Both houses of Parliament have long been associated with inaccessibility, with working patterns designed around the diaries of married, middle-aged men. MPs who were ill, pregnant or hundreds of miles away in their constituencies often found themselves locked out of contributing. National politics has long been a particularly difficult place for people with disabilities and those who care for others.
So, the virtual parliamentary proceedings during the Covid-19 pandemic were a boon for voters’ representation. But also, a new report shows, it’s also proven popular as well, with almost 7 out of 10 British adults wanting MPs to continue to be able to participate remotely.
Parliament can modernise if it wants to
The pandemic has shown that Parliament can modernise when it needs to. MPs have been taking part in debates and voting remotely, allowing those who’ve been shielding or caring for others to keep speaking up for their constituents.
The new report from the Centenary Action Group shows that more than half of women MPs took advantage of proxy-voting, due to Covid-19 medical reasons and caring responsibilities – which are frequently shouldered by women.
Conservative MP Maria Miller has thrown her weight behind the virtual proceedings being made permanent, saying: “We need to make sure that we do not exclude anybody from standing for election to this place because of their gender, disability, race, religion or sexuality”.
Banning virtual participation restricts participation
But despite virtual proceedings being highly popular, the government plans to scrap virtual representation next month as Covid-19 measures ease nationally. Westminster will return to the old fashioned style of politics where if you can’t attend in person, you can’t be heard.
Campaigners for a more virtual system insist that retaining remote working technology will allow MPs to participate while balancing health, home, travel or constituency responsibilities.
The Remotely Representative House report advocates new ways of working to be retained when needed. Helen Pankhurst, Centenary Action Group Convenor said: “It’s hard to believe that while the rest of the country is embracing new ways of working through screens, mobiles and laptops Parliament is considering turning its back on the technological innovations ushered in during the pandemic.”
Scrapping a virtual system that has been proven to work and widen access can only harm the representativeness of our politics. A case in point was former minister Tracey Crouch recently being excluded in a key debate on Breast Cancer… precisely because she was at home shielding due to having breast cancer herself. This is not something we should ever have to witness in a 21st democracy.
Karen Bradly MP, Chair of the Procedure Committee, added: “Those who cannot be here must be allowed to participate and have their voices heard and to represent their constituents. They were elected in exactly the same way as those of us who can be here physically, and they need to be heard.”
Virtual proceedings will never take the place of parliamentary proceedings. But a hybrid model – allowing in-person and remote contributions – has proven effective. Removing it now would be a major step backwards, and a waste of the progress we have made.
Image by ©UK Parliament / Jessica Taylor under CC BY-NC 2.0
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