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Coronavirus: Senior Tories join revolt to save remote parliament and stop older and sick MPs losing 'right to vote'

Jacob Rees-Mogg will attempt to ram through return of physical voting – despite failing to propose safe method for doing so

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
@Rob_Merrick
Tuesday 02 June 2020 09:21
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Senior Conservatives have joined a revolt against the government ordering MPs to return to Westminster to vote, despite failing to propose a safe and viable method for doing so.

Seven Tory chairs of committees are demanding that ministers retain remote participation and voting for vulnerable MPs, to prevent them being disenfranchised – while the rest face queuing for a kilometre through Westminster, to keep them apart.

The controversy will come to a head on Tuesday, when Jacob Rees-Mogg attempts to ram through the return of physical voting, which was abandoned when the pandemic struck in March.

Karen Bradley, the former cabinet minister who chairs the Commons Procedure Committee, is leading the revolt, after Mr Rees-Mogg, who is the Commons leader, dismissed its earlier warnings.

Significantly, she is joined by six other Tory chairs: Julian Knight, Caroline Nokes​, Bob Neill, Tobias Ellwood, Robert Halfon and Simon Hoare.

Mr Halfon, who has cerebral palsy, has accused his own government of effectively “euthanising” vulnerable MPs with medical conditions, who will be unable to attend debates and votes.

He said he agreed that parliament should return but added: “Those MPs genuinely affected by Covid-19, ie sick, shielding, or self-isolating, should be able to vote online or via proxy.”

Margaret Hodge, a 75-year-old former Labour minister, vented her anger, tweeting: “Tomorrow the government wants 650 MPs to stand in a giant queue to vote on how the Commons makes decisions from now on.

“As somebody in the ‘vulnerable’ category, I am unable to join them. I am furious that for the first time in my 25 years as an MP I am being denied the right to vote!”

The revolt comes after Mr Rees-Mogg passed the buck to the Speaker on deciding how MPs should vote in person safely, despite it being a government order that MPs must return.

The motion he has tabled simply states that MPs “may only participate physically within the parliamentary estate”, without saying exactly how voting should take place – with the traditional lobbies out of bounds.

On vulnerable MPs, he wrote: “The government is working with the house authorities to see how they can continue to contribute to proceedings within the house.”

And, on voting, Mr Mogg said only: “The division lobbies are being replaced by a more appropriate alternative devised by the Speaker. Risk assessments are being conducted.”

It is estimated that a physical vote, with 650 MPs taking part, will take an hour to complete, with the queue for the lobbies stretching at least a kilometre.

Astonishingly, just as MPs are being ordered to return – with many unable to do so – the House of Lords is preparing to move to a fully digital system.

In any other workplace, MPs unable to return to parliament would be able to sue on grounds of sex, age and disability discrimination, according to legal advice.

The briefing note by Thompsons Solicitors says that the over-70s, MPs with disabilities such as cerebral palsy or with underlying health conditions, and pregnant women would all have a legal case.

Lindsay Hoyle, the Speaker, has recalled parliament for early on Tuesday when MPs will vote – in person – on the motion ordering their return, and on any amendments.

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