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Committee calls on Government to reschedule debate on virtual participation

7 December 2020

The House of Commons Procedure Committee publishes a detailed report scrutinising the use of call lists and time limits on speeches in debates.

The full report, titled “Procedure under coronavirus restrictions: call lists and time limits on speeches in debates”, gives the considered view of the committee and makes recommendations to the House and the Government on how to proceed with arrangements during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Committee considered written and oral evidence from several witnesses, including the three Deputy Speakers, House of Commons clerks and Members of Parliament. The report makes a number of recommendations on the use of call lists and time limits on speeches in debates.

The report is made as part of the Committee’s ongoing review of the impact that coronavirus restrictions have had on the procedure and practice of the House, and follows the publication of the Committee’s report on virtual participation in debate last month.

In the report, the Committee examines the means used by the Government on 24 November to bring forward a motion to allow certain MPs to participate in debates. The Committee concludes that the motion was brought forward “in a precipitate fashion” and with little regard to current coronavirus conditions. The Committee recommends that the Government make time to complete the debate begun on 24 November and to arrange for a vote on its motion, and any amendments tabled to it, at a predictable time.

Some of the other key findings in the Procedure Committee report include:

  • The restrictions imposed on MPs’ access to the Chamber under current conditions are understandable and a proportionate means of implementing public health guidance. They nevertheless run counter to the principle that every Member has an equal right to be present in the Chamber.
  • Members who persistently withdraw from call lists without good reason ought to have this behaviour taken into account in the compilation of future lists: withdrawals which, in the Chair's view, are part of a strategy to mislead Members as to the progress of the House's business ought to be treated particularly severely.
  • The practice of adding ‘injury time’ to short time-limited speeches where interventions are taken causes difficulties for the Chair in managing debates with published call lists. While coronavirus restrictions continue, the relevant standing order should be modified so that no ‘injury time’ is added to backbench speeches limited to five minutes or fewer. The Government ought to make time for the House to consider this proposal and any amendments MPs may want to make to it.
  • To increase Chamber capacity, Members ought to be allowed to address the House from the undergalleries at the Members’ Lobby end of the Chamber.
  • The work necessary to allow MPs to address the Chamber from the side galleries doesn’t justify the use MPs are likely to make of these galleries. Nevertheless MPs should be facilitated to use the side galleries to observe debates.
  • The Committee will continue to monitor the operation of these temporary changes and assess whether they should be recommended for permanent implementation

Rt Hon Karen Bradley MP, Chair of the Procedure Committee, said:

“The Procedure Committee report, published today, highlights that many conventions relating to participation in House of Commons debates have had to be suspended in light of the public health restrictions currently in place in the Chamber.

“The Committee understands that the restrictions on access to the Chamber, and on ways MPs can be called to speak, are understandable and proportionate: but they fundamentally affect the basis on which the House operates.

“Call lists for debates are very often oversubscribed, as MPs wanting to speak in a debate now send in an email rather than attending the Chamber and waiting to be called while listening to the debate. When applying to speak, MPs ought to tell the Chair why they wish to contribute to the debate: this helps the Speaker and his Deputies work out the ordering of MPs on call lists.

“Our report recommends that Members who withdraw from call lists without good reason should have this behaviour taken into account in the compilation of future lists. Withdrawals from call lists as part of an apparent strategy to mislead the House about the progress of business ought to be treated particularly severely.

“The Government must reschedule its debate on virtual participation in proceedings and provide for a vote on its motion, and any amendments to it, at a predictable time. It is a House matter: MPs with proxy votes must have the opportunity to direct how their votes are cast in any divisions on it.

“The Government must also give the House an opportunity to consider and vote on the Chairman of Ways and Means’ proposal to modify time limits on debates during the current restrictions, something the Leader of the House has told us he is not presently prepared to allow.

“We have heard the concerns of colleagues about the balance of time between frontbench and backbench speeches in debates. The Committee acknowledges these concerns and will undertake systematic monitoring of this issue to inform further consideration.

“The Committee will continue to review House procedure and practice during the pandemic as the situation evolves.”

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