Public ‘excluded’ from UK Parliament because of Covid but banquets are allowed
The public is “excluded” from the UK Parliament despite banquets being allowed, campaigners have said.
Most coronavirus restrictions were ditched six weeks ago, which has allowed banqueting events for lobbyists to resume in the Palace of Westminster.
However, members of the public are currently barred from entering unless they are accompanied by an MP or have arranged a pre-booked tour. Many of these tours come with a fee.
Chris Bryant, the Labour MP for Rhondda and Chair of the Commons standards committee told the POLITICO website that the current system is “crazy”.
He suggested that the parliamentary authorities could make proof of a negative Covid test or a double vaccination a condition of entry.
People without passes are not allowed to watch the House of Commons from the public gallery or attend select committee hearings.
A parliamentary official said banqueting receptions held by lobbyists and charities have been allowed to resume despite the ban on open public access remaining in place.
‘Parliament shouldn’t be about parties’
They said: “I am seeing awards ceremonies with 80 people taking place, unmasked, with random people in, but non-passholding journalists can’t come in. Parliament shouldn’t be about parties — it’s about transparency and democracy.”
A senior Tory said: “We can have up to six guests for meetings but if people are paying for banqueting, there’s no — or a very high — limit.”
Ruth Smeeth, a former Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent North who is now Chief Executive Index on Censorship campaign group, has warned of an “inadvertent drift toward a two-track system, which excludes the public from parliamentary proceedings that they have previously had access to.”
She suggested that “a democratic deficit” could develop, which would allow “those able to secure access through formal channels enjoying access denied to the public at large.”
A parliament spokesperson said: “Options are currently being developed to allow limited public access to the gallery and for constituent meetings, where it is safe to facilitate these.”
Conservative MPs have also come under increasing pressure to lead by example by wearing masks in the House of Commons. Unlike in Wales, mask are not a requirement in a number of indoor settings in England. However, the UK Government has encouraged members of the public to wear them more often in indoor settings despite many Tory MPs not doing so in the House of Commons.
Gillian Keegan, the minister of state for care, responded to calls to wear masks in the chamber by arguing that they should not become a “sign of virtue”.
In an interview with Sky News she claimed that masks were “less relevant” than vaccines and boosters in the race to curb surging cases of coronavirus. This is despite the single day case rate surpassing 50,000 for the first time in three months on Thursday.
England’s Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, called for MPs to set a good example by masking up to help avoid further restrictions being introduced.
However No 10 declined to back his advice, and instead pointed to the guidance on wearing them around less familiar faces.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Commons Leader, suggested that the Conservatives do not need to wear face coverings in the UK Parliament because of a “convivial, fraternal spirit”.