House Business during the Pandemic

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:01 pm on 8th June 2020.

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Photo of Patrick Grady Patrick Grady SNP Chief Whip 7:01 pm, 8th June 2020

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 31 July, and Mr Speaker has extended virtual arrangements for Select Committees into September. The Leader of the House must confirm that arrangements for remote participation of Members will continue for as long as it is needed while the pandemic remains a threat, and for at least as long as any part of the United Kingdom has worked from home, guidance in place. That is the key part of the argument here. Government advice across the UK remains to work from home where possible, and MPs, of course, already frequently work in their home constituencies as it is, but we demonstrated during the hybrid sittings that we could effectively and easily conduct parliamentary business using remote technology and work safely from home, in line with Government guidance. If this House and the Government want to show real leadership, as the Leader of the House says that he wants us to do, they should be making it easier for Members to continue to work remotely and not put strain on House staff or on the transport system and reduce our risk of becoming vectors for disease in London and in our constituencies.

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?

On 21 April, in making the case for a return to physical proceedings, the Leader of the House told the Chamber:

“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, 21 April 2020;
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.