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Procedure Committee 

Oral evidence: Procedure under coronavirus restrictions, HC 300

Monday 12 October 2020

Ordered by the House of Commons to be published on 12 October 2020.

Watch the meeting 

Members present: Karen Bradley (Chair); Jack Brereton; Bambos Charalambous; Chris Elmore; James Gray; Andrew Griffith; Rob Roberts; Douglas Ross; James Sunderland.

Questions 338 - 418

Witnesses (in 3 panels)

I: Barbara Keeley MP, Claire Hanna MP and Stephen Farry MP (Questions 338 – 354).

II: Rt Hon. Dame Eleanor Laing MP, Chairman of Ways and Means, Rt Hon. Dame Rosie Winterton MP, First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means, and Mr Nigel Evans MP, Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Questions 355 382).

III: Dr John Benger, Clerk of the House of Commons, and Matthew Hamlyn, Strategic Director, Chamber Business Team, House of Commons (Questions 383 – 418).

Written evidence from witnesses:

     CVR 103              Barbara Keeley MP

     CVR 84              Stephen Farry MP

     CVR 112              Rt Hon. Dame Eleanor Laing MP, Chairman of Ways and Means

     CVR 116              Rt Hon. Dame Eleanor Laing MP (additional memorandum submitted subsequent to meeting)

     CVR 115              Matthew Hamlyn, Strategic Director, Chamber Business Team, House of Commons (supplementary memorandum)

Examination of witnesses (panel 1 of 3)

Witnesses: Barbara Keeley MP, Claire Hanna MP and Stephen Farry MP.

Q338       Chair: Hello, everybody. Thank you very much to Stephen Farry, Claire Hanna and Barbara Keeley for joining us today. We have quite a long evidence session with three different panels this afternoon. We are engaged in a short, sharp inquiry into how procedure is affecting Members of Parliament and their ability to do their jobs under coronavirus restrictions. We are looking to see whether there are any particular recommendations we can make in time for the Government to deal with the recommendations after the recess, so we will be looking to get a report out before we go into the half-term recess that is coming up. We are particularly focused on the way in which the Chamber operates, the call list in the Chamber and time limits, and how they are affecting you as Members of Parliament in your ability to represent your constituents.

Perhaps we can kick off with the call lists. We are looking particularly at call lists for debates on motions and legislation; not the call list for questions. May I can start with Stephen on an open question? How well is the system working and is there anything you would want to see improved?

Stephen Farry: Thank you very much, Chair; I welcome the opportunity to contribute. I am increasingly taken with the call lists because I think they do provide a degree of structure. They are an innovation that has been forced upon us through Covid, but looking to a post-Covid world down the line, I think there is merit in retaining them, particularly for small parties. Whenever in the past we were bobbing up and down, we did not know whether we were catching the Speaker’s eye or exactly what was happening in that respect, and we needed to be in the Chamber consistently to intervene in a debate, so they are very useful in that respect.

There is a side issue, which is the speaking time associated with them, in that we have a much more structured approach. It is very important that as many voices as possible are heard on the various debates, so I do tend towards the time limits being sadly necessary. I think I have only ever given one speech longer than five minutes in my time so far in the House of Commons, but you can do wonders with efficiency in your delivery times through necessity.

There is a need for a certain self-denying ordinance at times for some of the Front-Bench speeches, which tend to eat into the amount of time. That is probably the one downside: a lot of these Second Reading debates have become very compressed and there has not been much time for discussion.

Chair: You are not the first person to mention the Front-Bench times. Claire, do you have anything you would like to say on this point?

Claire Hanna: Very similar to Stephen. Obviously I did not have much to compare with from the two months or so operating in the old system, but the call lists are great for a little bit more certainty and structure in your day, and having a more realistic estimate of whether or not you will get in, and therefore of how much time to prepare and how much time you invest in preparing to speak.

Like Stephen, I think time limits for Front Benchers would be very useful as well. The speeches tend to be elongated by a large number of interventions, and perhaps if people had a little bit more certainty that they were going to get in, there would not be the same number of interventions. There are some lengthy speeches from Back Benchers as well. Having the experience of being somebody who is called later on in a debate and sometimes seeing a debate that you wanted to speak in being timed out does focus your mind and you do tend to be quite brief. I know we have a reputation for going on and on in Northern Ireland, but thankfully we do speak quite quickly as well.

A good intervention, perhaps particularly on a Monday, is getting the call lists a little bit earlier—sometimes you do not get the call list until mid to late afternoon, and that is a disadvantage in terms. I do not want to draw too much attention to it. It does speak fairly equitable for the small parties as well, and maybe that has to do with the nature of the particular debates that we are typically engaging on.

Barbara Keeley: I think call lists are essential. They are essential for the Chamber, obviously, to limit participation to safe levels. If you are talking at the moment about call lists around debates, that is one thing, but I will have things to say, if you want me to cover this, on the call lists for scrutiny time. The process relating to scrutiny time is very unfair and it is balanced against people who have to participate remotely.

Regarding the way debates are going in the Chamber, the pandemic and the health issues mean we cannot return for some time to the previous style of debates. I know you can hear people hankering for that in what they say, and they want to go back to bobbing, interventions and that type of thing, but it is not going to happen. The only time I have been in the Chamber in the last six months was the day on which there was a Member who had tested positive for Covid there. That was a risk to the staff, it was a risk to me and it was a risk to all of us, so the way we have the Chamber is the way we need to have the Chamber, and I do think call lists work.

Probably like everything else—it was wonderful how fast all these systems came together, and staff did a remarkable job—we do not have the balance of participation right yet and we do not have the shuffle process right yet, but maybe we can come on to that if we are looking at scrutiny time.

Q339       Bambos Charalambous: Since 2 June, virtual participation has been limited to questions, urgent questions and statements, but you cannot participate virtually in debates, including on motions. Has this affected your ability to participate?

Barbara Keeley: I had cancer last year; I have said that in my written evidence to the Committee. I am not ill now, but the advice I have from doctors is that I have to reduce the number of contacts. We are not strictly talking about the voting system here, but I cannot reduce the number of my contacts in the House with the voting system we currently have, where you have to queue with hundreds of MPs who may not be wearing a mask and not observing social distancing. The impact is this: I am excluded from participation in legislation, in general Opposition day debates, in Backbench Business Committee debates and even, if you think about it, in Adjournment debates and presenting petitions.

Those last two points are inexcusable, and I would ask the Committee to look at that because the Chamber is set up for virtual participation. I understand that other parts of the House are not, but the Chamber is because that is where we have scrutiny time. Given that I cannot take part in other debates, why can I not have an Adjournment debate?  How do I present a petition if I have a petition to present?

I think the current procedures are really hampering the participation of those Members with a proxy vote. The last I looked at the list of Members, there were 159. That is a quarter of the people in the House and that has to be taken seriously. We have a process that is stopping 159 MPs from taking part in the proceedings of the House, and that is wrong.

Q340       Bambos Charalambous: Barbara, to follow up on that, I take it from your response that you are in favour of the reintroduction of virtual participation in debates. Is that right?

Barbara Keeley: Yes, I think that could be done. The House staff did a remarkable job of pulling together the hybrid Parliament and the voting system.  It was just abandoned on the whim of certain individuals in the House and that is wrong. The current voting system is straightforwardly stopping me from doing my job as an MP. It is stopping me from representing my constituents.

In my evidence, I gave some examples of the type of cases that have been cropping up in my constituency. I have a lot of people in the aviation sector because they work at Manchester airport. I have a lot of creatives and self-employed people. There were debates on that in September; I could not take part in them. How can I represent my constituents if I cannot take part in them?

I also said in my evidence how difficult it is to even get called in scrutiny time. I would be grateful if we could come on to look at this in more detail. I have entered oral questions to try to put questions on behalf of my constituents 69 times since the Members’ hub portal opened. I have been successful on three occasions. That is what we are working with. I know that Members who are there physically probably feel this too, but it is not acceptable to have a system that just stops a quarter of Members of the House from talking part.

Q341       Bambos Charalambous: Barbara, a follow-up to that. Do you think there would be any impact on being able to participate virtually in debates on motions and legislation? Do you think there would be an adverse impact if we went back to having virtual participation? Would they still be debates, in other words?

Barbara Keeley: I think what we have could be developed. To give an example, in scrutiny time—I am on the call list for this afternoon—you get to ask a question, but the camera then pans away from you so you do not even get a reaction shot. We have not developed the technology of broadcast to the point where we can even see, most of the time, how the Member asking the question reacts to what the Minister is saying. It just pans straightaway to the Chamber and that is the end of your participation. We could have developed that. Clearly we are all using Zoom for an awful lot of meetingsZoom and Teams. We need to develop the ability to handle interaction. I know it is not easy. We are all tussling with this, but it has to be developed. We could have sections of the time that are for remote participation. We could develop ways of doing it.

Q342       Bambos Charalambous: The same questions for Claire and Stephenyour views on that.

Claire Hanna: I agree about input into debates. We know it is possible to do it, because it was up and running before June, both in terms of facilitating people with shielding, childcare or local lockdown needs, or for whatever reason they are unable to participate, but also in terms of leadership. If we are saying to people, “Work from home if you can,” and it has been demonstrated that we can work in that fashion, there is a perception out there that the reason these facilities do not exist is ideological and that a small number of people have decided that it should be in person and everybody goes down to London. That does, as the previous speaker indicated, disenfranchise a large number of MPs. It also exposes those of us who are travelling to a lot more contact. The fact is if you are getting a plane and a train and all that, you are necessarily exposed more widely.

While obviously there was a little bit of loss of quality with the loss of interventions and whatever when you were inputting into debates, it is important that people are able to make those contributions. It was up and running. I found that the system in April and May worked very well and it allowed you to participate in a very wide range of discussions. While I am now in a situation where I am able to travel back to London—obviously many of us now are where Northern Ireland is, entering potentially in a stricter lockdown—it gives a bad impression if you are exposing yourself to all those contacts when it is not necessary. I agree that the mechanisms that are available certainly should be reinstated in standard debates.

Stephen Farry: I would add two further points. The first one relates to participation in debates. It is almost framed as if it is a choice between a hybrid approach where everyone is stuck in a very regimented five minutes each and there is no free-flowing debate, or we go for what is the current system where everyone has to be in the Chamber. Being very, very pragmatic around it, I could accept a situation where those of us participating virtually perhaps had fewer options rather than simply giving everyone a five-minute speech down the internet, as it were. If others wanted to have intervention in the Chamber at the same time, that would be a price worth paying to enable a bit more flexibility for those who are not able to attend to participate.

The second thing to say on voting—I appreciate you may come to it later on, but I will say it now anyway—is that the notion that we all line up in Parliament in a socially distanced queue to then vote electronically is insane. The technology exists to vote electronically. If we are queuing up to do it the old-fashioned way, for some form of tradition, to be ticked off by a teller, that is one thing, but simply to line up in what is perhaps a very dangerous system simply to swipe a card when you can just tap a button on your phone seems very pointless and reckless.

Q343       James Gray: A hypothetical question, if I am allowed that. Let’s imagine we have a decent hybrid system for debates and for questions and let’s imagine we had a worthwhile electronic voting system for the Housein other words, a fully hybrid Parliament or a fully virtual Parliament during the pandemic. How likely do you think it would be, post-pandemic—we have to think that that will sooner or later occur, although quite when we do not know—that all of that will be swept away and we return to where we were? Do you not think if we had all that in place now, there is at least a reasonable probability that people would argue it would be much better to stay in Northern Ireland and do useful things in Northern Ireland? Why go to London? Would that be the case?

Claire Hanna: I assume that the slippery-slope feeling is behind a lot of the retraction of the hybrid Parliament, but I disagree. Everybody in every sector is conducting more of their work virtually, but everybody knows that there is enormous value to human interaction. We have all demonstrated that there is more value to that free flow of debate and allowing for interventions, as well as establishing good working relationships. I do not think it is necessarily a bad thing if, in the future, there are more levels of participation, but we are dealing with the pandemic and the mechanisms are in place to deal with the pandemic. If we are in a post-Covid environment, some of the advantages should stay, but I do not think you are going to have people who never want to go down to Parliament. It is not a good enough reason to disenfranchise such a large number of people, or to put such a large number of people at risk, that in the future we may be creating a precedent. We are talking about dealing with particular circumstances. As per every other sector, face-to-face human contact will still be the gold standard and something that people will want to achieve.

Stephen Farry: I agree. There are two innovations that I would like to see become effectively permanent. One is the call lists and the second is electronic voting. What we are missing is the human interaction and the networking that happens in the Houses of Parliament, both with fellow Members, but also with all the various NGOs and sitting through the different events. While I think that in a post-Covid world we will see a much heavier move towards virtual meetings, just for efficiency, we are missing the informal ability to network and lobby, which is part and parcel of the parliamentary process. That alone will bring a certain degree of a restoration once we are through Covid.

Barbara Keeley: I have been a Member for 15 years and I love being in the ChamberI love the cut and thrust of debate and I wish we could get back to it. I just am not prepared to take such a massive risk with my life and that of my family, and 150-odd of us are in the same position. We should not have to balance the risks to our health of braving the current voting system that Members have just talked about.

Q344       James Gray: I totally accept that. I was not talking about now; I was talking about post-Covid, if there was a time—

Barbara Keeley: Yes, I understand.

James Gray: It is the slippery-slope question.

Barbara Keeley: I understand, but that was the point I was making. I love being in the Chamber and I love being involved in debatesjumping up to ask my question and intervening on colleagues. I am missing all of that. Those of you who are there physically probably do not understand how much those of us who are not able to be there physically are missing all that. I am missing all that. My constituents are missing seeing me doing it but, as I explained, I cannot do that at the moment, but I think the natural desire to do that, the enjoyment of that and the wish for it to be a big part of your job will mean we go back to how it was as soon as we can do so safely. It is just that we cannot do it safely, and I think people are not accepting that we cannot do it safely.

Q345       James Sunderland: Good afternoon. Thank you for appearing today. My question relates to difficulties that colleagues have experienced in the Chamber participating in House proceedings under coronavirus conditions and it relates to the two Northern Ireland MPs, please, Claire and Stephen, the first question of three is: have you encountered issues in finding a place in the Chamber from which to ask questions or to speak in debates.

Claire Hanna: No, we have made it work a little bit. That top-right corner of the Opposition Benches tends to be where the Northern Ireland MPs cluster. When I have been there, there have been a few scenarios where one or other of us needs to speak and the others are waiting in the little gallery part, and we have been surprisingly good at the choreography. I suppose that is a case of not going into the Chamber unless you are on the call list. If people were speculatively going in, for example to intervene in a debate, it might be more of a problem, but it is working mainly because Members are facilitating each other. If you see that somebody is on the call list and is trying to get in, people are quite open to swapping. Therefore, so far, no, I have not had a scenario where I wanted to get in, either for a scheduled appearance or to intervene, and I was not able to do that.

Stephen Farry: Largely the same. Despite what people say about us in Northern Ireland, we often work together behind the scenes. We have managed the choreography on a few occasions when there have not been enough seats perfectly well. It would be useful if the Speaker occasionally reminded people, if they are quite late on a call list, maybe to be a bit more flexible, or that if you are not on the call list at all you should not be in the Chamber. Apart from that, it has not become an issue on any particular occasion. Once I wandered off on to the Labour Benches and that caused a little bit of confusion with some people. That aside, it has worked perfectly fine.

Q346       James Sunderland: Thank you very much. Does the Chamber need more places from which Members can speak and/or intervene?

Claire Hanna: That little gallery—sorry, I do not know what it is called—that is opposite to the Speaker would appear to make sense. I guess the issue is lack of microphones or something, but when we are trying to expand the space available, if that is an intention, it would seem to make sense to make that part of the Chamber proper. If we can create more spaces, definitely there is value in being in Chamber but, as I say, it has not been an acute problem as yet.

Stephen Farry: Again, the same answer. On balance we have to take the social distancing very seriously. The recent incident with an MP in difficulties in that regard brought home to me the importance of us sitting those 2 metres apart, because if we had been any closer, any one of us could have found ourselves on a tracing system and having to self-isolate as a consequence. While it is perhaps tempting to put more of us closer together, when things go wrong there is a very heavy price to pay.

Q347       James Sunderland: Thank you very much indeed. I think the question has been answered already, but the third of three questions is: would you like to see the under galleries at the Members’ Lobby end of the Chamber available as a further place to speak from.

Claire Hanna: Yes.

Stephen Farry: Yes, if practical with microphones and camera angles.

Q348       James Gray: That would only add a matter of two or three more speaking slots because, of course, they have to be separated out. I was interested in your use of the word “choreography”. Surely your choreography depends on the non-speaker sitting in the under gallery slot and then moving on to the Benches to speak. If that was taken up by somebody else trying to speak, presumably you would have to be out in Members’ Lobby or somewhere.

Claire Hanna: It simply means that if you could speak from that gallery, you would not need to switch places with the person who is in the—

James Gray: Only assuming you had that spot.

Claire Hanna: Assuming you had it.

Q349       James Gray: If that spot was allocated to somebody else to ask a question, you would not be able to do the choreography that the minority parties in particular seem to be finding very useful.

Claire Hanna: Like I say, I have not had a scenario where there has been an item of business that I have desperately wanted either to observe from the Chamber or to participate in that I have not been able to. Even pre-Covid, the Chamber was rarely full. I know what you mean. For the likes of PMQs or something, those gallery spots would be filled up, but for normal scrutiny procedures, they are very often not full.

Stephen Farry: To add to that, this is where the call lists become very useful because we know where each of us is on that call list, so if you are due to speak quite early, if you see one of your colleagues who perhaps is speaking later than you, usually a very polite request is sufficient to alternate who is sitting where. It can be managed that way. It only really becomes an issue around things like Northern Ireland questions when there will be quite a lot of Northern Ireland MPs in the same area trying to get in, but across the rest of business there can be just one or two of us at any one time, so it works out.

Q350       Jack Brereton: These questions are particularly to Claire and Stephen. Obviously you have various challenges with getting to Westminster. Are the conditions, particularly in your constituencies, threatening to cause additional difficulties for your continuing to attend Westminster?

Stephen Farry: If I start that one first, it does create a certain degree of nervousness. I am here in a wider family context and the context of caring responsibilities related to the Covid situation, so it is not an option for me at this point in time. We do have a few more flights at present, which is useful, but back in July we were literally dependent upon one flight per day between Northern Ireland and London. If that went at a difficult time, that was very challenging.

I will give you one example. If I did not catch the 11 am flight out of Heathrow on a Thursday morning—which means missing, in effect, the entirety of Thursday business—on one week, every other flight was booked up until Sunday evening. If I needed to stay for some business on the Thursday afternoon, I would not have been able to return to my constituency for three further days. That was not a viable option. There are thankfully about five or six flights per day now, so there is much more flexibility in that respect, but it is still a certain hostage to fortune.

Part of the difficulty as well is that if we find ourselves in a situation—speaking about personal circumstances, I do not have a place in London and I am working out of hotels at present—where any of us are in a situation where we are required to self-isolate, we do not have that flexibility and we should not be travelling. Once we are told to self-isolate we need to self-isolate. That then creates certain logistical and practical difficulties too.

Claire Hanna: Yes, similar to Stephen, the flight situation is improving, but, for example, last week the scenario was that I had to hang around for a vote on Wednesday and it meant that even though I was freed up by 4 pm, I could not get a flight to the next day. That adds costs to the public pursean extra night in a hotel. And, of course, people are trying to balance their domestic duties and constituency appointments as well. I also have real anxiety about that. You could get a notification, perhaps because of that queue you have been in for voting. I have three small children and the thought that I might suddenly be stranded in London in a hotel room for 14 days makes me very, very anxious. I would not have a way of getting home.

It is that simple fact of reducing your contacts. With all the social distancing in the world, if you are taking public transport to the airport, moving through the airport and sitting on a plane—different airlines seem to have very, very different policies in terms of filling all the seats and so onor indeed taking a taxi, there is no way you can reduce your contacts. You have a large volume of close contacts. They are a manageable risk, but it is a real worry that you might end up trapped for two weeks because of one of those contacts being positive.

Q351       Jack Brereton: I am going to move on to time limits for speakers. Obviously we have seen that quite a few colleagues have been concerned about time limits and the extent to which they are being used. How well do you think the current arrangements for time limits on speakers are working?

Claire Hanna: They seem to be working reasonably well. It is frustrating if you are late on a call list and there is almost an accidental filibuster where somebody is going on and on and on. We have all been in debates where you are hearing the same points over and over again, and some of that is about Members own self-awareness and understanding all the different views. I think time limits are useful because they allow people to have a much more realistic understanding of if and when they will get in and, as Stephen said earlier, they focus the mind. If you knew you needed to make your points in five, six or seven minutes, the quality of the contributions would go up.

Q352       Jack Brereton: Do you think they are being used more frequently at the moment because so many people are trying to get in on the few things that are going on in the Chamber? Obviously there are not the usual number of things that MPs could go into happening in and around Westminsterthe events that usually take place hereso do you think there is more pressure on time within the Chamber?

Stephen Farry: There is perhaps an issue for the business managers in ensuring that there is more time available, particularly for debates that people know will be very heavily over-subscribed. I appreciate that the Covid regulations discussion last week or the week before was perhaps an extreme example in that respect, when there was huge interest but, as a matter of law, we were only allowed 90 minutes rather than a business managers allocation. That is something to bear in mind. Overall, while we like to talk at length, there are more pros than cons to the time limits.

Chair: Barbara, did you want to say anything? I know you have been in for one of the debates.

Barbara Keeley: Yes, I think it works well. It may change now that Westminster Hall debates have opened up and there are more opportunities for debate. It has been a time when there has been a rationed set of opportunities. Obviously I feel that as much, if not more, than anybody, but I think it will open up.

We all have to get used to a different way of working, haven’t we? I have read through the transcripts of your previous sessions and it is down to us to be able to speak in three minutes or four minutes if that is what we get. Throughout my political career, it is something I have had to learn to do. It probably should not go down much more than that. Once it gets down to two minutes, there is a limit to how much you can usefully say. We can accept three or four minutes, because you can think through and make some useful points in that time, but probably not less than that.

Q353       James Gray: What do you think about the current rules on interventionsif there are two interventions, you get an extra minute? That might be fine if you have a 10-minute speech, but what if you have a five-minute speech going up to seven minutes? Do you think there is room for abuse of the system and should that be changed?

Barbara Keeley: The difficulty is giving people more time every time they take their first two interventions. Obviously in a situation where time is pushed, people start getting a colleague to intervene on them very quickly so that they get an extra minute. Intervening should not provide a way around the timing restrictions; it just should not. It has been suggested, has it not, to stop the clock during an intervention, but not necessarily to add on an extra minute? Yes, take the intervention if you choose to, but it should not mean that you get seven minutes instead of five, because as the Speaker and the Deputy Speakers say, every time you do that you are taking a speaking opportunity away from one of your colleagues lower down the list.

Stephen Farry: I am slightly more pragmatic on that issue. I have seen a few occasions when it has been clearly abused, but it is a reasonable compromise with demand for debate so that it is not simply people reading out speeches and then moving on to the next person, but you have some degree of challenge and intervention. I do appreciate perhaps a limit of two.

Q354       James Gray: Surely that is the point, is it not? If you did not get the injury time on your speech, you are not going to take interventions, are you? Why would you waste your time doing so?

Stephen Farry: I agree with you in that respect. Unless you have that additional time, you will not give way. But I think a maximum of two—that is the current rule as I understand itfor the extensions is a reasonable compromise and a way of facilitating hybrid discussions at the same time as allowing a little bit of exchange in the Chamber at the same time, which is a reasonable compromise.

Claire Hanna: I tend to agree. I have not been in that many debates other than Westminster Hall where the speaking limit has dropped much below five, six or seven minutes. It seems to be a lot higher and you definitely do want to facilitate that exchange. Again, some of it will come back to a change in the culture and people only intervening if it is a point worth making.

Chair: Thank you very much. I do appreciate the time you have given us. It was important for us as a Committee to hear from MPs from all parts of the country and from all parties, and I am very glad we could accommodate you today. Thank you again for your oral evidence and for your written evidence, where you have supplied it. It will inform us in our recommendations, which we will be hoping to publish some time in the near future.

I will close this session and then we will move on to our next session, which is a physical panel with the Deputy Speakers. Thank you to our witnesses.


Subsequent panels:

II: Rt Hon. Dame Eleanor Laing MP, Chairman of Ways and Means, Rt Hon. Dame Rosie Winterton MP, First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means, and Mr Nigel Evans MP, Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Questions 355 – 382).

III: Dr John Benger, Clerk of the House of Commons, and Matthew Hamlyn, Strategic Director, Chamber Business Team, House of Commons (Questions 383 – 418).