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Fri, 3 July 2020

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By Andrew McQuillan
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‘Utterly irresponsible’ – Inside the battle over Jacob Rees-Mogg’s plan to bring the Commons back amid the coronavirus lockdown

‘Utterly irresponsible’ – Inside the battle over Jacob Rees-Mogg’s plan to bring the Commons back amid the coronavirus lockdown

The virtual Parliamentary proceedings will not be brought back say the Government (PA)

9 min read

Parliamentary officials raced to get an unprecedented virtual chamber up and running during the coronavirus lockdown. But the Government wants MPs to ‘set an example’ as the rest of the country starts to head back to work. Alain Tolhurst reports on the almighty battle brewing over the return of the Commons.

The row over fully re-opening the House of Commons amid the coronavirus pandemic kicked up a notch on Thursday as Speaker Lindsay Hoyle effectively called the Government’s bluff.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Commons leader, wants to recall Parliament on Tuesday with none of the remote voting that has allowed it to function during the coronavirus pandemic, and the standing orders which allowed MPs to enter debates via video-link have already lapsed. 

But Sir Lindsay has given Mr Rees-Mogg until Monday to come up with an alternative method of voting – having warned the traditional spectacle of all 650 members traipsing through the division lobbies will not cut it while strict Covid-19 social distancing rules are still in place.

The Speaker has said he will allow those plans to be amended if they aren't met with cross-party approval – and has even promised to set out his own arrangements to prevent the Government from railroading theirs through.

A new report from the powerful Procedure Committee has also identified “significant deficiencies” in the Government’s plans and raised serious concerns. The Committee, chaired by Conservative MP Karen Bradley, has called for remote voting to remain an option.

This has left the Government facing a dilemma.

It can either continue to allow electronic voting, suspend divisions altogether, or come up with a new method of voting, which keeps MPs two-metres apart, before Monday. 

That last option raises the prospect of a line stretching from the chamber, out through Central Lobby and all the way into Westminster Hall, with votes taking double the amount of time they currently do. 

There is also is the not-insignificant matter of how sick, vulnerable and shielding MPs can participate, when public health advice tells them advised to stay indoors for another month.

Robert Halfon, the Tory MP for Harlow and a former minister, who has a disability, said on Friday that ill and shielding MPs would be left as “parliamentary eunuchs” – and accused Rees-Mogg of flicking “multiple v-signs” at parliamentary colleagues.

'A LOAD OF COBBLERS'

The sharply-worded letter from Sir Lindsay setting the deadline of Monday morning to come up with a solution is merely the latest salvo in a long-running row between his office and Downing Street over the plans to return to pre-coronavirus ways.

So how did we get here? 

Tensions first emerged with the initial creation of the hybrid system, with the Government wary of introducing something which fundamentally altered how the Palace functions.

Mr Rees-Mogg is a proud traditionalist, and even when it was clear Parliament had to change its ways for the lockdown, he appeared reluctant to say goodbye to some conventions, however briefly.

And there were fears the SNP and the Liberal Democrats, opposition parties who have made no secret of their desire to make sweeping reforms to what are seen as outmoded working practices, would use the current situation to make those changes permanent.

There were also well-founded concerns over whether the technology could cope, and despite the supreme hard work of Parliamentary staff to get a remote system up-and-running, there have been more than a few teething problems – not least Chancellor Rishi Sunak accidentally voting the wrong way.

From the moment Boris Johnson began to discuss 1 June as a key date for lifting coronavirus lockdown measures, Mr Rees-Mogg made it clear that this was the point to return to Parliamentary normality.

He has claimed the hybrid system is being used to "stymie" the Government, while MPs should, ministers have argued, “set an example” as the country gets back to work.

It is a view backed up by Mr Rees-Mogg’s predecessor in the role, Andrea Leadsom, who tells The House that now is the right time to come back.

Arguing that MPs “can't do our job properly without being there”, she points to the fact secondary legislation “has ground to a halt”, with no delegated legislation committees or standing bill committees going on – and no Westminster Hall or adjournment debates taking place.

The ex-Leader of the House says these are the “real bread and butter of Parliamentary scrutiny” – and criticises the lack of “spontaneity” in virtual debates.

But ending virtual participation after just a few weeks in order to prevent the changes becoming permanent is not an argument which convinces some MPs, with Mr Halfon branding the Government’s case “a load of cobblers”. 

“If Parliament wants to, once this Covid-19 is over, it can return to the traditional ways,” he wrote for us this week. “The Government has a big majority so any attempt to change to electronic voting could easily be rebuffed.”

A survey of MPs by The House has already shown that there is little appetite for virtual proceedings to be made permanent, with just one in five wanting to retain the ability to take part in debates via video link after the crisis, and only 11% thinking the right to vote remotely under any circumstances should be retained.

Others have suggested more political motivations for why the Government are so keen to move back towards normality next week, including the desire to give Mr Johnson a boost at PMQs.

With the lack of cheering and dry, formal atmosphere in recent weeks, many feel the session has favoured Labour’s Sir Keir Starmer, a former QC, who has managed to gain the upper hand through a lawyerly dissection of the PM.

Mr Johnson, a showman who enjoys playing to the gallery, has found it hard to find his rhythm without an audience, and some Tories feel he could do with a few more them at his back. Mr Rees-Mogg has dismissed such reports as “completely trivial”, and, in a dig at the Labour leader, claimed that Sir Keir’s “Perry Mason approach to parliamentary scrutiny” does not work.

Given the Speaker has already made it clear he will continue to limit the number of MPs in the chamber to 50, and will not hesitate to call an end to proceedings if he thinks they have become unsafe, the atmosphere at midday on a Wednesday is unlikely to change anytime soon, even with an end to the hybrid system.

Others have suggested the real concern about allowing MPs to stay in their constituencies comes from the whips’ office, who worry about maintaining party discipline at a distance. 

Several controversial pieces of legislation were pulled in recent weeks so that they did not get put to a virtual vote, and with issues such as the role of Chinese firm Huawei in the UK’s telecoms network coming down the line, the Government will want to have everyone in one place so they can judge the mood, work out the numbers and snuff out any rebellion.

'UTTERLY IRRESPONSIBLE'

Many MPs will choose not to return, including some from the SNP, who say travelling to Westminster “would disrespect Scotland's clear public health guidance, increase the risk of infection in our communities, and disenfranchise Scotland by effectively locking our MPs out of Parliament”.

Meanwhile Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael, who represents the remote constituency of Orkney and Shetland, tells The House it is "utterly irresponsible that the Government has chosen to scrap the virtual Parliament without making sufficient plans for MPs to participate in person safely."

He adds: “We have demonstrated that remote working and remote voting can work for Parliament during this crisis. Removing these measures will only serve to marginalise MPs who are shielding or who have vulnerable family members.

"Now more than ever, Parliament should be showing an example to the country by avoiding unnecessary travel.”

Mr Rees-Mogg has acknowledged concerns, expressed by Mr Halfon and others, that vulnerable Members – asked to adhere to public health guidance and shield themselves to limit the spread of the coronavirus – may struggle to take part. 

But so far the Commons leader has not explained how those issues will be resolved. There are suggestions proxy voting will be ruled out, with absences instead managed by mass pairing.

In his letter to MPs, the Commons leader said the chamber would open three hours earlier than planned on Tuesday to debate and take a decision "on the approach to physical divisions and social distancing in the Chamber". But already MPs are unhappy with this idea, saying it is impossible to have a vote on what rules need to be in place for voting when no safe system is even in place. 

In a report out this morning Karen Bradley, the chair of the Procedure Committee, says some form of continued virtual participation "continues to be the best option to enable all Members, including those unable to travel to Westminster, to represent their constituents”.

She adds: “We have serious concerns about how the proposed system for divisions in the Chamber will work in practice. The House ought to be made aware of the detail of the arrangements before it decides on temporary division arrangements on Tuesday."

Labour’s Valerie Vaz, the shadow Commons Leader, has said the confusion is "the latest example of the Government in chaos". “Jacob Rees-Mogg tried to abolish the hybrid remote parliament – which allowed all MPs to take part regardless of their personal circumstances – without any prior notice and against all advice on the last day Parliament met," she said. “He has bungled it and is now forcing Parliament to return early solely to correct his earlier discriminatory move.”

'SIMPLY NOT GOOD ENOUGH'

And it's not just MPs up in arms, either. The FDA union, which represents staff working in the House of Commons, has been deeply critical of next week’s return plan. The union says ministers “should have made sure Parliament was safe before they announced there would be a full return”.

Calling for the hybrid system to continue until at least the summer recess, the FDA’s assistant general secretary Amy Leversidge says: "We are very concerned that House authorities have not assessed the maximum capacity of the estate and have no mechanisms in place to be able to limit the numbers on site. 

“Staff are concerned that if MPs expect to return to a full parliament they will expect business as usual and return with their staff and invite visitors and expect the same level of service from House staff. House authorities are relying on MPs doing the right thing and not viewing their own circumstances as exceptional – this is simply not good enough, staff need clarity on these fundamental points.”

The Leader's office says they are still working with the House authorities on "a more appropriate alternative to division lobbies", as well as helping vulnerable MPs take part, and say the situation remains "under review" ahead any motion being tabled.

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