House Business during the Pandemic

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:26 pm on 8th June 2020.

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Photo of Jack Brereton Jack Brereton Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent South 7:26 pm, 8th June 2020

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.