Virtual Parliament must continue to avoid disenfranchising voters, MP warns

Voters will become disenfranchised unless arrangements for a virtual Parliament remain in place, an ex-Cabinet minister has said.

Former Northern Ireland secretary Karen Bradley, chairwoman of the Commons Procedure Committee, said preventing MPs from taking part remotely will exclude members with underlying health conditions who are unable to travel to Westminster.

The committee has put forward recommendations for virtual Parliament sittings to continue and is urging the Government to carry on with remote voting amid a planned return to Westminster next week.

It commended the hybrid arrangements, which allow MPs to either vote remotely or in the Commons chamber, in a report published on Saturday.

It comes as MPs are set to return to Parliament on Tuesday to decide on a new method of voting.

Ms Bradley expressed concern only 50 MPs are able to take part in procedures at once in person.

She told the BBC: “We are still going to have only 50 members in the chamber. We are still not going to have that cut and thrust of interventions.

“That simply isn’t Parliament as we are used to seeing it. This is a suboptimal Parliament.

“This is going to be a Parliament still not scrutinising Government in a way that it should.

“With only 50 members in the chamber, with only those that are able to be there physically because they have not got underlying health conditions, or for other reasons, we are disenfranchising a great swathe of members and their constituents.”

Labour’s shadow disabilities minister Vicky Foxcroft also called for remote arrangements to continue.

She told the BBC: “Disabled people are extremely concerned at the moment in terms of what’s going on, and they need to feel that their voice is being represented.”

Prime Minister’s Questions
Only 50 MPs will be allowed in tehe Commons at once (UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/PA)

Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle told The Times: “I still believe that we ought to be looking at hybrid for those people who are shielding, those people with an age profile.

“And there may be MPs who are really struggling because they have nobody to look after their children. Other businesses would try to accommodate that.

“The fact is I’m very, very worried about somebody coming in who may be infected and before we know it, that has been passed round.”

The committee said in its report: “It is unfortunate that the arrangements for remote proceedings were allowed to lapse on May 20, and that it has been necessary to recall the House to allow it to decide on how to conduct its proceedings while the restrictions on its work continue.”

Ms Bradley said: “The hybrid House of Commons was an excellent achievement, and the Procedure Committee worked closely with officials to ensure that hybrid proceedings were as effective as possible under the circumstances MPs were faced with in April.

“While hybrid proceedings could never replace the spontaneity and cut and thrust of debate in the Commons chamber, they were the best possible option under the conditions in place.

“The view of the Procedure Committee is that some form of continued virtual participation continues to be the best option to enable all members, including those unable to travel to Westminster, to represent their constituents.”

The Speaker has accepted the Government's request to recall Parliament on Tuesday 2 June.

The House of Commons will meet at 11.30am instead of 2.30pm.

Speaker’s letter informing MPs of the recall: https://t.co/R07Qvd9T6B

Read more about a recall: https://t.co/Fwi1jJUsBX

— UK House of Commons (@HouseofCommons) May 28, 2020

The committee expressed “serious concerns” over plans for division lobbies, stating it had found “significant deficiencies” in the system.

It follows the announcement on Thursday by Sir Lindsay that the division lobbies “are unsafe to use for voting”.

Those concerns were shared by Public Health England, which advised it would not be safe for MPs to vote in the traditional way of filing into division lobbies, despite measures such as perspex booths being put in place.

Ms Bradley said: “We have serious concerns about how the proposed system for divisions in the chamber will work in practice.

“The House ought to be made aware of the detail of the arrangements before it decides on temporary division arrangements on Tuesday.

“If the proposed arrangements cannot be made to work, the remote voting system used in May, paired with voting in the chamber, could be a workable alternative.”

Liberal Democrat political and constitutional reform spokeswoman Wendy Chamberlain said: “The Government’s advice to the public is to work from home if possible.

“Parliamentary authorities have bent over backwards to ensure the House of Commons can sit remotely to help protect public health. There is no good reason not to continue to do just that.”

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