“A safe working environment is not a choice, it is an obligation”: MP mask row grows

Unions say this is a stark example of how rules in Parliament apply only to some and not to others.

Parliamentary unions have called on the Commons Commission to enforce mask wearing in parliament after the House of Commons Speaker insisted there was “no meaningful way” to make MPs do so.

Sir Lindsay Hoyle wrote to MPs to tell them that from July 19 – when the requirement to wear a face mask indoors lifts – they will be “encouraged” to wear a face covering while in parliament.

All other staff will be required to wear masks while moving around the estate or entering venues.

GMB, TUS and Unite unions responded with an open letter to the Speaker urging him to reconsider the advice.

But the Speaker said he would not enforce mask wearing for MPs.

In a letter to the unions, he said: “I have no power to prevent democratically elected Members from coming on to the Estate when the House is sitting.

“As such, there is no meaningful way to enforce a requirement on Members to wear a face covering.

“Furthermore, the rules relating to dress do not, as you suggest, allow me to prevent a Member from accessing the Chamber.”

Following this, the joint trade unions in Parliament (TUC) have written to the Commons Commission in a final plea for it to take action to protect staff in parliament ahead of the relaxation of rules requiring MPs to wear masks on Monday.

The letter also urges the Commission to make clear that where an MP is not wearing a mask without a reasonable exemption then staff have the right to remove themselves from the situation.  

It reads: “If, as stated, the Commission cannot compel Members to adhere to the instruction on face coverings, then they must consider their obligations to protect staff who find themselves in a situation where they are in proximity to a Member who refuses to wear a face covering.
 
“A safe working environment is not a choice, it is an obligation. As such we believe the Commission should make clear to all House staff and Members that, in circumstances where a Member refuses to wear a face covering, the staff member is permitted to remove themselves from that environment, and this would be a reasonable action to undertake.”

The original open letter from the unions said the policy hinted at a failure to exercise its duty of care to its own employees.

It said: “It would be fair to say that the reaction of staff across Parliament has been one of incredulity, anger and concern.

“This is a stark example of how rules in Parliament apply only to some and not to others.

“After more than a year of collective efforts, staff will not feel protected in their workplace if MPs are simply permitted to choose whether or not to take this one simple step to help protect staff from possible infection.

A House of Commons Commission spokesperson said: “The House of Commons Commission has received further representation from Parliament’s unions regarding the wearing of face masks in the House of Commons. Our priority is to ensure a safe and functioning Parliament in line with Government regulations. 

“We hope that numbers on the Parliamentary Estate will remain limited next week and that all passholders will continue to exercise caution as we enter step 4. We will, of course, monitor the situation from day to day.”

Alexandra Warren is a freelance journalist.

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