[Relevant documents: First Report from the Procedure Committee, Procedure under coronavirus restrictions: proposals for remote participation, HC 300; Second Report from the Procedure Committee, Procedure under coronavirus restrictions: remote voting in divisions, HC 335; Third Report from the Procedure Committee, Procedure under coronavirus restrictions: the Government’s proposal to discontinue remote participation, HC 392; and Transcript of oral evidence on Procedure under coronavirus restrictions to the Procedure Committee from the Clerk of the House and the Clerk of the Journals on
Mr Speaker has selected amendment (b) in the name of Karen Bradley and others. I will call Karen Bradley to move her amendment at the end of the debate. Once the House has come to a decision on amendment (b), I will then call Karen Bradley to move either amendment (c) if amendment (b) was agreed to, or amendment (d) if amendment (b) was disagreed to.
Mr Speaker explained in his letter to all colleagues, which went out yesterday, the basis of his decision on the method by which any Division on this motion and the selected amendments will be carried out. He also referred to the guidance that is available for Members on those arrangements for Divisions. It would be helpful if all hon. Members would please read that guidance.
There will be a further short statement before a Division is called, but let me just say that it would greatly assist with arrangements if Whips or other hon. Members gave advance notice of an intention to contest a decision, if the names of Tellers were provided in advance, and if Tellers were present in the Chamber to take their positions and start counting immediately.
I should warn hon. Members who wish to take part in this debate that there will be strict time limits applied because it is a short debate. For Back Benchers, the time limit will be four minutes. I cannot, of course, impose a time limit on hon. Members speaking from the Front Bench, but I hope that they will, out of their usual due deference and consideration for other Members, keep their remarks to a minimum.
I beg to move,
That the resolution of the House of
(1) That the following order have effect in place of
(b) Divisions shall be conducted under arrangements made by the Speaker provided that:
(i) Members may only participate physically within the Parliamentary estate; and
(ii) the arrangements adhere to the guidance issued by Public Health England.
(a) At the end of paragraph (5)(a), insert “, provided that (i) Members may only participate physically within the Parliamentary estate; and (ii) the arrangements adhere to the guidance issued by Public Health England”.
(b) In paragraph (5)(b) delete “two and a half hours” and insert “at least two and a half hours”.
(c) In paragraph (5)(c) delete “after the expiry of the period mentioned in subparagraph (b) above”.
(4) The Speaker or chair may limit the number of Members present in the Chamber at any one time and Standing Orders Nos. 7 (Seats not to be taken before prayers) and 8 (Seats secured at prayers) shall not apply.
(5) Standing Orders Nos. 83J to 83X (Certification according to territorial application etc) shall not apply.
The rationale for returning to physical proceedings is a straightforward one. Parliament is the assembly of the nation. The public expect it to deliver on the mandate provided by last year’s general election, and they expect it to conduct the kind of effective scrutiny that puts Ministers under real pressure. Neither expectation can be fully realised while we are not sitting physically. That is why we are returning to work safely at the first opportunity in order fully to conduct the essential business not possible from our homes. This assessment is based on the facts. The stopgap of a hybrid Parliament was a necessary compromise during the peak of the virus, but, by not being here, the House has not worked effectively on behalf of constituents. Legislating is a key function of Parliament, yet there has been no ability for legislative Committees to meet since
I should also like to remind Members that much of the business under the hybrid proceedings was deliberately arranged to be non-contentious. The time limits on scrutiny and substantive proceedings were also heavily restricted. This was to facilitate the smooth running of what was always a technically challenging arrangement. What was acceptable for a few short weeks would have proved unsustainable if we had allowed the hybrid proceedings to continue. This House plays an invaluable role in holding the Government to account and debating legislation, which can only properly be fulfilled when Members are here in person.
I was just about to talk about Members intervening time and again, so it is the perfect time for me to give way to the hon. Gentleman.
The Leader of the House will know, because he is an historian, that one of the ancient liberties of all Members of Parliament has been to attend. Such a liberty has been asserted even when the Crown has wanted to arrest people. The House has insisted that people should be allowed to attend, but at the moment, by law, there are many MPs who are banned from attending Parliament because they are shielding either themselves or others in their household. How can it possibly be right to exclude those people? How can it be a Conservative motion to exclude those MPs and thereby disenfranchise their communities?
Nobody is banned from attending Parliament by law. The ancient right of MPs, which dates back to 1340, entitles Members to attend. However, I accept that, for some Members with particular health conditions, it is very difficult to attend—
I am extremely grateful to the Leader of the House for giving way. Yesterday, in the public proceedings of the Procedure Committee, the question was asked directly of the Clerk, and the Clerk confirmed that Members are bound by the law outside of the particular Act to which the Leader of the House is referring. If, for example, a county, a part of the United Kingdom, or a nation was put into lockdown, the Member of Parliament would have to abide by that law, unless they were specifically exempt within that law—
The ancient right to attend Parliament goes back to 1340, and, as Chris Bryant pointed out, this is something that has been used against the Crown in the past. It is a most important and long-standing right. There must always be an exemption for Members to attend Parliament. What I was going on to elaborate is that I will be bringing forward, as I promised on
As usual, the Leader of the House is making a strong statement, but on this particular point on voting, surely, as this is a recall of Parliament, every Member should have the right to vote today on whether to accept the new proceedings. Why, therefore, is today’s vote not being done remotely?
My hon. Friend is right. Every Member does have the right to vote. Members accepted that these measures would be temporary—that they would continue until they expired. One has to deal with these matters in good faith. It was put to Members, some of whom were very reluctant to accept remote voting, to agree to it on the basis that it was temporary. It expired, and therefore we come back automatically, without any motion, to physical voting.
Does my right hon. Friend agree with me that today there are low-paid clinical staff working in the NHS who are free of the surcharge as a result of this House having its voice heard? Does he therefore understand my incomprehension that Opposition Members want to continue with this “Coke Zero” Parliament for one more day, when we could resume our job of holding the Government to account?
My hon. Friend puts it extremely well. Lots of people are going back to work, and we have a role, as leaders within the country and within the community, to do that.
Will the Leader of the House outline his intention with regard to ensuring that minority parties such as mine, the Democratic Unionist party, are able to speak directly from their constituency through the present system in this House on matters such as the upcoming debate on abortion? I would like to assume that at least some Northern Ireland MPs will be able to speak on this Northern Ireland legislation in Committee, as I understand it will be, ever mindful that this week the Northern Ireland Assembly will deliberate on this matter. Ministers, right hon. and hon. Members of this House want the Northern Ireland Assembly to make the decision, but if it has to be made in Committee here, it is important that we have an opportunity to have Northern Ireland MPs on that legislative Committee.
That is not really a point for today’s debate. I completely accept what the hon. Gentleman says about representation on Committees for minority parties, but that is really a matter for business questions rather than today’s debate. I might add that the voice of Strangford is always heard in this House, and that is our good fortune as Members of Parliament.
Just before the hon. Member for Rhondda intervened, I was talking about having Members intervening, and we have seen in the past few minutes how that enhances, develops and evolves the debate. It ensures that Ministers are held to account, and allows the debating of amendments clause by clause in the Chamber, so that constituents’ views can be represented to Ministers; then to vote physically ensures that we are here, coming together as a single Parliament.
The Leader of the House is, of course, a strong advocate of the Union. He must appreciate that at the present time it is incredibly difficult and not at all straightforward for Members from Ulster to get here to the British mainland. As a result, I wonder whether he accepts that the social distancing queueing arrangements that are now to be trialled actually defeat to some degree the purpose of our having those debates, because they will eat so much into parliamentary time that we are eager to use for debate and cut and thrust.
The temporary measures that are to be used will mean that voting takes a little bit longer than using the ordinary Division Lobbies. That is true, but it will depend to some extent on how many Divisions right hon. and hon. Members demand—[Hon. Members: “Oh!”] I note a certain amount of caterwauling in the background, but I point out that a Division is not demanded on every item that comes before this House. If it were, the Budget resolutions would take a day to be passed. That is a perfectly routine matter. Members decide what they wish to vote on, and you, Madam Deputy Speaker, asked if notice could be given beforehand. Of course we will look for faster ways of providing for Divisions to take place.
Why should Divisions be physical? Why is it important for votes to be physical? It is because we are coming here together as a single Parliament and voting on things that have a major effect on people’s lives. Every piece of legislation affects people’s lives one way or another. We should not vote quietly and secretly. Some people tweeted that they were doing it while going for a walk and things like that. Is that really the way to be voting on laws?
The principle in this House is that votes follow voices. The Leader of the House is telling us that tomorrow he will bring a motion to allow those who are medically not able to be here to have a voice. Why should they not have a vote to follow that voice?
The vote following the voice is the tradition that if you shout one way, you then cannot vote the other way. That is all that means in terms of that tradition. It means that if you shout “Aye”—
I will just explain this point and then of course I will give way. The votes follow the voice, in that if you have shouted “Aye”, you must not then vote No. You are allowed to move a motion and then vote against it, as long as you do not shout in favour of it. The hon. Member for Rhondda may be looking quizzical, but he might remember that the former leader of the Labour party—of Her Majesty’s Opposition—did exactly that within the past couple of years. This is a fairly routine procedure.
What we have seen from the Leader of the House’s performance today so far is the characteristic we have seen from the Government since the start: bending the rules to fit their own purposes. Anybody watching this debate impartially will now be confused about what this means for their own behaviour. He has said that tomorrow people can enter these debates virtually. If they have a medical reason not to be here but they can be here virtually, can he say precisely what is preventing their being able to vote virtually as well?
There are well-established procedures for people who cannot be here being paired, so that their opinion and that of their constituents has exactly the same effect as if they vote in person. The votes through pairing balance out, so the decision of the House remains identical.
I assure the Leader of the House that right now there are lots of voices of Scottish National party Members he cannot hear because they are not in this Chamber and they will not be happy at all at the disenfranchisement of their constituents through what he is proposing. The Procedure Committee makes it clear that people should not have to disclose their medical condition in order to be able to participate in this House. What he is doing is embodying what people have seen as the practice of this Government in recent weeks: it is one rule for them and one rule for lots of other people.
The hon. Gentleman says that lots of SNP Members will not be happy. I have a nasty feeling that that is often the state of SNP Members, and I wish them every happiness. It is important that people follow the rules, and we are following the rules, because we said that people ought to go back to work if they cannot work effectively from home and that is exactly the position we are in.
Let me provide Members with an example. Flights for us from Northern Ireland to here are restricted. Two weeks ago, there were three flights out on a Monday but that was then reduced to two, and on other days there are no flights. Can Members have notice of when there will be debates in this House and when there will be votes in this House, because it is important that we are here to participate and actively vote when we can, and we need to know this in advance so that we can get a plane? The only plane over here for us yesterday left early in the morning, and that is to get us here for today.
Now that we are back to normal sitting hours, we will be sitting on Monday to Thursday with the usual sitting hours. A recess is scheduled, but I would not like to confirm that that date will be set in stone. It is at the end of July, so there will be plenty of notice if there is any change to it. We will have our normal sittings on Monday to Thursday. We are getting back to work. It is becoming business as normal.
The temporary Standing Orders for remote voting were only ever temporary, and I do not think they would have been agreed had the scheme been put in place for longer; many people have always been opposed to remote voting, and we got a consensus for a brief period. I do not believe I would be acting in good faith if I were to extend it beyond the time that people understood when it was first introduced. It is important that we treat decisions of the House with the importance and accord that they deserve, and the decision was to do this on a temporary basis.
Order. Before the hon. Gentleman makes another intervention, I should say that most people will not get to speak if there are lots of interventions. I will, however, allow him to make this one.
I am not a prophet, so I would not dream of predicting those sorts of things.
I have taken lots of interventions. In some ways I think this is a beneficial; it partly illustrates my argument about why Parliament needs to get back, and I appreciate that in a short debate interventions are sometimes just as useful for Members to be able to get in as getting half a minute at the end. If there are interventions, I will, by the leave of the House, carry on taking them.
Every Division is important, and I would underline that. We should be confident that we are all individually doing the right thing and voting openly under the eyes of others; voting while enjoying a sunny walk or watching television does democracy an injustice. The solemn decisions we take together affect the lives of millions of people in this country. We ask Members to vote in person for a reason: because it is the heart of what Parliament is about.
It remains essential that our work in this House is carried out in line with Public Health England advice. The Palace of Westminster we have returned to today is greatly changed from early March. The House authorities have carried out a risk assessment of the parliamentary estate to ensure it is a covid-19 secure workplace, in line with PHE guidance. Both its staff and its leadership, including particularly Mr Speaker, should be thanked and congratulated for the rapid progress that has been made.
I understand the concerns of some hon. and right hon. Members about returning physically. Many Members have already passed on their views, but I want to make it clear to all those in the House, and those who are not here but are listening and maybe shielding at home, that I am always available to discuss and hear their concerns, and I will as far as possible—which is why I will be bringing forward the motion tomorrow—do what I can to help. It will be tabled today for approval tomorrow. Anyone who feels that they are required to shield because of age or medical circumstances should not feel under pressure to attend Parliament, and pairing and other mechanisms will be in place informally to facilitate this.
I agree with the Leader of the House about the nature of debate and response and making a decision at the end of that debate, but what argues against that is the practice of pairing, where the decision is taken before the debate. Many hon. Members want their constituents to know where they stand on issues. Why do we not put the pairing records on the record? [Interruption.]
I hear mutterings around the Chamber saying that that is a good idea. Unfortunately, neither the Chief Whip from the hon. Gentleman’s side or from my side is in the Chamber at the moment, and I think it might be useful to consult them before I make an off-the-cuff suggestion, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman, who is a wise and experienced parliamentarian, that I will pass his views on to the Chief Whip. Perhaps he would be so kind as to do the same to his own Chief Whip, and perhaps there could be a meeting of minds in that area.
I have been working with the House authorities to see how MPs with underlying health conditions who have been told to shield or are receiving specific Government advice about their health may be able to continue to contribute to proceedings in this House. I mentioned this on
Turning to the motion itself, it may help if I briefly set out the Government’s approach. Today’s motion is the necessary paving step that gives the House the opportunity to signal how it wishes to conduct proceedings in the coming weeks. In response, I hope the House authorities will be able to complete the work already undertaken over the Whitsun recess, and I hope that hon. and right hon. Members will also find the explanatory note published alongside the motion helpful.
The motion updates the House’s procedures relating to Divisions and attendance in the Chamber to ensure compliance with social distancing restrictions. These temporary changes to Standing Orders will be in force until
Paragraphs (1) to (3) of motion 2 set out an approach to Divisions. If agreed by the House, Division arrangements will be set out by the Speaker and will adhere to Public Health England guidance—and I wonder if I may, through you, Madam Deputy Speaker, congratulate Mr Speaker on the work he has done to ensure and test a system for voting that meets the requirements of PHE; he has invested a lot of time in it to make sure that we have a system that will operate.
On this rather vexed issue of voting, could further consideration perhaps be given to the use of deferred Divisions? I understand the argument about consequential votes, but that could be dealt with quite simply by allowing them to drop away, and we would avoid any scenes that might bring us into a certain degree of disrepute.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the points that he has made. I assure him that the Government will listen carefully to any ideas that come forth from the Procedure Committee and from hon. Members in relation to how things can be improved and made more fluid in these difficult circumstances.
The Government wish to ensure that the House continues to function in line with Public Health England advice. Paragraph (4) therefore ensures that the Speaker may limit the number of Members present in the Chamber at any given time, and disapplies the Standing Orders relating to the prayer card system. The Standing Order will be discontinued in order that the flow of Members in and out of the Chamber can be managed, but I reassure Members that Prayers themselves will take place at the start of each sitting day. Finally, paragraph (5) disapplies Standing Orders relating to English votes procedures, as double majority voting is likely to be incompatible with the arrangements for socially distanced Divisions.
Let me now turn to the amendments tabled by the Opposition parties and the Procedure Committee. I reiterate my gratitude to the Procedure Committee—particularly my right hon. Friend Karen Bradley—for its and her swift work, and welcome continuing discussions with that prestigious Committee. I used to be on it, which is why I think particularly highly of it; it is one of the most interesting Select Committees in the House.
I hope that my commitment to bring forward tomorrow a Government motion to allow some participation in hybrid proceedings for those who are shielding demonstrates my commitment to ensuring safe participation for as many Members as possible, and that those amendments which seek to require some hybrid participation can be withdrawn on that basis.
I have already set out the case against remote voting, but let me address the argument made by some Members that if a Member is not able to vote, they will be entirely disenfranchised. I do not accept that. There are many other ways in which MPs represent their constituents in Parliament, including through tabling written questions, writing correspondence, tabling amendments and attending hearings of Select Committees, which will continue. Select Committees can continue to meet remotely under the resolution that I brought forward in March and will continue to carry out their important work with Members participating from around the country. It is worth noting that the Liaison Committee very successfully quizzed the Prime Minister in this way, so scrutiny carries on in other ways too.
I know that there has been concern about the operation of evidence sessions for Public Bill Committees. I hope that the House will welcome the fact that some specific witnesses to the Domestic Abuse Bill have been told that they will be able to give evidence remotely on Thursday, should they wish to. I was keen to ensure that this was possible. Some had assumed that it was not, but this concern turns out to be misplaced. The House has confirmed that under existing rules, witnesses can indeed give evidence remotely to Public Bill Committees in the same way that they have long been able to with Select Committees. It can therefore happen with no changes to the Standing Orders.
I ask that the House agrees the motion today and considers the further motion that I will bring forward tomorrow. I have no doubt that the Procedure Committee will continue to keep our ways of working under review, and I welcome that. For my part, I very happily commit to continuing to do the same, in order that we can ensure that the House can continue to go about its business effectively and safely.
I apologise for not being here right at the beginning of the right hon. Gentleman’s remarks, but I did not know whether I would be able to get into the Chamber. If proxy voting is acceptable for somebody on maternity leave in principle, why is proxy voting not acceptable for somebody who is shielding in this extraordinary crisis?
The Procedure Committee is currently holding an inquiry into proxy voting and whether it is suitable to be extended. I am aware that the hon. Gentleman is asking me this question, but obviously this is a matter for consultation with the Procedure Committee. The drawback of proxy voting immediately is that the temporary system that we will be having will take longer anyway, and that would be particularly complicated by proxy voting. But is it a solution that is ruled out full time? No, I would say that it is not.
It is important to emphasise that, with the hybrid Parliament, the commitments the Government made to the voters in December were clogged up. The Domestic Abuse Bill was not making progress—no Bill Committees were sitting—nor were the Fire Safety Bill, the Northern Ireland legacy Bill, the Fisheries Bill, the Trade Bill or the counter-terrorism Bill. What we do in this House is important and that we do it at a reasonable and efficient pace matters, and to do that we need to be here physically. I know, I understand and I sympathise that those Members who are shielding face difficult times. They are following advice that may prevent them from being here to vote, and that is difficult for them.
Could the right hon. Gentleman therefore confirm to me that the constituents of those MPs who have to shield are worth less and it is expected that they will be less well represented by this place?
I think the right hon. Lady makes entirely the wrong point. Parliament meets to represent the nation as a whole. We come here together not as ambassadors representing various powers; we come here as a United Kingdom Parliament. That is the nation— the United Kingdom—that we come here to represent, and we come here together. As a collective, we are a single United Kingdom Parliament and a strong legislative body that represents the whole people of the United Kingdom, and we each participate in that in our different ways on a daily basis.
The Leader of the House is absolutely correct on that point, but where it falls down is when Members are obstructed from actually getting here because there are not sufficient flights to bring Members to the House. That is where it falls down from Northern Ireland’s point of view. Will steps be taken, through the Government, with the airports and the airlines to ensure that Members from Northern Ireland can get here? Frankly, the issue of shielding, as far as I am aware, does not affect the eight Members who attend from Northern Ireland.
I am glad to see the hon. Gentleman in his place, and I absolutely appreciate that it is harder for some Members to get here than for others. I am very glad to see the Westminster leader of the SNP in his place, because his constituency is particularly far away from Westminster. I think he had a 16-hour journey to get here, and I think it shows a proper commitment to our parliamentary democracy that he is here. [Interruption.] Perhaps he is a secret Unionist, but it is a pleasure to see him here because we bring a Parliament together to have debate on the matters that are of concern to our constituents, and I absolutely accept that it is more difficult for some than for others.
Does the Leader of the House accept that we should be an exemplar of best practice, and when we are deliberately excluding people from portions of their responsibilities because of their disabilities we are in no position to tell employers who breach equalities legislation that they are in the wrong?
I have obviously looked at the equalities considerations in relation to this, and the Government and Parliament are completely in accordance with them, because it is necessary for us to meet here physically to do our business. That is in line with the Government’s guidelines. Which Bill does the hon. Gentleman not want us to have? Does he want to give up on the Domestic Abuse Bill? Does he want to give up on the Fire Safety Bill or the Northern Ireland legacy Bill? Are we going to get these Bills through?
To introduce another subject, does the Leader of the House have a view about call lists during statements and urgent questions? Right now, it seems to me that they prioritise those who sit browsing MemberHub 24 hours a day, which I have to confess is not for me, to submit a request in a short window to be part of an urgent question or statement, as opposed to being here and persisting to catch the Chair’s eye.
I think the system of catching Mr Speaker’s eye is a preferable system, but needs must, because we can have only 50 Members in the Chamber at any one point. However, this is a temporary expedient, and some of the other courtesies and normalities are being suspended.
The Leader of the House just said that this was a temporary expedient, and that is absolutely right; we are living through a crisis. Difficulties have been expressed by our friends from Northern Ireland, myself—from Skye— and Mr Carmichael, and we should put that in the context of our having been able to participate over the course of the last few weeks and get on with our job of representing our constituents, when our mailbags have never been fuller. The likes of myself and the right hon. Gentleman are now having to give up 30 hours to get here and go back—what a waste of time when we could be acting professionally, staying at home, doing our job and questioning the Government remotely.
The problem is that we are not doing our full job. We are doing an important part of our job in dealing with constituents’ inquiries, but we are not doing the important job of legislating—of getting through the business that the Government committed to deliver in the general election. Valerie Vaz says—[Interruption.] Don’t worry, I am saving up the hon. Gentleman. The right hon. Lady says that we are getting it done, but I remind her what I said at the beginning of the debate: we have had 216 minutes of debate on primary legislation compared with 640 minutes in a normal sitting week. We have been running at a third of normal legislative capacity. The job of Parliament is to deliver for the British people, and I ask again which Bill the hon. Lady would wish to sacrifice.
The Leader of the House has a very high Stuart understanding of what Parliament is here to do, which is, it seems to me, to do the Government’s bidding and legislate in the way that they want. But even the Stuarts, when King Charles II returned, in the Cavalier Parliament—of which the Leader of the House would have no doubt been a proud Member—insisted in the Treason and Seditious Practices Act that no MP should ever be denied
“their just ancient freedom and privilege in debating any matters or business which shall be propounded or debated”.
Even the Stuarts thought that there should not be anything put in our way in terms of participating. Why will he not just allow us to have remote voting until the summer recess?
Sometimes the hon. Member for Rhondda makes the point for me more eloquently than I could have made it myself: there is an absolute right of Members to attend Parliament. It is a most antique right. It predates the Stuarts and, as I keep on saying, it goes back to 1340. Members may attend if they wish to.
Has the Lord President done an estimation of the number of additional Members who will be kept away from this place if, after today, one of the people in this Palace tests positive? Therefore, any one of us—maybe all of us—may have to stay away for up to two weeks. Has he done that calculation and does he have a plan for what happens in that instance?
Well, the answer to that is: look around—if you seek a monument, look around. We are sitting six feet away from each other so that we are socially distanced, and therefore, if one right hon. or hon. Member has the coronavirus, in the track-and-tracing process we would not be notifying them about the people that we are sitting six feet away from. That is the whole point of social distancing. If we look on the floor, we see it says, “Please wait here until the person in front has moved forward”, and that goes back and back at six feet intervals all the way through, so that this can be done on a socially distanced basis, in line with Public Health England guidelines. I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for pointing out how well the House service has done in setting this out in a way that can continue to ensure that Members may turn up.
Let me continue my conclusion. There are many things that make the lives of MPs difficult, and I am not trying to pretend that this is not the case, but we none the less have a duty to the country and voters to fulfil both our collective constitutional function and our individual roles. The collective of Parliament requires that we return physically so we can allow proper redress of grievance, hold the Government to account, deliver on the mandate provided at the election and pass the important Bills that I have listed. I have no doubt that there will be some teething problems with the voting system today. It may be some time until—
The Leader of the House said earlier that witnesses giving evidence to the Domestic Abuse Bill Committee could attend from afar. I have contacted the witness I invited, who told me that he could not attend from afar because he could not contribute through video, which he takes as discriminating against people who have to travel to London because he cannot stay in a hotel here. I would like the Leader of the House to be clear on what the situation is.
The House authorities have made possible virtual participation in the Bill Committee’s proceedings, and it is up to individual witnesses whether they wish to take that up or not. That was always available under the ordinary systems used for some time by Select Committees. It applied to Public Bill Committees as well.
As I was saying, I do expect some teething problems with the voting system today, and it will be some time before our proceedings are fully restored, but in the meantime we must act to minimise the disruption.
Indeed I have—I took my sister Annunziata there many years ago. [Interruption.] Anyway, enough of my reminiscences. It is important that we protect, preserve and prioritise our parliamentary democracy. It has to continue, regardless of the disease that is afflicting the nation.
Order. I thank the hon. Gentleman, but I do not need his point of order. I have been trying to move the debate forward, but Members are so excited at being back here and being allowed to intervene that they are doing it far too often. No more interventions.
The interventions prove my point: we need interventions to make Parliament work properly. We need proper debate. We need to be back. We need to have a proper, full-blooded democracy, and that is what we are getting.
I thank the Leader of the House for moving the motion. I note that the amendments in my name and those of other Members were not selected, so I speak in support of the amendments in the name of the Chair of the Procedure Committee and the other Select Committee Chairs. I thank them for their deliberations and their timely reports, which have helped to inform the debate.
I do not know whether the Leader of the House is living in another universe, but the pandemic is still going on, and it is still very serious. The Government chose not to renew the temporary orders on
I know that the Leader of the House likes to say that we need to get back to work here, but I want to pay tribute to all my colleagues on both sides of the House who have worked incredibly hard and to their staff, who have ensured that we can deal with double the casework on behalf of our constituents. We are at work, so will he please stop peddling the myth that we only work when we are physically here? Please stop it.
Where is the evidence? The Leader of the House said in the House on
The Leader of the House will know that BAME staff are found in lower-paid and operational roles, where they cannot work from home. They are most at risk. Half the catering staff who have returned today are from the BAME community. Where is the risk assessment for them? He will know that the report on covid and BAME people has now been published, and we are twice as much at risk of dying from this disease. Science advisers are adamant: we are not over the virus. This is a dangerous moment.
The Leader of the House talks about scrutiny, but Mr Speaker has always made it clear that Ministers and shadow Ministers are here in the Chamber. Hon. Members have done a fantastic job of holding Ministers to account, whether here in the Chamber or up there on the screens, so it is not about seeing the whites of Ministers’ eyes—we cannot do that from the Back Benches anyway—it is about the responses we get from them. Will he please look at whether Ministers can reply to the written questions to which hon. Members say they have not received responses?
Let us turn to voting. House staff made a great effort to ensure a secure system for voting, and it worked: we had 15 minutes, we were told when to vote, we were told when we had already voted. I do not know whether the Leader of the House has done an assessment of how long it will take for us to queue all the way back to Westminster Hall, but I wonder if that is a good use of Members’ time, whether it is 650, 400 or 300 of us. It is easy for the Front Benchers—we go first—but what about the rest of our colleagues? There has been some talk about the possibility of hybrid voting. I hope we can do that.
There is a fundamental flaw in the Leader of the House’s argument. Can he guarantee that Members and House staff will be safe? Parliament may be covid-19 secure, but there is movement, and the rate of infection is different in different parts of the country. We are all moving around; we could be silent spreaders. His proposal is also discriminatory. The Equality and Human Rights Commission has said so. If someone is able-bodied, they must come in—they have to ignore Government advice about shielding and the R factor and come in—and if, for whatever reason, someone is following the Government guidelines and cannot be here, they effectively lose their vote. A Member who pairs is not recorded as having voted. Members on maternity leave have faced torrents of abuse for not having voted, which is why we moved to proxy voting, and that is happening now. One of the Leader of the House’s own colleagues, Siobhan Baillie, is facing exactly the same thing—we congratulate her on the birth of her baby. Members are being put in an invidious position, having been told by the Government they are at risk, and now being told by the Leader of the House that they must come in or lose their vote.
In conclusion, the Government have not lifted all the restrictions and the pandemic is still here. It is not right, just or fair to all Members. Members rightly demand parity. This is staggeringly arrogant from the Leader of the House. It is the same as when he said he thought the first Prorogation was lawful. He wants to demand and instruct; right hon. and hon. Members want to co-operate, discuss and agree a way forward that treats us all the same and is fair to everyone. Scientific advisers say this is a dangerous moment. The Leader of the House has shown that he just does not care.
Oblivion and Nemesis.
I will address amendments (b) to (d), tabled in my name and those of several right hon. and hon. Members, including 15 other Select Committee Chairs. Madam Deputy Speaker, I hope you will allow me to address my remarks not just to the Chamber but to those Members who cannot be present because of the limitations on space, which you are quite properly enforcing, and who, because of the conditions caused by the pandemic, are having to follow proceedings from elsewhere.
Since the 16th century, this Chamber and its predecessors have been the absolute focus of the House’s life. Our procedures are founded on the principle that everything is done in the Chamber. That is a sound principle. Members rely on face-to-face communication. The word “parliament” comes from the French “parler”. The idea that the Chamber is now not available to many of us is a massive dislocation. Let me be clear: I do not want the measures that we are debating to be in place for a second longer than they have to be to keep our colleagues, our staff and the staff of the House as safe as possible from coronavirus. I look forward to the time when the guidance is relaxed and we can all of us meet here again.
I have to say to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House that this is a very uncomfortable day for me. I do not like being badged as a rebel on House business. I am determined that we will get back to a fully physical Parliament as soon as possible. The Leader of the House will recall that I tabled an amendment to slow down the introduction of remote voting on
Last night I had a conversation with my right hon. Friend Robert Halfon, and he said that I could discuss that conversation in the Chamber. He is a great parliamentarian, a great campaigner and a great champion for his constituents. He wanted to be present today, but his doctor has advised him that he must not be, for his own health. The idea that we decide today to disenfranchise him completely seems to me to be absurd. I very much welcome what the Leader of the House said about tabling a motion to allow virtual participation, but I would like to see a copy of that motion before I make a final decision not to push to a vote amendments (b) and (c), which I tabled and which relate to virtual participation.
The hon. Gentleman makes exactly the point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow made to me last night, and I know how frustrated he is by this situation.
Let me move on to Divisions, because we have had debates about hybrid proceedings and, as I say, I look forward to seeing the Government’s motion, hopefully before the end of this debate. I am an ex-Whip; I have every sympathy with the desire to get back to fully physical voting. That is the way that Whips manage the business and the party, and it is how we Back Benchers interact with our colleagues and with Ministers. But I say to the Leader of the House that we will perhaps shortly have the chance to test the proposals that we have put forward, and I look forward to seeing what Members feel about them.
I back up the comments about deferred Divisions made by the Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, my hon. Friend Mr Wragg, who is no longer in his place. I support the Government’s bringing forward of changes to Standing Orders that will allow deferred Divisions on Second Reading and other debates, so that we will not have to have so many physical Divisions. I would welcome tests of other forms of voting, but when we introduced remote voting, we did so after we had tested it and tried it; nobody has tested and tried the current proposal for physical voting. Will the Leader of the House please consider accepting the amendment to allow remote voting to continue for a short period of time? We will all work together to find a form of physical voting that we can all be happy with.
My party is minded to support amendment (d), which the right hon. Lady has tabled on behalf of her Select Committee. We take exception to the fact that Northern Ireland Members face a double restriction: fortunately, as far as I know, none of them are shielding, but not being able to get here denies them the fundamental right that is at stake, which is for them to be able to get on the record in respect of the vital issues that affect their constituents and on which their constituents expect them to be on record. Resolving the voting issue would go a long way. Members can be denied the chance to speak but not to vote.
I understand exactly the points the hon. Gentleman makes. He will know that in the past I had personal experience of enjoying that journey very, very frequently.
The Procedure Committee has worked long and hard to find arrangements that we think are in the interests of the whole House. We received an unprecedented level of feedback on our work and I thank all colleagues who have taken an interest in it. As one of my hon. Friends observed to me, “Perhaps the Procedure Committee really is the most interesting Committee after all.”
There has been a certain amount of discussion about how the hybrid arrangements have delayed the Government’s legislative programme. Let me be clear. On
Let me make one other thing absolutely clear. I was elected by the House to Chair a Committee to advise the House on its procedure and practice. I was also elected to this House as a Conservative on an ambitious manifesto to get Brexit done. I make a personal commitment to the Leader of the House that that is what I am determined to see we deliver. Nobody on the Conservative Benches is trying, in any way, to stop that happening.
The Procedure Committee is concerned that we make sure all Members of the House have their say. A very distinguished Conservative Lord Chancellor, when in Opposition, once described the constitutional arrangements in the UK as “elective dictatorship”. I hope the Leader of the House will listen and remember that what is sauce for the goose is also sauce for the gander.
It is a pleasure to be called in this debate and to follow Karen Bradley. I implore her to move her amendments this afternoon. They are important amendments. They are about the rights of all Members to participate in the process of Parliament, both in debating, speaking and holding the Government to account and, of course, in voting. The shadow Leader of the House is correct. We must remember that we are living in the middle of a pandemic. It is the responsibility we have as a Parliament, and our responsibility to all the nations we represent, to make sure all our constituents are not disenfranchised.
I rise today in the absence of my hon. Friend Tommy Sheppard, who, because of the pandemic, cannot be here. I have to say that it is a considerable privilege to do so. The Leader of the House and I have known each other for a long time. I hold him in high esteem as a political opponent, but I have to say to him that on this matter I believe him to be wholly wrong. The decision by the UK Government to return Parliament has put parliamentarians in an impossible situation. A small number of us on the SNP Benches are here today—reluctantly—in order to ensure that the Government are held to account.
I have to ask the question: why were we forced to come here? Why were we forced to come here today? Reference has been made to the journey I have made. I do not wish this to be about me, but I had to drive to Inverness and then get a sleeper train, because there are no flights from the highlands to London. As has been referenced, it is a 16-hour journey. I know the same is true for Mr Carmichael.
Eighteen hours for the right hon. Gentleman. Is the Leader of the House really suggesting that parliamentarians should spend over 30 hours a week travelling to have the privilege of representing their constituents, when over the course of the past few weeks we have had the opportunity and the ability to do our jobs of challenging the Government remotely and effectively? The shadow Leader of the House is correct. With the post bag we have had, the thousands of emails we have received, and the need and desire to be able to assist our constituents—we have had the time to do that—we are going to lose countless hours simply because the Leader of the House determines that on the basis of tradition we should be here--. Nothing to do with the circumstances we are in and the risks to our constituents in this pandemic.
I am not going to spend 30 hours a week travelling. Not only is it logistically challenging, but it would be downright irresponsible for me to return to my community now. So I am down here now at the behest of the Leader of the House and I will be staying here until it is safe to go home.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. The issue of safety is of paramount importance. We must go about our duties able to determine that not just all of us but our staff members and our constituents will be safe.
The right hon. Gentleman may be making a personal choice to stay down here, but just think about that. The Leader of the House indicated that we may not go into recess towards the end of July, so it might well be that the right hon. Gentleman and others are committing themselves to being away from home—away from their families—for a prolonged period. Why? Why, when we know that the hybrid facilities, in the main, work?
On this nonsense—and I have to say that it is nonsense—that Bill Committees have not sat, it is in the gift of the Government to bring forward a set of circumstances that will allow Bill Committees to meet. I must say to the Leader of the House that there is a responsibility on us to arrive at a consensus on these matters. This is not about the Government; this is about Parliament.
It is fair to say that the Opposition parties, as well as a considerable number of Government Members, are strongly opposed to what the Government propose. I implore the Leader of the House on reflection to accept the amendments that have been tabled, which would allow us collectively to deal with the situation we are in and get to a set of circumstances in which Parliament can do its job. I am in the situation that very few of my Members are here today, because we did not want to expose more Members than necessary to the kinds of risks that the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland referred to. I pose the question again: why should we be in this situation?
If I may say so, this is not just about Members of Parliament who have health concerns. Even if we arrived at a situation, as has been suggested, in which they could be excused or paired, anyone in that category would have been identified as having particular health circumstances. Is that right? But this is not just about Members of Parliament who have their own health concerns; it is about Members of Parliament who may have family members who are shielding. We are talking about a considerable number of Members of Parliament who risk being disadvantaged.
Of course, in Scotland—it was the case in England as well—the public advice was to stay at home, to protect the NHS and to save lives. The Government’s official line was that if people could work from home, they should. Well, we can work from home. We should work from home, because that is the right thing to do, not just for Parliament but for our families, our colleagues and our constituents. We have asked employers to be flexible; the Commons should be too.
MPs were working effectively. The hybrid system, though not perfect, was more efficient than the system we now have in place. The right hon. Member for Staffordshire Moorlands reflected on that. Look at the number of people who can be in the Chamber, and contrast that with those who could participate in our hybrid proceedings. The whole point about the hybrid proceedings is that Members who, for their own reasons, choose to come here can continue to do so, but those who need to, want to and should participate on a hybrid basis are not disenfranchised. Many colleagues across the House cannot come into work—Members who are shielding; Members who cannot travel—and the UK Government are willingly disenfranchising them and their constituents.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that if the Government get away with this today, we will be left with a situation where, although all MPs will be nominally equal, some will be more equal than others? Is not that very much a reflection of the pattern we saw last week, when the Government displayed such a cavalier attitude to that core principle of the rule of law, equal treatment before the law?
Absolutely. I agree with my hon. and learned Friend. I say to the Government that there are real questions that we as Opposition parties wish to put, but at the same time there is a recognition that we are in a real crisis. We are in a health crisis and we have an economic crisis on the back of that. Where appropriate, we must work together. There must be generosity of spirit from the Government in dealing with these issues.
I have been prompted to speed up, so I will.
Plans to shut down virtual participation in Parliament are a shambles. They are unworkable, unsustainable and are unravelling further by the day. For votes to take place, a queue of more than a kilometre would be needed through the building. Can Members imagine how the public must look upon this? We will be queuing right out of this place and we will be taking a considerable period of time.
The Leader of the House raised the issue of how many times we might be voting, but there are times when we have multiple votes. We will be losing hours a day if we are to determine our right. [Interruption.] It is a bit ridiculous that Members on the Government Benches think that this is funny. Do they really think this is funny? This is serious. We are talking about the lives of our constituents.
No, I will not. You have lost your right to do that.
The proposal for voting is ludicrous and a waste of our time. I am sure our constituents would wish us to use our time more effectively. The House of Lords will soon have a remote voting system in place where Members can vote via smartphone or tablet. For what reason is that the case for one Chamber but not the other?
We know that asymptomatic carriers of covid-19 are the silent spreaders in the pandemic, and that the virus can spread on contact and lasts for hours, if not days, on hard surfaces. What efforts have been made to ensure that these Benches are cleaned between sittings? That is an important matter, because we know from evidence from Singapore that there was significant—
Well—[Interruption.] I can hear Members saying “Move on.” Really? I have to say that I find the attitude of some Members on the Government Benches quite deplorable. What I was going on to talk about was the situation in Singapore, where there is public evidence of people going into churches the day after other people—
Order. I implore the right hon. Gentleman to talk about this Chamber, because we have little time left. There is plenty of other time for Singapore. Will he please conclude his remarks quite soon?
I am afraid I am going to take my time to ensure that I am putting the case of Members of the Scottish National party. The reason I mention Singapore is because people were going into church and getting covid-19 from people who had been there in the days before. These are serious matters and they deserve to be properly aired.
The UK Parliament’s Select Committee on Procedure has called for remote voting and participation to remain an option for as long as the pandemic continues, and that should be the position we adopt. The Committee has outlined significant deficiencies in the plans and concluded that virtual participation should be allowed to continue while coronavirus restrictions are in place to allow MPs who are not able to come to Westminster, because of the continuing restrictions caused by the pandemic, to contribute to debates and represent their constituents.
The Government’s decision to ignore the cross-party consensus to retain hybrid proceedings and to plough ahead with plans to force hundreds of MPs to physically return to Parliament was widely criticised. The Public and Commercial Services Union, which represents security, catering and support staff in Parliament, said that the part-virtual system had worked well. General secretary Mark Serwotka said that it was
“strange why the government is in a rush to change course when a second covid spike is such a strong possibility”.
The Electoral Reform Society branded moves for MPs to vote in Parliament “beyond a farce”. The Leader of the House argued that democracy would once again flourish, having been curtailed under the hybrid system. That is simply wrong. [Interruption.] I am getting a bit fed up with remarks from Conservative Members about this being “self-indulgent”. I will tell them what is self-indulgent: MPs being dragged here when we know that the hybrid system works, and MPs being disenfranchised by the Government. That is self-indulgent.
While MPs are shielding and unable to travel to Parliament, we are experiencing a democratic deficit imposed by the UK Government. It is wholly wrong that we are in this position. I hope that we can achieve a resolution that will see us return to a hybrid Parliament that allows all our colleagues to participate in questions, statements, debates and voting from the security of their homes. We should be in a position whereby we can do our jobs and protect everyone else by staying at home and doing the right thing.
I wish to participate in the debate because I am a member of the Procedure Committee and I have a slight difference with my right hon. Friend the Chair of the Committee. Although I agree with the Committee’s plea for people to be able participate in the proceedings as far as possible, and I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will table a motion tomorrow, I do not believe that remote voting is necessary.
In normal times, my right hon. Friend Robert Halfon would be sitting here. He cannot be here today on medical advice. Ever since I was first elected to this House in 1983, no person who is away from the House on medical advice has been able to do anything other than get a pair. That system worked well in the 1983 and 1987 Parliaments. When I raised that in the Procedure Committee, my right hon. Friend Karen Bradley said that the genie was out of the bottle and it was no longer possible to persuade members of the public that, if we were not physically present to vote and we were paired, we were going about our business. I think we have a big education job to do to explain to our constituents and the public that we can do a really good job as Members of Parliament without physically being here to vote every time. When Ministers go on trips or Select Committee members meet outside this place, they are often paired.
There is something to be said for making that pairing arrangement more transparent, as Graham Stringer suggested earlier, but let us not demean ourselves by saying that pairing is a second-best arrangement. Pairing is a fair way of ensuring that people who are ill and unable to attend the House can have their votes counted. Under a pairing system, one person’s vote on one side is cancelled out by someone else on the other side. [Interruption.] Chris Bryant has been in the House almost as long as me and he knows that the system works well for those who are ill. It would be wrong to change it now. The Procedure Committee has an inquiry on the matter, but we cannot resolve that today. Let us therefore proceed with the motion in the name of the Leader of the House and allow ourselves to have real voting here. For those who cannot get here to vote, let us encourage pairing, while perhaps making the system more transparent.
I speak as a traditionalist. I am a Whip. My right hon. Friends the Members for Newcastle upon Tyne East (Mr Brown) and for Tynemouth (Sir Alan Campbell) have constructed my DNA in this institution. I am therefore very much a traditionalist. However, the system does not work. The Mogg conga, as it is now being deemed, through the House into Westminster Hall, is the result of the Government’s not tabling the relevant motion before the recess. It is the responsibility of the Leader of the House, no one else. According to some who have been briefing, even No. 10 did not realise what the Leader of the House was doing on the day before the recess. It would be helpful to know the right hon. Gentleman’s view on that because No. 10 does not seem to know what is going on.
The point is that this is about disenfranchisement. There are Members who have to shield but who are not vulnerable. Most Members I know who are shielding are far from vulnerable; they are honourable, hard-working, decent people, but like many people in this country, they are taking the advice of their clinicians. It is also a fact that some Members are the partners of key workers who no longer have childcare and who therefore have to be at home to look after their children. This is about the Leader of the House introducing a system that is no longer equal, and that is deeply unfair.
I want to use my remaining minute and a half to bust some of the myths mentioned by my right hon. Friend Karen Bradley. I pay tribute to her as the Chair of the Select Committee, of which I am proudly the minority ranking member—I think that is how some people think of it—as the vice-Chair. [Interruption.] I say to my hon. Friend Chris Bryant that that was just a joke. He never normally likes my jokes. I want to bust a myth for the Leader of the House: there has been no delay in bringing forward Bills for Public Bill Committees. There are four rooms in the House that could be used, and there is a maximum of four or five Bills currently being debated on the Floor of the House that will go through to Committee. It is the Government who have prevented the Bills from going into Committee, not the Opposition Whips Office.
I thank the vice-Chair for giving way; it is very generous of him. May I also make the point not only that Public Bill Committees have been able to meet since
I quite agree with the right hon. Lady. One Committee that is going to the Programme Sub-Committee today will be meeting for three days a week with two sessions a day, and it has the option to do four days if it so wishes. That is at the request of the Government. The Government have delayed the start of this process, not the official Opposition or the smaller parties. It is for the Government to put forward a Bill Committee, and they have no one to blame but themselves. The rooms are available, and I would further add that testing was undertaken for hybrid Bill Committees. The Clerk of the House and Officers of the House were asked to undertake the testing of the hybrid version, and I understand that it worked perfectly well, including taking evidence from witnesses. I would never wish to suggest that a Member has misled the House, except maybe inadvertently, but it simply is not correct to say that anyone was blocking Public Bill Committees from sitting. It simply is not true. The Opposition were able to put forward Members to go on to the Committees, and the Government were able to do the same. Those debates could take place. As the Leader of the House knows, some Bills, such as the Finance Bill, do not need to have witness sessions. They just involve line-by-line scrutiny, so they could easily have been done. I ask the Leader of the House to clarify that matter when he comes back to respond. I support the amendments tabled by the right hon. Member for Staffordshire Moorlands—in fact, I have added my name to them—and I will proudly vote for them on the basis that this is about fairness and about true equality for all Members of this House, no matter what their reason for not being able to attend.
It is a pleasure to follow Chris Elmore. I entirely agree with the Government that remote scrutiny is inferior to Members of Parliament being here to do it directly. That is no criticism of those who have worked very hard to make a virtual Parliament work at all, but it is the reality of the ways in which Bills and Ministers are most effectively scrutinised. It is also to the Government’s credit that they are seeking to restore the most effective scrutiny of themselves. In relation to those of us who can do so, I understand their preference that we conduct our scrutiny from here, but this debate and the amendments to the Government’s motion are really about those colleagues who cannot be here, and specifically those who cannot be here because the Government have, for good and sensible reasons, told them that they should not be. For those colleagues, there is a strong case for preserving some means of virtual participation in our proceedings. I am grateful to have heard what the Leader of the House has already said about that, but I look forward to hearing more.
Surely the most fundamental part of our job is casting our votes. In that regard we should be most concerned with the most fundamental principles, and surely the most fundamental principle of all is that our votes in this place count equally, in our roles as representatives of our constituents. It cannot be right to exclude from decision making any Member against their will, unless it is done for reasons of principle or because it is unavoidable. Excluding those who would be here, were it not for the Government’s instruction, cannot be right on principle. This is not the House taking disciplinary action against those who have broken rules—quite the reverse—and neither it seems to me is it unavoidable. Imperfect though of course it is, we do have a system of remote voting that we have tested and used over the past few weeks. Of course, it should be used only for this period of restriction, but while that period continues it remains the only way that those excluded from this place can vote. I do not believe, I am afraid, that the Government’s solution is satisfactory. Pairing and slipping are exclusions from voting for which a Member has volunteered in most cases. The Members we are talking about today are not all volunteering to be excluded and to exclude their constituents from the process of legislative decision making. They are being excluded through no fault or wish of their own.
I apologise for intervening again, but my hon. Friend Sir Christopher Chope referred to me earlier as letting the genie out of the bottle. My point was that the public expect us to vote. The public expect us to be here. The public are looking at our voting record. We will be judged on our voting record. To say, “I took the decision at that point to allow myself to be paired” or that, “I was not able to do anything else other than be paired because of my medical condition,” will probably not be sufficient for many of our voters.
Yes, I understand my right hon. Friend’s point, and I was going to go on to say that, although I understand the point of my hon. Friend Sir Christopher Chope, we are not, of course, as has just been said in the debate, dealing only with those who are ill. Some people are not ill but are being required—again I stress—by Government instruction to keep themselves away from this place. For those reasons, and with considerable regret, I cannot support the Government’s approach on voting, and I will support the amendment tabled by my right hon. Friend Karen Bradley.
Any right hon. or hon. Member who was in this House during our lengthy debates on our membership of the European Union after the referendum will be in no doubt that minds and votes were changed during those debates. I know that because, once or twice, mine were changed after a debate—sometimes with discussion. A Conservative Member who proposed an amendment actually voted against it after a debate. I suspect that there was a little arm twisting by the Whips. At the present time, we have, in this country, some of the most authoritarian legislation that we have ever had for reasons that are both understandable and credible. That means that, as a House, we have not been having that thorough full-blooded debate where people can change their mind and vote at the end of the debate. That means that the whole House has not been doing its job properly on this matter.
It has been suggested that Members want their constituents to know which way they have voted. If they have not been part of the debate, I do not really see the distinction between pairing and voting via an iPhone. The only distinction at the moment is whether it is recorded in Hansard. I take the point of the Leader of the House that he will discuss this with the Whips. If a pairing is recorded in Hansard, there is really no difference: constituents know where Members stand on the issue, even though it is not the exact equivalent of a vote.
The other matter I wish to raise in the brief time allowed is the number of people in the Chamber. The Government have said that they are following the science and the advice. Science is universal. The World Health Organisation recommends a distance of 1 metre. Other countries recommend 1.5 metres. We, together with a small number of countries, recommend 2 metres. There has been very little study on covid. The studies that lead to those distances, which are not universal, are on previous viruses, not this one. I urge the Government, partly for the sake of democracy and partly for the sake of getting the health issues right, to consider again and look to moving towards the recommendations of the World Health Organisation.
I have a great deal of support for the view of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House that debates held in this place without intervention are sterile and that we are failing to scrutinise the Government adequately. However, as Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, I have to endorse the comments of the shadow Leader of the House: these measures do not just look discriminatory—they are discriminatory.
Instantly, a number of groups with protected characteristics are excluded. Those who are pregnant or new mothers, or older Members, might be advised not to come here via public transport. The underlying health conditions of either Members or their families are, to be frank, none of our business, but they will be excluded, as my right hon. Friend Robert Halfon has been. I appreciate the lengths to which Mr Speaker has gone to ensure that we have adequate arrangements for queuing, but how suitable are they for people with disabilities, including hidden disabilities?
Covid has too often been described as a great leveller, in that anyone can catch it—we saw that from my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister—but its unequal impact is well documented. Older people, men, those from BAME backgrounds and those with underlying health conditions now have a very stark choice: stay at home and play no part in proceedings, losing your right to cast your vote on legislation, or come here and expose yourself and your family to greater risk.
I absolutely accept that this House is not our employer, but good employers have a duty to make reasonable adjustments to ensure that workers with disabilities and health conditions are not substantially disadvantaged. By taking away the ability to vote remotely, we are substantially disadvantaging those people. I would argue that the amendments tabled by my right hon. Friend Karen Bradley are, in fact, a reasonable adjustment, and for that reason I will be supporting them this afternoon.
The Leader of the House, in introducing the debate, suggested that we should deal in some facts, so for the benefit of the record, I want to state a few facts of my own. In order for me to get here today, it required a journey of 18 hours, starting with an aeroplane, a taxi, a normal train and four hours in Edinburgh waiting for a sleeper train that I picked up at 1 o’clock this morning to arrive at Euston at 8 am. I cannot and will not do that every week. Apart from anything else, the return journey will be 26 hours long and would require me then to go into self-isolation for 14 days—the only responsible way to live in a community such as mine. Having come here, I am here for the duration, because I cannot go back until it is safe to my family and my community for me to do so.
I do not tell the House that because I look for any sort of sympathy. After 19 years as a Member of Parliament, I have learned better than that by now. I am telling the House because I think it is important that this House should be a Parliament for the whole of the United Kingdom, and every part of the United Kingdom should be able to participate here. What the Leader of the House brings to us today is a recipe for us being a Parliament essentially of people who live within driving distance of London, and that is simply as unacceptable as it is dangerous. It is a downright disgrace for the Leader of the House, who sits in the interests of the supposed Conservative and Unionist party, to bring forward a measure of this sort.
I accept that there were real difficulties with the hybrid process and the stilted nature of the debate that we had in the virtual Parliament. But believe me, the difficulties of the virtual Parliament are absolutely nothing compared with the difficulties that will come from the two classes of Member of Parliament that we will have as a consequence of the measures before us. When digital was the default option, it did not matter who was shielding. It did not matter who was able to move. Now it will become very obvious.
We know that it is only a matter of time before somebody who ought to be shielding and should not be here will find that there is some big incident in their constituency, and they will want to be here articulating the case of their constituents, because that is what we do. Inevitably, they will end up coming here when they should not, putting themselves, their family and their community at risk. It is not too late. The amendments tabled by the Chair of the Procedure Committee are good and sensible, and I entreat the House to accept them.
Listening to the debate, I have to say that I have a new-found affection for the virtues of brevity, so I will keep my points very brief. I very much welcome the commitment of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to bring forward a motion ensuring that people can take part in scrutiny measures. However, I implore him to look at proxy voting for people because that seems to cover and resolve quite a few of the voting issues we have been discussing today.
Some of the most respected Members of this House have been silenced by their inability to be here. I have spoken to some of them and asked for words to share so that their voices are heard in this debate. My right hon. Friend Margaret Beckett says:
“I was first elected to this House in 1974 and have always tried to maintain my attendance and voting record. Under ordinary circumstances I would have wanted to take part in the boundaries vote. I am appalled that it is the rules of this House that are preventing me from doing so.”
My hon. Friend Vicky Foxcroft says:
“As shadow minister for disabled people, it’s outrageous that I can’t raise the important issues they face with Covid 19. They’ve felt like an after thought throughout this crisis, and this exclusion of my right to participate does nothing to dispel this belief.”
My hon. Friend Mr Sheerman says:
“As the longest continuous serving MP on the opposition benches I am deeply disappointed that I am being denied the democratic opportunity to intervene in the debate and to cast my vote.”
My hon. Friend Ms Rimmer says:
“I have been a loyal servant to my electorate and I am desperately disappointed that the House is stopping me from voting on behalf of my constituents. There is no need for this and it is deeply undemocratic.”
My right hon. Friend Dame Margaret Hodge says:
“I cannot believe that colleagues from across the House with whom I have worked closely down the years are going to vote to deny me and many other members of this House the democratic right to vote during this pandemic. The House should never discriminate against and disenfranchise colleagues in this”— deliberate—
“way. It’s not fair to us and it’s not fair to our constituents.”
Ninety minutes having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on the business of the House motion, the Speaker put the Questions necessary to dispose of the proceedings.
Order. That concludes the debate and I am required to put the Question, but I have a short statement to make. As I said in my letter to colleagues last week, the House simply cannot conduct Divisions safely via the Lobbies. Any suggestion to the contrary, from whatever quarter, directly contradicts the best professional advice from Public Health England. The House is faced with a choice before it and must decide on it because the House has chosen to allow the remote Divisions and temporary orders to lapse. The Government alone control the Order Paper. If the House agrees to the motion as it stands, the voting method being used today will continue in use because it is the only method that is compatible both with the requirements set by the Government in their motion and with public health requirements.
Amendment proposed: (d), leave out from “rescinded” to end and add:
(a) That the following order (Conduct of divisions) be made and have effect either until the Speaker states that the ordinary conduct of divisions and deferred divisions is consistent with relevant public health guidance and advice and with the legal duties of the House of Commons Commission and the Corporate Officer, or until the House otherwise orders: