The UK government is pushing ahead with plans to scrap the semi-virtual proceedings adopted by the House of Commons at the height of the coronavirus crisis despite senior MPs voicing health and practical concerns.
The government will introduce a motion on Tuesday to abolish the “hybrid” proceedings, where up to 50 MPs can be present in the chamber while observing social distancing and a further 120 can participate via Zoom videoconferencing. Online voting has also been introduced.
While MPs have widely praised the virtual arrangements for allowing parliament to continue throughout the coronavirus crisis, ministers are concerned that the Tory party has become unruly and believe MPs should return to improve unity and speed up the government’s legislative agenda.
If the government’s motion passes, no MPs will be allowed to attend remotely; the capacity of the Commons chamber will remain at 50 MPs to ensure social distancing of two metres; and MPs will have to be physically present to participate in votes.
This may require a 1km line of parliamentarians snaking through the Palace of Westminster for every vote. Commons authorities expect it will at least double the amount of time for a division.
Downing Street said that parliament would continue to operate “in line with the latest health advice” and it would be “for the House authorities to implement the new system” with votes in person.
“Those who need to shield due to their age or medical circumstances should continue to do so. Informal arrangements including pairing will be in place to facilitate this.” Pairing is where an MP from an opposing party drops out of a vote to balance the absence of someone who cannot attend.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of the Commons, said that the end of the virtual proceedings and voting would improve “the quality of scrutiny” with better communication between MPs and ministers.
“The virtual parliament brought us through the peak of the pandemic but it is no longer necessary to make the compromises it demanded. We can do so much better,” he wrote in The House magazine.
But opposition parties and some Tory MPs are critical of the decision to abolish online voting, which will mean those who are shielding from Covid-19 will not be able to attend votes and will have to be “paired”.
The opposition Labour party has introduced an amendment to retain remote voting and virtual participation by MPs.
Robert Halfon, an influential Conservative MP and chair of the education select committee, accused the government of underestimating the seriousness of coronavirus for those with health conditions.
“They’re taking the [Jair] Bolsonaro view that Covid is just sniffles, we’re all moaning Minnies and we need to get parliament back to work,” he said, referring to the Brazilian president. “It is incomprehensible why we can’t vote online or via proxy.”
Former Cabinet minister Theresa Villiers also said a compromise could be found by continuing to use online voting while social distancing measures had to be enforced.
“The obvious most difficult practical issue is voting, and clearly, if there is going to be a kilometre-long queue, we have to find another system. Personally, I could happily live with electronic voting continuing for a period if there isn’t a workable alternative,” she told the BBC.
Another senior Tory said: “Jacob has dug himself into a hole. He doesn’t want to contemplate online voting becoming a permanent fixture so they’re taking a sledgehammer to a walnut.”
Labour MPs also criticised the decision. Margaret Hodge, the veteran MP for Barking, tweeted: “As somebody in the ‘vulnerable’ category, I am unable to join them. I am furious that for the first time in my 25 years as an MP I am being denied the right to vote!”
In response to these concerns, one government official said: “The question is how long would you have it for — as long as social distancing lasts? Until there’s a vaccine? That could not be for years. Of course every decision around dealing with the coronavirus crisis is a difficult one, but of greatest importance is what parliament achieves for the country as a whole.”
Meanwhile the House of Lords will continue with virtual sittings and is expected to introduce remote voting in the coming weeks.