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Emergency debate (
[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; First Special Report from the Procedure Committee, Procedure under coronavirus restrictions: the Government’s proposal for proxy voting for shielding Members, HC 429; and Procedure under coronavirus restrictions: Transcript of oral evidence given by the Clerk of the House and the Clerk of the Journals on
I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the Conduct of House business during the pandemic.
First, I would like to place on record my gratitude to Mr Speaker for allowing this debate. I am acutely aware that it is still not a full week since we last debated this issue, so I think it is worth reminding ourselves of the reasons why Mr Speaker was persuaded that it was appropriate to have this debate today.
Since the House divided, we have seen the practical outcome of the decision that was made to restore physical attendance to this House. We have seen Members queuing round the block, up the stairs, down the stairs, through Speaker’s Court and in just about every imaginable part of the parliamentary estate. It has not done any great service to the reputation of the House. It has, in fact, exposed us to ridicule around the world.
I note in passing that we have card readers installed in the Division Lobbies today, so it might be in order for me to congratulate the Leader of the House on having been wittingly or otherwise the midwife of electronic voting in this House. It is always interesting to speculate what one’s legacy might be at the end of one’s time in office, and I wonder whether that is one that the Leader of the House would have sought. In a world where irony has been destroyed, that would just be one small adjunct.
I do not disagree with the right hon. Gentleman that the sight of us all walking through here to vote was slightly ridiculous. Is he aware that screens were previously erected in the Lobbies, but they were removed before we returned last week? Does he think that that was because there are no TV cameras in the Lobbies?
I am sorry, but I cannot answer the hon. Gentleman’s question because I do not really understand it—from some of the exclamations I hear around me, I fear I am not alone. To answer his question, I was not aware of that, but I struggle to see the relevance of it.
We also saw the attendance of the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy at the Dispatch Box. Thankfully, we have now heard that his test for covid-19 was negative. I am sure that we were all grateful to hear that and wish him well. As I said when I made the application on Thursday last week, the outcome of the test was not the relevant issue. The sight of the right hon. Gentleman at the Dispatch Box, and the reaction to that among us all and among the watching public, should have been a wake-up call to the Leader of the House and to the Government. It is entirely regrettable that it was not.
After the scenes of the Secretary of State sweating at the Dispatch Box were seen on television, I received countless emails from my constituents who, while they wanted me to represent their views, were asking me not to go in because it might make me a super-spreader of any germs in this place. It is utterly irresponsible, and surely we should not have to choose between the health of our constituents and our ability to do our jobs.
Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend in all respects but one, which is that this is just one part of the job we do. When I hear the Leader of the House and others saying that it is time for us to get back to work, I have to say that it sits rather ill with me. I have to say that from my own experience, and I know this is the experience of others, I have never been busier and I have never had a heavier mailbag than I have had since the initiation of lockdown.
I will give way once more, and then at that point I will want to make some progress.
The right hon. Gentleman says that we work beyond this House, which obviously we do, but does he recognise that the work in this House is extremely important in looking at what the Government are doing, and that being physically in this building will help us in exchanging words about that, as we are doing now?
I do absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. That is why I have never made any secret of the fact that I regard the virtual arrangements as having been sub-optimal, but there is a cost-benefit analysis to be made. My conclusion, and I think the conclusion of many, is that the cost of return at this time outweighs the benefits that we have had. That judgment is really what it comes down to at the end of the day.
Just consider how many hon. Members might have had contact with the Secretary of State, had he been infected, and then at the end of Tuesday gone home. Who else might they have met, and who might they have gone home to and then passed on the infection and the virus to?
In fact, on the subject of going home, it has been reported to me—obviously I was not present to hear the remarks—that at the 1922 committee last week, the Leader of the House attributed to me a motivation that I adopted the position I hold because I do not like the long journey. I have to assure the Leader of the House, and indeed the House as a whole, that that is not the case. If I were put off by a long journey, I would not have been able to serve for 19 years as the Member of Parliament for Orkney and Shetland. For the benefit of the Leader of the House and for other Members, let me make it quite clear that the objection I have to ending the hybrid system is one based on parliamentary and constitutional principles and on public safety; it is not a question of self-interest.
If I were to return home to Orkney this Thursday night—I would get home on Friday night, in fact, just ahead of midnight—I would get to stay there until late on Sunday afternoon. At that point, and it is not a bad situation, I would be getting on a plane to start the journey back here—believe me, Madam Deputy Speaker, this is not a jumbo jet; it is a Saab 340, a 34-seater plane—and I would be sharing the plane and breathing the same air as people who would be heading off to Aberdeen the next day for hospital appointments, for their operations, for radiotherapy and chemotherapy or for whatever else. The idea that I might inadvertently transmit the virus to those people because I am infected but remain asymptomatic is one that, frankly, makes my blood run cold. That is why, having come here, I am staying here, and I will be here for the duration until it is safe to go home.
To avoid inadvertently spreading the virus, should not the advice be that we should all wear face masks? We know that indoor spaces are the most dangerous in terms of spreading the virus, and it is clear that if we unknowingly have the virus, by wearing a face mask we reduce the risk of passing it to someone else from 17% to 3%. Would not that be sensible Government advice for this House as well?
Long before the coronavirus pandemic, several people told me that my appearance would be improved by wearing a mask, so this is perhaps no great surprise.
Don’t take me there.
The principle—the important constitutional principle that is at stake here—is one of equality of all Members in this House. It is the subject of an excellent letter to the Leader of the House from a group of academics from University College London, headed up by Professor Meg Russell. She makes the point that not only did the Government win this return by a de facto exclusion of those who were most in need of the protection, but they have now put in place arrangements that have two tiers of Members. Not only does that affect us as Members, but it affects every single one of our constituents, because while there are constituencies and communities who are represented by people who are fit enough to be here, who have no underlying health condition and who have no one in their family whom they are required to protect, there are those represented by people who are not in that fortunate position and who do not have the option of physical attendance.
I commend the Government for at least restoring virtual participation by videolink, which we have seen operating again today, thankfully, but the position on Divisions is important because it runs right to the heart of this question of equality. If a Member has an underlying health condition and so is not able to attend, they are allowed to nominate a proxy; if, however, they are a carer for, or simply residing with, a person in that position, they are equally unable to attend here—I have heard no one challenge that—but they are not allowed a proxy vote. So the opportunity for such Members to express in the Division Lobby, either electronically or otherwise, the view that they may have expressed on a screen is not given to them, and that is wrong. The hybrid Parliament existed to maintain that equality of representation of all communities and all constituencies.
Last week at the Dispatch Box, the Leader of the House made two claims that merit some attention. First, he said that the abandonment of the hybrid Parliament was necessary in order for the Government to get their legislative programme through. He might not have noticed, but in the week before the Whit recess we managed to deal with both the Finance Bill and the Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill. In that regard, I remind him that the letter from the Constitution Unit at UCL observes that:
“there has been no barrier to bill committees meeting in socially distant form at Westminster since
Pause and consider that for a second: we in the elected Chamber are now lagging behind the House of Lords in terms of our use of the modern technology that is available to us. If we thought that the covid-19 conga was going to bring Parliament into disrepute, then goodness! We only knew the half of it.
The right hon. Gentleman is a jolly fellow and I am enjoying his speech, but some very serious issues are facing this country right now. We discussed this matter last week, and although I realise his party has form in not respecting election results they do not agree with, I, as someone who voted against the Government last week and to retain electronic voting, accept that we were not successful. We had this debate then, but here we are again, discussing ourselves. Should we not move on?
It was my decision to make an application, but it was Mr Speaker’s decision to grant the application. If the hon. Gentleman is seeking to question Mr Speaker’s judgment, he should perhaps make that clear. And the very best of luck to him. I see that he is not standing to correct the record in that regard.
The other point that the Leader of the House made last week was that, somehow or other, Members should be prepared to set an example. In this, there might be a bit more consistency than in other arguments. Let us remember that the ending of virtual proceedings ran contrary to the Government’s own advice that if someone could do their job from home, they should do so. Of course, the Government have form when it comes to disregarding that particular piece of advice.
In response to the point that was just made by Steve Brine about the vote that we had a week ago, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that all those people who were having to shield were unable to vote in that Division? It was one of the biggest Conservative rebellions since Brexit, but lots of people were unable to vote. If those people had been able to vote, we might well have had a different result, so does he agree that it would be sensible for us to have another vote with everyone who has been elected to this House able to take part?
Having committed ourselves to virtual or hybrid proceedings, it would have been sensible to make the decision to end them by a virtual process. However, that was not done, and we have to just accept that that was the way the vote went. If the hon. Gentleman has regard to the excellent letter from the Constitution Unit at UCL, he will find that it makes exactly that point.
One of the things that pains me more than anything else is the way in which the Government have chosen to do this without consulting the other parties in the House and without seeking to build the necessary consensus. So let us be quite clear that, in the event that this all goes horribly wrong, as it may well, only one person and one party in this place will be responsible for that.
I do not want to take too much time, but before I sit down I have to reflect on the fact that Ms Eagle was quite harsh in her judgment of the Leader of the House last week. She said that he had been the worst one ever. As I say, I think that that was harsh. Personally, I always reserve judgment until someone has left office as to where they stand in the panoply of greats. However, I think it is worth while comparing how the Leader of the House currently does the job with the way in which it has been done by many of his predecessors.
I was first elected to this place in 2001, and the Leader of the House then was Robin Cook, a man who had been demoted, as many said, from being Foreign Secretary. He never saw the transfer to being Leader of the House as any sort of demotion, however. He gave a weekly masterclass at the Dispatch Box in what it was to be a parliamentarian, and I am pretty sure that he would have had no truck either with the physical return at this time or, indeed, with the manner in which it has been executed.
In her assessment last week, the hon. Member for Wallasey prayed in aid the Prorogation of Parliament as well as the ending of the hybrid proceedings. She might have added to that the treatment of the Liaison Committee. The reason that Robin Cook—or, if you prefer, Sir George Young or William Hague, who have also given distinguished service to the House as Leader of the House—would never have had any truck with this sort of thing is that they understood that the office of Leader of the House had two functions. Yes, the Leader of the House is a Minister who is accountable to Parliament, but also, uniquely, they have a role as Parliament’s representative within Government. Robin Cook, William Hague, George Young and others all understood the importance of that role, and they were never afraid to carry it out. They understood the importance of the principle of equality of all Members and the people that they represent in this place, and they understood that it was their duty in Government, at the Cabinet table, to protect it. That remains the duty of the Leader of the House at the moment. It pains me beyond measure that he is so determined not to do his duty, and my plea to him today is a simple one: he should change his mind and do his duty.
Before I call the Leader of the House, I should warn Members who are planning to speak, lest they might have prepared long orations, that this debate will last for only two hours in total and therefore there will be a time limit on Back-Bench speeches of five minutes, which may well reduce later in the day.
I listened with great interest to Mr Carmichael, who is a distinguished Member of this House and former holder of office in the coalition Government. It is, of course, clear that there are still some concerns about the return to physical proceedings, and I am sympathetic to them; we are all trying to do our best to do right by our constituents at this difficult time. I pay tribute to the work of all those across the House who have persevered despite the limitations of lockdown to help individuals and businesses in their constituencies. The right hon. Gentleman rightly said that Members of Parliament have been exceptionally busy in their constituencies, with a workload that for many has been higher than they have been expecting in ordinary time, but this is not an ordinary time.
My right hon. Friend refers to the work that we have done, but it is no different from—in fact, it is probably less than—the work done by our key workers, such as school teachers, police officers, nurses and social care workers, in places such as Stoke-on-Trent.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right on that, which is one reason why I argue that we should try to lead by example. People who have been at the frontline have been working exceptionally hard and have been doing so in a way that is brave and deserves our commendation.
Does the Leader of the House not agree that not allowing MPs who are shielding to participate fully in this House is disenfranchising them and it is cruel and unnecessary? For shielding MPs, in particular, this needs to be rethought, reviewed and fixed.
I think the hon. Lady is not looking fully at what shielded MPs will be able to do. They will be able to have a proxy and to participate in the interrogative parts of Parliament’s activities. We have to get the balance right between what can be done by shielding MPs and what allows Parliament to carry on doing its job. I fear that that is the key point, and I hope Members will understand that although their contributions have reflected their experiences and those of their party, it is our responsibility to consider Parliament’s work as a whole—not just the duties of individual MPs, but the duties of our Parliament to the British people.
Listening to the Leader of the House, I am curious to know whether he could give us an example of a way in which this Parliament failed in its duty to our constituents and to our countries while we were operating a hybrid system. Where did it go wrong such that he felt it had to end?
Even the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, who applied for and received this debate, has said that it was a sub-optimal system, and that has been the view of the Procedure Committee and it has been mentioned widely in debates. The legislative programme was running at a snail’s pace comparatively. We were not delivering on our promises to British voters, and that is the point: the most important way in which Parliament makes a real difference to the lives of our constituents is through legislation. Our democracy could not function without this essential work. It is how we translate the results of general elections into tangible change.
On the subject of snail pace, was the voting we were doing last week not much slower than the virtual voting we did online, which worked perfectly well?
Snails do not go anything like as fast as we went in that queue, and I really do not think Members should be too smart to feel that they cannot queue when our constituents are. I think we have to recognise that.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. There is a great deal going on in the world and, thanks to the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, we are debating ourselves—a subject that is of course of great interest to us.
The right hon. Gentleman’s concern was that virtual debates were preventing the Government from getting on with their business, but the way in which debates took place was just one aspect; another was whether we needed to be here to vote. Even if we had wanted to get rid of virtual contributions to debates, surely we could still have had electronic voting, which would have been much quicker than queuing 45 minutes for a Division, as we did last week.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is an assiduous attender of Parliament and very thoughtful in his contributions. Where I disagree with him is in my understanding of what a Parliament is. Parliament is a coming together from across the nation to one place; therefore, we cannot carry out our role as parliamentarians properly and fully when we are absent.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, because that is a crucial point. Even with the social distancing requirements and a Chamber that is not as full as it would otherwise be, we have proper debates and ensure that the Government are properly held to account. That is unquestionably an advance on a virtual Parliament.
Legislation is how we translate the results of a general election into tangible change. In the Queen’s Speech, the Government unveiled 36 Bills—an ambitious agenda that aims to help the whole country level up. People across the United Kingdom will be affected by the laws we pass, so this House must play its part in working to ensure that these Bills are the best they can possibly be. While it is natural that Opposition Members may be less enthusiastic about the programme as a whole, because as Disraeli said, it is after all the job of the Opposition is to oppose, my point to them today—[Interruption.] If Chris Bryant is seeking to intervene, I will give way. It is always such a pleasure to hear from him.
I think Disraeli also said that a Conservative Government were an “organised hypocrisy”, as I am sure the right hon. Gentleman well knows. If he is so keen on making sure that stuff can proceed swiftly, would it not be better to have a swift means of voting? I do not understand his addiction to queuing—unless it is from his regular queuing in Lidl. A former Archbishop of Canterbury said of reading the Church Times:
“It’s a duty to read it, but a sin to enjoy it”.
Is it not the same with queuing?
If we are batting back and forth Disraelian quotations, he also said:
“A sophistical rhetorician, inebriated with the exuberance of his own verbosity”,
but I would hate to apply that to the hon. Gentleman. [Interruption.] My hon. Friends think I should, but I will not, because he is a distinguished parliamentarian-historian and Chairman of the Standards Committee. In answer to his point about queuing, we have to use the methods necessary to proceed with Government business, which is the point I am making today. It can only be done by meeting physically.
We are talking about swiftness and queuing. The people of Wolverhampton have been queuing for their essentials for the last three months. Are we not wasting time in this debate, and should we not be getting on with something more important?
I have a great deal of sympathy with that view, but the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland called for this debate and was successful in his application, therefore clearly Parliament has a desire to talk about itself. That was not my choice, but I am here to participate and to do so fully, in a real and physical Parliament.
I am sure that most of us appreciate that we are not here to talk about Parliament. We are here to talk about the fact that representatives who are unable to be here are representing constituents who are not represented by this Parliament, and that is wrong.
I am a bit puzzled as to why the right hon. Lady is contributing to the debate if she does not want to talk about Parliament. It seems to me that that is what the motion is about, but there we go. We are talking about how the House of Commons is operating under the covid-19 requirements. That is the topic of the debate.
What we are looking at is the essential work that can only be done by meeting physically. If we look at the progress we were able to make just last week on our legislative programme, and at what a contrast that was with the limited steps possible under the hybrid proceedings —[Interruption.] Does Lloyd Russell-Moyle wish to intervene?
That is very gracious, but customarily, if Members sit on the Benches chuntering, they might give the impression that they wish to contribute more formally, so that our friends in Hansard may hear their wise words. May I suggest that the hon. Gentleman think through his intervention, and I shall be delighted, nay, honoured to hear from him later. [Interruption.] Does the hon. Member for Rhondda also wish me to give way?
Order. Just because the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown was doing something wrong does not mean that that the hon. Member for Rhondda has to copy him.
The Zoom Parliament allowed some scrutiny to take place, and I was an enthusiastic advocate of having it. On
My right hon. Friend talked about the Zoom Parliament being inadequate. In education—I am former teacher—we know that Zoom has only been able to go so far, and that kids being physically back in the classroom means that they can get a better education. Surely our being physically back in the Chamber means that we can get on with the work that we need to deliver.
I entirely agree, and my hon. Friend makes the right comparison all ways round. I have noticed with my own children that remote education has been a good stopgap when other things have not been possible, but it is in no way as good as a real education in school, with all that that entails. The comparison works very well with Parliament. Indeed, the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland accepted that there are real difficulties with the hybrid process and the stilted nature of the debate that we had in the virtual Parliament. He said that himself, so it is not as if I am the only one who thinks it did not work.
I absolutely accept that it is not a system I would want to use indefinitely, but it is right for the here and now. On the question of progress in legislation, will the Leader of the House confirm that the Constitution Unit at UCL is right in its assessment that the refusal to use hybrid proceedings for Committee and other stages of legislation is a matter of Government choice, not a question of possibility?
I am afraid I thought the right hon. Gentleman was in error when made that point in his introductory remarks, and I think UCL is also in error. The idea that Her Majesty’s Government did not want to have Bill Committees so that we could get on with our legislative programme is patently absurd. Of course the Government wanted to get on with that, and to use whatever measures were available. However, the measures that were available were not sufficient; they were not enough to provide the number of Bill Committees we need for the work we have to do. The right hon. Gentleman is not the only hon. Member who found the hybrid proceedings unsatisfactory. My shadow from the SNP, Tommy Sheppard, recognised the essential deficiencies of contributing virtually, and suggested that it created two classes of MP, and that a level playing field is needed. He would want the level playing field to be entirely virtual; I want to be primarily physical.
The right hon. Gentleman says that he wants a level playing field, but he has agreed to have virtual participation from people who are shielding. Does that not undermine his whole premise? All that is being asked is for him to allow those people who cannot participate because they are shielding, or helping to shield relatives, to be able to vote. Yes, they will not have full participation as that will be reserved for here, but at least they will not be denied their vote. What is the problem with that? He is allowing some virtual participation.
I am not sure that that point was worth waiting for. [Laughter.] I do not wish to be unkind—it is a matter for debate, perhaps on another occasion, as to whether it was worth waiting for or not. The motion last week that was tabled in my name allowed those who are shielding to vote by proxy, which meets the majority of the hon. Gentleman’s concerns.
One of the problems with the two motions that the Leader of the House tabled last week is that they create two different categories of people who can self-certify. I hope he will return to that issue, because it is a matter of concern to those who are in one category, but feel that they are excluded from another. That bit surely needs tidying up.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point, and I can assure him that it is under consideration. May I say that his second intervention was worth waiting for? I just want to continue—
I remember the debates only a few years ago when the right hon. Gentleman and others were very sceptical about moving to a proxy system, because of the dangers of the Whips holding handfuls of proxies that they could effectively just walk through and of not being able to have dissent. Surely he recognises that those were his arguments. Why can we not now look for an electronic option that removes that potential danger?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that point. The Chief Whip is not in his normal seat, so I will whisper it very quietly in the hope that he does not hear, but I would still be concerned about the Whips exercising a very large number of votes. Even as a member of the Government, to go to the point of the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland about the Leader of the House having a broader responsibility, I do not think that would be ideal. I think it is preferable that the awarder of the proxy can decide the Member who will bear the proxy. I think that is a better system, but I think Members in the generality ought to come here physically to vote because that is bringing Parliament to one place.
I was just talking about the hon. Member for Edinburgh East, who said that
“the final link in the digital chain is a domestic broadband connection that often fails, leaving Members unable to participate fully or at all.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 676, c. 216.]
We certainly saw that with the hybrid proceedings. MPs are not able to conduct all aspects of their job from home, because it misses the responsibility we have as lawmakers.
I thank the Leader of the House for once again giving way. He is very generous with his time. I have been a bit reluctant to intervene on him, because BBC Parliament continues to misgender me by calling me “Peter Gibson” and by referring to me as a Conservative, which will not go down well with many of my constituents. On the point about voting—regardless of covid, although it is very important in this debate—does he not agree that taking 30-odd minutes in ordinary times to carry out a vote is not a good use of this Parliament’s time? It would be much better if we could vote electronically and take two or three minutes, as happens in the Scottish Parliament, and therefore get on with our work more efficiently.
I believe it is fair to say that the Scottish Parliament has not got remote voting. The voting still has to be done physically, within the Scottish Parliament, and that is an important point to bear in mind. Voting is still done within the Parliament. If people look in the Division Lobbies, they may get an indication of the way Mr Speaker’s mind is working in making the Division system more effective. That, of course, is part of the process—that things improve and evolve as we work our way through this crisis.
Let me now turn to why scrutiny actually matters from the point of view of the Government, as well as of Back Benchers. By the time a Bill reaches the Floor of the House, many hundreds, sometimes thousands of hours have been dedicated to working up its policy details and drafting its clauses and schedules, yet it is only when parliamentarians are able to consider those clauses and schedules that our process of lawmaking begins in earnest. The Minister responsible for the Bill naturally wants to know what all Members think the legislation will mean for their constituents. Those views can be heard on Second Reading, upstairs in Committee and on Report.
Under the hybrid proceedings, we were only sitting for three days a week, which would never be enough for us to make progress on our legislative priorities. On the days when we were able to debate a Bill, the limited time for debate—cut by two thirds compared with a normal timetable—would have been deeply frustrating. In the fairly typical week commencing
During my years sat in my old spot over there—I think it is a spot that still has a tick on it, so it is reserved—I became accustomed to Back-Bench MPs complaining about the limitations on the time for debate, so it comes as something of a surprise to me, now that I am standing here as Leader of the House, that it falls to me to make the case for more scrutiny against many of those same voices who actually want less time for scrutiny. For a Minister, these exchanges are not an adjunct to our democracy—they are our democracy in action. On any given day in Parliament, there is not only one issue considered; the issues are legion.
The Prime Minister has made many announcements to Parliament, and the ministerial code is absolutely clear that Ministers must make their announcements to Parliament when Parliament is sitting, but the Prime Minister’s speech was on a Sunday, when the House was not sitting. I feel that one is slightly caught in the right hon Gentleman’s mind between Scylla and Charybdis. On the one hand, he wants everything to be done here, but on the other hand, he does not want us to be here. I am not sure which is winning—Scylla or Charybdis. However, Ministers want meaningful engagement.
The right hon. Gentleman really should not caricature people worried about the exclusion of MPs who are shielding or have vulnerable family members as somehow not wanting to be here. It does no credit him at all. He really must be more generous in the way in which he deals with these arguments.
I am sorry that the hon. Lady does not want people to be caricatured, because I have a feeling that she quite likes caricaturing people from time to time. Pots and kettles come to mind. I should like to be very clear on people who are shielding. They will be able to appear remotely in interrogative proceedings, and they will have proxy votes if they want them, or if they prefer, they will be able to pair; it will be a choice for them to make. This is really important, and for the hon. Lady to suggest I am trying to do anything else indicates the level of confusion about this debate. [Interruption.] I heard a noise as if somebody wanted me to give way.
Those who are shielding cannot participate in this debate because it is an emergency debate, in which only physical participation is allowed. Why should those who are shielding not participate in this debate?
It is a very good point, and a fair point for the hon. Gentleman to make, but you will see, Madam—Mr Deputy Speaker. A sort of transformation has taken place. Even without haircuts, Mr Deputy Speaker’s hairstyle is not as lustrous as Madam Deputy Speaker’s, and it is a different colour, as Valerie Vaz helpfully points out.
However, look at what has been happening in this debate—this is happening as a debate. Questions are coming in at all angles, testing the Government’s view. Why? Because we are here physically. I am not closed minded as Leader of the House. If it could work, with people who are shielded and cannot be here zooming in and making interventions, I would not seek to stop that out of stubbornness, but I do not yet see how it is possible to make a debate like this, with a vibrant exchange of views. I have not counted how many interventions I have taken, but how would this debate have flowed? How could we have got the exchange of opinion with people randomly popping up? How would they have come in? Would there have been a tower of Babel as they shouted over each other? Would they have to be on mute or off mute, and how would we know when they came on? Would a list have to be prepared in advance? Would someone have to apply to Mr Speaker in advance to get on the list to intervene on what I was going to say before they knew what I was going to say? It is really difficult to make a debate work with virtual interventions.
I thank the right hon. Member for giving way, but does he understand the frustration of so many of us in this place? This is not about the process of government or debate or scrutiny, important though they are. It is about public health. We are in the middle of a pandemic and we are having to travel, from nearby or far away, coming into contact with members of the public, potentially taking the virus from here to our constituencies and from our constituencies to here, dropping it off with various people along the way. That is why we are concerned, and to myself and many others, that is far more important than the process by which we scrutinise the Government.
I am not unsympathetic to the concerns that the hon. Lady expresses. That is why the House authorities have set the House out as it is—to maintain social distancing to minimise the risk. I am sure that she paid attention to the report in The Lancet last week that showed that if we maintain the social distancing distance, which initially the Government quoted as 6 feet but is now correct at 6.5 feet, the risk of transmission—of being infected by somebody who is already infectious —halves, in comparison with half that distance, to a 1.3% chance of infection from somebody who is already infected. That is the importance of following these public health guidelines, onerous as they may be.
I would also say to the hon. Lady that we as Members of Parliament have our burden to bear in this process along with our constituents. Many of our constituents are doing things that put them at greater risk than we are at, and have carried on doing them throughout. We are classified as key workers. Why? Because democracy is important and our physical presence here is important to make democracy work.
Does my right hon. Friend share my frustration and that of my constituents that at a time when the Government are making unprecedented interventions in our liberty, when our economy is in real crisis and potentially bleeding out every day, and when some of our citizens are still struggling to get the healthcare that they need, the danger is that this House looks, with the greatest respect, a little bit self-indulgent in that we are once again this evening debating the conduct of our own affairs and not devoting this time to the affairs of those we are sent here to represent?
I do not pretend to be a historian like my right hon. Friend, but I am sure that during the blitz of 1940, Parliament would sit in the morning, obviously not at a time specified in the press so that it could avoid being attacked. So in this fight with coronavirus, is it not right that we come and sit in this House and do our duty?
The point to which I am yet to hear an answer from the Leader of the House is that he has promoted arrangements which for my hon. Friend Jamie Stone allow him to participate virtually in debates or questions because he is looking after a wife who is vulnerable and requires his care and attention, but do not allow him a vote, unlike other hon. Members who are attending virtually. That is a principle of equality. If Conservative Members do not understand the importance of that principle, then they might do a lot worse than to spend a little bit of time reading the constitutional textbooks.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a point with which I have a great deal of sympathy. I would remind hon. and right hon. Members that the formal advice from the Government is that those who are living with people who are shielding do not themselves need to shield, but I understand why many people who are living with people who have to shield want to shield as well for the safety of the member of their family. As I said to the hon. Member for Rhondda, I am listening very carefully to that point.
Like Conservative Members, I do not think that Parliament is at its greatest when we spend our time debating our own affairs, but if they feel so strongly that a debate about what happens here is a waste of time, could they not help this debate to finish quicker by not constantly interrupting the Leader of the House to tell him that we should not be discussing the damn thing?
The hon. Gentleman has now made two interventions, so I wonder why he is suddenly so concerned about other people’s interventions. I can see that we should perhaps have a Standing Order to say that he may intervene but no other hon. or right hon. Members may do so.
The hon. Gentleman allows me to pay tribute to Marianne Cwynarski, who is in charge of these affairs for the House. She has worked incredibly hard to ensure that the people who work in the House are kept safe, that the best practices are ensured and that the numbers required for the physical return of the House are not that much greater than were required before we were back sitting physically. The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, but the House authorities deserve genuine credit for dealing with that.
A true Parliament of the people, in which our elected representatives come together to discuss fully and debate the Government’s agenda and their response to the events of the day, is what we need. That covers what we are doing to fulfil the promises that we made at the general election and on which we were elected. I now turn to the question of how we conduct our proceedings in ways that lead by example.
The hon. Lady complains that I have been speaking for 30 minutes. I have a very happy memory from shortly after I was elected to the House when she managed to speak for well over an hour, so I go back to the point I made to her earlier about pots and kettles.
I hear plenty of chuntering from the Opposition Benches, and I would like to point out that many of us on the Government Benches have not made any interventions. If we were to total it up so far, the Leader of the House has taken far more interventions from Opposition Members than Government Members. So less of it, yeah? Have an open mind, not an open mouth.
I reiterate the point that a debate is about interventions. It is how we test the argument of the Government.
Members of Parliament are no different from others who are unable to perform their jobs fully from home and are now returning to their workplaces. I understand that many Members will feel concerned about their particular circumstances, but they can be reassured by the significant changes made to make the parliamentary estate covid-19-secure. It is clear to anyone in Westminster that, while we have emerged from the initial stage of lockdown, we are by no means back to normal. That is why I made it clear before the Whitsun recess that I would work with the House authorities to explore ways in which those unable to come here can continue to contribute.
I have every sympathy with Members who feel that the constraints of the pandemic prevent them from being able to attend in Westminster. The work of scrutiny is so important that it is right that we have brought forward a motion to allow those affected to have their say during scrutiny proceedings, but I remain conscious of how important it is that Members who participate in the decision-making process of the House ought and need to do so in person. As we saw last week, the decision on whether to vote Aye or No is a public one, for which individual Members can often find themselves held to account. It is a decision that should only ever be taken after the kind of serious consideration and engagement which is only possible when all those concerned are in Westminster. By the time Members are asked to vote, Ministers want to have had the chance to talk through fully any specific concerns of individuals or groups. That remains my strong view.
I am grateful to the Procedure Committee for its willingness to support the Government’s desire to extend proxy voting. Last week, the House unanimously agreed to make this available to Members who are unable to attend at Westminster because they are at high risk from coronavirus because they are either clinically extremely vulnerable or clinically vulnerable. In making judgments of this kind, I have sought to balance the competing priorities of this place in a way that looks at Parliament as a whole. As I have maintained throughout, the Government are listening to Members across the House. I am—I hope this will please the hon. Member for Rhondda and the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland—giving thought to bringing forward a motion that extends proxy voting beyond what has already been agreed by the House, to include Members who are more widely affected by the pandemic.
Parliament must send a clear message to the country: we are getting on with our work as best we can during a period of great challenge, just like everyone else. That is the spirit in which I encourage all Members to view our proceedings during the pandemic. We recognise that there are difficulties, but we are showing leadership to the nation in persisting in our purpose. We are doing our duty in leading the way. Our constituents will not entertain the notion that we should ask parents to send their children back to school while we choose to remain at home.
Fortunately, that is not our approach. Rather than suffering the depredations of the muted hybrid Parliament, we are once again talking to each other in ways that were impossible when we were scattered to the four winds. Rather than wading through the treacle of the hybrid proceedings, which even the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland said were far from perfect, we are once again fleet of foot and dancing a legislative quickstep.
I have enjoyed the formalised interventions in this speech just as much as I enjoy the informal interventions of Members putting their socially distanced heads around my door. Rather like the school swot secretly delighted by extra homework, I must confess that my appetite for the opportunity of today’s debate is very great, even though some may think—and some of my hon. Friends have indicated that they do think—that talking about ourselves under the current circumstances is a little self-indulgent. For there is more to our democracy than general elections. Between polling days, it is in Parliament where the interplay between Ministers and MPs comes alive. I am delighted that that interplay, as we see today, is being restored, allowing our Parliament to scrutinise legislation properly and to get on with its core business of delivering for the British people.
Before I call Valerie Vaz, may I say that there are a lot of people who wish to participate in this debate? I ask people to perhaps temper interventions and take some of the heat out of the debate.
I thank Mr Carmichael for applying for the
I want to address some of the arguments, myths and legends that the Leader of the House has perpetuated. Myth No. 1—he said that we have more effective scrutiny by being here. We are in the middle of a pandemic, and we can have only 50 Members in the Chamber. We had effective scrutiny, where every Member could take part in the same way: by applying for and being called to ask questions, and by being called to speak in a debate.
Myth No. 2—the Leader of the House said that we were returning safely. There were 400 in the Division queue, queueing for hours. That is not the same as queueing for food. Actually, it has never taken me 45 minutes to queue for food, but it has taken us longer than that to vote.
Myth No. 3—the House does not work effectively on behalf of our constituents. I say it again, and I am glad to see that the Leader of the House has conceded this: we do, and we are. Whether it concerns constituents stranded abroad, furloughing or businesses, we have been working here, and we have debated and voted like we always do.
Myth No. 4—line-by-line scrutiny of Bills. We are in the middle of a pandemic, and we have only just set up this system. Our House staff have done a fantastic job to get us into the position of being able to take part in debates and vote remotely. By the way, all Select Committees have been able to participate in Zoom rooms. We could still have Bill Committees doing that.
Myth No. 5—we arranged only business that would be non-contentious. Yes, we all agreed, because we were in the middle of a pandemic. It was agreed by all parties to allow the system to get up and running and so that the staff who worked overtime on the new system would be able to get it into place.
Myth No. 6—time limits on scrutiny. There have always been time limits on scrutiny. If the Leader of the House really wants scrutiny, why have the weekend press conferences been cancelled? What steps is he taking to ensure that all written questions are replied to in an appropriate way? That is a tool for scrutinising the Government.
Myth No. 7—no one is banned. Yes, we are. If someone physically cannot get here or wants to protect people, whoever it may be—even strangers on a train—they cannot vote. The Leader of the House said that the measures were temporary. Yes, they are temporary measures while this pandemic is in progress. I am not sure whether he has read the accounts that were published in the newspapers at the weekend of members of the public who are still trying to recover from the disease, but he should do so. We know that the R number has increased in the north-west. The Leader of the House, Tommy Sheppard and I have worked together and signed motions to enable business to take place, until the Leader of the house dictatorially decided to end it.
Myth No. 8—it might take a bit longer. Previously we voted in 15 minutes, so that was an understatement—it took 45 minutes, or nearly an hour. Will the right hon. Gentleman update the House, perhaps by placing a letter in the Library, on how long the votes took from the start to the announcement of the results. I would like to know that, because the way we voted on Tuesday was not in the interests of Parliament or our constituents.
Myth No. 9—getting it done. The Leader of the House referred to 216 hours of parliamentary legislation. This is not normal—we are not in normal times. It is not normal for people to be working from home and educating their children. We were only back for three days during the height of the pandemic. It is changing now. It is not normal for there to be excess deaths in care homes, and that has not even been addressed.
Myth No. 10—on the system clogging up so that we cannot pass Bills. I do not know where the Leader of the House was, but we voted on the Agriculture Bill and the Trade Bill, and those went through.
Myth No. 11—we need to vote in person. We were all voting individually, on our phones. I was able to sit here while other hon. Members were able to vote somewhere else, but everyone took part equally.
Myth No. 12—we have complied with social distancing. We did not. Anybody who saw the way we stood in that queue on Tuesday knew that we did not, and the Leader of the House did not do that himself either. I know because I was watching from the top of the steps in Westminster Hall.
Myth No. 13—there is no accountability unless we are here in person. The Leader of the House then said that the Liaison Committee, which was done in a virtual proceeding, was successful. Every time the Chair of a Select Committee tried to question the Prime Minister and he did not want to answer, they were interrupted and told, “Move on, move on.” That is not accountability.
Myth No. 14—let me take on the Leader of the House’s point about interventions. Those are not a right; it is just a parliamentary tradition. It is up to the Member to allow interventions. Obviously, he was trying to prove his point, so many Government Members tried to intervene, but parliamentary tradition changes, as he knows—just as we do not wear top hats when we make points of order, and just as women are now allowed on the Floor of the Chamber, when previously, we were up there.
Myth No. 15—the Leader of the House said, “Let’s listen to what comes forth from the Procedure Committee”, yet he completely ignores the fact that the Procedure Committee are now undertaking a consultation on proxy voting. That is exactly why we have these Committees of the House—so that we do not make all these new rules and procedures on the hoof. We listen to people and we make sure that it works, just as we have done on its previous, very timely reports, which have informed debates in the House.
Myth No. 16—we have a duty to the country and voters to fulfil both our collective constitutional function and our individual roles. Why is he denying other right hon. and hon. Members their right to vote without a sick note? I am sure that the Leader of the House will have seen the letter that the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland referred to in The Times—I am sure the Leader of the House reads The Times; his father used to edit it—from the University College London Constitution Unit. It also said that Members are being denied their constitutional right. As my right hon. Friend Dame Margaret Hodge said in a tweet—this was very timely—she has been disenfranchised from voting for her own disenfranchisement.
The Leader of the House has created a two-class membership of Members. He has driven away the right of everyone to take part. He has exposed the personal circumstances of right hon. and hon. Members. We have a duty to stop the deaths. We have a duty to keep people safe. Going back to the hybrid system, with remote voting, is the right thing to do for hon. Members and our constituents.
I congratulate Mr Carmichael on securing the debate. It is very important that this House is able to scrutinise, to represent and to ensure that the legislation that the Government bring forward is fit for purpose and right for our constituents. I make no apology for our taking some time to ensure that we get that right.
The point was made earlier about the arrangements that this Parliament had before the Whitsun recess, and I am on the record as saying that those arrangements were sub-optimal. I turned up in person. I participated twice physically and tried to participate virtually, but was not able to do so due to the internet, so I can quite safely say that the virtual Parliament was very difficult for me. I personally prefer being here in person; I am a traditionalist in that respect. However, I also feel that it is incredibly important that those who cannot be here must be allowed to participate, to have their voices heard and to represent their constituents. They were elected in exactly the same way as those of us who can be here physically, and they need to be heard.
Although I am clear that the arrangements before Whitsun were sub-optimal, this situation is far from optimal. We do not have a full Chamber. Yes, we can make interventions, which does make for a much more interesting and fulfilling debate. I would be very much in favour of continuing those interventions for those of us who are in the Chamber, but not for those who are participating virtually because there is a problem with participating and making interventions virtually; Members need to be teed up, they need the tech to work and they need to get around very many problems. As Chair of the Procedure Committee, I fully support the end that we now have to the full parity of treatment between those who can participate physically and those who can participate virtually, but that does not mean that we should prevent virtual participation.
I did a little totting up of what I thought had gone well and what we could perhaps do better on, because it is important that Parliament reflects on these things. What went well? The fact that Parliament met was a great achievement. We should pay great tribute to all the people who gave up their Easter recess to work. We have said before that our staff and the staff of this House use the recess to not work quite as hard as they do when the House is sitting because we ask so much of them when the House is sitting. Well, they did not get that break over Easter and they certainly did not get that break over Whitsun. We should pay tribute to them for the fact that we were able to meet at all.
The fact that we did have physical participation during that period was also a great achievement. This was the most visible place for social distancing. The whole world can see social distancing in action. It can see it today; it can see us all sat here, spaced out and properly observing social distancing. That is something in which we should take great pride.
The tech actually worked very well for most people. Despite the fact that my Committee said on
I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House made the point about how hard we have all been working. This has been an unprecedented time. I have been a Member of Parliament for just over 10 years, and I have never seen the volume of casework in that 10-year period that we have all been seeing. It has been individual, complicated casework. I remember spending one Friday night on the phone to the Foreign Office trying to get my constituent back from China. I remember the times I spent lobbying on behalf of constituents to get furlough arrangements in place—and great credit to the Government for managing to do that.
I pay tribute to the Chair of the Procedure Committee. I think that both sides of the House would recognise that she has gone above and beyond to ensure that this House can continue to function. I also thank her for her recognition that any of these arrangements—those made in the past and those that we are making in the present—must remain firmly temporary, for the duration of this pandemic. She has been very consistent on that, as has the Committee.
I thank my hon. Friend, who is a member of the Committee, for his kind words and his point about the temporary nature of the arrangements. It is incredibly important that decisions that we take on our procedure during this pandemic are temporary, because, when we return to some form of normality, this House will have to decide how we proceed with our processes, procedures and rules and regulations.
My final thing that went well is Select Committees, which have been referred to already. Select Committees have met and scrutiny is carrying on. They have operated very successfully, and continue to operate, in a virtual world.
What could we have done better? Well, we could have been better at dealing with some of the uncertainty. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and I have already disagreed on this matter during an earlier debate in the Procedure Committee when he was kind enough to give evidence. The Government should have extended the motion that allowed for virtual participation until after the Whitsun recess, so that the House could have met without a recall of Parliament and made a decision about how we wanted to proceed without disenfranchising any Members.
We should have tested the voting system that we implemented last week. I urge my right hon. Friend to make sure that, whatever comes next for voting, we have a chance to test it, because this House needs to be happy and comfortable with it. The point was made about the Division Lobbies. I want to get back in those Division Lobbies as quickly as we can. They are a very valuable asset, but we have to make sure that they are safe. I urge my right hon. Friend to use deferred Divisions more. It is incredibly useful if we can vote, socially distanced, on deferred Divisions. On Public Bill Committees, there was nothing to stop them meeting before the Whitsun recess, and I urge him to ensure that they meet, and meet for longer—
I congratulate Mr Carmichael on securing the debate. It is important that we have the opportunity to consider these matters in the round, but, of course, the irony remains that those who are most affected—those with the most need to contribute remotely—are unable to do so in this debate. That is much the same as the unedifying scenes that we saw in the House last week when those most likely to be disenfranchised by the removal of virtual participation were excluded from those discussions and votes. That includes my hon. Friend Tommy Sheppard, who, I can assure the Leader of the House, is very much looking forward to leading for the SNP at business questions on Thursday virtually, as is his right and his responsibility. He is not here to respond directly to the references that the Leader of the House made to him in the debate.
It is very clear, as other Members have said, that if there had been a free vote of the House last week, or, indeed, if those who are currently shielding or are in a shielding household had been able to travel, the House would have supported the continuation of the full hybrid arrangements that had been in place before the Whitsun recess. The SNP’s position remains that the hybrid arrangements should be restored in full. All Members should have equality of opportunity to participate in questions and debates and to vote using remote technology. What we have instead right now is a hybrid of the hybrid arrangements, and there are many questions that still need to be answered, particularly around the resolution of the House regarding proxy voting.
There are, as other Members have suggested, three categories of Members in place: those of us who can attend physically; those who are participating virtually in scrutiny proceedings due to medical or public health reasons; and those entitled to a proxy vote because they are clinically vulnerable, or extremely clinically vulnerable, to covid-19. That, as I think the Leader of the House has accepted, is not sustainable for any length of time. There must be one widely cast definition for remote participation that takes account not just of the Member’s personal circumstances, but of those of the Member’s household and, indeed, of their community. There needs to be equality of participation, the ability to join in both questions and debates and the ability for all Members to vote remotely, and those arrangements need to last for as long as is required.
We have heard today that shielding arrangements in Scotland will continue until at least
The proxy voting system that has been in place for parental leave has worked well, but it is sub-optimal—which seems to be the expression of the day—in the current situation, especially as some of us may be asked by a significant number of our colleagues to act as a proxy for them. How will that work if the House is asked to divide on a matter of conscience or another issue designated as a free vote? What if the proxy voter themselves becomes ill and has to self-isolate at short notice?
We need more clarity in general about how test, trace, isolate and protect is supposed to work on the parliamentary estate. The staff of the House have been under enormous pressure since the beginning of the pandemic, and I join in all the tributes that have been paid to them. It is not good enough blithely to suggest, as the Leader of the House did last week, that some of them would be here anyway. The more Members who are present on the estate, the more staff are needed to support us in our work. I understand that the number of staff physically present on the estate has had to double to cope with the return of full physical sittings.
What contingency plans do the Government have in place for if Westminster becomes the source of an outbreak? Has the Leader of the House made plans for continuity of House and Government business if large numbers of Members or staff take ill? I am still waiting for advice on what individual Members should do if they take ill and develop symptoms while on the estate—do they self-isolate in London, or should they return to their constituencies with the risk that that entails?
“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.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 675, c. 8.]
Surely he cannot be proud that the British constitution has been reduced to the laughing-stock of the conga line that we saw last week, and I assure him that it is doing absolutely no good for the cause of the precious Union.
The Leader of the House carved out a reputation on the Back Benches as a champion of procedures and the right of ordinary Members to scrutinise the Government, but as things stand, that right is being denied to many Members affected by the pandemic. There is an old Vulcan saying, “Only Nixon could go to China”; well, only Mr Rees-Mogg, the Leader of the House of Commons and Lord President of Her Majesty’s most honourable Privy Council, could introduce electronic voting. It worked, and it should be restored.
The Home Secretary said earlier in her statement, without a hint of irony, that mass gatherings in the current situation remain unlawful. What is this House and the estate today if it is not a mass gathering? With 50 of us in the Chamber at any one time and hundreds of us around the estate and potentially in any Division queue, that is not showing leadership.
The majority of my SNP colleagues will continue to work from home, in line with the Government guidance, in Committees, tabling written questions and early-day motions, holding virtual surgeries and now through virtual participation, if they qualify. Those of us who do travel will do so as safely, carefully and minimally as possible. We are moving out of the pandemic into a new a normal: whether it is in the economy, the health service or the procedures of this House, there is no going back to old traditions. If the Government want the public and the House to recognise that, they must continue to work on a cross-party basis to restore equality of participation and remote participation for all Members of this House.
I broadly support the return of Parliament in person, but a balance has to be struck between our setting an example to the country and making sure that those Members of Parliament who cannot be here—not those who have chosen not to be here, but those who cannot be here—are properly facilitated to participate. I do not agree with colleagues of mine who think that this debate is self-indulgent, because we do set an example, and in the coming days, weeks and months there will be workplaces throughout the country where decisions will have to be taken by employers about how to deal with members of staff who are shielding or have caring or childcare responsibilities, and how they are to be enabled to continue at work. Our job as parliamentarians is to do the right thing and set an example for the country.
Let me deal with several of the issues that have come up in the debate. On Members who are shielding themselves because they are vulnerable, I welcomed the motions that the Leader of the House tabled and the House passed last week to enable them to participate virtually in scrutiny procedures and to vote by proxy. I would like the Leader of the House to go further, as he hinted he might, because I do not see why those Members cannot participate in legislative procedures. I accept that it may be too complicated and simply not possible to enable them to intervene, and they may have to accept that their participation is not quite as it would be if they were here, but I do think it is important that they are at least able to speak in debate, on behalf of their constituents. I hope my right hon. Friend will take that away and bring some motions before the House in good order.
I also agree with Mr Carmichael about those with caring responsibilities. The Leader of the House is quite right—I looked at the guidance in some detail—that those caring for those who are shielding do not have to shield themselves; but if a member of my family faced a very high risk of death or serious consequences if they contracted covid, I would not want to take the chance of coming here. I can see why the needs of Members in that position need to be facilitated, and I think my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House hinted that he was considering bringing forward motions to deal with that.
There is a practical consideration here. Many of those with an immediate family member who is vulnerable will find that they do not have access to carers, because carers are not able to come any more, so the caring duty falls automatically on to them.
I am pleased that the right hon. Gentleman makes that point, which I believe is true, because it leads to my next point, which is about childcare.
In normal circumstances, Members of Parliament need to be careful when they complain about childcare. Compared with most of our constituents, we are very well paid; we are in the top 5% of income earners, so sometimes when I hear Members of Parliament complain about the difficulties of balancing working here with childcare—I accept that there are difficulties—I think that some of our constituents who have to manage working and childcare on considerably less generous salaries probably regard such complaints as self-indulgent. However, at the moment, it is difficult for people to get paid childcare, and many Members have children who are being educated at home, so it simply is not possible for them to get here and deal with those childcare responsibilities. Indeed, in his press conference on Wednesday
My right hon. Friend is correct, but there is another issue to do with childcare. As we are key workers, our children can go school, but there is a practical problem there: how do you get your children to and from school if you are in this place, doing your job as a parliamentarian, in the absence of the background childcare that you would normally have and the availability of grandparents and other relatives?
My right hon. Friend is exactly right and makes that point very well. What is unique to us is that, even if a Member can send their children to school as a key worker, the children may go to school in the constituency, so if they cannot access paid childcare or family, the Member cannot perform their duties here. As I said, the Prime Minister himself accepts that that is a perfectly valid reason for not being able to attend. Such Members need to be able to participate in this House virtually and to vote by proxy.
The last point I wanted to draw to the attention of the Leader of the House is about legislation—the coronavirus regulations, which are the greatest restriction on liberty that we have seen in this country outside wartime, and perhaps ever. I accept that the first set of regulations were made by the Secretary of State using emergency powers under public health legislation and were not voted on by this House before coming into force, but those regulations have now been amended three times, and I do not think the urgency provision can really be brought into force, although the Secretary of State says it can. We have the absurd situation now where there have been two sets of amendments and the regulations have been amended a third time before this House has even had the opportunity to vote on the second set of amendments.
The importance of that is illustrated by the events of the weekend. Under the third set of amendments, which have not yet been debated and voted on by this House, any gathering of more than six people is unlawful—it is against the law. So every single person who attended one of those demonstrations at the weekend was committing a criminal offence. The point about the debate in this House is important because I suspect many of those people were not aware that they were committing a criminal offence and this House has not had the opportunity to decide whether restrictions on protest are acceptable—
I will not, because I have only 30 seconds left. The House has not had the opportunity to decide whether the restrictions on protest are a proportionate mechanism for dealing with the coronavirus. So I ask the Leader of the House to make sure that these two sets of regulations are debated and voted on by this House at the earliest possible opportunity. May I also suggest that, if the Secretary of State makes any further amendments, he does not use the power to do so without this House having had the opportunity to take that decision itself?
It is clear that the return to Parliament last week was chaotic, rushed and ill-thought-through. Members did not know where they were voting. We were told to go down to Westminster Hall to join the end of the queue, so I went down there to join it but by the time it had started moving people were queueing right out the door. For the next vote, I went down to Westminster Hall, but I was ushered out of the building and I had to queue on the green outside the Members’ entrance. I do not know who thought it was a good idea to have Members zig-zagging across the green outside, but whoever was in charge of security must have had kittens. When we voted later that evening, we did not queue out there, but instead queued around the car park. Who planned that? Who thought that through? Clearly the Leader of the House rushed us back and there was not time to sort that out. We were told that voting would take 30 minutes, but two thirds of us voted last week and it took 43 minutes. So this was ill-thought-out and ill-planned, and it disenfranchised Members of this House and their constituents.
Ironically, on that same day, we had a debate on the Parliamentary Constituencies Bill, in which the Leader of the House—I have read his speech—spoke eloquently about the need for constituents to have equal representation in this House. On the very same day, he voted for something that disenfranchises millions of voters. I have not totted up how many MPs were unable to participate and were excluded, but that must have resulted in millions of constituents being disenfranchised. I am delighted to be back here. I love this Chamber and being able to come in to participate in these debates, but the biggest honour of all is representing constituents. Under the current arrangements, too many Members of this House are disenfranchised, and that is not acceptable.
The Leader of the House tells us that it is important that we have proper scrutiny, but I was here last year when he went all the way to Balmoral to tell the Queen we were proroguing Parliament. That was deemed illegal because we were not talking about five days, as is normal for proroguing; he wanted to shut Parliament down for five weeks. So where is this sudden conversion to parliamentary scrutiny that we have from the Leader of the House? We came back far too soon. They had 75 days to plan for the return of Parliament. We had virtual participation, which, although not perfect, allowed everyone to participate. We got rid of that and excluded Members of Parliament, but within 24 hours of being back we are reviewing the process and we are letting people vote by proxy. We have now got virtual participation back and, miracle upon miracles, we have electronic voting in the Lobby now. The right hon. Gentleman has to be commended for leaping us forward into the 21st century, but this has all changed within a week of coming back.
This has been ill-thought-out and ill-planned. We came back and disenfranchised MPs, and we got rid of virtual participation, but then we had to introduce proxy voting and now it looks like we are going for electronic voting. The Leader of the House needs to learn from this debate and from the fact that MPs are not here to debate themselves; they are debating their colleagues, and ensuring that those people are not disenfranchised and that the people they represent are not disenfranchised. It is absolutely right that Members of Parliament come here and debate that, and ensure that this place properly represents the people of this country.
So the Leader of the House needs to take this matter away. We cannot have a two-tier system for Members of Parliament—that is not the Parliament we were elected to. We need to review these procedures. We need to do that through the Procedure Committee, which has been doing excellent work but, above all, the Leader of the House needs to listen.
I will start by saying that I agreed wholeheartedly, and almost entirely, with Mr Carmichael, who opened the debate, and with every word of the remarks by my right hon. Friends the Members for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley) and for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper). I agreed with the Leader of the House when he said that democracy is not an optional extra, or words to that effect, but the operation of democracy today, as we observe it in the House, is more enfeebled than I have seen it in 33 years here. That is a tragedy of the Government’s making, and one that we need to fix as soon as possible.
The aim of the House is to hold the Government to account, but also to drive the direction of policy. If the Leader of the House wants to see how that is not working properly, an example was given earlier: the six-person limit on gatherings, which has not been enforced of course, and truthfully cannot be enforced in a democracy. That would never have happened had the measure had to go through the proper procedures of this House. Similarly, the daft quarantine regulations we now have would never have survived the normal procedures of the House. Democracy is critical to good government, and that is not what we are seeing here today. I know it has always been an ambition of the Leader of the House to make the European Parliament look great,. Well, he has succeeded today.
I have one controversial point to make, which comes down to this: this House has no life. It does not challenge Ministers properly. It must be the easiest thing in the world—I have done this a few times—to come to the Dispatch Box and deal with this House as it currently stands. A large part of that arises because of the 2 m rule, and the fact that we can have only 50 people in the Chamber. The atmosphere, drive, ferocity, and the mood of the House just does not exist.
We have to think about how we get back to normal, and how quickly we can do that. Clearly, we have to do it in a safe way, both for ourselves and as an example to our constituents and the country. I can think of only one way that could be done. According to Government numbers, we currently have a surplus of 80,000 tests a day. So we are not short of tests anymore. We may not be exercising them all, but we have that surplus. Austria, at Vienna airport, manages to carry out tests in two to three hours, from test to result. Will the Leader of the House consider instituting that here? Every morning between 8 am and 9.30 am, and perhaps if we start late until 12.30, every person who comes into the Chamber could be tested and then we would not need the 2 m rule anymore. Then we can suddenly have back the Parliament that was, and is, the envy of the world.
That we are here today is frankly ridiculous. A lot of resources went into creating the virtual Parliament, yet the Government have abandoned it on a whim. They have not done that because we are now safe from covid-19, or with a plan in place; in fact, they still appear to be ironing out the details. Underlying this seems to be a desire to create a false sense of security for members of the public to return to work, based on the belief that, until Parliament is full, the Government cannot ask people to risk their health for the sake of the economy. However, Parliament is not full. Mr Speaker has rightly limited the number of Members in the Chamber, while the Government have finally allowed for some virtual participation.
Rather than have a primarily virtual Parliament—which, while far from ideal, was safe—we have this ridiculous system. This risks people’s health. As we have heard, many MPs are shielding, vulnerable or caring for someone who is. Others fear putting their communities at risk. While I am glad that some virtual participation will continue, the Government have been clear that this involvement will be limited. In doing so, they are not just limiting the voice of a single MP; they are reducing the representation of every single one of their constituents. At a time of national crisis, we need more parliamentary scrutiny, not less. It is not just MPs who are affected. Parliament only functions due to the work of an army of House of Commons staff. This is simply not right.
We must remember that it is not just those in Parliament who are at risk. These buildings act as a hub—a place people travel to from all over the country. If someone in Parliament gets infected, it threatens the health of the communities we serve. While the Prime Minister’s special adviser may think that the journey between London and Durham is worth the risk to my constituency, I do not. However, unlike Dominic Cummings, I have little choice but to be here.
Everything about these procedures is farcical, dangerous or both. If I thought this Government would listen to reason, I would implore them to change course. Instead, I hope that the threat to public health from these procedures remains just a risk, not a reality.
As a member of the Procedure Committee, I am pleased to speak in this debate. When I put my name down for the Committee only a few months ago, I did not realise that it was set to be one of the busiest. I do not think my right hon. Friend Karen Bradley, the Chair of the Committee and my constituency neighbour, thought so either. I would like to thank her for all the incredible work that she has done. I also thank Mr Speaker, the Leader of the House and all the House staff, who I know have been working incredibly hard to ensure that Parliament has continued throughout the pandemic and that the House can return physically.
I think it is right that we have returned to more physical proceedings. While it is important that we set an example, when we are asking more children to return to school and more people to go back to work, it is more than just symbolic. Given that the general election was only six months ago, there is a significant legislative agenda that needs time to be considered properly. Hybrid proceedings have not given anywhere near the time needed for that important legislation to be debated. Committee stages, Report stages and consideration of multiple amendments have been almost impossible. There is now a significant backlog of Government legislation to get through—according to what the Leader of the House said to the Committee when he appeared before us earlier today, it is around seven weeks’ backlog.
In addition, the amount of time allowed for Back Benchers under the hybrid proceedings has been extremely limited, with strict limits on the number of speakers, no opportunity for interventions or bobbing and certainly no opportunity for spontaneity if a pressing constituency issue should arise. Scrutiny of Government has been taking place of a sort, but it has been extremely restricted, with nowhere near the usual level of opportunity for Members to ask probing questions of Ministers on the Floor of the House. I know that for many Back Benchers, the lack of opportunities to participate has been the chief argument for why we need to return to more physical proceedings, and it is important that those demands are met.
While time must, of course, be prioritised for addressing the backlog of important new Government legislation, we also need to address the continuing lack of Back-Bench debates. That is where I agree with my right hon. Friend the Chair of the Procedure Committee that the current situation is not yet entirely optimal. This is made worse by Westminster Hall debates not likely returning for the foreseeable future, due to demand on a limited number of larger Committee Rooms for socially distanced Public Bill Committees. My constituents in Stoke-on-Trent South, like others up and down the country, will be keen to see us debating important local matters that they care about. Those debates would usually be granted coverage in Westminster Hall, and it is vital that further consideration is given to how Back Benchers can highlight important constituency matters in this place.
I will not, because of time.
From the outset, it has been clear that more virtual proceedings are a poor substitute, but without any alternative, it was better than nothing. I commend all the work that has been put in by the House staff to make the seemingly impossible possible. However, we have now proved that we can return to some physical form, and I think it is important that we live by the fact that there was widespread agreement throughout this House that hybrid proceedings should be temporary when they were introduced. It is clear that there have been teething problems in returning physically, but we initially witnessed similar with both remote voting and hybrid proceedings. That should not be a barrier to returning physically, just as it was not a barrier to hybrid proceedings.
I can see that across the entire parliamentary estate very significant measures have been taken, in line with Public Health England advice, to ensure compliance with social distancing. I thank the staff here for their work to put the measures in place so quickly. Certainly, very large numbers of Members of this House, Members’ staff and staff continue to work from home.
I hope that we can also learn some lessons from all of this. The hybrid proceedings have had some benefits, such as the improved call lists for those speaking, and better technology allowing greater functionality throughout MemberHub. As always, the procedures of this House will continue to evolve and improve. I am pleased that we are now moving forward with some limited virtual participation for those unable to get here and proxy voting for those shielding for medical reasons. I am also pleased with what the Leader of the House has mentioned today about consideration of further extending proxy voting. I believe that it is about the right balance to ensure that such Members can still take some part in proceedings.
Our constituents elected us to represent them in Parliament, and as Parliament has met here in Westminster, despite a few interruptions, since 1295, and certainly in this Palace since 1512, I think my constituents in Stoke-on-Trent South expect me to represent them here. Of course, MPs have been extremely busy throughout this time. Not only have we faced the realities everyone has—childcare and others—but we have seen a massive increase in our workload. However, the casework is not just about the things that MPs focus on, and our work here in legislating for our country is the chief reason we have been elected to represent our constituents in Parliament.
We have a Leader of the House of Commons who operates by diktat, rather than by agreement or consensus, which is how he should be doing the job. He makes little attempt to engage with others before he announces decisions, including those whom his role requires him to consult—the Procedure Committee, the usual channels, the staff unions and their representatives—especially when we are considering health and safety issues in the middle of a pandemic. We know he illegally shut down Parliament last year, with no sign of an apology and little sign of contrition when the Supreme Court found him out, and now he has been found out making arbitrary decisions to end hybrid proceedings, which he clearly despises, without the appropriate consultation, much less agreement.
The Leader of the House then proceeded to lecture everybody about doing their duty. He alone decided to let the Standing Orders lapse, and he did it before any risk assessment had been done in this place and before any equality assessment had been done in this place. I am told that there has since been some attempt to do this—but to justify a decision he made before he had done the assessments, which is precisely the wrong way around.
I am here because I am lucky enough to be able to be, but I want also to be a voice for those Members—we know how many there are after last week’s farrago: hundreds of Members—who, for reasons of shielding, health vulnerabilities or caring responsibilities, at the moment, in a pandemic, cannot be here. They are watching these proceedings with frustration. They cannot vote or take part in them. They do not want to be told by some Government Members that this is a waste of our time. This is about ensuring that Members who have been elected to this House to represent millions of voters have the practical capacity to do so, without being forced to choose between their own health or risking themselves or, even more, their loved ones who might be vulnerable and shielding or their constituents to whom they do not want to pass on the virus. I am here to be a voice for them, unusually, as well as a voice for my own constituents in Wallasey.
It is about time that the Leader of the House stopped lecturing these people about doing their duty and understood the practical realities and constraints within which they have to work. It is about time that the Leader of the House accepted that in a parliamentary democracy other people’s constituents have the same right as his to see their representative, whom they elected only last year, being able to participate in this place. It is about time that he understood that that has to be facilitated by agreement across this House with other, perfectly legitimate Members of Parliament and Opposition parties—Members and parties who happen not to be in a majority, but who still need to be regarded with respect. The Leader of the House shows very little. We are here to say that, although we are in opposition, our constituents deserve to be listened to. The constituents of those who cannot be here tonight deserve equal representation, and it is his duty his duty to facilitate it.
I want to focus on two points that the Leader of the House and the Prime Minister have spoken about in recent weeks. The first is the claim that Members are not in work if they are not here. Last week during PMQs, the Prime Minister said from the Dispatch Box—I am paraphrasing—that what we are doing will mean that Members get back to work. I do not think it is just my staff and me, or only Labour, SNP, Liberal, Green and Plaid Members—I think it is every Member of this House—whose inboxes have been overwhelmed by panicked constituents after confused announcements from No. 10, statements that the Government wish to clarify several hours later, or statements not made on the Floor of the House, which means their representatives cannot make interventions or question Ministers.
It is insulting to every Member of the House that the Prime Minister and the Leader of the House says that we are going “back to work”. It is a shame that the Leader of the House does not have the grace to get up and apologise to all those Members who are having to shield or who have caring responsibilities and cannot be here to take part in these proceedings. I congratulate Mr Carmichael, who made the point only last week that he will not go back to his constituency because of the risk that that would pose to his constituents. This is not acceptable. If we had a genuinely hybrid procedure that involved scrutiny from all parts of the House, that would go some way to allowing every Member parity, fairness and equality and to ensure that they were representing their constituents.
Many Members have mentioned today how many members of the public are being disenfranchised by what the Leader of the House and the Government are putting forward. Interestingly, some estimates suggest that it is about 17 million—a figure that the Leader of the House is normally quite keen to quote when it comes to engaging with the electorate. Funny how he is not so keen on it now.
The second and final point that I want to raise with the Leader of the House—it is something that Jo Gideon mentioned and was also brought up in the Procedure Committee’s public evidence session this afternoon—is this nonsense that Public Bill Committees have been unable to sit because of decisions of the official Opposition, the third party or the smaller parties represented in this House. It is not for me to suggest that any Member misleads the House, intentionally or otherwise, but the reality is that the only party in this House that has stopped Public Bill Committees coming forward to scrutinise Bills is the Conservative party: the Government.
I wish to quote the Leader of the House’s comments to my hon. Friend Valerie Vaz, the shadow Leader of the House, from Hansard. He makes accusations that the usual channels, or indeed the Opposition Chief Whip, have not engaged in appointing Public Bill Committee Opposition Members, but he said:
“May I conclude by thanking the shadow Leader of the House for her continually constructive approach to these matters? It is a real pleasure to be working with her in these difficult times to try to create solutions that will work for everybody. The attitude of the official Opposition has been exemplary, and I am very grateful for that.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 675, c. 88.]
How can the Leader of the House make such a statement and then suggest, on the record in a public hearing, that the usual channels, the Opposition Chief Whip, or the smaller parties have refused to put Members on Public Bill Committees? He knows that is not correct.
I understand that the Leader of the House issued a clarification later in the Procedure Committee to qualify what he meant and went on to suggest that House staff had not done what they should have to create a system. He knows that there was testing for hybrid Bill Committees and it worked. He knows that that would have allowed for more Bill Committees, but the Government chose not to do that.
The reality is that the blame rests, as my hon. Friend Clive Efford said, with a rushed decision that has changed week after week, and with the Leader of the House not engaging with the Procedure Committee, not working with Members across the House through the usual channels, and, frankly, making it up as he goes along.
When the advice to the country was, “Continue working from home if at all possible”, this Government decided that MPs should all return to this place for what we might call a mass gathering. It should not have needed a pandemic to drag this place into modern-day working practices, but thanks to your efforts, Mr Deputy Speaker, and those of the Speaker, as well as the efforts from colleagues here and the hard work of staff in Parliament, we adapted quickly to the hybrid system and we managed well.
Yet now the Government have taken backward steps, simply ditching the online system, stamping all over this fledgling innovative approach. Colleagues here have rapidly learned new working practices, setting a positive example about the value of flexible working. This is particularly relevant to people who are neurodivergent, disabled or with caring responsibilities. We need to move forward, not ditch our learning from this pandemic, so that we can be a more effective Parliament—a more inclusive Parliament leading by example on better working practices.
The Electoral Reform Society has said that Westminster should not return to “business as usual” after the outbreak without considering whether innovations adopted during the crisis should be kept. Darren Hughes, director of the Electoral Reform Society, is on record as saying:
“To cut down remote voting just as it’s bearing fruit would be reckless and wrong. We should be learning from how parliament has adapted during this crisis”.
We should return immediately to hybrid proceedings and remote voting to enable Parliament to work safely and effectively during the pandemic and make improvements from there, not be forced backwards in this way.
I have some sympathy with the comments of a couple of Conservative Members about the fact that at a moment of such importance in the nation we are once again here discussing our own affairs and our own matters. None of us enters this place in order to spend many hours having these kinds of debates, and I do not intend to spend the whole of my five minutes talking about it, but it is an important matter: we all know what these changes are about. The Government were very concerned that the Prime Minister was being exposed every Wednesday because he had not got those public schoolboys barracking behind him when he was being asked questions, and so the order went out, “We need people back in the Chamber so that this scrutiny—this forensic approach that the Leader of the Opposition is bringing forward—can be barracked at and shouted down; we must change the way that Parliament sits.” That is a tremendous shame.
I have some sympathy with the argument that we need to be here in order to do our job. Frankly, I would probably be coming here for these debates myself anyway, although I recognise that there are colleagues who are excluded. However, there is a question about the message that we are sending. Mr Harper said that we need to set an example to people out there. At the same time, as my hon. Friend Nadia Whittome pointed out, the Government’s own advice is, “You should work from home if you can”, and we had clearly found a way in which parliamentarians were able to make representations from home. We should have encouraged Members to come back and speak from the Chamber where possible, but allowed those Members who were excluded to continue making their contributions from home.
We should also have kept virtual voting, which is much simpler than the charade that we saw last week. I was very sad that people who had put in a tremendous amount of work to implement that system were unfairly criticised, because if we are going to have physical voting and we are going to have social distancing, then what we went through last week was probably about the best way that we were going to be able to achieve that. I do not blame those people for putting in place that great long queue that we had, but it was a ludicrous spectacle when we were walking up and down the steps of St Stephen’s Hall like marathon runners, going up one road and running back down the other, with people pushing in in front of each other because they thought they saw a chance to jump the queue. It really did not show this place in a good light. We could achieve the Leader the House’s desire to see Parliament represented and to have interventions that are only possible in this kind of Chamber while retaining online voting, so that we will not have to go through the sort of performance that we saw last week. I will leave it there.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I want to be able to participate, because there are so many issues that I want to be able to raise. I want to ask why so many companies that took money from the Government for furloughing are now suddenly laying people off in my constituency. I want to be able to highlight British Airways’ appalling behaviour in completely reconfiguring its terms and conditions. I want to unpick the Government’s preposterous quarantine, which does not even last for 40 days, so could not possibly count as a quarantine. I want to ask why the UK has the highest excess death rate, and why, therefore, the Rhondda has one of the highest death rates in the world. I want to campaign for better pay for key workers when we come out of all this, and I want to make sure that pregnant women do not lose out in this period. All those things I want to be able to take part in, but my simple point is that I want all MPs to be able to take part.
Roughly, by my calculation, a third of the House of Commons is not able to take part in a fully physical way at the moment, for whatever reason. The House of Commons, to my mind, must be free or it is nothing. MPs must be free to speak their mind without fear or favour. They must be equally free, one as another, without preference and without restraint. They must be free to attend, speak, participate and vote, not for themselves but for their constituents and the communities they represent. That is our historic freedom; our ancient liberty. Even in the 14th century, as I am sure the Leader of the House remembers, the Commons forced the King to release an MP so that he could participate in Parliament.
We have managed to change some things since last week, and I am glad that the Leader of the House presented his two motions, but he admits that they are now inconsistent. Those two motions are inconsistent with what the Speaker is now allowing as well, so we need to get to a point of clarity, where there is consistency across the whole House. All Members should be able to participate not only in urgent questions, statements and questions but in all the business of the House. Some Members who are in their 70s and 80s and who are now shielding might actually have the best understanding of what we should do about matrimony. Maybe they should be allowed to participate in the second half of today’s debate, rather than just the early part.
Some 45% of catering staff in Parliament are black or from the ethnic minorities, yet the House proceeded with the process of bringing everybody back, which I believe put the lives of those staff in peril, without having done a full assessment beforehand. That is not the way that we would expect any other employer in the land to behave. The Leader of the House is absolutely right: we should set an example. We should set an example by being the most courageous in looking at all our processes and seeing whether there is a better way. We are one of the oldest Parliaments in the world. We should be the best at adapting to modern circumstances and to the difficulties of the moment, not the worst.
I am very grateful to all hon. and right hon. Members for their contributions to the debate. In responding, I essentially want to make one point.
This is not just about Members of Parliament. If I have learned nothing else over the years, I have learned that the market for Members of Parliament complaining about how difficult their life is, is an exceptionally niche one populated mostly by Members of Parliament and occasionally their mothers. It is not about that. It is about the very simple straightforward principle: the principle of the equality of participation and access to all who are elected to this House.
The question I sought to put to the Leader of the House was this: why is he insisting that we should abandon that principle, as important as it is, and do it so blithely? I made that point in my speech and others made it in theirs. I put it directly to him in an intervention on his speech. It will not be lost on anyone reading our proceedings now or in the future, that the Leader of the House had no answer to that simple straightforward fundamental question. This is an error of judgment of potentially catastrophic magnitude. It is a judgment, ultimately, for which the Leader of the House may have to be responsible. I hope there will be no doubt about that should this all go wrong.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered the Conduct of House business during the pandemic.