How MPs are being effectively locked out of Parliament during the pandemic

Electoral Reform Society,

Posted on the 16th November 2020

Commons leader Jacob Rees Mogg has announced a partial return to remote proceedings for MPs, after the shocking case of ex-Minister Tracey Crouch – who has cancer – being unable to contribute to a debate on cancer last week.

The Electoral Reform Society is calling for an extension of virtual contributions for all MPs who are isolating – such as the PM – or those who are otherwise unable to attend Parliament due to the pandemic.

At the moment, MPs cannot currently take part in legislative stages or debates remotely. Yet only 50 MPs are being allowed in the Commons chamber. Meanwhile, MPs continue to vote in person, or must self-certify that they are unable to attend due to health reasons to obtain a proxy vote.

While some MPs can take part in some proceedings remotely (oral questions, urgent questions and ministerial statements), that only covers MPs who have self-certified as being unable to attend Westminster for medical/public health reasons related to the pandemic

And while it’s good news that the Commons leader is investigating a partial return to remote proceedings, it should not have taken an MP with cancer being effectively locked out of a cancer debate.

These urgent changes must go beyond simply opening up contributions to MPs who are ‘extremely clinically vulnerable’, as planned. All representatives who are isolating or unable to attend must be able to speak up for their voters.

The ERS noted as early as June that the abrupt shut-down of remote participation was bound to leave communities unrepresented as the pandemic continued to rage. The Commons took a step backwards in ending this too early. Now, with England in national lockdown, dealing with this brewing crisis of representation is even more urgent.

The Speaker has previously suggested taking on powers for the management of virtual proceedings, to ensure that these decisions are taken out of party politics. It makes much more sense for the Speaker – elected by all of Parliament – to have this role, rather than the Commons leader whose mandate derives from prime ministerial appointment.

MPs and voters need consistency and transparent standards for how these crucial democratic decisions are made. We can’t have a return to the conga line chaos we saw in June, or the decisions simply being made on a whim by a minister.

And MPs need clarity about how they can continue to represent their voters during this stark second wave and beyond.

We all need to see far greater transparency over how these decisions on participation are made, rather than ministers being forced to act at the last moment.  With the PM now isolating, he may know how frustrating it is to be unable to contribute to legislative debates.

We’re awaiting further details of these changes, but the Commons leader needs to move swiftly and to let all MPs contribute if remotely if they need to. Since some MPs may be isolating or not safe to travel in person, there’s a real threat for democratic representation and political equality if remote participation continues to be strictly limited or indeed denied.

Virtual proceedings in the summer were a real success in bringing Parliament into the 21st century. Let’s learn from that and ensure all voters are heard.

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