Prospect calls for rethink on ending virtual parliament

19 May 2020

Prospect union, which represents staff working in the Houses of Parliament will be resisting government plans to cancel the virtual parliament and bring MPs back to Westminster as early as next month over fears about safety and practicality.

Prospect will argue at a crunch meeting today (Tuesday) that the current system is working well and that the government should follow its own guidelines to employers, the first point of which states “work from home if you can”.

Leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg, argued on Wednesday that MPs could not “hide away” while other workers returned to work, raising concerns that the government simply wish to avoid any bad PR they might get for not being seen to be at work.

Prospect says it will work with government on restoring any essential functions but that the key elements of the system must be retained for now.

Huge efforts have been made to enable MPs and staff to work from home, including virtual debates and electronic voting, both of which are working reasonably well. Removing these facilities could require hundreds more staff to attend parliament in addition to hundreds of MPs, contrary to the claim made by Mr Rees-Mogg that only ‘very few’ extra staff would be needed on.

The union argues that the government are currently also at risk of breaching the second point of their own guidance to employers which states that “employers will need to carry out COVID-19 risk assessments in consultation with their workers or trade unions”. No specific risk assessment of a full return, which would be required, has taken place.

In particular Prospect is concerned about the impact of ending virtual voting which could require all 650 MPs to be on site in order to vote. Social distancing measures mean votes could take an hour to resolve. It is not uncommon for there to be as many as six or seven divisions in a row meaning MPs could spend an entire day queuing up to vote. The need for social distancing would also mean that the voting queue would stretch over 1.2km- twice the length of Whitehall.

The union is willing to engage constructively in discussions on developing a long term return but warn sthat a full return to parliament is dangerous and impractical.

Prospect deputy general secretary Garry Graham said:

“Staff have made herculean efforts to enable parliament to work remotely, keeping MPs and staff safe and ensuring our democracy is unimpaired.

“It beggars belief that the government would throw all of this away by forcing hundreds of MPs and staff to return to Westminster, putting them at risk and causing vast delays that will hamstring parliament’s ability to function effectively.

“We will not allow people to be put at risk simply to create good PR for the government. All we are asking for is for the government to follow its own advice that when work can be done from home it should be, and that nobody should be forced to return to work without a full risk assessment.

“If government can’t even follow its own guidance then it would give the green light to every rogue employer in the country to put the lives of their staff and the wider community on the line. We want to work with the government and authorities where their requests are reasonable but a weekly trouncing at PMQs is not a good enough reason to put people’s health at risk.”