Boris Johnson U-turns on remote voting following backlash from shielding MPs
A queue of MPs stretched for more than 1km yesterday, in the first vote since virtual proceedings came to end
The Government has U-turned on its controversial plans to end remote voting in Parliament, following a backlash from MPs who claimed the proposals were discriminatory and disenfranchised vulnerable and elderly Members.
The Prime Minister confirmed MPs who are shielding due to Covid-19 will now be able to vote by proxy – despite ministers previously ruling out such a move.
Since April, all MPs have been able to participate in proceedings in the Chamber by video link or in person in a ‘Hybrid' system, with electronic remote voting in place for the past three weeks, in line with Government advice for everyone to work from home where possible.
But a mere one day after the first remote vote took place, the leader of the Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, announced that these arrangements would end from 2 June and that all MPs must return physically to Westminster.
The Government insisted that returning to Westminster was crucial to improve scrutiny and spontaneity of debate, but critics of the moved argued that a return to Parliament would go against public health advice, and discriminate against MPs who are shielding, clinically vulnerable to Covid-19, or have caring responsibilities.
Writing for The House Live last week, Conservative MP Robert Halfon branded the decision "democratically unjust" and warned the plan would turn self-isolating and disabled MPs into “parliamentary eunuchs”.
Attempting to head off a larger rebellion on the motion to end remote voting yesterday, the Government announced a motion allowing shielding MPs to continue to participate virtually in questions, debates and urgent statements. To access these measures, Members who cannot come into Parliament for “medical or public health reasons” will have to self-certify with the Speaker.
But now in a further U-turn, the prime minister told MPs that Members who were shielding or elderly will be able to vote by proxy, apologising to colleagues “who have particular difficulties”.
The move came in response to a question from Labour leader Keir Starmer, who dubbed the original plan “frankly shameful”, “unnecessary and unacceptable”, and “a clear and obvious case of indirect discrimination”. A Labour spokesperson said the U-turn – in the middle of PMQs – showed how “chaotically this entire situation has been handled”.
A No 10 spokesperson confirmed that the proxy voting measures will apply to those who are over 70 or shielding on medical advice – it remains unclear whether those with caring responsibilities for vulnerable family members will be allowed to vote via proxy too.
Despite both Northern Irish and Scottish MPs raising the practical challenges and public health they faced travelling to Parliament yesterday, they will not be allowed to use proxy or remote measures.
Proxy voting has been in place for MPs taking parental leave since January 2019, with the same designated colleague casting the vote on an MPs behalf each time, along with their own (although proxy votes can be cast in a different way to the person who is present). The Speaker’s Office maintains a list of all proxies.
Normally, Members who are unable to attend Parliament for medical reasons are “paired” with a member of an opposing party who will also not vote to cancel out theirs. However, this means both votes are not recorded in parliamentary records.
Responding to the prime minister’s announcement today, Vicky Foxcroft MP, Labour’s shadow disability minister, who is also shielding, said: “This is a welcome, albeit partial, U-turn from the Government. Their chaotic and discriminatory plans would have left many MPs unable to vote.
“However, the hybrid parliament featured online voting, which worked perfectly well and didn't result in MPs wasting 45-minutes queuing when they could be helping constituents. This worked for everyone, including those who are clinically vulnerable, over-70s and those who may live with someone shielding.
"Returning to this model would send a strong message of inclusion, something many disabled people think is lacking from this Government.”