House Business during the Pandemic

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:10 pm on 8th June 2020.

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Photo of Jacob Rees-Mogg Jacob Rees-Mogg Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons 6:10 pm, 8th June 2020

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.