MPs are calling on Jacob Rees-Mogg to extend the system that has allowed them to work from home, which is due to expire next week as the summer recess ends.
Rees-Mogg, the leader of the Commons, has been keen on as many MPs as possible to return to Westminster, with the government hoping to “lead by example” in encouraging employees back to their workplaces.
But opposition parties are demanding an extension of the “hybrid parliament” arrangements, that allowed them to take part in proceedings by video-link, appearing on large screens in the Commons chamber.
Ed Davey, the new leader of the Liberal Democrats, said: “Hybrid proceedings are still an absolute necessity. With areas of the UK still in lockdown and the threat of spikes in the virus remaining very real, there will be many parliamentarians and parliamentary staff with good reason for being unable to be in Westminster in person.”
Some MPs are warning that they have underlying health conditions while others are in areas where local restrictions are tighter, and don’t want to risk travelling across the country.
Andrew Gwynne, the Labour MP for Denton and Reddish in Greater Manchester, has documented his struggles with “long covid” – the long-term effects of the coronavirus suffered by some of those who contract it.
“Clearly the government would like MPs to go back to sitting in parliament permanently, but that just isn’t going to be possible for a small number of people: either for public health reasons, because they’re coming from parts of the country that are facing local lockdowns, and what you don’t want to do is inadvertently become a super-spreader and give it to other MPs who then go back to their own constituencies that are relatively Covid-free and start polluting their own areas. But also, there are people like myself who are still struggling with the long-term impacts of coronavirus,” he said.
“On a good day, I would probably be able to cope OK; but I can’t plan which is going to be my good day, and which is going to be my bad day. And my constituents should not be disenfranchised,” he said.
The SNP’s spokesman on the cabinet office, Tommy Sheppard, said, “the return of parliament is a significant test for the UK government, as we are still in the middle of a global health pandemic and know that social distancing is impossible in parts of Westminster.”
He called for the hybrid arrangements to be extended to the end of the year, adding: “in accordance with the guidance for those who live in Scotland, where working from home is possible, SNP Members and our staff are encouraged to do so.”
During the early stages of the lockdown, an electronic voting system was introduced; but Rees-Mogg later replaced that with voting in person, which caused long socially-distanced queues to snake through the Palace of Westminster in what sceptical MPs dubbed the “Rees-Mogg conga”.
MPs with health concerns can request a proxy vote, which is exercised on their behalf by party whips. Gwynne said the electronic voting system was preferable. “It’s not for me not to trust the whips, but I would far sooner cast the vote myself and be fully accountable to the electorate than trust my whip to do the job for me,” he said.
The hybrid system will expire at the end of Wednesday’s parliamentary sitting, unless the government tables a motion to extend it. A spokesperson said: “In July we extended arrangements to allow for remote participation in scrutiny proceedings until 2 September. The position will be assessed when the House of Commons returns from the summer recess.”
The shadow disabilities minister, Vicky Foxcroft, who has rheumatoid arthritis, was advised to shield earlier in the outbreak. She said: “if you look at the government’s own comms on this stuff, it says if you were shielding, work from home if possible: your employer should support you to do this. So they’re saying one thing to everybody else and then saying something else in parliament.”
Source: The Guardian