Government branded “hopeless” as non-virtual parliament makes voting unsafe

© UK Parliament / Jessica Taylor

The government has been branded as “hopeless” by a Labour frontbencher after the Speaker declared that getting rid of a virtual parliament would make MPs voting in the usual way unsafe.

Shadow health minister Justin Madders said: “Just had an email from the Speaker which says we cannot vote in the division lobbies safely so government have asked to put forward a motion on how we will vote from now on.

“Seems the government decided to bring parliament back without understanding/considering the safety aspects. Hopeless.”

The Speaker of the House of Commons has said “it is clear to me that the House simply cannot conduct division safely” ahead of MPs’ scheduled return to Westminster next week.

In an email to MPs today, Lindsay Hoyle set out why he has agreed to the government’s request to recall parliament on June 2nd – but warned that it would be difficult to socially distance in the division lobbies.

The Speaker explained that as voting in the normal way would not be safe, it is for the government to put forward an alternative proposal. Ministers have until June 1st to table a motion.

In the correspondence to colleagues, Hoyle wrote: “Based on the latest professional advice from Public Health England, it is clear to me that the House simply cannot conduct divisions safely via the lobbies.

“There are pinch points in the lobbies where MPs are recorded by clerks and counted by tellers where it would be difficult to maintain social distancing, even though perspex booths were prepared for two of the division desks.

“Nor can we follow the strict letter of standing order no. 38 which forms part of the House’s normal practice for the conduct of divisions and sets out particular requirements.”

Standing order no. 38 specifies that when a division is declared by the Speaker, the 650 MPs – or those in attendance – have a total of eight minutes to enter the lobbies and cast their vote.

He added: “As safety is my paramount consideration for MPs and staff – alongside the need for constituents to be properly represented through voting – we need to consider practical alternative arrangements.”

The Commons Speaker said that he would “prefer cross-party agreement” on the motion, but opposition parties and backbenchers will be able to table amendments if no such agreement is reached.

Hoyle does not have the power to decide on procedure for how the House votes, but if agreement is not reached he said that he would set out temporary measures “enabling the House to come to a decision on future arrangements”.

Responding to the developments today, Labour’s Valerie Vaz said: “This is the latest example of the government in chaos.

“Jacob Rees-Mogg tried to abolish the hybrid remote parliament – which allowed all MPs to take part regardless of their personal circumstances – without any prior notice and against all advice on the last day parliament met.

“He has bungled it and is now forcing parliament to return early solely to correct his earlier discriminatory move.”

“We welcome Mr Speaker’s statement and stand ready to work with the government and all parties to reach a consensus that would allow all MPs to participate on equal terms, including voting.”

Labour’s Chris Bryant commented: “What an unmitigated mess. Government summons parliament for Tuesday 2 June and lets remote voting and hybrid sessions lapse. It insists 650 MPs vote through narrow lobbies in 15 minutes without checking that this is Covid compliant. Public Health England declare the lobbies unsafe.

“The government dreams up another scheme – we all join a 1.3k queue to vote. Public Health England says this is no better. But government has tabled the highly controversial Gerrymandering Parliamentary Constituencies Bill for Tuesday with votes at 10pm. So now…

“The government begs the Speaker to recall parliament early so that we can vote… on how we vote. What an absolute shower. The govt wanted parliament to give out a message by returning – but the message is clear ‘help, we don’t know what we’re doing’. Breweries and welk-stalls.”

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