Westminster Diary: Time wasted and health risked as MPs queue to vote

Queing MPs in the House of Commons.

Queing MPs in the House of Commons. - Credit: Archant

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’!

As the world looked on in bemusement, MPs formed a mile long socially distanced queue around the parliamentary estate, after weeks of successful electronic voting.

But the ‘conga line’, as some called it, was only half the story.

The rules that allowed MPs to vote online had expired.

The Leader of the House, notoriously old-fashioned, decided that all MPs should return to vote physically – against the Government’s own public health advice that people should work from home if they can.

This meant that every MP who was shielding or caring for someone vulnerable was frozen out - silencing them and their constituents. More than 100 MPs could not take part. Those MPs at higher risk from COVID-19, due to age or ethnicity, were put in a high-risk situation. And all MPs, travelling between constituencies and Parliament, became potential “super spreaders.”

The queue wound through the Palace of Westminster, Westminster Hall, around New Palace Yard, across the road via the underground corridor, and up into and around Portcullis House. To vote twice took an hour and 20 minutes – digitally it would have taken seconds.

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The only defence of this ridiculous, dangerous affair was that the Leader of the House felt MPs shouldn’t be able to vote while doing other things.

In my opinion, one man’s dislike of multi-tasking does not justify disenfranchising so many constituencies, putting the health of so many at risk, or wasting so much MP time and tax-payers’ money.

Ridicule and simmering anger turned to outrage in less than 24 hours, as a minister fell ill at the dispatch box.

Another 24 hours later and he thankfully tested negative for COVID-19. News footage showed that social distancing had broken down at bottlenecks in the queue, including Ministers, chatting happily less than two metres distant.

The full scandal of what could have happened was clear: had the sick minister tested positive, MPs, parliamentary staff and members of the public could have been infected.

The week came and went, leaving me with a sense of anger and sorrow: anger that some in government can so easily exclude so many fellow MPs, and sorrow that our time and effort could have been spent on so many other pressing issues.

You can contact Daisy at daisy.cooper.mp@parliament.uk