Speaker insists safety must come first amid Government push for MPs’ return
Sir Lindsay Hoyle has insisted he will suspend Commons proceedings if they get too crowded after the Government pressed for MPs to return within weeks.
The Commons Speaker said everyone on the parliamentary estate must be kept safe and social distancing rules must be complied with.
The requirement for two metres between people means only 50 MPs can attend the chamber in person, while up to 120 can join proceedings remotely via Zoom.
Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg announced on Tuesday that he does not want to see the so-called “hybrid” arrangements extended beyond the Whitsun recess, which ends on June 2, thereby requiring MPs to attend in person to take part in proceedings.
He added that Parliament must “set an example” to the country, although his remarks surprised opposition parties and led to criticism, given the current social distancing rules to combat the spread of Covid-19.
Making a statement to the Commons, Sir Lindsay said: “My priority and the priority of all, I’m sure, is to ensure that those on the estate are safe while business is facilitated.
“I’m working with parties, the Commission to ensure this duty of care is taken seriously.
“Nothing in the Leader’s announcement changes the position on social distancing in and around the chamber and throughout the parliamentary estate – only changes to the guidance from Public Health England can do that, I think we’re all agreed on that.
“I may suspend sittings between items of business to allow safe access to and exit the chamber. I’m also quite prepared to suspend a sitting if I believe the safe number of honourable members in the chamber risks being exceeded.”
Sir Lindsay said votes in person would take around 30 minutes, possibly up to an hour, to observe social distancing rules if electronic voting was no longer allowed.
Prior to the lockdown, MPs had eight minutes to cast their votes and the result would follow a few minutes later.
Electronic voting, which takes 15 minutes, with the result announced later, was used for the first time on Tuesday.
Mr Rees-Mogg, speaking after Sir Lindsay’s statement, said: “It is obviously important that this House maintains social distancing in accordance with the guidelines.”
Garry Graham, deputy general secretary of the Prospect union, warned that a quick return could create a “massively elevated risk” to parliamentary staff.
He said in a statement: “For Parliament to return in full, safely, there must be proposals in place to limit the number of people working at any one time, and to protect those who have to work.
“The supply of appropriate PPE must be included in these proposals.”