Before I call the Minister, I inform the House that I have selected amendment (a) to motion 4 in the name of the hon. Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) and others, and amendment (a) to motion 5 in the name of the same hon. Members. The amendments will be debated together with the main motions, and the Questions necessary to dispose of the motions will be put at the end of the debate. Just before I call the Minister to move the motion, I must point out to everyone that there are a number of speakers, so please do not hog the time. I am not going to put a time limit on, but let us see if we can help each other.
I beg to move motion 4,
That, notwithstanding Standing Order No. 10 (Sittings in Westminster Hall) and the order of this House on 23 September 2020, there shall be no sittings in Westminster Hall with effect from Thursday 14 January until the House otherwise orders.
With this we will consider the following:
Amendment (a) to motion 4, to leave out from “until” to end and insert “Monday 22 February”.
Motion 5—Business of the House (Private Members’ Bills) (No. 9)—
That the Order of the House of 16 January 2020 (Business of the House (Private Members’ Bills)), as amended by the Orders of the House of 25 March, 22 April, 12 May, 10 June, 1 July, 3 November and 30 December 2020, is further amended as follows: leave out “15 January 2021, 22 January 2021, 29 January 2021, 5 February 2021, 26 February 2021, 5 March 2021, 12 March 2021 and 26 March 2021”.
Amendment (a) to motion 5, to leave out from “leave out ‘15 January 2021” to end and insert:
“( ) The Orders for Second Reading of Bills and for subsequent stages having precedence in accordance with Standing Order No. 14(9) on each of the days listed under Day 1 in the table below are read and discharged.
( ) Each such Bill is ordered to be read a second time or to be set down for the relevant stage on the corresponding day listed under Day 2 in the table; and
( ) Those Bills are so set down on the appropriate Day 2 in the order in which they were so set down on the corresponding Day 1.
Day 1 Day 2 15 January 2021 26 February 2021 22 January 2021 5 March 2021 29 January 2021 12 March 2021 5 February 2021 19 March 2021 26 February 2021 26 March 2021 5 March 2021 16 April 2021 12 March 2021 23 April 2021 26 March 2021 30 April 2021”.
15 January 2021
26 February 2021
22 January 2021
5 March 2021
29 January 2021
12 March 2021
5 February 2021
19 March 2021
26 February 2021
26 March 2021
5 March 2021
16 April 2021
12 March 2021
23 April 2021
26 March 2021
30 April 2021”.
There are a number of Members on the call list, and it is important that we were able to hear from them. I therefore intend, perhaps uncharacteristically, to keep my opening remarks succinct. I have brought forward these motions reluctantly, following representations made to me from across the House. I want to be clear to hon. and right hon. Members that I do not believe it would be right for me to bring forward unilaterally these sorts of restrictions to our business without there being requests to do so. The matter was discussed at length by the House of Commons Commission on Monday, and I do not think there can be any misunderstanding of the views of members of the Commission, including those from Opposition parties, that these motions should be brought to the House, although this is a matter for the House and not for the Commission. I understand that there will be some disappointment about the effect of these motions, but I hope that all sides can support them today, in view of the current circumstances.
This issue was briefly discussed when the House was recalled last week, and we talked about the option of keeping Westminster Hall functioning virtually and broadcasting it. The Leader of the House said that there would be a cost involved, but would the Government support that? I know that many Members would prefer that option to shutting down Westminster Hall completely.
I am grateful to my right hon Friend, and he makes an important point. There are questions of cost, of the resources of the broadcasting team, which is working across both Houses and is a very small team, and of cost-effectiveness, because we do not know how long this restriction will last for. It is my hope that it will not last enormously long. The Government are certainly open to maintaining conversations with the House authorities about that practicality, and considering it if it would be practical.
I welcome the tone that the Leader of the House is taking and the fact that he is being open-minded, but may I ask him to go just a little step further and be open-minded on the reintroduction of electronic voting? The reason why my hon. Friends the Members for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) and for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) and I are here this week is that if there is a vote, we are required to have tellers here. The Scottish National party does not have the luxury of having Members of Parliament living in London, and it is not easy for us to just pop along and cast a proxy vote. So if the Leader of the House is being open-minded, can he be open-minded and reintroduce remote voting?
I thank the Leader of the House for what he is saying. As one who, with others, attends Westminster Hall on a regular basis, we find that it is important to have that scrutiny of the Ministers there. As far as I am aware, the Leader of the House does not seem to have put a timescale on its return. Does he not feel, as some in the House do, that it is better to have a timescale—until the February recess, for instance—so that we can work towards that? The hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) comes from Scotland; my journey over here takes about four hours—
Order. We have to remember that there are people on the speaking list. If we are going to have interventions, they have to be short, and they have to be relevant to what we are discussing.
To help the Leader of the House, I would say that there are proposals to look at other rooms, but it will take three to four weeks to get that ready. That is now consistently being looked at—especially if the order goes through tonight—in order to make that happen and to try to ensure that we have a real proposal to go forward.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for his intervention. I made it clear in my opening remarks that I am very reluctant to remove this scrutiny. Scrutiny is important not just because it is the right of Members to hold the Government to account, but because it leads to better government. Scrutiny of the Government’s ideas and processes, and seeking redress of grievance, helps our constituents, so I would not have brought forward these motions had there not been a widespread appeal for them.
I am very reluctant to try to make party political capital out of this. I think everybody is behaving in a serious-minded manner to ensure that the House is as covid-secure as it can be and that, under the exceptional circumstances, we carry out our business to the extent that we can but put limitations on it where that is prudent, so I do not wish to seek to cast aspersions or blame.
These motions reflect the reality of the current lockdown and the desire to limit physical attendance on the estate, in line with the current covid guidance. They also reflect the necessary focus on ensuring that the business in the Chamber is prioritised, particularly now that Members are able to participate remotely in substantive proceedings.
To come back to the point made by the hon. Member for Strangford, I do understand the reasons for the amendments tabled to these two motions, but I would ask that the House agrees to the motions as tabled. However—I underline this—I commit to ensuring that a motion is brought forward to reopen Westminster Hall and to bring back sitting Fridays at the earliest opportunity, when it is both possible and practicable.
I have a private Member’s Bill that is all ready to go into Committee. The Bill saves a great deal of taxpayers’ money, it is very good for our constituents and it is supported across the House, all the Members from across the House who have generously volunteered to serve on the Committee are ready, and it has gone to the Committee of Selection. If the Committee of Selection were to approve that next Wednesday, would it be possible for the Bill Committee to meet, albeit briefly, on 27 January?
As I understand it—though it may be better to seek wise clerkly advice on this point—if the Committee of Selection were to approve members for the Committee, the Committee could go ahead, and then my right hon. Friend’s Bill would be ready for the point at which we bring back Fridays, which, as I said, I look forward to doing at the earliest opportunity, when it is possible and practicable.
I am very grateful. My right hon. Friend says that he is committed to coming back with proposals as soon as practicable. If we passed the amendments tonight, they would ensure that his will prevailed until after half-term, and then after half-term there would have to be a fresh look at these issues. Does he not agree with that?
I think my hon. Friend is saying, “Not my will but thy will be done”—essentially, that is his point—but I think the commitment is a sensible one. There is limited time, and therefore we should bring back something when we can actually do it rather than going through the motions again and again. That is why we have not reset dates for private Members’ Bills on Fridays, because we have reset dates now several times, and we have found that we have had to re-reset dates because, when we got to the new dates, it has turned out not be practical to sit. Therefore, I think this is the most sensible way of doing it, but I reiterate my reluctance. This place is here to scrutinise, to hold to account and to ensure that our constituents are represented. Anything that reduces scrutiny is something that no Leader of the House should ever wish to do.
Mr Speaker, I listened carefully to what you said. This is intended to be helpful. Given that the Leader of the House made a clear commitment to come back to the House at the earliest opportunity, and that, listening carefully to what you said from the Chair, you said that broadcasting proposals would be worked up and ready in approximately four weeks, those commitments certainly satisfy me. I trust your word and the word of the Leader of the House that we will be able have another look at this in four weeks’ time. I hope that you and the Leader of the House feel that that was a helpful point to make.
I thank the Leader of the House for bringing forward these motions. I will speak to the motions and against the amendments. We are debating them against a background, as at 12 January, of more than 83,000 deaths. If we think about Wembley stadium, all the people who have died would fill it. Yesterday, there were 1,243 deaths, which is the second-highest number of fatalities reported on a single day. That is the background to why we are debating these motions and to why Mr Speaker has changed the arrangements in the House. Everyone has seen where the Dispatch Box has been moved to. This is a serious situation. This is not business as usual. This is not normal business.
At the Commission, we expressed our views on all sides—everybody expressed their views. We heard from Public Health England, and it is fair to say that it was so concerned about what was happening on the estate and the number of people who were coming that, before Christmas, it was ready to close us down. We resisted that because we want to hold the Government to account. Believe me that, more than anyone else, the Opposition want to hold the Government to account.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments; I was just coming to that.
We have to do everything we can to keep people safe. At the Commission, we tasked the usual channels and the business managers to come up with a package. This place operates because we trust each other and the three Chief Whips work well together and allow business to take place. We sent them away and they came up with the package that is before the House, which the Leader of the House has put forward.
The Leader of the House previously mentioned that Westminster Hall would cost £100,000. I say to the right hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), who mentioned that, that I have also spoken to the Broadcasting Unit, because we are very keen to have Westminster Hall debates, as are all hon. Members. It is working on it as we speak. It has given us a timeframe of four weeks because that gives it an opportunity to do that. It said that Westminster Hall is so badly set out that it is looking at other arrangements, and it is looking at them as we speak. It said that, as a result of that, the costs will be less, so we will be able to have Westminster Hall debates and we will be able to hold the Government to account, if the Government will only answer the questions carefully.
Let us look at what the Government have done in terms of the amount of money that they have spent on private consultants—£375 million. Given that, £100,000 or less is easily doable. There was £40,000 for a pay rise for a very special adviser; I am sure there will be savings from the fact that he has now left his job.
We are trying to facilitate full parliamentary scrutiny, which is essential to our democracy. It is slightly strange that the Leader of the House has allowed virtual participation in private Members’ Bills; I will deal with that in a second. Hon. Members will know that to have a closure motion, 100 right hon. and hon. Members need to come down here. We want to support our colleagues, but we do not want to make people unsafe. I do not want to say this, but a really serious incident happened today. Many hon. Members know about it, and it is frankly shocking. It is the death of a person who worked on the estate, and we send our condolences to his family. It is covid related, and I am sure we will look at that.
We have the bizarre situation where Members have to come down here for a closure motion, and yet we can take part virtually. The hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone)—I am not sure whether he is here; he might even be taking part virtually—[Interruption.] There we are. He is dealing with the situation as it arises. Labour’s position is that we want remote voting. In that way, private Member’s Bills can take place because hon. Members can vote remotely.
I hope that the Broadcasting Unit will continue to look at the hybrid preparations for Westminster Hall. As I said, this package was agreed by the business managers who we entrusted to deal with this to keep people safe. What is the slogan that the Government are saying? Protect the NHS, and save the lives of other people—not just the lives of hon. Members, but those of the people who work here and facilitate our democracy. Labour supports the motion.
I address you from a very misty Staffordshire Moorlands today, Mr Speaker. May I thank the Leader of the House for the opportunity to have this debate, and for his tone? He struck exactly the right note in showing his reluctance to introduce these measures, as well as his willingness to consider other options. Many members of the Procedure Committee will welcome that tone, and the commitment that he has given to addressing this issue and getting Westminster Hall debates, and similar debates, back as soon as possible.
These debates are important. They are important to our constituents. The most watched parts of Parliament after Prime Minister’s questions are the debates on petitions on a Monday evening, and I am sure that over the past few weeks, many Members have been implored by their constituents to attend those debates in Westminster Hall. Space has simply not allowed us all to be there, but it shows how important those debates are. The Chair of the Petitions Committee will be speaking later in this debate, as will the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, who is keen to ensure that there is time for the debates that that Committee has lined up, and that Members desperately want to discuss.
The Procedure Committee wants to consider the situation carefully. None of us wanted to be in this situation or for this to happen, and we would have preferred to have continued with the debates. Over the next few weeks we are keen to support the Leader of the House, as well as you, Mr Speaker, and the House Commission, in finding ways to make this work. Where there’s a will there’s a way, and I welcome what you said, Mr Speaker, about using alternative facilities. There are rooms that could be used, perhaps with some imaginative thinking about the use of the Chamber, or using Chamber time to accommodate more Back-Bench debates, petitions debates, and other debates that are important to us as Members of Parliament.
A point raised earlier was about taking evidence in Bill Committees. Because Bill Committees are sitting physically, its members have to turn up in person to meet. The evidence sessions are virtual, however, although members of the Committee are expected to turn up physically to listen to them. Could the Leader of the House, and others, look at whether an exception could be made to avoid members of Bill Committees having to travel to Westminster for an extra two days—or possibly more—in order to take evidence, all of which will be given virtually?
On private Members’ Bills, I listened to what my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) said. Many representations have also been made to me by Members who have private Members’ Bills that are about to go to the other place and just need that final nod through; the Government have given the money resolution and they are all ready to go, but they are now just waiting. They are good Bills that we know the Government want to see go through, so I wonder again whether the Leader of the House could consider finding a way to get them to the other place as soon as possible.
I am now going to disappoint my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) because I told him earlier that I was going to support his amendments. However, having listened to all that the Leader of the House has said, I take his assurance at face value; he has given me his word. On that basis, I am happy not to support the amendments and to support the Government in this case. We have found ourselves in a dreadful situation and none of us wants to be here, but let us all do our bit to be role models, to lead our constituents and to show them the right way to behave in this situation.
We shall be supporting both resolutions on the Order Paper tonight. Given the rising infection rates and the fact that our national health service is on the verge of being overwhelmed, it would be irresponsible not to support any and all measures that limit physical interaction in this place. We have a duty of care not just to Members, but to the staff who work in the Palace to ensure that their health is protected. I think we also have something of an obligation to lead by example when it comes to enduring some inconveniences ourselves, when we are asking people throughout our countries to endure much more severe privations.
I have two questions tonight. First, do the measures go far enough in limiting physical contact? Secondly, are we making enough use of the technological alternatives to physical meetings? I think that the answer to the first of those questions is no; there is more that we could do. I honestly believe that there is nothing that we need to do in terms of fulfilling our legal and democratic mandates that requires our physical presence in this place, and that it would be possible to have all our proceedings conducted online. I know that that is a step way too far for many people in the House, and perhaps in the Chamber tonight, but there are steps that we could take along the way to that.
We could limit the amount of time that was spent in the Chamber, perhaps by looking at a two or three-day week. As the Chair of the Procedure Committee has just said, we could certainly ensure that all Committee meetings, including Delegated Legislation Committees and Bill Committees, were able to meet virtually. As other Members have said, we could also switch back on the remote voting system so that people were not required physically to be present in order to discharge proxy votes.
As to the question of whether technological alternatives are being deployed enough, again, I do not think that they are; more could be done. I say that in no way as a criticism of the efficient and effective staff working in our digital services and broadcasting departments, but I think that the context that we have given them to work with is not sufficient. I honestly believe that we are looking at this through the wrong end of the telescope. In most of these discussions, we talk about virtual proceedings as an adjunct—an add-on—to the physical meeting, not as an alternative to it. Therefore, we are concerned to find a space that is safe or which can be made safe for a physical meeting, and we then deploy the technology to allow others to join remotely.
Another way—a better way—of doing it would be to move the entire meeting on to the virtual sphere. If we were committed to doing that, we could bring back Westminster Hall debates much quicker. It is not as good, Mr Speaker. I am looking at a white dot in the middle of my computer and trying to imagine that I am having a discussion with other human beings. It feels extremely strange, but it is better than nothing, and it is better than putting our health and the health of others at risk.
I implore and beseech the Leader of the House, the Government and those responsible for this to stop looking at these debates in such a last-century fashion, to come up to date by taking a more modern, imaginative and creative approach, and to deploy the technology fully, so that we are able to conduct our business of democratic scrutiny and not see that compromise, but without the need to meet physically and therefore to spread this contagion.
I beg to move amendment (a), in line 3, leave out from “until” to end and insert “Monday 22 February”.
May I first thank you, Mr Speaker, for selecting the two amendments in my name and those of my right hon. and hon. Friends, and for facilitating this debate? It is a pity, in my view, that this debate was not volunteered by the Government and that it had to be forced on them by us objecting to the motions that were put down on the Order Paper for yesterday. One consequence of that is that at least we were able to have debates in Westminster Hall today, which otherwise would have been curtailed by the Government.
This is an important issue because we are talking principally about Back-Bench scrutiny. The Leader of the House, in his opening remarks, which I thought were very reasonable, said that he recognises the importance of Back-Bench scrutiny. What we have on the Order Paper at the moment is a proposal that will remove 21 hours a week of scrutiny of the Government—16 hours in Westminster Hall and five hours in private Members’ Bills each week. My right hon. Friend is reluctant to do that and he has said that he will come back to the House as soon as he can to bring forward alternative proposals. What I would like him to do tonight is to guarantee that the Standing Order that requires that there should be 13 sitting Fridays where private Members’ business takes precedence will be complied with in any event in this Session, and that if it cannot be complied with in this Session, the Government will honour the spirit of the Standing Order and allow for the carry-over of those Bills that are set down for days that are not able to be used.
If my right hon. Friend gives me that guarantee, in a sense, it will negate the need for amendment (a) to the second motion, because that amendment is designed to ensure that we can carry on with private Members’ Bills between the period after half-term and the end of April, and it is modelled on the previous motions brought forward by him, most recently on 30 December, when he arranged for the Friday sitting scheduled for 8 January to be moved to 15 January. That system was working perfectly all right and my question is, why, in one week, has it not been possible to replicate the same motions that were put forward previously?
The Prime Minister said today that he will be reviewing, for example, what happens in our schools after half-term. Surely it is appropriate that we should, in any event, have a guarantee that these issues will be revisited by the Leader of the House after half-term. We are talking about no fewer than 151 private Members’ Bills. I have received stick from the Government and colleagues in the past for having insisted that individual private Members’ Bills are debated, but never did I think I would be in the Chamber when the Government put down on the Order Paper a proposal that has the effect for the time being —unless it is ever amended—of depriving 151 private Members’ Bills of any opportunity to be heard and discussed in this Chamber.
I wait to hear from my right hon. Friend—I am happy for him to intervene to give me this guarantee, because I am concerned that we will get to the end of this debate and there will not be an opportunity for him to respond, and this question will go unanswered. I hope that it will not.
I might be able to help to reassure the hon. Gentleman on that, because I will be bringing the Leader of the House in at 7.50 pm, so whoever may be speaking I would expect to sit down. Let us go to the Chair of the Petitions Committee, Catherine McKinnell.
The public health situation in the capital and across the country is extremely worrying, and it is vital that the House ensures that Members and staff are working in the safest possible conditions. However, this eventuality should have been planned for before now, because the Government’s plan to close Westminster Hall without an alternative is not just taking away our ability to hold debates, but reducing the opportunities for members of the public—our constituents—to engage with Parliament.
Already in this Parliament, around 11 million people have signed a parliamentary petition, but the public are once again seeing the space for their debates being shut down. On Monday I led a debate on support for the hospitality industry, following a petition that got more than 200,000 signatures, and I heard from many hon. Members that they cared deeply about the subject and knew their constituents did, but felt they could not travel down from their constituency to Westminster to take part. Last week my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House asked—this was mentioned earlier—about hybrid proceedings in Westminster Hall, and the Leader of the House said that the potential £100,000 cost was too high for the Government to consider. Perhaps we now have an answer to the question, “What price democracy?”
But where there is a will there is a way; and when Westminster Hall closed in March, the Petitions Committee innovated. We held one-off sessions and inquiries. We undertook a huge range of online public engagement. We held our own hybrid e-petition sessions, allowing Members to contribute in lieu of the debates we would have liked to have. For some shielding Members, it was actually the first time that they were able to contribute substantively to a Backbench Business debate since the first lockdown began.
Those innovations, however, cannot be a substitute for the proper parliamentary debates that I know we want to see. Hybrid debates may not be perfect, but surely the Leader of the House, who I know considers himself a champion of Parliament, would accept that some form of debate taking place safely, either in hybrid form or entirely virtually, is better than no debates at all. So, since Westminster Hall reopened in October, the Petitions Committee has held 22 debates, covering 37 petitions, signed by over 7 million people. Thirty-three petitions are waiting for debate and the number is growing every week; they share more than 6 million signatures. Petitions debates since March have been viewed more than a million times and are some of the most-read debates in Hansard, and the Backbench Business Committee also currently has at least 12 debates that it wants to schedule. The closure of Westminster Hall without an alternative prevents both our Committees from scheduling any of our debates, and so for petitioners, for Back Benchers and for the good of debate, which is vital to our democracy and the good functioning of government, I urge the Leader of the House to urgently bring forward a motion to ensure a hybrid Westminster Hall, whether that is in the existing hall or in a new location, so that that can come into effect as soon as possible.
It is a great pleasure to follow the Chairwoman of the Petitions Committee, and I agree with her entirely in her desire to have hybrid proceedings in Westminster Hall. I also support what has already been mentioned on remote voting, because that improves the democratic process—it is an improvement on having the Deputy Chief Whips walking through the Lobbies with hundreds of votes stuffed in their pockets.
In the short time that I have, I want to talk about private Members’ Bills. The Standing Orders are the bible of the House of Commons. Without Standing Orders, the Government could ride roughshod over the democratic process. I fear that today, that is what is proposed. If the motion goes through unamended, it is effectively abolishing private Members’ Bills for this Session, because there will be no way to get 13 sitting Fridays in before the end of the Session. The Session has already gone on for over a year, and it would mean the abolition of private Members’ Bills.
Many may say that does not matter; I think it does. I think the ability of private Members—Back-Bench Members—to bring in private Members’ Bills is an important part of our democratic process. That is the only time that it is possible to get legislation through the House that was not introduced by the Government. People may say, “That never happens.” Well, let us have a look at the last Session. Sixteen private Members’ Bills completed the statutory process and became Acts of Parliament, including the Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act 2018; the Parental Bereavement (Leave and Pay) Act 2018; and the Health and Social Care (National Data Guardian) Act 2018, which was in fact taken through the House by me. All were important Bills that became Acts of Parliament.
Of course, there are also nationally important things. I might consider the European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 2) Act 2019 to be an infamous Act of Parliament, but it was passed and eventually led to a general election. In fact, it led to a proper Brexit, which probably was not what the proposers of that Bill wanted. Nevertheless, such Bills are definitely important parts of our democratic process.
The last time that a Government tried to abolish private Member’s Bills was when the Labour Government tried in 1945. I have listened to the arguments quite rightly put forward about the dangers of participation, and about the fact that we are in a covid pandemic and therefore we should put off private Members’ Bills days and Westminster Hall debates. The amendments tabled to the motions we are debating do just that—they stop private Members’ Bills days and Westminster Hall debates in their tracks—but they also require them to be looked at again by the Government and this House after the February half-term. I think that is the right way forward. It gives the Government exactly what it wants—in fact, it is in line with what the Leader of the House has said today. I cannot understand why there is this blanket abolition of private Members’ Bills days when we could bring them back after the February break. If they needed to be changed then, we could of course look at the matter again at that time.
I think this is an attack on democracy, and in particular an attack on Parliament. I looked back to what happened in 1945. Sir Alan Patrick Herbert was the Member for Oxford University and a great parliamentarian who loved the House of Commons—in fact, he was rather like my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope). The last time that a similar motion was brought to the House—the debate then was titled “Business And Sittings Of The House”—he concluded his speech by saying something that I find has stood the test of time:
“I have a Bill here dealing with the provision of legal aid and assistance for the poor. That is something fundamental, but there is not a word about it in the Gracious Speech. What am I to say to all those people who write to me? I must tell them to stop sending their letters and to save their stamps, because I can do no more to help them if this Motion goes through; I might just as well be a Member of the German Reichstag or a stuffed exhibit in the Natural History Museum. If the House will not have my Bills on the Table I cast them on the Floor, as a monument to Parliamentary liberty and a challenge to despotic power.”—[Official Report, 16 August 1945; Vol. 413, c. 144.]
I can do no more than the same.
That is an act to follow.
We are now in the third lockdown. Throughout this pandemic, the Government’s response to covid has been slow, half-hearted and littered with U-turns and contradictions. The way we operate here in Parliament is no exception. It has never been a question of whether something is technically possible; it has been a question of whether there is the political will to embrace new working practices, respond adequately to the health emergency and spend the adequate resources to be fully inclusive.
I want to say a special thank you to the staff of the House who, whatever has been asked of them, have delivered the technical and clerical solutions. Virtual participation in this Chamber and in most Committees has been made possible, and even remote voting went live as early as last May.
It is the retrograde attitude of this Government’s Ministers that has hampered progress, failed to be fair and inclusive, and failed to set an example to the public. Time and again I have asked the Leader of the House to reinstate remote voting and make virtual participation possible across the board. We were told that we could not have remote Westminster Hall debates because the technical adaptation was too resource intensive. Westminster Hall debates, as an important part of our parliamentary democracy, were used as an example of why we could not have a fully virtual Parliament, and since we had to be in Parliament for Westminster Hall debates, we might as well be there for voting.
In his recent response to my hon. Friend the Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain), the Leader of the House wrote that parliamentary resources are finite and that making Westminster Hall debates fit for virtual participation would require extra resources—but what kind of an argument is that when we have already spent £40,000 of public funds on making remote voting possible without making use of it? Is it the money, is it democracy, or is it the lack of political will? The possibility of moving Westminster Hall debates to a bigger Committee Room is welcome, but the question remains: why is this only considered now, after so many MPs were excluded from participation? For example, I wanted to take part in the Westminster Hall debate on the hospitality sector but I am staying here in Bath for public health reasons. Why would it still take four weeks to make Westminster Hall debates fully virtual?
If the Government are so concerned about democracy, why are they proposing to suspend private Member’s Bill procedures? As the MP who successfully made upskirting a specific criminal offence, which started as a private Member’s Bill, I can vouch for the enormous contribution that private Members’ Bills make to our democracy. This suspension is unjustified. Anything we do here in Parliament could be done virtually. It is not the technical side that is the problem but the political will of this Government. I support the proposals but I think we could go a lot further.
Many people will, quite rightly, hold the Government to account for their handling of the covid pandemic, but many in this House perhaps fail to hold themselves to account for not holding the Government to account. This House is at its worst when we talk about ourselves, which is all that we have done this evening. The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) spoke a great deal of sense: we are not here to speak for ourselves but to speak on behalf of our constituents. That should be at the forefront of our minds in every single proceeding, whether in this Chamber or indeed in Westminster Hall. While I will not match the theatrics of my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) in my brief remarks, I agree with him entirely.
We are in a grave public health emergency. No one can doubt that; the figures today prove it. But let us have regard for our constituents, who, day in, day out, turn up diligently to work in supermarkets, attend upon those who are vulnerable in their homes, or go about their business because they have no other option. What example do we set for them? I suggest it is a poor one, because we have made many measures in this House to be covid-secure—quite frankly, going above and beyond, and rightly so, to be an exemplar of covid security.
The virtual Parliament is virtually nothing. It consists of a series of disjointed monologues set against a variety of backgrounds. Scrutiny of the Government is the duty of every single Member of this House, regardless of the party to which they belong. I fear that in debates such as this and proposals contained therein, we have singularly failed in that.
This debate has clearly demonstrated the value of Westminster Hall debates and private Members’ Bills for very many Members on both sides of the House, and, most importantly, for the constituents we represent. They allow Back-Bench Members to make their own contributions and advocate for specific topics on behalf of those constituents, as well as helping to shine a light on issues that the Government would not usually be held to account on.
Like other speakers in this debate, I would like to see Westminster Hall become fully virtual, allowing all Members to take part. I understand the broadcast capability constraints that have been reported previously, but I wonder whether an option might be to facilitate virtual participation in Westminster Hall and to record those sessions for later uploading and access by members of the public on the parliamentlive.tv site rather than via live broadcast.
During the autumn, before the Westminster Hall debates were back up and running, the Petitions Committee ran a series of Westminster Hall-style virtual debates that were accessible to those who had not been able to attend the House in person. They were invaluable to many of those hon. Members. I wonder what conversations the Leader of the House has had with either the Commission or the Petitions Committee and its Chairperson about to what extent it is possible to get those up and running again in the short term, or to adapt them to cover a broader range of debates while we look at how we bring Westminster Hall back in a virtual form.
Now that Westminster Hall debates and private Members’ Bills are to cease for the next few weeks, it is true that the avenues by which Members of Parliament can scrutinise the Government will be reduced. It is therefore vital that the Government ensure that those means that are available are working as efficiently and effectively as possible.
Regarding the Chamber, I agree with those hon. Members who have said that the Backbench Business Committee should be allocated a generous amount of time on the Floor of the House to enable it to address the long-standing backlog, which clearly the closure of Westminster Hall does not help. That is one of the few remaining mechanisms by which Back-Bench MPs can get an issue debated in this House, so I ask the Leader of the House to consider allocating further time to the Committee on that basis.
Beyond events in the Chamber, there are questions that we table and letters that we write to Ministers, and there are still real delays in answering parliamentary questions, even when they are named day questions. When they are answered, too often the answers we currently get give insufficient detail or are out of date.
I have concerns about the responses to those letters, and I highlight the Treasury in particular as a Department where we are still receiving stock replies. That is very frustrating for my constituents, who are often seeking a specific response to their query—that is why they have contacted my office in the first place—and I would be grateful if the Leader of the House could speak to the Chancellor about why that delay in particular is ongoing still within the Treasury, more than nine months on from the initial outbreak of coronavirus.
Finally, I pay tribute to the essential members of staff who are present in person on the parliamentary estate, who are allowing proceedings to continue in their current form. I ask the Leader of the House to set out whether any decision has been made in relation to testing for those that are on the estate, an issue I have raised before, to ensure that any outbreak, when it does happen, is caught before it spreads further.
I understand your strictures, Mr Speaker.
I am extremely pleased to have the opportunity to speak this evening; it is thanks to the Leader of the House, who allowed remote participation in debates only a few days ago, that I can do so. It is the first time that I have spoken in a debate since 11 March, so it seems particularly ironic that I should be doing so on the subject of curtailing debate for the future.
I completely recognise the point made by the shadow Leader of the House that the health and safety of everyone who works in the House should be paramount during the pandemic. The impact of this dreadful disease on many people, who are not as obsessed with proceedings in the House, has obviously been shocking, and that comes first. Many people have lost lives and many people have lost their jobs and businesses.
I speak to oppose the motion relating to private Members’ Bills. I was fortunate enough, almost a year ago, to be drawn seventh in the ballot for private Members’ Bills, the first time since I was elected in 2005 that I have won the equivalent of the parliamentary lottery. My Sewage (Inland Waters) Bill, which was introduced on 5 February 2020 and was due to have its Second Reading this Friday, was deferred for the fourth time to Friday 22 January; if this goes through, it will be deferred for the fifth time.
I have worked hard with many dedicated people who are utterly committed to improving the water quality of our rivers, through non-governmental organisations and individuals right across the country. We have had over 50,000 people sign a petition, and I have had support from hon. Members from all parties across the House: 106 MPs supported the Bill at the last count.
There is growing support out there for the measures contained in the Bill, from water companies and even from regulators and some Government officials. If this motion goes through, I will look for alternative means of bringing the Bill forward in other ways. I note that the Environment Bill has not completed its passage through this House and, of course, it has to proceed to the House of Lords thereafter.
I heard what the Leader of the House had to say about recommencing sitting Fridays as soon as the pandemic allows. While I welcome the motion particularly for Westminster Hall debates, for several of the private Members’ Bills, time will have run out, and any of them that have not yet had their Second Reading are most unlikely to get the time in a potential return after the half-term break to be able to conclude their proceedings. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) indicated, it may be possible for Bills that have concluded the Committee stage to proceed, if the Government allow, but that will not be the case for Bills such as mine. For that reason, although it may appear selfish, I will oppose this motion if it is put to a vote.
I will be brief. First, I wish to declare an interest: my private Member’s Bill was due to be heard this Friday. I do not find it easy to see its postponement again, because it addresses one of the great issues at the moment: those NHS workers working on the frontline in our NHS and social care sectors who are here on visas and putting their lives on the line. Like many others, I believe they deserve the right to indefinite leave to remain in this country.
I fully accept and welcome the fact that we should not put the staff in this place at risk of any additional contact with Members, members of the public or each other, or put them in any danger or at any risk. However, during this pandemic we have seen businesses up and down this country use their ingenuity to find ways of working within the restrictions and adapting to cope, and we should do the same to protect our democracy.
At the moment, we do not have equality of democracy. I am in Edinburgh and I would have to travel to a hotspot, perhaps putting my family and constituents at risk from covid-19. I am not in London and cannot easily travel to Westminster, so I believe we need to find a way of allowing each part of our democracy—our democratic process—to operate and allowing each Member equal access to that process through a virtual Parliament, to protect not just ourselves, but our staff and constituents in the future.
I ask the Government to consider that and to consider taking on some of those private Members’ Bills that would have been taken this Friday. I make no bones about the fact that I would like the Government to recognise the contribution made by the NHS workers—the foreign nationals—who have done so much for this country in this crisis.
I will try to be even more succinct than I have to be. I have only three points to make. First, we should regard what we do here as critically important. Too often this House lacks self-confidence, and we undervalue what we do and the importance of our role in holding Governments to account.
The second point I wish to make is about staff. I think that all Members of this House value enormously the excellent staff and support that we have here. We want them, and Members participating here, to be as safe as it is possible to be, but it is also important to say that in my 23 years here I have always found that the staff of this House take as much pride in our democratic functions and the duty we have here, on behalf of the public, as Members do. So it is important that we recognise that. We are all part of the same critically important enterprise.
I close with a final point, which is to thank you, Mr Speaker, for the assurances you have given and the Leader of the House for those that he has given. I reiterate the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope), which is the hope that when the Leader of the House stands up shortly to respond he will make it absolutely clear that there is a guarantee that we will see those days restored somehow for private Members’ Bills and that we will see Westminster Hall returning, wherever it may be and in whatever form.
It might be helpful if I try to respond to the point just made by my hon. Friends the Members for Altrincham and Sale West (Sir Graham Brady) and for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope). I am afraid that, in the course of this pandemic, giving guarantees has been an unwise thing to do, so I cannot go as far as giving a guarantee. However, I can reiterate my promise that we will bring back PMBs and Westminster Hall as soon as is possible and practical in view of the circumstances. I think it is important that we do that, and I think there is a clear demand across the House that we should do that.
I do not want to give any promises about the next Session and what will happen, but I think it is reasonable to have discussions. I do not want to go further than that, because I think I would be going beyond what anyone has agreed at this stage, but I think for discussions to take place as to what will happen is perfectly reasonable, without giving any guarantees.
While I am on this point, I basically want to apologise to my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne). I am well aware that he has done an enormous amount of work on his Bill. He has gained widespread support for it—it has been a model of how to gain support for a private Member’s Bill—and we have now pulled the rug on him for a fifth time. That is not what I wish to be doing. All I can plead is that the pandemic has led to a considerable degree of uncertainty, and that it has always been the aim of the Government, and one that I very much hold dear, to get back to normal as soon as possible.
Even in today’s debate, we see that when people appear remotely there is no possibility of an intervention. We see the Chamber still at a fraction of its fullness. We see in all the debates taking place in these circumstances the imperfection of the constraints under which we are operating, so it has always been my hope to get back to normal at as early a stage as possible, and therefore to recognise that we do things when we have to, not because we actually want to do them.
We have used technology innovatively—a point made by a number of speakers—to make the best of a bad job, in reality to try to ensure that as much scrutiny as possible takes place. I agree with all those hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg), who said that we are here to represent our constituents and to ensure that their concerns are brought forward.
May I thank the right hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) for her support and the support of her party in this, and for the seriousness with which she has approached the issue? She made a moving speech in support of the motion. I am also grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley) for her support and the questions she raises about Bill Committee evidence being given virtually and whether Bill Committees can sit virtually. Bill Committees have a manageable number, so I think it is reasonable for them to continue as they are, but she makes a very good and fair point.
My right hon. Friend also raised the question of the petitions debates and the Backbench Business Committee, as did the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell). I can say that we will try to make time available in the Chamber for Petitions Committee debates, as we did earlier on in the summer. Actually, from the Petitions Committee’s point of view, if the debates are in the Chamber rather than in Westminster Hall, the Committee will benefit from those arrangements because everything, ultimately, is about this Chamber, which is the beating heart of Parliament.
It has always been the aim of the Government to ensure that the Chamber continues to operate, because it is the votes here that change the law. It is here that the most important statements are made. Within the limited resources that we have, be they financial or be they the number of people in the broadcasting team, we must always ensure that the Chamber itself comes first.
Mr Speaker, I am very grateful for your reminding everybody that financial decisions are not made by me. Much though I am a hawkish protector of taxpayers’ money, decisions on whether to spend £100,000 on a remote Westminster Hall are made by the House services. The hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) made some measured points about whether we were going far enough or not. I think we have the balance right. I think that our covid-secure workplace—Mr Speaker, you and your team and the Clerks have worked very hard to ensure that that is the case—ensures that we can get on with our job.
I enjoyed the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch because he normally has a sort of Herod-like approach to private Members’ Bills—the more innocent they are, the more likely they are to be massacred—so to see him as a champion of the 151 is perhaps, to a degree, ironic. None the less, I so agree with them that one of the fundamental rights we have as Members is to introduce a Bill and to try to get time for that Bill to be debated. I was actually on the Procedure Committee when there was a suggestion that the number of Bills a Member could introduce should be limited; I always thought that that would have been a monstrous constraint. So I absolutely understand and sympathise with the points he is making. I think it is actually perfectly consistent to support the right to introduce a Bill, but then to oppose individual Bills.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) ended splendidly by quoting the Member for Oxford University in 1945. I do not know whether he is listening via the Parliament channel, but I am afraid to say I have seen him do it before, and it loses its impact on second playing. It is a bit like the BBC: his speeches are now full of repeats. However, he made a point that I must disagree with. He said that without Standing Orders there would be complete control by the Government. That is not actually the way it works. Standing Order No. 14 is the Standing Order that gives control to the Government, so the Standing Orders are in the Government’s interests, and it is a commitment of the Government to ensure that Standing Orders are followed.
One hour having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on the Business of the House (Today) motion, the Speaker put the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (Order, this day).
I think we will leave it that the amendment will not be moved.
Question put and agreed to.
That, notwithstanding Standing Order No. 10 (Sittings in Westminster Hall) and the order of this House on 23 September 2020, there shall be no sittings in Westminster Hall with effect from Thursday 14 January until the House otherwise orders.
Business of the House (Private Members’ Bills) (No. 9)
That the Order of the House of 16 January 2020 (Business of the House (Private Members’ Bills)), as amended by the Orders of the House of 25 March, 22 April, 12 May, 10 June, 1 July, 3 November and 30 December 2020, is further amended as follows:
leave out “15 January 2021, 22 January 2021, 29 January 2021, 5 February 2021, 26 February 2021, 5 March 2021, 12 March 2021 and 26 March 2021”.—(Mr Rees-Mogg.)
Can I just say to everyone that the Commission of this House takes seriously its role as an employer and its duty of care to all who work here? At its most recent meeting, as has been the case many times before, we have been guided by Public Health England’s advice. We want to do everything in our power to make our workplace as safe as possible for both Members and staff alike, even if at times that means we have to put some limits on our activities, which goes against all our instincts as parliamentarians.
I am thinking of the tragic loss of one of those people who serve this House, so at this time my thoughts are with their family and their colleagues. All I can say is that it is not a great time for this country—it is a sad time—and as soon as we can, I want this House back to normal. That is an assurance from myself, as well as from the Leader of the House.