Britain’s elected main house of parliament, the Commons, on Tuesday approved the government’s plan to end temporary electronic voting, introduced as a safety measure during the coronavirus pandemic.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservatives tabled a motion to resume in-person voting, requiring lawmakers to walk through lobbies and potentially flout social-distancing rules.
Following a fierce debate, lawmakers in the 650-seat house approved the motion by 261 to 163 in a traditional lobby vote that included some proxies.
The Conservatives hold a working majority of 87 in the Commons.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, Johnson’s Commons leader, said the government wanted to end temporary “hybrid proceedings,” in which small numbers of lawmakers had sat in parliament while most participated via video links and voted electronically.
Many opposition lawmakers, and some Conservatives, argued that it was too early to resume normal conduct.
Britain has recorded Europe’s highest death toll of almost 40,000 linked to coronavirus and has only just begun to relax its near-lockdown.
Labour lawmaker Peter Kyle accused the government of “bending the rules” on voting to fit its own purpose.
“The rationale of returning to physical proceedings is a straightforward one,” Rees-Mogg said, claiming it would help parliament to work more efficiently and allow greater public scrutiny.
“Lots of people are going back to work and we have a role as leaders within the country and within the community to do that,” he said.
He said the hybrid arrangement had been a “stop-gap (and) necessary compromise” during the coronavirus’ peak in Britain.
Rebecca Hilsenrath, chief executive of the government-funded Equalities and Human Rights Commission, said it “cannot be right” for parliament to proceed without any provision for remote participation.
“Disabled people have felt like an afterthought throughout this pandemic and it is therefore vital that the government looks again at the proposed return to physical participation,” Conservative lawmaker Robert Halfon, who has cerebral palsy, and Labour lawmaker Vicky Foxcroft said in a joint statement.
“Although the hybrid arrangements were not perfect, Parliament has already shown its ability to ensure that everyone’s needs can be accommodated,” Halfon and Foxcroft said.
“We must lead by example, not disenfranchise members and their constituents.”
Rees-Mogg promised to introduce a second motion on Wednesday to allow members who “for medical grounds” cannot attend parliament to join debates remotely, but not vote.
Social-distancing rules mean voting “will take a little longer,” he added, suggesting that concerned lawmakers could try to hold fewer votes.
Parliament’s unelected upper house, the Lords, plans to continue using remote votes.