Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.Donate to our crowdfunder
1) No unopposed business, save motions for unopposed returns of which notice has been given, may be taken at the commencement of scrutiny proceedings.
2) Notices of private business may be set down to be taken at the commencement of public business after scrutiny proceedings, but, if opposed, shall not be proceeded with but shall be deferred to such time, other than a Friday, as the Chairman of Ways and Means shall appoint.
3) Standing Order Nos. 7, 8, and 21 shall not have effect and the Speaker shall be required under paragraph (5) of Standing Order No 22 to take account of the party balance while these orders are in force.
4) In any case where the Speaker has ordered the withdrawal of a Member, or of several Members, under Standing Order No 43 and is required to direct the Serjeant at Arms to give effect to the order, the Member or Members shall be suspended from the service of the House for the following sitting day.
5) No motion to sit in private may be made during scrutiny proceedings.
6) The Speaker may amend any provision of these orders, if he determines it is necessary to do so in order to ensure that the conduct of business is consistent with the Resolution of the House (Proceedings during the pandemic) of
7) Before exercising his power under paragraph (6), the Speaker shall satisfy himself that he has the agreement of the Leader of the House.
I rise to speak to the motion on proceedings during the pandemic and, as you have explained, Mr Speaker, I will also speak to the motion on hybrid scrutiny proceedings.
Mr Speaker, may I start by thanking you and the House staff for the incredible work that has taken place during the Easter recess to allow me to move these motions today? It is worth noting that our Clerks and staff often work very long hours when the House is sitting and expect to be compensated for that in recess periods. On this occasion, we have asked them to work during the recess period too, placing a double burden upon them. I am also grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for allowing these motions to be moved without formal notice, and to House staff for arranging the publication yesterday of these motions and the accompanying explanatory note.
From tomorrow, if the House agrees these motions, we will resume oral questions, statements and urgent questions virtually. While the new digital Parliament may not be perfect—Members may launch forth into fine perorations only to be muted or snatched away altogether by an intermittent internet connection—we must not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. The parliamentary authorities have done a superb job to get this up and running at short notice. Should the House agree these motions today, I would expect to bring forward further motions shortly so that we can extend our virtual ways of working for a longer period and to more substantive business, including legislation.
Before turning to the motions, I want to set out my gratitude to the Procedure Committee for its rapid work. These are difficult and challenging times, and these necessary changes are happening at a pace that would not be ideal in more normal times. The Procedure Committee has an essential role in advising this House on reform. I am grateful to the Committee and to its Chairman, my right hon. Friend Karen Bradley, for its report published today, and I commit to continuing to work closely with it. We will all want to keep under review how the procedures work. I know that the Committee has particular concerns about moving to electronic voting, and I would certainly want to work closely with the Committee on the options for that. I hope it will reassure the Committee if I say that, once we have moved to considering substantive business as well, I will be looking to make certain that we initially schedule business that is unlikely to be divided on.
I am extremely grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way at this early stage. Could he confirm that it is his intention tomorrow to bring forward a motion on remote voting?
I think we must wait till tomorrow for tomorrow’s business, but I do expect further motions to be brought forward on how this House will operate and move forward to substantive business. Those motions will be laid in the normal way before the rise of the House, so that we do not have to have the extraordinary situation of bringing forward motions without notice, but there will be further motions.
I obviously understand the extreme circumstances under which we are working, and I commend the Government and the Officers of the House for what they have done. In his comments, the Leader of the House has indicated that nothing controversial that would lead to a vote will be brought before the House. In those circumstances, is he guaranteeing that nothing to do with the extending of abortion in Northern Ireland will be brought to the House during this crisis period?
I was referring to the period of next week, when we expect the business to be business that will be agreed without a Division. We are looking to having remote voting, as my hon. Friend Mr Wragg mentioned, and motions will come forward—or have to come forward—to cover that. The point at which that is in place will be the point at which controversial business will be taken that is unlikely to go through without a Division. We are not looking to Divisions next week.
I thank the Leader of the House for giving way and for giving us a chance to ask a question. He will know that on every occasion we have considered any controversial issues to do with abortion, Ministers and right hon. and hon. Members from all the different parties in the Chamber have said that on no occasion would any decisions be made on abortion when the Northern Ireland Assembly was working. I am conscious that the Northern Ireland Assembly is up and working, and it is working well.
Is it not important that no such legislative change should be brought to this House when the Northern Ireland Assembly could make the decision? I need an assurance on the record from the Leader of the House that under no circumstances will any Member of this House be disenfranchised and prevented from voting against abortion. There are many people not just in my party but in other parties across the House who are opposed to the change on abortion, and certainly opposed to any change that affects Northern Ireland when we have a working Assembly to take those decisions.
Votes on abortion have always been free votes. It would be astonishing if that were to change, and I would not be in favour of that. Such motions come from an Act of Parliament passed by this House last year and the Government must follow the law of the land. However, I give the assurance—I will announce next week’s business in the business statement—that next week we will bring forward business on which it is not expected there will be Divisions, because it is business that has been broadly agreed on.
I ought to turn now to the motions, and I am grateful to the House of Commons Commission and other parties for agreement to these measures. It may help the House if I briefly set out the approach taken; I draw attention to the detailed explanatory memorandum published for the convenience of Members.
The first motion commits the House to taking all steps necessary to balance its responsibility for continuing scrutiny of the Executive, legislating and representing the interests of constituents with adherence to the guidance issued by Public Health England and the restrictions placed upon all citizens of the United Kingdom. On today of all days—the 94th anniversary of the birth of Her Majesty—I feel that I should refer not to citizens of the United Kingdom but to subjects of our gracious sovereign and take the opportunity, in the absence of gun salutes, to wish Her Majesty very many happy returns of the day. We must, as her subjects, be an exemplar in the processes that we adopt to allow virtual working, and that is underpinned by the motion.
As the explanatory memorandum sets out, the main motion provides for the first two hours of each sitting on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays to be devoted to scrutiny proceedings, defined as questions to Ministers, urgent questions and ministerial statements, during which it will be possible for Members to participate electronically in a form approved by you, Mr Speaker. The motion also enables the Speaker to restrict the number of Members physically present in the Chamber and to ensure that social distancing requirements are met. As I look around the Chamber today, I see that we have succeeded in doing that.
I join the Leader of the House in thanking everyone who has worked so hard to bring forward these arrangements. I would like to raise the subject of Adjournment debates. I declare an interest, because Mr Speaker has been kind enough to give me an Adjournment debate on the Order Paper for this week. Adjournment debates tend to be rather sparsely attended at the best of times, so I urge my right hon. Friend and the House of Commons Commission to find a way as quickly as possible for us to have Adjournment debates so that we Back Benchers can represent our constituents.
If I may, I will answer the question in two ways. We are looking to expand the digital offering so that we can carry out more business, hence legislation next week. It depends on for how long this situation goes on. The other part of the answer is that, for Members who cannot come to the Chamber and so that no Member is disadvantaged, what we are not doing virtually we will not do at all—beyond today and some motions that may have to be laid tomorrow. I was coming on to make that point, but it is only right that everything we do should be available to all Members in a virtual format as well as to the small numbers who will want to attend in person. In that process, I am sorry to say, Adjournment debates will be at the end rather than at the beginning, because we need scrutiny and legislation to be further up the list.
For the past few weeks, hundreds, if not thousands, of workers around my constituency, in paint factories and in manufacturing, have had to continue to go to work despite not being able to maintain the 6 feet or 2 metre distance while doing their jobs. They have been told repeatedly that that is in line with the guidance, and that the guidance is clear that that rule should be followed where possible. If we cannot do our jobs properly—Members are to be limited in their contributions and unable to ask supplementary questions in the usual way—will we be applying the same rules in this House as have been applied to those working in paint and kitchen factories in my constituency, who have to go to work regardless of the social distancing advice?
The same rules apply to us as they do to everyone else. That is the whole point of what we are trying to do—facilitating working remotely but trying to ensure social distancing in this House.
As we began prayers and Mr Speaker walked in front of me, about a foot away, I noticed that someone said, “That’s not social distancing.” There will be occasions, even in this House, when social distancing is not kept to absolutely perfectly but is in the spirit of the rules—as long as we are making our best effort to ensure social distancing, hence the tape that has been put on the floor and the novel style of prayer card on the Benches to ensure that we are in the right places. That is completely in line with the guidance given to the rest of the country.
We have a twofold duty of leadership as Members of this House: one is to show that we are following the rules that apply to everyone else; and the other is to lead by example in showing that we are getting on with our essential work. With the proposals brought forward, we do both.
On the subject of leading by example on the rules that we have imposed on everyone else, I point out to the Leader of the House that we have never debated those rules. Those rules were implemented under legislation passed—presciently, as far as Orwell was concerned—in 1984, and we have never debated and explored them. Is that itself not shocking?
We had an opportunity to debate the emergency legislation. What we are doing today is ensuring the opportunity for debate, discussion and the Government’s being held to account. I am providing for my right hon. Friend what he is asking for before he even asked for it. I do not claim the capability of second sight and of knowing what he was going to ask for, but I am delighted that, thanks to your good offices, Mr Speaker, we are delivering for my right hon. Friend.
As I was saying, the motion will enable the Speaker to restrict the number of Members physically present in the Chamber to ensure that social distancing is met, and the motion will remain in force until
I have specific points on which I wish to provide reassurance. Paragraph 3 of section A of the motion reads:
“Following the conclusion of scrutiny proceedings, the House shall proceed with business set down to be taken at the commencement of public business and then with the main business.”
I alluded to this earlier: I wish to make it clear that such provision allows us to bring forward further motions this week that are procedural and necessary, including a motion to allow for substantive business. It is not the Government’s current intention to meet physically to debate legislation or other substantive matters; rather, we intend to wait until the House has agreed a way in which that business may be debated remotely.
Turning to section C, paragraphs 6 and 7, the motion gives the Speaker the power to vary the orders, having agreed that with the Leader of the House, which is me. That might seem a sweeping power, but it is entirely to ensure that Mr Speaker can react to any teething problems with the new procedures, so I hope that Members will consider it a sensible inclusion. It is not so that you and I, Mr Speaker, can set up some form of railroading of parliamentary procedures, and it has to be within the requirements of the motion agreed.
To conclude, Parliament has always evolved to make sure that it can work efficiently. Parliamentary procedure is not an end in itself but a means to allow the institution to function successfully. Any changes now will be temporary, for the period of the lockdown, because like many things, the Chamber works best when Members can meet in person. I hope the whole House can support these motions, so that the House can undertake its essential scrutiny, and we can then move to considering other vital business, including legislation.
The Leader of the House rightly says that these measures are only temporary, which I think we all welcome. Does he agree that the real spirit of this has to be that, as the restrictions on the country are lifted over the coming weeks, we should respond in kind, moving at least in step with the increasing freedom of citizens to go about their business and showing leadership in that respect too?
As a general rule, it is wise to agree with the chairman of the 1922 Committee, and I am happy to say that on this occasion, I do agree with my hon. Friend. As the rest of the country sees its ability to do more become apparent, so we must go along with that. He kindly leads me perfectly to the point at which I want to end.
What we do in this House is not something that it is nice to do—a frippery or a bauble on the British constitution. It is the British constitution. It is the essence of how our governmental and constitutional system works. The ability to hold the Government to account, to seek redress of grievance and to take up those matters brought to us by our constituents so that they may be put right are best done when this House sits. In 1349, when the black death affected this country, Parliament could not and did not sit; the Session was cancelled. Thanks to modern technology, even I have moved on from 1349, and I am glad to say that we can sit to carry out these fundamental constitutional functions. I am enormously grateful to many who are just as traditionalist as I am but who have accepted these constraints. Mr Speaker, I sometimes think that you compete with me to be a traditionalist, but you have been at the forefront of getting this to happen, because Parliament—the House of Commons—is essential to how we are governed.
I thank the Leader of the House for opening the debate. These are extraordinary times, and today we are debating a process that has shown how the House can move with these changing times. I, too, want to pay tribute to all those involved. It has been an incredible feat by the Clerk of the House and the staff, the Digital Service, the parliamentary broadcasting team and all those involved in both the technical side and in drafting, refining and redrafting the paper that came to the Commission, which led to this motion. I also want to thank the Procedure Committee, which met virtually and made an important contribution to the discussion we had at the Commission.
The Opposition want to engage with the Government at this extraordinary time, and we consider that the ultimate aim is to move to a virtual Parliament, in keeping with Government and Public Health England advice, subject to any technical limitations. Mr Speaker, you chaired the Commission where we discussed and agreed a way forward, which is in the motion before us. We are effectively agreeing to hybrid proceedings, which combine the physical participation of up to 50 Members here and the virtual participation of up to 120 Members. Members will be treated equally, whether they are in the Chamber or virtually present. There will be a shuffle, and parity will be given to all the parties. There will be no bobbing or supplementary points and certainly no points of order. Those arrangements are laid out in what looks like the eight commandments—“Thou shalt not do this,” and, “Thou shalt not do that.”
I want to touch on section A, paragraph (2), which states:
“Scrutiny proceedings shall conclude not later than two hours after their commencement”.
I know that the Leader of the House and you, Mr Speaker, think that that is mainly for technical reasons, rather than a prescriptive limit, but it looks to be very prescriptive about how proceedings end. I appreciate that, in terms of parliamentary broadcasting, there may be technical difficulties in the House sitting beyond two hours, but if the Leader of the House could give us an undertaking that that is not as prescriptive as laid out in the motion, that would be helpful. That is literally what will happen—there will be people managing the time, because we have to understand that Clerks at the Table and anyone else have to limit their time here.
We note the consequent Standing Order changes that apply to prayer cards and to the social distancing here in the Chamber, as we can see. On giving notice of questions, I agree with the Leader of the House that the explanatory memorandum is really helpful in setting out what Members should do to apply for their questions. The period runs from Monday to Monday—apart from next week because we are meeting today—so Members have until Thursday to list their questions for the following week.
I know that the staff of the House and everyone else involved are working on how we deal with the debates on legislation. I look forward to the motion that is coming forward on that.
Secure voting is extremely important. We have to make sure that any voting process is secure. We have already seen that there are some rogue emails about, apparently from the Department of Health suggesting that it wants herd immunity, so we have to be very careful about how we vote.
This is going to be an incredible time, Mr Speaker. There is going to be additional oversight from your office, the Table Office, and the Whips Offices on both sides of the House. They are all going to be working incredibly hard to make sure that we can come into Parliament to hold the Government to account and to uphold the democratic process. As the Leader of the House says, these measures will be effective only until
I am not sure whether I heard this correctly, but I thought my right hon. Friend said that there cannot be points of order. I know that points of order can sometimes be badly used, but sometimes they can point out an injustice or a procedural problem that needs addressing. How can we ensure that this House does have the ability to shout alarm if necessary?
It is a matter for Mr Speaker to take points of order. That is part of the wide discretion that he has under other parts of the motion. The key thing—this is what came out of our discussions—is that we cannot interrupt proceedings where Members are up on screens virtually. It would be impossible to interrupt them with a point of order as they are speaking. There will be a way of working on that. It may well happen, but it is entirely at Mr Speaker’s discretion. Hopefully he will deal with injustices that may occur in the Chamber.
I think you suggested, Mr Speaker, that there might be a dress code for the House. Certainly there is the issue of what goes on behind Members in terms of animals, children, wallpaper and all that, as we have seen. Clearly the dress code will apply only to the Member’s top half—unless, of course, it is the Leader of the House. I know that he sometimes likes to be horizontal, so for him the dress code will in fact apply to the top half and the bottom half.
I might be able to help Members with some of these points. This is a starting point. We want to have the resilience to build up from this point. This is not the end; it is only the beginning of moving forward. Quite rightly, people have mentioned the digital broadcasting staff. We cannot thank them enough. We have had 700 years of this House doing things one way and then we suddenly completely turn everything over and start in a new way. I can only thank them.
I assure the shadow Leader of the House that we will be looking to increase the number of hours and to ensure that we can grow the virtual Parliament. She is absolutely right that we cannot do points of order at that stage, but give us time and we will develop and increase the capabilities. I want to reassure the House that this is ongoing and that discussions will continue to take place. She is also absolutely right about voting. No decision has been taken. We want to check that voting is secure. That is the key. Every Member is worried about ensuring that when someone votes they are who they say they are. We must look at that very seriously. It will be completely checked before we do something that would not be secure.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. I welcome your comments about this being an iterative and evolving process. We would all agree that there is no substitute for Members being in the Chamber and able to hold the Executive to account. Over the last few weeks, during this national emergency, we will all have seen, as constituency MPs, an incredible volume and complexity of casework, the like of which none of us will have ever seen. I know how much easier it would have been at times to have been in this place, not just in the Chamber, questioning Ministers and getting answers on the record, but seeing colleagues in the corridors, meeting them in the Tea Room or outside our offices while making a cup of tea—or whatever it is we are doing. That is the best way that parliamentarians, elected by their constituents to represent them in Westminster, can deliver. The next few days, weeks, and possibly months, will be a substitute for that, but it will in no way compensate for the lack of spontaneity or ability to feed off each other.
On the right hon. Lady’s point about this being temporary, it is fair to say that in the Procedure’s Committee’s various meetings for several weeks now there has been agreement across the Committee that these measures must be temporary, short term—or any other description we might wish to give it—and that we hope to return to a fully functioning House as soon as the health advice allows.
I absolutely agree with my deputy Chair. He is completely right. It has been very clear during all the Committee’s meetings, which have all been conducted virtually over the last few weeks, that all Members feel strongly that these measures must be strictly time limited. They reflect the situation the country finds itself in today.
We have developed our procedures and ways of doing business over 700 years, since we were last unable to meet, because of the black death, as the Leader of the House mentioned. The situation is evolving. He is right to say that this procedure is the means to the end, not the end in itself, but those means will enable the way we do business to be efficient and effective and ensure that we can speak up for our constituents and make sure their voices are heard in this place
I want to thank and give credit to everybody who has been involved in getting us to this point. It was no mean feat. At the Committee’s first meeting—the Committee was constituted on
I also want to thank you, Mr Speaker, for the pragmatic approach you have taken. As Speaker, you are the custodian of this House and how we operate. To endorse a change to our procedures as radical as that in the motion we will be voting on—I hope it will pass on the voices—took great leadership from you, so thank you.
This will not be perfect; there will be glitches and problems. We have all had our internet go down. I have particular problems whenever a PlayStation is cranked up in the next-door room, which makes hearing what is going on in meetings I am conducting not quite as easy as one would hope. The inability to ask supplementary questions or to come back in—that lack of spontaneity; the ability to come in on a question only if we have been drawn out of a shuffle applied for possibly days before—means we will not be able to represent our constituents in the way we would ideally want. But this is better than nothing and as the Leader of the House rightly said, we must not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. We must understand that there will be glitches and that this will evolve. Over time, we will develop a way of working that gives us the best ability to represent our constituents. However, I repeat that it will never be a substitute for the ability to be here fully, and for being fully part of the democratic process.
I want to make the point to the Leader of the House that scrutiny of the emergency measures is vital. My right hon. Friend Sir Desmond Swayne made the point that we have not had the chance to scrutinise the measures that the Government introduced. There is a sunset clause, but they need to be scrutinised. I urge the Leader of the House to ensure that they have appropriate scrutiny at the earliest opportunity.
The Procedure Committee in its report that was issued this morning endorses the changes that have been put forward, particularly equality of treatment. It is vital that all Members can represent their constituents equally, whether they can get to the Chamber and choose to be here or not. We want to emphasise the temporary nature of the changes. They must be temporary and time limited.
I thank my right hon. Friend for all her work. I also thank her Committee and its most excellent Clerk—one of the most talented Clerks in the House of Commons.
My right hon. Friend is right in what she said earlier. The best way that I—and, I am sure, she—can represent constituents to the Chancellor, the Financial Secretary and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury is in person. The quicker we are back here in person, being able to talk to the Chancellor and other Cabinet Ministers, the better it will be.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I know the depth of his knowledge of this subject from his extensive time leading the Procedure Committee. Although I want to give credit to Ministers for their accessibility to us as Members of Parliament through WhatsApp groups, telephone calls or other messages—the amount of contact that Members have been able to have remotely is unprecedented—that is no substitute for being here and able to ask a question in public that constituents can see us asking and hear the answer to, so that they know what the Government intend to do with their questions and concerns.
I am grateful for your comments on points of order, Mr Speaker. My Committee was concerned about whether there would be a way of ensuring that our proceedings were orderly. I am grateful that you are looking at that.
I want to deal with concerns about voting. Yesterday, my Committee approved a report that was issued this morning on the basis that we were not looking at reforms to the way in which this place conducts votes. I well understand that there will need to be changes to the voting procedures for next week to ensure that business is not lost. We must ensure that, in the event of some sort of misunderstanding or something not quite working, the Government do not lose the important business that they wish to bring forward next week. However, I say to the Leader of the House that tabling motions tomorrow on further changes to voting will give rise to concern for my Committee. My Committee has not looked thoroughly at what is proposed for remote voting. Some of us have taken part in the trial run, and we cannot say it was absolutely brilliant. A lot more work needs to be done. I know how hard the teams are working on that—this is no criticism of anybody—but I ask the Leader of the House to consider whether there can be a staged process of tabling motions on remote voting, because he needs to take the House with him. The House is here today to support him, because we want all our colleagues to be part of the debate and to be able to contribute, but he needs to take the House with him on this.
I echo the point that the Chair of the Procedure Committee made that the measures are not desirable, but are absolutely necessary. They are sub-optimal. We often use phrases that we all understand, but we should put them in a way the public would understand. We talk about holding the Government to account and about scrutiny. Basically, that means asking questions. It means asking the questions that occur to us from our knowledge and experience and that of our constituents. We have been getting a considerable number of questions during the crisis—I will come on to a few of them later. Those questions need answering, and they need answering in this Chamber, which, as the Leader of the House said, has to be the epicentre of the democratic system in this country. Otherwise, what is the point of Parliament?
In answering those questions, I do not expect Departments or Ministers to get everything right. I absolutely expect mistakes to be made. In fact, if mistakes were not being made, I would be really alarmed, because if things did not sometimes go wrong, that would mean that decisions were not being taken. Some decisions will go wrong. The test of a Government, of a Minister or even of a business is how quickly those problems are identified and how quickly they are remedied.
Many of those questions should be being asked inside the Government and, looking at how things are panning out, I am concerned that they are sometimes not being asked, either within Departments or between Departments. There seems to be a degree of dysfunctionality. I do not think press conferences are really getting to the heart of the issues, either. I fully understand the constraints that you and the House are operating under, Mr Speaker, but supplementary questions should be part of the evolution of this. Quite frankly, sometimes Ministers—as we see in press conferences—are talking in repetitive clichés. We need answers. Even if a Minister says, “I don’t know”, or “We are looking at that again, because we are not sure it worked out properly,” that is how we will make progress and be able to assess where there are failings and put the pressure on.
Last month, for example, we had both the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister here. I am pleased to say that I was able to ask both of them, on successive days, about the serious situation of very large numbers of our people stranded in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. I am still concerned about the long delay in getting them back, compared with the work of many other countries, particularly Germany, which has managed to bring back tens of thousands of people. We were able to put some pressure on the system and get some reaction through that direct confrontation. It is not the same as writing a letter or asking questions in a slightly sterile Chamber, although this is an improvement.
Many Members of Parliament are receiving complaints from hospitals and care homes, and from manufacturers and distributors, about personal protective equipment. It is not matching up in the system. How the two sides can be pulled together does not seem to be getting through. Some pressure here would add energy to that system.
Those of us who have been Ministers know that when a Minister has a hard time here in the Chamber—I see nods from those who have been Ministers—when they get to the Department, they say, “Why did you leave me out there in open country? I want some answers and I want them by this afternoon.”
I hope that suggestion may have been taken on board by those who are dealing with these issues. Perhaps for certain Departments there could be an extended period of questions, rather than greater frequency, or there could be a more open system in which written questions could be answered in real time, in order to get a response. We have to be flexible on that, but we have to be able to put our points and get a response.
If it would help my right hon. Friend, it is fair to say that in the Procedure Committee we looked at written questions and named-day questions, and we will review that issue. We agreed to that just yesterday. I reassure him that that point is very much in the Committee’s prism of work.
I thank my hon. Friend, the ranking minority member of the Procedure Committee, for that reassurance.
There are many other issues that will be familiar to colleagues from all parts of the Chamber. They include nursery education, both in terms of providers and parents, and lorry drivers and their ability to get a hot meal on the motorway. Why is the Department for Transport not insisting that franchisees on the motorway open up for lorry drivers to make sure that they are fed when performing the vital service of keeping this country going? We have already talked about the problems of flights, furlough arrangements and companies’ access to support. Those are all issues that have to be resolved here. We therefore need to make sure that, as far as possible, we can replicate the usual arrangements so that Ministers have to be up there answering. I hope that Ministers will be coming to the Chamber to do that, so that we can make progress and improve things.
Finally, the Leader of the House says that he hopes and intends for the measures to be temporary, but in the end, of course, it may suit some for them not to be temporary. We have already had a Scottish National party Member of Parliament saying, “Anyway, why do people have to come down here to one point from all four parts of the country in order to participate in the business of the House?” Many in the civil service and Government would be quite happy if Parliament was less effective in holding them to account. Some Members, I would say, perhaps get the balance wrong between working for their constituents, which is a hugely important and essential part of the job, and running the country and actually asking questions here in Parliament.
The right hon. Gentleman is making some powerful points. May I also make the point that scrutiny in this place gives Ministers a chance to explain things? It gives them a chance to set out what they are doing. They should not run away from it or be scared of it, because it is their chance to set out the good news and the good work that the Government are doing. We need to have scrutiny here, so that we can have that full explanation from Government Ministers—holding them to account when they do get things wrong, but hearing from them when they get things right.
I thank the Chair of the Procedure Committee, and I genuinely congratulate her on the work she is doing already in that position. She is absolutely right, and she reminds me of what Warren Buffett said about financial crises: “When the tide goes out, you can see who has been bathing without trunks.” Reputations get made and lost quickly in crises.
The right hon. Lady is absolutely right. Ministers who are doing a good job, have a robust defence and can even say, “Well, we tried that. We did it on reasonable grounds, but it did not work out. This is what we are doing”, are the ones whose reputations will thrive. For those who try to run away from scrutiny and from decisions, their reputations will sink. However, we also need not necessarily a timetable, but certainly a statement of the necessary conditions for returning to normality.
I recognise and am pleased to see that there is a date in the motion, but that will presumably—it is understandable, and I am not criticising this—also be subject to renewal. We need a clearer idea of the necessary conditions that will enable us to come out of these measures, because otherwise there will always be a tendency for some of the groups I have described to find reasons for just continuing with the status quo, rather than getting this House back to its position at the heart of the debate and political life of this nation.
The problem is paragraph 6, Mr Speaker, which enables your own office to exclude Members from the Chamber when we are too many. That might make you very popular with those who are allowed in, but very unpopular with those of us who might be excluded. It is very unpleasant to put you, Mr Speaker, in that very difficult position.
I know that the provision only applies to periods of scrutiny, but I am looking for reassurance from the Leader of the House when it comes to debate and how we take forward legislation, because it is about the precedent we are now setting. It would be outrageous if Members elected to this House were unable to come and bring their concerns to this Chamber because there were already a sufficient number of Members within it when we come to debate, which I hope we shall, the extraordinary regulations that have been imposed on our citizens, and all the anomalies—and, indeed, absurdities —that are in them, let alone when we get to debate the question of when we lift those regulations. Just let us come to the debate on the actual imposition of those regulations; I am looking for some reassurance that when we come to consider the procedures that will apply as we take forward these matters, we will not have Members—properly elected by their constituents—being excluded from this Chamber.
At the outset, I commend you, Mr Speaker, for your leadership at this time. I also commend your staff, the Clerks of the House, the business leaders and those on the Procedure Committee, who have worked very hard under very difficult circumstances to allow our Parliament to function and to ensure that it is able to. For that, sir, you should be commended and praised.
As Members across the House have rightly said, it is important that we emphasise that this is a temporary measure. I remember when there were temporary powers in Northern Ireland; they lasted for over 20 years. I think we would all agree that it would be a disgrace if that were to happen. As other Members have rightly emphasised, we must ensure the temporary nature—hopefully for a matter of weeks, and weeks only—of this position. It would be rank hypocrisy if we were to expect our constituents to go to work and we ourselves decided to protect ourselves. We have a duty to be here and a responsibility to hold the Government to account, and we must do that.
We must also ensure that we give our people and our country a vision: that we will get out of this dark tunnel, that there is light at the end of the tunnel, that—although it will probably be a different normality—things will return, and that we will get our country functioning and working again, and moving in the right direction. If ever something has brought our country together, it has been this crisis and not previous ones. This situation has made sure that we are doing what is best, putting our best foot forward and ensuring that the right leadership is seen.
I started my comments by congratulating you, Mr Speaker, on your leadership. It is important that Members demonstrate leadership in the community, and that the Government demonstrate leadership by providing that vision. That includes, as John Spellar said, providing us with a timetable. It does not need to be set in stone—just a timeline outlining when we can expect to see movement, as other countries have put in place. The Republic of Ireland has indicated when it intends to move. France has indicated when it intends to move. Germany has indicated its intention. And, of course, the United States has indicated its intentions. We should be in a position at least to give people some signposts as to when progress will happen and when there will be better days ahead for our entire community.
It would be remiss of me not to express for a few moments our sadness at the great number of bereaved across our entire nation. This crisis has affected practically every community and household, drawing us closer to the reality that our time here is just temporary. The shock of what has happened is palpable for all to see, and has probably led to the very good and strong behaviour by the vast majority of our citizens, who are following the guidance, and relying on the expert advice and the messages put out by the Government; it has also ensured that we are not being party political about what has happened. We need to commend those people, but our thoughts and prayers are, of course, with the bereaved—those who have had to bury their loved ones alone, those who have not been able to say goodbye, and those who are deeply hurt and saddened by what has happened.
I am glad that some of the original numbers have not been exceeded. We initially had an expectation of seeing 15,000 people in Northern Ireland succumb to this. Thankfully, it is now less than a few hundred. We hope that that will remain the case, but we are by no means out of the woods. We have to ensure that we see progress, and encourage our great academics, scientists and chemists to come up with something that will help us get out of this situation.
When I was a child, I had to learn the “Shorter Catechism”. Its first question is:
“What is the chief end of man?”
The answer is
“to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”
If there were a catechism for Members of Parliament, the answer would be to hold the Government to account. Our chief end as Members of this House is to ensure that we are a voice for our voiceless communities and that we get the opportunity to say in this House the things that need to be said by the people who sent us here to be their voice. It is essential that no Member is penalised by a lack of technical skill or a lack of broadband in their constituency and prevented from making a contribution in this House on behalf of the citizens they represent. It is essential that we have that role.
These measures fall well short of holding the Government to account. I think everyone recognises that. They are prepared, I think, to give the Government a bye ball because of the temporary nature of what is happening, but it is crucial that we recognise that we must get out of this emergency procedure as quickly as possible.
There are many issues on which we need to hold the Government to account; Members have rhymed some of them off. There are issues with dentists in my constituency and across this nation. There are issues with the production of food and the ability of our farming community to get to markets and make their product available to the general public. There is the issue of our NHS staff and their access, or lack thereof, to personal protective equipment. There are people who fall between the measures that our Chancellor has introduced. It causes us great concern that they are left out; they will have nothing in all this and be left hopeless. Of course, we also need to scrutinise what the banks have been doing. They have been given a responsibility to do certain things, and some of them have not come up to the mark. We have not had the opportunity to hold them to account. We have a responsibility to do that.
I recognise the importance of these measures. We accept that we are in very difficult times, but we give our people hope that there will be better times ahead. We will get out of this, and we will be a stronger and better place for having done so. However, we must ensure that these measures are short and temporary.
I associate myself with many of the comments made by Ian Paisley. I shall not repeat them, but let me say this. The nature of the public health emergency that has made it necessary to introduce these changes is the very reason why we must have maximal accountability and flexibility in an ever-changing picture. As elected Members of Parliament, we must have the ability to raise emerging issues and emergency issues.
We all know from experience that the gap between tabling a question and having it answered can mean that the question is out of date by the time the Minister gets to their feet. Let us be frank: those who have been Ministers know that there is no fear whatsoever for a Minister at the Dispatch Box in the prepared question that has already been tabled; the only thing that brings any fear to Ministers is the unknown supplementary, which will be a genuinely probing question that seeks information that is not set out in the civil service-written reply that most Ministers have. Therefore, the ability to ask some sort of supplementary is the key probing element of questions to Departments.
In the current situation, where there will be a great desire to probe Treasury Ministers, for economic reasons, and Health Ministers, we do not need changes to questions; we require the Government to be willing to come forward with regular statements on those issues so the House can use that alternative mechanism, which is inherently more flexible than the written parliamentary question system. We also require responsible use of urgent questions so they are not flippant and time consuming. I know that you would not allow that, Mr Speaker, but we must exercise particular personal responsibility in how we address the issues and in how we use what will be limited time in the House.
That applies to the Government too. We need minimal legislation. Some of us think we should have minimal legislation anyway, and that the less time we spend making more laws for our country the better, but certainly at this time, the Government should bring forward minimal legislation—only that which is essential to the conduct of government—to the House for however long these restrictions exist.
Echoing what others have said, the continuity of this Parliament in as normal a form as possible, given all the restrictions, is essential. As Members of this House, we have a leadership role in our country to behave as normally as we can in the circumstances. It is important not just that we give an example to people in our own country about the exercise of democracy, but that we in this country, who pride ourselves on our democratic tradition, show that democracy will be resilient in whatever circumstances, particularly to those parts of the world that do not benefit from representative parliamentary democracy as we do. We should always be willing, as a Parliament, to fly the flag for that democratic principle.
I very much love the ritual, tradition and history of the House, as many others do. I may not always adhere to the ritual in the way that Mr Speaker or others would like me to, but I do my best to follow the rules and regulations. I love that tradition, history and ritual, so what we have in front of us is, for me, a bit alien to the process of the House and how we have done business, in my case and that of my hon. Friend Ian Paisley, for the last approximately 10 years here.
The Leader of the House referred to being a traditionalist. I am a traditionalist as well, although I am not against change. Mr Speaker, the Leader of the House referred to you as a traditionalist. I cannot say if you are or not—you will make that decision—but I perceive that you are, as are many others in the House. The need for the ritual is important.
I want to ask the Leader of the House, as I did earlier, about the potential abortion legislation that may come here. I understand that the legislation, as proposed, would come before a Delegated Legislation Committee. How can we, as Members of the House who may not be on that Delegated Legislation Committee, participate in the Committee, whenever the potential legislation can be brought before the House?
I understand that the procedure at the moment is that we can attend the Delegated Legislation Committee and ask for permission to address that Committee, although we cannot ever be part of the voting process. I want to check, procedurally, how we can do that and whether we can continue to do that.
I underline the point—I say this with all humbleness, Mr Speaker—that I am not technically minded. I learned how to text about two years ago. [Interruption.] I am being honest, because I want to ensure that I and perhaps others in the House, who may not have the opportunity to express themselves in the way that I have today, can participate in that voting process. I have asked the Leader of the House about that. He and I share a certain belief, which is deeply heartfelt, about moral and religious issues. I want to make sure of that for those of us who are perhaps not sure how the IT works or how the system works. I have staff, but I am conscious that they are working from their own homes. A staff member can perhaps set it up and there may be some help from IT to do that as well.
The hon. Gentleman is probably the most assiduous Member of the House and he attends the Chamber every day, so I wonder if he shares my disquiet about this big decision to downgrade the importance of being physically present as part of our proceedings being discussed in a pretty brief debate that has not had notice. I recognise the importance of making such changes, but does he agree that it is vital that they are temporary and do not become permanent without much more thought and much more extensive debate?
I do share those concerns. For me, as the right hon. Lady outlined, the process involves being in the House, participating in debates and putting forward views on behalf of my constituents from Strangford—and, indeed, on behalf of people throughout the whole United Kingdom, because we make decisions here for the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, not for Northern Ireland alone.
Scrutiny in the House is really important, because when we look forward to the future we have to have an exit strategy. Not for one second am I saying that Ministers, the Government and the Prime Minister do not have an exit strategy in mind, but it is so important that people have some idea of the vision for where we are going, and of the timescale, provided that everything goes according to plan. Let us hope we can look into how shops can open again. For instance, hardware shops can open but garden centres cannot. Some people, and I am one of them, might say that if hardware stores can operate with the self-distancing measures that are used back home—people phone up the place and make their order, drive down but stay in their car, somebody comes out with their order but then leaves, and they pick it up, put it in their car and take it away—why can garden centres not use the same process? We should have the opportunity to scrutinise issues like that.
We understand the sadness for people in relation to funerals. A couple of my constituents have passed away, and I am very conscious that at both those funerals only 10 people could attend, meaning that some family members were precluded from attending. I understand the process and I am not being critical of how it was done; I am just asking, in our process of scrutiny, whether it is not possible that the self-distancing process could have meant that more people could have attended the funerals. Norman McBride from my church died, but only 10 people could attend the funeral. That was immensely frustrating for many people who wished to express themselves, but the opportunity to do that will come again.
I want to ensure that we have the opportunity to ask questions in this House, or through the new virtual Parliament process, and that we can enable our constituents to have a voice in this Chamber, whatever the process might be, ever mindful that, as Theresa Villiers said, it is only for a short time, which is why I understand the need for it. Who would ever have thought that we would be in the position we are in today? Nobody—particularly not me—would have predicted that things would be as they are.
We need to scrutinise and have opportunities to ask questions. I have already emailed and written to the Minister responsible for agriculture at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—I know that I am going to say exactly what you are thinking, Mr Speaker—about the fact that the price of beef cattle is down £195 a beast, lambs are down £40 each, and milk has dropped from 28.5p per litre down to 23.5p per litre, with the possibility of it falling to 18p. Those are crucial issues for us in this House to scrutinise. As John Spellar said, we cannot have the answers to these questions in three weeks’ time; we need the answers today. That is the point when it comes to scrutiny in this House and how we move forward.
We also need to have contact. I know it is already happening, but it is really important that all four regions of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland work together, so that when we move forward on the questions and issues that come up regionally, we have a strategy and can move forward. We all know about Captain Tom Moore and have much enjoyed his raising some £25.5 million through social giving. He said that tomorrow will be a better day; let us hope for that.
With the leave of the House, I shall try to respond to some of the points that were made in the debate.
The shadow Leader of the House asked whether the time limit can be expanded. We are currently working with what we think is the maximum that can be done with the technology, but the hope is very much that it can be expanded. You responded to the point on secure voting, Mr Speaker; any remote voting must be secure. We do not want people other than Members to be voting.
I agree with the Leader of the House that voting obviously needs to be secure, but can he provide some reassurance that when testing for voting is carried out, there is enough capacity to allow all 650 Members to vote remotely? My understanding is that the testing yesterday did not go terribly well—that is how it was described to me.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that any system needs to work, to be robust and to ensure that votes are properly registered. On points of order, as raised by both Valerie Vaz and Nick Smith, I believe those can be sent to you, Mr Speaker, in written form, so it is not as if there will not be any ability to raise points; it simply will not be possible to interrupt a television screen, because that would not actually work.
I reiterate my thanks to my right hon. Friend Karen Bradley, Chairman of the Procedure Committee. Like her, I think all MPs have seen an enormous explosion in casework, and therefore the ability to hold Ministers to account and to get answers for one’s constituents is very important. My right hon. Friend, like other Members, including my right hon. Friends the Members for North Somerset (Dr Fox) and for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers), John Spellar and Jim Shannon, emphasised the importance of this situation being temporary. I would not have put my name to these motions if it were not going to be temporary. I want Parliament to be back operating properly in its normal way.
However, as Ian Paisley pointed out, this is actually about people dying, and what we are doing is part of trying to save lives, along with the rest of the country. Yes, it is second best, and yes, it is imperfect that we should meet with these screens and with the Chamber losing its normal decoration, but we are doing our best in difficult circumstances to maintain as much as we can. The motion has effect until
I agree with the right hon. Friend the Member for Warley that this is much better than press conferences. Holding the Government to account makes for better government. This may not be a common view expressed at the Dispatch Box, but it was not that long ago that I was a Back Bencher, and Back Benchers see week in, week out, year in, year out, better decisions taken because the Government are held to account. Wise Governments—I inevitably think that this Government are wise—actually have the sense to recognise that.
My right hon. Friend Sir Desmond Swayne made the extraordinarily important, fundamental constitutional point that a Member who wishes to represent his or her constituents must be able to do so, and that is part of what we are trying to do. How that is managed, with a maximum of 50 Members in the Chamber, is a matter for Mr Speaker, but the purpose of that is to maintain safe social distancing. However, if a Member needs to get in and is on the list to be called to speak, if I am in the Chamber, I will leave to make way for that Member to come in and speak. I will go and watch it in my room on the television if I am answering the debate, so that the Member may come in and make the point.
We will have to work with each other to maintain our ancient constitutional rights. I should point out, Mr Speaker—you know it is one of my favourite points—that we have all had a right of uninterrupted, unhindered access to Parliament since 1340. It is one of our most ancient and precious rights. I assure my right hon. Friend that I would not want to be Leader of the House when that right is taken away, but it may operate differently, to ensure that it works with safeguarding.
I am grateful for the widespread support for these motions. We are all trying to do our best in difficult circumstances, which I think the House appreciates. I am very grateful, I ought to add, to the Opposition Chief Whip, who has worked closely with the Government Chief Whip and, indeed, representatives of the SNP to ensure that these proposals could be agreed.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
is committed to taking all steps necessary to balance its responsibilities for continuing scrutiny of the executive, legislating and representation of the interests of constituents with adherence to the guidance issued by Public Health England and the restrictions placed upon all citizens of the United Kingdom, and is further committed, in pursuit of that aim, to allowing virtual participation in the House’s proceedings, to extending the digital capacity of those proceedings to ensure the participation of all Members, and to ensuring that its rules and procedures are adapted to permit as far as possible parity of treatment between Members participating virtually and Members participating in person.