MPs will no longer be able to vote without being present at Westminster
1km queue to vote as Jacob Rees-Mogg says it’s time for parliament to return to normal
Members of UK Parliament queue outside the House of Commons in Westminster as they wait to vote on the future of proceedings, amid a row over how Commons business can take place safely. Photograph: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire
MPs who are shielding because of coronavirus will be able to take part in debates remotely but will no longer be able to vote without being present at Westminster. The House of Commons voted on Tuesday to end the hybrid arrangement that allowed up to 50 MPs to be present in the chamber, with others participating by video and voting electronically.
Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg said he will introduce legislation on Wednesday to allow MPs who cannot travel to Westminster because of their age or medical condition to continue to take part by video. But he said it was time for parliament to return to normal insofar as it could.
“What was acceptable for a few short weeks would have proved unsustainable if we had allowed the hybrid proceedings to continue. This House plays an invaluable role in holding the government to account and debating legislation which can only properly be fulfilled when members are here in person,” he said.
Social distancing rules make physical voting in lobbies impossible, so MPs had to form a queue stretching almost 1km from the chamber through central lobby and into the medieval Westminster Hall. In sometimes comical scenes on Tuesday afternoon, speaker Lindsay Hoyle repeatedly called out to MPs to “come on now, keep moving” as they struggled to follow the new procedure that requires them to approach the dispatch box and say their name and how they wish to vote.
More than two dozen Conservative MPs defied a government whip by backing an amendment to maintain the previous arrangements. But the most impassioned opposition to the end of remote voting came from MPs from Scotland and Northern Ireland, who face the greatest obstacles in travelling between their constituencies and London.
There is currently only one flight from Belfast to London most days with none at all on some days and the DUP’s Ian Paisley said it was “incredibly difficult” for MPs to get to Westminster.
“The issue of them not being able to get here denies them the fundamental right that is at stake here and that is being on record on vital issues that affect their constituents and that their constituents expect them to be on record for,” he said.
Alistair Carmichael, the Liberal Democrat MP for Orkney and Shetland, described how he got to Westminster and said he would not be able to return to his constituency until the parliamentary recess next month.
“In order for me to get here to today, it required a journey of 18 hours, starting with an aeroplane, a taxi, a normal train, four hours in Edinburgh waiting for a sleeper train that I picked up at one o’clock this morning and arrived at Euston at 8am. I cannot and will not do that every week. Apart from anything else, the return journey will be 26 hours long and it would require me then to go into self-isolation for 14 days, the only responsible way to live in a community such as mine,” he said.
The MPs voted through the changes as Britain recorded 324 new deaths from coronavirus, bringing the total of those who died after testing positive to 39,369. New figures from the Office for National Statistics, which include deaths of people with suspected as well as confirmed coronavirus, put Britain’s death toll at 50,032.