The Speaker of the House of Commons has said he will suspend parliament if physical distancing rules are breached in the Commons chamber – in effect ending government hopes that MPs can return to business as usual.
It follows calls by the leader of the house, Jacob Rees-Mogg, on Tuesday night for all 650 MPs to return to Westminster to “set an example” to the rest of the country as the coronavirus lockdown is eased in England.
The requirement for 2 metres between people means only 50 MPs can attend the chamber in person, while up to 120 can join proceedings remotely via Zoom.
Rees-Mogg said he did not want to see the “hybrid” arrangements extended beyond the Whitsun recess, which ends on 2 June, and called for MPs to attend in person.
His comments were criticised by opposition parties and unions, who said the move would put lives at risk.
In a rebuke to Rees-Mogg, the Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, told MPs: “My priority and the priority for all I am sure is to make sure that those on the estate are safe while business is facilitated.
“Nothing in the leader’s announcement changes the rules around social distancing in and around the chamber and throughout the parliamentary estate. The only changes on the guidance can come from Public Health England, I think we are all agreed on that.
“I may suspend sittings between items of business to allow members to enter and exit the chamber. I am also quite prepared to suspend a sitting if I believe that the safe number of honourable members in the chamber risks being exceeded.” .
Hoyle also warned that any move to drop MPs’ newly installed remote voting system would increase the time taken to vote. “If the physical divisions replace remote divisions they will take much longer, possibly up to an hour, to make sure social distancing can be observed,” he said.
Before 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.
The Speaker’s intervention came in direct response to Rees-Mogg’s statement to MPs on Tuesday. Whitehall sources said the government was aiming for a return in early June.
That would have gone against current advice to MPs and thousands of support staff and civil servants who work in parliament. At present, they are under instructions to stay at home and to go to the parliamentary estate only if they cannot avoid it.
Following the remote vote on Tuesday evening, Rees-Mogg told MPs he would extend virtual voting to 20 May but did not expect to do so again.
“It is clear that soon parliament must set an example of how we move back gradually to a fully functioning country again. Our constituents would expect nothing less,” he said.
“So while we must move in step with public health guidance, it is vital that when we are asking other people to work and go to their places of work if they cannot do so from home we should not be the ones who are exempt from that.
“Indeed, we should be leading by example.”
Rees-Mogg, speaking after Hoyle’s statement, said: “It is obviously important that this house maintains social distancing in accordance with the guidelines.”
The prime minister’s official spokesman said: “Work is ongoing by the house authorities in step with the public health advice to carefully move back to more ordinary business and have more physical proceedings in the house. The government supports those efforts.”
But critics have pointed out that Rees-Mogg’s call for a return to “business as usual” follows lacklustre performances by the prime minister in front of a near empty chamber against Labour’s leader.
Kevin Brennan, the Labour MP, wrote on Twitter: “I think Rees-Mogg wants the House of Commons back in person so that Boris Johnson is not left alone at PMQs desperately looking about for support from empty loyal benches as he flounders around trying to wriggle off the hook of @Keir_Starmer ‘s penetrating interrogation.”
Valerie Vaz, the shadow leader, said Rees-Mogg’s aim of a return of a “physical” parliament contradicted the government’s own health advice.
The SNP’s shadow Commons leader, Tommy Sheppard, said it was a “fantasy” to believe that physical sittings could resume on 2 June without special procedures being in place.
Rees-Mogg’s call followed the government’s 60-page “roadmap”, published on Monday, which said: “Parliament must set a national example of how business can continue in this new normal; and it must move, in step with public health guidance, to get back to business as part of this next step, including a move towards further physical proceedings in the House of Commons.”