By Paul Waugh
Parliament is set to break up early for its Easter break this week, once it has passed key emergency legislation covering the Covid-19 outbreak, HuffPost UK has learned.
The 2020 Coronavirus Bill is expected to clear all its Commons stages by Monday night and after Lords approval will become law by Thursday.
Parliament had been due to rise for the Easter recess on March 31, next Tuesday, but it is understood there is a cross-party consensus that it would make sense to head for the break earlier.
A growing number of MPs have demanded greater safeguards to protect against the spread of the disease at Westminster, with several calling for electronic and remote voting and video conferencing.
The SNP’s chief whip Patrick Grady pointed out that the Commons sitting “continues to put pressure on staff, pressure on members”.
He asked for the Easter recess to be brought forward to the end of this week “because the reality is that any of us that return to our constituencies from London, the epicentre of the virus, are going to have to self-isolate”
Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg replied that an early recess was “being considered”.
And in a strong hint, he pointed out that it is “debatable” that minor legislation over toilet rate relief bill regulation, plus an adjournment debate, were really “essential business”.
Both the government and opposition are keen that parliament fulfils its constitutional duty to hold ministers to account, but are aware that the coronavirus outbreak is rapidly approaching its peak in the UK.
Speaker Lindsay Hoyle told MPs that there would be a raft of reforms to how parliament works during the crisis, with Commons votes being done on a staggered basis to reduce contact between members. Votes would take up to 40 minutes rather than the 15 at present.
The Speaker added that video conferencing was also being urgently considered for select committees, while Rees-Mogg said that new rules would be introduced to allow the committees to lift the current requirement that their members appear in person.
In his announcement, Hoyle also said that alcohol sales would no longer continue anywhere on the parliamentary estate.
Liberal Democrat Alastair Carmichael urged a speedier shift to remote working, pointing out that once MPs returned from the Easter break in April the coronavirus outbreak could be at its peak.
Outstanding legislation in the Commons includes the Windrush compensation bill and the Finance Bill that enacts the Budget.
A short Contingencies Fund Bill will also be passed this week to put into law the chancellor’s emergency measures to help workers keep their jobs through Treasury subsidy schemes.
Labour, SNP and Lib Dem MPs have for weeks been calling for modernisation of voting in the Commons, where MPs can only vote in person by passing through an often crowded voting lobby.
In a letter to the Speaker, Labour MPs Toby Perkins, Liz Kendall and others joined previous calls by Lucy Powell and Clive Lewis – and the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas – for urgent reform to protect MPs and staff.