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MPs to vote on how to continue Commons proceedings

MPs have been contributing via video link during the coronavirus outbreak

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MPs have been able to speak via video link during the coronavirus outbreak

MPs will vote on how to continue Parliament proceedings later, amid a row over how Commons business can take place safely.

The government says virtual tools allowing members to debate and vote digitally have been ineffective and will be “better done face-to-face”.

But critics say the government plan will exclude vulnerable MPs and those with caring responsibilities.

MPs will meet at 11:30 BST to decide, using a temporary voting process.

They will be asked to queue up outside the Commons chamber before entering in order to observe social distancing.

The cross-party Procedure Committee has tabled an amendment to the government’s plan to enable the Commons Speaker to authorise electronic voting and allow MPs unable to get to the chamber to participate “digitally”.

It has the support of the opposition, as well as some Conservative MPs.

Labour’s shadow Commons leader, Valerie Vaz, told BBC Breakfast the government had put forward the proposals “without any chance for anyone to work out a proper solution”, and there would be a “whole range of issues about a group of people travelling across the country” to get to Westminster, possibly spreading the virus.

The Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, has also warned of the risk of “deadlock” over the government’s plans, urging MPs to agree on a solution to allow all members to take part.

But Tory MP Henry Smith told BBC Breakfast virtual proceedings had “curtailed my ability on behalf of my constituents to scrutinise the government”.

He added: “We can’t put our system of democracy on hold forever, and as the rest of the country starts to unlock, I think it’s only right that MPs should as well.”

‘Not perfect’

The so-called hybrid proceedings have been in place since mid-April.

In a letter to MPs, Sir Lindsay said the Commons must decide how to conduct its business and its votes in the future, but this could only be done in person, because the previous “hybrid” arrangements have formally lapsed.

However, the usual practice of voting in corridors either side of the main chamber – the division lobbies – has been ruled unsafe by Public Health England, leaving the Commons in potential limbo as it returns from the Whitsun recess.

Sir Lindsay proposed an unprecedented process for the decision, in which MPs will have to queue at a two-metre distance from each other before slowly filing into the chamber to cast their vote.

He said each vote – which will see MPs start their journey in Westminster Hall, the oldest part of the Palace of Westminster – would take about half an hour.

“I have had to devise a temporary way forward to break the deadlock – because the House must be able to have its say,” he said.

“It is not perfect, it will take time, and members will need to be patient,” he said. “But, it is the safest method I can think of to enable members and supporting staff to maintain social distancing.”

The current set-up has seen a maximum of 50 MPs allowed in the Commons chamber, with up to 120 taking part via video conferencing technology.

‘Much more effective’

But writing for the Politics Home website, Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg said the virtual set-up “is no longer necessary,” and physical working would make the Commons “much more effective”.

“Politics is better done face-to-face, even if the whites of the ministerial eyes are six feet away,” he added.

He also said work was under way with Commons authorities to determine how MPs shielding at home or with health conditions “can safely continue to contribute”.

It is understood the government sees the pairing convention – under which absent MPs from opposing parties have their votes cancelled out – as a way to account for MPs who are not able to vote in person.

In a report published on Saturday, the procedure committee said alternative plans to allow MPs to vote in person could see them cast their votes by walking either side of the Speaker’s chair in the Commons chamber.

Parliamentary officials – known as clerks – would record their names via cameras trained on the chamber floor.

But the committee dismissed the idea as having “significant practical deficiencies,” with a socially-distanced queue snaking 800m outside the chamber if all MPs took part.

It estimated that voting in such a way would take half an hour rather than the usual 15 minutes.

Instead the committee suggested a hybrid system, with some MPs voting in person and others via computer.

Ms Vaz said all MPs should be able to “participate on an equal basis,” and confirmed that Labour would vote in favour of remote voting continuing.

She said government plans to scrap digital votes would “result in two classes of MPs,” with some forced to stay away for health reasons.

Getting rid of semi-virtual working, she added, was “discriminatory and would not be acceptable in any other workplace”.

‘Toothless Parliament’

Among those criticising plans to scrap digital voting was Labour’s Dame Margaret Hodge, who said it had been working “perfectly well”.

The 75-year-old MP for Barking in east London, who is in the “vulnerable” category to the virus, said she was “being denied the right to vote”.

“This damaging move will limit accountability and create a toothless Parliament,” she added.

Liberal Democrat Jamie Stone, who cares for his wife, said the plan tabled by Mr Rees-Mogg would endanger the safety of his loved ones.

“You’re asking me to choose between the health of my family and abiding by your poxy stubbornness,” he tweeted.

“I choose to fulfil my duties as a husband and family man.”

The Prospect union, which represents some parliamentary staff, also criticised the decision to end virtual working, calling it “premature and unnecessary”.

Its deputy general secretary Garry Graham said MPs deserved to see “evidence in writing” from Public Health England that the plans to making them return to Westminster are safe.

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