House Business during the Pandemic

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:42 pm on 8th June 2020.

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Photo of Toby Perkins Toby Perkins Shadow Minister (Education) 7:42 pm, 8th June 2020

I have some sympathy with the comments of a couple of Conservative Members about the fact that at a moment of such importance in the nation we are once again here discussing our own affairs and our own matters. None of us enters this place in order to spend many hours having these kinds of debates, and I do not intend to spend the whole of my five minutes talking about it, but it is an important matter: we all know what these changes are about. The Government were very concerned that the Prime Minister was being exposed every Wednesday because he had not got those public schoolboys barracking behind him when he was being asked questions, and so the order went out, “We need people back in the Chamber so that this scrutiny—this forensic approach that the Leader of the Opposition is bringing forward—can be barracked at and shouted down; we must change the way that Parliament sits.” That is a tremendous shame.

I have some sympathy with the argument that we need to be here in order to do our job. Frankly, I would probably be coming here for these debates myself anyway, although I recognise that there are colleagues who are excluded. However, there is a question about the message that we are sending. Mr Harper said that we need to set an example to people out there. At the same time, as my hon. Friend Nadia Whittome pointed out, the Government’s own advice is, “You should work from home if you can”, and we had clearly found a way in which parliamentarians were able to make representations from home. We should have encouraged Members to come back and speak from the Chamber where possible, but allowed those Members who were excluded to continue making their contributions from home.

We should also have kept virtual voting, which is much simpler than the charade that we saw last week. I was very sad that people who had put in a tremendous amount of work to implement that system were unfairly criticised, because if we are going to have physical voting and we are going to have social distancing, then what we went through last week was probably about the best way that we were going to be able to achieve that. I do not blame those people for putting in place that great long queue that we had, but it was a ludicrous spectacle when we were walking up and down the steps of St Stephen’s Hall like marathon runners, going up one road and running back down the other, with people pushing in in front of each other because they thought they saw a chance to jump the queue. It really did not show this place in a good light. We could achieve the Leader the House’s desire to see Parliament represented and to have interventions that are only possible in this kind of Chamber while retaining online voting, so that we will not have to go through the sort of performance that we saw last week. I will leave it there.