MPs return from recess today, putting an end to the “hybrid parliament” that has been in place since April which allowed MPs to debate and vote virtually during the pandemic. Today we will see a socially distanced conga line around the parliamentary estate as MPs vote in person on legislation that reinstates the requirement on all MPs to be physically present in parliament to participate in debates and vote, while observing social distancing.
Despite the huge comic mileage in the absurd human chain snaking down the corridors and halls of Westminster this afternoon (it is expected to be a kilometre long), it’s a very important story that hasn’t attracted the attention or outrage it arguably should have provoked beyond the virtual Westminster bubble.
I spoke to the Conservative MP, Robert Halfon, who is one of the estimated third of MPs who are unable or unwilling to return to the Commons in person. He has cerebral palsy and is shielding, but is considering travelling into London today to vote in person on an amendment to the legislation which would give him the right to vote online. In other words, he is considering breaking the shielding advice from his own government, and party, to prevent his own disenfranchisement during the pandemic.
It is thought that Jacob Rees-Mogg will U-turn, allowing shielding MPs to participate in debates remotely, but Halfon and colleagues will only be able to vote remotely if the amendment, which was proposed by the procedure committee and doesn’t have government backing as of yet, passes.
Halfon spoke to Rees-Mogg directly on the subject, and was told, simply: “Parliament should be back, it’s got to go back to normal, and to vote in parliament you’ve got to be there.”
“I don’t think he understands why I feel so strongly about it,” Halfon says. “I want to do my duty.” He wants to be able to continue representing his constituents. “There’s no understanding when people like me have a disability. I try to be as independent as possible and not be a victim and not complain and moan. I just want to do my job.”
Meanwhile, Jamie Stone, a Liberal Democrat MP for the most northerly mainland constituency in the UK, is a carer for his disabled wife, and won’t return to the Commons in the current circumstances. Many other MPs are shielding or shielding loved ones, while others are at risk, but not shielding, due to age or health conditions. Others have no childcare provision while most pupils remain off school, or aren’t prepared to risk travelling from remote constituencies to London when, as the recent weeks of the hybrid parliament have clearly demonstrated, a safe alternative is readily available.
There are several overlapping issues here. There is an arguably discriminatory policy against older, ill or disabled MPs who cannot both adhere to the health advice during the pandemic and continue their jobs. Legal advice obtained by Labour’s Ellie Reeves, the shadow Solicitor General, has indicated that if MPs were classed as “employees”, the changes would likely amount to discrimination on grounds of disability, age, sex and/or pregnancy under the Equality Act.
And then there is a wider problem of a return to a parliamentary system which, during a pandemic, favours the childless, the young, the fit, those without caring responsibilities and those in constituencies closer to London.
What makes this such an important story is not that MPs are being unexpected to shoulder arguably disproportionate risks at a time when other sectors are in the same position. It is that this doesn’t simply affect them, but everyone they represent. If you are represented by an older, or disabled MP, or by an MP with caring responsibilities, or you are in a constituency far from London, you and your voice in parliament will be effectively silenced during the pandemic due to an inflexibility in the system.
MPs tell me that when they have discussed this with Rees-Mogg privately, he doesn’t mention the case that there is maybe greater scrutiny of legislation when MPs are physically present, as the argument has run publicly. Instead, it’s about setting a good example, and being prepared to shoulder just as much, if not more, risk as that which they are asking the country to take on as the economy reopens.
Aware of the dangers many of their constituents are facing, many MPs think this sends a frankly daft message, if they are taking on wholly unavoidable risk — and in some cases, breaking the government’s own advice on shielding — in order to set an example. Instead, they worry this sets a totally different example, of a government deaf to the varied needs and concerns of its people during this pandemic, and of a workplace unwilling to adapt to the times.