survival of local football clubs.
I welcome warmly today’s announcement, particularly in relation to MPs with cancer and other conditions, but what about the rest of us who are simply heeding the Government’s advice in not coming into the House? I have to say to the Leader of the House that we are not like other key workers, who can be replaced if they cannot attend; MPs have no substitutes. How can he continue to justify deliberately preventing my constituents from being properly and thoroughly represented in Parliament?
I very much doubt that any of the right hon. Lady’s constituents would say that she does not represent them effectively. She has always been a powerful campaigner and an effective voice of the Opposition and of the Labour party over many years, so I do not think anybody would dream of saying that.
May I answer the right hon. Lady’s question in parts? First, as relates to correspondence, that has been a problem that has been raised on the Floor of the House on a number of occasions. I have taken it up with all members of the Cabinet to emphasise the importance of timely responses to Members—not just to their written correspondence but to written questions. I reiterate the promise that I have made to all hon. and right hon. Members that if anyone has a particular problem with a particular Department, my office will take that up for them. I have done that for a number of hon. and right hon. Members from across the House, and it does seem to get answers. I can only apologise on behalf of the Government that there have been delays in responses because, to be fair, of the pressures of the pandemic earlier in the process. I am reassured that things are now getting better, but the right hon. Lady must feel free to raise with me any instances where replies are not being received.
As regards the decision being made today, we are following the advice that the Government have laid down, and that is that the clinically extremely vulnerable should not be going into work but that other people are able to go into work if it is a covid-safe environment. As this is a covid-safe environment, people are able to come in if they are not clinically extremely vulnerable. Shielding as a concept ended in the summer and therefore it is not part of the current Government advice.
In his opening remarks, the Leader of the House referred to the possibility of maximising what was possible. Mr Speaker, through your good offices and that of your technical team, we know that a hybrid Parliament is perfectly— [Inaudible.] Not only that; it is exercised, for example, at Prime Minister’s Question Time every week. But hitherto, those of us who are not able to attend have been denied the opportunity to take part in debates.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Dame Cheryl Gillan) and my—[Inaudible.]—are both senior members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Throughout the last six months, we have been taking part in plenary sessions, debates and committee hearings perfectly satisfactorily in a hybrid fashion. I cannot believe that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House would suggest that this House is not capable of doing something that Europe is capable of, so my question to him is simply this. At the last vote, 200 Members were denied the opportunity to attend, speak or vote. This time, following the lead taken by the Father of the House, will he make sure that there is a proper debate and that every Member of Parliament who wishes to do so is enabled to participate and to vote?
My right hon. Friend was momentarily interrupted, and that is one of the problems with remote participation; the quality of the audio is not invariably perfect. Although that works during Question Time, it is not a good enough way of having a debate, nor did we find when we had the hybrid Parliament that debates of legislation worked effectively. I would also point out that when we had the hybrid Parliament, we were meeting for only three days a week, and we were very short on Opposition days and had no Backbench Business days, both of which have now been restored. The act of holding the Government to account and, indeed, of getting legislation through was less easy, and that is why it was decided, by a vote of the House, to return to a more physically present Parliament, especially for debates and therefore particularly for legislation.
I would say to my right hon. Friend that we are ensuring that Parliament is working effectively, and we are going to make, I hope, with the agreement of the House, an exception for those who are clinically extremely vulnerable. He does, though, ask a question that is something of a conundrum, because we cannot change the rules until we have voted to change the rules, so the vote to change the rules will be of fundamental importance for allowing those who are clinically extremely vulnerable to attend and speak in debates.
With due respect, I disagree with the Leader of the House. It has been proved that we can vote remotely, thanks to the wonderful work of the digital team, and that is what we should return to, but may I ask a question about Westminster Hall debates, which seem to be the crux of many of the issues that have been raised? If we cannot bring Westminster Hall debates back because of technical issues, will the Leader of the House please look into how Westminster Hall-style debates were brought back before October by conducting them in Committee Room 5, where there are the technical possibilities?
There is an element of choice, as to what the House wants. We brought back Westminster Hall because regular representations were made to me that people wanted to have Westminster Hall back. If the House does not want Westminster Hall, that would be a matter for the House, but I would be very surprised if that were the case. The hon. Lady opened her comments by saying she disagreed with me. Dare I say it, Mr Speaker, but that is very reassuring. She is, after all, a Liberal Democrat, and I am always very nervous if a Liberal Democrat agrees with me.
It has been said in this House that it is the duty of Members to participate physically in debates to show people that it is safe to return to work. With England in full lockdown and “work from home” a message across the UK, is it not the duty of every Member to show that working remotely can be done effectively, or, unlike every other Parliament across the length and breadth of Europe, is that something that is simply beyond the wit of the House?
The advice is absolutely clear that people should work from home if they can do so effectively, but this Chamber does not work effectively when people are not physically present. To reiterate the points I have already made, to ensure that the Government are held to account and that the Government’s legislative programme can be proceeded with, we need to be here physically, because otherwise both of those cannot happen properly. One of them is to the advantage of Opposition Members, and that is the holding to account. They should be pleased to have the opportunity to hold the Government to account thoroughly, vigorously and with full vim, rather than thinking that the Government should have an easy ride over a virtual setting. I am rather surprised that they are so nervous about participating in the process of scrutiny.
On the other hand, from the Government’s point of view, we wish to ensure that the legislative agenda on which we were elected just under a year ago is proceeded with, and that is our democratic right, because we have a mandate to do it. On the one hand, proper scrutiny, and on the other, a legislative programme. Those require us to be here to do that properly. We need to stand with or, in socialist terms, show solidarity with other key workers who are continuing to go into work. [Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) points to the Lords. I remind her again that they had a vote that failed—a failure of the Lords—which upset the business for the next day. We have not had a single failure in this House, thanks to our model speakership.
May I report to the House through you, Mr Speaker, that the Liaison Committee met last week and discussed this matter at some length? Will my right hon. Friend respect how strongly many Chairs of Select Committees feel that a significant number of them are unable to carry out their constitutional function, because they cannot risk exposing themselves or their families to covid infection? It means that they are unable to speak to their own Committees’ reports during debates, to make statements to launch reports by their Committees, to lead debates on those reports or to speak on legislation that their Committees have scrutinised. Will my right hon. Friend please address that urgently?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I am very concerned and sorry to hear that so many members of the Liaison Committee are extremely clinically vulnerable. That is certainly troubling, but I hope that the steps that are being proposed and will be taken will be helpful to them.
I applaud the Leader of the House and also you, Mr Speaker, for the guidance and leadership that have been given. Does the Leader of the House not agree that engagement in this place is what we are elected to do, and that the proper process should be followed? Does he agree that the proxy voting scheme, for example, is an essential component of moving forward in a different way in these peculiar times? Can he envisage a time-limited way of allowing greater engagement during these times?
The hon. Gentleman is an absolute model of parliamentary engagement and of the ability to stand up for constituents and ensure that they are represented. He does it with aplomb and vigour. Yes, we need to ensure that there is as much engagement as possible, and the point I am trying to get across is that having a functioning, active democratic Chamber is not simply nice to have, like some sort of additional bauble on the British constitution; it is fundamental to how we are governed. It is fundamental to how the extraordinary laws that have been introduced are scrutinised, and that requires almost all of us to be here, but we can make exceptions for those who are extremely clinically vulnerable.
I would like to echo the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin), the Chairman of the Liaison Committee. I am one of those Select Committee Chairs who do not feel that we are able to fulfil our function—not as a bauble of Parliament as the Leader of the House has just suggested—because we are unable to attend for medical reasons. I have not been able to participate in a debate since the middle of March and I do not feel that I am fulfilling my function as a Member of Parliament properly. This was brought home to me only last week, as I am one of the two current MPs who are commissioners of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and I was unable to participate in the Armistice Day debate on 11 November, despite having asked for a special dispensation from your office, Mr Speaker, which you were quite properly unable to give me.
Also last week, had it not been for the consequences of these new restrictions, I would have been introducing on Friday the only private Member’s Bill that I have ever been fortunate enough to have drawn in the ballot. I urge my right hon. Friend please to give some urgency to his deliberations on introducing this new measure, which I welcome wholeheartedly, to ensure that by the time my private Member’s Bill comes back to this House on Friday 15 January, I will be able to deliver it in person.
I completely sympathise with my right hon. Friend. It must be very frustrating not being able to participate in the activities of the House, and I hope that the proposals being brought forward to help those who are extremely clinically vulnerable will be of assistance. It is important that this House actively holds the Government to account and scrutinises them, and that the legislative programme is proceeded with, and that is exactly the balance that the Government are trying to achieve, by ensuring that scrutiny is properly done and that legislation is properly debated, and by allowing those who have exceptionally difficult circumstances to be able to participate more fully. But it is a balance, and it has been a balance as to what can or cannot be provided all the way through. We have had different requests in different directions for what the resources should be devoted to—hence the question raised by the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) as to whether we should close Westminster Hall and use the resources for something else. There is always a balance to be struck.
It has been fascinating listening to the Leader of the House, and I cannot help but think that he is not only gaslighting MPs but gaslighting the whole country in his responses. Paragraph 4.7 of “Erskine May” says that the Leader of the House is
“primarily responsible for the arrangement of government business”
“has a general responsibility to safeguard…the decencies and to ensure that Business arrangements have regard to what is right and proper in the interests of the House as a whole.”
It goes on to state:
“The leadership of the House is not a statutory office, and nor is the Leader of the House formally appointed by the Crown.”
I think the Leader is somewhat overreaching in his suggestion that he should decide who should take part in the debates in this House as a Member of Parliament. The current arrangements are not in the best interests of the House as a whole. I love being in the House of Commons and I love debating, but we are in a pandemic at the moment and covid is asymptomatic. This place is full of it, whether we like it or not, and we are putting 600 people at risk every time we are here.
My Remote Participation in House of Commons Proceedings (Motion) Bill could just be adopted by the Government instead of being debated in January. I urge the Leader of the House to adopt the Bill and meet me and other Members, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies), to talk about how we can have proper participation and ensure that our democracy is safe and that we hold the Government to account.
I reiterate the point I made earlier: I am always willing to meet hon. and right hon. Members, in part because of what it says in “Erskine May” about the responsibilities of the Leader of the House, which I am well aware of. That is why I have made it so clear that I expect Ministers to respond in a reasonably punctual way to Members’ letters and other communications. It is important that this House is respected by the Executive; that is absolutely fundamental.
I am sorry if I gave the impression that I will decide who speaks in debates. I certainly do not do that; that is decided on a daily basis by Mr Speaker. Terms of reference for any proposed changes would have to be decided by a motion that has to be passed by the House. It is a matter for the House to decide, as it will do. The Leader of the House does not have, or would want to have—certainly I would not want it—the ability to decide who speaks in debates. That is a matter for the Speaker on a daily basis and otherwise by a motion of the House.
It is somewhat ironic that when my right hon. Friend brings forward his proposals the only people who will not be allowed to participate in the debate are those who are forced to shield. They will therefore not be able to participate in the decision making, other than having a proxy vote. There is clearly no reason why Adjournment debates could not be accorded a position in the Chamber in future if we are to have virtual proceedings. I realise my right hon. Friend enjoys, as I do, the cut and thrust of debate in the Chamber and the opportunity to intervene, and clearly we need to make sure that that is still enabled. Will he set out the requirements on Members of Parliament to provide their reasons for shielding or being forced to be clinically vulnerable? Will he also consider the fact that the current lockdown in England will expire on 2 December? By the time we get around to this motion, it may be that we are out of the lockdown and into a new structure completely.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point about the timeliness, and I am very keen to ensure that this motion is brought forward soon so that it can be decided by this House soon. He makes the point that things may change again on 3 December. It is my view, but it will warrant further discussion in the House, that the length of period for this proposal should coincide with the duration of the other motions, which all expire on 30 March. It would be unfair and unreasonable to create uncertainty for people who are extremely clinically vulnerable by having a very short timeline on this proposal or a separate one from the other existing exceptions to our normal proceedings.
I welcome the fact that the Leader of the House has finally decided that increased remote participation is possible for some once again. I am sure that it will come as no surprise to him, however, that I and many other colleagues wish he had done this so much sooner, rather than shutting us out of numerous important debates. I hear what he has just said about the timeframe, so will he confirm that these arrangements will stay in place until we are safely through this pandemic, thereby enabling us fully to represent our constituents in this place?
Madam Deputy Speaker—I got it right this time and actually noticed that there had been a change of Chair—I am grateful to the hon. Lady for the point that she raises. It is important to have a degree of certainty, so I reiterate that it is proposed that the measures would be in place until 30 March. I think that is the right approach to take. I do not want to pre-empt the decision that will be made in March, because—who knows?—we could be in a very different position by then, but I assume that if other virtual participation continues at that point, if we are still in the midst of the pandemic, it would be reasonable to continue with such proposals as are likely to be brought forward in the near future.
With UK productivity at a staggering 22% lower than that of France, Parliament is hardly helping when I can vote faster, when enabled, in a byre on a croft in the Outer Hebrides than I have ever managed to at the Palace of Westminster. Recently, while chairing the Select Committee on International Trade in 21st century fashion, I had to suspend so that Members could go back to 18th century fashion and vote in a Division in the House of Commons. Those who were interested in the Japan trade deal watched the Secretary of State for International Trade having to leave for the indignity of such time wasting. Surely, productivity and the involvement in the democratic process could now be improved by having a sensible system again during the pandemic. We did it before; can we not do it again? The main job of parliamentarians is to vote and to speak. Are those things not curtailed by the Leader of the House?
It is nice to see the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar back and smiling at us. We missed him greatly in the debate last week on parliamentary boundaries. As he was not there, I do not know if he noticed that I proposed that his seat should be made permanently in his honour, as such a fine representative of his good constituents. However, as regards to whether we are in the 18th century or the 21st century, it is important that Members of Parliament have the opportunity to meet Ministers, speak to Ministers, lobby Ministers, speak to each other, lobby each other and raise their complaints. I think we need to be physically present to do that. The hon. Gentleman makes an enormous contribution, normally on a daily basis, to this House, when he sits in his usual place and lobs in little grenades of wit and wisdom that keep Ministers on their toes and Opposition spokesmen paying attention, so the sooner he is back here the better. [Interruption.] I am being heckled by his own Front Benchers. I am not sure they are as keen to have his wit and wisdom as I am.
I would like to hold the Leader of the House to account on his misquoting of covid guidance, which clearly says that if people cannot work from home, they can go to work—not the other way around. He also said that a fully virtual House would impede the Government’s legislative programme. The Institute for Government has clearly shown that that was not the case in the spring. Many right hon. and hon. Friends have made a strong case that current proceedings are discriminatory. In line with equality legislation, in particular section 149 of the Equality Act 2010, it is the Government’s duty to identify and address the barriers that are contributing to that and to make reasonable adjustments. As such, what equality impact assessment have the Government undertaken in relation to restricting the participation in debates of Members who may not be physically on the parliamentary estate for public health reasons? And why, if the Lords has a fully virtual system, doesn’t the Commons?
To answer the last point first, we are not copying the Lords because the Lords’ system, as I keep on saying, breaks down and it is really important that we have votes that actually happen. On the hon. Lady’s other point, it is simply inaccurate to say that the Government’s legislative programme steamed ahead in May and June. It did not, because we had no Public Bill Committees.
Yes, we could have Second Reading debates, but they were extraordinarily limited. Legislation always has an effect on people’s lives. It is always important. We do not legislate over trivial things. We legislate on things that have an effect on the people we represent, usually to remove some liberty that they have previously enjoyed. To take that away lightly, after two hours of debate, hardly seems to me a proper way to legislate. Not only did we find that the programme was not advancing with any speed, but that it was completely clogged up at the Committee stage. We were also not serving our constituents properly by not debating fully the issues that were being considered.
As regards the Equality Act, the House authorities worked tirelessly to respond to the challenge created by covid-19 and put in place measures to protect those who work here and ensure the participation of those who have not been able to attend in person. What we are doing on the remote participation of those who are extremely clinically vulnerable is a further step to ensure that those who cannot come physically, because of health reasons outside their control, will be able to do so. That seems to me to be fully in accord with best practice in equalities.
I am sure that my right hon. Friend and, indeed, the Deputy Speaker are in no doubt that, if I could do so safely, there is no question but that I would be in the Chamber participating in business. While I welcome my right hon. Friend’s decision, will he consider a specific exemption mechanism for MPs who are not classed as clinically extremely vulnerable but who have been told in no uncertain terms by medical professionals to stay at home? I am a pregnant woman in my third trimester, and the Royal College of Midwives and all clinicians advise that if I contract covid, I am 60% more likely to end up on a ventilator or risk the pre-term birth of my baby. Other key workers in their third trimester have been exempted by employers, so will he consider the same mechanism for MPs?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point, and I would say that it is a matter on which she should consult her doctors. If they think that the risk is such that she is de facto extremely clinically vulnerable, I think that she would be covered by the proposals that will be introduced. She absolutely right to raise this, and it is necessary for people to work out with their doctors whether they are extremely clinically vulnerable. From what she is saying, the risk sounds to me, although I am no expert, to be high, and consultation with her doctors may well put her in that category, but that is a matter for her to take up with her doctors.
May I tell the Leader of the House that I would love to be there—I love the cut and thrust of the Chamber. He may not know that I contracted covid-19 in early March, and it developed into long covid. Eight months later, on my good days, I struggle only with cognitive brain fog, but on my worst days, it is still sheer exhaustion and debilitating headaches on top. Thankfully, the good days now outnumber the bad, but I cannot plan which it is going to be. Virtual participation in questions, UQs, statements and Select Committees has been a godsend, but I have had to miss out on important debates, including on key issues that affect my constituency and, indeed, on the subject of long covid. Will he look at that again?
I am very sorry to hear that, but I did know that the hon. Gentleman had been suffering from long covid. I wish him extremely well—it sounds extraordinarily debilitating and difficult for him. I am not unsympathetic to the requests that have been made, but this is all a question of getting the balance right between ensuring that the House has effective debates, with legislation introduced in a timely manner and following the guidance that we are giving to the country at large—I reiterate that it applies to people who are extremely clinically vulnerable—as we need to ensure that provision is made for those who are told not to come into work. I wish him extremely well in his recovery, and I hope that it goes from strength to strength.
I congratulate the Leader of the House on uniting the House almost entirely, although in opposition, to what he has said. He makes great play of the fact that the House is a covid-safe environment, and I praise the House for that. What he cannot do is guarantee that my journey from home by tram to Manchester, by train to London and by tube across London can ever be covid safe. That is the reality for those of us who are not London-based. I have the necessary clinical exemption, but I can still not take part fully as a Member of Parliament to defend the rights of my constituents in Westminster Hall debates. Can the right hon. Gentleman explain that to my constituents and place on the record the evidence that says that at the moment it is not technologically feasible to make that happen in Westminster Hall?
The issue around Westminster Hall is what I am told by the House authorities, which seems to me to be a reasonably authoritative position. It is a question of resources. As I said earlier, the broadcasting team is relatively small and has been working under a great deal of pressure to try to deliver not just the Chamber but Select Committees performing remotely. Those resources are not unlimited and have to be shared in a way that gives the greatest satisfaction to the most people. Westminster Hall cannot be broadcast currently with remote participation unless resources were to be taken from somewhere else. That is a question ultimately for the House if it wanted to lessen, perhaps, the facilities available to Select Committees or take resources from somewhere else. That is what I have been told by the House authorities, and I am sure that what they have told me is accurate.
After nearly an hour of being battered from all sides, it is about time that someone supported the Leader of the House and did the unpopular thing of defending the Government. May I say that I welcome what he said and the moderate way in which he said it? While I am happy with extending this provision to people who are clinically vulnerable, may I urge him not to bow to pressure and extend virtual debating to everybody, giving everyone carte blanche? We are in danger in this country of creating two worlds: an Aldous Huxley “Brave New World” where middle class people can sit in the comfort of their own homes and do their jobs and ordinary people are forced out into the workplace. Our job is to set an example and be here. “Parliament” comes from the French “parler”, and it does not mean talking at people but talking with people. There is a practical point: if we are having a debate, we do not want to be like the Council of Europe with its dead debates where people read out speeches; we want to have people here and intervening on each other.
I am naturally grateful to my right hon. Friend. He is right that we do need to be here. I share his concern that we think we should do things differently from other people. That is why I have consistently tried to set out a case where the House behaves in the way that other key workers are.
Yes, I know right hon. and hon. Members have to travel from their constituencies to get here, but other key workers have to take journeys, too—we are not alone in that. We are not alone in needing to go to our workplace because it does not operate properly without us. We should, in fact, be proud of the fact that we are key workers and, alongside other key workers, doing our duty to make democracy function.
My right hon. Friend makes a powerful point about there being two groups of people, which we should bear in mind. As I said, we should be standing shoulder to shoulder with our constituents, recognising that they have to face these difficulties as well. We are not, in this sense, unique. As we can help those who are extremely clinically vulnerable, it is right that we should do so. However, that will be a limited change, because the resources and the ability to have proper debate are limiting factors in what can or should be done.
Many of us in this place would not ask the Leader of the House for different circumstances from those we represent. We are actually asking for the same consideration. Many of us come from constituencies quite some distance from London, from areas where there is no lockdown at the moment, and the public have been asked not to travel to areas where there is a lockdown. Many of us doing that—despite being asked not to do so—also have underlying health conditions and therefore every day have to decide what comes first: the risk to our health or representing our constituents. Most of us choose representing our constituents. I do not think that is a decision we should be asked to make, because we would not ask any of our constituents to put their health at risk. I ask him to take that into account.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for the point she makes and for her attendance at the House. I recognise that the issues she raises are problems for right hon. and hon. Members. Where I disagree with her is in the view that our constituents are not also having to do that. Our constituents who are key workers do have to travel and go to different places, and that is why there are not travel restrictions on key workers. That is of fundamental importance. That is why it is right that she is here and why it is important that other Members are here. As I said earlier, democracy is not a nice-to-have bauble; it is essential to the governance of the country.
I am astonished that the Leader of the House continues to insist that anyone who is a designated key worker is having to work normally. That is simply not the case. Key worker status has nothing to do with whether someone has to attend work. It was invented at the start of the pandemic to provide prioritisation for key workers who needed, for example, childcare arrangements so that someone could look after their children while they went to work. The Office for National Statistics estimated last year that about one third of the workforce would be categorised as key workers.
If the Leader of the House is suggesting that one third of the workforce should be going about their normal day-to-day work as if nothing had happened, that is surely a recipe for disaster. He does not understand what “key worker” means; he does not understand the fact that Select Committees have already seen their meeting schedules torn to pieces by the restrictions on broadcast capacity within the House; he does not even understand the statement from his own Prime Minister, because the Prime Minister said that anyone over 60 should minimise contact with others. It would take out about 140 Members of the House of Commons, including me, if we followed the Prime Minister’s advice.
May I suggest to the Leader of the House that he goes and finds out the facts of what he is talking about and then come to the House with a proposal that allows anybody who has a legitimate reason for not being able to travel to the House to play a full part in the proceedings by video call—by remote means—in exactly the same way as the national Parliaments in Scotland and elsewhere are able to work perfectly satisfactorily?
If anyone looks around the Chamber, they will see that we are not working normally. It is not a question of working normally: we see the markings on the floor, the tape, the stickers, the “no entry” signs where prayer cards normally go. The House is not working normally; Perspex screens have been put up. This has been done to make it a covid-secure workplace. I do not think there is any question that all key workers are working normally, but it is important that they are at work, and most need to be at work, as we do. That is the point that I would make, but is it normal here? No, and the issues the hon. Gentleman raises about Select Committees are absolutely right. Of course it has been difficult to make Select Committees run in the same way as they did before the pandemic. The issues have applied in Westminster Hall, too, where the numbers who can attend are limited, and Members are not able to intervene in the way they normally would. That is true; we are not working normally, but we are continuing to work.
Equality is not a “nice to have”; it is essential. Pregnancy and maternity, disability and age are all protected characteristics by law. Employers in the NHS and in education have made reasonable adjustments so that pregnant workers can work in those environments, and some have been enabled to work from home. Why will the Leader of the House not do the same for the key workers in Parliament?
I hope Hansard got a bit more of that than I did, but I think I got the fundamental point. We have made the right provisions to ensure that people can come to the House and can participate in our debates, and this is a further step on this road. Therefore, I fundamentally disagree with my right hon. Friend.
I have always been a bit suspicious about the concept of normality; it has always seemed to me to be a moving feast. One of the great strengths of British history and the constitution is that tradition always adapts to reality. The Leader of the House will remember the 15th century. In 1439, when pestilence was abroad, the House of Commons and the House of Lords jointly petitioned the King to say, “Could we dispense with the business of kissing the King as a sign of our liege duty?”; and the King agreed. Is not the truth of the matter that in every generation, when there are classic moments like this one of national crisis, we have to abandon our hidebound traditions? We have to adapt to the moment, and surely to God it must be invidious to be asking individual people to declare whether they are clinically extremely vulnerable. As it happens, I have had six letters, I think, now to say that I am; my doctor says that I am not. I am quite happy to talk about it, but I do not think individual Members should have to declare that.
Why can we not just trust Members, and say that every single Member is treated equally in this House and has an equal right to debate until the end of this parliamentary Session, and then we can revise what we want to do in the future? Why on earth is it going to be right that if the Government table a motion next week—perhaps at the end of this week—the Government Chief Whip will have more than 200 votes in his pocket to be able to dispose of? Would it not make much more sense for us, at least on this issue, to have voting online so that everybody can cast their own vote?
I strongly welcome the move that my right hon. Friend has made today. I think it will make a significant difference. I do agree with him that Parliament should definitely be open and that those MPs who can attend should do so, because it sets an example to the nation. I know him to be a kind and thoughtful man, so when he considers these issues in future, may I ask him to ensure that the Government do not give the impression, however unwittingly, that sometimes they care just about the survival of the fittest and that we are not just supporting Darwinian Übermenschen MPs in Parliament?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. He puts things so well. He is a most effective campaigner in the very many fields in which he campaigns, and I absolutely share his view. The Government are not trying to be macho about this; they are just trying to ensure that the Government themselves are held to account properly, but that the legislative programme is also proceeded with. I agree with him entirely that Parliament needs to be present, and I also agree with him that we are showing an example to the nation as a whole. May I add that he often personally shows a fine example to the nation?
I fundamentally disagree with the Leader of the House: the remote voting system in the House of Lords has been working, and is working, effectively. However, does he recognise how insulting he was when he implied that shielding Members were shirking their duty by not being able to come to Parliament, and will he apologise?
What I have said is that those who are clinically extremely vulnerable will be able to have remote participation, I hope, subject to a motion before this House. There is no question of accusing those people of shirking; that would be quite wrong and I have never done so.
I welcome what the Leader of the House has brought forward, but I have listened carefully to what has been said and I really do not understand why we cannot extend participation in debates. It might have to be limited; I accept that interventions might be difficult. My concern is this: I do not think he said whether those who have family members who are clinically extremely vulnerable would be covered by this provision, and that is essential. I have a real problem, but, frankly, I am not convinced that making all of this public is a very good idea. I do not think that compelling people to disclose quite private medical information widely is something that we should be in the business of doing. I would prefer it if it were left to Members. Those who are able to participate in interrogative proceedings virtually ought to be able to do so in debates, and I urge him to reflect on that further before he brings the motions before the House.
The advice of the Government broadly, not specifically to this House, is that it is extremely clinically vulnerable people who should not be going into work, not members of families where a member of that family is extremely clinically vulnerable. It is important that we follow the same advice that we are giving to our constituents. I said earlier that last week I had to write to a constituent saying exactly that, and that I do not feel it is right for this House to take a different approach from the one that we are expecting our constituents to take.
As regards people revealing their medical details, nobody will be expected to go into any detail as to what their illness is. They will merely need to be extremely clinically vulnerable, and it will be a choice for those people. I think the difficulty with allowing anybody who can participate remotely to participate in all aspects remotely is that we would then not have debates; we would have a series of monologues and we would have the risk of the system going down. We have already had a couple of people on calls this afternoon whose words were muffled or distorted. The technology is not perfect. The efforts of the broadcasting team are absolutely admirable, but the technology does not work perfectly and people being here physically is important for proper democratic accountability.
After my recent treatment for breast cancer, my oncologist advised me to reduce my contacts as much as I can during the pandemic. That is the reason I have not been travelling to the House. That does not make me clinically extremely vulnerable, so I would fall outside the changes suggested by the Leader of the House unless they are widened. I am glad we are discussing the extension of remote participation, but the plan by the Leader of the House to restrict it to Members who are clinically extremely vulnerable is just wrong. With the right support, Members can do their job remotely, but we have been denied that. I call on the Leader of the House to do the right thing and confirm that all MPs who are not able to travel to Westminster safely for a health reason or a reason related to the pandemic can participate remotely
I doubt the hon. Lady can see, but the shadow Leader of the House is nodding. I know everyone here wishes her well.
As I said earlier, this is a balance between ensuring that parliamentary business is carried out properly and allowing those who are extremely clinically vulnerable to be able to participate. That will not be perfect in terms of debate—they will not be able to take interventions, nor will they be able to intervene. It is hard to see how that could function effectively. The greater the numbers who were involved, the harder it would be to make the system work effectively. I think we have the balance about right, although I absolutely understand that it will be difficult for some right hon. and hon. Members.
May I recommend that the Leader of the House read the gov.uk guidance? The guidance is different this time from last time: it is just really clear that people need to stay at home and only go to work if they cannot work from home. We can work from home, and to show an example to the rest of the country, we should do that. I have been self-isolating for the last nine days, because the covid app told me to. I really wanted to raise a campaign that I and my constituents were doing to try and honour the 34 people in Croydon who have lost their lives in conflict since the second world war. I had wanted to raise that in the Armistice Day debate and I was not able to do so. Given that the technology is available and that thousands of key workers, including my husband, are working perfectly well from home, why did the Leader of the House think it was right to exclude me from that debate last week?
The hon. Lady and I simply disagree on whether the House can operate effectively remotely. We have the experience to go on of May and June when it did not work effectively. The legislative programme was bunged up and we lost all the private Members’ days—all the Fridays were cancelled—Westminster Hall was closed, and we had limited availability for Opposition days and no availability for Backbench business.
The House has to carry on a wide range of activities, not just in the Chamber but in Committee Rooms. No Public Bill Committees or statutory instrument Committees took place. We need to get legislation through, both because of the deadline of 31 December, which is an important one, and because we have to legislate on covid. That is of course in addition to the democratic obligation to deliver on the manifesto commitments that were made in the election last year. With all these things, I think it is unquestionable that we need to be here physically to do it properly.
If we are to have some Members attending virtually, which I agree with, can we lengthen the debates on important issues? For instance, last week’s Remembrance Day debate was only three hours, but 59 people had put in to speak and only 28 Back Benchers caught the Speaker’s eye. Personally, I have put in for four debates and not been called in each one, even though I have spoken only seven times this year. Could we extend the debates so that everybody can contribute, as well as the people having to self-isolate at home?
One issue with which I am not the first Leader of the House to wrestle is that Members want a clear time for the ending of business but also the ability to speak in debates. Trying to balance the two is extraordinarily difficult. I completely understand what my hon. Friend is saying and am very sympathetic to it. I must confess that I was pleasantly surprised by how many people put in for the Armistice Day debate; when we discussed it as a possible subject for debate, we were not at all certain of how many people would want to speak in it. When a debate is brought forward and attracts great interest, there is some feeling that we are getting the order of business right. We will know for next year that there is a considerable desire to speak in that debate.
My hon. Friend’s general point is a very valid one: how we structure business to allow people to make the contributions that they want to make is fundamental. I am afraid that, perhaps rather feebly, I suggest that she contacts the Chairman of the Procedure Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley), because it is a subject that ought to be of interest to that Committee.
The Leader of the House keeps quoting the Government guidance, so while he has been answering questions I have looked it up. Last updated on 14 November, the guidance says, under the heading “Going to work”:
“To help contain the virus, everyone who can work effectively from home should do so.”
The only person in this Chamber who is standing in the way of Members of Parliament effectively doing their jobs from home is the Leader of the House. He has got himself into a ridiculous position because he has dug himself in by insisting that people attend this Chamber, but that is a ridiculous approach during this crisis and he should change his mind.
The hon. Gentleman might have been well off listening to my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), who has left his place but said that he had already heard the question asked several times so offered to withdraw it. I am more than happy to answer the same question once again, which is to say that we do need to come here to do our job properly and that is the fundamental point. That is what the Government guidelines exist for: if people cannot work from home effectively, they need to come into work. We are in that category. I do not know, Madam Deputy Speaker, whether you would like me to set out the reasons why, going back through April, May and June—the absence of Westminster Hall, the loss of Fridays for private Members’ Bills, the limitations on the work that can be done and the slowness of legislation getting through—but I will happily repeat myself if that is your command.
May I take this opportunity to thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and the staff for helping to provide a covid-secure workplace in the House? We must not lose sight of that among this debate about all the different interests. I welcome what my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is doing and this announcement, and in particular the compassion that is evident in what he has said and the flexibility he has shown in trying to address some of the concerns expressed. It occurs to me that there are competing interests here. Perhaps my right hon. Friend could confirm that, given that we cannot find a perfect model of what has gone before and what we have had before, it is his difficult—even unenviable—task to find a point of balance at that very difficult place that takes into consideration the constraints of time, technology and the many Members who want to make their points in debate?
My hon. Friend puts it absolutely perfectly: this is all a question of balance and trying to ensure that Members can participate—particularly those with difficult circumstances, whom everybody wants to facilitate if possible—while also recognising that there is a Government agenda to be worked through and the job of holding the Government to account. My right hon. Friend—my hon. Friend; I dare not promote him quite so quickly—has managed to say in one sentence what I think I have been saying over the past hour and a half. Perhaps he should be Leader of the House.
This may be deemed a covid-secure environment, but every day I am here I witness breaches of the “hands, face, space” criteria set out by Her Majesty’s Government, so someone who is clinically vulnerable is at risk and therefore this is not secure. Secondly, may I say that it is completely reprehensible that the Leader of the House discussed the clinical diagnosis of a Member of this House from the Dispatch Box and that calling on Members to declare that they are clinically extremely vulnerable is also reprehensible? I have two suggestions for him. The first, on equality, is that he ask the Equality and Human Rights Commission to carry out an investigation into the discrimination that is occurring as a result of his practices. Secondly, I ask for a short independent commission to see what is possible with regard to making the whole of Parliament virtual for those who require it.
I am concerned to hear the hon. Lady say that this is not a covid-secure workplace. If we look around, we see the precautions that have been taken: the advice given to people to wear masks, which most people are doing as they walk about the Palace of Westminster; the gaps that have been placed; the covid-security of this Chamber; the lack of spaces within this Chamber, which is problematic for many Members, who regret the fact that they are not able to attend debates and that we have only about 50 people in the Chamber, rather than the 400 or whatever the precise number is that we can normally contain; the changes that have been made to the Tea Room, which are not enormously popular with all Members, to ensure that it, too, is a covid-secure workspace; and the encouragement of people, which has been continual since the beginning of this pandemic, to wash their hands. I must confess that I would be very surprised if right hon. and hon. Members are not washing their hands regularly, and no doubt she will encourage them when she sees them failing to do so. I am surprised by what she says and think that the work done by the House of Commons authorities to ensure that this is a covid-secure workplace has been most impressive. As regards the equalities issue, we are doing exactly what she would want to see done in ensuring that those people who have illnesses are able to participate in our proceedings.
I welcome this urgent question and the prospect of the clinically extremely vulnerable being able to participate remotely in this place, particularly as a temporary and expedient measure. As a wider point, may I ask the Leader of the House for assurance that the House authorities are working up a plan for how this Chamber returns to normal and when?
That will be a happy day, a day of jubilee and song, and I hope we do not have to wait until the platinum jubilee before it happens. But it will happen partly automatically, because the motions will one day expire. Of course I am enormously keen to get back to normal, when it is reasonable to do so, and in that we will be following the rest of the country. The fact that we are able to do as much as we can do should make us proud of our democracy. We have shown that democracy is essential and it is being carried out, and it is working in the interests of the nation. People are here and they are arguing over the contentious issues, and this is so fundamental, but it is slightly sotto voce compared with the full-blooded call we have for the interests of our constituents when the Chamber is packed, the Prime Minister is at the Dispatch Box and that roar goes up, when the real pressure is on, to ensure that, on behalf of the British people, we hold Her Majesty’s Government to account.
On 2 November, the Leader of the House suggested that MPs such as myself, who are unable to attend the House, are shirking their duty, but it is he who has excluded me from important legislative debates. I welcome the fact that he will now reconsider, but he keeps referring to the “extremely clinically vulnerable” and yet says that this will not include MPs in the shielding category. So may I ask him: exactly who will decide which MPs are accorded the right to speak and will he clarify what medical qualifications they will hold?
It is not for me to determine the medical advice that is received by Members of Parliament, but if they are told by their doctors that they are extremely clinically vulnerable, they will be extremely clinically vulnerable; I am sure we can trust doctors to know which of their patients are extremely clinically vulnerable or not.
I know the Leader of the House will do everything he can to make virtual access to Parliament as widespread as possible for those needing to work remotely, but does he agree that maintaining a personal presence in Parliament is key in delivering Parliament’s work and key in setting an example to all those we are asking to carry on working?
I am sure the Leader of the House would agree that it is not appropriate, or indeed proper, for him to announce these types of changes on Twitter, so will he first apologise for that, given that, as great champion of this House, he should have made the statement here and not announced it on Twitter on Saturday? I also know that he will think that it is not appropriate to suggest in a tweet that this is a capacity issue within the House service. That simply is not correct. These things have been in place with increased capacity since May of this year, and he knows that.
On Bill Committees, I cannot believe that we are back to the same debate of April and May. The Leader of the House knows, on the record, that it is not correct to say that there was a blockage of Bill Committees. Labour Members had been put forward and there had been trials for hybrid proceedings. The official Opposition had put forward Members for either hybrid or physical Bill Committees. The Leader of the House knows that.
This is not about interventions in this House; it is about the right of Members to take part in a debate. The Leader of the House knows that it was a simple change of Standing Orders to allow that those who take part in a Back-Bench or Opposition day debate in a hybrid system would accept not having interventions while Members in the Chamber could. He knows he is not correct in what he is saying. This is deeply unfair to those Members. It is about time he acknowledged his fundamental duty as Leader of the House to represent all Members of this House to the Government.
The hon. Gentleman stands up and says that what I am saying is something that he does not believe. At some point he made a little comment about the enormous enthusiasm with which the official Opposition are trying to help Her Majesty’s Government to get their business through. I say to him: pot and kettle.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) for his question. I put on record my sympathy with his circumstances and indeed the case he is making. However, does my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House agree—I feel this quite keenly as a new Member—that Parliament should be an assembly, and not just for the quality of scrutiny and deliberation but because of the learning from each other that takes place here? Does he therefore agree that those who can assemble in a covid-secure way should do so?
My hon. Friend is absolutely spot on. We ought to be assembling because we are not, as Edmund Burke put it, ambassadors representing countries —individual areas that are not as one—but representatives sent to a single Parliament where we come together to look at the overall interests of the country at large. That needs people to come together and talk to each other, not just lecture each other remotely, which is clearly not a satisfactory way to run a Parliament. He is right: we need to come together. That is why we do come together and why we must come together.
The Government, I presume, will soon be outlining a ratification process for any deal that they sign with the EU. In all probability, these will be the most important deliberations we will have here in this Parliament. Given that, is it not his responsibility as Leader of the House to ensure that all Members of this House can take part in debates and votes no matter what their circumstances?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his typically reasonable and helpful question. Obviously, if there were to be an agreement with the European Union and votes and debates on it, that would be a matter of interest to the whole House. I feel that what is being proposed and will come forward in a motion will allow that to happen. All Members are currently able to have a proxy vote, and therefore their vote will be recorded. It is very important to note that, although the proxy vote may be in the hands of Whips, individual Members are absolutely entitled either to give it to somebody else or to ask the Whip to vote in a different way from the way the Whip wants them to vote. It is not a vote that is handed over for good, and that is fundamental. The individual right of a Member to direct his or her vote is maintained, and these proposals will allow those who are clinically extremely vulnerable to participate in debates remotely. I hope that there will be an outbreak of union between the Conservative party and Plaid Cymru, though we may disagree about the status of our nation.
Does the Leader of the House accept that he has probably not commanded the support of the entire House for the Government’s approach? Will he therefore allow the House to amend any motion he tables, so that we can take the full view of the House on how its proceedings should be governed during this crisis?
I mistakenly looked at the screen and thought it had gone blank, but may I say how nice it is to see my hon. Friend here physically? He and I were great troopers together on the Back Benches for many years, and I am glad to see that he continues to hold the Government to account. The Government will bring forward a motion. I will announce the schedule of business on Thursday, although if I keep going at this rate, I may still be speaking on Thursday morning.
The Leader of the House said that, as key workers, every Member is in the same position. During this pandemic, I have had to drive over 10 hours on several occasions to attend Westminster, and I am not the furthest away. Not everybody can do that. The lockdown in England has meant that transport options have practically stopped in many constituencies for those who are far from the easy travelling distance to Westminster that he enjoys. For example, only one flight leaves Inverness today, and that is to Stornoway. How does that sit with every Member being in the same position?
The distance between Inverness and Westminster has not changed during the course of the pandemic, as far as I am aware; I am unaware of a great movement of the tectonic plates. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his commitment to Parliament in wanting to come here and the importance of a Union Parliament welcoming MPs from across the country, who come together to express their views, with the enormous contribution made by SNP Members who dutifully come to Westminster to inform and contribute to our debates and hold the Government to account. They are dutiful public servants—key workers—doing their bit for the United Kingdom, and I thank the hon. Gentleman warmly for his service to the UK.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s announcement about the extended rights of participation for the clinically extremely vulnerable. The fact remains that there is a category of Member of Parliament who is effectively excluded from participating but who is not clinically extremely vulnerable, and that is pregnant women. I dovetail this question with the one put by my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns). The Health Secretary has confirmed that pregnancy does not leave someone clinically extremely vulnerable. The reason for their exclusion is compliance with the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999. If my right hon. Friend was satisfied that there were MPs who were excluded and could not participate but did not meet the clinically extremely vulnerable criteria, would he consider extending the right to participate in debates to that category?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Perhaps it would be helpful for me to explain why the view is that this should cover the clinically extremely vulnerable, which is very straightforward. That is the group that is currently advised by the Government not to go to work. If the Government were to advise other specific groups not to go to work, of course it would be right to consider whether they ought to be added to the list.
I must add one caveat, and that is on the overall numbers. To ensure that we still have proper debate and a functioning Parliament, the numbers need to be limited. That is part of the balance that I, as Leader of the House, and others are seeking to achieve, to ensure that we can maintain our business—both the legislative agenda and being held to account—but also facilitate people in particular conditions. I am not unsympathetic to anybody in a difficult situation, but we need to follow what the Government are suggesting to see which categories may be included. So far, the category is the clinically extremely vulnerable, but I am not as much of a stick-in-the-mud as some people might think.