[Relevant document: Sixth Report from the Procedure Committee, Procedure under coronavirus restrictions: virtual participation in debate, HC 905]
As this matter has been much discussed in this House, I will move it formally.
Motion made, and Question proposed,
The Order of 4 June 2020 (Virtual Participation in Proceedings During the Pandemic (Temporary Orders)), as amended on 22 October, be further amended by adding at the end the following paragraphs:
() The Speaker shall draw up and publish a scheme to permit Members who are certified by a medical practitioner as clinically extremely vulnerable (or equivalent) according to relevant official public health guidance issued in England, Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland, to participate virtually in such debates as are designated for virtual participation by the Speaker.
() The scheme drawn up by the Speaker shall include:
(a) arrangements for demonstrating and registering eligibility for virtual participation in designated debates;
(b) any other provisions the Speaker considers necessary to secure the effective implementation of this Order.—(Mr Rees-Mogg.)
Quite frankly, I am astonished that the Leader of the House has decided to move this motion formally. This issue has come before the House because we requested an urgent question, and we expected the Government to come up with some sort of mechanism whereby every Member of the House would be treated equally. I am surprised that the Leader of the House has nothing to say, as he will know that this is something that exercises all hon. Members.
Has the right hon. Lady reflected, as I have, on the fact that for so long the Government have spoken about the importance of Parliament and taking back control, yet today a number of Conservative MPs have withdrawn from debates, and the Leader of the House has not moved motions? Does she share my concern that this Government are rather running out of control, and that the actions we have seen this afternoon are those of a Government who are perhaps panicking?
I agree with the hon. Member. He will know how important it is for people with other responsibilities that there is a different way of voting. The motion states:
“The Speaker shall draw up and publish a scheme to permit Members who are certified by a medical practitioner as clinically extremely vulnerable (or equivalent) according to relevant official public health guidance issued in England, Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland, to participate virtually in such debates as are designed for virtual participation by the Speaker.”
Why is a certificate required? Hon. Members are not children. We are not going to school with a sick note. The Leader of the House has frequently said that he has needed that for PE, even though—we hope—one of his children might well play for England at cricket. It is concerning that hon. Members who are serious and want to take part in proceedings have to produce a certificate from a general practitioner.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is also incredibly sensitive? Many Members may have a mental condition that is possibly not known to constituents or even to family members. Why should they have to divulge that? I have no problem personally with this, but particularly with mental health conditions, people may want not to make that widely known. Why should they have to do that?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I have frequently asked from this Dispatch Box, during the urgent questions and debates that we have had on this issue from the start, why on earth we should have to do that. We are all equal; we are all hon. Members. We were all elected on 12 December, equally. Why should we have to produce something to say that we wish to take part in basic proceedings and our basic democratic rights?
My right hon. Friend referred to Members not being children, and my view is that it is wholly inappropriate for the Government to treat Members of the House as children by suddenly pulling business. Is that not even worse given that the Leader of the House personally volunteered to the Committee on Standards this morning that we would be debating these matters this evening?
I am extremely disturbed, because I had no notice, as shadow Leader of the House, that the Government were going to pull any business. There was nothing from the Leader of the House, I am afraid, to say that the business was going to be pulled, and I find that a huge discourtesy, because he is a very courteous person and we do get on in terms of getting the business done, although we may differ completely on the politics side of it. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that there were important matters to be debated and for hon. Members to know. I had a speech prepared so that hon. Members would know exactly who had been agreed to go through on the independent complaints and grievance procedure, and my hon. Friend says that he was informed that that debate would happen, so this is a huge discourtesy to the House. Will the Leader of the House please say why the business was pulled in such a way?
This is also a discourtesy because some Members of the House had considerable objections to the make-up of that particular body. They wanted to ask questions, for example, as to how much these people were going to be paid, along with their civil service salary. We also wanted to ask questions about the social composition of the grouping, but we have been deprived of that opportunity peremptorily—
Madam Deputy Speaker, that was a question that I am really happy to answer, because the matter arose as a result of the Chair of the Standards Committee explaining to the House why we have not dealt with the first two motions. I feel that those motions are really important for the House, and I know that this is not the first time that my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (John Spellar) has mentioned the make-up of that Committee. It is important for the House to know, in relation to those two motions that have not been moved, that we are not in the business of secrecy. We are in the business of transparency and hon. and right hon. Members need to know what is going on. Hon. Members are extremely busy at this time, and my right hon. Friend is correct in asking that question, because the question was posed earlier as to why the previous motions were not put before the House.
I understand that the right hon. Lady is, as always, behaving honourably and that she is giving a background to the matter in hand, which she is addressing, but I am making it clear to the House that we are discussing the matter that is before us now, not the matters that might have been before us, had they been moved. There will be other opportunities to address those matters—
Order. No hon. Member will interrupt when I am speaking. It is perfectly reasonable for the right hon. Lady to give background to the remarks she is making, but I know that she will now address the matter that is before us, not the matters that are not.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Is it, however, in order for the Leader of the House to tell a Select Committee of this House in the morning that he has made sure that we will be able to debate two matters this evening, and then not even to provide a change of business motion before the House or even to have the courtesy to notify those who might be involved in later debates? Is that really the way this House now proceeds?
That is not a matter for the Chair, because it is in order for the Leader of the House to arrange matters today as he thinks fit. If it were not in order, I could not have allowed the things to happen that have been occurring this afternoon. It is all in order. The hon. Gentleman’s opinion on that is another matter, and I am sure that he will have the opportunity to express his opinion if I have the opportunity to call him. While I am making this clear, I note that there is no speaking list for this debate, so I will call people who were here at the beginning of the debate. For people who have come in after five o’clock I have allowed some leeway, because the debate started without a great deal of notice, and I appreciate that the right hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) had to hurry to get to the Dispatch Box on time. So those who were here in the Chamber before five o’clock will have an opportunity to be called to speak if there is time. Those who have come in after five o’clock, I deem not to have been here at the beginning of the debate.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am disappointed, saddened and alarmed, because this House has effectively been gagged. We are unable to debate two very important motions that were on the Order Paper. With the greatest respect, hon. and right hon. Members should have the opportunity to raise issues in relation to those motions, and that is the purpose of interventions—interventions that the Leader of the House desperately wants because he says that they move the debate along.
My right hon. Friend is making a really important point about this House being gagged. I sat through several debates and questions when the Leader of the House said, “Look around you; we are gagged”—I do not know whether he actually used the word “gagged”, but he effectively implied that covid regulations meant that we could not debate properly. Like all organisations, we have had to adapt. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is a proper piece of business that must be debated, and have the opportunity to be discussed fully and with respect, and that the Leader of the House’s attitude today contradicts every point that he has made when we have discussed virtual debating up to now?
I want to address that point. We had a debate last week where a perfectly reasonable person, who passed all the tests that we could possibly have asked of her and more, was prevented from taking up a job. That was an absurd position. I would have liked to have asked the Leader of the House, and I wanted the House to know, whether any of the people who were on the list were members of a political party. That is the transparency we needed—the transparency, not the secrecy. This House is not about secrecy; it is about ensuring that there is open debate.
Order. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman was not in the Chamber when I made it very clear that the matter that we are debating now is the matter before us. We are not debating other matters that we might have debated at another time. I call Valerie Vaz.
I am grateful to the shadow Leader of the House for giving way so quickly and for allowing me to contribute to her aerobic skills at the Dispatch Box as she stands up and down so quickly. On the issue of gagging Members of Parliament, each of us has our role as representatives of our constituencies, but some of us, as Chairs of Committees, are elected by this House on a cross-party basis to inform proceedings in this House. Consequently, Chairs of Committees need to be given the opportunity fully to debate the issues and to inform Members about our work. If virtual participation is not extended, there are a number of Committee Chairs who—as is the case today—cannot perform their function. Is this not just an extension of the gagging of the will of Parliament?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I know how assiduous he is in his work as the Chair of a Select Committee. That is a key point, is it not? Chairs of Select Committees cannot be here. I do not think it is our business to say who can be here and who cannot be here. All Members have to be treated equally. As the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) said, there is a hierarchy of hon. Members and we have strived not to have that hierarchy in this House.
Let me go back to the motion and deal with the point relating to “clinically extremely vulnerable”. This is not a happy way to deal with right hon. and hon. Members. It places them in a difficult situation. It is not that they do not want to be here, but that they cannot be here. It is about what they say about their families. They do not want to bring their families into debates. They do not want to bring their families into the limelight or to this place. They want to keep them away from it. However, hon. Members are having to say— sometimes in public, Madam Deputy Speaker—why they cannot be here and they are having to bring their families into it. I say that, because the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay cannot be here. He tabled the amendment, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). He co-signed the amendment and he cannot be here for a very, very good reason.
The motion from the Leader of the House refers to Members who are clinically extremely vulnerable, but I know of at least one case in my own region where a Member has not been here because her husband is undergoing cancer treatment. She cannot attend because he is very vulnerable. They live in a house that does not have an east wing to enable him to isolate from her. The motion would not cover extreme cases like hers, would it?
Does my right hon. Friend not agree that it is the invasion of privacy that so many Members take umbrage at? Family members of Members are not elected and nor are they public servants. They have a right to privacy. A Member can do their job in any other circumstance, so why should family members be exposed by the idea that their health is somehow in the public interest? It simply is not. That is what so many Members across the House find so disingenuous about what the Leader of the House and the Government are doing. They are putting families in the public eye and they do not deserve that. In fact, they deserve a lot better than that.
My hon. Friend is right. We have a very difficult job to do anyway. As I said to the right hon. Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley) and her Committee, some people like to say what they had for breakfast on Instagram, but some people do not want to do that. Some people do not want to say anything about their lives. We are forced to do it sometimes. We are forced to tweet and do various other things that do not come naturally to many of us—I can’t do it, actually. But he is absolutely right that this is a privacy issue. Hon. Members have to decide what they say in the public sphere.
Madam Deputy Speaker, you know that when our right hon. and hon. Friends were pregnant and having wonderful babies—something so natural—they were trolled. They were trolled for doing what they needed to be doing, which was to be at home with their children when they had just given birth. I remember being in the House during the debates in which they had to explain that they were not the laziest MP in the world but were actually looking after their new-born. That was the most terrible thing and it was clarified only as a result of the debates in this House, which is why this is such an important venue.
This is the most important venue: people look to the Chamber to hear about what is going on. Unfortunately, sometimes we talk rubbish, and I am the biggest person to do that—[Hon. Members: “No!”] It is pantomime season! Sometimes we do, but the Official Reporters have to write down every word, and we sound wonderful when we read it back—when we dare to.
I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) will not mind my mentioning him, because we have been in communication today about this debate potentially taking place. His greatest regret is that he cannot be part of this debate. He secured an urgent question that enabled him to take part in our scrutiny proceedings and raise his point, but he cannot be here to take part in this debate because he has made the health of his family and his wife—he has been very public about that—his priority. We all know that he is working his socks off at home. Does the right hon. Lady agree that he is a great constituency MP and is working incredibly hard for his constituents?
I absolutely agree with the Chair of the Procedure Committee. The hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay had the courtesy to email me before the start of this debate. He told me about the difficulty; I shall not repeat it, but it is safe to say that he is not able to be here today.
That great intervention from the Chair of the Procedure Committee gives me an opportunity to raise the incredible work done by her and members of her Committee, who are scattered all around the House—[Interruption.] She is pointing to them and I am trying to find them.
Does my right hon. Friend, like me, wonder a little at the paradox that we have here today? The Leader of the House has often waxed lyrical about the need for Members of Parliament to be here to debate, yet he pulled a fast one to pull two of the debates that we wanted to have.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I still do not have an answer to that. I hope that I will get an answer, partly because the normal courtesies of the House were not applied and I was not even informed—I was waiting to come in to speak and the motions were just not moved. That is not the right way to do business.
I believe I made the Chair’s curfew on speeches, so I will not intervene a lot. To go back to the point about childcare, last week more than a million pupils throughout the country missed out on school, and most of them were forced to self-isolate. This pandemic is throwing into chaos lots of parents’ routines. Does my right hon. Friend agree not only that it often impacts women and mothers disproportionately, but that if we proceed on the basis suggested by the Leader of the House, lots of dads in this place are not going to be able to fulfil the responsibility to their children that they want to fulfil? That is why the motion is wholly inappropriate and the amendment is very welcome.
My hon. Friend makes an important point and I absolutely agree with him. We are now moving to a different stage—this is why we were part of the change of the hours—because many young men came into the House and there were some fathers who also wanted to be hands-on parents.
Is the shadow Leader of the House, like me, struck by the perceived hypocrisy on the part of the Government and in particular on the part of the Lord President of the Council? In some respects he comes to the House and talks about the great conventions of the House of Commons—he talks about the 1300s and we all refer to each other as hon. and right hon. Is not the specific the point that for so long the convention in this House has been that we are hon. Members, so the Leader of the House is trying to question Members’ honourable nature? Does the shadow Leader of the House see, like me, that there might just be a degree of contradiction on the part of Her Majesty’s Government here?
I do. At the moment, as Members of Parliament we are not treated equally and we are not dealt with equally.
The Leader of the House says that he likes interventions and wants us here in the Chamber, so I am quite happy to take as many interventions as possible, whether people want to speak later or not.
I suspect that I did not quite make the curfew, so I may need to intervene again. Further to the point made by my colleague from the Scottish National party, the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), he is absolutely right about the behaviour of the Leader of the House today. The Leader of the House has appeared in the Chamber on many occasions championing Parliament and the rights of Members to participate in parliamentary debates and represent their constituents. Does my right hon. Friend share my sense of irony that in the motion the Leader of the House is doing his utmost to restrict Members’ ability to represent their constituents in Parliament? Does she wonder, like me, how he manages to look at himself in the mirror in the morning?
It is appalling that, for some of our colleagues, their right to be here has been restricted in such an appalling way. As I said in a previous speech, and as we keep repeating over and over, we are approaching some of the most important legislation that this country has ever faced. We are coming up to the most important juncture in our history, when we leave the EU on 31 December. Before that, we have to do something with the agreement, whatever it is and whenever it is made. We look forward to statements on that. To give effect to that agreement, legislation will be required, and it has to be introduced before 31 December. As a result of this motion, unless the amendment is agreed to, our colleagues will be prevented from taking part in a debate on one of the most important pieces of legislation ever to come before the House.
Does my right hon. Friend share my bafflement that, as soon as there was a health need, the Prime Minister was allowed to participate remotely, yet he was not immediately clinically vulnerable? Other Members, however, are not allowed to speak. Does she share my view that all constituents are equal in electing us and should be equally represented? [Interruption.]
I hope that I can now be heard. Does my right hon. Friend share my bafflement that the Prime Minister could speak under arrangements for virtual proceedings, although he does not have a clinically vulnerable condition that we know of? It is quite right that we should not know any of the ins and outs—
Order. That means that the hon. Lady should sit down. I am making a point of order. Let us make sure that we get the facts correct about what we are debating. The motion before us is about participation in debates. Participation in questions, urgent questions and statements is a different matter which has been dealt with. In questions, urgent questions and statements, every Member has the right to participate virtually. I just want to make sure that the facts are correct, because that is a matter for the Chair.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for clarifying that. I think my hon. Friend was trying to say—and I know that Mr Speaker has made a ruling on this—that both the Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister should be here on equal terms, just as Ministers are here on equal terms. Mr Speaker has made it very clear that he wants Ministers here, which is why we are all here—he wants shadow Ministers and Ministers. It is about equality between the two parties, and the two parties being treated the same. We saw what happened with the Prime Minister. We do not know what happens behind the scenes, and we do not know who is helping under the lectern and so on. The fact is that he is here to answer questions asked on behalf of the Leader of the Opposition—
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Is it in order that the Opposition party is clearly trying to filibuster and talk out a motion that will see our clinically shielding colleagues given a voice in this House? [Interruption.]
Order. If there were any filibustering taking place in this Chamber, it would not be in order and I would stop it immediately. The right hon. Lady is perfectly in order. She has taken a great many interventions and she has every right to do so.
Let me go back to the guidance that the Deputy Speaker gave earlier about this being all about participation in debate. Clearly, the Leader of the House is trying to control who participates in debate. We know he is absolutely obsessed with physical participation in debate, so is it not disgraceful that the Government forced 20 Back-Bench Tories to pull out of physically participating in a debate earlier on a statutory instrument? The Government then pulled the Prisons (Substance Testing) Bill money resolution, taking 24 people off the call list. They then did not move the motion on the independent expert panel, taking 10 people off the call list. They then did not move the motion on the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme investigations: Commons-Lords agreement, taking 10 people off the call list.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that that is a bit concerning. At one point I thought that the Conservative Members were all at No. 11 being primed by the Chancellor on tomorrow’s statement. I thought that everyone was at a party, with drinks, canapés and things like that.
Let me just go back to the point about the right hon. Member for Staffordshire Moorlands, the Procedure Committee and its work—I was going to come on to that, but I will do so now. I have here two reports, its first report of Session 2019-21, “Procedure under coronavirus restrictions: proposals for remote participation” and its sixth report, “Procedure under coronavirus restrictions: virtual participation in debate”. The Procedure Committee has been extraordinary in the work it has done. It has done that work quickly, and I, too, pay tribute to Martyn Atkins, the Clerk. I was lucky to be on the Health Committee when he was a Clerk there. We were lucky to have him on that Committee. He was very assiduous, as were all the Clerks there. I have read all the reports, including the latest one. We did not have enough time to debate it on Thursday—we all just got a question each—but it is so important. I do not know whether right hon. and hon. Members have read it in its entirely. I could read it out, but it makes very important recommendations, one of which is:
“We do not consider that there is a justifiable case for eligibility for virtual participation in debate to be determined by reference to clinical vulnerability. Nor do we consider it appropriate to determine eligibility on a basis different from that for virtual participation in scrutiny proceedings. We therefore recommend that the criteria for eligibility for virtual participation in all House proceedings be made uniform at the earliest opportunity.”
This is the earliest opportunity.
Is it not utterly disrespectful for the Leader of the House and the Cabinet to disregard the House’s Committees, whose members are elected by both parties and whose Chairs are elected by the whole House? Is that not utterly contemptuous of the House and its Members?
My right hon. Friend is right. It is concerning that Chairs of Select Committees, who are elected by the whole House, cannot participate. This is a cross-party report—a report that Members can amend but have not amended—which says that everybody should be treated equally in virtual participation. It is possible; we did it right at the beginning.
On the point about virtual participation being available to everybody, it has been confirmed several times—and I raised this with the Leader of the House last week—by the Clerk of the House and Clerks responsible for Chamber management and the broadcasting service that there is now enough capacity for Members to take part virtually in all proceedings of the House. Despite what the Leader of the House has said, there were trials some months ago of virtual Public Bill Committees, in which Members on both sides of the House participated. Since then, that technology has improved and the capacity has increased.
The reality is that for all Members, no matter what their situation may be, this is now a simple process of the Government—or, as it should be, the House—saying to the Clerk, “This is the will of the House, and we would just like all Members to be equal.” The Leader of the House’s excuse that it stops and stifles debate and limits intervention is simply not correct. Does my right hon. Friend agree that most Members would accept not having interventions, on the basis that it is a small price to pay to allow all Members to take part in crucial debates on the Floor of the House?
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Over the last couple of minutes, I have observed that quite a number of Government Whips have entered the Chamber. Can you confirm that, in the event that Government Whips tried to move a closure motion, that would in effect be muzzling the House and that a closure motion should not be granted?
I have noticed that there are Government Members on the Government Benches. Who they are and what office they hold is not a matter for me. The Chamber is open to all Members to be here whenever they wish, as long as there are no more than 21 on the Government Benches at a time. A closure motion would be a matter for the Chair. Should one be moved, I would consider carefully how many people have spoken, how long the debate has been, how many interventions there have been and how many important points have been made. I am therefore listening very carefully to the debate.
There are various stages of a closure motion: the granting of the closure motion, the taking of the closure motion and the substantive question that may or may not then be put. Proxy votes do not count for the calculation of the quorum necessary, which, as the right hon. Lady knows well, is 100.
As I was saying, I think Members were slightly alarmed by a group of people walking with a purpose. It is usually the Whips who do that, as John Major used to say.
I will get back to the debate at hand, the Procedure Committee report and what my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) said about the participation of all hon. Members. I still have not finished with this idea of clinical vulnerability to a disease. I think, and I said at the time, that it is an unnecessary, bureaucratic way of saying that hon. Members can or cannot be here. It is in some ways quite humiliating for hon. Members to have to go to their GP and say, “Please could I have a note to say that I am clinically vulnerable so that I can take part in a debate?”
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way because it gives me an opportunity to speak on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft), who is not able to be here with us today and is sitting watching, although she would like to participate. She never wanted to have to say that she was clinically extremely vulnerable or to tell people about her rheumatoid arthritis but has been forced to do so. Does my right hon. Friend agree that forcing people to do this is very unfair?
I agree, and we have seen how effective our hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft) is when she speaks at business questions, and when she asks questions. She is so frustrated because she has done some absolutely fantastic work on knife crime and wants to be able to take part in debates, but she cannot. We need to find a way to enable her to do that, and the only way is if the amendment is passed.
The right hon. Lady makes an important point about the fact that the motion would force hon. Members to go to their doctors, get certification and submit that. Is it not also the case that it is then in the public domain that a certain number of MPs are extremely clinically vulnerable, which will lead to members of the public saying, “I wonder what is wrong with my MP, or that MP.”? That is the real issue. It is effectively breaching confidentiality, whereas if the amendment is passed, it is just a public health reason that covers Members, their families and anything else.
I thank the shadow Leader of the House and appreciate that she is rising to the opportunity of laying out the fundamental lack of logic in what the Leader of the House is doing. After weeks, if not months, of standing at the Dispatch Box saying that virtual participation in debates was simply not possible and simply not desirable, he has now conceded that in some circumstances it is possible and desirable. If it is possible and desirable for some people, why should it not be possible and desirable for everybody who needs it? There is no logic.
I agree. This is just one small further step that we are asking the Leader of the House to make, which we know he is capable of doing. On the clinically vulnerable, it is very difficult for right hon. and hon. Members to have to go to a medical practitioner.
On the point about the clinically extremely vulnerable, does the right hon. Lady not agree that the fact that the definition of clinically extremely vulnerable is different in Scotland and in England raises further issues? Which criteria would we follow?
I have much respect for the right hon. Lady, my constituency neighbour, but when people at work are asking for reasonable adjustments, they have to go in to their GP and get certificates, so is it the case of one rule for us and one rule for everyone else? Perhaps she will tell our workers in the Black Country why that is acceptable for us here, but not for them.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am a bit perplexed about the voting rights of Members tonight. I would be ever so grateful if you could confirm whether the Chair needs 100 Members to go through the Aye Lobby for any closure motion to be agreed.
I am still here. We are Members of Parliament. We are elected to do a job—we are elected to pass legislation. We cannot do that. We are in the middle of a pandemic, and when we first started with this pandemic, we were able to have a virtual Parliament —we were the first Parliament in the world to do that, with the expertise that we have here. We were able to undertake every single aspect of our work, and each hon. and right hon. Member was able to do that on an equal basis.
That is not what we are saying here—this is something different. This is just saying that those who are clinically vulnerable can take part in a debate. Hon. Members have made the point of the hon. Member whose name is on the amendment, the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay, and many other hon. Members, who are looking after and caring for those who are clinically vulnerable and therefore cannot be here, because if they come down here they expose themselves to the virus. We know it is on the estate. We know that there have been people here who have been tested. Many of us have been tested and some have tested positive, including the Prime Minister, who had to take part in a virtual Prime Minister’s questions.
Does the shadow Leader of the House agree that it is not just the arriving in this place that makes people vulnerable? Members from Scotland have much further to travel and multiple public transport journeys, if they can get public transport that is appropriate. The Caledonian Sleeper would have allowed someone to travel and meet very few people while doing so, but the Caledonian Sleeper to Aberdeen and Glasgow is currently not running. Does she agree that Members are made vulnerable by travelling on public transport in the way that we have to?
I agree. We do not know where we can catch it. What we are doing is exposing families, friends, everyone—people that we work with here. We are in the middle of a pandemic and people are dying. I know people in my constituency—people who have been long-standing friends—who are now dead as a result of this virus. This is extremely serious. All we are asking is for right hon. and hon. Members to take part in debates. Why should they be excluded from the European legislation that is going to come through now? Why should they be excluded from that?
In answer to the point made by the hon. Member for West Bromwich West (Shaun Bailey), I have heard the same argument from the Leader of the House as well: we should not be any different from the rest of the public. I wholly agree with that. However, I think they misunderstand Government rules. The Government rules, as laid out by the Prime Minister yesterday in Parliament, are very clear. He said yesterday that, even in tier 1, if someone can work from home, they should work from home. That is the rule. The other part of the rule is that businesses have to do everything to make it possible for people to work from home if they possibly can. Those are the rules for the rest of the country; they should be rules for us here too.
That is absolutely right. The Prime Minister did say that—
“work from home wherever possible.”—[Official Report, 23 November 2020; Vol. 684, c. 601.]
We can work from home, we have worked from home as Members of Parliament, and other Members of Parliament want to continue to work from home, and that is being denied. We are exposing hon. Members’ families, and the hon. Members, who are travelling backwards and forwards.
I take umbrage slightly with the Leader of the House. He thinks that if we are doing something remotely, we are not working. I have talked to many hon. Members. Zoom is horrible—whatever anyone says, it is awful. You have to concentrate, you have to stare—it is just absolutely terrible. What makes people really nervous about the whole thing is worrying about being late—suppose you have not logged in on time? Who is walking around in the background? Have you got the right background? It is terrible. Are you dressed properly? We would rather be here, of course we would, but we cannot be.
The shadow Leader of the House has been generous to both sides in taking interventions. Having been in the past party to some of the deliberations of the Procedure Committee, I understand that there are strongly held views on both sides. I just put it to her and her colleagues that, tonight, what you are doing is letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. There is a motion that will give our colleagues who are clinically vulnerable the opportunity to participate virtually and what you are doing tonight will deprive them of that opportunity—
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I know that the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Andrew Griffith) is new to the House, but can you just clarify to him, given that he is such an expert on the procedures of this House, that he should not refer to you, because that is, of course, you and not the right hon. Lady on the Front Bench?
That was a point of clarification. Perhaps we can include those in the procedure in future.
Let me deal with the point that the hon. Member for West Bromwich West (Shaun Bailey) made. The point is that hon. Members cannot take part in the most important part of what we do, which is debate. We are excluding a whole group of hon. Members from taking part in a debate, and to take part in a debate is what they want. The fact is we had this process and we had this procedure and it worked.
I think it is important to recognise that we do not just have to go back to the situation that pertained in May. The Procedure Committee’s report makes it absolutely clear that, because of the substantial work undertaken by the parliamentary audio-visual service since the discontinuation of hybrid proceedings, we have
“a more resilient broadcast infrastructure, with the capacity to facilitate virtual contributions to debate”
in a much more proper way. Is not that quite a change that needs to be reflected in our decision making?
My hon. Friend is right and that is the point that I was just about to come on to. As I started to say, we were the first Parliament to become a virtual Parliament and we were the envy of the world. Other Parliaments have tried to do what we are doing now and what we did previously and what we are sort of on the way to doing. But I think we are doing a great discourtesy to the people who have worked so hard to get us to this stage. Yes, the Leader of the House will say that we broke down; that the House of Lords broke down. They are able to participate in every aspect of their work virtually. They broke down only once in 62 votes. We had a failure at the card reader, too. I do not think that we broke down whenever we had debates and people took part.
The point is that the broadcasters have worked so hard to get us to this place. One of the broadcasters said to me, “Please say that we are now doing seven to eight hours of virtual proceedings in the House of Lords and they are able to have two Chambers—they are able to have two sets of proceedings going on at the same time.” We have a huge amount of talent, not just in the House, but in the country. We can use that talent to ensure that we here in this Parliament, every single person, no matter what happens, can take part. People will have seen the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), but there are others who perhaps do not want to ask questions and state what their medical conditions are, but who also want to take part. We all have a responsibility to our constituents because we were elected. This is a democracy and we want to take part in every single aspect of our work, and we can.
I am grateful, once again, to my right hon. Friend for giving way. She is being very generous. She is making an important point about the improvements in the technology. The House of Lords has very capably been able to facilitate its debates. We rarely have problems in this Chamber. I have heard the Leader of the House say many times that the technology does not work, that it has faults, and that we cannot introduce it for debates because of those occasional faults. In asserting that position, is he not, in the words of his colleague, the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Andrew Griffith), making the perfect the enemy of the good?
I agree. We did have the good and we did have the perfect, and for some reason we cannot have that any more—although we might because the amendment may get passed. The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Andrew Griffith), who is not in his place at the minute, said that it is the Opposition, but it is not—this is cross-party. If he looks at the amendment, it is signed by the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) and the Procedure Committee has agreed—all sides, all parties.
Is my right hon. Friend as surprised as I am that, given the huge success of our excellent technical operators, a Government Minister has not used the expression “world beating”? In this case it is justified, but it is often a slightly overblown expression; it is normally used by the Secretary of State for Health and the Prime Minister.
I thank the right hon. Lady for giving way; she is being generous. Given that we have this technology, which can be used for the benefit of all Members, and going back to an intervention about making MPs go to a GP because some constituents might have to go to a GP, is it not a fact that GP practices are run on a very restricted basis now? People cannot get routine appointments because of the measures in place, so why on earth would we try to make MPs go to GPs, taking up valuable space and time that our constituents might want?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Obviously, I have not put the policy through, so I cannot answer his point, but it is about asking a medical practitioner to say that someone is clinically vulnerable.
Let us go back to the broadcasting and how brilliant it is.
I thank my right hon. Friend for her contribution. She is doing a brilliant job, taking on board colleagues’ points on both sides of the House. She is taking the issue forward really well. Does she agree that colleagues across Parliament are starting to use Teams and Zoom proficiently now?
They do, but we do not necessarily like them—especially when they break down and we are not linking in the right place.
The point about broadcasting is important because we have got to the stage where, on Zoom, people can put their hands up, so that could be a form of intervention. People have been able to undertake debates—I think this was mentioned at business questions—and, in some European Parliaments, they have been able to take interventions. If that is the key thing that seems to be stopping the Leader of the House from going to the next stage—making that giant leap—interventions can be done. However, we know that hon and right hon. Members can take part in debate, because we did it before. The plea that we all make is that they want to do so on an equal basis, without having to tell anyone that they are incapacitated in some way, or that they are shielding other people in their family in some way.
The right hon. Lady is being generous with her time. Does she share my concerns about when I have to go back to Stoke-on-Trent, Kidsgrove or Talke and look school teachers, police officers, fire officers, GPs, doctors and nurses in the face and ask them to sacrifice themselves and to be willing to make some sacrifice by going in to look after people? In the end, they are public servants, as are we. Does she not agree that this would send completely the wrong message—that we have some sort of special protected status, compared with those who also work in the public sector?
I would say: do not look them too closely in the face. We have to be 2 metres apart because that is what the Government guidance is. But the hon. Member is back to the same old thing. We are doing our work. I do not know but I hope not a single hon. Member does a face-to-face surgery. I started my telephone surgeries in March because I knew this was coming up; we had heard about the pandemic from China in December. So I think it is important, if the Government are going to give out guidance—[Laughter.] I do not think it is very funny when we are talking about people dying of covid and, if you are too close to them, they could pick it up—[Interruption.] Let me carry on.
So it is back to the same old thing. We are working. We are just working in a different way. I do not know any hon. Member who is not working 24/7. Absolutely every single hon. Member or right hon. Member is opening mail, or checking their WhatsApp. They are working. We are all working. We have a completely different job, and it is right that we do that. On people contacting us in the workplace when they want reasonable adjustments, that is our job. People contact us because sometimes employers are unreasonable. Sometimes people and institutions are unreasonable. People contact us to write those letters for them to make sure that they can get their work done. I am talking about reasonable adjustments.
We have heard key public sector workers invoked: “How will we look them in the face?” They will understand the rules perfectly well; they are abiding by them. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, given the reported public sector pay freeze, I do not know how any Conservative MP would look any public sector worker in the eye?
I think that is a really important intervention. Perhaps the hon. Members would go to their public sector workers, look them in the eye and say, “Sorry, we couldn’t find any money for you to have a pay rise, but we”—[Interruption.] Well, I think it was an important intervention.
Let us go back to the broadcasters.
Can I interrupt the right hon. Member at this point? Sorry, I wanted to raise it on a point of order, but can I just bring her back? I do not find death funny. I am sure my hon. Friends here do not find death funny. I actually have vulnerable people in my family that I have not seen in six months, so when she makes comments like that, I find it very offensive. So I would invite her to withdraw that comment and that slur against my hon. Friends, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes), because it is not appropriate.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. Can I just say this? When I was talking about the difficulties that our hon. Friends and right hon. Friends have taking part in debate, I just heard some sniggering from the Back Benches. Normally, I would just ignore it, but this is such an important debate, and I did not know what it was about.
Joke? I was talking about broadcasting. We were talking about the public sector workers who are not going to get a pay rise apparently, but maybe the Chancellor will change his mind when he has heard this debate.
But let us go back to exactly what is happening here with this motion. It is discriminatory. How can we possibly carry on in this way when we have these two tiers of hon. Members? It is not fair, it is not right and it is not the way that we do things here. We need to treat every single Member equally. There is absolutely no justification.
On the point of equal treatment, the right hon. Member is right, because one of the first things the Government did under the proceedings under the pandemic motion was suspend the English votes for English laws procedures. They recognised that they would be practically unworkable, and they actually removed that distinction and that discrimination that Members from Scotland have experienced under the House EVEL procedures. Again, the Leader of the House has been tied up by his own logic, because he is making some concessions to some people, but he is not making them available to everybody. His own logic is his undoing here.
I am grateful for the opportunity to mention discrimination. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is a double discrimination—that not only are some people barred from being here and speaking, but they also cannot speak on behalf of their constituents? All the people who Members have been sent here to represent are discriminated against, as well as the Members themselves, so it is doubly hard.
I have very much enjoyed the first hour of the right hon. Lady’s remarks and look forward to the next. I was reflecting on something said from the Conservative Benches a little earlier about reasonable adjustments being made. I was reflecting that pre-pandemic one of the greatest strengths that we had as Members of Parliament was the ability to come here and put things on the record; indeed, the Leader of the House tells us regularly that people have been able to come here and put things on the record since 1300. But of course, one of the difficulties for some our colleagues who do not have the ability to speak here is that they cannot get things on the record quickly with a point of order—something that many of us did at the beginning of the pandemic to call out bad practices from employers. Given that points of order are a good way of getting things on the record, does the right hon. Lady agree that getting some form of virtual participation in that regard might help some of our colleagues to call out bad employment practices?
Yes. Hon. Members will also know the emails that we all get about particular pieces of legislation when they pass through the House. Whether it is here, in Westminster Hall or on petitions, Members cannot say how they voted or why they voted in a certain way, or talk about what the policy is. I do not know what hon. Members who cannot take part in debates say to their constituents; maybe I need to ask an hon. Member who is not here and cannot take part.
I am extremely grateful to the right hon. Lady for giving way again. She referred to the idea that our role here is to debate. Well, that is exactly what the Leader of the House is proposing. Those who are clinically vulnerable will be able to debate—or have I misunderstood what has been said?
Yes, with the greatest of respect, I think that the hon. Gentleman has misunderstood. He will know that unless a Member certifies that they are clinically vulnerable, they will not be able to take part in a debate under virtual proceedings. That is where the difficulty lies, because there will be two different sets of hon. Members: those who will have to certify and those who cannot certify. For example, take the hon. Gentleman’s colleague, the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay, who has co-signed the amendment. It is not he who is clinically vulnerable; it is possibly another person who is, and he wants to protect them. Therefore, he cannot take part in the debate, and he should be able to. Why can he not take part in the debate without having to expose whichever person it is, who he would expose to the disease if he came here physically? That is the point, and that is why I say that this is a cross-party matter. It has nothing to do with politics or with anyone here. The only politics is that the Government seem hellbent on ensuring that people cannot take part in debates.
Has not my right hon. Friend exposed another flaw in this, which is the argument made by some Conservative Members that, “Well, you’ll have to go and get a sick note”? But if people have to do that, they hand the note in to their employer; it is not put on the front page of the local paper and out on social media, exposing to the rest of the world their—or in this case, even their family members’—condition. Whatever happened to medical privacy in all this?
I think it has gone out of the window with this motion; my right hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is not just about privacy for hon. Members—apparently we can take it because we have thick skins, although I am not sure that we all do; some of us have thin skins. It is about protecting the families, who do not necessarily ask to be exposed in this way. They are not the ones who are tweeting or who are on Facebook. We are exposing them. I know of many such cases. A friend in the SNP is protecting members of her family, and she has said so publicly, but why should she be prevented from participating?
It has been suggested by Government Members that people in other workplaces have to get sick notes, but will my right hon. Friend clarify that they do not have to get those notes from a GP in order to use Zoom? We are asking to use Zoom to continue working, not to be signed off work.
The right hon. Lady is being incredibly generous with her time, and this is most certainly a full debate—I think we can all agree on that. Will she comment on remarks made by the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care at the Health and Social Care Committee earlier today? I was not able to catch it, but I have seen reported that he said we have to stop this British attitude of soldiering on, and that we should not be coming into work with sniffles and coughs because we will pass them on to other people. Does she agree that that is contradictory to some of the other things we are hearing?
That is extremely contradictory. As a result of the Prime Minister being exposed to sniffles and coughs, he shielded and was given the ability to do his work in a different way. That is all that right hon. and hon. Members are asking for.
Let me give two examples of people who are very vociferous and active, including in the Chamber. My right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) is an amazing Member of Parliament, but she is finding that she has not got a voice any more. My hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) constantly badgers the Leader of the House during business questions, but he is now not able to do that. The Chair of the Education Committee, the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) loves coming into the Chamber—I have seen him—but he is not able to.
May I apologise to the right hon. Lady? I did not mean to barrack her before. It was very discourteous of me and I put on the record my apologies to her now.
We talked about the risk of notes being leaked, and my understanding—I ask the right hon. Lady to please correct me if I am wrong—is that we would hand any sort of certification to the House authorities. Is she suggesting that that would not be a safe process, and that there is some risk that something might be leaked by the House authorities? I am sure she is not suggesting that, but will she clarify how such information might be leaked, were it to be given to the House authorities?
No, I was not suggesting that at all, but as hon. Members know, no matter what happens, things get out. I gave the example of pregnant women or mothers who were not on the voting record because they were not here. That has now all changed, and that is what it took, which is why this debate is so important. We have stopped saying that people must be in the Chamber and voting, hence proxy voting, but it took the Procedure Committee and many debates to get that. That is why we are saying that we must treat people equally so that people outside cannot see any difference and everybody can take part in every piece of work done by the House.
Order. While the right hon. Lady is on the subject of treating people equally, I appreciate that in her long speech she has taken an enormous number of interventions and covered almost every possible aspect of the debate. However, I am a little anxious that other Members should also have the chance to speak.
The amendment states clearly
“a public health reason”
and no other reason. All Members would be treated equally and everyone could take part in the important debates that we will have on legislation on Europe. We were all elected on 12 December as equal Members of Parliament. I hope hon. Members will support the amendment and ensure that everybody can take part in debates.
It is lovely to see everybody bobbing up and down—we do not get to see that nowadays—and there is no call list. Goodness me, Madam Deputy Speaker, what days we hark back to! How much we want to get back to those halcyon days.
I am afraid that I was not able to hear what my right hon. Friend the Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House said, because I was unfortunately caught unawares and did not know that the debate was about to start. I am grateful to him for the debate. He knows that last week, I called strongly for a debate on this matter, but it is a shame that it was done in such an unexpected and surprising way. I was on a call with the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner and it felt discourteous to say to her, “I’m terribly sorry, but I need to rush to the Chamber because apparently I am about to take part in a debate.” I set that call up several weeks ago and I was therefore disappointed to have to say that I could not complete our discussions on important matters relating to human trafficking and slavery. I should say that I am co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on human trafficking and modern slavery.
I am also Chair of the Procedure Committee, which has issued six reports in this Session, four of which are on procedures under coronavirus. I thank all Committee members. A few have left us in the last few months, but we have a very active Committee and many of its members are in the Chamber, demonstrating that Procedure Committee members really do care about procedure.
We have worked incredibly hard to assist the House in considering what are appropriate proceedings and how we should change them to reflect the situation under coronavirus. I want to be clear up front: any recommendations by the Procedure Committee have been made on the basis of how we make the best of the situation. Nobody wants to be in this position. I keep using the word sub-optimal—my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has quoted me on it. The position is undoubtedly sub-optimal.
Other members of the Committee will recall that in our first meeting, we said that we would have to consider proceedings under coronavirus because things might change quickly. We first convened on 2 March. By 6 March, we had the Clerk of the House and the House authorities in to give us private evidence and a private briefing. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House was incredibly courteous in allowing time for me, as Chair of the Committee, to meet him privately to hear what the Government’s thinking was.
I remember that first briefing when Members heard, for example, “We will have to stay 2 metres apart.” It was the first time I had heard the term “social distancing”. None of us could comprehend the thought that the Chamber would have crosses on the Green Benches where we could not sit and that whole Benches would be out of bounds. None of us had any idea how that would function.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I was going to come on to say that, but he gives me the chance to say it now. The House authorities have worked so hard and have made this House the envy of the world. The number of requests that the Committee receives from similar committees around the world to understand the temporary changes that we have introduced is astonishing.
Will the right hon. Lady also acknowledge that during a public evidence session, we had academics come in to say that, of all the devolved institutions and Parliaments in the world, we were world leading? The Leader of the House, the traditionalist that he is, was sector beating in terms of the facilities that were offered to Members of this House. It is such a shame that he is not willing to show that forward thinking now in ensuring that all Members are treated equally.
I thank the hon. Gentleman; I call him my hon. Friend, because he serves as the Committee’s vice-Chair and stands in for me when I am unable to participate, as I was not when I self-isolated, suffering, I believe, with covid. He is absolutely right. We had those comments from around the world. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House should take incredible credit for being world leading on this matter. He introduced revolutionary changes, changing our procedure in the most significant way for 700 years, I think it was.
I know that the right hon. Lady did a session with the Canadian Parliament, but when Committee members took part in a session with members of the Japanese Parliament, it was very frustrating that they were there asking us questions about how we were implementing this world-leading solution, only for us to have to tell them, “Yes, we were; unfortunately, the Government have now stopped that.”
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. It was slightly embarrassing, I think, for members of the Committee to have to say that, after saying that we did develop, at pace, the most incredible changes to our procedures and to the capability and capacity of our digital services in order to enable us to continue working.
My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House often talks about the period of the hybrid Parliament between the Easter recess and the Whitsun recess as being somehow not effective. During that period, as I recall it, five or six Bills received their Second Reading—unopposed, in fact. When we did have votes, the Government won those votes handsomely. We were able to have debates on legislation, we were able to have general debates on the matter of covid; actually, this House did function.
My right hon. Friend often talks about Bill Committees. I hope that he will recall from our very first conversations about this matter that I shared his reservations about whether Bill Committees could meet in any other way than physical. However, as the hybrid Parliament included physical presence—I certainly participated physically during that period—I was always of the view that that could be managed and accommodated within the rules that we had. Of course, the difficulty with Bill Committees was finding rooms that were big enough to accommodate a Bill Committee socially distanced, and ensuring that those rooms were set out. I am sure that my right hon. Friend will have seen some of the revolutions in the other place, including Perspex screens being put into Committee Rooms so that more Members of the other place can get into Committees.
Speaking of Bill Committees, does the right hon. Lady recall that some of us took part in a trial running of a Bill Committee, including interventions and a full debate, which worked perfectly well? That might have been another way of ensuring that Government business was able to move forward.
The hon. Lady makes an important point. We did not really test or try that hybridity in Bill Committees, which may well have been possible. Given what the House authorities have been able to achieve in other areas, I am sure that if anybody could have achieved it, the House authorities could.
On Bill Committees, clearly it is a matter of the business managers working to find appropriate space in the House, but has not part of the solution been found by the Government themselves, considering that they now put so many statutory instruments through the main Chamber, including SIs that should never be coming to the Floor of the House? They are actually finding ways to free up space and make a hybrid solution work anyway.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I would not want to speculate about what goes on between the usual channels—I suspect the usual channels were slightly surprised by some of the things that have taken place today—but I hope, as a former Whip myself, that the usual channels will continue to work, because this place works best when the usual channels are working.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, and will return the compliment, as she is an exemplary Chair of the Committee. May I place on record, as my hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) and for Hove (Peter Kyle) have said, the fact that during the Domestic Abuse Bill Committee they were willing to take part in physical proceedings? There is an idea that somehow the usual channels were not working and names were put forward, but this is on the record: they were willing to take part in those proceedings. The only concern, which is available, as the right hon. Lady is aware, was about witnesses, and there was an option for having a hybrid-facility fallback to protect victims of domestic abuse. It simply is not correct to say that Members were not willing to engage in Bill Committees, and I know that she agrees.
I have been in touch with my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Dame Cheryl Gillan), who is in one of the extremely vulnerable categories. She is watching the debate remotely, getting more and more demoralised about it. She has asked me to plead with the House to pass the motion unamended, because she has not been able to take part in debates since March, and it is likely that she will be unable to take part in debates until next March, which is simply not fair. Let the most vulnerable people take part in debates, then fight the other battles another time.
I, too, want my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Dame Cheryl Gillan) and many other clinically extremely vulnerable colleagues to be able to take part in debates, but the amendment does not preclude their doing so. It allows them and others to take part in those debates. I want to see my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron), who secured an urgent question last week, taking part in debates as well. I want as many Members as possible to take part in debates. This has been going on for far too long. About a quarter of Members are currently availing themselves of the ability to participate virtually in scrutiny proceedings: questions, UQs and statements. Not all of them are clinically extremely vulnerable, but they need to be allowed to take part in debates. We will have been going for 12 months by the end of March, and not to have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay in a debate in that time I consider inappropriate and not fair on him. He is working incredibly hard, and he needs to be able to participate.
I should also like to raise the case of our hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant), who has been texting me during the debate and has asked me to mention him. If he were here he would be speaking, but he cannot be here. He would love to take part in this debate down the line. He would love to take part virtually, but he cannot do so—he is not allowed.
I thank the Chair of the Procedure Committee, on which I serve, for giving way. She has mentioned Members who cannot be here. May I put on record the case of my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns), who is heavily pregnant and would like to know whether the relevant words, “or equivalent”, in the motion extend to ladies in the third stage of their pregnancy?
I thank my hon. Friend, who has just joined the Procedure Committee. I was going to make exactly the same point, because my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns) has texted me as well. In the third trimester of pregnancy, women are asked to shield, but they are not clinically extremely vulnerable. I know that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is sympathetic to that, and is trying to do all that he can to assist, but if he accepts the amendment, we do not have to have a debate about whether someone in their third trimester is clinically extremely vulnerable—we will just feel able to let them take part.
The capacity of digital services is much improved. We have seen what has happened in the other place. I do not think that my right hon. Friend should worry about allowing our hon. and right hon. Friends to take part in debates down the line, because this is not going to stifle debate—it will enhance and add to it.
Does my right hon. Friend not accept, to back the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown), that if the motion fails tonight the people she is talking about and whom she wants to involve in the Chamber will not be involved, so it will be the worst of all worlds?
Once again, I say to my hon. Friend that the Government could accept the amendment. However, I do not see why the Government would have to accept an amendment on House business, as this is a matter for the House to decide. If the House wants Members who cannot be here for reasons other than that they are clinically extremely vulnerable to participate, why would we not let them? Of course I want to see the motion to go through, but I want to see the amended motion go through.
The point that the Chair of the Procedure Committee is making about the amendment and about this being a House matter is very important. It should be a free vote. I am carrying quite a significant number of proxy votes, but I have consulted in advance with the Members for whom I am acting as a proxy, and I know that they all support the amendment. Given how this debate happened so quickly, is she concerned about whether other Members who are carrying substantial numbers of proxy votes have had a chance to consult all those Members individually on their exercise of those in a free vote, because I am sure that the Government are not threatening their Members on a free vote.
My hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) is perhaps the first Deputy Chief Whip to have voted against his own Government and kept his job, so I know that he will put forward this vote in the right way, but my concern is whether hon. and right hon. Members are aware of this debate and know that the vote is coming. I just ask the Government to let our hon. and right hon. Friends be able to take part.
I just want to make it absolutely clear that I would love the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Dame Cheryl Gillan) to be able to take part in debates fully. I have spoken to her several times this year and I know how painful she has found this. None of us is seeking to prevent that happening. All of us who have tabled the amendment and support the amendment simply want a few more people to be able to participate in exactly the same way as she is. If the Leader of the House would stand up now and say that he will accept the amendment, we could all go home and get on with more important business.
I thank the hon. Gentleman. I urge my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to listen to what is being said and to what was said in the urgent question last week and in the statement that the Backbench Committee graciously gave to my Committee last Thursday. He could be the hero if he were to accept this amendment. It would show compassion and generosity, and it would show his courtesy, because he is one of the most courteous Members of this Parliament, who, in all his time here, has always ensured that Parliament is sovereign—in fact, he has campaigned very hard to make sure that Parliament is sovereign—and that Members of this House are heard, from all Benches.
I thank the many hon. and right hon. Members who responded to the call for evidence from the Procedure Committee on this important matter and expressed a majority view on the exclusion from debates, not just in this place but in Westminster Hall. Let us be clear: the Government motion does not extend to Westminster Hall. The reason for this furore—the reason that we are here—is that my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) was unable to take part in the debate in Westminster Hall on the disease that she is suffering from. Unless the Government are willing to look at extending the virtual proceedings to Westminster Hall, that will still be a problem. The Procedure Committee stands ready to work with the Government to find ways to allow more debates, perhaps more Adjournment debates in this Chamber, so that Members can take part—Members like my hon. Friend. Again, I urge my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House please to think about how this will look to those of our hon. and right hon. Friends who are not here for other reasons.
The hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle) made a very important intervention when he said that there is a difference about the situation here. Nobody is asking to not be at work. We are all at work. The idea that Members of Parliament have not been working over the course of the past few months when they have not been able to be here, or we are not in the full Chamber, is ludicrous given the hours that are spent on Zoom calls and Teams meetings, and the many, many pieces of constituent correspondence that we are all dealing with. In those few weeks at the beginning of the lockdown when people had such confusion and there was no certainty, the Government did an enormous amount of good in terms of the financial support and the guidance that was issued, but right at the beginning, everything was unknown.This was, as everyone says, an unprecedented situation.
Members across the House were dealing with constituents who had the most difficult and heart-rending stories. We wanted to do our best for our constituents, and we were doing that from home because Parliament was in recess. We could not ask questions of Ministers in the way we normally would by being here in the Chamber. Again, I pay tribute to the Government for the amount of access that Ministers made available to Members, to allow us to ask questions on behalf of our constituents. We are all working incredibly hard, whether we are working here, working in our offices in the precincts of the Palace or working at home. Nobody is asking not to work; it is merely that Members who cannot be here for reasons other than being clinically extremely vulnerable, including self-isolating because they have been told to by the Government, should be able to take part in all our proceedings.
As the right hon. Lady highlights, people are working very hard, and I pay tribute to members of the Public Accounts Committee, including the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Dame Cheryl Gillan). Two of the Committee’s members are self-isolating, and even on a hard-working Committee such as the Public Accounts Committee, they are two of the hardest working Members. It is of great sadness to me that those Members are unable to contribute to debate and that this issue has been kicked around like a football when it could be so easily resolved. I urge the Leader of the House to allow this amendment and to spare the pain of Members who have been unable to represent their constituents by participating in debates. The issue could be dealt with tonight, and then those excellent Members could contribute fully in the House.
The hon. Lady is right. Select Committees, of which we are both Chairs, have conducted their business virtually, with some physical proceedings to take evidence. She and I have both chaired meetings from Committee Rooms, but we have managed, as have all Select Committees, to take evidence, to work and to produce numerous reports on the basis of virtual participation, which includes all Members. Nobody has not been allowed to take part because their situation means that they cannot get a doctor’s note. Every single member of every Committee has been able to play a full part in the Committee. I do not understand why, on a matter of House business, the Government are determined to prevent that from happening.
Members spend years getting elected to this place. People give up their careers, and they lose their families in far too many cases. They do incredible work to get to this place. As an MP, I want to be in this place—I want to be here. There are Members who cannot be here at the moment, but they want to work. They want to have the chance to carry on their work and to be heard.
As I said, this is about the view of the House. I know that my hon. Friend the Deputy Chief Whip would never do this, but if proxy votes were used inappropriately —if a Member’s proxy vote ends up being cast in a Lobby that they would not want it to be cast in because they did not know this debate was coming, or if a Member is not here because they saw the business and were happy to believe that there would not be any votes—it would be a great shame. It will cause resentment, I suspect, if the motion goes through without a proper vote by all Members.
I am going to try again. This is a really sensitive matter for those who are extremely vulnerable. Why do we not let this motion go through tonight—it will fall if it is not passed by 7 o’clock—at least to give those very few Members the chance to participate in our debates? We can have the argument another day about the wider remit, but let us get this motion through tonight. I will be supporting the Government.
I will be sitting down shortly. I wanted to ensure that I took interventions because I know that many Members who were not here for the start of the debate will not be able to catch the eye of the Deputy Speaker, or possibly even the Speaker, due to the rules that apply to this debate, which are different from those of other debates with call lists and so on. This was a surprise debate—none of us thought that it was happening —so I wanted to ensure that Members had the chance to speak. I say to my hon. Friend again that I really want to see the motion go through, but I want it to go through amended so that all our hon. and right hon. Friends can take part in the debates. I really do not see why there is a problem with ensuring that my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham can take part in debates, and I have fought like he would not believe to ensure that she can do so, but I also want my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay to take part in debates, because I want to hear from them both on these matters.
As I say, I will sit down shortly, because I want to make sure that the amendment can be moved and that we have time for the vote, but I urge my hon. Friend to consider voting for the amendment, because that will mean that my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham and my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay will be able to vote and speak.
There is a simple way to move this on: the Government could accept the amendment tonight. The fact that this debate has been curtailed into less than two hours is not the House’s fault or the Procedure Committee’s fault, because the Committee has asked for a full debate on this and it has been refused by the Leader of the House.
The right hon. Gentleman is correct. We asked for this debate during the urgent question last week, and we asked for it again on Thursday. This debate has been sprung on Members, and I feel strongly that we need to look at the House having its say. This is a House matter. The Government have kindly tabled the motion, but it is a matter for the House to decide.
I shall conclude, because I want to ensure that the hon. Member for Rhondda can move and speak to his amendment. I urge the Government to think about how this looks in the eyes of the public when their MP can take part in a question but not take part in a subsequent debate. Yes, they can vote by proxy—we can have a debate about whether the proxy voting system works and whether it is optimal—but all of this is suboptimal. None of this is as good as it should be. Why exclude Members who could take part in debates and make important contributions simply because of—well, I do not know. I do not know why the Government are refusing to accept this, but we must give the House a proper say, and the Procedure Committee will continue to pursue the issue.
I beg to move amendment (a) in line 5:
Leave out from “Members” to “to” in line 8 and insert “with a public health reason relating to the pandemic”.
Welcome to the Chair, Mr Speaker. It is good to see you in your rightful place. I suspect that I am not going to please everyone, because I have just had an email from a Philip Toler, who says: “Why do you constantly stand up in Parliament?” [Interruption.] Oh, hang on, I seem to have united the House with that. He goes on: “Why do you not express your appreciation of the hard-working Prime Minister and all his Ministers? They are only trying their best. The Government was voted in by 95% of the population and you should therefore show some respect.” [Interruption.] Sometimes the vote in the Rhondda is a bit like that, but I do not think it is quite the same. That sounds a bit like a Trump version of how elections are run.
It is a terrible shame that this has become such a scratchy debate. There is no need for that, in all honesty, because there is a very simple issue at hand: the Government think one thing and quite a lot of Members of the House think a different thing, and we should be able to resolve that without all shouting and screaming at one another. I regret the way that we have ended up with the debate today, because many of us have repeatedly said to the Government, to the Whips and to the Leader of the House that the simplest way of having a proper debate on this is for the Government to timetable a chunk of time for a debate with a vote at the end of it, so that the House can decide. Unfortunately, that is not what the Government decided to do. They decided to table the motion on nod or nothing, without consulting with the Opposition Whips beforehand. Nod or nothing is there for consensual motions. The whole point of nod or nothing is that if the whole of the House does not agree then it does not go through. It is not nodded through, so we get nothing. I must say that when the Leader of the House made his response to the urgent question more than a week ago now, I had the impression that the motion he was going to table was one that the whole of the House would have been able to live with. Unfortunately, that is not what happened. What happened was that we had the nod or nothing games on Wednesday night and then again on Thursday. We have had a version of them again today.
Today has been the oddest of the lot, because the Government Whips put a whole load of speakers into lots of debates earlier on in the day. The Leader of the House, as I said earlier, told my Select Committee, the Committee on Standards, this morning that he had allocated time for two very important debates we would have tonight on bullying in the House of Commons. He said that we were going to have those debates and then he did not move the motions for them. I think it is a shame that we are debating this motion, rather than dealing with bullying in the Palace of Westminster. It has taken far too long to try to solve some of those issues. Members were asking earlier, “What will voters think watching this debate?” They will think, “Why haven’t you sorted out the bullying issues in Parliament?” They will not be worrying so much about this debate.
It is a shame we have got to where we are now. I say again that the easiest thing in the world for the Government to do is table a motion on the Order Paper in the normal way and to allow a chunk of time for it to be debated, so that all hon. Members can be notified that the motion is be happening at such-and-such a time and they can take their own view.
It appears to me that the House is now in a wholly unsatisfactory position. We stand to have a Division soon in relation to House business, which, by convention, is not normally whipped, and many Members who are not here will have given their proxies to their own party Whips. It is difficult to see how any view expressed by the House at 7 o’clock will be genuinely representative of the views of all the House.
I will come on to that point later, but there is a prior point which is really important. It is vital to the way we do our business as a Parliament that we have some business which is not subject to the Whip. Obviously, there are conscience clauses. One could argue that every single vote we ever cast in Parliament is a conscience clause, but there are specific matters that have historically been treated in the House as conscience clauses, such as abortion, gay marriage and so on. Traditionally, there has been a very strong view that when it comes to how the House does its own business and orders things, it is not a matter for the Whips.
Now, some of my best friends are Whips. Some of my very best friends are Whips. [Interruption.] Yes, all right, some of my next-door neighbours are Whips. They play an absolutely vital role in enabling the business of the House to proceed. They are therefore, in the main, for the greater convenience of the House. However, there is some business that we should just decide, because in our own conscience, out of our own thinking, that is what we have decided. I think that this matter, in the middle of a pandemic, really should be a matter where our own personal decision is the only thing that counts. It seems odd to me that we have ended up in a situation where a Government Whip can have more than 240 proxy votes—the Opposition Whip, too—yet lots and lots of people cannot take part in the debate. If anything, it should be the other way around.
I want to come specifically to the Government motion and why I have a problem with it, as it is worded. First of all, it says we must be
“certified by a medical practitioner”.
Frankly, I think medical practitioners have better things to do at the moment than to be signing people off as “clinically extremely vulnerable”. Secondly, the idea that we should have to present some kind of certificate—I do not know in what form—presumably to you, Mr Speaker, to prove that somebody has been certified as clinical extremely vulnerable by a medical practitioner, puts you in an invidious position, because you have then to decide. Effectively, you become the doctor of the House, deciding whether people are or are not clinically extremely vulnerable. I do not have any problem with all those people who are clinically extremely vulnerable taking part in debates. I think they should have been allowed to do so for some time already. I am not upset about saying that I have had several letters from the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care telling me that I should be shielding—I am not sure whether this is his way of trying to prevent me from taking part in debates. He is not directly addressing this to me—as far as he knows, it has gone out to 300,000 people, or whatever —but the truth is that my doctor says that I am not clinically extremely vulnerable and there is no need for me to shield, not least because I completed my treatment for my cancer back in February. I just think that this is an inappropriate way of us dealing with Members.
The second point is that there are many people who have responsibilities for other people in their households for all sorts of different reasons, as many and as various as the stars in the sky, no doubt. I simply think that it is invidious, therefore, to draw the line in one particular place. I say to the hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown)—he knows I have enormous respect for him—that, on this occasion, I just think that it would be perfectly simple for him to vote for the amendment and then we would be able to get both the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Dame Cheryl Gillan) and the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) able to participate in debates.
I am grateful to the hon. Member, who I also have a lot of respect for. I say to him gently again that if he withdrew his amendment tonight and let the motion go through as the Government have tabled it, at least the most clinically extremely vulnerable would be able to participate—they have not been able to participate since March—and then we could have his battle with the Government on another day. We have had two hours to debate this subject; it will fall at 7 o’clock.
I sympathise with the argument. Indeed, the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham has expressed that argument to me. The problem is that the only people who have responsibility for the way we do our business this evening are the Government. The only people who can grant us time to have a row on another day and allow other people are the Government. So far, what we have seen over the last two weeks is that they are passionately, adamantinely opposed to allowing a further extension of people, so the only moment at which we can possibly insist is this moment.
I have heard the argument, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good”—I have heard it so many times in my life and sometimes I have even made it myself. I made it myself, oddly, on the issue of gay marriage, because I said to Members in my party, “Let’s just go with having civil partnerships, because maybe the country won’t wear gay marriage.” Lots of people, quite rightly, metaphorically slapped me in the face and said, “You’re an idiot. You simply don’t know where history is going.” So I say to hon. Members tonight: the perfect is within your grasp. Vote for the amendment and the whole motion will go through as amended, and we will be happy. The Government could say now, having heard so many Conservative colleagues and others in the House say that they would like to take part in debates, that they are going to accept the amendment.
If my hon. Friend will allow me, I just want to deal with the specific issue of the Government’s argument.
Some Members rightly say, “MPs shouldn’t treat themselves any differently from the rest of the country.” I 100%, wholeheartedly agree. All too often, we adopt an exceptionalist position for Parliament, which I think our voters and our constituents do not understand or accept, but I think that on this particular issue, the Government have simply got it wrong and do not understand their own rules.
The Leader of the House said last week that the rule in the country was, if you can, go to work. That is not the Government’s advice. It was not last week and it is not this week. As the Prime Minister categorically said yesterday, the Government’s rule says specifically:
“To help contain the virus, everyone who can work effectively from home should do so.”
Everyone who can do so should do so. The Prime Minister reiterated yesterday that when the present lockdown in England is completed, even in tier 1, the rule will be work from home if you can. In addition, the Government rules specify—this is in relation to employers, so this is the responsibility of the whole House:
“COVID-19 is a public health emergency. Everyone needs to assess and manage the risks of COVID-19, and in particular businesses should consider the risks to their workers and visitors. As an employer, you also have a legal responsibility to protect workers and others from risk to their health and safety. This means you need to think about the risks they face and do everything reasonably practicable to minimise them”.
The House can do something “reasonably practicable”, and that is to allow a significant number of Members to take part in debates remotely, because they are clinically extremely vulnerable. An additional number, which I believe to be a smaller one, could take part remotely for a public health reason in their own family or community.
I will make another point to the Government. I have felt a sense of deep frustration all year. I sometimes worry that the Government think that they are a Government of England, not a Government of the United Kingdom. I will lose some people in the Opposition now, but I am a passionate Unionist. I want the Union to hold together. As a Welsh MP, it has constantly been difficult this year to explain differences between sets of arrangements in Wales, Scotland, England and all the rest of it. Broadcasters have been particularly bad at explaining them, but the truth is that on this specific issue of whether people should work from home, the rules vary at different points in Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The point is exactly as the hon. Gentleman makes it, because the Government continue to put a rocket up the case for independence by refusing to accommodate the requirements of all Members of Parliament for Scotland. We are specifically exempt from legislation that now prevents people from Scotland from travelling to England. We have to be happy to be specifically exempt from that because the Leader of the House is intransigent.
Obviously I do not go quite as far as that, but when we had the firebreak in Wales—the Labour Government in Wales have dealt with all of this much better, delivering a clearer message all the time, but that is by the by—some of my constituents said to me strongly that they did not want me to come to Parliament, because they thought it would be inappropriate for me to do so as they were not allowed to travel. I make no judgment—some MPs felt they had to come, some felt that they did not, and all the rest of it—but the truth of the matter is that there are different rules in different parts of the country, and there will be different rules in different parts of England in the forthcoming weeks. It would seem to make far more sense, on an equality basis, to allow everyone to participate on an equal basis.
The Leader of the House denies this—I am sorry to be so obsessed with the Leader of the House, but I was looking forward to a long speech and we have barely had a word from him today, which is a terrible disappointment to us all—but on occasion he has intimated that we cannot really do our job as an MP unless we are here. My experience is that, of all my 19 years as a Member, this has been the toughest year as an MP in terms of the understandable demand from constituents. Most arrives by email, not from people physically coming through the door—several Members have mentioned that they have not held surgeries in person, but have been doing them online. On social media, Facebook in particular, I have been dealing with many thousands of cases every week. Some questions are not right—such as, “Is Lidl open?”, or, “How much are nappies in Sainsbury’s?”, neither of which I knew the answer to, but in a way, it has been a good thing for Parliament that many MPs have had engagement with their constituents that they never had in the previous year.
It is tough, because there is no point going on holiday this year as an MP, because frankly, at all hours of the day, we have been dealing endlessly with requests from constituents. A lot of the job we can do perfectly well from our living room, back study, outhouse or stable, depending on how grand or ungrand the house is.
An example of that was this weekend. The annual NATO Parliamentary Assembly took place, involving individual parliamentarians from NATO countries, including the United States and all across Europe. It was all done virtually, and I was even chairing meetings on Saturday afternoon.
The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and all sorts of organisations have been doing this perfectly well, fully engaging all their members and enabling them to take part. Members might say that it is more difficult for people to travel, but sometimes some Members in the House forget that the travel is as risky as the business of actually physically being in Parliament. Mr Speaker, you and all the staff in the building have done a phenomenal job in making this place as covid-secure as possible.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Can you advise the House that, if this debate goes up to 7 o’clock, the motion will fall? Would it therefore not be prudent of the House to cease this debate now so that at least we can have a vote and thus protect those Members who are extremely clinically vulnerable?
I am grateful for your guidance, Mr Speaker, but let me make the point clear. I am moving the amendment in the names of the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay and myself.
It is worth bearing in mind what Members are not able to take part in. I have heard very moving and important speeches by Conservative Members, saying that this year has seen a phenomenal suspension of liberty in this country—extraordinary. The Coronavirus Act 2020 has taken power away from individuals to live their lives as they want more than any other piece of legislation in our history. We subscribed to that because we believed that it was necessary. The Government insisted that they should require only a single vote every six months on a 90-minute debate, but the Members whom we are talking about are not able to take part in those 90-minute debates—to be honest, not many other people are able to take part in those 90-minute debates either.
If we look at the secondary legislation, we will see that, during this year, there have been 297 coronavirus statutory instruments, using powers in 106 Acts of Parliament. Why should none of the Members whom we are talking about be able to take part in any of that secondary legislation when it is depriving people of their liberty? More importantly, it is not about the Member; it is about the community that they represent—their constituency. Why should they be barred, for instance, from expressing a view about the 10 o’clock curfew in pubs, or whether their constituency should be in tier 1, tier 2 or tier 3? They are not able to take part in ten-minute rule Bills. They are not able to make points of order, which must be a terribly depressing thing for all of them—how can you live without making points of order? Ironically enough, they are able to table amendments, but they are not able then to speak to them. That is the irony of where we are at tonight. The hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay can table an amendment, but he is not able to take part in this debate because of the way that things have been structured.
I say to all hon. Members, first of all, I do not buy this argument about the perfect being the enemy of the good. Earlier today, I understand that the Government Whips tried to strong-arm the Opposition, saying, “Well, you’ll never get what you want. We’ll pull the motion.” But the Leader of the House said that he would enable the House to resolve this. The proper way to resolve this is to have a proper motion on the Order Paper when all Members know that the debate is coming and we can consider the thing properly.
Secondly, I believe that all MPs are equal—the good, the bad, the ugly. All of them are equal. It is a really important principle.
Oh. Anyway, the point is that it is such a historic principle that every MP is treated equally that it is a terrible shame that we have abandoned it this year just because there is a pandemic. I do not believe that House business should ever be whipped. I think it is wholly inappropriate to do that, and I think that there has been a tendency in the past year for the Whips to interfere. Sorry, I have just seen my Chief Whip—everything that he has done has been absolutely perfect. On a serious note, I just think that more of our business should be done without the Whips’ engagement, because sometimes that would mean that it was less cantankerous.
I especially object to the idea that large numbers of proxies should be used in a vote, unless the person who is delivering those proxies has asked each and every individual Member—every single one—how they intended to vote. Let me just say to Members who would even consider the idea of voting against the amendment, which I guess is the argument that many of them are advancing—
Debate interrupted (Standing Order No. 9(3)).
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Tomorrow’s business will now include a motion to approve a money resolution relating to the Prisons (Substance Testing) Bill, followed by a motion relating to the appointment of members to the Independent Expert Panel, followed by a motion relating to the Committee on Standards’ 11th report of Session 2019-21. These were the motions that were not brought forward today to allow two hours for the very important debate that has sadly just expired.
I do not really want to get into what we have already discussed. I want to suspend the House so that we can move on. It would be better if we did not have another point of order because I am not going to open up or extend the debate, but if it is very relevant, I will hear it.