Commons leader reiterates his intention that MPs should return within two weeks, despite cross-party criticism
The leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg has vowed once again to end virtual parliamentary proceedings and force MPs to come into Westminster from 1 June.
He 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 that, when it returns at the start of next month, so should MPs.
But the Cabinet minister has come under criticism from one of his own colleagues, the senior Conservative Robert Halfon, with the former minister accusing Rees-Mogg (pictured above) 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?”
Labour claimed that the tech-based system introduced in recent weeks has worked well, and accused the government of thus far failing “to provide an honest explanation as to why they want to bring this virtual system to an end”.
“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,” a party spokesperson said. “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 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 Rees-Mogg said if schools and other businesses are reopening on June 1, MPs should too.
“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.”
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.”