Covid-19: Rees-Mogg vows action to boost virtual participation

Covid-19: Rees-Mogg vows action to boost virtual participation

Ministers have vowed to do more to allow MPs to participate virtually in parliamentary debates after several members with cancer were unable to take part in a debate on the illness.

Currently, MPs who cannot attend Westminster due to coronavirus are only able to take part in some events.

Ex-minister Tracey Crouch, who is being treated for breast cancer, said a better system was needed.

Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg said he was “urgently exploring” how to do it.

He has previously argued that virtual working was not an effective way to hold the government to account and was no substitute for the “cut and thrust” of live debate.

Pressure on the Commons authorities to do more to accommodate MPs unable to be in the Chamber in person is set to increase following news that Boris Johnson is self-isolating for 14 days after coming into close contact with a Tory MP who later tested positive.

The prime minister could still take part in Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday via video link, which would be the first time that this has happened.

In a video released on Monday, Mr Johnson pledged to make full use of video conferencing tool Zoom and “other means of electronic communication” during his confinement.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said he “didn’t know” what would happen with PMQs and the parliamentary authorities were “working on it”.

At the moment, MPs can put questions to ministers by video link, including during Prime Minister’s Questions.

But they are not able to contribute to general debates on legislation or events in Westminster Hall – a separate chamber from the House of Commons.

On Thursday, a debate on breast cancer services took place in Westminster Hall, and Conservative MP Ms Crouch said those “with real and current life experience of the disease are disappointingly unable to participate”.

In an interview with BBC Radio 4’s The Westminster Hour broadcast on Sunday, she said the current procedures needed to change and that wider use of video technology would make for a “better” system.

Writing on Twitter, she said she had been assured by Mr Rees-Mogg that action would be taken to allow clinically vulnerable MPs to participate more fully in parliamentary business.

She insisted that his intervention had not been triggered by the PM’s self-isolation, since Mr Rees-Mogg had contacted her before that was announced.

Mr Rees-Mogg said he had been “moved” by Ms Crouch’s comments and while the advice was for the clinically extremely vulnerable not to go into work, “we must and will work with House authorities to find a solution”.

While there were “resourcing issues” relating to Westminster Hall, such as a lack of broadcasting equipment, he tweeted that something could be done about participation in business in the main Commons chamber.

“I have been urgently exploring how we can support additional virtual participation in the Commons despite capacity constraints and hope to bring forward a motion soon,” he wrote.

Labour and the trade unions have called for Parliament to revert to the “hybrid” working arrangements in place during the early months of the pandemic but which were curtailed by the government.

Harriet Harman, the former Labour deputy leader and Mother of the House, said the current rules infringed the rights of MPs who were being advised to shield, because of their age, health or family circumstances.

“Those MPs who aren’t able to speak in a debate are at a disadvantage compared to those who are,” she wrote in an article for The House magazine.

“It’s wrong to make MPs choose between not speaking in Parliament, which is their duty, or risk their health.”

She urged Mr Rees-Mogg to stop being a “spanner in the works” and allow MPs to vote again on their procedures.

“He prides himself on being a traditionalist, but there’s nothing quaint or eccentric in barring women who’ve had breast cancer from speaking in Parliament.”

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