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Excluding an MP who’s having chemo from a debate on cancer is disgraceful

5 min read

The government should be listening not silencing. We must change the ludicrous system which forces MPs to choose between not speaking in Parliament and risking their health.

When Parliament was shut during the pandemic in the first lockdown, it was rightly recognized, that as the government made decisions affecting life and death, parliamentary scrutiny was more, not less, important. Parliament went online, we voted on our mobile phones and then, as it started to open up, spoke from our homes via Zoom. 

While it isn’t the same to debate via video link – as you can’t interrupt or be interrupted to challenge or support a particular point – remote participation by MPs is necessary to prevent Parliament itself contributing to the spread of the virus.  The whole point of Parliament is that it’s a hub for 650 constituencies in every part of the UK,  so if MPs get Covid in Parliament, they’ll take it back to different parts of the country.

We now have a system where MPs can vote by proxy if you don’t want to travel to Westminster and the country is being urged to work from home where possible.  But there’s a major flaw in our system which needs to be changed immediately. 

Those who are voting by proxy can question ministers including the Prime Minister, speak in Statements and Urgent questions – but not speak in debates. We have a ludicrous system where you can cast your vote as MP, but not tell the Commons why you voted as you did. 

Shutting out MPs who are ill, disabled or far from Westminster is prime macho strutting

Even worse, it’s discriminatory. Those MPs who aren’t able to speak in a debate are at a disadvantage compared to those who are. Those who are thereby disadvantaged are MPs who are staying home because they are over 70, or because they have a disability which makes them vulnerable, an underlying health problem, or are living with someone who’s shielding.

Similarly, some MPs who are not elderly or vulnerable may provide important support for a relative who is, so can’t afford to expose themselves and risk having to isolate from a relative who needs them. 

We’ve heard the criticism loud and clear that when deciding on Covid measures, the government is blind to the implications outside of London. If you’re a London MP you can drive a short distance to Westminster, or even walk. That’s not possible for MPs representing Scottish constituencies for whom attendance at Westminster necessitates train or plane journeys. If you're coming from the North West, you’d have to stop off at petrol stations. So there’s a higher risk for MPs the further from Parliament the constituency they represent is.

The downright wrongness of all this was the situation exemplified by Tracey Crouch this week.  At the age of 44, this super-active MP was diagnosed with breast cancer. She wanted to speak in a debate on breast cancer, but can’t come to Westminster because she must keep her contacts to a minimum while she undergoes chemo.

Treating someone who’s having chemo as a non-person is disgraceful

She wasn’t allowed to in the debate because of the ban on remote speaking. I very much wanted to hear what she had to say about enduring a frightening diagnosis and tough treatment during the pandemic – and I’m not the only one. So would millions of women in the country.

The government should want to listen too to hear a personal experience about how the NHS is coping, yet they banned her from speaking unless she came in person.  She’s not the only one affected in this way. Barbara Keely MP was told by her oncologist that she must minimise her exposure to other people. To participate in the debate, as she wanted, she’d have to do exactly that.

Treating someone who’s having chemo as a non-person is disgraceful. If you feel up to participating in your work, you should be supported in doing so - not shut out.

We do want to hear from MPs who are older or vulnerable. They are sharing the experience of many in this country who are at the sharp end of lockdown. We don’t want them to be silenced. 

It’s wrong to make MPs choose between not speaking in Parliament, which is their duty, or risk their health. We don’t want the voices of those away from London to be muffled. The virus is there too. 

The government should be listening not silencing.  If they did, they’d learn from what they hear.

This could easily be solved.  It’s my assessment that the overwhelming majority of MPs want the speech ban ended, but the government won’t allow a vote on it.  The spanner in the works here is the Leader of the House, Jacob Rees Mogg. He prides himself on being a traditionalist, but there’s nothing quaint or eccentric in barring women who’ve had breast cancer from speaking in Parliament.  The strain between different regions of England and between the different nations of the UK is bad enough already without Jacob Rees-Mogg making them worse.

Over the last few days women have protested openly about the male clique in the No 10 bunker.  Shutting out MPs who are ill, disabled or far from Westminster is prime macho strutting.

If the Prime Minister’s going to re-set the culture of No 10, re-build the broken links with Parliament and hear what’s really going on he could, and should, sort this right away.


Harriet Harman is the Labour MP for Camberwell and Peckham and mother of the House. 

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