EXCLUSIVE: Fears disabled MPs could be locked out of Parliament, ahead of shut down of virtual proceedings

Allowing vulnerable MPs to participate in debates remotely ‘may be just as necessary in two months time as it was twelve months ago’, LFF is told.

Virtual participation will end for MPs after the summer recess – leading to fears that clinically vulnerable and disabled members could be ‘locked out’ if there is an upsurge in Covid cases this autumn.

The House of Commons will return to full capacity next week, with masks no longer mandatory for MPs. But staff will still be forced to wear masks – sparking a fierce row over safety and a ‘two tier’ system with unions. Next week will be the last that MPs can contribute to debates remotely, before Parliament breaks for summer recess.

The so-called hybrid proceedings have been widely hailed as an example of Parliament modernising when it needs to. But the Commons has been accused of reversing on progress it has made during the pandemic after the government refused to back an extension of virtual participation.

That’s despite the Lords voting to continual ‘hybrid’ proceedings for disabled members – meaning they can continue to call in remotely after the summer break.

Hundreds of MPs have made use of the hybrid proceedings, taking part in PMQs and continuing to represent constituents when self-isolating.

Dr Lisa Cameron MP, Chair of the All Party Political Group on Disability, told Left Foot Forward: “I’m delighted the House of Lords has approved the continuation of virtual participation for disabled peers. 

“However, it’s crucial a hybrid system is also extended to MPs in the House of Commons. With 21% of the UK population being disabled, it is clear we need greater representation in politics, and we can start by demonstrating Parliament is an inclusive and accessible place to work for people with disabilities.”

Tom Brake, director of Unlock Democracy, said allowing vulnerable MPs to participate in debates remotely ‘may be just as necessary in two months time as it was twelve months ago’: “There is a case for considering whether to retain virtual proceedings indefinitely.  This could have a very positive effect on groups currently under-represented in parliament such as carers, people with disabilities or chronic health conditions.” 

He added: “No one can predict the trajectory Covid will take in the next few months so the Government should be keeping their options open”. 

Responding to a question from LFF, Keir Starmer’s new spokesperson spoke out against the Commons’ ‘bizarre and wrong’ mask advice: “It’s one rule for MPs and another for staff. If the advice is that staff should be wearing them, I don’t see why the same shouldn’t apply to members of Parliament. Labour will be encouraging our MPs to wear a mask and observe social distancing.”

Labour MPs will be asked by the party to continue wearing a mask for the foreseeable future, including Keir Starmer.

Lisa Cameron is currently overseeing the APPG on Disability’s inquiry into Access to Elected Office, which has launched its call for evidence.

The deadline for the call for evidence has been extended to 5pm on July 31st – you can view it here

Josiah Mortimer is co-editor of Left Foot Forward.

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