As Ms. May pointed out, we have only an hour, which is not our usual timing. We usually have three hours for these meetings, of course, with more witnesses. This is not our regularly scheduled time.
We had invited a list of witnesses. Some of them had graciously accepted our offer. The Right Honourable Harriet Harman, one of those witnesses, unfortunately could not make it during the regularly scheduled time. However, we had an hour that the committee could take up on this day and we decided to use it. We'll try to use some of the time today for committee business as well.
I will not run through all of my regular reminders. I will try to keep it short.
I'll call to order meeting number 23 of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs. The committee is meeting on its study of parliamentary duties and the COVID-19 pandemic. Today's meeting is taking place via video conference. The proceedings will be made available via the House of Commons website. Just so you're aware, the webcast will show the speaker only and not the entirety of the committee.
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Before speaking, wait until I recognize you by name. When you are ready to speak, make sure you click the microphone icon to activate the mike. When you're not speaking, please remember to keep your mike on mute. Speak slowly and clearly. If you do have a headset, try to wear it. These headsets were tested, as we know, and apparently they are the best mikes and provide the best sound quality. If you do have this type of headset provided by the House of Commons, please try to wear it.
Should any technical issues arise, as some have in the past, please try to inform me that you're having a technical issue so that, if needed, we can pause the meeting. If it seems like a minor problem, we might carry forward and the technical team will try to help you out so that you can be back with us as soon as possible. Please let us know so that we know what we're dealing with.
Before I welcome our witness today, I mentioned at the start that we need some time for committee business at the end. I want to propose a slight modification to the question time. You can let me know if you want to go with the regular question time, of course, but if we do, it may not leave us very much time at the end.
This is what I would propose. For the first round, I was thinking that we'd go through the normal six-minute round. The Conservatives, Liberals, Bloc and NDP would get six minutes each. In the second round, we usually have two slots for the Conservatives and two slots for the Liberals, both at five minutes each, and then two and a half minutes for the Bloc and two and a half minutes for the NDP. I am proposing that we shave off 10 minutes there, with perhaps only one slot for the Conservatives and one slot for the Liberals of five minutes each.
Would that be agreeable to everybody? That would help us save some time.
Without further ado, I'd like to welcome the Right Honourable Harriet Harman, MP and Mother of the House of Commons from the U.K.
Welcome. Thank you for being here again. This is in a more formal setting, and a virtual setting, of course, which is a bit different from your last visit, when you informally met with the procedure and House affairs committee. I want to thank you for making the time that day and of course taking the time today as well to talk about this important issue.
I believe you have some opening remarks. I'm wondering if you could try to keep them within five minutes so that we can get to the question round.
Thank you very much for inviting me to contribute to these proceedings. When we met in February seems like many lifetimes ago. I wish you and all the members of Parliament well. As you know, we've had more than 40,000 lives lost in this COVID crisis. Thank you for asking me to give evidence to you.
The starting point is to recognize that Parliament is of increased importance in the COVID crisis. Sometimes people thought it was all about government, that the government had to do things and Parliament was irrelevant. But when government decisions are literally a matter of life and death, when millions of jobs are at stake, when people's lives are affected, from the schooling of children right through to the care of the elderly, accountability is really essential.
There's also a hugely increased level of government activity. Decisions are being made across every sector of public, private and commercial life. Decisions are being made in all sorts of areas that government would not have previously been engaged with.
You have to have intense scrutiny, because decisions made at speed and behind closed doors can go wrong. Accountability is absolutely crucial in this COVID crisis.
Also, members of Parliament are the eyes and ears of government to tell them what is going on, on the ground. You can be locked in the room with your civil servants, your scientific and other experts, and interest groups, but as government, you need the MPs to be saying what is going on in their ridings.
Parliament obviously can't do business as usual because of travel restrictions, meeting restrictions and because our buildings are unsuitable for social distancing, so big changes have been necessary.
At the outset, government committed itself to continuous parliamentary scrutiny. Some people said Parliament needed to close down and get out of the way of government, but government committed itself to continuous parliamentary scrutiny, albeit in a different form. It proceeded to work with the key actors here, with the leader of the House, the other opposition parties, the procedure committee and the Speaker. Who knew what a centre of activity and importance the procedure committee was to become. It had become a real focus of interest, and no doubt I'm sure it is with your Parliament. There was an attempt to work by consensus, and rightly so.
Right from the outset, select committees began to meet remotely. Even though Parliament went into recess for Easter, select committees were working all the way through, meeting remotely and scrutinizing government, calling ministers to give evidence. That was all online.
After Easter, the House returned, and we all voted online. If you had a smart phone, you had an online voting system. Having been a member of the House of Commons since 1982, I thought there was no way we were going to be able to get everybody to vote online—everything would go wrong; people wouldn't get to vote or they'd vote the wrong way—but it was amazing how quickly the procedures were up and running, and they worked flawlessly.
Speaking was done remotely except for the front benches who were in the chamber. Everybody else was on the TV screen. The difference was that there was no yahoo in the chamber, obviously, because there was hardly anybody in the chamber. There was none of the usual rowdiness and interruption, and everything happened, so it felt very different.
It lent itself to more forensic questioning and more forensic answers. I feel MPs asked clearer and more lucid questions, as there was no interruption, jeering and jostling and people trying to cut across them or cheer them on. I think people felt more empowered doing it from their own riding. They had the whole TV screen; they could ask their question.
Also, the whole country saw MPs in their own homes in their ridings, as I've just seen the members of your committee. It brings to life how Parliament is not just one institution in the capital but the coming together of 650 constituencies. I think that's been very important.
It also changed the balance between the backbenches and front benches in favour of the backbenchers, because when Parliament is televised, in normal circumstances the person standing at the front bench is the biggest one in the picture. When it comes to the backbench asking the question, they are a microdot, an anonymous person up in the shadows of the fifth row of the backbenches and they are marginalized by virtue of that position. Actually, when you have the front bench in Parliament and you have the backbencher with a whole TV screen, they are more salient and look less junior and deferential. It has really changed the balance of power. You get your own full picture on the TV screen and you're not just a microdot somewhere on the backbenches.
Also, MPs had less time in the Westminster bubble. We've all become remote from the Westminster bubble and it has made us more grounded.
At the start of June, when the government was pushing for schools to come back and wanted more vocal backbench support for the Prime Minister at the Prime Minister's question time, the government broke with the consensus approach and announced without prior consultation that Parliament would return to business as usual. This caused a big row. Public Health England said that it was just not going to be possible. You can’t use our division lobbies. The chamber is too small for all MPs to attend and stay two metres apart, so consensus broke down, which is very disappointing.
There were particular objections from MPs over 70 years of age or those with underlying health conditions who were saying, “I can't come back to Parliament, so the people living in my riding are being disenfranchised,” so the government had to agree to amend the procedures.
We now have a hybrid parliament, so that Parliament is back but no more than 50 MPs out of 650 are allowed in the chamber at any one time. Speakers and questions have to be decided by the Speaker in advance. There's no more catching the Speaker's eye or just deciding that you're going to get into a debate because you heard something said and you want to join the speeches. Basically, it doesn't have any spontaneity. You have to book your slot in advance.
Votes are not in the division lobbies but in a long queue. It takes about 30 minutes. You might have seen the pictures. It looks like the fences they have in cattle markets. In fact, they have all those fences snaking around the parliamentary estate with MPs at two metres' distance waiting for them to be able to file past. At the moment, you can pair, that is, not vote, and you're balanced off with a member of another party.
If you need to be shielded, which is somebody who is over 70 or with an underlying health condition, you can apply to have a proxy vote, which means another MP votes for you. Fortunately, we already had that system, because we'd just introduced proxy voting for pregnant members of Parliament, members of Parliament who've just had a baby, and new fathers. If you have a proxy vote, you can speak remotely.
In terms of lessons learned, on the downside, in a hybrid remote Parliament it is more stilted. There are no interventions or interactions, and there's less atmosphere during speeches. It's less spontaneous. There's no ability to gauge the feeling across the chamber and no informal mingling in the tea room.
On the upside, there's no braying and shouting. Ministers have to answer the questions.
I'll stop there.
Thank you, Madam Chair.
Thank you to Ms. Harman for being here. It's good to see you again, albeit virtually. I appreciated our conversation earlier this year, which feels like a very long time ago, with the chair to talk about some of your experiences.
On a personal note, I appreciated your giving me a copy of the Equality Act, which you had helped shepherd through, a personal piece to me. Thank you for giving me your copy and spending your Friday evening with us with the time change in London.
I want to build on the comments and some of the questions that our committee had asked the Right Honourable Karen Bradley earlier in our study about the timeliness of when some of these measures were used.
My understanding of the remote voting system and the way it has been done is that it was not meant for the duration of the entire campaign, but the electronic or remote voting that was used originally was more for the acute phase of the pandemic.
In reading some of the comments in the Hansard from the chamber between the House leadership, there was a desire to bring Parliament back to some form, try to get to an in-person presence and get Parliament running again. Would that be a fair statement on where things were?
Thank you very much for your kind comments.
I think the reason there was an abandonment of the remote voting when it was working so well, and the reason it came as part of an abandonment of working by consensus, which is incredibly important with the Speaker, the leader of the House, the procedure committee and all parties, was that the government was very keen to send children back to school, and there was a lot of protest. I think the government felt that if they could say that Parliament is back, people should have the confidence to send their children back to school. We also needed more people going to work because the economy had come to a complete halt. You might have seen today that our economy has fallen by 20%.
The danger with the way parliaments work is that if you do things for a political reason then it doesn't work so well in parliament. Of course it has become a shambles. It was a shame because, actually, there was agreement, and it was working and now we have a rather less satisfactory system.
I put it down to the fact that some people regard electronic voting as anathema because they regard the digital age as anathema, but that's where we are, and that's the future. They also wanted to make a political point out of it, so I was very disappointed with the leader of the House. He should really have been for the House rather than for the government.
The first point to make is that public opinion has been very much in favour of the remote Parliament and was against Parliament coming back by about 90%. I was surprised. I thought people would say, “They're just sitting on their backsides. They should get back to work,” but people understood that we were working harder than ever; we were just working remotely.
Those professors who were advising you that all MPs need training probably were hoping to give you the training themselves. I didn't notice that you needed any training at all when I was over there. You're representing the people in your ridings. You know how to do it.
As far as technology is concerned, I would not have regarded us as to be one of the most advanced digital parliaments in the world, far from it, and yet, because it was decided we would do it, it happened, and it happened absolutely flawlessly.
There was a bit of a kerfuffle because somebody said, “What if an MP's wife got their phone and did the vote?” whereupon all the women MPs obviously kicked up about that. Anyway, the point is, if you're so irresponsible that you let somebody else vote for you, that would then come out, and then you'd be kicked out at the next election just as if you voted wrongly in person.
It's for the good. I'm not against people voting in person. That's really important as well, but let's have a hybrid situation. Let's tiptoe towards the future.
Thank you very much indeed for being prepared to speak English. I'm sorry I've been the cause of it.
The point that you raise is a very interesting one because there are two principles, really. One is the importance of accountability, and the other is equality of representation for all the different people in all the different ridings. It very much goes against the grain for us as members of Parliament that somehow something about us gives us more or less ability to represent those we are elected by. Therefore, the principle of equality of ability to have your say is a very important one.
I think that, when there are restrictions and limits, and it's decided by the whips and decided by the Speaker, there is a danger that there becomes an “in crowd” who are in the building and able to be part of the machinations, and there are those who are connecting remotely in their constituencies. I think that's not as bad as I thought it might be because so much is done on WhatsApp anyway. We have a situation where often people are in meetings in the same room, and there are two conversations going on, one face to face, but then people, under their desks, are texting each other on WhatsApp saying, “I don't know why he said that, it's rubbish”.
There are different conversations going on, but I think in a way, perhaps after the immediate nature of the crisis is over, it's all right to do it like that if it's by virtue of choice. I think if people choose to be a more remote MP, and there's flexibility where basically you could choose at some point to vote remotely, and then you could choose to go in, it would be your choice.
I think that this is a really important role for procedure committees now, not only to be helping work through the COVID processes, but to look at it as a moment for the opportunity for change. People do complain in the U.K. that we spend too much time in Westminster all cliquing together and losing our sense of connection with those who represent us, that we do too much wasting of time travelling and that we're burning up fossil fuels as we go from one end of the country to the other. Also, I think that for those people who have a disability or for women who have young children.... We do want to hear in Parliament from people with disabilities, so if travelling down to London is an inhibition to doing that, then you widen access to Parliament.
I think we've got to have as wide access as possible. We've got to have equality as part of our principles. I think if we lose some of the collegiality, it's not a good thing. Some of it harbours a quite toxic culture, and having been a woman MP who was one of a tiny minority, I was never part of that clubbiness anyway. We don't really want that sort of clubbiness. We want a much more transparent way of doing things.
I think it's really important for procedure committees in our Westminster-style parliaments to not let it all turn the clock back but see how you can make accountability better. It's a great committee for you to be on at this point because it's going to be very important for our democracy.
We can ask people what they want. We can ask the public. Why do we have to decide it all ourselves? They might quite like the idea that their MP is based where they live and that their children go to school there because they don't move to London. There's a sort of populist uprising against people all moving to the capital. It might well be that this would be assisted by this.
Thank you, Ms. Harman. I always enjoy listening to your feedback.
One of the things you said was that this process has really allowed for the perception of the coming together of constituencies. As a member of Parliament in Canada who has one of the longer trips to make across the country, one thing I've been fighting for the whole time is to make sure the voices of every corner of this country are heard. The uniqueness of every riding is very important, especially in such a large country as Canada.
A concern I have as well is with regard to people or their loved ones who have health challenges. It's really not fair to ask them to risk their health and the well-being of their family by travelling across the country during this time with COVID. One of the things we've seen, as you talked about earlier, is the sudden change when the government made a decision to call everybody back. I know there have been some health ramifications, not necessarily around COVID, but there have been some. Can you speak to the importance of those voices being heard and how the U.K. is adjusting to having people? I really appreciated your telling the story of people in their own houses and people being able to look right in and see where they are, so there's that sense of collaboration.
One of the biggest fears for some of our members is that we won't go back, that we're going to stay in this new realm. I also think that after this is done, it will be time to study and reflect on that. Right now, the decisions we have to make should be just specifically for this time frame. I don't want to set a precedent for something to go on into the future, so it's very important for me as we do the study that everything be limited to this time, and then we can come back and have those conversations. I don't feel this is the time to make long-term decisions, but it may be a time of reflection.
If you could speak to that, I would appreciate it.
I completely agree with you that for the moment, the health issues must be a priority. Nobody should take a risk with their life in representing those who elected them or take a risk with the lives of those with whom they share their home.
You're also absolutely right that we have one set of imperatives for now, and then there should be real deliberation and consultation. That's why I think, in a way, that there needs to be public consultation as well. I know that in the past our procedure committee has been more or less inward–facing into Parliament, but I think it's a time for procedure committees to ask the public.
In this country there has been quite a lot of alienation from Parliament. It's been quite easy for people to whip up hostility to MPs. That was part of the spirit of the Brexit decision, actually: The experts in the House of Commons didn't know we wanted a referendum and wanted to say something different. There has been alienation, a sense that London is different, a sense that when anybody is in London, they don't have a sense of what is going on in the rest of the country.
One of the things the Scottish National Party did earlier was to have its First Minister give press conferences not from the grand apartments of the Office of the First Minister, but in different parts of Scotland. He would be standing in front of some amazing cliffs and forests. There would be a small croft in the background, and you'd think that he was there, and that's where the people live and that's what it's about. We don't have any crofters in Camberwell and Peckham, but he would be speaking for that constituency. We have a really big issue of people feeling alienated from their elected representatives and their institutions, and this surely is a moment to find out whether changing the relationship between the MP and the centre is an opportunity to make some sort of change and adjustment and to make Parliament more inclusive.
However, you're absolutely right that it has to be done in a deliberative and more open way, and it has to be done by consensus. I hope our procedure committee will be able to work closely with you, because nobody should reinvent the wheel. We can all learn from each other.
Thank you, and we wish you the best as well.
Okay. Unfortunately, as a result of the technical difficulties, we don't have a lot of time, but we can start off with committee business on Tuesday as well.
The one issue is that technically we have to work toward the deadline of June 23 at this point unless the committee decides to ask for another deadline instead. In order to do that, we would have to get agreement from the House leaders. Even if we do propose another deadline, it is by no means guaranteed, until we hear back, that we're going to get it.
That's why I was a little eager in the last meeting to try to see if there was agreement on another deadline instead of the one we have right now. Unless we agree that I can report back to ask for another deadline, we're going to be working toward the June 23 deadline in the meantime.
We do have maybe five minutes if you do want to discuss this situation today. If you want to leave it until Tuesday, we can start off with committee business, but my fear is that we are getting closer and closer without knowing whether we have an extension.
Go ahead, Mr. Alghabra.
Understood. I don't think anyone would suggest we do that, but I thought it might be simpler and cleaner just to report back that we require more time. That's fine.
The other part, if you'll indulge this, Madam Chair, is that I still have some comments and thoughts on the way we would proceed if we're choosing to extend our time, which seems as though it may be necessary.
Before we do that, I'd like to get some sense as to what others think. I know I've raised this point, and I believe Mr. Duncan may have been the other person who suggested this as well, and I think also Ms. Blaney. I don't want to put words into either one of their mouths, but that's how I recall it. We were all thinking that it might be wise for us to produce this report, whether it's July 10 or 23, as an interim report and revisit it, I suppose for lack of a better way of putting it, at the end of August or the first part of September. We can determine then whether our recommendations are still appropriate and whether we want to revise, add to or delete from those recommendations, based on what would be the current situation.
There hasn't really been an opportunity to get the thoughts of others on this idea. Personally, I would feel more comfortable knowing other members' thoughts before we proceed with making a decision, because I think that's a fairly critical part of all this. I don't know if we are allowed to hear from others on what their thoughts are on that type of—