The government has been accused of “acting recklessly” by trying to force MPs who are disabled or have long-term health conditions to return to parliament next week, while the country is still in the grip of the pandemic.
At least three MPs who are disabled or have long-term health conditions – including one Tory former minister – have raised concerns that the move will put the lives of themselves and others at risk.
The Tory leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, has put an end to the “hybrid” arrangements that have allowed a small number of MPs to be present in parliament while others take part in debates and votes online from their own homes.
This means that, when parliament returns from its Whitsun break next week, hundreds more MPs are likely to be present around parliament, although only 50 of them will be allowed to be in the main Commons chamber at any time.
Rees-Mogg claims that all those MPs, and any staff not able to work from home, will be observing “social distancing”.
But Marsha de Cordova (pictured), Labour’s shadow secretary of state for women and equalities, who is visually-impaired, told Disability News Service (DNS) this week that she was currently unable to return to parliament without putting herself at risk.
She said: “The government has acted recklessly to end hybrid proceedings in parliament without any proper consultation with ill and disabled MPs, some of whom are shielding.
“I will not be able to safely follow social distancing rules in parliament, or have the support of my sighted assistant.”
She added: “We are urging the leader of the house to act immediately to make the necessary reasonable adjustments to ensure that ill and disabled MPs are not excluded from participating in parliamentary proceedings.
“An inclusive and accessible strategy must be produced to support ill and disabled MPs to safely return to parliament.”
The disabled Tory MP and former minister Robert Halfon was even more outspoken.
He was reported to have said last week, after it became clear the government would end the hybrid arrangements: “Is it really morally just to say in effect to MPs, because you are not Tarzan-like and able to swing through the chamber, beating your chest shouting to your constituents: ‘Look, I am here!’ that you are effectively euthanised from the Commons?
“MPs who are disrupted by this awful pandemic are not just old horses to be sent to the knackers’ yard.”
Halfon, who has both cerebral palsy and osteo-arthritis, did not respond to a request from DNS to comment this week.
Another disabled Tory MP, Paul Maynard, also failed to respond to a request to comment.
Vicky Foxcroft, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, revealed to DNS last month that she was in self-isolation during the pandemic because she was on immunosuppressant medication that places her among those most at serious risk from COVID-19.
She said she was concerned about the risk to her health if she followed the government’s instructions.
She will not be joining colleagues in parliament next week but is “looking at longer-term plans with the parliamentary authorities”.
She said: “Labour has serious concerns about the government’s plan to ditch remote participation and force all MPs to physically return to parliament next week, not least for people like me who are shielding.
“The hybrid system which allowed MPs to take part in parliament virtually worked well.
“Thanks to the hard work of the house authorities and staff, we were able to contribute, and continue to represent our constituents and hold the government to account.
“We have not been told what we are supposed to do: ignore the government’s advice on shielding and risk our own health, or be excluded from participating in parliament.
“We need answers.”
But there are also concerns about the actions of Public Health England, which has told the Commons Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, who has type one diabetes, that it is safe for him to continue his work in parliament because he is under 70 (he is 62), has no other health issues and is under medical supervision (see separate story).
In the letter, the Speaker said he was “personally sympathetic to those who need to stay at home because they are vulnerable, shielding or have caring responsibilities”.
He said he had continued to express his view to Rees-Mogg that the possibility of taking part in parliamentary proceedings online “should remain for these colleagues” and that individual political parties “have a duty of care to their MPs to ensure that they are not put at risk and protection is available for those who need it”.
He added: “The house authorities are working together with Public Health England to ensure the parliamentary estate is a COVID-19 secure workplace by the time we return from the Whitsun recess on 2 June.”
Former prime minister Theresa May, another MP with type one diabetes, did not respond to a request to comment this week. Neither did Labour’s Diane Abbott, the former shadow home secretary, who has type two diabetes.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) refused this week to say if it was concerned about the steps the government had taken to force MPs to return to parliament and the potential risk to disabled MPs.
But an EHRC spokesperson said: “Our advice to employers on avoiding discrimination during the pandemic applies equally to Westminster.
“Government should equality impact assess all return to work policy to ensure it is safe and appropriate for different groups to do so.”
Rees-Mogg told MPs last week that the hybrid arrangements “fundamentally restrict the [ability of the House of Commons] to perform its functions fully” so he was “asking members to return to their place of work after Whitsun”.
He said the government had received reassurance from the Commons authorities that the House of Commons would be “a COVID-19-secure workplace by the time we come back after the Whitsun recess; that a risk assessment has been carried out by the parliamentary authorities; and that enormous steps are being taken to help and to assist parliamentary staff”.
And he said the government was working with the Commons authorities to see how MPs who have been told to shield or were receiving government advice about their health “can continue to contribute to proceedings within the house”.
But asked for an update on how those discussions were proceeding, a government spokesperson refused to comment this week, or to say whether the government believed its move discriminated against disabled people under the Equality Act.
*For sources of information and support during the coronavirus crisis, visit the DNS advice and information page
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