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Business of the House

Volume 704: debated on Monday 29 November 2021

Mr Speaker, I should like to make a short business statement following the statement that has just been made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care.

Tomorrow’s business will now be: a debate to approve the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Wearing of Face Coverings) (England) Regulations 2021 and the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Self-isolation) (England) (Amendment) (No. 4) Regulations 2021, followed by an Opposition day (9th allotted day—part 1). There will be a debate on a motion in the name of the Scottish National party.

The business for the rest of this week remains unchanged to that previously announced, and I shall make a further business statement in the usual way on Thursday.

I thank the Leader of the House for advance sight of his statement on the change of business. Of course, we are pleased that this is happening so quickly; the questions on the statement we have just heard showed that issues need to be debated, and scheduling this debate so promptly means that there will be an opportunity for those questions to be put and discussed.

There are also questions about the rules on education. If I heard the Secretary of State right, a statement will be made by the Secretary of State for Education. Constituents are asking questions of Members across the House on this and it came up in the briefing on Saturday that the Secretary of State kindly gave, so if no such statement is going to be made, will there be a further briefing on education? Will that be separate from this? May I also just ask a technical thing: how long is the Leader of the House intending to allow for the debate tomorrow? I ask that so that Members can be aware of the timing that is likely to happen.

I am grateful for the shadow Leader of the House’s kind words. We gave a commitment to debate matters of national importance as soon as possible, and therefore we are delivering on that. Tomorrow’s debate will last for three hours, and there will be three hours of protected time for the debate in the name of the SNP. My right hon. Friend the Health Secretary did refer to the importance of education and protecting children, but I will pass on her request for more details to my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary.

First, I thank the Leader of the House for organising a debate for tomorrow and for it being three hours long, rather than the 90 minutes required by statute—that is welcome. May I press him a little on what the Secretary of State said in his statement? This relates to a point made by my hon. Friends the Members for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) and for Runnymede and Weybridge (Dr Spencer). The Secretary of State said that the Government will be reviewing

“all the measures I have set out today after three weeks”.

That takes us to Monday 20 December, which is in the recess. I hope that the Secretary of State will be able to allow these measures to lapse. However, may I have a commitment from the Leader of the House that if the Secretary of State feels he needs to renew them or, worse, to bring in stronger measures, the House will be recalled to debate and vote on such measures ahead of their coming into force? The Leader of the House will know that in the past couple of weeks, particularly due to the way the Government handled the standards measures, that there has been a diminution in the trust between Back Benchers and Ministers. Giving a clear commitment to treat Parliament seriously would help to heal that rift.

My right hon. Friend is being a little unfair on the Government. He will recall, as he was part of these discussions, as was I and as was the former Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, that we assured the House that it would get to debate and vote upon important national measures. Bringing forward the debate tomorrow is a statement of how importantly I personally, and others in government, take that commitment that it is only right that this House should approve matters of that kind. There was of course a caveat in that agreement, which is that we needed sometimes to act during recesses. Mostly that has not in fact happened; we have been able to do this when the House has been sitting. However, I cannot give guarantees as to what will happen in three weeks, nor can I give them as to what the desire of the House will be—it was only Oliver Cromwell who made us sit on Christmas Day.

I thank the Leader of the House for advance sight of his statement. I am disappointed that we will lose half our Opposition day but appreciate the need to introduce the legislation. Why could the debate on the legislation not have come after we had had our full Opposition day or, given that the Government are in charge of the timetabling of business, why could they not have found another way such that we did not lose half our business? I welcome the Leader of the House’s assurance on protected time tomorrow, but when will we get the second half of that debate? Perhaps it could be on Wednesday this week.

I take seriously my responsibility to ensure that Opposition parties get their Opposition days and can give the undertaking that we will try to reschedule the second half of the SNP’s Opposition day at the earliest opportunity.

I appreciate the prompt three hours of debate on mask wearing. Will the motion be specific to the wearing of masks, or will we be able to raise issues such as air flow, the ultraviolet filtering of air, infection control and treatments, which are also important in combating the virus?

My hon. Friend has promoted me to your role, Madam Deputy Speaker, in respect of deciding what it will be orderly to debate tomorrow. As I said, the three-hour debate will cover the wearing of face coverings and the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Self-Isolation) (England) (Amendment) (No. 4) Regulations 2021. I think, although I look with trepidation at the Chair in case I am overruled, that that will allow for quite a wide debate and would be surprised if it were interpreted too narrowly.

The thing is that during covid we have started to develop really bad habits. As I understand it, the measures have not yet been laid—they are not available for any of us to see and will not be available until later today. They will start to apply at 4 o’clock tomorrow morning and we will then legislate for that retrospectively tomorrow afternoon. This is not the right way to do legislation. Every single statutory instrument Committee in which I have been involved in recent months has been on retrospective legislation that has already come into force. This is not the way the House should progress, surely to God.

I had hoped that the hon. Gentleman’s quite long question was going to go on slightly longer, because I understand that the regulations will be laid by 5 o’clock. Had he gone on for another three minutes they would by then have been laid—

The hon. Gentleman, who is currently getting a little bit grumpy, is ignoring the fact that these matters are genuinely urgent. Of course it is right that laws should not come in retrospectively in the normal course of events, but our statutes provide for statutory instruments to be brought in and debated subsequently for a very good purpose, which is that sometimes things need to be done with dispatch. The Opposition, who would have kept us in lockdown forever, should remember their dither and delay when they ask questions about the speed with which we introduce things.

To follow up on the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), I have a lot of sympathy with what the Leader of the House is saying. We have acted quickly—we are learning lessons from early in the pandemic—and he is respecting the House by holding a timely three-hour debate as soon as is reasonably possible, so he gets brownie points in both respects. However, come three weeks, when we extend or—God help us not—worsen the situation, we will not be able to discuss it or do anything for at least another two and a half weeks afterwards. That is an issue.

I obviously understand that. Christmas comes but once a year and when it comes it brings a parliamentary recess as well as good cheer. We have been recalled under certain circumstances—we were last year—but it is extraordinarily rare to do it over the Christmas recess, for very good reason. We all hope that in three weeks the measures will expire, but I cannot give any guarantees on that and nor can I give any guarantees on when the decisions on the renewal date will be made. I will always do my best to facilitate Parliament, but in a way that recognises how Parliament actually wants to be facilitated. I am not convinced that all 650 Members want to be back here on 24 or 25 December.

Tomorrow, we will be debating restrictions that are designed not just to reduce transmission, but, I presume, to protect the NHS. I was disappointed that, on 16 November, a Health Minister responded to a parliamentary question of mine, saying that they had no intention of publishing any assessment of the impact of the current covid hospitalisations on the availability of NHS beds, staff and elective procedures. In order for Members of this House to have an informed debate tomorrow on the impact of restrictions and whether they are sufficient to protect the NHS this winter, will the Leader of the House please confirm whether he will ask the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care to publish a statement tomorrow morning about the impact of covid hospitalisations on beds, staff and elective procedures?

I do not want to be unhelpful, but that question might have been better asked during the statement of my right hon. Friend, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care who would have been able to give a direct answer. I suggest that the hon. Lady raises it in the debate tomorrow.

We now move on to the next item of business. I will delay for a moment to let people leave the Chamber quietly and safely with the usual social distancing.

We now come on to the House of Lords (Elected Senate) Bill.