Westminster Diary: Parliament should lead by example when it comes to workplace social distancing
PUBLISHED: 15:00 21 May 2020
Welcome to my Westminster diary. Each week, I’ll be giving a behind-the-scenes take on what life is really like as a new MP. From jeering and bobbing, procedures and prayers, I’ll be lifting the lid on the mother of all Parliaments. Think ‘The Thick of It’ not ‘House of Cards’!
New government guidance sparked a lively public debate on whether or how some people should be asked to return to work, especially while the Test, Trace and Isolate strategy was still unclear. Soon after, private conversations on whether or when MPs should be asked to physically return to the chamber also spilled out onto the pages of the press.
The Leader of the House announced that MPs should “set an example” and return to Parliament from June 2. But the Speaker was quick to remind the Leader who was top dog – replying that he would suspend Parliament if social distancing rules were breached.
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The Speaker also warned that if MPs returned to physical voting instead of using the newly established online voting, they would “take much longer than usual—probably around 30 minutes and possibly up to an hour—to ensure that social distancing can be observed”.
You know you’ve stepped through the looking glass when some MPs are still contemplating ditching the quick and simple digital method for an hour-long shuffle of “voting with your feet”.
First, there is the safety of MPs (and clerks): some MPs are older, shielding, pregnant or more vulnerable to COVID-19 by virtue of being black, Asian or from an ethnic minority. But there’s also a strong argument for efficiency. By my calculation, the cost to the taxpayer of 650 MPs taking an hour to vote comes to about £25,000 – more than enough to pay for a newly qualified nurse. And that’s before taking the time of the parliamentary staff into account.
Centenary Action Group, the UK’s largest coalition of women’s rights activists and organisations, also called on Parliament to “lead by example”, but to do so by recognising that those with caring responsibilities, childcare responsibilities or who have family members who are shielding, those who rely on public transport, and those who are shielding themselves may not be able to return to the workplace.
While the government is not publishing its scientific and medical advice in full, it will be difficult for the public to trust that it is safe to go back to work or school. I, will continue my calls for greater transparency so that we can all work together to get past this crisis.
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