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Business of the House

Volume 802: debated on Thursday 5 March 2020

Motion on Standing Orders

Moved by

That Standing Order 46 (No two stages of a Bill to be taken on one day) be dispensed with on Wednesday 11 March to allow the Supply and Appropriation (Anticipation and Adjustments) Bill to be taken through its remaining stages that day.

My Lords, on the Motion, will the Chief Whip comment on the story on the front page of the Times today that the House, and indeed Parliament as a whole, might be suspended for six months because of the coronavirus? Is he aware that this would be regarded as a very bad move by almost all Members of the House and would send a terrible signal to the country about the way in which we are treating the crisis that we face? He will be aware that Parliament sat all the way through the war, and indeed through the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918-19. Surely the best advice that we can give ourselves is to keep calm and carry on.

My Lords, I support what my noble friend Lord Adonis has just said. From my experience of almost 20 years ago, following the attacks of 11 September 2001, I know that the one thing that we have to avoid is alarming people. I cannot think of anything that would alarm the nation more, and damage both individuals and our economy, than Parliament failing to sit because of the coronavirus. I hope that, united as we appear to be, we can send a message to the other place that we want a sensible, rational and balanced approach, which so far the Government have been achieving.

My Lords, I do not wish to prolong the debate, as there is lots of information we do not yet have, but there are two issues on which I seek assurance from the noble Lord. First, if any action at all is to be taken in restricting access to Parliament, or in any way restricting our work, it should be taken only on the advice of the Chief Medical Officer and with the approval of Parliament.

Secondly, if at any point the virus leads to any restriction on how Parliament works, the Government will need to put in place plans to ensure that democracy continues. That is the point being made by the noble Lords, Lord Adonis and Lord Blunkett. I understand that the No. 10 briefing points out that there could be a quorum of 100 MPs. The quorum is currently 40, so the article does not make much sense, but we should ensure that both Houses of Parliament can operate. I hope the noble Lord gives some information about the plans being drawn up by Downing Street for the worst-case scenarios.

My Lords, I support the comments from other noble Lords, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett. It is important that Parliament sets an example to the nation. If the coronavirus were to be so devastating that we have to close every organisation that brings several hundred people together, it would devastate the economic and social life of the nation. So far, there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that that would be necessary for the rest of the nation. For Parliament to appear almost to be taking the lead in wishing to hide away is a very bad signal to the rest of the country. Can the noble Lord assure us that that approach will not be followed by the Government?

My Lords, I have advised my noble friend that I would try to raise this and I strongly support what has been said. There may be a case for restricting the number of people who sit in the Galleries—everybody has access to Parliament through the television—but for Parliament itself to abdicate would be entirely wrong. Never has it been more important to hold the Government to account and to hear what they are proposing to do.

In that context, I raise a second point, of which I have again advised my noble friend. I was appalled to see that we are going to have weekly updates of the statistics. We have been having them daily, and we have been told where the outbreaks are. It is very important that we are kept fully informed and that Statements are made regularly in both Houses, so that we can question the Government. I strongly urge my noble friend to say that the daily update will be maintained and that there will be no question whatever of the suspension of Parliament in the foreseeable future.

My Lords, I am pleased to answer those questions on this important matter. Although they are not directly connected to the Supply and Appropriation (Anticipation and Adjustments) Bill, I understand that this was an opportunity for noble Lords to raise these important issues. Let me make it clear that there are no plans to close down the House or Parliament, as was reported this morning in the papers. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, that Parliament has proved itself to be very resilient over the years and centuries. There is no reason at the moment to think that shutting Parliament would be either necessary or helpful. As the Secretary of State made clear yesterday at the all-Peers briefing, our approach will be guided by the latest scientific and medical advice, which addresses the question the noble Baroness asked. We will take all necessary measures to deal with this outbreak. I believe the Chief Medical Officer said at the Health and Social Care Committee today that he sees no reason why Westminster needs to close, at this point.

I reiterate that, importantly, we will take advice from the Chief Medical Officer for England and from his colleagues in the devolved Administrations; there is, if you like, a college of Chief Medical Officers. Those noble Lords who went to the briefing yesterday will know that he was, first, reassuring and, secondly, able to express the position clearly. We will follow the Chief Medical Officer’s advice, and I assure the House that we are engaging with the parliamentary authorities to emphasise how important it is that any decisions are taken in line with his advice.

I can also announce that Public Health England has set up a hotline for Members of the Houses of Parliament. Details of that hotline will be circulated by the Whips Offices and the Convener’s office. As far as organisation and planning are concerned, a cross-parliamentary group of senior managers meets daily to plan the response and ensure business continuity, with input from the Government. The Lord Speaker is in regular, if not daily, contact with his opposite number in the Commons. The Commission is also meeting jointly with the Commons Commission and will consider this on Monday.

The noble Baroness the Leader of the Opposition asked about the Chief Medical Officer; I think I have answered that. As for making democracy available in all cases, we agree; we are concerned that democracy should continue. After all, we have a large democratic mandate that we wish to fulfil. I will take that point back and make sure that there are plans to do so, but I cannot give specific details of what those plans will be at the moment.

My noble friend Lord Cormack asked about continuity and daily updates. As far as I am aware, the health professionals have moved the advice from a daily to a weekly basis, so we are following that. Regular statements on the intranet for Parliament are being updated daily as well. I think I have answered his question on Parliament.

I am grateful to the noble Lord for his response, which I think is as full a one as he is able to give at the moment. Can I press him slightly on this, as these will be political as well as medical decisions? There has been concern following the newspaper articles, because we have seen the unlawful prorogation of Parliament in the past. Can he commit to keeping the usual channels and the House updated on any plans and discussions that take place? I think we are largely reassured by his commitment that Parliament should do everything it can to maintain its role, both for the message that sends and for its important role in holding the Government to account.

I certainly can confirm that we will keep the usual channels and the House updated. Noble Lords will appreciate that in the last two days there has been a Statement, with extra time made available for questions, and yesterday there was an all-Peers briefing from the Secretary of State and the Chief Medical Officer, so up to now we have made efforts to keep the House informed. I understand the point about democracy. As far as I understood it from the Chief Medical Officer yesterday, there are cycles in this virus and we will take account of them in our response. I absolutely take the point that democracy should not be avoided because of this virus.

Motion agreed.