End of hybrid proceedings is a loss for Westminster

Thursday May 21st 2020

Owen-Thompson-Midlothian-MP-Working-From-Home-WFH

Owen Thompson, MP, participating in a House of Commons debate from home.

Midlothian MP, Owen Thompson writes his monthly column for Midlothian View.

The Palace of Westminster marked an important milestone in its long history this year. After hundreds of years of dragging people out their sick beds to vote through a physical head-count, it got a system of remote voting off the ground. Ironic perhaps that it took a plague-like disease to finally move out of the dark ages, but we’re there now – or so you’d think.

Unfortunately the UK Government, led by traditionalists like Jacob-Rees Mogg, have decided to put remote participation swiftly back in a box marked ‘dangerous new ideas’ and clamped down the lid. From June 2nd, despite the ongoing lockdown and need for social distancing, the Government has withdrawn the use of virtual technology which let us all work safely from a distance.

Hybrid proceedings have worked well so far. They allowed my colleagues and I to do our bit to stop the spread of the virus, while still being present in meetings locally, nationally and internationally. Every MP was able to participate, on equal footing, while sticking to guidance to protect communities. Over the last few weeks I’ve asked questions of Ministers, I’ve worked on committees, I’ve spoken in debates and I’ve voted on important issues like the immigration bill. I’ve also been in regular contact with the council, voluntary groups, constituents and businesses based here in Midlothian. It took a lot of juggling but I got through a lot more work than I could do from London.

 

 

This begs the question, why has the UK Government withdrawn the right for MPs to participate from a distance. Why are they forcing 650 MPs to travel hundreds of miles to take part in proceedings in a chamber that can safely hold 50? What logic is there in taking the ability to vote away from those who are sick, shielding or self-isolating? Communities across the country will lose their voice in parliament, simply because conservatives want to get the baying back-up around Boris in the chamber again.

I have written to the Speaker on this issue as I believe by taking this action the UK Government are wilfully impeding our ability to participate in democracy, which could be in contempt of the House. It is certainly in contempt of the devolved settlement and the Scottish Government, whose rules about non-essential travel Scottish MPs should continue to follow. Even the advice from the Prime Minister himself has been that anyone who can work from home, should work from home, and we have clearly demonstrated this is absolutely the case for MP’s.

It’s not just Scottish MPs who have raised concerns about this. Senior Tory Robert Halfon MP accused the government of ‘euthanising’ vulnerable MPs by forcing this return to ‘physical only’ too early. This is a safety issue and the cavalier approach of the UK Government is appalling. But this isn’t just about MP’s. The return of MP’s to Westminster will require a minimum of around 500 staff to be present in Parliament. While this number have been working to support the virtual parliament, this has been with a handful of members in attendance. As the number of MP’s increases, the risk to these staff members also increases significantly.

The need to stick to social distancing is critical to prevent a second wave of this virus which would be devastating for our exhausted NHS and the UK’s economic recovery. We all have personal responsibility to enable this to happen; by not travelling when we don’t have to, we keep everyone safer, including those essential workers who have no choice but to go out to work. Around London the public transport system can’t cope with more than 15% of its usual volume to remain safe. What kind of standard are MPs setting if they ignore guidance and add to the throngs of people crossing the city?

There will be times when being in London is required, but it makes no sense now. Returning to the physical only parliament from June 2nd is a rash, reckless and irrational decision when remote voting gave us a safer alternative.

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