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.