Public ‘excluded’ from UK parliament amid pandemic — but banquets allowed
MPs hit out as award ceremonies and other events allowed to go ahead while public limited to pre-booked tours.
LONDON — MPs and transparency campaigners fear citizens are being “excluded” from the U.K. parliament more than six weeks after most coronavirus restrictions at Westminster were dropped — even though banqueting events have been allowed to resume.
Members of the public are currently not allowed to enter parliament unless they are accompanied by an MP or have arranged a pre-booked tour, most of which come with a fee. Non-passholders cannot observe the Commons from the public gallery or attend select committee hearings.
Yet a parliamentary official pointed out that the ban on open public access remains despite the fact that banqueting receptions held by lobbyists and charities can carry on in the Palace of Westminster.
“I am seeing awards ceremonies with 80 people taking place, unmasked, with random people in, but non-passholding journalists can’t come in,” they said. “Parliament shouldn’t be about parties — it’s about transparency and democracy.”
Labour MP and chairman of the Commons standards committee Chris Bryant told POLITICO the system was “crazy,” and suggested parliamentary authorities could make double vaccination or proof of a negative test a condition of entry.
One senior Conservative said: “We can have up to six guests for meetings but if people are paying for banqueting, there’s no — or a very high — limit.”
At the start of the pandemic physical attendance of parliament was limited and MPs were allowed to participate virtually, but these measures were lifted in the summer.
There is now no limit on the number of MPs who can sit in the chamber nor any requirement to wear masks, a situation which has attracted criticism as the U.K. battles rising case numbers.
Ruth Smeeth, a former Labour MP who now heads up the Index on Censorship campaign group, said she feared an “inadvertent drift toward a two-track system, which excludes the public from parliamentary proceedings that they have previously had access to.”
While she acknowledged the challenges of meeting public health guidelines, Smeeth warned that “a democratic deficit” could develop allowing “those able to secure access through formal channels enjoying access denied to the public at large.”
A parliament spokesperson said: “Options are currently being developed to allow limited public access to the gallery and for constituent meetings, where it is safe to facilitate these.”