Press play to listen to this article
LONDON â€” What new normal?
The U.K. House of Commons, which was forced to rapidly modernize its working practices when the pandemic hit, is set to snap back to its old ways of doing things from September when MPs return from the long summer break.
That means no virtual speeches or questions from home, and no voting by proxy, two major innovations intended to mitigate the strictures of COVID. The other significant change was a limit on the number of MPs permitted to be physically present in the chamber: capped at 33 for most of the past year, more recently raised to 64.Â
These adaptations fundamentally changed life in the Commons, which revolves around intimate chats in crowded, crumbling and hard-to-clean corridors â€” conditions that could hardly be more perfectly designed to spread coronavirus.
From September, no such restrictions will apply. Any MP needing to stay home because of symptoms or because they are â€œpingedâ€ by the National Health Service app after coming into contact with an infected person will simply be absent.
â€œIâ€™m looking forward to getting fit again â€” going between meetings, legging it across the estate when the division bell goes [signaling a vote] and bobbing in the chamber are all surprisingly good workouts,â€ said the opposition Labour Partyâ€™s Shadow Equalities Minister Charlotte Nichols.
â€œAll of the useful stuff which gets agreed in parliament seems to largely happen and be organized outside of formal meetings, and you need to be able to grab colleagues â€¦ corner ministers in a corridor, or do a bit of schmoozing for that to happen, and thatâ€™s genuinely impossible virtually.â€
A Tory backbencher observed it would be good for camaraderie, â€œas thereâ€™s some colleagues I forgot even existed.â€
But not everyone welcomes the return of an analog parliament.
MPs who had benefited from more flexible arrangements â€” whether because of childcare demands, commuting distances, or their own health conditions â€” have no option but to return to Westminster or simply be absent altogether.
â€˜Least scrutinized in historyâ€™
On the last day before the summer break, leader of the Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg laid out his case to MPs. â€œThis House works better when people are here; we do a better job of representing our constituents and of holding ministers to account,â€ he said. â€œI can honestly say that remote participation is a doddle.â€
There are political motivations, too, for a return to a physical parliament. Many on the government side say the introduction of a partially remote parliament created a lack of cohesion among party groupings. This sense of drift has, whips and aides argues, contributed to a steady smattering of Tory rebellions over questions including COVID rules, welfare and relations with China.
Thatâ€™s not cited in the official reasoning for insisting on a return to physical sittings by Rees-Mogg, of course, who has been steadfast in his efforts to phase out virtual contributions as soon as possible. A brief experiment with digital voting was abruptly ended after a three-month trial at the height of the pandemic at his behest.
â€œParliament via Zoom and WhatsApp has barely been parliament at all,â€ said Conservative MP Christian Wakeford. â€œWhether itâ€™s a full chamber, school visits or meetings in person, just looking forward to getting back to normal â€” although Iâ€™ll need a quick refresher on etiquette.â€
Itâ€™s not just the view from the government side. The opposition has struggled to land its attacks virtually, with one Labour MP describing dial-in questions as â€œa desiccated version of the real thingâ€ that have made this government â€œthe least scrutinized in history.â€
One of the features of in-person debates that has been most sorely missed is the ability to intervene, which allows MPs to jump in at points that enrage them or quiz a squirming minister more closely.
The House authorities have previously stressed that parliamentary staff should work from home if possible as they tried to reduce crowding, but that is not the expectation come September. It stands in contrast to the European Parliament, where most people will have the right to work remotely at least one day a week.
As Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle put it in a letter to all MPs last month, the emphasis is on â€œmoving into an exciting new phase where we can finally begin to open up the House of Commons â€¦ [and] seeing the House buzzing again.â€
Select committees will meet in person but MPs will also have the option to take evidence via video call, although this was allowed, though rare, before the pandemic. Enhanced cleaning regimes will be maintained, and some extra rooms will be opened up to avoid â€œpinch pointsâ€ and unventilated areas.Â
Members have been encouraged to wear masks in the chamber since their use became optional in all settings but the speaker has stressed he has no power to mandate them.
Absent MPs will rely on staff to fill in where they can and on the traditional â€œpairingâ€ system, under which an MP who is unavoidably away for a vote is paired with an MP from the opposite side who agrees not to take part.
Tory MP Robert Halfon, who has cerebral palsy, previously told POLITICOâ€™s Westminster Insider podcast how virtual meetings have improved accessibility. â€œI absolutely believe parliament should get back to normal, however, I do think there need to be changes but properly and thoughtfully discussed and debated by MPs, including how best to help MPs who face disadvantage,â€ he said.
â€œParliament should be setting the standards on diversity, inclusion, workersâ€™ rights and safe employment,â€ said Rees-Moggâ€™s Labour counterpart Thangam Debbonaire.
As â€œoffice holdersâ€ rather than employees, MPs have no recourse to equalities legislation.
Hannah White, deputy director of the Institute for Government, also expressed concern. â€œConsultation has been conspicuously absent. From an inclusion point of view, it will be very disappointing if innovations such as remote or hybrid sittings of committees and proxy voting for a wider range of reasons are not retained,â€ she said.
Might that change? The House of Lords has chosen to keep the option of virtual contributions for disabled members, while the Commons procedure committee is expected to conduct an inquiry into working practices in the autumn.Â
White added: â€œHaving actually tried some of this stuff could make a big difference to the possibility of it ever being introduced again, as it gets over the â€˜canâ€™t be doneâ€™ brigade.â€
But for now, the message from the House of Commons is: donâ€™t hold your breath. Unless youâ€™re sitting next to a coughing colleague, that is.