Due to the Covid-19 outbreak Parliament has seen a reduced number of MPs in the chamber in order to adhere to the Governments social distancing rules and curb the spread of the virus. A hybrid system introduced in April allowed for a maximum of 50 MPs to be present in the chamber and voting to be done remotely. As a result various select committees and certain aspects of Prime Ministers Questions have been conducted via video link.
Aside from the odd glitch and distorted zoom connection the move to digital seems to have been a success. Online services have provided a vital line of communication for those MPs who have been advised to remain at home due to their age, underlying health conditions or shielding responsibilities. This pragmatism should be seen as a huge step forward, firmly placing Parliament in the 21st century.
This was until Jacob Reese-Mogg put forward a motion urging MPs to return to Parliament. In an op-ed for PoliticsHome Reese-Mogg argued that “With MPs present in Westminster, rather than scattered hither and thither, voters’ interests will be better represented.”
Well, MPs were certainly in Westminster – you couldn’t miss them! Snaking their way around Westminster the queues to the voting lobby were said to have been a kilometre long, resembling a busy weekend at Alton Towers or Thorpe Park. The socially distanced queuing added hours to the voting, but eventually the plea to keep remote voting was defeated by 242-185.
Reese-Mogg’s claims of better representation will of course be disputed by those MPs who were unable to attend voting due to being in at risk groups – of the 600+ MPs eligible to vote roughly 430 did so. Labour MP Virendra Sharma took to Twitter to state that he had been “disenfranchised” and that the decision to abandon remote voting was “discrimination against older MPs, the disabled and those who live with the vulnerable”.
The cynic in me would say that the decision to bring MPs back to Westminster was never really about democracy or proper representation. Instead, there is probably a real concern in Government that if they want to reopen the economy they have to be seen to lead the way by returning to the chamber.
If MPs aren’t returning to work, why would anyone else?
The government has insisted this is, in fact, about timely scrutiny. There appears to be a genuine worry that if parliament was to continue with its virtual model there wouldn’t be enough time to debate the 36 bills – consisting mainly of manifesto pledges and Brexit promises – put forward by the Government.
Unfortunately for Bojo the chamber will remain fairly muted for now, so he will need to rely on his Etonian blustering for the foreseeable PMQs.
That being said, the Government’s decision to start bringing MPs back for a physical vote will surely be under review now that Alok Sharma, the Business Secretary, was last night tested positive for Corona Virus.
It’s a good job we have that world beating track and trace system in place otherwise we’d be sending every MP home to isolate!