Alistair Carmichael questions government on ending of virtual parliament

If the Government produces guidance it should stick to it, right? After this weekend, that idea seems old-fashioned.

One of the 5 main steps of the UK Government’s guidance on safe working is about helping people to work from home.

3. Help people to work from home

You should take all reasonable steps to help people work from home by:

  • discussing home working arrangements

  • ensuring they have the right equipment, for example remote access to work systems

  • including them in all necessary communications

  • looking after their physical and mental wellbeing


For people who are mainly office based, the guidance is clearer:

Objective: That everyone should work from home, unless they cannot work from home.

We have seen over the past few weeks that MPs have been able to work pretty well from their dining rooms, studies and kitchens. Some might say that Parliament has even come across as being a bit more mature and responsible in that time as we’ve not been subjected to the weekly pantomime of Prime Minister’s Questions at full pelt.

But Jacob Rees-Mogg has decided that MPs should all return to Westminster from next week. Unless they live within driving distance of Commons, they will have to take public transport unnecessarily. They will require on-site staffing, not necessarily from their own parliamentary staff, who can continue to work from home, but from House cleaners, security staff and clerks.

Rees-Mogg, a representative of a Government who doesn’t like being held to account at the best of times, argues that Parliament can’t operate effectively if they aren’t all there. How effective a use of people’s time is it going to be to take up to an hour carrying out votes which could be done at the touch of a button? Chris Bryant, in an article in today’s Observer, describes the bizarre procedure:

Since Public Health England has condemned the traditional Aye and No lobbies as unsafe in the coronavirus pandemic, this means that MPs will be required to queue 2 metres apart, appear at the bar of the House, shout out “Yes” or “No” and pass through the chamber. A conga line of 650 MPs will snake round the estate for 1.3km and we might have to start across the river at Lambeth Palace. The poor souls at the end of the queue will have to pass through the slipstream of hundreds of colleagues, risking infection.

MPs’ inboxes are full of pleas from desperate people at the moment. Their time would be better spent dealing with them. Voting by email is much quicker and easier and should become a permanent fixture.

Alistair Carmichael told Rees-Mogg this week in Parliament to think again:

It is widely reported that the motivation for this over-hasty return is to get a support pack behind the Prime Minister on Wednesday afternoons. Today, it has even been reported that yesterday, the Leader of the House suggested to the Commons Commission that to get more MPs in, perspex screens should be installed between the Benches and between Members—someone has obviously told him how things are being done in Tesco these days. In recent weeks we have demonstrated that the business of this House can be done from behind a screen, as we do right now, but it is from behind 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. The Leader of the House must think again.

He couldn’t have known it at the time, but one part of Alistair’s remarks got old a bit quickly:

Today, the Government’s response to that is to insist that Members of Parliament should undertake non-essential journeys—in my case, that is almost the entire length of this country—to stay in second homes. When that was done by leading Government advisers, it led to their resignation. If ever there was a case of do as I say and not as I do, then this is it.

Jacob Rees-Mogg usually hides his disdain with a veneer of politeness, but didn’t even bother trying this time.

The right hon. Gentleman, from his eyrie in the Shetland Islands, tells us that a remote system does not work well enough. He then says that we should none the​less continue with it.

Apart from anything else, Alistair was at his family home in Orkney, but the condescension from Rees-Mogg is bang out of order. If there weren’t a pandemic on, I’d say he should actually make that journey so he understands what a bloody long way it is from London.

The number of people who have to take risks should be kept to a minimum – and that also protects the people who have no option but to go to work. I was heartbroken to read this story of a nurse who had sent her two year old to live with her parents after Covid-19 became apparent in her workplace, not least because of family members facing the same dilemma. The fewer people put in that situation the better.

If one MP gets ill or worse, and infects other people on the tube or the bus or the train or the plane home, or in their home, then that will have been entirely preventable. Let’s hope common sense prevails before a week on Tuesday and the virtual arrangements for Parliament are reinstated.


* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • Nonconformistradical 24th May '20 - 6:37pm

    Rees-Mogg’s desire that MPs should ‘set an example’ came across to me as akin to the stories of toff officers ordering their troops over the top (to meet senseless slaughter) during the WW1 trench warfare.

  • Wasn’t this the same Commons Leader who conspired to prorogue Parliament?

  • Laurence Cox 25th May '20 - 12:19pm

    I think JR-M is becoming concerned by the ease with which Keir Starmer is dissecting Boris Johnson at PMQs. Without the braying Tory backbenchers to obfuscate things, it is becoming apparent to everyone that the Prime Minister cannot hold his own in debate. While the Tory party may be able to hold on until 2024 before another General Election, Johnson’s position as leader looks increasingly precarious.

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