Socially distancing MPs will take hours to vote physically

MPs could have to spend hours queuing to vote physically in the House of Commons when they return to work after their Whitsun break early next month because of socially distancing during the Covid-19 crisis, secret trials have found.

The Government has ordered remote proceedings in the Commons – when MPs have been able to vote and take part in debates from home – to end after the Whitsun half-term break in a bid to persuade the rest of the country to follow MPs’ example and return to work.

However, trials in the House of Commons last week found that social-distancing requirements during the coronavirus crisis means that physically voting could take hours.

During a test on Tuesday morning the Commons authorities ditched the traditional Aye and No lobbies, that MPs squeeze into to cast their votes, due to social-distancing concerns during the Covid-19 crisis.

As Government and Opposition whips looked on, 30 members of staff standing in for MPs were then asked to walk into the chamber and head to the despatch box in front of either the Government or Opposition benches.

They were then asked to say their name into the microphones on the despatch box to allow officials to record their names before walking out behind the Speaker’s chair. Normally it takes just 14 minutes for all 641 MPs who take part in the proceedings to vote physically in favour or against Commons motions.

However, in Tuesday’s trial run the 30 ‘MPs’ needed eight minutes to vote. The worry now is that if this rate does not improve then it will take nearly three hours for all 641 MPs to vote.

One MP who was part of the process said Commons authorities are hoping that MPs will speed up once they get used to the new process.

But the MP said: “The Government has not thought this through. Even with 400 of us coming in, if pairing was used – how will that take less than 30 minutes?

“If you were to have all members who could vote – 641 of us – being two metres socially distant around the estate, it would take us somewhere over Westminster Bridge.”

The House of Commons confirmed on Saturday that, from June 2, MPs “will only be able to participate physically in any Chamber proceedings, and any division would take place physically”.

A Commons spokesman confirmed that it undertook a “trial of ensuring physical divisions can take place but with social distancing measures in force”.

He said: “The House authorities are considering ways to ensure divisions can take place with suitable social distancing measures, one of which includes extending the division period. Work has already been undertaken to develop this, including testing.”

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