Trade unions representing staff in the Houses of Parliament are expected to clash with Jacob Rees-Mogg on Tuesday over his plans to move away from a “virtual” parliament.
Prospect and the FDA unions will argue at a meeting of the House of Commons Commission that the current system of enforcing physical distancing rules on the parliamentary estate is working well.
They fear that more staff will be pressured back to work in the narrow corridors of Westminster and forced to ignore social distancing rules if Rees-Mogg, the leader of the Commons , gets his way and forces a return to a “physical” parliament.
The requirement to keep 2 metres distance between people means only 50 MPs can attend the chamber in person, while up to 120 can join proceedings remotely via Zoom. With the support of the Commons Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, most staff are being encouraged to work from home.
At Tuesday’s 2pm meeting, Rees-Mogg is expected to vote against renewing the “virtual parliament” standing orders as he seeks to move back towards a traditional, “physical”, parliament.
Hoyle, who will also attend the meeting, last week made it plain from the floor of the house that he would close down the Commons if more than 50 MPs occupied the chamber. He is expected to argue that his priority is to keep MPs safe and for everyone to be treated equally and safely by any changes to the virtual system.
Last Wednesday, Rees-Mogg told the Commons MPs could not “hide away” while other workers returned to work, raising concerns that the government simply wished to avoid any bad PR they might get for not being seen to be at work.
“They wish to hide behind a veneer of virtual parliament … I want to get back to a proper parliament because democracy is essential,” he said.
There may be room for a compromise between Rees-Mogg and the unions over a potential restart of bill committees, which scrutinise legislation in detail, and statutory instrument committees. It is understood that the leader of the house is keen for both to restart while unions could be open to a discussion.
The unions will argue that the government is at risk of breaching their own guidance to employers, which states that “employers will need to carry out Covid-19 risk assessments in consultation with their workers or trade unions”.
Reps are concerned about the impact if there is an end to virtual voting. They will argue that social distancing measures mean votes could take an hour to resolve.
The Prospect deputy general secretary, Garry Graham, said: “Staff have made herculean efforts to enable parliament to work remotely, keeping MPs and staff safe and ensuring our democracy is unimpaired.
“We will not allow people to be put at risk simply to create good PR for the government.”
Amy Leversidge, the assistant general secretary of the FDA union, said: “Parliament must set the example to all other employers across the UK and follow the government guidelines to continue to work at home where possible – the commission should make the decision that the house will renew the standing orders.”
Some parliamentary veterans doubt Rees-Mogg is serious about a full return to parliament. They claim he is prepared to lose in a fight with the Speaker and the unions so ministers can blame them when questioned why MPs are allowed to work from home while others are told told return to work.
“This is a canny move by Jacob, and it is probably done with the sanction of those close to No 10,” said one senior MP.