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'Insane idea': MPs queue and complain after being forced return to vote in the House of Commons

The government said it expected some ‘teething problems’ to the new voting system.

Members of Parliament, including Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg, queue outside the House of Commons in Westminster as they wait to vote.
Members of Parliament, including Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg, queue outside the House of Commons in Westminster as they wait to vote.
Image: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire/PA Images

CHAOTIC SCENES EMERGED in the House of Commons today as MPs were forced to join a long, snaking queue to decide their voting method during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle and his officials were left repeatedly shouting instructions at MPs as social distancing measures required them to join a queue, keep two metres apart, walk through the Commons chamber and announce their vote.

The queue stretched for several hundred metres, snaking through Westminster Hall and running to Portcullis House, the newer part of the parliamentary estate.

It came as the government dropped procedures which allowed MPs to vote online and speak remotely via Zoom, thereby requiring them to appear in person to take part.

Conservative Karen Bradley, who chairs the Procedure Committee, moved an amendment to keep remote voting in place in the coming weeks, with the division list showing 31 Conservative MPs rebelled to support the proposal.

But it was defeated by 185 votes to 242, majority 57, following a 46-minute division.

MPs later approved the government’s motion to only allow them to vote in person by 261 votes to 163, majority 98.

After Bradley’s amendment to the government’s motion was pushed to a vote, Hoyle said the queuing system would continue as it is the “only method that is compatible” with government-set requirements and those from Public Health England.

coronavirus-tue-jun-2-2020 MPs queue outside the Houses of Commons in Westminster as they wait to vote. Source: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire/PA Images

Confusion

Some MPs appeared confused at the new voting procedures.

Some Conservative MPs attempted to exit the chamber via the wrong door, despite being told by the Speaker moments earlier which way to go.

DUP MP Jim Shannon initially walked up to the “noes” column, before correcting himself and walking through the “ayes” section.

Several MPs, including Liberal Democrat Wera Hobhouse and Labour’s Zarah Sultana wore face coverings as they made their votes.

During the debate, Hoyle appealed for “a bit of give and take” from the government and opposition parties to ensure all MPs can continue to vote.

Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg said he would table a motion tomorrow which would enable MPs unable to attend parliament on medical grounds to take part in certain proceedings, including questions, urgent questions and ministerial statements.

coronavirus-tue-jun-2-2020 Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak and Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg queue outside the House of Commons. Source: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire/PA Images

Rees-Mogg said: “The stopgap of a hybrid Parliament was a necessary compromise during the peak of the virus, but by not being here the House has not worked effectively on behalf of constituents.”

He added he expects “teething problems” with the new voting system which involves queuing, adding it will be “some time before our proceedings are fully restored”.

Concerns

Some experts have said the social distancing measures might not have been enough to mitigate any potential risk of infection spreading, especially given that they were indoors.

Linda Bauld, professor of public health at the University of Edinburgh, said it was “insane” to make MPs return to the Commons to vote.

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“I thought that was a really insane idea to require people to go back into Westminster, in terms of infection controls.”

Bauld added that the science was evolving, but “it wouldn’t be outside the realm of possibility that immediately occupying the same space as somebody who’s been speaking could be a risk”.

She explained: “That wouldn’t necessarily be about the fact that they have to be coughing or sneezing.

“I think these small droplets that we emit when we breathe normally are still a risk and that’s why close contact is a risk.

“So immediately occupying the same space as somebody is probably not a great idea.”

Lawrence Young, professor of molecular oncology at Warwick Medical School, University of Warwick, said the House of Commons voting process was “disturbing”.

He said: “Keeping socially distanced is important as is recognising that there is an increased risk of infection in an indoors environment where there is no breeze or air movement.

“Respiratory droplets can spread the virus (even from asymptomatic individuals) and recent work suggests that simply breathing or talking could release tiny particles which can stay suspended in the air in a fine mist produced when infected people exhale.”

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