Lancashire's Sir Lindsay Hoyle orders lessons in parliamentary etiquette for MPs
Chorley MP and Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle is sending fellow parliamentarians back to school to remind them of the rules of the House ahead of its return to normal operation.
The pandemic forced Parliament to rip up centuries of tradition and transform itself into an institution reliant on the latest technology in order to function in Covid-secure fashion.
The last 15 months have seen members often dialling into debates directly from their constituencies and voting by proxy. It was a radical shift in practice undertaken at a speed for which the Commons is not normally known.
However, Parliament is preparing to return to pre-pandemic mode when the summer recess ends in early September - with capacity restrictions removed and MPs required to vote in person, unless they benefit from existing exemptions for maternity or paternity leave.
Sir Lindsay says members will be invited to “refresher sessions” to remind them of parliamentary protocol during debates. The courses are especially aimed at those MPs who were elected at the December 2019 election and had only been attending the chamber for a matter of weeks before the processes they were just getting to grips with were turned on their head.
“We thought about how to re-educate MPs in the courtesies of the House and the way it works, to make sure we are up and running and ready to go when everyone returns.
“It will be a completely different way of doing things [compared to during the pandemic]. We have been ordering members out of the chamber once they have spoken, whereas now we’ll be ordering them to stay. So they will have to be there for the beginning of [debates] and for the wind-up [speeches] - and they should wait for at least two speeches or questions [after theirs before leaving],” Sir Lindsay explains.
The veteran politician admits that he, too, might have to reacquaint himself with keeping order amidst the cacophony of the Commons - but says he is keen to return to a more dynamic form of debate.
“The electric [atmosphere] that we normally have just isn’t there at the moment - it's very flat and pedestrian, so it’ll be nice to get back to a more exciting chamber, which is what we’re used to in this country.
“[The temporary arrangements] have got us through. The government had legislation and it was only right that it was scrutinised - that's why we had to keep the chamber operational.”
However, Sir Lindsay says that there is one golden rule for MPs that applied long before the Covid crisis and should continue to dictate how MPs behave in the Commons.
“Don’t fall foul of the chair,” he laughs.
Sir Lindsay’s neighbouring constituency MP - South Ribble’s Katherine Fletcher - is one of those who had only been at Westminster for a few weeks before almost everything about the place changed. She says that the hybrid debates ushered in by the pandemic - and the setting of times for those members physically present to enter and leave the chamber in order to make their contribution - have led to something being lost within the parliamentary process.
“The back and forth that usually happens in a debate does actually shape the mood of the House [about the subject under discussion]. I think the cut and thrust of it is genuinely important.
“It’s a bit like a conversation in a pub - if you all sit around a table and each only get to speak for one minute in order, that’s not really a conversation. When you sit around over a meal or with friends, the discussion [you have] helps you form an opinion or shape a view,” Ms. Fletcher says.
And while she has been in the chamber on numerous occasions since the pandemic struck - including to second the so-called “humble address” on the day of the Queen’s Speech - she says that it has been particularly frustrating not to be allowed to stay beyond an allotted time.
“We go in, make our contribution and then watch the rest of the debate on the telly. And if you [later] think, ‘I should have made that point’, you’re then sat at your desk saying to yourself ‘Rats, I should have said that’.”
During the course of a normal debate, MPs have the option of asking if the person currently speaking will “give way” to allow them to make an intervention. They can also “bob” - that is stand up in an attempt to attract the Speaker’s eye and ensure they are selected to speak.
However, under the Covid precautions, Parliament has operated a call list system which has seen MPs invited to take part in debates in a strict order and one which reflects the political balance of the Commons.
The first hybrid sitting of the House took place in April last year, with 50 members permitted to sit - socially distanced - in the chamber at any one time and 120 others allowed to dial in to take part in ministerial statements or questions. From June 2020, proxy voting was introduced, but only for those MPs who had declared themselves unable to attend Westminster in person for medical or public health reasons related to the pandemic. At the same time, remote participation was also restricted to that group of members.
However, proxy voting and remote participation were made available to all MPs in November and December respectively as the country was hit by the second wave of Covid. Meanwhile, the number of MPs allowed in the chamber was upped to 64 just under two months ago.
Katherine Fletcher says that after more than a year of disruption to the usual parliamentary processes, Sir Lindsay’s refresher courses cannot come soon enough.
“I do kind of know how everything works, but I managed to make a couple of spectacular mistakes in [the few weeks after being elected] by trying to speak from a seat you weren’t supposed to speak from.
“It’s about having respect for the House, which is such a longstanding institution. We all want to get it right.”