Valerie responds to the Business Statement

Responding to the Business Statement on Thursday 1 October 2020, I highlighted the lack of parliamentary scrutiny the government’s coronavirus measures have been subject to. You can read my full speech below: 

I thank the Leader of the House for the business and for announcing the Opposition day and the recess. I also thank him and his office for forwarding all my requests to Ministers. We just need to find a way round the use of “in due course” and “shortly”. My hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) has received a “soon” on her 10-minute rule Bill on access to benefits for terminally ill people.

We did not get a very helpful response from the Foreign Office Minister, and I would say, in relation to Nazanin, Anousheh and Luke Symons, that we well remember how Jill Morrell kept the names of John McCarthy, Brian Keenan and Terry Waite front and centre so that people would not forget them, and that is what we must do now. These are innocent people who have done no wrong.

Mr Speaker, I know that the whole House—maybe apart from the Government—agrees with your statement and supports it.

Yesterday, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care said that he was announcing a new convention, but I am not quite sure what that means. He said that

“for significant national measures…we will consult Parliament”,

but I thought the Government had to consult Parliament anyway on anything that is supposed to come into effect. He also said that:

“wherever possible, we will hold votes”.—[Official Report, 30 September 2020; Vol. 681, c. 388.]

But there is no guarantee of a vote. The Leader of the House will know that the regulations on self-isolation, including the £10,000 fine, came into effect seven hours after publication, but the media were briefed eight days before, so there was plenty of time for a debate.

This so-called new convention only deals with national measures, not local measures, which is what right hon. and hon. Members want to know about, because they want to know what is going on in their constituencies. Last week, the Leader of the House said that there is regular scrutiny and debate, but that is not true, is it? Without the hybrid proceedings, many of our colleagues are excluded from taking part in debates on legislation, so the Government cannot have it both ways.

Let us look at the statutory instruments. Some of them are made through the negative resolution procedure, which means they are signed into law and are debated only if they are prayed against. Mostly, they are administrative and technical, but extending pre-trial custody from 56 days to 238 days deserved a debate, and in any event, the Government decide whether there is time for a debate. What about affirmative SIs? They are laid before the House only after they are signed into law.

Can the Leader of the House say why the majority of the regulations have been made under the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984, which is meant for emergencies, and not the coronavirus legislation, with its safeguards? Will he guarantee that we will have a debate or even a short statement on any new regulations that are proposed? We want it in the House, not in No. 10 from behind a lectern.

May we have a statement on 16 October, a sitting Friday? The European Council will meet on 15 October. The Prime Minister needs to give a statement to the House on the next phase of the negotiations.

That lack of transparency is everywhere. In the Government’s White Paper on planning, they are removing the requirement to place planning application advertisements in local newspapers. That is already happening in my constituency, where Walsall Council has decided, without any consultation, that it will not do an environmental impact assessment for one of the most important projects there, the route for a sprint bus. It is totally discredited; there will be more traffic; and no one wants it apart from the current Mayor.

Mr Speaker, you mentioned someone who is really good at transparency, and that is Mark Hutton. I, too, agree with your statement and want to pay tribute to Mark Hutton. He has been in this House for 35 years. As you say, one of his greatest legacies is “Erskine May” online, and he was the co-editor, with Sir David Natzler, the 25th edition. In fact, his nickname was “Erskine” Hutton. He always saw the potential of digital, and his advice was quite strategic across the House, both on procedure and how it related to the legal side and on how the House works. When he was at university, apparently he liked directing plays, so obviously he came to work here, because he likes the drama. He has left a great legacy.

The Leader of the House and I were on the Governance of the House Committee, which was very controversial at the time, but Mark managed to get us through that. Also, we agreed the report digitally, and it went through in record time. Mark has not only left online “Erskine May”; he has patiently taught the next generation of Clerks. Mark, we will miss you. Thank you for your work. The House is very grateful, and we hope to see you when you get back—and when we all get back, maybe at a do in Speaker’s House. [Interruption.] We hope you do, Mr Speaker; we are looking forward to your dos.

It is Black History Month. Tomorrow is the anniversary of the birth of Gandhi, and it was lovely to see a photo of Dr Martin Luther King in his dining room with picture of Gandhi. Both of them worked for justice in a non-violent way. Today is also the mid-autumn festival for the Chinese community.

Finally, on behalf of the whole House, I want to send our very best wishes to my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne), who is jumping out of a plane on Sunday, weather permitting, for six year-old Florence, who has a life-limiting disease and a rare genetic condition. He is not on the call list today, but we hope will see him next week at business questions, hopefully without a plaster cast.”