Boris Johnson reveals proxy voting plan for shielding MPs

Boris Johnson reveals plan for proxy voting for MPs shielding from coronavirus at home during feisty PMQs as he comes under attack from Labour over farcical MILE-LONG ‘socially distanced conga’ into the Commons

  • MPs have returned from the half-term recess but ‘virtual’ arrangements in the Commons have been dropped
  • Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg faced a Tory revolt over scrapping virtual voting by won 261 votes to 163
  • He faced fury from MPs who are shielding and parents being prevented from taking part remotely 
  • MPs ridiculed the ‘conga-like’ queues that snaked around the Parliamentary estate and lasted for 44 minutes 
  • Here’s how to help people impacted by Covid-19

MPs who cannot make it to Westminster because they are shielding because of age or ill-health will be allowed to vote by proxy, Boris Johnson said today.

The Prime Minister made the announcement as his Government faced widespread ridicule over a mile-long ‘socially distanced conga’ of politicians that snaked around Parliament yesterday.

MPs threw out temporary electronic voting measures brought in during the pandemic despite accusations it would disenfranchise those forced to shield at home because of their age, or specific health issues.

It resulted in hundreds of MPs having to queue for more than an hour in some cases, in a socially distanced snake that wound its way through halls, corridors and open spaces in the Westminster estate, before casting votes in the Commons chamber.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer used a feisty Prime Minister’s Questions today to label the scenes ‘shameful’ and pushed the Prime Minister to end the ‘completely unnecessary and unacceptable’ process and instead allow remote voting to resume.

He told the Commons: ‘If any other employer behaved like this, it’d be a clear and obvious case of indirect discrimination under the Equalities Act.’

Mr Johnson replied: ‘I do think (Sir Keir) needs to consider what is really going on throughout the country where ordinary people are getting used to queuing for long periods of time to do their shopping or whatever it happens to be.

‘I do not think it’s unreasonable that we should ask parliamentarians to come back to this place and do their job for the people of this country.

‘I know it’s difficult and I apologise to colleagues for the inconvenience and I apologise to all those who have particular difficulties because they’re shielded or elderly, the change we’re making today will mean they should be able to vote by proxy.’

The Prime Minister made the announcement as his Government faced widespread ridicule over a mile-long ‘socially distanced conga’ of politicians that snaked around Parliament

Tory MP Anthony Browne posted a picture of the queue with his colleagues – some wearing facemasks – although he insisted the process was going ‘smoothly’

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer used a feisty Prime Minister’s Questions today to label the scenes ‘shameful’ and pushed the Prime Minister to end the ‘completely unnecessary and unacceptable’ process and instead allow remote voting to resume

Currently, pregnant MPs and those who are on maternity or paternity leave are allowed to use colleagues as proxy votes under reformed introduce in the last Parliament.

Mr Johnson’s announcement was welcomed by Robert Halfon, a disabled Tory MP who had urged the Government to retain remote working and voting. He is shielding in his Harlow constituency.

Her tweeted: ‘Big thanks to Karen Bradley, who’s done all possible to extend voting to Covid-19 MPs. Also special thank you to opposition member Vicky Foxcroft for all her campaigning on this. 

Pleased to have worked together. Good news on proxy voting for Covid MPs.’

Last night the government dramatically saw off a revolt over ditching virtual voting as the Commons descended in chaos.

Amid extraordinary scenes, 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 into an underground passageway to MPs’ offices in Portcullis House, and took 44 minutes to pass through the voting lobbies.

The controversial vote came as the Government dropped procedures which allowed MPs to vote online and speak remotely via Zoom, instead saying they would have to attend the Commons.

But the decision caused fury across all parties, with MPs with children or staying home for health conditions incensed by the new scheme, with one jibing that unlike wealthy Mr Rees-Mogg ‘not all of us have live-in nannies’.

Before the key vote, Conservative Karen Bradley, chair of the Procedure Committee, moved an amendment to keep remote voting in place in the coming weeks.

While the division list showed 31 Conservative MPs rebelled to support her proposal, it was defeated by a majority of 57 votes (185 to 242) 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 Ms Bradley’s amendment to the Government’s motion was pushed to a vote, Sir Lindsay 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.

Leader of the Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg told the Commons this afternoon the ‘halfway’ arrangements could not continue. ‘What was unacceptable for a few short weeks would have proved unsustainable if we had allowed the hybrid proceedings to continue,’ he said. ‘Voting while enjoying a sunny walk or whilst watching television do democracy an injustice.’

However, he added he would table a motion on Wednesday which would enable MPs unable to attend Parliament on medical grounds to take part in certain proceedings, including questions, urgent questions and ministerial statements.

SNP MP Gavin Newlands (Paisley and Renfrewshire North) and Labour’s Ian Mearns (Gateshead) were among those to vote while wearing a t-shirt and shorts.

The Commons dress code requires male MPs to wear a suit, although this is not as strict during votes.

Some Conservatives appeared confused by the queueing arrangements, with some attempting to exit the chamber via the wrong door, and others facing Speaker Sir Lindsay’s scorn for not ‘keeping up’.

The voting procedures, which were visibly poorly maintained, have received condemnation from MPs with health conditions and vulnerable family members. Lib Dem MP Munira Wilson said she was being made to ‘put my husband who’s on immuno-suppressants at greater risk’.

The independent equality watchdog added its voice to the condemnation this afternoon, saying those shielding were being ‘disadvantaged’.

Labour’s Louise Haigh ridiculed the situation as she took a selfie standing in line for the vote this afternoon

Speaker Lindsay Hoyle barked at MPs to ‘keep coming’ as the tortuous process continued at Parliament today

Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak was among those forced to queue outside while waiting to vote in the Commons today

Mr Sunak was a few paces ahead of Jacob Rees Mogg, Leader of the House of Commons, who decided to compel MPs to vote in person, despite the ongoing social distancing regulations


MPs face a mile-long ‘conga’ vote today amid a furious backlash at Jacob Rees-Mogg (pictured in the Commons last month) over plans to ditch virtual divisions. Lib Dem Mp Munira Wilson (right) said she was going to Parliament ‘putting my husband who’s on immuno-suppressants at greater risk’

A ‘hybrid’ system in the Commons (pictured today) to allow politicians to contribute to proceedings via Zoom while some remain in the chamber has been dropped

Fortunately for MPs, today’s pleasant weather lessened the ordeal of having to stand outside for an hour 

Stuart Anderson, MP for Wolves South West posted a selfie as he approached the start of the queue 

 Ms Wilson voiced anger at the new regime in Parliament on Twitter this morning

Watchdog criticises plans to end e-voting in Parliament during coronavirus lockdown 

The equalities watchdog has criticised plans to end electronic voting in Parliament during coronavirus lockdown. 

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has written to all MPs warning the move ‘will place at significant disadvantage MPs who are shielding or self-isolating’.

Ahead of the vote on the Government plan, EHRC chief executive Rebecca Hilsenrath wrote: ‘I’m getting in touch to raise our concern that proceedings in Parliament must remain fully inclusive during the coronavirus pandemic.

‘We are concerned by the announcement today from the Leader of the House of Commons which implies that Parliament may proceed without provision for the remote participation of Members who are unable to travel to Westminster because of the pandemic.

‘This will place at significant disadvantage MPs who are shielding or self-isolating because of age, disability, health conditions or pregnancy, as well as other Members who will struggle to attend the chamber in person due to travel restrictions and caring responsibilities.

‘It cannot be right for Parliament to proceed without provision for remote participation when many elected representatives cannot attend in person.

‘We ask the Government and Members of the House to show leadership in championing equality and non-discrimination and to ensure that, when deciding future procedure tomorrow, Parliament remains inclusive and effective in making the decisions that affect us all.’

 

Before the voting kicked off, Sir Lindsay said the House had the power to decide its own rules. ‘My sympathy is with those shielding or of a certain age who cannot attend the House,’ he said. 

One Tory MP told MailOnline that forcing MPs to Westminster with little legislation to consider during lockdown will leave them isolated and might mean they drink alone in offices. 

A motion on changing the procedures was voted on this afternoon using temporary measures brought in by Sir Lindsay. 

It saw a socially-distanced queue stretching for nearly a mile around the estate, rather than using the usual rammed division lobbies.

Many MPs appeared completely bewildered by the new arrangements, with some needing to be directed by the Clerks and Sir Lindsay. Others inadvertently said they were voting the wrong way and had to be corrected.

Tory MP Mark Francois jokingly gave his name as ‘Ed Balls’.

Mr Rees-Mogg announced last month that the Government was pushing ahead with plans for a physical-only Commons after the Whitsun recess. 

The motion today prevents the resumption of virtual voting that allowed MPs to have their say from afar during the pandemic.

Mr Rees-Mogg argued that democracy would ‘once again flourish’, having been ‘curtailed under the hybrid halfway house’ which allowed MPs to take part in debates and vote remotely while up to 50 were in the chamber.

He insisted that the Government is working to establish how shielding MPs could continue to take part. However, sources confirmed it will be to contribute to debates rather than vote, and will rely on finding a solutions that is ‘technologically possible’.

The proposal have faced fierce criticism – with the Electoral Reform Society warning it poses a ‘real threat for democratic representation and political equality’ if extremely vulnerable MPs are unable to vote.

An amendment tabled by Karen Bradley, chair of the Prodedure Commit, would have retained remote voting.

Former minister Robert Halfon, who is in the shielding category, said the proposals were ‘absolutely not right and democratically unjust’. He has complained that those unable to attend will be turned into ‘parliamentary eunuchs’. 

Labour MP Luke Pollard was even more blunt, posting a video saying the plans were ‘a bit sh**’. 

Shadow leader of the Commons Valerie Vaz warned Mr Rees-Mogg’s ‘discriminatory proposals’ would result in ‘two classes of MPs’.

‘Those who can physically attend and those unable to owing to the Government’s own rules, including having an underlying health condition or shielding responsibilities.’

MP Toby Perkins said a security guard asked MPs ‘if they could bunch up’ because the queue was getting too long

MPs were warned to keep their distance from their colleagues to prevent the transmission of Covid-19 after the government decided against renewing the ‘virtual parliament’ 

Conservative MP John Redwood, pictured in the grey suit on the steps, waited patiently in line to vote

Labour Leader Keir Starmer, pictured, was among those in the courtyard alongside his colleagues from all parties 

One MP was wearing a mask while waiting to vote. Some parliamentarians have complained they are being excluded by the government’s own rules which say they should shield themselves as they are in a vulnerable group

The MPs were voting on the motion of Proceedings during the pandemic – which excluded a number of parliamentarians who were unable to attend in person because of the Covid-19 restrictions 

Ben Bradshaw MP posted a photograph of the lack of social distancing at the bottom of an escalator in Portcullis House. MPs at the bottom of the escalator were told to keep their distance while more members arrived from the upper floor

MP Tonia Antoniazzi described it as a farce, comparing the voting arrangements introduced by Jacob Rees Mogg as a ‘conga’ 

Tories claim Labour has been refusing to ‘pair’ large numbers of MPs because it believes it has a chance of defeating the government this afternoon. In a sign of desperation, Whips have reportedly been telling Conservative MPs that they should not cave in to pressure from people who want to stop Brexit. 

One senior Tory MP warned that forcing people to attend Parliament even if there is not much business could result in a rise in drinking.

The MP said: ‘If people are stuck up in their offices all afternoon before an evening vote, it’s a hot day and the windows are open. ”Ooh, we’ll crack open a bottle of Sauvignon. Oh, that slipped down rather well, we’ll have another one.”

‘There could be one or two scenes.’ 

Labour MP Jess Phillips tweeted: ‘Parliament resembles Alton Towers queueing system this morning. Can’t way to have a go on the Nemesis.’ 

Sir Lindsay has said votes today will be conducted by filing past the left side of the despatch box table to vote Aye, and to the right side to vote No. They will pause at the despatch box to state their name and voting intention.

Votes on subsequent days will be carried out under the arrangements agreed by MPs.

Sir Lindsay Hoyle (pictured today) has said votes will be conducted by filing past the left side of the despatch box table to vote Aye, and to the right side to vote No

Senior Tories have complained that Sir Lindsay was ‘more keen than we were’ to resume physical voting, and initially regarded hybrid voting as ‘impossible’, but changed his stance after taking soundings from MPs. 

Sir Lindsay said it was ‘clear’ that the House cannot conduct divisions safely via the usual voting lobbies, as it would be ‘difficult to maintain social distancing’.

MPs will be asked to only attend the chamber when they are listed to be called to speak during a particular proceeding.

In a statement, Sir Lindsay said: ‘While we will return to fully physical proceedings in the House tomorrow – they will not be the same as before.

‘Ideally, I would have liked the Government and Opposition to have reached agreement on how we should conduct our proceedings and voting procedures – unfortunately this has not been forthcoming.

‘As remote voting has lapsed and Public Health England have deemed our Division lobbies unsafe, I have had to devise a temporary way forward to break the deadlock – because the House must be able to have its say.

‘It is not perfect, it will take time, and Members will need to be patient. But, it is the safest method I can think of to enable Members and supporting staff to maintain social distancing.

‘However, I still remain hopeful that colleagues will agree on a method of participation that enables all Members to take part, especially those who are shielding, vulnerable or have caring responsibilities.’ 

MPs began queuing outside Parliament in the open air New Palace Yard before making their way, along a 1,300 metre serpentine route before registering their vote 

Many MPs condemned the new arrangements which took considerably longer to complete than the temporary ‘virtual’ votes

Stuart McDonald MP described the scene of MPs lining up and down buildings around the parliamentary estate as ‘absurd’

Former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn spoke away on the phone while waiting in line to enter the Commons chamber 

Chris Grayling, the former Justice Secretary and former Transport Secretary was a few paces behind Mr Corbyn

Keir Starmer, pictured, stood outside like many other MPs to vote on whether to end special coronavirus measures in Parliament by using a different temporary measure necessitated by the Covid-19 social distancing requirements 

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