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Business of the House

Volume 802: debated on Wednesday 25 March 2020

Motion to Agree

Moved by

That, until 21 May 2020, and notwithstanding any prior resolution of the House:

(1) only public bills sponsored by a Minister of the Crown shall be considered;

(2) no motions for balloted debate shall be taken; and

(3) no Questions for Short Debate shall be asked, except for balloted topical Questions for Short Debate on Thursdays.

My Lords, the Coronavirus Bill and the Contingencies Fund Bill will receive Royal Assent this evening, and that will be notified to both Houses tonight. This means that the House will no longer sit tomorrow or next week. Noble Lords who have tabled an Oral Question will receive a written response from a Minister.

The House will return after Easter on Tuesday 21 April as planned. The usual arrangements for the recall of Parliament will apply, should the House need to meet before then. The previously announced adjournment for the VE Day bank holiday weekend will go ahead as planned.

When we return, we will make some changes to the way that our business is arranged. In light of the circumstances, and having consulted the usual channels, it has been agreed that, for the first three weeks after Easter, the House will sit only on a Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. So the House will sit on 21, 22, 23, 28, 29 and 30 April, and on 5 and 6 May, when we will rise for the VE Day long weekend. Further discussions will take place to inform what happens after that.

It has also been agreed that until the Whitsun Recess—until Thursday 21 May—we will not consider any Private Members’ Bills, balloted debates or ordinary Questions for Short Debate. No Back-Bench Member will lose out. My noble friend the Chief Whip, who I am pleased to report is feeling better, will be in touch with those Members who had an agreed slot for their business to discuss alternative arrangements.

For the convenience of Members and those staff who have to come in, the House will sit earlier on Tuesday and Wednesday, at 1 pm on Tuesday and at 11 am on Wednesday. This will enable business to conclude at around 7 pm on both days rather than the usual 10 pm. Tuesdays and Wednesdays will be used, as they are now, to scrutinise the Government’s legislation. Grand Committees will be scheduled only if absolutely necessary. Party debates and topical Questions for Short Debate will continue on Thursdays, so the Opposition parties, Cross-Bench Members and Back-Bench Members will retain the ability to initiate debates to maintain the House’s key function of holding the Government to account. Oral Questions will continue as normal at the beginning of every sitting day, with a topical Question asked on each day the House sits. A new Forthcoming Business will be issued as soon as possible.

We will also have to think about how we conduct our business, not just what we consider and when. We will have to look carefully at what sensible adjustments can be made to our working practices and procedures. We will continue to work with the usual channels and the House authorities on these issues, but I can tell the House that a working group of senior officials from both Houses and the Parliamentary Digital Service has been set up to develop effective remote collaboration and videoconferencing. The parliamentary digital authority is doing all it can to enable rollout to Members as soon as possible.

The social distancing measures we have put in place this week will need to continue for the foreseeable future. Noble Lords who do not need to attend the House should not do so, and that particularly applies to those in the vulnerable groups. We have all seen noble Lords in their 70s and 80s in their places this week. I simply say, as the Speaker said last week, that as parliamentarians we have a duty to show leadership and to heed the advice of the public health experts.

Finally, I am sure all noble Lords will join with me in putting on record our thanks to all those members of staff who have supported us so ably in recent days. On a personal note, I express my thanks to my fantastic team for all the help they have provided to me ever since I became Leader. I know that all staff will continue to work very hard on our behalf in the weeks ahead, and we are lucky to have them. I beg to move.

My Lords, I thank the Leader of the House for her Statement today and for the constructive usual channels discussions held away from the Chamber, including with my noble friends Lady Smith of Basildon and Lord McAvoy, who have, while working at home, continued to be active and involved throughout the week. It is vital that Parliament continues its essential role of scrutiny, particularly at a time of crisis, and this House must continue to play its part. It is right that the Leader of the House referred to the programme planned for after the Easter Recess, which has been discussed by the usual channels. It is also right that the business that the Government outline keeps to a more limited programme while ensuring opportunities for scrutiny of ongoing legislation, as well as preserving time for Opposition parties and groups. She will know that the leaders in the usual channels are all fully committed to keeping in close contact between now and when we return.

The Leader will know that Members across the House are very keen to see the introduction of changes to how we work in future, using new technology such as remote collaboration and videoconferencing. For example, committees can meet online, but there are many other ways in which we can fulfil our obligations and maintain social distancing, as a number of noble Lords have outlined in speeches this week. Many businesses are being far more innovative, and we should also be taking a lead on this. I underline that the working group the Leader of the House referred to needs to work with a sense of urgency so that new technological solutions to the current situation can be agreed and introduced as soon as possible, preferably in time for when we return from the Recess.

I also thank her for emphasising that the House returns on 21 April, as previously planned, as there was some confusion in the media, not for the first time, on this issue. Normal procedures will apply, even in this situation. However, should there be any significant change or action required, a recall of Parliament has to be an option.

I also thank the Leader of the House for her comments about the staff of your Lordships’ House. I too thank all the staff of the House, including the cleaners and the security and catering staff, as well the House administration and party staff. Whatever decisions are made on the future working of this House, we must consider them, too.

My Lords, I, too, thank the Leader of the House for her statement, and I join other noble Lords in giving immense thanks on behalf of these Benches to all the people in Parliament who have worked so hard on our behalf. We understand the decision that has been made that the House should rise early, but there are some reservations in the country because we are facing the greatest national emergency in my lifetime.

I share to some extent the concerns highlighted earlier today, for example by the noble Lord, Lord Adonis. As he mentioned, we understand that the self-employed package will be announced on Friday. It is a big worry that there will be no ability for Parliament to scrutinise that. I also believe that other regulations and SIs will be laid on Thursday to put the powers in place to implement what the Prime Minister announced on Monday. Again, there will be no scrutiny.

There are also a whole series of other issues that people raised to do with PPE and testing which Parliament will not have a chance to scrutinise. Will the Leader of the House absolutely guarantee that Parliament will come back on 21 April, because the Leader in the other place seemed to suggest that there was a slight caveat to that? I really hope that it will, because it is very important that we are here. Could she also tell us whether it would be possible to arrange immediately a substantive debate on the emergency on that day, so that these issues can be discussed in detail?

I was pleased to hear what the noble Baroness had to say about remote working. My noble friend Lord Newby raised these issues in his Second Reading speech yesterday. He, my noble friend Lord Stoneham of Droxford, and a number of other Peers on all sides of the House have made many sensible suggestions. We know that Select Committees in the other place will meet virtually; indeed, I think one of them already has. Can the Leader of the House tell us that Select Committees, indeed any other committees of this House, can meet virtually immediately? If not, can we make very rapid progress on that?

There have been wider suggestions to do with how Members could ask Questions remotely. It should not be technologically impossible for them to also take part in debates remotely, and we should be ambitious about that. Given that a number of noble Lords have particular expertise on technological issues—I am not one of them—perhaps they might be consulted and be able to input into the committee which the noble Baroness mentioned. Can she ensure that that committee, and the House in general, has discussions with the various organisations that provide videoconferencing technology, as they may very well be willing to advise the House on how it could facilitate remote contributions? The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, mentioned in the debate yesterday that her party’s conference had been held using a service called Hopin. We should investigate all these things; there are technologies out there that we could use. The noble Lord, Lord Anderson, told some of us earlier how the Supreme Court locked up its building and moved immediately, and its cases are continuing remotely. I really hope that we can move on that.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Wheeler, said, it is really important that we use the time between now and when we return to do this. It just will not be on for us to come back and find that progress has not been made. We cannot have this Parliament, and this Chamber in particular, being represented only by those of us who are younger, or more closely located geographically, or who do not have underlying health problems. Now, more than ever, when the people who are most affected are older people and those with underlying health conditions, not hearing from other representatives is a really bad thing.

I heed and understand the Leader’s point about the example that we as a House need to set for the public and the advice for people aged over 70. However, in our debates over the last two days, we have had some excellent and important contributions from noble Lords and noble Baronesses who are over that age, and the only way they could contribute in that way was by being here. We should not berate them for coming here; we should berate ourselves for not having put in place processes by which they could contribute remotely. We must not lose their contributions.

My Lords, I deplore the Statement just made by the Leader of the House. It is deplorable that in the middle of a national crisis the Government are proposing that Parliament should abdicate for a month. We should, day by day, be debating the situation, holding Ministers to account, reporting back to them the tribulations that millions of our fellow citizens are undergoing in this great crisis, and ensuring that the Government are held to account for their actions to deal with it.

In our debate earlier, we heard that there is still no package for the millions of self-employed people in this country who are facing potential destitution because their incomes have disintegrated. We are told that the Chancellor might make a Statement tomorrow, but not in Parliament because Parliament will not meet, and that it will not be possible to put questions to him or his representative in this House. When the noble Earl, the deputy leader of the House, appeared before us earlier, he said that we could make representations by other means. The whole way in which Parliament makes representations is by meeting.

This is a truly deplorable Statement. It is also out of line with how Parliament has handled previous crises. My noble friend Lord Harris said that the Prime Minister is fond of making comparisons with the Second World War. In 1940, Parliament met almost every week. There was no period of more than 18 days in which Parliament did not meet. It is true that coronavirus is contagious, which is why it is right that we look at modernising our working practices, including video conferencing, but it is perfectly possibly for us to meet. No one can suggest that if it was possible for Parliament to meet weekly in 1940, it is not possible for us to meet weekly in 2020. Let us hope that the Government agree to a recall, so that we can debate the conditions which the country will go through in the next few weeks.

I wish to put on record that it is a dereliction of our public responsibilities for us not to meet for the next 28 days when the Government, by the consent of all of us, are imposing in effect a state of emergency on the entire country.

My Lords, I endorse the comments of my noble friend Lord Oates, with two supplementary points, the first of which the Leader may think has a degree of self-pleading because I live in Scotland.

If this House is to function properly, there must be not only active Members who can physically participate, but Members from all four nations of the union. As with many people who have to work across the union, there will be Members of Parliament, in this place and in the other place, who by necessity have to travel across the United Kingdom to carry out the democratic functions, and rightly so, but it is harder for them. I hope that the Government will consider not excluding Members who cannot physically be here of cannot be here by virtue of geography. Thankfully I do not fall into the category of being over 70. Nevertheless, the point about geography is important.

Secondly, on the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, the Government will inevitably table a great many statutory instruments during this period, which we will have to consider after the piece. That is not desirable. It may be necessary in some regards, but it is not desirable. Will the Government be much more flexible over access to Ministers and in the provision of written material to Front-Benchers through the usual channels, so that lines of communication are much freer than they normally are? I know that Ministers in this House are frequently available and receptive but there is an extra burden on the Government at this time because, as the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, and other noble Lords have said, governing an emergency by executive authority alone is not the British way. If we are to carry on, we will do so through our democratic institutions.

Finally, on technology, I hope that the Government will speak to the other democratic institutions, not only here, with the House of Commons and our Parliamentary Digital Service, but to local authorities and our cities, which are undergoing similar challenges, the European Parliament, which has instituted new regulations for voting electronically, and others, so that democratic institutions across the United Kingdom can carry on functioning as best as they can.

My Lords, I endorse the remarks of the noble Lords, Lord Adonis and Lord Oates. As I referred to in an earlier debate, the coronavirus has existed as an organism—as a species—for three months. When we talk about coming back in about a month’s time, we are talking about 25% of the entire existence of this virus. Of course, it will be the worst 25%. We face massive challenges. We have essentially thrown out the rulebook in many areas in the past couple of days. It is extremely disappointing —an understatement—that we will not be here to ask questions to address this directly. I understand the remarks about access for Front-Benchers but those of us with smaller representation also have important questions to ask.

My Lords, I stand in support of the recommendations made by the Leader of the House. We cannot underestimate the public health challenge that we face. I am in day-to-day contact with, among others, very senior nurses, including Ruth May at NHS England. It is our duty to reduce the spread of the virus by taking this time out. For example, I live 260 miles away. I would come back next week if we were sitting, of course, but I would probably stay in London for another weekend rather than return. We need to demonstrate that we will hold the Government to account. The Bill, which we should finalise this afternoon, will enable us to do that. I also believe that there is absolutely no reason why Parliament could not be recalled before 21 April if it were appropriate to do so.

My Lords, I recognise that the Statement was agreed by the usual channels; I therefore do not deplore it.

First, I support what the Lord Privy Seal said about the staff of the House, who have been put under enormous pressure during this period. We must be extremely grateful for their efforts and commitment. That is an extremely important message and anything said in these exchanges is certainly not intended to detract from it.

It is in the Government’s interests to demonstrate that they are operating as transparently, openly and accountably as they can. On us coming back on 21 April, I am pleased that that guarantee has been given; I am sure that Parliament will be recalled before then if necessary. May I make a practical suggestion about accountability? This is an enormous crisis and there will be lots of decisions to be taken. Rather than simply having one topical Question per day, we should have two, or even three.

If that is not possible, there should be a firm commitment from the Government to a Statement at least twice a week, if not every day, when we return so that there is full opportunity for the Government to explain issues arising and report back on how their various measures are working. That would also allow the House—it will not be all of us since, as we have already seen, people are self-selecting and deciding who comes in; we should find ways to enable people who cannot be here for whatever reason to engage—to question and hold the Government to account. Above all, by being transparent, the Government will continue to have the nation’s support in trying to deal with the coronavirus.

I thank noble Lords for their comments. I will pick up on some of the points raised.

First, I assure noble Lords that the working group looking at digital technologies and how we can be more effective is very cognisant of the urgency and importance that the House places on it—I can see the Clerk of the Parliaments nodding. It will be taking this forward and, I am sure, would welcome any suggestions from noble Lords about technologies they have used such as apps, et cetera. This work will be taken forward over Easter with a lot of urgency.

As I said, we will come back on 21 April. We will be publishing Forthcoming Business so that noble Lords will be able to see what government business we have. As I said, Thursdays will be set aside for opposition and Back-Bench issues, so there will be ample opportunity for issues that noble Lords wish to raise.

In relation to Statements and UQs, I think we have had a Statement pretty much every day so far and, in light of the circumstances we will find ourselves in, I suspect that will continue. However, I hear what the noble Lord has said.

It is up to Select Committees to decide how to conduct their business, and they can work remotely if they wish. That is for Select Committee chairmen and their committees to decide.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, for acknowledging the engagement of Ministers in this House. I assure him that we will continue to do so. It is a responsibility that my Front Bench and I take extremely seriously. I assure the House that we will continue to do so when we return after Easter.

Motion agreed.