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Virtual Participation in Debate

Volume 684: debated on Thursday 19 November 2020

Procedure Committee

Select Committee statement

We now come to the Select Committee statement. Karen Bradley will speak initially about the report for up to 10 minutes, during which no interventions may be taken. At the conclusion of her statement, I will call Members to put questions on the subject of the statement as on the call list, and I will call Karen Bradley to respond to them in turn. Members can expect to be called only once and questions should be brief. I call the Chair of the Procedure Committee.

I rise to speak to the report issued by the Procedure Committee last night about virtual participation in the debates of this House for those who cannot participate physically. It is the sixth report of the Committee in this Session, and the fourth we have produced on House procedure under coronavirus restrictions.

I must start by thanking the Chair and members of the Backbench Business Committee for allocating time in the Chamber for this statement, and the sponsors and contributors to this afternoon’s debate for their understanding. My final thank you is to the very many right hon. and hon. Members from all parties who have given evidence both publicly and privately to my Committee on this matter. It is that evidence that has informed the Committee and on which our recommendations are based. Those recommendations go much further than the Government’s position on this matter.

I am a great fan of my right hon. Friend the Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House. He is a most courteous parliamentarian and, as a Back Bencher, was one of the greatest champions of the independence of Parliament from the Executive. But his failure to schedule any debate on this subject and his refusal to listen to the views of the House, expressed so fervently on Monday in response to the urgent question secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron), when tabling the motion to extend virtual participation in debates is indefensible.

The Procedure Committee was unanimous in its view that virtual participation in debates should be extended to all Members who cannot, for whatever reason, participate in person due to the pandemic. There should not be different tests for those who can participate virtually in debates, those who can enjoy virtual participation in our scrutiny proceedings and those who decide to use a proxy vote. It should not take the image of my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) being denied the right to participate in a debate on the very disease that is keeping her from Parliament to make the Government move. The Leader of the House was right to say that nobody could fail to be moved by that image. It is my view that he should have seen the possibility of that image, demonstrating the complete contradiction in his position on this matter, and never have let it happen. The public will be baffled by a situation in which the Prime Minister can answer Prime Minister’s questions virtually yesterday and make a statement to the House virtually today but cannot take part in a debate until he has finished self-isolating. This is an utterly farcical situation.

I am sure that the Leader of the House, being a traditionalist, does not want to change our procedures too much because of a fear that those changes will become permanent. I have enormous sympathy with that view, but we must acknowledge that things are not as they were. This hybrid House is, to coin a phrase, sub-optimal. We must try to make this House work as best we can for the situation we find ourselves in now and ensure that all Members can do their job today. That requires us to look at the issue strategically, with easy-to-understand and clear rules about participation that reflect today’s reality, as set out in the four reports published by my Committee on this matter.

I must tell the House how much the Committee appreciates the work being done on the House’s behalf by all those across the House service and our digital and audiovisual services to support the work we come here to do. Our corridors are eerily quiet at the moment, for reasons we all appreciate, but I know that the staff involved will have been working non-stop to get the broadcasting systems ready for virtual participation in debate as soon as there was a prospect of the Government allowing it to happen.

Under Mr Speaker’s leadership, we have a House service that is well placed to take a strategic view of our circumstances. If there had been a little more strategic thinking in certain other quarters about how best to equip the House to meet the challenges of the pandemic once it was clear that the restrictions were to be extended well into the new year, perhaps the necessary political signals enabling work on virtual participation to commence could have been sent rather earlier than last weekend. Not for the first time, the Government have looked for tactical fixes rather than strategic solutions that would increase the House’s capacity for resilience now and in the future.

The House must be allowed to have its say on how best we represent our constituents in this place. We are all accountable to our constituents, and they will challenge us if they do not believe that we are representing them properly. Around one quarter of Members are using the ability to participate virtually in scrutiny proceedings. With pandemic restrictions likely to be in place until the spring at least, I ask the Government to stop using short-term tactics that require constant U-turns, and instead let that quarter of MPs take part in debates.

Nobody—not even my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House—has a monopoly on being right. It is possible that the majority of the House agrees with him, not my Committee, but the only way to find that out is to schedule a debate on the matter and allow a free vote, as I think he would have demanded if our roles were reversed. As a Back-Bench Member of this House, there are two ways that I can represent my constituents: by speaking in this Chamber on their behalf and by casting my vote. We are in danger of removing both those rights from far too many Members. I commend my Committee’s report and this statement to the House.

May I thank the right hon. Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley) for her statement and say that I agreed with absolutely every single word of it? I commend her and her Committee for this report, which is based on the principle that, despite this awful pandemic, all Members should be able to participate in our debates, whether in person or remotely, and I strongly support that principle. I agree with her that it is the role of the Leader of the House to support MPs to do their job and to speak in debates and that it is not for him to set up exclusions.

Is the right hon. Lady aware that the proportion of MPs who are exercising proxy votes and therefore excluded from debates is 62%? That means that 62% of us are not able to speak in our debates; that cannot be right. Is she also aware that the figure for Scottish Members of Parliament is 78%? Imagine having a situation during this pandemic where 78% of Scottish MPs are excluded from debates! We want and need to hear from them and from our colleagues in Wales and from the regions outside Westminster as well. We do not want a situation where half of the Chairs of Select Committees are not able to speak in debates, even debates that are on the subject on which they have done inquiries and reports.

We might be essential workers, but we can work remotely. I strongly back the amendment of the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) and my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) to the motion of the Leader of the House. I urge the right hon. Lady to back that amendment—I am sure that she will—and to urge all other Members to do the same, so that we can override the Leader of the House and ensure that all Members are able to speak in debates on equal terms at this crucial time.

Order. I gave the right hon. and learned Lady some leeway, as Members may have noticed, but please can people just ask questions now?

I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for her comments. It is important that I make it clear that the Government moved their position on proxy votes so that those who have a proxy vote can now take part in proceedings in the Chamber, and I give credit to the Government for doing that. None the less, she is right to say that a large number of Members cannot participate in the Chamber; around one quarter of Members are exercising the ability to participate virtually in scrutiny proceedings because they do not feel that they are able to come to the Chamber. It is that quarter of Members whom my Committee is incredibly keen to see taking part in debates. By the time we get to the end of March, it will have been for nearly 12 months that a quarter of Members have not been able to take part in debates. That is simply not acceptable.

I completely agree with everything that my right hon. Friend has said. I also agree with the Mother of the House. It is absolutely unacceptable that Members are still unable to fulfil their jobs properly in our Parliament. We have this superficial sense that we are all taking part: we are able to ask questions and to ballot for absolutely everything, but we cannot bob, we can barely intervene, and far too many people cannot even speak in debates. Will my right hon. Friend please continue to press very firmly for the return of some normality to our Parliament so that we can hold the Government to account properly?

I thank my right hon. Friend, who was an esteemed Leader of the House in her day and knows these issues incredibly well. The point that the Committee wanted to get across was that we cannot continue having a situation where so many Members are unable to take part in our debates. As I have said, by the end of March, this will have been going on for nearly 12 months. I urge the Government to give time for that debate and to give the House the chance to have its say. The House may well agree with the Government, but we will never know unless we have that opportunity.

I am my wife’s carer, which I think is well known in the House. If I come down from the north of Scotland to London, catch the virus and have to self-isolate for two weeks, what good is that to my wife? I have to make a choice between my constituents and my wife. Surely the situation that we have at present is extremely dangerous and corrosive to our precious democracy—something that should be an example to the world, but which right now is not.

The hon. Gentleman is right about the way in which our democracy is being portrayed. When we introduced our hybrid proceedings in April, we were actually held up around the world as a fantastic example of ensuring full participation for all Members. We all accept that there will be differences in ability between those who participate virtually, and those who are here in the Chamber and can therefore interact in a different way, but that does not mean that we should exclude people who wish to participate virtually from all our proceedings. I know that the House services can make it work, and I want the Government to allow them the chance to do so.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that if we have to find a balance between spontaneity and interactivity in debates, and allowing all Members to take part in those debates, the choice should be easy and clear—we should choose to have as many Members taking part as we possibly can, and not restrict a quarter of them?

I thank my hon. Friend, a fellow Committee member, who has made such a contribution to the report. I agree wholeheartedly with what he says.

I pay tribute to the right hon. Lady for the leadership that she has shown since taking over the chairmanship of the Committee. It must feel like a decade ago, but it has not even been a year. She has shown enormous leadership in ensuring that the reports have all been on a cross-party basis. As a member of the Procedure Committee for the last four years, I think that we have covered more ground in nine months than we did in two whole previous Parliaments.

Let me turn to paragraph 33 on page 11 of the report, where we talk about the issues of hybrid procedures and a mixed debating system. We state in that paragraph that the Clerk of the House has confirmed that we have made significant progress in relation to the availability of the Chamber to be fully hybrid for all debates, but that the Standing Orders for this have not been progressed because there has been no request from the House to do so. To me, this confirms that the House is ready and there is enough capacity. As I said on Monday, it is disappointing that the Leader of the House has suggested that he has now requested the capacity be improved when the Clerk argues that the capacity is there. Does the right hon. Lady agree that if the Standing Orders could be changed to allow for full participation, another Standing Order could be changed to say that those taking part in the hybrid proceedings on the screens could not do things such as intervene, but that, as was so eloquently put last week, that is a small price to pay for allowing Members to take part in all debates, including on Armistice services, when Members were excluded from what should have been truly cross-House debate that brought the House together and showed it at its best?

I thank the hon. Gentleman, who is another esteemed member of the Committee; it is very gracious of him to make those comments. His experience as a member of the previous Committee certainly helped me coming back on to the Committee, as I did in January this year as the new Chair. He makes some incredibly important points. The Armistice Day debate was so powerful and did show the House at its best, but excluding a quarter of Members, who simply could not take part because their own health or the health of their loved ones would have been put at risk, simply demonstrates to me, once again, the need for this provision. There is capacity; we have heard evidence time and again that the House service can deliver this. I urge my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to give the House a chance to have its say on the matter.

I also extend my appreciation to my right hon. Friend for her statement. I understand the strong desire to have MPs appearing in the Chamber in so far as it is possible for them to do so, but would it not be sensible for there to be a system whereby Members who are self-isolating, because of age, health or pregnancy—or indeed, because of a member of their household having equivalent concerns—could verify their status via a doctor’s note? I know that there has been some reticence about Members disclosing their health conditions, but it strikes me that that would create parity with employees in any other workplace, who to explain the reason for their absence, and would create a justifiable basis for allowing Members to participate remotely.

My hon. Friend made a very important point on Monday when she raised the issue of pregnant women. The fact that those women do not fall into the definition of clinically extremely vulnerable means that, as things stand, the Government propose that they will have to come into the House if they wish to take part in debates. I know that the Leader of the House has concerns about that; he has said so to me privately. I hope that he will listen and make sure that he does allow for pregnant women to be able to take part in debates. My hon. Friend makes an interesting comment about the analogy between other workplaces and this workplace. She will know that for other workplaces the Government’s advice is “If you can work from home, you should.” Perhaps the Leader of the House should listen to that piece of advice as well.

It would be a good thing if the Leader of the House would actually listen to the statements that are happening at the moment. I add my congratulations to the right hon. Lady on the superb work she is doing on the Procedure Committee in these very difficult times in which we find ourselves. I note that the first questions on this statement came from two very well-liked and effective Leaders of the House—the Leader of the House’s esteemed predecessors, to whom he should listen.

Does the right hon. Lady agree that the situation we have now has created two different classes of MP? Behind each MP, there are the constituents that they represent, and they have the right, having been elected to this House, to represent them in the same way as any other Member of the House. The Leader of the House appears to think that he can dispense with that principle because he does not want spontaneity in debates to disappear. He must not—does she agree?—let the perfect get in the way of the good. He must recognise that these are temporary issues in a pandemic, and that we all wish to return to this place being the lively, crowded, interesting, challenging place that it is when the green Benches are completely full.

I thank the hon. Lady—another esteemed member of the Committee. It is much easier answering questions on a statement from here on the Back Benches than it is from the Dispatch Box where I used to answer questions. It is a much more pleasurable experience. She makes exactly the right points. I think that all of us were able to accept that this was a short-term measure and that maybe we could allow for a little change in our procedures because of that. However, it is not short-term. It is going on until at least the end of March—that is what the Government’s procedures say—and we cannot continue to exclude so many Members from our debates.

As another member of the Procedure Committee, I commend my right hon. Friend for her leadership, for her statement and for the report that she published last night. It is absolutely the right thing to do to bring in this motion and to extend virtual and remote participation for our Members. May I urge her to consider the fact that this can only be temporary and that we must of course return to normality and a fully operating Chamber as soon as possible?

You will spot, Mr Deputy Speaker, that Procedure Committee members are very active in the Chamber, and it is great to have a contribution from another member. I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. I want to be clear to the Government: anything that we have written in this report is about how we conduct our business today and for the foreseeable future until we can get back to normal, but the Committee is unanimous in wanting to get back to normal, returning to our procedures as they were, as soon as we possibly can. It will then of course be for the Procedure Committee and future Committees to consider the way that procedure happens in this House and things that they may want to change in the future, but the measures we are asking for today are only for the period of the pandemic, not beyond that.

I also welcome this report, and commend the Chair and her colleagues on the work they have done and are continuing to do on this matter. As she rightly observes, for these proposals to be implemented, they will require the acquiescence, if not the support, of the Government of the day and the Leader of the House. He remains firm in his conviction that unless Members are physically present in this Chamber, they are somehow not truly at work. Why does the right hon. Lady think the Leader of the House is so firm in his view and so resistant to the deployment of technology to allow Members to work remotely and fully?

I am not going to try to answer that question on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. I am sure he will answer it for himself. I say again that the House wants to have its say on this, and I hope that he will listen to that point.

I place on record my thanks to the Chair of the Procedure Committee and all its members, who have been assiduous in their work. With so many reports, the workload has been incredible, and the Committee has informed a very important debate.

I also place on record my thanks to the Broadcasting Unit, which has been absolutely superb. As has been said, we are world leaders in a virtual Parliament, and people are looking at how we do our work. In paragraph 28 of this excellent report, Matthew Hamlyn, the strategic director for the Chamber Business Team, confirms that the resilience of the broadcasting hub has been substantially improved. At paragraph 33, the Clerk of the House confirms that the infrastructure necessary to support mixed physical and virtual contributions is ready to roll. At paragraph 58, the important point is made about hon. Members’ eligibility. We are all equal, and we all have to play our part in democracy.

There is a mention of Mr Speaker reporting by 14 December. There is important legislation coming through at the beginning of December, not least because it is the most dramatic time for the United Kingdom, as we leave the EU. Important pieces of legislation need to be put through Parliament, and our colleagues will not be able to take part. Is there any way that the Chair of the Procedure Committee can look at that? We stand ready to work with her and with the Leader of the House to ensure that these measures are put in place so that all colleagues can take part in those debates.

The right hon. Lady is right when she says that we are a world leader. As I said in the statement, the rest of the world looked on in awe at what we in this House were able to achieve so quickly. The other place is using so many of the facilities and procedures that we developed and then disregarded. We decided that we did not want to use them; we wanted to return to some form of normality that simply cannot be achieved at the moment.

I have not yet paid tribute to the Clerk of the Procedure Committee, Martyn Atkins, and I must do so. He is, sadly, moving on. His time with us has been and gone several times over, and he is finally being dragged from us—kicking and screaming, as far as we are concerned. He has turned around reports and dealt with these matters in a way that no one could have anticipated. We may have thought that we had finished with procedural novelties when we left the European Union, but it turns out that covid has introduced more procedural novelties than we could ever have imagined.

The right hon. Lady asks what mechanisms we can use to bring these measures in. The first, of course, is to implore the Government to listen and give time for a debate. If that is not possible, I will speak to the Backbench Business Committee and see whether there is any way we can find time for a debate on the matter to give the House an opportunity to have its say, even if that is not on a binding measure, as it would be if the Government tabled a motion.

I thank the Chair of the Procedure Committee for her statement and for responding to the questions. I, too, would like to put on record my thanks to the Broadcasting Unit for performing miracles on a daily basis while the House is sitting. It is quite remarkable what has been achieved in such a short space of time.

We will now suspend briefly in order to sanitise the Dispatch Boxes and to allow Members to leave safely.

Virtual participation in proceedings concluded (Order, 4 June).

Sitting suspended.