Many thanks for your letter dated 20 May. I am well-aware of the strength of feeling from Members concerned about plans to return to physical proceedings in the House of Commons, but it is always useful to have the issues set out on paper.
Like many, I have been impressed with the way in which the House Authorities were able to facilitate hybrid proceedings in the Chamber, and then remote voting, within such a short space of time. While these proceedings have had their limitations, they have undoubtedly allowed more scrutiny and participation to take place than would have occurred without them.
Since the House has delivered these innovations to ensure that individuals could adhere to Government guidelines in order to keep safe, the Government has now taken the view that the House should return to the Chamber in a fully physical form. It is a long-established constitutional principle - and one embodied in Standing Orders - that the Government controls the distribution of time available to the House, and that Government business has precedence. It is for the House itself to determine its procedures, as it did when it facilitated the move to allow virtual participation in select committees (which remains in force), and the move towards hybrid proceedings in the Chamber and remote voting (no longer in force).
As Speaker I cannot and should not stand in the way of the will of the House. However, I would like to say that, in my view, all Members entitled to sit in the House of Commons should be able to have their voices heard in representing their constituents to as great an extent as is possible.
I am personally sympathetic to those who need to stay at home because they are vulnerable, shielding or have caring responsibilities. I have continued to express my view to the Leader of the House that the possibility to participate in the business of the House via hybrid proceedings should remain for these colleagues. I very much hope that the Government and Opposition, through the usual channels, can work together to ensure that this happens.
I believe, that just as I have a duty of care to staff of the House in my role as Chair of the House of Commons Commission, the individual political parties have a duty of care to their MPs to ensure that they are not put at risk and protection is available for those who need it. As an extension of that, they also have a responsibility to ensure that their constituents are not disenfranchised, especially if there is an alternative method available enabling their MP to participate in business and vote on it.
For those who do come onto the parliamentary estate, I am confident that the appropriate social distancing measures will be in place. The House authorities are working together with Public Health England to ensure the parliamentary estate is a COVID-19 secure workplace by the time we return from the Whitsun recess on 2 June.
As you are probably aware, I have been insistent that we do not allow more than 50 MPs in the Chamber, while PHE guidelines on social distancing remain at two metres. Indeed, I will suspend the sitting if we exceed that number, or it is clear that social distancing is not being maintained. I have also been very clear that Members’ staff, and House staff, who can work remotely should continue to do so - they should not be returning to the estate, or their constituency offices.
My priority, throughout this pandemic, is that all in the Parliamentary community can work safely if they are on the Estate, and I am grateful to all those working hard on our risk assessments and taking steps to make our workplace as safe as possible. My pledge to you is that I will continue to be guided by PHE advice and will take whatever action is advised and I will continue to represent the range of views on this matter in my interactions with the Government.
Speaker of the House of Commons
Photo credit: Roger Harris/ UK Parliament