Ministers questioned on the continuation of hybrid proceedings after recess

20 May 2020

Alistair Carmichael MP asked an urgent question to the Leader of the House on the conduct of House of Commons business after Whitsun recess.

On Tuesday 21 April, MPs returned from recess to a 'hybrid' Chamber, meaning a maximum of 50 Members are allowed to be physically present, with the rest participating via video conference technology.

The 12 May saw the first ever remote division in the House of Commons, with MPs using an app to cast their votes from afar.

Last week, the Leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg, indicated that, when the House sits again after the Whitsun recess ends on the 2 June, the hybrid system should end and MPs should return to in-person.

Alistair Carmichael asked the Minister to make a statement on this issue and questioned whether he would bring forward the necessary motions to continue the hybrid Commons.

Jacob Rees-Mogg: "only ever envisaged as temporary"

The Leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg, told MPs that, although he was grateful for the work that parliamentary authorities had done in facilitating the hybrid system, it was "only ever envisaged as temporary". He said that, in line with Government advice for those "who cannot do their jobs from home", he was "asking Members to return to their place of work after Whitsun."

Mr Rees-Mogg said that the debates under the present arrangements were "stilted" and "scripted", and argued that "they fundamentally restrict the House’s ability to perform its functions fully", highlighting their impact on legislative scrutiny. He said that the time spent debating legislation faced being cut by "around two thirds" and that it was hard to make progress on Bills "in a timely fashion".

The Minister stated that the Chamber would be able to return while social distancing and that this would not see the "crowded, bustling Chamber of old". He told the House that the Speaker had organised a test of social-distancing divisions, and said that the number of passholders on the estate would be "minimised", with MPs' staff and others encouraged to continue working from home.

The Leader of the House said:

"We will want to ensure that any steps taken are in line with the Government’s advice to the country at large."

Alistair Carmichael: "over-hasty"

Responding to the Minister, Alistair Carmichael, emphasised the UK's Covid-19 death toll of 35,341. He said that the in ending the hybrid proceedings, the Government was insisting Members make "non-essential journeys" to stay in second homes, and that the "Leader of the House must think again".

Mr Carmichael said that he was aware of the "inadequacies of online scrutiny", but that it was the preferable option when faced with risking the safety of "Members, their families and the staff of the House". He asked the Minister how MPs could return without endangering the 3,000 staff who work on the Parliamentary Estate.

The Member also cited reports that the "over-hasty" physical return was so that the Prime Minister would have the support of his MPs during Prime Minister's Questions. He dismissed the Leader of the House's suggestions to the House of Commons Commission that Perspex screens be installed on the benches to shield MPs

Mr Carmichael concluded:

"The business of this House can be done from behind a screen, [...] a computer screen, not a screen of Perspex, the only purpose of which would be to shield the Government from scrutiny and the Prime Minister from ridicule."

    Image: UK Parliament/Jess Taylor

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