"This is not 'survival of the fittest" – MPs split over ‘premature’ return to Parliament
The entrance to the socially distanced Commons chamber in the Hybrid Parliament | UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor
The leader of the Commons has announced that virtual proceedings will end later this month – much sooner than many MPs expected. For some Members, a return to Westminster is a welcome sign that the country is re-opening. But others say it will be impossible to return safely – and fear the move will leave them, and their constituents, disenfranchised
“It seems a bit premature apart from anything else,” Chris Bryant says down the phone from his kitchen in Rhonnda, South Wales. We’re discussing Jacob Rees-Mogg’s announcement this week that the Hybrid Parliament measures will end later this month, with MPs expected to set an example to the nation and physically return to the Commons. It was news that took many colleagues by surprise.
“How do they know that we’ll be able to?” the Labour MP and parliamentary historian continues, “since they don’t know what the lockdown measures are going to be or what the R rate is going to be or anything else?”
Bryant’s shock at the announcement is a sentiment shared by MPs, whether they agree with the leader of the House’s plan or not. Sir Graham Brady, the chair of the powerful 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers, describes himself as “pleasantly surprised”. Charles Walker, chair of the Administration Committee and vice-chair of 1922 is vociferous in his support for the full return. “I’m all for it, I just think it’s unbelievable that we’re asking the country to go back to work and yet we’ll still be meeting remotely,” says Walker, a regular attender in the physical chamber throughout the Hybrid Parliament period.
“When you get elected to Parliament, you’re in a leadership role… We’re asking people to go back to work, therefore we should go back to work as well. We’re elected to represent our constituents in the Palace of Westminster, we’re not elected to represent them in the seat.”
But for other MPs a physical return to the Commons in three weeks' time will not be possible – and they’re concerned about what this may mean for their ability to properly do their jobs. Conservative MP Robert Halfon warns that the Commons would become an “apartheid Parliament” if virtual participation measures are not kept in place for those who need them.
It is not a Parliament for survival of the fittest, it’s a Parliament for everybody
Halfon, who is disabled and considered in an at risk group, is currently shielding. “It’s not that I don’t want to come in, I would come in tomorrow if I could,” he says.
Although he cannot join his colleagues in the chamber, he does want the Commons to physically return – albeit with proper care taken for MPs and all those are working on the parliamentary estate (in normal times, that number would be around 5,000 people).
But Halfon is seriously concerned that the end of remote voting and virtual select committee meetings would “disenfranchise a significant amount of Parliament,” including those working in frontline healthcare jobs or with serious underlying health conditions who would find themselves unable to work as legislators. "It cannot be a Darwinian Parliament,” Halfon says, adding that he would be “very angry” if he was unable to remotely chair his committee. “It is not a Parliament for survival of the fittest, it’s a Parliament for everybody.”
The leader of the House’s proposals state the usual channels of ‘pairing’ MPs who have to miss votes will be sufficient for those who are unable to attend – something that Brady supports for those who cannot attend.
However, it is not just MPs with health conditions or working on the frontline who would struggle if Parliament was forced to completely physically return. Lucy Powell, the shadow business minister, was one of the first MPs to leave Parliament before lockdown began – she has two young children and her husband is a frontline medical professional. “I don’t think I’ll be able to [come back]. I was planning on potentially coming back for a day anyway… but in terms of being there regularly, that’s not really possible for me and I think probably quite a lot of MPs.”
Powell believes that the Government do not understand the realities of the personal challenges many colleagues would face around looking after families when childcare is limited, and the public health risks of taking cross-country journeys on public transport – as well as the fact that many MPs share flats in London with others from different parts of the country.
“Jacob Rees-Mogg and others, they live in London, they have nannies, they can walk across the road and be in Parliament” she says. “They don’t understand the implications for the vast majority of MPs.”
Although her Labour frontbench colleague Jess Phillips says she will be able to go back herself, she is against the “all or nothing” approach currently being proposed by the Government. "Normally as a parent in parliament, you have to suck it up and arrange childcare, you chose this life,” Phillips says. “But if you can’t make it that everyone can contribute safely, should they wish to, it seems as if it hasn’t been very well thought through… It just seems that someone has gone out and said something, and there is no detail behind it.”
Phillips commends the current “brilliant” management of social distancing and hygiene on the parliamentary estate, but thinks “it’s a big ask of the Parliamentary authorities” to try and implement it for an increased number of people in a short time frame.
Both Phillips and Powell raise the issue that before Easter recess Parliament appeared to be a hotbed of Covid-19 – with several MPs becoming ill, and many more potentially spreading the virus back to their constituencies. To date, two Members of Parliament have ended up in the ICU with Covid-19. “If we looked at that retrospectively what happened, I think there would be a lot more caution about that,” Powell warns.
It is a risk Angus MacNeil, the SNP MP for the Nah Eilan La-ar, the Outer Hebrides, won’t be taking. His remote constituency has had very few cases, and he won’t be returning to the Commons “unless it’s safe”. “My constituents aren’t going to thank me for going to London,” he says, describing colleagues who do so as “a bit gung-ho”.
MacNeil is highly critical of the Government’s “totalitarian” move to bring Parliament back physically, as well as the earlier easing of lockdown measures in England – which he describes as a “Covid casino”.
“It shows that in England, having risked their public, they’re also willing to risk their MPs. Of course, Boris Johnson may think he’s got some kind of immunity now so he’s maybe a bit more foolhardy than he even was previously. But in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland we’re not wanting to risk our publics like that, and I don’t think our publics want us to be going down into a place that is Covid gambling,” MacNeil says.
As a mechanism for holding the government to account, a Hybrid Parliament is hopeless
MacNeil thinks the Hybrid Parliament is working well, and warns the leadership not to “reverse back to the 18th Century” in a “supreme act of retrograde folly”.
But not everyone agrees that it’s an ideal system. Phillips, Bryant, Walker and Brady all point variously to the difficulties in properly scrutinising the Government, gauging the atmosphere of the House and whether a frontbencher has won them round, and lament the loss of proper debate. Public Bill Committees also aren't meeting virtually, something MPs say is making legislating more challenging. “The present situation is not ideal. I hate it,” Bryant says.
However, the Labour and Tory MPs disagree on whether or not it meets the Government’s distinction of ‘you can effectively work from home’ before asking employers to return. “Whether I like [the Hybrid Parliament] or not, whether I think it’s us working at the best of our capabilities… [Parliament] can work at home, there is a way we can do it,” Phillips says.
Walker, however, thinks that while the working-from-home measures are a “brilliant technical fix”, they are “not healthy for democracy” and MPs, as key workers, are not able to properly do their jobs. “As a mechanism for holding the government to account, it’s hopeless,” he says, adding that Parliament “will set a very good example of social distancing” to employers.
“The idea is that if Members of Parliament come back and show that workplace adjustments can be made, that is also essential so that other people have the confidence that their workplaces can make the adjustments.”
Bryant, on the other hand, is worried that not allowing for adjustments for those who cannot physically attend will set the wrong example to unscrupulous bosses. “What if you can’t come to Parliament? I think that’s crazy, and they’re giving a bad message to employers who would be doing something similar, saying if you can’t come in then we’ll sack you.”
“I think [the Government’s] anxiety is that they do want to get the country going again, a bit like Trump, as soon as possible,” Bryant continues. “They’re worried that if Parliament isn’t, how can they ask anyone else to?”
Powell says she “wouldn’t be at all surprised if [the plans] gets unpicked over coming weeks”. But she says the Government is taking risks with its messaging.“We want people to work from home where they can, and if that’s the main message, which I understand that it is, then we should be the first examples of that, not the opposite message which is all pile back to work regardless,” she explains.
Brady, though, says it is right that Parliament “demonstrates a steady return to normal business", while taking "extra care" for social distancing and hygiene. “The world is likely to be living with Covid-19 for many months and maybe many, many years,” he says, the sound of a parliamentary bell ringing behind him as we talk. “We have to find sensible ways of returning for a more normal life but seeking to do so in the safest way possible.”