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Business of the House

– in the House of Commons at 3:37 pm on 23rd March 2020.

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Photo of Jacob Rees-Mogg Jacob Rees-Mogg Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons 3:37 pm, 23rd March 2020

With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a short business statement.

Further to my announcement to the House last Thursday, the first item of business tomorrow will now be consideration of a business of the House motion, followed by all stages of the Contingencies Fund Bill. This will be followed by Committee and remaining stages of the Windrush Compensation Scheme (Expenditure) Bill, followed by a motion relating to appointments to the parliamentary works sponsor body. The last item of business will be a general debate on the situation in Yemen, as determined by the Backbench Business Committee. The business for the rest of this week remains unchanged.

Photo of Valerie Vaz Valerie Vaz Shadow Leader of the House of Commons 3:38 pm, 23rd March 2020

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for remembering PC Keith Palmer in your earlier statement. I thank the Leader of the House for the business statement. We agree that the Contingencies Fund Bill should be accommodated through this change of business.

Photo of Jacob Rees-Mogg Jacob Rees-Mogg Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons

I am grateful for the support of the right hon. Lady. Our hearts continue to go out to the family of PC Keith Palmer. It was a great sadness that afflicted them and the whole House three years ago.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Conservative, Forest of Dean

Mr Speaker, I welcome your statement and the steps you have set out to enable this House to continue to fulfil its democratic role, but in a way that is safe and consistent with the advice that the Government have set out and expect our constituents to follow. In that spirit, if the Leader of the House is not able to update us today, will he think about what further steps can be agreed between Mr Speaker and the usual channels to enable the House to properly hold the Government to account over what might be a considerable period, as we deal with this virus, in a way consistent with the firm, important advice that we are giving to the rest of the general public?

Photo of Jacob Rees-Mogg Jacob Rees-Mogg Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons

My right hon. Friend raises a point that is being considered by the Government and which will be discussed with the official Opposition and other opposition parties. We will need to legislate and to ensure that the Government are held to account, but we may well have to do that in ways that are different from those we have used previously.

It is very encouraging to see that right hon. and hon. Members seem to be sitting at least 6 feet away from each other in the Chamber, and I would encourage that even on my own Front Bench. Government Front Benchers seem to be observing the suitable gaps at this moment, as do Opposition Front Benchers.

Photo of Patrick Grady Patrick Grady SNP Chief Whip

We are happy to support the Government in their efforts to get the Contingencies Fund Bill through so they can make the expenditure needed to get the country through this crisis. We welcome, Mr Speaker, the announcements you have just made, particularly about social distancing should we find—and perhaps we will not—that Divisions are necessary.

However, the continuing business of the House continues to put pressure on staff and Members. Can the Leader of the House say what consideration is being given to bringing the recess forward to the end of this week? The reality is that any of us who return to our constituencies from London, the epicentre of the virus, are going to have to self-isolate—it would be inappropriate for us to go into our communities—and it would therefore be impossible for us to get back for sittings next week. Will the Leader of the House please take that into consideration?

Photo of Jacob Rees-Mogg Jacob Rees-Mogg Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons

Yes, absolutely. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that that is being considered. I would say to the House that pairing has been very widespread for this week to ensure that right hon. and hon. Members who do not be here are not. We obviously need to ensure that the emergency legislation is successfully passed this week: that depends on the other place as well as here and then the receipt of Royal Assent. We will have other legislation to do in due course, but whether the Bill about rate relief for toilets and the general debate before the Adjournment are essential business that we all need to come back for is debatable.

Photo of Greg Clark Greg Clark Chair, Science and Technology Committee (Commons)

When the Leader of the House speaks at Cabinet tomorrow, will he convey my appreciation to the Chancellor of the Exchequer for the package of measures to support workers that he announced on Friday? He may have been Chancellor for only a few weeks, but he may have saved more jobs than any of his predecessors. However, will the Leader of the House ask him urgently to come back to the House on a comparable package for the self-employed—I know he is working very hard on that—whose businesses are crucial to every constituency in this country and, indeed, to the nation?

Photo of Jacob Rees-Mogg Jacob Rees-Mogg Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons

I will do better than my right hon. Friend asks; I will ensure that an extract of Hansard recording the thanks of my right hon. Friend is sent to the Chancellor. His proposals have received widespread support across the country and the House. My right hon. Friend’s point on the self-employed is very well made, and I will ensure that that is also passed on.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

May I add my welcome to the support given last week to those in employment? There is, however, real anxiety out there among the self-employed. For example, Bill Croney, one of my constituents who runs an event catering business contacted me this morning. These people have got no money coming in, and I think people need to realise that. The Government need urgently to bring forward active measures, and the indication of a statement tomorrow would at least be a ray of hope for some of those people in desperate times.

Photo of Jacob Rees-Mogg Jacob Rees-Mogg Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons

Although the Bill coming before the House tomorrow is not specifically directed at the self-employed, the scale of tomorrow’s Bill is such that it will allow expenditure of £260 billion on account. That gives the Government the flexibility that they need, assuming the House is willing to pass that Bill, to ensure that steps can be taken. I know that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor is giving urgent attention to ways of helping the self-employed. I think it is accepted across the House that that needs to be tackled.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Conservative, The Cotswolds

Mr Speaker, I , too, welcome your measures to try to keep all the staff and ourselves safe in this House.

We are to go into recess some time in the near future. We do not know what is going to happen over the next few weeks, but undoubtedly there will be problems in all our constituencies. May I ask the Leader of the House to urge all his Front-Bench colleagues to treat any queries from any of us as if the House was sitting and with the urgency that they need to be dealt with?

Photo of Jacob Rees-Mogg Jacob Rees-Mogg Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons

Mr Speaker, may I refer to your statement, which, I think, gave the House very good advice? We, as right hon. and hon. Members, need to consider what is urgent and pressing and needs raising with Ministers and what is routine and can wait until after this crisis is solved. It is of the greatest importance that urgent messages get through and are not swamped by routine messages that we would usually be passing on to try to seek high-level responses. Self-denial by us will help Ministers to ensure that the right responses are given to the most urgent items.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) (Arts and Heritage)

I add my voice to those of Greg Clark and my right hon. Friend Mr Jones about the self-employed and freelancers, and I ask the Leader of the House to convey to the Chancellor the urgent requirement for him to come back to the House for a statement about them. I also commend to him the report issued today by the Musicians’ Union, which outlines the impact that this has had on many people in the creative industries.

Photo of Jacob Rees-Mogg Jacob Rees-Mogg Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the issue of those in the creative industries, who are mainly self-employed and have been particularly affected because, of course, the places where they perform have been closed. The Government are inevitably conscious that when we close places by order and that has an effect on people’s livelihoods, there is a societal responsibility. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor is fully aware of that.

Photo of Andrew Mitchell Andrew Mitchell Conservative, Sutton Coldfield

Mr Speaker, you may recall that I have over the past couple of years secured not one but two emergency debates on Yemen and have been a pretty staunch critic of the Government’s policy in respect of that country. However, even I wonder about the timing of the debate tomorrow and whether it is wise for the House to sit and devote time to that particular subject.

Photo of Jacob Rees-Mogg Jacob Rees-Mogg Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons

My right hon. Friend has, I know, campaigned to bring the attention of the country at large to what is going on in Yemen. It is always open to somebody who is going to move a motion not to move that motion, and hon. Members might consider whether they wish to bring forward specific business.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Exiting the European Union), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

As things stand, we will return from the Easter recess just as this epidemic reaches its peak, or heads towards it. Inevitably, either by agreement or for any other reason, a lot of Members will not be here. Mr Speaker, may I ask the Leader of the House to take seriously your indications about the use of modern technology for distance working over the recess, so that the appropriate provision is in place for Members? After all, distance working is what we are asking people in workplaces the length and breadth of the country to do.

Photo of Jacob Rees-Mogg Jacob Rees-Mogg Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons

Many aspects of distance working are already available, such as e-tabling and so on. A motion will be brought to the House later today to allow greater flexibility for the working of Select Committees, which will be an important step in allowing them to hold the Government to account during this period.

As regards the workings of things on the Floor of the House, there will be discussions with leading figures in Opposition parties, I hope during the course of this week, to see whether we can by agreement and consensus work out how to limit the numbers of people who need to be in the Chamber.

Photo of Richard Drax Richard Drax Conservative, South Dorset

Some businesses in my constituency are already looking to the future. When they get back on their feet, they will, sadly, have to make some redundancies because they will not be turning over or making the profits that they are making now. They are asking who will meet that bill. Will my right hon. Friend ask the Chancellor what the answer to that particular conundrum is?

Photo of Jacob Rees-Mogg Jacob Rees-Mogg Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons

My hon. Friend raises the question at the heart of what many right hon. and hon. Members have been saying: how do we take care of businesses that were sound on 1 March but which might find that they are not sound when this crisis ends? The Government are doing everything we can to help ensure the continued soundness of businesses, and that, in my view, is absolutely the right thing to be doing.

Photo of Catherine West Catherine West Labour, Hornsey and Wood Green

The House is due to return on 21 April, but that might not be possible for health reasons. In light of that, is it possible to lift the convention that Members do not usually table parliamentary questions over the recess? In that way, questions could be spaced out sensibly, rather than a huge backlog being caused by their being put in next Tuesday afternoon.

Photo of Jacob Rees-Mogg Jacob Rees-Mogg Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons

The hon. Lady makes an interesting point that is certainly worth our looking into in the few days that remain before we go into recess.

Photo of Mark Pritchard Mark Pritchard Conservative, The Wrekin

Following on from the question of Mr Jones, can I ask that a statement on the self-employed and freelancers comes forward quickly, given the immediate need of many self-employed people? There are 6,500 self-employed people in my constituency of The Wrekin. Will that statement be forthcoming when the House is sitting, rather than when the House has risen, so that right hon. and hon. Members can constructively interrogate the Government’s suggestions?

Photo of Jacob Rees-Mogg Jacob Rees-Mogg Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons

My hon. Friend puts his finger on why it is important for the House to be sitting so that the Government can be held to account and so that questions can be asked on statements. I am sure that if there are no statements from the Government within the next few days, there may be a receptiveness to urgent questions, so I think information will be forthcoming.

Photo of Caroline Lucas Caroline Lucas Green, Brighton, Pavilion

I welcome the indication that we will move to more virtual ways of working, but may I ask that that also incorporates electronic voting as soon as possible? It is ridiculous that we will all be cooped up in the Lobbies.

Secondly, I reinforce the importance of action for the self-employed. In particular, the insurance companies need to be pressed: they are saying that, because coronavirus was not listed as a disease, they will not pay up. The insurance bodies clearly need to be brought to heel.

Photo of Jacob Rees-Mogg Jacob Rees-Mogg Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons

I record my gratitude to the Opposition for deciding not to divide the House last week. We have become aware that politicians in this country can act in the interests of the nation and of us all by coming together to do this, and we have shown that with surprising speed. I reiterate the thanks given by my right hon Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care to his shadow, Jonathan Ashworth, who has been particularly helpful in this difficult period.

The issue regarding the self-employed is of great importance and has been widely raised.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Labour, Rhondda

I warmly condemn—warmly commend, I mean—the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care for recognising that, sometimes, Opposition Members want to be helpful with their criticisms. There are specific issues, such as the treatment of employees, of those in rented properties and, for that matter, of freelancers and sole traders, on which proper questions from Members on both sides of the House can get us to a better place.

My anxiety is that we are telling the nation that we should bend every sinew to deal solely with this issue, yet we are still doing all sorts of other things in the House that are not solely directed at coronavirus. May I suggest to the Government that we shred every other ongoing legislative process? We should only be debating issues that relate to the national crisis.

When will we have the necessary votes under the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 to enforce the measures that were introduced last Friday in relation to pubs and clubs?

Photo of Jacob Rees-Mogg Jacob Rees-Mogg Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons

I will not make cheap shots about the hon. Gentleman’s default position when he is trying to be helpful.

The difficulty is that some of the business we carry on needs to be carried on. It is important that the Windrush compensation scheme is debated and dealt with tomorrow. The hon. Gentleman knows the procedures of this House better than almost anybody: he will be aware that we need to introduce the Finance Bill within a set period of the motions being introduced, so there is routine business that needs to be carried out. Other things are happening on which MPs will want to hold the Government to account so, although I understand his point, we cannot go quite so far as he suggests.

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow Minister (International Trade)

But we can lead by example in this place—right here, right now. There are four people sitting within 6 feet of the Leader of the House; certainly within 2 metres. [Interruption.] I will come over with a tape measure in a moment. We have to demonstrate it by our actions, and the visual example of people sitting immediately in front of and behind other Members does not do that.

My main point is about the self-employed. My hon. Friend Kevin Brennan mentioned the statement by the Musicians Union, which makes two specific proposals. One is for an immediate payment of £400 a week to every self-employed person, and the second is to use the tax records as evidence to deliver 80% of long-term income. Will the Leader of the House make sure those figures are given to the Chancellor?

Photo of Jacob Rees-Mogg Jacob Rees-Mogg Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons

I accept the point and encourage right hon. and hon. Members to try to keep 6 feet apart. I think we are doing pretty well, considering how much we practically sit on each other’s laps during ordinary sittings of Parliament—this is a significant and visible improvement on how things used to be. As the hon. Gentleman has asked me to be the postbox for the Chancellor, I will of course make sure that those points are passed on.

Photo of Stephen Doughty Stephen Doughty Labour/Co-operative, Cardiff South and Penarth

May I add my voice to the chorus of those asking for the Chancellor to bring forward measures on the self-employed? Every single day that goes by without them means livelihoods devastated. In particular, the voice of musicians and from the creative industries is vital—I draw attention to my declaration of interests as a supporter of the Musicians’ Union.

Will the Leader of the House urgently arrange a statement on the situation facing charities? The Chancellor introduced a very welcome set of measures on the wage subsidy, but charities are expending large sums of money on providing services, not just on staff, and they face a £4.3 billion drop in income over the next 12 weeks. Hundreds of Members from eight parties in this House have signed a letter on that. Will the Leader of the House urgently arrange a statement, written or otherwise, to clarify the situation?

Photo of Jacob Rees-Mogg Jacob Rees-Mogg Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the plight of charities, which is well known to the Government, and for the wonderful work that charities are doing to help in these circumstances.

I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will understand that the Government are working through a very large number of issues and doing it in an orderly way. The priority was rightly to give reassurance to those in employment, so that we did not face mass redundancies, which was likely, but that does not mean that the charity sector and the self-employed have been forgotten.

Photo of Gavin Newlands Gavin Newlands Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Transport)

May I also echo the sentiments on support for the self-employed? One sector crying out for support and clarity is the aviation industry. In addition, we have bus and coach companies with drivers on short-time working that are unsure how to treat those employees. Has the Transport Secretary indicated to the Leader of the House whether he will be making a statement in due course?

Photo of Jacob Rees-Mogg Jacob Rees-Mogg Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons

I think the issues in the transport industry have been at the forefront of people’s minds from very early on in this crisis, and I know that my right hon. Friend the Transport Secretary is working hard to try to find solutions for these problems. I will bring this issue to his attention and point out that there is an interest in a statement being made to this House.

Photo of Liam Byrne Liam Byrne Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) (Digital Economy)

I very much associate myself with the calls from across the House for urgent action to help the self-employed. May I ask the Leader of the House to bring forward an urgent debate about an issue that we have not touched on—the need for urgent price caps and action to stop price gouging?

I highlighted an issue in my constituency last week: a disreputable chemist had increased the price of children’s medicine tenfold. Since then I have been flooded with complaints about businesses, small and large, doubling, tripling or quadrupling prices. Two thirds of American states have legislation, activated in emergencies, that sets a price cap of 10% to 20%. We are obviously going to need such measures here—and the sooner we debate them, the better.

Photo of Jacob Rees-Mogg Jacob Rees-Mogg Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons

Whenever a large number of right hon. and hon. Members raise one issue with me at business questions—in this case, the self-employed—I invariably raise it with the relevant Department immediately after the session. I absolutely assure the House that I will do that in relation to this session.

On the right hon. Gentleman’s second point, profiteering is extremely disagreeable. There have been times in our history when it has been illegal and subject to quite strong penalties. His point is exceptionally well made, and I will ensure that it is made also to the right person in Government.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I thank the Leader of the House for coming and making a statement, and also put on the record my thanks to the Chancellor. The issues coming to me and others in the House are legion, whether they concern Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, employment, health issues or Department for Work and Pensions business.

The support for small businesses that the Government have guaranteed is helpful, because moneys are coming forward to cover 80% of employees’ wages. These are people in small companies, by the way, employing between six and 16 people, who are lucky to have their jobs, but what happens is that their employers cannot employ them, because it seems that there is nothing in the package to help those people. So it seems that the employees are looked after—and thank you for that—but the employers who employ them are not. What can we do for them?

Photo of Jacob Rees-Mogg Jacob Rees-Mogg Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons

The hon. Gentleman, as always, gets to the nub of any matter that this House is discussing, and he is absolutely right. We are bringing forward packages to help as many people as possible, and the more people who are kept in employment, the more business there will be across the economy. The effect of these closures on the economy is much bigger than anything that we have normally come across, which is why it has required this enormous response, including the announcement that I made at the beginning about a Bill allowing for up to £260 billion to be advanced to Departments.

Photo of Bob Seely Bob Seely Conservative, Isle of Wight

I am delighted that my right hon. Friend will go back to the relevant Department about some of the matters raised. May I add my voice on the importance of looking after the self-employed? In my constituency, we are going to be especially badly hit because of our reliance on tourism and the visitor economy. Many of the people involved have small businesses and are self-employed, and our economy is going to be devastated this summer.

Photo of Jacob Rees-Mogg Jacob Rees-Mogg Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons

My hon. Friend’s point is extremely well made and echoes what has been said by many other right hon. and hon. Members.