I have received many representations from colleagues about how we can adapt the way we do business to ensure that MPs can continue to fulfil their duties, of representing their constituents and scrutinising the Government, without putting themselves, their families or the public at risk.
I hope this message, which is necessarily long, will address those concerns – and outline other changes that are in progress or being considered. Some of the suggestions I have received are not in my gift to deliver as Speaker. I will do all I can to encourage and promote proper and rapid consideration of changes, but some changes can only be made by the House itself - in some cases following advice from the Procedure Committee. Similarly, it is not for me to alter the business calendar and type of business considered in the Chamber or in general committees.
However, there are some things within my control, and separately I am asking the House Service and Parliamentary Digital Service to roll out improvements as soon as possible. I am sure you will appreciate that they are working at speed, under great strain, and despite limitations on their capacity caused by the requirements for social distancing, home-working and home and personal situations.
Measures to alter the way the Chamber operates to improve social distancing
Whenever the Chamber is sitting during this exceptional time there are some measures that I will consider in order to reduce the number of Members required in the Chamber at any one time. For example, removing the convention that only MPs present during a statement can ask questions on it; publishing speaking lists so people know where they are in the running order and can attend the Chamber at the relevant time; and allowing MPs to submit to ask a question on a statement in advance, so a rota can be set up that enables MPs to only come in for their question. This would supplement the measures already taken within parties to minimise attendance.
Before we return to the House after recess, I will evaluate the situation with Public Health England, the Leader of the House and the Whips and communicate any changes that I think appropriate to make.
Scrutinising the Government remotely
Following the temporary order made by the House on Tuesday, I have now authorised Select Committee members to participate in proceedings through email, conference calls, and digital conferencing, provided that:
- the means of electronic communication has been confirmed as belonging to the Member concerned
- any written communication is to be made to or copied to the Committee clerk
- the system used for such communication is approved by the Parliamentary Digital Service/ Broadcasting Unit
- in oral evidence sessions Members are able to hear witnesses clearly and to pose questions directly or communicate with the Chair to ask that questions be posed on their behalf
- in deliberation, Members must be able to both hear and contribute to discussions directly
- Parliamentary staff have the capacity to support the session.
The capacity to hold ‘virtual’ evidence sessions over the next few weeks will be very limited and there is likely to have to be some prioritisation of demands. However, work is going on at pace to ensure that capacity increases over the short to medium term and provides for an enduring solution that can facilitate ‘virtual’ evidence sessions on a larger scale.
These temporary measures to facilitate remote participation in proceedings will be in effect until 30 June. I have the power to authorise an extension, should it appear necessary beyond this date. I do not envisage this facility being made permanent, though, once the current crisis passes, colleagues will no doubt wish to evaluate whether there is merit in permanent authorisation of some form of remote participation in committee proceedings.
Currently, there is no procedure in place for questions to be treated as tabled and eligible for answer during a recess (strictly speaking, a ‘periodic adjournment’). Therefore, as matters stand, answers to questions already tabled will only be published when the House returns (on 21 April) and if a Member submits new questions during recess then they will be answered as if tabled when the House returns. I am committed to improving this situation if there were to be a recall to extend the end of recess or otherwise limit future sittings during this crisis. There is a provision in Standing Orders for answering questions in September put in place at a time when the House did not meet between July and October which could apply for other periods with some modifications. I will engage constructively with the Government to ensure that a motion is tabled which allows this to be considered by the House should the need arise.
I would also support consideration of what further procedural adaptations may be needed to enable oral questions tabled by Members who are not present to be answered, and be subject to supplementary questions if another Member requests it. I know something similar is allowed in the House of Lords.
In terms of digital improvements, the development of Microsoft Teams is one of the key priorities of the Parliamentary Digital Service (PDS). PDS is collaborating with Microsoft with a view to rolling this out as soon as possible. MS Teams is a secure, accredited service which would enable effective remote collaboration and video conferencing, so could therefore assist small, private meetings as well as large, collaborative meetings (such as committees). The first testing with users is underway and the Parliamentary Digital Service is doing everything it can to enable roll-out to Members as soon as possible.
Many of you have mentioned ‘Zoom’, but this is not currently authorised for use within Parliament and the free version does not meet Parliament’s security requirements. The version of Zoom being used by the Cabinet Office is a paid-for version, which is centrally controlled and configured, with some key functionality disabled. PDS is in contact with the Government about its deployment. It would be difficult to accredit a whole new system and roll this out across Parliament in the short-term, but PDS is looking at what is possible. However, it is recognised that some Members and staff have already started using the public version, so PDS has issued guidance about the risks involved and how to reduce them. Zoom is being used on an interim basis for some of the experimental ‘virtual’ evidence sessions being held by committees. It is being used only for the public parts of those meetings and the Chairs and Members concerned are advised about the risks inherent in the tool and ways of mitigating those.
Facilitating MPs and their staff to better work away from office
Deployment of the Skype for Business app on iOS (Apple) products and Android will be rolled out to parliamentary devices in phases from 26 March, and will also be available for registered ‘bring your own device’ tablets and mobile phones. This will enable Members and staff to use Skype for Business on mobile devices and provides greater flexibility on call answering and forwarding - and video conferencing - and may be helpful if your broadband connections are limited or you are away from your computer.
In addition, all parliamentary users can now download the full version of Skype for Business from Parliament’s Office 365 site. This allows users to use Skype even if they do not have parliamentary computers.
All our daily business papers and documents relevant to business in the Chamber (including tagged Select Committee reports) are available from the House Papers app, and the Vote Office also provides an email alert with links to publications it has received each day. The app is available from the Google Play and Apple app stores.
All parliamentary users should now be able to print material at home by connecting their parliamentary computers to their printer.
How will we learn lessons for the future?
For hundreds of years Parliament has relied on the physical presence of Members in the Chamber and in Committee rooms to conduct its business. Our ability to change this in a short period of time has demonstrated that there is more the House can do to facilitate agile working while enabling legislation, democratic scrutiny and representation.
At the moment, as with every organisation, we are reacting to a fast-evolving situation, with limited resources and we are doing our best in the circumstances. However, once we come through this crisis, I will establish a Speaker’s Working Group to analyse the lessons we can learn and establish what solutions are needed (technologically, procedurally and logistically) to make us more robust in the future. I will also ask the Chair of the Procedure Committee to discuss these issues with her committee, and I am sure that as part of that process the House service will be asked to think about the logistics of a range of options relating to voting and proxy voting but ultimately it is a matter for the House to decide.
Sir Lindsay Hoyle