House Business during the Pandemic

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:51 pm on 8th June 2020.

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Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Exiting the European Union), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 5:51 pm, 8th June 2020

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 21 April. Had the government wished to do so, the Commons could also have run hybrid or virtual bill committees, as is now happening in the House of Lords.”

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.