Sat, 20 July 2024

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By Ben Guerin
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Britain is in a national emergency. So why are ill and disabled MPs being prevented from doing their jobs?

MPs will not be able to attend virtually when Parliament returns next week. Robert Halfon warns the move will mean self-isolating, shielding or sick Members will be prevented from representing their constituents

4 min read

When Parliament returns next week, hundreds of MPs who are self-isolating, shielding or sick will be denied the ability to properly represent their constituents. The government must see sense and reverse this democratically unjust decision

It is worth getting one thing out of the way. I believe Parliament should return in a phased and deliberative manner – as long as the Palace of Westminster can ensure it is complying with Public Health England guidelines – including social distancing and cleanliness.

It is absolutely correct that if the Government is encouraging a phased opening of primary schools, and allowing some businesses and shops to operate, it is right that the House of Commons sets an example. Those MPs who are in good health – not self-isolating, shielding or sick – should return to work if they can. This sets an important example to the nation that, slowly slowly, we are making our way down from the coronavirus Everest.

But, what is absolutely not right – and democratically unjust – is, if those MPs are self-isolating, shielding or sick and have to stay at home – then these very MPs will become the metaphorical equivalent of parliamentary eunuchs.

This is because their role as legislator is being snipped away. What is the most important role of a Parliamentarian, apart from working hard for his constituency? It is to vote on the laws and key decisions of the country, to have a chance to change and influence policy by voting in a backbench debate, Private Members’ Bill or Government business.

Yet, for some incomprehensible reason, hundreds of MPs in this position are denied that important right – to be a proper legislator. Members are told that hybrid voting (both online and in Parliament) is impossible, yet given no reason why. If hybrid voting is beyond the realm of the techno-Moggs, MPs are then informed that proxy voting (letting another Parliamentarian vote on their behalf), is also unmanageable, with no explanation given.

It is truly extraordinary that a decision has been made in this way. MPs who are able to go in and vote will be able to show-off to their constituents, like Giant Haystack in the Wrestling Ring, yet those MPs who genuinely cannot come back to Westminster, will face questions from local residents why they are not voting, have to explain their personal circumstances, which may be uncomfortable for them to do, and, see their voting record trashed in the internet league tables. Not particularly helpful at election times.

The nonsense excuses given for the multiple v-signs shown at these MPs is three-fold.

First, that there have always been sick MPs and they do not have a vote unless in or nearby the division lobby. To which I reply, usually this is just a few MPs. The country is in a state of national emergency, hundreds of Parliamentarians are in this position, so it makes sense now not to be so intransigent. The public wants MPs voting to do their jobs. 

If it is parliamentary traditions that are so important – and I am more traditionalist than radical – surely the most important tradition of all is allowing MPs to do their duty?

Second, if we allow online voting now, it sets a precedent and is the end of parliament as we know it. This reasoning, too, is a load of cobblers. If parliament wants to, once this Covid-19 is over, it can return to the traditional ways. The Government has a big majority so any attempt to change to electronic voting could easily be rebuffed.

Third, somehow allowing Covid-19-affected MPs to vote online suddenly gives the Opposition some kind of magic lever to hold over the Governments head. As I remember it – thankfully as far as I am concerned – Conservatives won the December 2019 election. So, what on earth is the problem here? I repeat – we have a large majority.

I hope very much that the powers-that-be see sense. If it is parliamentary traditions that are so important – and I am more traditionalist than radical – surely the most important tradition of all is allowing MPs to do their duties and vote?

In 1928, a Stanley Baldwin Conservative Government equalised the franchise to all those over 21. It seems odd that in 2020, a decision has been made to disenfranchise a few hundred individuals – and parliamentarians to boot. Our MPs are not eunuchs, they are legislators.


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