Boris Johnson believes MPs should continue travelling from across the UK to Westminster despite the national lockdown coming into effect in England.
The Prime Minister’s spokesman replied “no” when asked whether Mr Johnson believed there should be a virtual Parliament with MPs staying away from the Palace of Westminster.
Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg later echoed the importance of MPs attending proceedings during the Covid-19 pandemic, citing the need to get Brexit legislation through before December 31 as one of the reasons.
He added the Government intends to give all MPs the chance to vote by proxy but resisted a return to remote voting in the Commons.
Parliamentary unions have written to Mr Rees-Mogg calling for a return to the hybrid operation of Parliament.
The Prime Minister’s spokesman told reporters: “I think that Parliament has an important role to play in scrutinising and passing legislation, including the coronavirus regulations and also in holding the Government to account.
“We would anticipate that MPs will continue to attend Parliament as they do now.”
Asked whether that was a sensible approach, the spokesman added: “I think as the regulations set out, where you do need to travel to your place of work then you should continue to do so.
“Obviously Parliament has taken very extensive steps to make itself a Covid-secure workplace.”
For Labour, shadow Commons leader Valerie Vaz warned: “We all have to line up together to vote.
“There is one simple way of dealing with this and I ask the Leader of the House again to think very seriously in this very grave time that we go back to remote voting.”
She said those who can be in Parliament will attend, but added: “The Leader must look at this immediately and straight away to save lives and to save livelihoods.”
Mr Rees-Mogg said virtual participation in oral questions, urgent questions and ministerial statements has been extended to March 2021, and proxy arrangements are in place for those who cannot attend to vote in person.
But he also told MPs: “If there were to be any changes to our voting system, these should be introduced through consensus.
“I am indeed looking at the option of expanding proxy voting to make it available to all members of this House regardless of whether or not they need to be away from the parliamentary estate.
“I hope to bring forward a motion to this effect soon, which the House will have an opportunity to agree.
“But it is important that members are here, that the business of this House carries on.
“Why is that? We have to ensure these new coronavirus regulations, some of the tightest restrictions on the freedoms of people of this country ever introduced, are properly debated and the Government is held to account.”
Mr Rees-Mogg said MPs also need to be able to raise constituency issues, adding: “We have to ensure the (Brexit) transition period legislation is introduced and passed into law by December 31.
“It is absolutely crucial that we are able to do these things.”
He went on: “I think (Ms Vaz) underestimates the need for democratic accountability, that being present in this House is as important as any other essential service.”
Garry Graham, deputy general secretary of Prospect, said in a statement: “Requiring MPs to travel to Westminster just so they can vote in person is ludicrous.
“Not only is it encouraging unnecessary travel across the country, it means more staff are required to commute into the parliamentary estate every working day.”
Tory Pauline Latham (Mid Derbyshire) said MPs’ personal assistants should not be forced to work from home.
She added: “Please can I make a plea that we do not say to many young people who are our assistants here that they have to sit in their bedsits or their small flats in inappropriate seating, inappropriate rooms, maybe only on their bed, to work from home because I don’t think that’s appropriate and professional.”
Mr Rees-Mogg replied: “It is a matter for the House of Commons Commission rather than me personally but I do know that the Commission will be urging Ipsa-funded staff to work from home between now and December 2.
“I know this will difficult for some members of staff as it has been before but it is important to minimise the number of people on the estate to those who have an absolutely essential function.”
Tory former minister Steve Brine asked if MPs could be regularly tested for Covid-19.
Mr Rees-Mogg said: “I hope it is not indiscreet of me… to say that the Commission did have a discussion on testing and we did have a presentation and it is something that is under consideration.”
SNP health spokeswoman Dr Philippa Whitford said MPs who were shielding at home for health reasons related to Covid-19 were being excluded from the legislative process.
She added: “I take great offence at the inference of the Leader of the House that I’m somehow shucking my duty by not being willing to travel hundreds of miles each way every week.”
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