Plans for MPs to return to Westminster next month risk creating 650 Covid-19 “super-spreaders”, a Labour MP has warned.
Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg has accused Labour of opposing the full re-opening of parliament in order to “stymie” the government after he indicated last week he would like to see MPs return to parliament as early as June.
It comes as MPs learned that the planned multibillion-pound renovation of the Palace of Westminster is set for a review due to the Covid-19 outbreak and cost fears.
MPs including Labour’s Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) warned ending the current hybrid proceedings – which have seen MPs contributing to debates via webcam and voting electronically for the first time – would force MPs to return to Westminster from their constituencies en masse.
In a question to the House of Commons Commission spokesperson SNP MP Pete Wishart, Onwurah said: “The digital parliament has been a huge success.
“But now the leader of the House wants to abandon it and instead insist that 650 MPs – potential super-spreaders – travel from across the country to cram into Westminster putting constituents and staff at risk.
“Why would the government choose to ignore its own advice that those who can work from home should?
“Unless it is to cast a protective cloak around their floundering prime minister?”
SNP MP Carol Monaghan (Glasgow North West) said it was “almost impossible” to go 10-metres without having to touch a door handle in parliament and asked how MPs and House staff can keep safe.
Wishart replied: “The House is doing everything possible to ensure that we do become a Covid-19 secure workplace.
“She is right to note that if we do abandon these virtual proceedings tomorrow it will be necessary for 650 members to travel from all corners of the UK to participate in proceedings in an environment that will be very, very challenging in order to ensure we maintain social distancing requirements.”
Speaking on his ConservativeHome podcast, published earlier on Tuesday, Rees-Mogg said the hybrid provisions limited the amount of scrutiny of legislation.
He added: “Frankly, the opposition like having a hybrid parliament because what is the opposition there to do? It’s there to stop the government getting things done.
“And it was willing to sacrifice a degree of scrutiny to stymie the government’s programme.”
Later, Tory MP Damian Hinds, spokesperson for the Parliamentary Works Sponsor Body, told the Commons that the Covid-19 outbreak had forced the parliamentary authorities to “think afresh” about the £4 billion Restoration and Renewal programme.
Under current proposals, MPs and peers are set to move out of the Palace of Westminster as part of a so-called “decant”.
The Commons would move to Richmond House – the former Whitehall home of the Department of Health – and the Lords to the nearby Queen Elizabeth II Centre in Parliament Square in the mid-2020s, with the whole project slated for completion early in the following decade.
Hinds said: “Covid-19 is going to cause all of us to think afresh about many things.
“For the Restoration and Renewal project value for money is clearly vital, indeed it is a statutory obligation.
“With the sponsor body and delivery authority now substantive, we will conduct a strategic review which is going to consider the trade-offs and compromises that could be available.
“Of course any such decisions would be for parliament to make.”
We need your help ...
The coronavirus pandemic is changing our world, fast. And we will do all we can to keep bringing you news and analysis throughout. But we are worried about maintaining enough income to pay our staff and minimal overheads.
Now, more than ever, we need a vibrant, independent media that holds the government to account and calls it out when it puts vested economic interests above human lives. We need a media that shows solidarity with the people most affected by the crisis – and one that can help to build a world based on collaboration and compassion.
We have been fighting against an establishment that is trying to shut us down. And like most independent media, we don’t have the deep pockets of investors to call on to bail us out.
Can you help by chipping in a few pounds each month?