With the Prime Minister urging us all to go back to the office, including civil servants, how is that working out for MPs?
Our elected representatives were well ahead of the game with the Commons first sitting in person on 21st April, albeit in much reduced numbers. Instead of the seated capacity of 437, there is now only space for 50 to sit in the seats allocated. The huddles around the Speaker’s chair and the bar of the House (that is the barrier which marks where the chamber actually begins and not just one of the many other type of bars in Parliament) are not allowed.
MPs videoed into the chamber from their home and a system of remote voting was set up although there were only five such votes as most of the business in April and May was deliberately not contentious. At the end of May, the ‘hybrid’ motions which had been in place that allowed MPs to vote remotely ended but from the start of June proxy voting was introduced so that MPs who were shielding did not have to come into Parliament to cast their vote and instead could rely on a colleague to vote for them.
Currently 146 MPs are certified as eligible for a proxy vote. Most seem to dutifully entrust their vote to a whip with Stuart Andrew MP, the Government’s Deputy Chief Whip, and Mark Tami MP, the Opposition Pairing Whip, having control over a large number of MPs’ votes. Interestingly there are 35 independent-minded MPs who have not given their proxy to a whip indicating that they may not always want to slavishly support their Party’s line.
Although remote participation is only meant to be for MPs who are unable to attend Westminster for health reasons related to the pandemic, with the limited seating in the chamber other MPs are also video calling into proceedings from home and their offices.
These arrangements have now been extended until 3rd November although in a sign that life is getting a bit more back to normal, back bench business debates are now being held and debates in Westminster Hall will be starting again in October.
With some 3,000 MPs’ staff crowding around Portcullis House and other parliamentary buildings making social distancing difficult, as Parliament returned from the summer recess only two staff members per MP are allowed to enter the estate, the rest have to work from home or the constituency office.
Parliament, including the public gallery and parliamentary tours, remains closed to guests except those who have been invited to take part in select committee hearings. These are also in hybrid form with some members and some witnesses appearing via video link.
By their very nature it is difficult to see how networking type events on which MPs thrive and are considered essential for lobbying can re-start any time soon. In the meantime, it is proving easier to get MPs and Peers to attend video meetings and roundtable type events than when they were held physically. It is likely that both the politicians and those seeking to discuss issues with them will continue to rely on this type of engagement in the future. For the lobbyists or constituents it cuts out having to spend up to a full day travelling to London and for MPs it involves less time dashing around the Parliamentary estate from meeting to meeting. The losers will be train companies and the Refreshment Department.
Another lasting change that might well result from the steps taken to deal with the impact of coronavirus is cementing reform of Parliament’s antiquated voting system. Already those who are pregnant or on maternity leave can vote by proxy following reforms introduced by the previous Speaker last year but this could be extended to those who are ill or unable to attend Parliament for other reasons. This may be unlikely to happen under the leadership of Jacob Rees-Mogg however given his enthusiasm for re-introducing voting in person after the brief flirtation with remote voting.
Perhaps the most welcome sign of a return to some form of normality was the re-opening of probably the most influential pub in the country. The Red Lion on Whitehall, opposite the FCDO (as we must now call it), welcomed drinkers back on the 2nd September and was apparently packed with Ministers, Shadow Ministers, Deputy Speakers, MPs, Special Advisers, civil servants, political journalists and even a former Prime Minister…..of Australia.