Plans to scrap the virtual Westminster and force MPs to physically attend the Houses of Commons risks “locking out” MPs from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, the Electoral Reform Society has warned.
The current arrangement for two metres between people means only 50 MPs can attend the chamber in person, while up to 120 can join proceedings remotely via Zoom.
But on Tuesday Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg announced that MPs should return to the Commons on 2 June after Whitsun recess, to “give the right message” for the public to return to work.
However the three non-English nations are still urging people to ‘stay at home’, and Wales’ regulations currently rule out anything but local travel.
Darren Hughes, Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society, said that Boris Johnson is ‘Minister for the Union’, while potentially excluding non-English MPs.
“Just as the virtual Commons finds its feet, the government are hitting the brakes,” he said.
“Virtual proceedings must be allowed to continue if advice to ‘stay at home’ remains in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Otherwise, this risks becoming an England-only Parliament, with other nations locked out. This is a grave threat to political equality and the principles of parliamentary democracy.
“MPs have shown they are able to work well from home. There should be no rush to scupper the successful innovations we’ve seen – from video-link to remote voting.
“MPs from across the nations have expressed support for maintaining the ‘hybrid’ proceedings until the pandemic is over. Closing that off unnecessarily will weaken parliament, not strengthen it.
“Speaker Hoyle has made it clear MPs and staff should not be forced to return until it’s properly safe and legal to do so. The government must not ride roughshod over these concerns.”
The Speaker of the House of Commons, however, warned that he could suspend parliament if physical distancing rules are breached in the Commons chamber.
Sir Lindsay Hoyle told MPs: “My priority and the priority for all I am sure is to make sure that those on the estate are safe while business is facilitated.
“Nothing in the leader’s announcement changes the rules around social distancing in and around the chamber and throughout the parliamentary estate. The only changes on the guidance can come from Public Health England, I think we are all agreed on that.
“I may suspend sittings between items of business to allow members to enter and exit the chamber. I am also quite prepared to suspend a sitting if I believe that the safe number of honourable members in the chamber risks being exceeded.”
Hoyle also warned that any move to drop MPs’ newly installed remote voting system would increase the time taken to vote. “If the physical divisions replace remote divisions they will take much longer, possibly up to an hour, to make sure social distancing can be observed,” he said.