Parliament’s queues rival Ikea’s as MPs ‘go back to work’


At this time of year Alton Towers is usually the scene of lengthy queues as thrillseekers line up to get onto popular rides such as Oblivion and Nemesis.

As theme parks remained closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, fans of queueing have instead had to make do with the now-ubiquitous lines outside supermarkets, tips and McDonalds drive-throughs.

On Tuesday afternoon, MPs had the chance to get in on the act when they voted on proposals to scrap the ‘remote parliament’ procedures brought in during the lockdown, which had allowed members to speak and vote from home via digital technology.

Leader of the Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg argued that the measures were only ever meant to be temporary, and now that the lockdown was being eased, MPs ought to lead by example by ‘going back to work’.

But the subsequent votes on the issue showed how this would actually work in practice, with social distancing rules meaning MPs had to queue through Westminster Hall, out into New Palace Yard and then around the parliamentary estate.

Two votes took around an hour and a quarter to carry out, despite the fact that around 200 MPs were absent, including some who are shielding at home for medical reasons. The process was labelled a farce by many observers, including a number of the MPs.

The Westminster queues rivalled those seen at the reopened Warrington branch of IKEA

Given the theme park-esque size of the queue, it was fitting that the self-described ‘MP for Alton Towers’ Karen Bradley was involved in the debate.

The Staffordshire Moorlands MP, who chairs the procedure committee, tabled an amendment which would have seen remote voting retained for the time being.

She argued that it was wrong that some MPs would effectively be ‘disenfranchised’ by the end of the so-called hybrid proceedings – combining virtual and physical parliaments.

Mrs Bradley said: “Since the 16th century, this chamber and its predecessors have been the absolute focus of the house’s life.

“The idea that the chamber is now not available to many of us is a massive dislocation. Let me be clear: I do not want the measures that we are debating to be in place for a second longer than they have to be to keep our colleagues, our staff and the staff of the house as safe as possible from coronavirus. I look forward to the time when the guidance is relaxed and we can all of us meet here again.

“This is a very uncomfortable day for me. I do not like being badged as a rebel on house business. I am determined that we will get back to a fully physical Parliament as soon as possible.

A photo of the Alton Towers-style queueing arrangements at Westerminster, taken by Manchester Withington MP Jeff Smith
A photo of the Alton Towers-style queueing arrangements at Westerminster, taken by Manchester Withington MP Jeff Smith

I am very much in the traditionalist camp and am on the record as saying that the hybrid arrangements were sub-optimal, so let me be clear: the sooner we are back to normal, whatever that is, the better, for me, but the physical Parliament that we are in today is far from optimal itself. We can have no more than 50 members in the chamber; long queues to vote; very little spontaneity; and so many great parliamentarians absent.”

Mrs Bradley said she had spoken to Harlow MP Robert Halfon, who will not be able to attend Parliament physically for medical reasons.

She added: “The idea that we decide today to disenfranchise him completely seems to me to be absurd.”

Supporters of modernising parliament have long criticised the antiquated form of voting in the Commons, where MPs have to physically walk through ‘aye’ and ‘no’ lobbies. They say the hybrid arrangements have shown that electronic voting, which is already used in the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, works perfectly and is far more efficient.

While many MPs complained about the chaotic queueing system as they were waiting to vote on Tuesday, a majority voted against Mrs Bradley’s amendment, with the government’s motion then passing 261 to 163.

Most of our local MPs in North Staffordshire and South Cheshire voted to end the hybrid arrangements and remote voting.

Newcastle MP Aaron Bell later explained his reasons for voting this way. He said: “I do think that MPs who can be at Westminster, should be at Westminster. I’ve been working from home these last two months. I have been contributing to the virtual parliament, making contributions through Zoom to debates and questions in the House of Commons.

Social distancing means only 50 MPs are allowed inside the House of Commons chamber
Social distancing means only 50 MPs are allowed inside the House of Commons chamber

“However, I have to say, it’s not the same in terms of the scrutiny it does give the government. There are no interventions, no back-and-forth in the chamber. I don’t think Parliament works as well when MPs are at home.

“However I do recognise of course that some MPs cannot be here because of medical conditions and I do think the house does need to make some accommodation for them.”

The issue came up again during Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, with Labour leader Keir Starmer blasting the previous day’s scenes as ‘shameful’.

But Boris Johnson defended the decision to end the virtual Parliament, saying that ‘ordinary people are getting used to queuing for long periods’.

Mr Johnson did, though, reveal that there were plans to extend the proxy voting system to MPs who are shielding during the pandemic, meaning they will be able to nominate someone to vote physically in the chamber on their behalf.

But until social distancing measures are abolished, it seems that the queueing pantomime seen on Tuesday is set to continue.





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