Jacob Rees-Mogg confirms virtual Parliament will end despite claim shielding MPs will be ‘euthanised from Commons’
House of Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg says the hybrid proceedings must end (Parliament TV)
Jacob Rees-Mogg has vowed once again to end the virtual Parliamentary proceedings and force MPs to come into Westminster from 2 June.
The Commons leader said the current hybrid system, where members can enter debates via video-link, “fundamentally restrict the House’s ability to perform its functions fully”.
With Parliament due to go into recess for two weeks for the Whitsun holiday at the close of play on Wednesday, he said when it returns at the start of next month so should MPs.
But the Cabinet minister has come under furious criticism from one of his own colleagues, the senior Conservative Robert Halfon, with the former minister accusing Mr Rees-Mogg of discriminating against members “who are sick, shielding, or self-isolating”.
He said: “Is it really morally just to say in effect to MPs, because you are not Tarzan-like and able to swing through the Chamber, beating your chest shouting to your constituents, ‘Look I am here!’ that you are effectively euthanised from the Commons?
“MPs who are disrupted by this awful pandemic are not just old horses to be sent to the knackers yard.”
And the Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle has also expressed unease about a wider return to the chamber for MPs, saying he will not hesitate to suspend proceedings if he feels it has become unsafe.
But Mr Rees-Mogg said if schools and other businesses are re-opening on June 1, MPs should too when the Commons returns the day after.
"We have to recognise that if we persist with the present arrangement it will become harder to make progress in a timely fashion,” he said.
"That is why, in line with Government advice for those who cannot do their jobs from home, I am asking members to return to their place of work after Whitsun.”
The Commons leader added: “We will not be returning to the crowded, bustling chamber of old. We will be observing social distancing.
“As a member of the House of Commons Commission, I was reassured yesterday by the progress being made in making the Parliamentary Estate a Covid-19 secure workplace.”
But Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael, who represents Orkney and Shetland, said he found the virtual arrangements "stilted and artificial", but added: "If it's a choice between that and putting the safety of members, their families and staff of the House at risk, then that is no choice at all and it should only end when safe to do so."
After reports Mr Rees-Mogg suggested perspex screens should be installed in the chamber to get more MPs inside, the former Cabinet minister said the only purpose of them would be “to shield the Government from scrutiny and the Prime Minister from ridicule”.
In response Mr Rees-Mogg said the point was a "fundamentally trivial one” which he would ignore, saying any expansion in the number of MPs allowed in currently capped at 50, will be in line with Government advice.
But a Labour spokesperson said: “The Government's own public health advice has said that those who can work from home should and Parliament has developed a successful system using technology to ensure the scrutiny of Government while allowing people to work remotely.
“The Government has yet to provide an honest explanation as to why they want to bring this virtual system to an end.
“That is why Labour and the other opposition parties have now tabled an amendment that would seek to continue the hybrid virtual arrangements after the Whitsun recess to keep the current system in place."
And the SNP’s Cabinet Office spokesperson Tommy Sheppard said MPs were being forced to choose between standing up for those who elected them and putting their own health at risk.
He told the Commons Mr Rees-Mogg’s position was “reckless, cavalier and downright dangerous”, adding: "The Leader talks of an ancient right to enter Parliament but what good is that right if it cannot be executed without endangering the lives of one's family and constituents?"
The FDA union, whose members include staff working in Parliament, meanwhile branded the decision “unbelievable”.
The union’s assistant general secretary Amy Leversidge said: “We do not accept the Leader of the House’s position that MPs cannot continue to work at home effectively with the virtual Parliament.
“Indeed, Rees-Mogg has offered no explanation for how a return to physical Parliament will allow for increased participation from MPs, as social distancing rules will still apply in the chamber.
“If he has concerns about the capacity of the virtual Parliament then, in the first instance, Parliament should explore improvements to the virtual proceedings. Instead, the Leader of the House has chucked the baby out with the bathwater and ended the hybrid Parliament without giving any detail about what will replace it.”