Dear Leader of the House, Mr Speaker,
We write as the Parliamentary Leaders of all the Opposition Parties to express our deep concern about remarks suggesting MPs will be sitting again physically in the House of Commons, rather than virtually, from June 2nd, despite there being no change to the physical distancing advice from Public Health England (PHE).
We all approach our scrutiny and accountability roles with the utmost gravity. First and foremost, our responsibilities must be met in ways that are consistent with adhering to safety rules and the principle of leading by example. MPs can now work from home and hybrid proceedings should facilitate those who want – and many who will need - to continue to do so, at least until Public Health England changes its guidance on 2m distancing. It is not possible to maintain social distance in our debating chambers whilst also accommodating the number of MPs who may wish to participate in legislative or other proceedings; nor is it possible to hold physical divisions in a timely manner.
We note that there has been no discussion with us, as opposition parties, about such a move.
Engagement on this matter is particularly crucial for MPs in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, given that health is a devolved issue and advice relating to the pandemic currently diverges from that of PHE.
The clear message in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland remains 'stay home to protect our NHS and save lives'. The option of virtual participation must remain so these MPs can continue to hold the UK government to account and represent our constituents safely. Requiring MPs to travel back and forth hundreds of miles across the UK would disrespect the devolved governments’ more cautious approach and risk spreading the virus.
Any suggestion that a small cohort of MPs, made up of an allocation that proportionately reflects the political make-up of the Commons, fails to consider the disproportionate impact on smaller parties, particularly those whose members primarily live at great distance from London or have just a few or even 1 elected representative. Any physical sitting only arrangements, when hotels are closed and access to public transport is rightly restricted, risk being profoundly unrepresentative at present - and therefore undermining the very principle of democracy that we are all trying to uphold.
Parliament is far more than the building we usually occupy and we are enormously grateful for the considerable efforts that have been made to date to enable us to fulfil our roles remotely. However, it is undeniably the case that the hybrid sitting arrangements impose limitations on our ability to hold Government to account. These imperfections must not be used to justify undermining PHE advice and signalling to the rest of our country that the rules do not apply to MPs. Rather they should be seen as an opportunity for further cross party co-operation to ensure hybrid proceedings evolve further and become as comprehensive as possible, in the interests of democracy and safety. We think there is agreement across the House that physical distancing must not lead to a harmful distancing of the Executive from scrutiny by MPs, nor should legislation be impeded. We therefore wish to see Westminster Hall debates reinstated, for example, more legislation brought forward and continued use of electronic voting.
Colleagues have argued that we need to be physically present - to eye ball Ministers or have access to them in lobbies - to convey the strength of our feelings and to protect and promote the interests of the people we represent. But there are alternative ways to do this. We applaud those Ministers and departments who have been holding regular virtual surgeries, for example, as a way to hear about important issues that might otherwise be brought up in the voting lobbies. And we consider too that remote working has facilitated a more respectful debating environment that chimes well with the atmosphere of the country. We hope you will encourage these and other positive initiatives to continue and develop further.
We recognise that it is only right to prepare for MPs returning physically to the Commons en masse as and when revised distancing guidelines from public health bodies across the entire UK allow. We urge you to ensure that this is done collaboratively rather than unilaterally. During proceedings on May 12th the Leader of the House was asked about any equality impact assessment regarding Members returning physically to the House, given that they may have childcare or caring responsibilities. We would like an answer to that question. We are mindful too of the impact on our staff, the wider parliamentary estate workforce and on colleagues who eg are themselves, or share households with people who are, extremely vulnerable. We would further like to know that, as and when distancing advice is amended and it is considered safe by PHE for MPs to return physically to the Chamber, that devolved governments will be fully consulted and adaptations will be made to fully accommodate those Members and staff who may still need to continue to shield.
There has been, and rightly continues to be, a cross-party commitment to work constructively with the Government to save as many lives as possible and to make Parliament work well in these unprecedented circumstances. We trust you will both use your positions to uphold parliamentary scrutiny and to demonstrate real leadership and vision as we continue to face the challenges that lie ahead.