On Tuesday we had a ridiculous demand by Jacob Rees-Mogg for all Parliamentary votes to take place in Parliament by MPs who will have to queue up as these images show or else they cannot vote. This took place on Tuesday and since then it has been discovered that at least one of the Ministers who queued up with his colleagues may now have COVID-19. However even before all that had become known, many MPs including some Conservatives raised their concerns regarding this approach and pointed out that ill and disabled MPs would be prevented from voting. The process that has taken place in the past is for people to be paired up and if one person cannot vote then their partner in this will also not vote which of course means that constituents have no idea why their MPs are not voting. It was agreed that in the light of Coronavirus which means that some MPs cannot even come into Parliament that a new form of notifying could be considered. All of this is ridiculous because less than a month ago a new online Commons Vote scheme was introduced and it was very effective which meant every MP could vote, irrespective of where they were at the time. As I wrote yesterday Rees-Mogg made it clear he opposed this because as he stated:
Why should Divisions be physical? Why is it important for votes to be physical? It is because we are coming here together as a single Parliament and voting on things that have a major effect on people’s lives. Every piece of legislation affects people’s lives one way or another. We should not vote quietly and secretly. Some people tweeted that they were doing it while going for a walk and things like that. Is that really the way to be voting on laws?
However his comments also referred to the fact that this process of people walking through one door or another was good enough in 1340 and it is therefore vital for 2020. The fact is that there was no online voting avaialable in 1340 and the numbers of MPs was much lower and all MPs could attend the debate chamber then. Today due to Coronavirus the maximum number of MPs in the House of Commons Chamber is 50 so 9% of Parliament. This means forcing MPs to wait about to vote outside the Chamber while 50 of them debate makes no sense, particularly as the technology available for online voting can also provide online interaction between distant MPs and the House of Commons. However on Tuesday nearly all of the Conservative MPs voted to back up Jacob Rees-Mogg so yesterday Keir Starmer raised this with Boris Johnson.
The scenes yesterday of MPs queuing to vote and Members being unable to vote were, frankly, shameful. This should not be a political issue. Members on all sides know that this is completely unnecessary and unacceptable. If any other employer behaved like this, it would be a clear and obvious case of indirect discrimination under the Equality Act 2010, so may I urge the Prime Minister to stop this and to continue to allow online voting and the hybrid Parliament to resume?
Boris then responded and it is vital to recall that a week earlier as I wrote on Monday, Johnson had stated very clearly that wherever people can work from home, they should do so. It is also important to recall that shopping online has become a much stronger action over the last 12 weeks than ever before so people queuing to shop are far fewer than would have been the case prior to COVID-19.
I do think that the right hon. and learned Gentleman needs to consider what is really going on throughout the country, where ordinary people are getting used to queuing for long periods to do their shopping or whatever it happens to be. I must say I do not think it unreasonable that we should ask parliamentarians to come back to this place and do their job for the people of this country. I know it is difficult, and I apologise to colleagues for the inconvenience. I apologise to all those who have particular difficulties with it because they are shielded or because they are elderly, and it is vital that, through the change we are making today, they should be able to vote by proxy. But I have to say that when the people of this country look at what we are doing, asking schools—the right hon. and learned Gentleman now says he supports schools going back—our policy is test, trace and isolate; his policy is agree, U-turn and criticise. What I can tell him is that I think the people of this country on the whole will want their parliamentarians to be back at work, doing their job and passing legislation on behalf of the people of this country, and that is what this Government intend to do.
We clearly need the Houses of Parliament to be radically updated so that instead of working to a 1340 standard, they develop a standard and an approach that will work well now but will also make 2040 credible.