House Business during the Pandemic

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:54 pm on 8th June 2020.

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Photo of Karen Bradley Karen Bradley Chair, Procedure Committee, Chair, Procedure Committee 6:54 pm, 8th June 2020

If I may say, as Chair of the Procedure Committee, I always relish the opportunity to discuss procedure in this place.

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 8 April that we did not believe that it was possible to develop a system of remote voting, we were able to do it. We did have remote voting and it was quick, which meant that we could continue to spend all those hours and hours working on behalf of our constituents, and participating in the debates. We could listen to the debate and we could vote, and that was a real achievement.

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.