Coronavirus has changed everything. Make sense of it all with the Waugh Zone, our evening politics briefing. Sign up now.
Jacob Rees-Mogg has faced a backlash from MPs with young children and those with health conditions after he ordered the end of parliament’s remote working.
Labour MP Stella Creasy told the cabinet minister “not all of us have nannies” as he announced that MPs would be expected to attend Westminster in person from next month.
The Commons leader confirmed that he would not renew temporary rules that have allowed “hybrid” proceedings since the Covid-19 lockdown, including online voting and the use of Zoom video calls for questions and debates.
Both Tory and Labour MPs expressed concerns that those with caring responsibilities would be effectively disenfranchised by the return to a physical parliament, as the lockdown means they have lost childcare.
Creasy said that provision had to be made for MPs and their staff who have to care for others. “I know he’s not a fan of the nanny state, but not all of us have nannies,” she said.
The remark was a reference tor Rees-Mogg’s own childhood nanny, who has helped care for each of his own six children.
The Tory minister - who famously admitted he had never changed a nappy - replied: “Not all have six children either, which I’m very lucky and fortunate to have, and I actually understand therefore the child caring responsibilities - all my children are quite young.
“The nursery in the House of Commons is open, and members of parliament are key workers and therefore schools are available in England for their children.”
Rees-Mogg has in the past admitted he has “made no pretence to be a modern man”. When asked in 2017 how his nappy-changing was going following the birth of his sixth child, he replied: “The nanny does it brilliantly.”
Tory MP Rachel Griffiths pointed out that several MPs “rely on grandparents who might be in the vulnerable category to supplement their childcare, and therefore cannot travel to Westminster”.
Rees-Mogg said he was listening to MPs. “But the reality is parliament is most effective when it meets physically, hybrid parliamentary proceedings have only allowed a small proportion of parliament’s functionality to take place”.
Former cabinet minister and Commons procedure committee chair Karen Bradley urged him to allow MPs to vote on the plan. She pointed out that MPs had passed a motion supporting the hybrid working and “parity of treatment of all members”.
Rees-Mogg suggested no vote was needed because the hybrid working was temporary and the orders enacting them would lapse. Remote video calls for select committees will be allowed to continue until June 30.
He stressed that the restrictions imposed by video calls had dramatically cut the amount of time which could be spent debating legislation, and effectively ordered all MPs to return to London on June 2, after the Whitsun recess starts tomorrow.
The Commons will not be the “crowded, bustling chamber of old”, he insisted, because MPs would have to remain six feet apart even when voting in the division lobbies.
Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle has privately warned that he expects Mps with health conditions to be catered for during the pandemic, to ensure they do not lose out from being away from the chamber.
Rees-Mogg said MPs’ staff will be strongly advised to continue working from home and hinted that compromise arrangements for MPs with underlying health conditions would be worked on over the coming break. Any exemptions would need to be approved next month, however.
But he faced anger from MPs who said that many were in groups vulnerable to Covid-19 or had family members who were in that category.
Former Tory minister Rob Halfon, who has cerebral palsy, warned that plans for a blanket return for all MPs would create a “Euthanasia parliament”.
“Is it really morally just to say in effect to MPs, because you are not Tarzan-like and able to swing through the Chamber, beating your chest shouting to your constituents, ‘Look I am here!’ that you are effectively euthanised from the Commons?” he asked.
Liberal Democrat Alistair Carmichael, who represents Orkney and Shetland, said the Government wants MPs to undertake “non-essential journeys” to return to parliament.
“In my case, [that means travelling] almost the entire length of this country, to stay in second homes – something which when done by leading Government advisers led to their resignation.
If ever there was a case of do as I say, not as I do, then this is it.”
Shadow Commons leader Valerie Vaz added: “He keeps saying if others are going to work, the Government expects us to go to work – we are at work, we are at work at all times and the government’s own advice is if you can work from home then do so.”
Rees-Mogg said he “was reassured yesterday by the progress being made in making the parliamentary estate a Covid-19-secure workplace”.
But MPs and trade unions representing staff in the Commons pointed out that a full risk assessment by Public Health England and House authorities had not yet been completed.
Garry Graham, Prospect deputy general secretary, said: “Trade unions representing staff in parliament offered yesterday to work with the government on a phased return to a physical parliament between now and the summer.
“It is incredibly disappointing that the government have chosen to ignore the voice of staff and impose a full return to parliament in two weeks, including physical voting, that will mean hundreds of people packed into parliament’s narrow corridors putting MPs and staff at risk.”
Amy Liversedge of the First Division Association said: “The House says that Public Health England will assess the Palace of Westminster and give a judgement about whether the House should return – it is reckless for the government to announce an end to the hybrid Parliament before this assessment is complete.”