House of Commons
Monday 16 November 2020
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 4 June).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
Oral Answers to Questions
Housing, Communities and Local Government
The Secretary of State was asked—
My Department has engaged extensively across government in taking forward the new duty on local authorities to provide support in safe accommodation, as set out in the Domestic Abuse Bill. As a new burden, it will be appropriately funded—the amount is a matter for the spending review—to ensure that local authorities are ready to provide the right support to victims. Last month, I announced a £6 million fund to support councils to prepare for that duty.
As it stands, the Domestic Abuse Bill places a duty on local authorities, as the Minister said, to support survivors who are in refuges, and of course they must, but with the rise we are seeing in domestic abuse, the majority of survivors do not move into refuges, and they also need support. Will the Minister therefore agree that local authorities must also have that duty and the funding to provide the community-based services and support that survivors need?
I thank the hon. Lady for her point. She is right that any victim of domestic abuse needs that support in place, and the new duty in part 4 of the Bill will ensure that support is available to victims in a wide range of accommodation services and not just refuges. We recognise that more needs to be done to ensure adequate provision in the community is available, and that is why the Domestic Abuse Commissioner is undertaking a review of that provision. That review will enable us as the Government to better understand the needs and develop outcomes for how best to address them.
Only this morning, it was reported that women suffering from domestic abuse were being turned away by up to five separate refuges, even where spaces were available, due to them not speaking English and a lack of specialist services. The provisions in the Domestic Abuse Bill and the statutory duty on councils is one thing, but does the Minister understand that, if the funding for refuges from local authorities is as severely under-resourced as charities such as Refuge and Women’s Aid estimate, the legislative change will be meaningless for those women who are desperately fleeing abuse only to be turned away?
The hon. Lady raises an important point. A home should be a place of safety, and for those in abusive relationships, the situation she outlines is not acceptable. Domestic abuse is a heinous crime, and we are committed as a Government to ensuring that survivors get the support they need. I am monitoring the situation as we move through covid in regard to the demand for places, and that is exactly why the Government announced the £10 million emergency support fund, which has gone to more than 160 charities. That has helped reopen 350 beds and created more than 1,500, but there is absolutely no complacency. I will continue to monitor this, as will Ministers in the Home Office as well. We will take action where required.
Rough Sleepers: Accommodation
As part of our plan to end rough sleeping, earlier this year I announced a £433 million funding package, which will provide 6,000 homes for rough sleepers over the course of this Parliament, the largest ever investment in accommodation of this kind. We are taking immediate action with the funding. Last month, we allocated over £150 million to local partners to deliver 3,300 new homes to rough sleepers across England, and these will be available by the end of March next year.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. The brilliant work of the Government, charities and local government in the Everyone In initiative meant that 30,000 people were provided with safe emergency accommodation, which obviously reduced pressure on the NHS and undoubtedly saved lives. I welcome the Protect programme and the announcements he has made on new homes, but the reality is that the announcement of 3,000 new homes will not help and assist the 30,000 people in total who need accommodation right now. What efforts will he make to ensure that safe and secure accommodation is provided to all those threatened with rough sleeping? Also, will he commit to rolling out the Housing First programme, which is so necessary to help those who have been sleeping rough to rebuild their lives?
I can assure my hon. Friend that that is absolutely the priority for my Department. I am proud that, as of September, we have successfully supported over 29,000 vulnerable people through our efforts, with over 10,000 helped into emergency accommodation and nearly 19,000 already provided with settled accommodation or move-on support. Thankfully, very few of those individuals have so far returned to the streets. He mentions Housing First. He will know that we have funded a number of pilots, which he helped to inspire in previous years. We have learnt from that work, and that is very much the impetus behind the rough sleeping accommodation programme, because every individual who goes into one of these 6,000 new homes will be given wraparound care for mental health, addiction, substance abuse and all the other things that they need to begin to rebuild their lives.
The Government’s former rough sleeping tsar has warned that we are heading for a “perfect storm of awfulness” this winter when it comes to homelessness. With many owner-occupiers and renters struggling with bills, rent or mortgages, there is a likelihood that more people will get to a place of desperation. There are already 130,000 children in temporary accommodation, but there is little action from the Government to tackle hidden homelessness. With rough sleeping levels going back to where they were and no repeat of Everyone In, there is real concern. What does the Secretary of State consider to be different about rough sleeping in a winter lockdown, apart from it being colder and more dangerous than in spring?
In a letter to me, the hon. Lady described the Government’s Everyone In programme as “an incredible achievement” that helped to save “hundreds of lives”. She is absolutely right, and I would like to thank all the councils and charities that were part of that. That plan has not stopped; that work continues. We are backing it with £700 million of Government investment. We began planning for the winter in the summer. We have put more money in for housing. We have also asked every local authority in the country to draw up its own individual plan and backed that with £100 million of additional support. The Protect programme now once again asks local authorities to give everyone who is sleeping rough on the streets during this new period of national measures a safe place to stay. We will be working cross-party with councils across the length and breadth of England to make that a success.
Places of Worship: Covid-19
We are grateful to our faith communities for their efforts in ensuring that their places of worship are as covid-secure as possible. However, the view of the scientific community, including the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, is that there is a greater risk of the virus spreading indoors and where people gather. Regrettably, this means that places of worship are currently closed for communal prayer but remain open for individual prayer.
I thank the Minister for her reply. Given the serious implications of criminalising worship and the hardship it has caused churches and religious communities, will the Government commit to publishing their evidence base and to consulting fully and widely with faith groups before any future decisions on applying restrictions to worship are made?
I do not underestimate the concern that this has caused for our religious communities, but the evidence from the scientific community, including SAGE, shows that the virus spreads quicker indoors and where people gather and interact. We are incredibly grateful to those who have taken part in the places of worship taskforce for their support and advice. We continue to call on their expertise and that of all major faith groups ahead of the regulations ending on 2 December, and we will continue to have those conversations over the next two weeks.
The Government created a places of worship taskforce in May, but the taskforce has been ignored and has repeatedly not been consulted on these very consequential decisions during the pandemic. Does the Minister agree that our people of faith do not deserve to be an afterthought for the Government but must instead be respected, and will she commit to the Government meeting weekly with the taskforce to avoid this problem being repeated?
I have to disagree strongly with the hon. Lady’s assertion that the taskforce has not been consulted. It has been led by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. We have listened to the views of the community leaders and individuals around the table, and evidence has been shared. I can agree to her call for a weekly meeting, because the taskforce already meets weekly.
Buckinghamshire Council: Devolution Proposals
We are committed to levelling up through further devolution, but our focus must be on tackling covid-19. I know that Buckinghamshire Council has worked tirelessly throughout this pandemic to support its community, helped by £32 million in additional covid funding. We intend to bring forward the devolution and local recovery White Paper in due course, detailing how the UK Government will partner with places across the country to build a sustainable economic recovery.
I thank the Minister for his answer, and I join him in his praise for Buckinghamshire Council, which has worked tirelessly through this pandemic. Does he agree with me that this proposal from the council has all the potential ingredients for success, because it is place based and it has support from the local enterprise partnership, health partners, universities, and the voluntary and community sector? Will he therefore urge his officials to engage in conversations with the council as soon as is practically possible?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. He is right to raise this hugely important issue, and I was pleased to meet him and other colleagues from Buckinghamshire just the week before last. We are extremely grateful to the council for submitting its proposal, and I know my officials are looking at it closely. As I have said, we will set out details about our approach to devolution in the White Paper. I absolutely agree that our officials should meet as soon as possible to discuss this proposal in greater depth.
I thank the Minister for his answers, and particularly for his praise of Buckinghamshire Council throughout the pandemic. I agree with him entirely that the focus must be on recovery from covid-19, and that is precisely at the nub of the devolution proposals that Buckinghamshire has put together. Therefore, will my hon. Friend agree to meet the Buckinghamshire MPs, Buckinghamshire Council and all of our partners to look at the detail of this proposal, which could put £10 billion extra into the UK economy, both to get the right deal for Buckinghamshire and to help shape the White Paper?
I thank my hon. Friend. It was a pleasure to meet him recently to discuss this and other matters in Buckinghamshire. I would be delighted to have that meeting. As I say, I think our officials should meet to discuss the proposal, and then let us get together with the council very soon to take it further.
Since the start of the pandemic, we have given over £7.2 billion directly to councils. Sheffield city region has received £127 million in un-ringfenced covid emergency funding, on top of an increase in core spending power of over £70 million this year, and it is set to benefit further from the latest round of support for the November lockdown. Households in the most deprived areas in England receive nearly three times as much spending per home as those in the least deprived areas.
I thank the Minister for that response. He will know that since 2015, South Yorkshire has received £363 million from the local growth fund—money that has created 15,000 jobs, funded the revitalisation of town centres and supported investment from companies such as Boeing and McLaren. What plans does his Department have to extend this crucial pipeline of funding beyond next March, so that Mayors and local leaders can rebuild their economies?
I thank the hon Gentleman for his question, and for working so constructively with Government throughout this pandemic. He is right to highlight the importance of local growth funding to places and people up and down this country. The Budget this year did confirm up to £387 million in 2021-22 to provide certainty for local areas, which allows them to continue with existing priority local growth fund projects that require funding past this financial year. We will work closely with LEPs and Mayors to understand the changing need of local economies, and will look at how this funding can be used alongside other resources to support local economic recovery efforts. Further funding decisions will be announced in due course at the spending review.
When a Conservative Chancellor delivered his austerity Budget a decade ago, he said we are “all in this together”, yet the reality has been far from that, with communities in the north seeing a disproportionate impact on council budgets—in Blackburn, cut by over 50%—dramatically reducing our resilience to the covid crisis and our ability to recover and bounce back. Can the Minister assure the country that the Government will not break their promises again, and that his Department will take real action to address the health and economic inequalities in the north?
I disagree with the hon. Lady’s assertions. The council self-reported covid costs through September stand at £3.6 billion. We have provided £7.2 billion on top of our sales fees and charges scheme, which recoups councils with 75% of their lost income past that first 5%. The hon. Lady’s own council has had £87 million in funding, £15 million in additional un-ringfenced covid funding and £1.37 million in test and trace support. The hon. Lady is also wrong to say that we are not targeting the funding where it is needed. In distributing our covid emergency funding, we have taken into account the roles of deprivation and population, and the different cost drivers up and down the country. We are listening to councils, we are working with them and we praise their extraordinary ability to respond to the pressures of this pandemic.
We are witnessing a profound reshaping of our towns and high streets as covid-19 continues to have a very significant impact on our communities. Our towns fund is investing £3.6 billion in an initial 100 towns, which will help to renew town centres and high streets across the country. In September, all 101 towns received their share of over £80 million to help deliver immediate improvements, and I was pleased to announce the first seven comprehensive town deals last month, with further deals and the results of the future high streets competition being announced very shortly.
The market town of Uttoxeter in my constituency has been identified as well placed to support housing growth in the local plan. Will my right hon. Friend meet me to discuss the potential that the regeneration of Uttoxeter town centre offers and how we can ensure that it meets the needs of those who live and work in the area as the population increases?
My hon. Friend has the privilege of representing a historic market town in Staffordshire that I know well, and she is absolutely right to say that covid-19 presents great opportunities for the repurposing of offices and retail. We need to seize that moment and ensure that we get more housing in our town centres. That is the way that we will drive footfall, and we will turn empty shops into thriving homes. We have already put in place new planning reforms to enable people to do just that, as well as to demolish vacant buildings and turn them into housing, and we will continue to find new flexibilities in the months and years ahead to do just that.
Since my election, I have heard from many constituents who have concerns about the neglect of the high street in Blyth. The town has applied for money from the high streets fund as well as the towns fund. While I realise that there has to be a fair and transparent process for selecting the successful schemes, will my right hon. Friend assure me that he will do all he can to help the people of Blyth in the Conservative aim to level up? Let’s build back better.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Blyth is one of the initial places chosen to develop proposals for the towns fund and for the future high streets fund, and we recently provided £750,000 to make immediate improvements to Bowes Street. I was also pleased that, as part of our £900 million getting building fund, two projects in Blyth are seeing investment from the Government, including £2.6 million for the creation of the UK’s first offshore wind centre for robotics. So, from improving one of the town’s historic streets to green jobs for the future, the Government are investing in new opportunities for Blyth.
Over the last four years the average number of visits per person to Bolton town centre has fallen, as has happened in much of the country—indeed, in Bolton’s case it has fallen by 37%—while vacancies and crime have risen. Can my right Friend assure my residents that the Government will make efforts to reverse this trend by encouraging growth in the markets of the future?
I certainly can. We have taken a number of steps throughout the pandemic to help small businesses, particularly in retail and hospitality, so that when, as we hope and expect, the national measures are eased on 2 December, it will be easier for those businesses to move forward. I was pleased last week to announce that I am extending the right that allows pubs, restaurants and cafés to provide takeaway services until March 2022. I have also extended the option for local authorities, such as the council in Bolton, to host outdoor markets and events, and for businesses such as pubs to use their land temporarily without planning permission, for example for marquees in pub gardens.
Given that the likely response to covid will mean that office space is needed much less in the future, and that that is likely to be a long-term trend, does my right hon. Friend agree that that should have a profound impact on the algorithmic distribution of housing numbers anticipated by the planning White Paper?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. We are seeing the most substantial change to our city centres and town centres since the second world war, and that does give us pause for reflection. We now need to consider what the opportunities will be for the repurposing of offices as residential and for turning retail into mixed use, and that will, I think, lead us to a different approach to distributing housing numbers across the country. The consultation that he refers to has closed; we are considering the responses, and I will make a statement on that in the weeks ahead.
Dangerous Cladding: Leaseholder Support
We are providing £1.6 billion to speed up the removal of unsafe cladding and make homes safer, and to make them safer quicker. Where funding alone has not been enough to increase the pace of remediation, we are providing direct expert support to projects. We will continue to listen to leaseholders to resolve their concerns.
I thank the Minister for his continued engagement on these issues, but, as he knows, the very difficult and serious issues now facing tens of thousands of leaseholders around the country are growing, not declining, and they are taking a serious toll on people’s lives and livelihoods. From buildings unable to get insurance, to the nightmares of acquiring an EWS1 form even for buildings with no cladding and the many now deemed out of scope of the building safety fund, this is becoming a national scandal and a real crisis for leaseholders. Will the Minister meet me and Manchester City Council to discuss an excellent piece of work that it has done on the wider and acute impacts of these issues on a place such as Manchester?
I am obliged to the hon. Lady for her question and for the tone of it. Of course I will continue to engage with her and will happily meet her, as I think I did in July, to discuss these matters. She raised the EWS1 form particularly, and I think it would be worthwhile if I said a few words about it.
First, it is worth pointing out that the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors EWS1 form is not a Government document; it was devised by RICS and by the industry. Not all lenders require it; some use other tools. Lenders that do require it are working with us to ensure that there are more nuanced tools available to resolve leaseholders’ concerns. I should say, with respect to those lenders that use EWS1 forms for buildings less than 18 metres in height, that that is not something that the Government support. We do not support a blanket approach to the use of EWS1 forms. Lenders should use other tools in order to discuss the safety or otherwise of those sorts of buildings.
Over three years on from the Grenfell tragedy and one year since the Bolton Cube fire, 203 high-rise blocks are still clad with flammable aluminium composite material, and many thousands more are clad with equally flammable high-pressure laminate. Minister, is it not about time to come clean about the serious limitations of the size and scope of the building safety fund? Up to 1.5 million people, such as Paul in Manchester, are desperate, trapped in this nightmare. What bold, urgent action does the Minister intend to take?
I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman for his question. He will know, with respect to ACM cladding, that we have made £600 million available to remediate the most dangerous buildings. Something like 97% of buildings with ACM cladding have either completed or started their remediation. As a result of the expert support we have provided to private building owners, we have supported something like 100 ACM projects to remediation. With respect to the £1 billion fund for non-ACM-clad buildings, I can tell him that we have had a very significant number of applications, which have worked through. A very significant number have now been asked to make further information available, so we can advance those applications. We will get the money out of the door as quickly as we can. We will also encourage builders and owners to remediate the buildings themselves, because that is what they are obliged to do. It should not fall on the taxpayer to pay for remediation. It is the responsibility in the first case of building owners, through their warrantee schemes or through the original builders.
Could the Housing Minister clarify the Government’s policy on what costs leaseholders should have to bear for the removal of cladding? On 20 July, the Secretary of State, in a written statement, very helpfully said:
“The Government are clear that it is unacceptable for leaseholders to have to worry about the cost of fixing historic safety defects”.—[Official Report, 20 July 2020; Vol. 678, c. 89WS.]
However, by the time we got to 16 October, the Housing Minister himself said we should look for solutions
“that protect leaseholders from unaffordable costs”.
So, not any costs, but unaffordable costs. When the Minister with responsibility for building safety came to the Select Committee on Housing, Communities and Local Government, he could only define “affordable” as costs that did not make someone bankrupt. Does the Housing Minister understand the great concern and upset that the change of policy has caused for leaseholders, who thought they would bear no costs but could now be faced with substantial bills? Will he explain the change of policy or, better still, go back to the original policy the Secretary of State identified that the costs should not fall on leaseholders at all?
I am obliged to the Chairman of the Select Committee and I am grateful for the report that the Committee produced on cladding. There has been no change in policy. The Government are quite clear that we do not expect, and we do not want, leaseholders to bear the costs of remediation of unsafe buildings for which they were not responsible. That cost should fall on the owners, through the owners, the builders or any warrantee scheme the owners have.
Stronger Towns Fund
The £3.6 billion towns fund is delivered in England only. There are Barnett consequentials for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It is the responsibility of the relevant devolved Administrations to decide how that funding is spent.
Quite aside from the Public Accounts Committee findings of Ministers wildly and inappropriately gerrymandering the funding process, I would like to ask the Minister about the Barnettisation of that funding. It is amazing how all the Tory MPs can stand up and say how much money their towns and constituencies are getting, yet it took the Secretary of State four months to confirm to me in writing that the funding would be Barnettised. How much is Scotland due to get and why have we not received it yet?
Building Safety Programme
My Department is in regular contact with local authorities and the Local Government Association as part of the building safety programme. Local authorities play an important role in advancing remediation. They are routinely invited to meetings with officials and are represented on the early adopters group. Eleven local authorities across London attended the Department’s remediation summit in September.
Difficulty in borrowing on or selling a home may be understandable when it is caused by unexpected natural events, climatic or otherwise. It is entirely unacceptable, though, when it is caused by obvious Government changes, especially to building regulations. The Fire Brigades Union and local authorities know what needs to be done, but it is only the Government who actually have the purse strings and can take the action to put homeowners out of the misery that they find themselves in. When will that be done?
It is being done. We have made available £4 million to local authorities to support a data collection exercise looking at external wall systems. Together with the Home Office, we have made £20 million available to increase the capacity and capability of fire and rescue services in their conduct of fire protection activity. We are backing local authorities. We are backing the fire and rescue service. I only wish the hon. Gentleman knew that.
Disused Coal Tips: Safety and Stability
The Chief Secretary to the Treasury wrote to the hon. Member in October saying that he is expecting to provide £2.5 million needed for tip repairs in Tylorstown. The letter also clarifies that he is waiting to hear further from the Welsh Government on additional requests to access the reserve and is working with the Welsh Government’s Finance Minister on this very matter.
It is all very interesting that the Minister reads out a letter that I have already received, so I have actually read it, but it does not answer the question at all. My question is about how we are going to make sure that all the coal tips across the whole UK—because there is still no register of them in England and Wales—are properly accounted for and properly made stable and safe, so that we do not have another Aberfan disaster. I say this as much for constituencies in England as in Wales, because the real danger is that if we have had to find £12.5 million for a single tip in Tylorstown that fell into the river, imagine what the bill is going to be across the whole of England and Wales. It is time the Government woke up to this, and I really hope the Minister will answer the direct question about who is going to be footing the bill. Local authorities will be bankrupted by this if we are not careful.
I was just checking that the hon. Gentleman had received the letter and that he had read it. He has, and I am pleased and grateful for his further contribution. He will know that Welsh local authorities started the 2020-21 financial year with over £1.4 billion of usable reserves. Of that, £200 million was general and unallocated. As I said to him, the Treasury is in discussion with the Welsh Government regarding the funding on this topic. Welsh authorities should discuss further funding with the Welsh Government and I encourage him to do similarly.
Covid-19 Lockdown: Local Authority Support
Since the start of the pandemic, we have provided over £7.2 billion directly to councils. We have also confirmed further support for local authorities through the extension of the contain outbreak management fund, and Cornwall will receive an extra £35 million from the additional resources grant and business grants for closed businesses.
I thank the Government for their generous support to councils during this difficult time. I have two very important crossings across the Tamar in my constituency, owned by Cornwall and Plymouth councils, which have run into financial difficulty. How does my right hon. Friend the Minister advise that this situation should be resolved?
I know that this is a hugely important matter for my hon. Friend and her constituents. Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have provided Cornwall Council with over £60 million and over £30 million to Plymouth City Council. Local authorities should be able to claim for relevant irrecoverable losses from toll bridges and roads. These losses have a named category in the form through which local authorities make their claims. However, it is for local authorities to be responsible for making sure that the claims that they make under the scheme meet the principles that we set out. We would advise her local authorities to consider these carefully before making any submissions.
The Government are investing £12.2 billion in affordable housing over the next five years from next year. That includes £11.5 billion for the affordable homes programme, which we anticipate will provide up to 180,000 new affordable homes, should economic conditions allow. Furthermore, at spring statement 2019 we announced a new £3 billion affordable homes guarantee scheme, which will build on the success of the existing £3.24 billion scheme and support the delivery of new build affordable homes.
I thank the Minister for that very full reply; it is good that so much work is going on. Does he think it might be useful to revisit the definition of affordable homes? In the past, we tended to use the definition of 80% of average market value, which, when prices are high—as they often are—is still not affordable. Will he consider that, please?
I am always happy to consider my hon. Friend’s suggestions. He will know that the affordable homes definition in the national planning policy framework includes:
“Housing for sale or rent, for those whose needs are not met by the market”
and the assumption is that that is at 80% of average cost. Of course, we also have a social rent option that local authorities can leverage, and we have certainly allowed local authorities greater ease in developing their own social homes. I also point him to our first homes programme, which provides discounts of at least 30% on homes in perpetuity so that people can realise the dream of their own home.
Covid-19: Local Authority Support
Councils’ self-reported figures suggest that local authorities spent an additional £3.6 billion through September as a result of covid. Since the start of the pandemic, we have provided over £7.2 billion directly to councils and are now providing new funding for national restrictions. I hope the hon. Gentleman will also welcome the additional funding of over £40 million that Wakefield Council has received to support its community so far this year.
Austerity impacted most on the poorer communities right across the north and elsewhere. In Wakefield alone we have lost almost £50 million from local care services, schools, youth support and child services, not to mention the wage freezes for key workers. The impact of covid in damaging community resilience is apparent to all. Is it not time for the Minister to show that he has learned lessons by restoring funding to those communities in difficulty from the cuts and finally giving a rise to the key workers who have done so much to keep our country going?
I am surprised to hear the hon. Gentleman speak like that about local authority when he supported and voted for the local government finance settlement this year. As I said, since the start of the pandemic we have provided £7.2 billion in funding. Wakefield has received £31 million across four tranches of unring-fenced funding, the last including deprivation, population and cost driver indicators, too. It has also received £2 million for test and trace, £7 million from the infection control fund and more than £40 million in additional grants. As the hon. Gentleman failed to do so, may I use this opportunity again to recognise the incredible work of councils, who have been dynamic and energetic in responding to an incredibly difficult period?
On 27 October, we announced the first seven town deal offers, worth almost £180 million, for Barrow-in-Furness, Blackpool, Darlington, Norwich, Peterborough, Torquay and Warrington. Of course, we look forward to receiving further town deal proposals, including from Thornaby in my hon. Friend’s constituency, in the coming months. We will also bring forward a competitive element of the fund so that more places can benefit from investment that will improve our towns and high streets and drive long-term economic growth.
I am currently working alongside councillors, businesses and community groups to put together Thornaby’s bid for up to £25 million. We want to get rid of the Eagle hotel and other blights on our town centre as well as improve training and skills opportunities, leisure facilities and cycle routes—and, importantly, we want to make life-changing improvements to housing. Does my hon. Friend agree that local people know their area best? Will he help unblock any bureaucratic barriers that prevent money being spent on local priorities?
Absolutely. I thank my hon. Friend for all his work. The objective of the towns deals is to drive the economic regeneration of towns, including through improving transport and digital infrastructure, supporting skills development and making the most of the planning powers to create a supportive environment for residents and businesses. The towns fund will support mixed-use redevelopment in towns such as Thornaby, creating thriving places for people to live and work. Each town has its own local priorities and should align its proposed interventions with the towns fund intervention framework, as set out in the further guidance.
Traveller Communities: Planning Policy
The Government’s response to the consultation on powers for dealing with unauthorised development and encampments proposed measures related to Traveller site provision and strengthening planning enforcement powers. I can confirm to my hon. Friend that further changes to planning policy will be considered as part of our reforms to the wider planning system set out in our White Paper, “Planning for the Future”.
In parts of the country, we have the double disaster of settled residents moving away in fear and Traveller children having the worst outcomes of any group of children. Can the Minister reassure me that the review that his Department is undertaking will put an end to the unacceptable situation in which both those groups find themselves
My hon. Friend has campaigned long and hard on these issues, as have several others in the House. He will know that the Government’s overarching aim is to ensure fair and equal treatment for Travellers and their children, but we must not be blind to the rights of the settled community as well. The distress that some local communities face due to antisocial behaviour is unacceptable. Local authorities have a wide range of powers at their disposal, including the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, but I can confirm to him that I will happily consider his and other proposals as we work through the contributions to the White Paper consultation, to ensure that our planning reform also encapsulates the concerns he raises.
I would like to take this opportunity once again to thank our local councils and councillors across the country for their resilience and hard work in this period of new national restrictions. We are providing more than £7 billion of funding directly to councils alongside our sales, fees and charges scheme, which we expect to also be worth well in excess of £1 billion this year. When it comes to the role that councils have played in protecting the most vulnerable in society—rough sleepers—their work has truly been world class. Last week, I announced the launch of the Protect programme, the next phase in our strategy, which has been widely praised as one of the most successful of its kind anywhere in the world. I thank local councillors in advance for the work they will do in the weeks to come. The Prime Minister and I have been clear that, despite the challenges we face, our mission to deliver the housing our country needs continues at pace. We have kept the market open in order to protect house building and ensure that we protect the millions of jobs that depend upon it.
We do not have the leasehold system in Scotland, yet as a result of rules drawn up with the English leasehold system in mind, each individual owner must get their own EWS1 assessment carried out. How does the Secretary of State intend to resolve this costly and bureaucratic system, which is clearly not fit for purpose in Scotland and which is causing such difficulty to my constituents affected by the ongoing cladding scandal? Will he arrange a socially distant meeting with me to discuss this further?
I would be very happy to meet the hon. Lady. The noble Lord Greenhalgh, the building safety Minister, and I have been meeting lenders and UK Finance to discuss the EWS1 form and to urge them to take a more proportionate, risk-based approach. The EWS1 form was, as we heard earlier, designed for those buildings over 18 metres with external wall systems. It is now being used for buildings below 18 metres and buildings without any cladding at all. That is causing misery to thousands of people across the country, and it needs to change.
My hon. Friend will know that my Department is working closely with the residents of Northpoint to ensure that they have access to funding. They are part of the building safety fund and will benefit from that £1.6 billion. He is right also to draw attention to the waking watch issue, which is increasingly a national scandal in itself; this is a rip-off. We have published research that demonstrates that some operators of these businesses—the contractors—are charging outrageous fees for very little. We will be reporting that to the regulatory authorities and we hope that they will clamp down on these practices as quickly as possible.
There is growing public concern that the Secretary of State may have misused taxpayers’ money from the £3.6 billion towns fund to boost the Conservative party’s general election campaign, but he can easily clear the matter up. Will he publish, in full, the accounting officer’s advice and the full criteria that he and the former Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry), used when they blocked funding for towns ranked among the 100 most deprived and instead funnelled millions of pounds to each other’s constituencies ahead of the general election?
The Department has already made it clear that a robust process was established—before I became Secretary of State. It was followed to the letter and we will not apologise for investing in communities that have been under-invested in and undervalued by the Labour party for generations. With respect to the accounting officer’s report, accounting officer assessments are not routinely published. That is a matter for the Department, which I am sure will consider it and reply to the Select Committee in due course. But I can assure the hon. Gentleman that he will not deter us from our mission to level up all parts of the country.
I can do that. My hon. Friend shares my belief that street homelessness is a crisis not just of housing, but of health, mental health and addiction as well. Our approach from the start of the pandemic has been not only to bring people in off the streets into safe and secure accommodation, but to ensure at all times that they have that wraparound support. That was part of the success of Everyone In and it is part of the Protect programme, and it learns from the enormous success of the Housing First pilots that we have initiated in parts of the country.
Last week, I met Mencap, which was extremely concerned about the lack of clarity on the shared prosperity fund. Disabled people have benefited enormously from the European social fund, but mere days out from crashing out of the transition period the Government are woefully silent on the future of this. So will the Secretary of State agree to meet myself and Mencap to outline a way forward for the shared prosperity fund and give disabled people clarity?
I would be happy to have that conversation. My officials have been engaging with officials with the devolved Administrations, from all nations of the United Kingdom. We have said time and again that further details of the shared prosperity fund will be published at the spending review, and the hon. Gentleman does not have long to wait for that.
I am obliged to my right hon. Friend for the concern that she evinces in respect of this matter. I am happy to update her. The Government are providing a £10 million cold weather fund to all local authorities, to help them to bring forward self-contained accommodation this winter. Our new £15 million protect programme is providing dedicated funding to local areas with the highest numbers of rough sleepers. Alongside that there is a £2 million transformation fund to help faith and community centres to move away from night shelters and into more innovative and positive options for shelter guests. I was pleased that my right hon. Friend directed me towards our noble Friend Lord Bird; I am happy to continue to engage with him and her, as is the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood (Kelly Tolhurst).
I thank the officers and councillors at Cheshire West and Chester Council for the hard work that they have done already and no doubt will do in the weeks ahead. We have provided a great deal of support to the council: total covid-19 additional funding is £25 million, and total funding from across Government is almost £39 million. As the hon. Gentleman says, that will be followed up by further funding from the sales, fees and charges scheme, which contributes 75p in the pound in respect of lost income for councils. I have also committed—I will say more on this at the spending review—to a similar scheme in respect of lost income for council tax and business rates.
My hon. Friend rightly points out the £11.5 billion that we have made available in the next five years to build 180,000 new affordable homes, a significant proportion of which will be for affordable or social rent. We have already heard about the £700 million or so in total that we are spending to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping, and I direct my hon. Friend towards the abolition of the housing revenue account cap, which allows local authorities to build social homes if they wish to. It is a local authority matter and we encourage them to do so.
The situation in Croydon is deeply concerning. There does appear to have been catastrophic financial mismanagement. Ultimately, it is the people of Croydon who will suffer as a result of that failed council. The council has decided to issue a section 114 notice. We will consider the findings of the urgent review, which concludes later this month.
As my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing has said repeatedly today, the funding that we have put into councils since the start of the pandemic —more than £7 billion—has been deployed taking deprivation into consideration to ensure that the councils that need the money the most have the greatest share. As we approach the spending review, I will, of course, be arguing for further funding for local authorities so that they are properly and sustainably financed in the year ahead.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the Second Reading of his Bill. We are looking to strengthen the powers and sanctions in respect of both heritage and planning enforcement as part of our White Paper reforms of the planning system. I am sure that he will be lobbying us to ensure that that is part of the wider package.
It is a shame that the hon. Gentleman makes party political points without understanding the facts, because no Minister in my Department has ignored the advice of their officials. The Department produced a robust process, which was followed by myself and any other Minister in the Department, so he should be careful before making wild and false accusations.
I am obliged to my hon. Friend. She is a doughty campaigner for her constituents in Dover, and particularly, in this case, in Deal. She will know that the national planning policy framework makes it clear that local authorities should make provision for infrastructure, including water supply and energy, through their strategic planning authorities. As to what further we can do, our White Paper on planning reform proposes an infrastructure levy that will get that sort of infrastructure that she refers to in place at the get-go so that communities get not just the housing they need but the infrastructure to go with it.
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are very much sticking to our promise to support local authorities. We have already given local authorities more than £7 billion since the start of the pandemic, with the sales fees and charges and the business rates and council tax schemes. We are approaching £10 billion of additional support for local authorities, and in his case, in Ealing, it is £30 million, so he is quite wrong to say that we are not supporting his constituents.
Before the urgent question, I wish to make a short statement about deferred Divisions. When arrangements were announced for deferred Divisions with social distancing to take place in the Members’ Library, the period for voting was set from 11.30 am to 3.30 pm. In view of the scale of proxy votes now in place, I propose to reduce the time period. It will now be 11.30 am to 2 pm. This reduction will have effect for any Divisions this Wednesday and any subsequent Wednesday. Deferred Divisions will continue to take place in the Members’ Library. I also remind the House that hon. Members with a proxy vote in operation cannot vote in person during a deferred Division.
Participation in Debates
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.