Karen Bradley: Covid and the Commons. The time has come to lift the bar on Westminster Hall debates.

22 Feb

Karen Bradley is Chair of the House of Commons Procedure Committee, a former Northern Ireland Secretary, and is MP for Staffordshire Moorlands.

When the history books are finally written on how the UK handled the Covid pandemic, the way in which the House of Commons adapted to the challenges and kept going throughout will undoubtedly be one of the success stories.  As Chair of the House of Commons Procedure Committee, I have seen close up the monumental efforts that so many have put into ensuring that MPs’ voices could be heard and that the executive was scrutinised throughout.

I suspect few people will realise just how successful the parliamentary authorities have been at preventing the virus from shutting down the estate or severely impeding the operation of Parliament. There have been outbreaks of course, just as there have been for in many large workplaces. Enormous credit for this must be given to the Speaker, the Clerk and the House Service, whose determination throughout has been to put the safety of those that work in Parliament first.

My committee held its first meeting of the Parliament on 2 March 2020, the day before the strategy of “contain, delay, research and mitigate” was announced. Having gone through the formalities of setting up the committee, we discussed our programme of work for the new Parliament. We touched on the issue of the emerging pandemic and how it might affect our work and agreed that the Clerk of the House should be invited to give us an insight into the House authorities’ emerging thinking.

Little were we to know the role that social distancing and facemasks would come to define aspects of the parliamentary experience within weeks. The very notion that the capacity of the Chamber would be limited to 50 MPs at any one time or that many colleagues would be unable to actually attend in person was, at the point, unthinkable.

But that is precisely what had to happen to keep the show on the road: MPs asking questions and making speeches over Zoom, select committees routinely taking evidence (and even agreeing reports) remotely, votes being cast by proxies.

It in no way can replace the effectiveness of a fully physical Parliament; it is without question a compromise on the fluid dynamism of a House in which Members share a single physical space. But the pandemic means that so much in life is a compromise and keeping Parliament going, even in a compromised way was absolutely essential.

Throughout the pandemic, my committee has pushed for the House to have its own say about how it operates; put simply, to govern its own proceedings. Within the committee, there are a variety of views about the compromises that can be stomached.

But there has been broad agreement that the Government not letting Parliament have its own say has led to some undesirable outcomes. The concept of ‘House Business’ has weakened in recent turbulent years, as the way in which the House conducts itself has at times been as important as the substance of the debate itself. But it’s a concept we should revive and protect, if only to save ourselves from the sort of debacles we’ve seen over divisions and a colleague being prevented from taking part in a debate about the very disease that was keeping her from Parliament.

That debate was to take place in the Grand Committee Room off Westminster Hall – the parallel Chamber in which backbench Members air their constituents’ and petitioners’ concerns. The fact that often more than 100,000 members of the public want a debate on a subject means that these are some of the most oversubscribed and popular parts of what goes on in Parliament. I get more correspondence about petitions debates than any other part of our proceedings and some of these debates are the most watched by the public, exceeded only by PMQs for viewing figures.

Westminster Hall debates were suspended completely between April and October last year, resuming only with very restricted access arrangements. But they were stopped again in January due to very valid concerns about safety in the context of the new strain. The Grand Committee Room is located at the far end of Westminster Hall, near the public entrance on Parliament Square. Due to its location, the windows cannot be opened safely, meaning that there is very little airflow in the room.

Supporting sittings in the Grand Committee Room requires a surprising number of additional staff to be present on the estate and it was therefore the right decision to stop debates in early January.

Once again, the House Service has worked to find a solution to this problem, and have offered other rooms which do not share the deficiencies of the Grand Committee Room. The Boothroyd Room in Portcullis House, Committee Room 10 in the Palace or even unused hours in the main Chamber could be used for these debates with only a marginal increase in footfall to support sittings in rooms that are already being used for hybrid proceedings. All that we need is for the Government to put a motion down on the Order Paper and these debates could resume. So, I ask the Leader of the House to give us that chance, table the motion for soon after our return from the February recess, and let’s get back to debating the issues that matter to our constituents.

Karen Bradley: Taking back lost time. Should MPs control the House of Commons agenda?

22 Jan

Karen Bradley is MP for Staffordshire Moorlands and Chair of the House of Commons Procedure Committee, which continues its inquiry into Commons’ Coronavirus procedures next week. Find out more here.  

Earlier this week, experts at University College London’s Constitution Unit published a major new report on the House of Commons, titled Taking back control: why the House of Commons should govern its own time.

The interesting and detailed report calls for a raft of changes to transfer control of Commons time from ministers and the Government, to MPs and the House as a whole. The report proposes that this can be done by giving MPs the opportunity to vote each week on whether to approve, or if necessary, change Commons business.

Since 1902, the Standing Orders – the rules and regulations that determine how the House of Commons sits – have given precedence to Government business in the Commons. Few exceptions are permitted, such as Backbench Business or Opposition Day debates and Private Members’ Bills.

I view this change from my perspective not only as Chair of the Commons Procedure Committee, but also as a former whip, minister and secretary of state. It is certainly fair to say that control of the order paper – the formal schedule of business in the Commons – has been a matter of increased interest in recent years. From backbenchers “seizing the order paper” during proceedings on Brexit, to more recent events where the Government stacked the deck in a Commons vote on virtual participation. I have been vocal in my criticism of how the proceedings in the House have been handled by the Government at times throughout this pandemic, and this is an issue that some might argue could be well solved by rebalancing control of the order paper.

To my mind, the central question is whether the way the current system operates leaves too much power in the hands of the Government and is unfairly and unnecessarily restrictive – giving too much control to too few individuals.

It is easy to assume that parliamentary business is purely set by the Prime Minister, or cabinet ministers alone, but there is in fact a complex and intricate system of mechanisms by which parliamentary business is planned and negotiated. This process starts with a Cabinet Office committee called the Parliamentary Business and Legislation Committee, which provides the initial source of government proposals.

These proposals are then shaped and negotiated through the party whips – known as the usual channels – with a final schedule appearing in Business Questions every Thursday, presented by my friend and colleague the Leader of the House. It is usually in these statements from the Leader that you can see more open disagreements arise about the content of forthcoming business and diverging priorities between the parties.

There are many steps and reforms the House could take to rebalance power in determining control of the order paper. One suggestion from the Constitution Unit report is to present the Commons agenda as an amendable motion, another mechanism could be establishing a new Committee – a Commons Business Committee – to set the agenda (although the report stops short of calling for this directly). A more-light touch option could even simply be introducing more of a “House voice” so backbenchers can be better represented in negotiations through the usual channels.

The risk in not considering and planning for such reforms are clear. If the Government continues to maintain an ironclad grip on Commons business, it risks change being forced in an uncomfortable and scattergun approach, giving less than perfect results. The most important thing has always been ensuring that this House evolves and adapts by consensus.

The issue of controlling time in the House of Commons does not just apply to the schedule of various debates, but also the schedule of the entire calendar. Recent events from Brexit to the Coronavirus pandemic have led many to a conclusion that the Government’s powers in adjourning and recalling the House are too strong and need to be reviewed.

But is now the time to hold such a review? I’m not sure. While a review is arguably overdue, the procedures of the House of Commons have just gone through the biggest adaptations and innovations in more than 700 years.

Whatever the Procedure Committee investigates, it is essential that we continue to safeguard the procedures and processes of this House. There are still too many unanswered questions about the long-term impact of Coronavirus on our procedures to consider to embark immediately on such a profound and wide-ranging new inquiry.

For the moment, the Procedure Committee remains focused on a challenging and wide-ranging workload including an inquiry into our territorial constitution and our review of procedure under Covid restrictions. That doesn’t mean to say the Committee won’t consider such issues in the future – but timing, as ever, will be key.