Speaker letter on virtual proceedings

05 June 2020

Sir Lindsay Hoyle, Speaker of the House of Commons, writes to tell MPs that some may be eligible to participate in proceedings virtually.

Dear colleague,

I am writing to colleagues following the orders passed by the House yesterday afternoon on Virtual Participation in Proceedings during the Pandemic (Temporary Orders) to ensure that those Members who expect to self-certify have the information they need to participate virtually as soon as possible. 

This letter does not address how the extension of proxy voting will work but I hope to be able to clarify those arrangements early next week.

Virtual Participation in Scrutiny Proceedings

The order agreed yesterday allows certain Members to participate virtually in proceedings on Questions, Urgent Questions and Statements (termed “scrutiny proceedings” as shorthand).

Virtual participation under this order is not open to all Members, as was the case with virtual participation in hybrid proceedings before Whitsun. 

It is available for Members “who have self-certified that they are unable to attend at Westminster for medical or public health reasons related to the pandemic”.  I am required under the order to set out the arrangements for self-certification and I am doing so in this letter in the first instance. Further guidance will appear on the Intranet as soon as possible.

I would expect almost all colleagues who self-certify for the purposes of this order to be in one of four broad categories:

1. Members who are themselves either ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’ or ‘clinically vulnerable’;

2. Members who feel it is not appropriate for them to travel to and work at Westminster as a result of a member of their family being ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’ or ‘clinically vulnerable’.

3. Members who are required to self-isolate for a specified period in accordance with guidance or rules in the relevant jurisdiction;

4. Members with parental or other caring responsibilities where normal arrangements which would enable them to travel to and work at Westminster are not operating normally for public health reasons.

I do not pretend that these categories cover every eventuality, and I would welcome representations on what is proposed. It is for each Member to certify that “that they are unable to attend at Westminster for medical or public health reasons related to the pandemic” and it is quite properly an individual decision. But I want to make two points about how I interpret this order.

First, while Members in the first and second categories may quite reasonably feel that they cannot safely travel to Westminster in a manner consistent with the relevant public health guidance, these arrangements are not in place for Members whose scheduled transport is cancelled, even if that cancellation is due to the pandemic.

Second, a decision to self-certify to participate virtually under this order means a decision not to come to Westminster during the period when self-certification applies. It will not be acceptable to participate virtually in an urgent question and then participate in person in a debate. There are good reasons why a period of self-certification may end: a period of self-isolation may come to an end; public health guidance in the relevant jurisdiction may be modified; an individual Member’s assessment of the risk to them or their family may change over time. But at any one time, Members have either self-certified, so that they only participate virtually, or they have not.

Detailed arrangements for self-certification

1. All Members who wish to certify “that they are unable to attend at Westminster for medical or public health reasons related to the pandemic” should email the Speaker’s office on speakersoffice@parliament.uk with the heading “Self-certification for virtual participation” as soon as possible. Members who wish to be so eligible for scrutiny proceedings on Monday 8 June must email my office by 4.00 pm today.

2. Generally speaking, we will hope to operate the list a week at a time, but I understand that there will be a transition next week while we gather the names of self-certifying Members. Members who wish to self-certify to be eligible for scrutiny proceedings from Tuesday 9 June onwards must email my office by 1.00 pm on Monday 8 June. 

3. Members who wish to self-certify for subsequent weeks must email my office by midday on the Friday before the next week of business. 

4. Of course, Members who have to self-isolate will be able to self-certify at short notice, but will have to bear with us while arrangements are made for their participation.

5. Members do not need to give a reason why they are self-certifying. Indeed, I would prefer them not to, as my office does not need to hold personal information for this purpose.

6. Members do not need to give a time period for self-certification. Their self-certification will normally remain valid until the start of the calendar week after they request a change of status.

7. A Member who has self-certified who wishes to end their period of self-certification should email the Speaker’s office on speakersoffice@parliament.uk. 

8. Any Member who participates in scrutiny proceedings in person, or speaks in debate will automatically be removed from the self-certification list, for the reasons already given.

9. The list of self-certifying Members will be maintained by the Speaker’s office. It will be used only for the purposes of my office, the broadcast team and the wider team that supports virtual participation. It will not be published, although the fact that a Member is participating virtually will appear on the call lists and in Hansard at was the case before Whitsun.

Arrangements governing virtual participation

The electronic arrangements for virtual participation will be via Zoom and will essentially employ the same technological arrangements as those in place before Whitsun.

Our hope is that the same notice requirements will operate for Members participating virtually and in person, and that the notice periods will not be greatly different to those this week. But I would stress that notice periods will take a while to settle down, and if the number of self-certifying Members is larger than currently expected, the overall arrangements will have to be reviewed.

The rules for participation similarly draw upon the experience of hybrid proceedings, but those rules applied equally to those participating virtually and those participating physically, whereas the new rules are specific to virtual participants. Of course, normal practice for those participating physically has been adapted to reflect the need to preserve a safe limit on the number of Members in the Chamber, including the use of call lists to help manage limits on participation.

The main rules governing virtual participation are as follows:

1. Self-certifying Members may table questions for oral answer, including topical questions, in the usual way, via MemberHub. Except in the case of Opposition frontbenchers, they should not make a separate application to ask a supplementary or topical question if they are not on the initial published list. Those opportunities will be made available on the same basis for Members participating virtually as for other Members.

2. Where a Member participating virtually has a lead question receiving a substantive answer, they will not be called to ask the question number. The Minister will answer the substantive question, and the Member will then be called to ask a supplementary.

3. Self-certifying Members may apply to ask urgent questions, or ask questions arising from urgent questions or Ministerial statements, in the same way as Members participating physically, and with the same deadlines. When a call list is published, their name will appear automatically with virtual participation signified. It will not be possible to change the form of participation, for the reasons already given.

4. My specific leave will need to be sought and given in advance for self-certifying Ministers to participate virtually in scrutiny proceedings. Even if I do give leave, another Minister must be available at or within reach of the despatch box to take their place.

I am establishing this last rule for three specific reasons. First, the Government is a collective, not an individual Member. Second, the impact on proceedings if a Minister making a statement or answering questions is inaudible at times is greater than with a questioning Member. Finally, it is the Leader of the House who has stressed on several occasions the desire to operate primarily through physical participation, and I have no doubt the Government will wish to practise what it preaches.

Warm wishes

Sir Lindsay Hoyle

Speaker of the House of Commons

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