At Business questions today you twice expressed your regret at the way in which the debate on your motion on virtual participation on 24 November ended. Many hon. and Rt hon. Members would share that view, but also regret the way in which the debate began, which did not demonstrate the fundamental principle of fair play which should underpin our proceedings.
As you will be aware (HC Deb 15 December col 166), I am keen to explore ways in which the debate on your motion can be brought to an orderly conclusion. The simplest way would be for a short debate to take place at your initiation.
I would invite you to consider whether time could be found early in the new year so that the opinion of the House can be tested on your motion and any amendments which are selected. By bringing such a debate forward under the terms of a motion governing debate and decision, we could be sure of a line being drawn under the question.
It is a matter of deep regret to my committee that the question of how Members may participate in proceedings has become so divisive. Changes to procedure—whether intended to be temporary or permanent—are best made by consensus, and I hope that my committee will be able to engage constructively with you when the House comes to consider how the temporary changes made over the course of 2020 can best be reviewed.
Rt Hon. Karen Bradley MP
Earlier in the year the House worked quickly to respond to the emerging circumstances in which we suddenly found ourselves. This enabled continued sittings of the House in the face of a global pandemic and tribute has rightly been paid to the ingenuity and hard work of the House staff that made it so.
Since then, the practice of the House has changed significantly—not out of all recognition—but far enough for questions to be asked about whether, when and to what extent we would return to the state of affairs in place before March 2020.
Throughout my committee’s scrutiny of procedure under coronavirus, we have consistently expressed the view that the procedural changes that have occurred since March have been agreed to on the basis of their being temporary.
Any permanent changes must be made consciously and by consensus. While between us we share many years’ experience of this place before COVID-19 struck, we have 140 colleagues—a fifth of the House—whose experience of pre-pandemic Parliament is limited to 44 sitting days not including swearing-in and State Opening.
This is one of the reasons that it is far from obvious that in practical terms that we can revert overnight to the way things were without consequence. Further, the House has seen that allowing temporary orders to lapse without a plan is not the way that the affairs of this House should be conducted.
While it is too early to say precisely what form any work my committee carries out will take or when precisely it will start, I believe that we are at a point where it makes sense to begin to consider how we would initiate such work and what questions we would seek to answer.
With that in mind, I would welcome your thoughts, informed by the expertise of the House authorities, on the following matters:
(1)Whether and how far distinctions can be drawn between procedural and practical considerations;
(2)Where procedural changes made since March are governed by temporary orders, what the practical implications of those orders lapsing would be; and
(3)Whether there are any matters which in your view, being essentially practical rather than strictly procedural, ought to be considered for retention.
I would also welcome your perspective on whether the nature of proceedings has changed materially under COVID restrictions. This is an issue that many Members elected prior to 2019 have raised with the committee.
I am copying this letter to the Leader of the House, at whose initiative any changes to Standing Orders would be made and whose views my committee would also welcome. I should like with your agreement to publish this letter, along with your reply, early in the new year.
My committee will then be able to take an informed decision on the terms of reference of any work we choose to launch in the spirit of the same consensus in which the changes last year were made. I am anxious—as I hope you are—to avoid a scenario in which the procedures of this House after coronavirus become something that divides hon. and Rt hon. Members.
I wish you and your family a happy and peaceful Christmas.
Rt Hon. Karen Bradley MP
The challenges presented by the covid pandemic have meant that, throughout this year, we have all had to respond quickly to the evolving situation. As a consequence, the House has made changes to our procedures at unprecedented speed. I have been grateful to the Procedure Committee for its nimble advice and assessment of these new procedures in recent months. Following your correspondence to me of 17 December, I am writing to update you about the implications of Saturday’s announcement on Tier 4.
As a consequence of the measures confirmed over the weekend, it is the Government’s intention to bring forward a motion to extend remote participation to substantive proceedings in the chamber when the House next sits. This will allow any member who wishes to participate in debates remotely to do so, thereby extending the measures that are already in place to allow remote participation in questions and statements. Proxy voting, which has worked well in recent months, will continue in its current form. The precise details of these changes are being discussed with the House authorities and I will share the motion with you when it is to be tabled. I do not plan to include eligibility criteria in the motion for members to take part remotely.
I have always been clear that we have been keeping our approach to the pandemic in Parliament under review. Since March, the Government has taken a range of steps to ensure that Parliament can continue to do its important work, whilst allowing members to participate in some proceedings remotely. The Government firmly believes that our constituents are best served when Parliament meets physically to the fullest extent possible and this remains my strong view. However, it is right that we balance this with the need to lower the risk of transmission of this new strain of the virus. Given that this new strain is more easily transmittable, we have taken this decision with the aim of reducing physical attendance on the estate, whilst allowing members to continue to contribute to business.
In tabling a motion, I am sure you will understand that the focus must be on ensuring that the business in the main chamber, including scrutiny of the Government and the legislative agenda, can progress as effectively as possible under the new restrictions. It is essential that Parliament is able to carry out its vital legislative functions and play this key constitutional role. We will have to assess how these changes affect other elements of our proceedings, such as Westminster Hall. It is the Government’s intention to bring forward these changes as soon as possible, at the start of the next sitting, subject to our continuing discussions with the House authorities. The motion will be time limited and I welcome the Committee’s continuing views on how our procedures are working.
I would be very happy to discuss this with you and look forward to meeting the Committee in the New Year. I am copying this letter to Mr Speaker and I will place a copy in the House of Commons library so that other members are aware of the Government’s intended approach.
With every good wish,
Following the House’s agreement to the motion on 30 December, it is now possible for members to contribute to debates in the chamber remotely. I look forward to the Committee’s assessment of how these changes are working in due course. These measures were introduced in part as an important way of reducing the number of people on the parliamentary estate, in line with the latest government covid guidance.
I have since received representations from across the House, expressing concerns about the continuation of Westminster Hall and sitting Fridays. In view of these representations, I have tabled motions to suspend sittings in Westminster Hall and sitting Fridays for the foreseeable future. It will obviously be for the House to decide whether these motions should be agreed.
As ever, I would be happy to discuss this with you and I look forward to meeting the Committee shortly.
I am copying this letter to Mr Speaker, the Chairman of Ways and Means, the Clerk of the House, the Shadow Leader of the House, the SNP Shadow Leader, Sir Bernard Jenkin, Ian Mearns and Catherine McKinnell.
With every good wish,
Further to your comments at Business questions today, we write as the Chairs of three committees with an interest in the resumption of sittings in Westminster Hall. We are of a common view that Westminster Hall should resume at the earliest opportunity, subject to arrangements being COVID-secure and open to hybrid participation without qualifying criteria on Members for participation.
It is our understanding that work has been conducted to scope the potential for hybrid sittings of Westminster Hall to take place in another room on the parliamentary estate. Such hybrid sittings would lead to only a marginal increase in the number of people required on the estate and come without the cost of fitting additional broadcast hardware in the Grand Committee Room.
The House Authorities should be afforded sufficient time to make and test the necessary arrangements for hybrid sittings and allow hon. and Rt hon. Members to apply for debates. In the interests of practicality and courtesy to all Members, we hope that you will give advance notice of your intention to table a motion once confirmation that the arrangements are ready has been given and that you protect a short amount of time for debate and decision.
Given your stated reluctance to bring forward the motion suspending Westminster Hall, we hope that you will now seek to bring it back in accordance with your commitment at the conclusion of the debate to do so “as soon as is possible and practical in view of the circumstances” (HC Deb 13 January 2021 col 440). Your conditions, as ours, are now satisfied.
Ian Mearns, Catherine McKinnell and Karen Bradley
Thank you for your recent correspondence requesting the resumption of Westminster Hall debates. I am writing to confirm that I have tabled a motion today to bring back sittings in Westminster Hall for the House to consider tomorrow. I enclose a copy of the motion for your information.
I agree with you that it is important to resume these debates. I made the commitment to bring them back as soon as possible and practical and it is clear that there is now demand from across the House. As I have said before, I firmly believe that scrutiny leads to better government and was reluctant to curtail Westminster Hall sittings but I did so following significant representations expressing concern about their continuation in light of the higher transmission rates of the new variant of Covid-19.
I would like to point out that as well as requests to restart Westminster Hall debates, I have also received correspondence urging caution with regard to their return. No matter what form the debates in Westminster Hall take - physical, virtual or hybrid - they will require an additional House resource and presence on the Estate which, as you know, has been stretched over many months. There is also a trade off in terms of available accommodation for select committees and evidence-taking in Public Bill Committees will, on occasion, need to take priority. Therefore, it is by no means a straightforward decision to bring forward the motion at this time. Nevertheless, I have been assured that doing so will not affect the covid-secure status of the Palace of Westminster and that, should the House agree to the motion tomorrow, hybrid debates can start from Monday 8 March.
The House will have the opportunity to take a decision tomorrow but I am not convinced that the motion warrants protected time for debate due to its straightforward nature and the fact that the approach is based on support from your Committees and others across the House. It may help if I explain that the expiry date specified in the motion has been selected to align with the other hybrid proceedings orders, so that they can be extended in parallel in due course. I hope that it will be supported tomorrow.
I am copying this letter to Mr Speaker, the Chairman of Ways and Means, the Clerk of the House and the Shadow Leader of the House.
With every good wish,