May 17th, 2020
An article written in response to another published the previous day in support of an early return to Parliament and abandonment of the ‘hybrid’ process whereby MPs can appear in person or via the internet.
I very rarely disagree with Andrew Gimson and even more rarely do I not see eye to eye with Jacob Rees Mogg. But on an early return of the House of Commons, I do. On wholly practical grounds.
If anyone believes that an early return in June will mean a return to ‘business as usual’, they are badly misinformed.
Social distancing rules set by the Speaker with the support of the Commission and, indeed Jacob, as Leader of the House, mean that only 47 MPs out of 650 MPs will continue to be allowed to attend the Chamber of the House of Commons at any one time. This rule will apply for some time yet.
So Prime Minister’s Questions, important statements, and normally heated debates on legislation will sadly appear as they do now: with a denuded House of Commons Chamber. It will NOT be business as usual.
The current “hybrid” arrangements, however, while far from perfect, mean that MPs can work from home while ALL can still take part in voting on legislation, asking questions, scrutinising the Government, speaking in debates, as well as undertaking constituency work. That will not be possible with a wholesale return to House as many MPs will be excused on health grounds.
Neither are the cramped conditions of the 1840s Palace of Westminster an ideal environment for the thousands of staff who work in the building. Providing safe working conditions will be difficult as social distancing is nigh on impossible in its narrow corridors.
Meanwhile, having MPs arrive in Westminster from other parts of the country which are still experiencing high rates of infection is an epidemiologist’s very worst nightmare.
Nevertheless, those who do wish to work in Westminster despite the risks to others and themselves are free to do so – no-one is stopping them. And some can be seen now on the backbenches.
In the last week, I have asked questions of ministers including the Prime Minister, chaired a well “attended” All Party Parliamentary Group meeting, attended a meeting of the House Administration Committee, and voted several times on the Agriculture Bill. All without mishap. All from home. All MPs are able to do so.
So until the pandemic weakens and the Government is able to change its instruction to ‘work from home if you possibly can’, Parliamentarians should set an example and do just that.