The shadow minister for disabled people has taken legal advice over the government’s “outrageous” decision to prevent MPs at serious risk from coronavirus from continuing to vote and take part in debates from their own home.
Labour’s Vicky Foxcroft, who has a long-term health condition, was unable to vote on Tuesday because of the government’s decision.
She told Disability News Service (DNS) yesterday (Wednesday) that she and other MPs at particular risk from COVID-19 had been discriminated against.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has also criticised the government this week over its stance, after refusing to do so last week.
Foxcroft (pictured) spoke out after the Tory leader of the house, Jacob Rees-Mogg, ordered an end to the “hybrid” system that had allowed some MPs to attend parliament and others to take part in debates and vote online from the safety of their own homes.
That decision forced hundreds of MPs back to the Houses of Parliament this week after their Whitsun break – including at least two MPs who are at high risk from the virus due to diabetes (see separate story) – despite the country still being in lockdown.
Rees-Mogg said this was necessary because the role of the House of Commons “can only properly be fulfilled when members are here in person”, and claimed his decision was “completely in accordance” with the “equalities considerations” of the government and parliament.
But Labour leader Keir Starmer yesterday – during prime minister’s questions – described Tuesday’s lengthy queues of MP waiting to vote, while others were unable to do so at all, as “shameful”.
He added: “If any other employer behaved like this, it would be a clear and obvious case of indirect discrimination under the Equality Act 2010.”
Later yesterday, business secretary Alok Sharma had to be tested for coronavirus and is now said to be self-isolating at home after becoming unwell while speaking in the Commons chamber.
The government has U-turned twice this week on the issue of shielding MPs, firstly by saying that MPs who need to shield for health reasons would be able to question ministers and respond to ministerial statements remotely, and then – through a comment by Boris Johnson at prime minister’s questions yesterday – stating that they would also be allowed to vote by proxy*.
MPs are set to vote on this proposal – which will allow MPs to vote by proxy if they are “clinically extremely vulnerable” or “clinically vulnerable” – this afternoon.
But despite these concessions, broadly welcomed, such MPs will still not be allowed to take part in debates from home.
Foxcroft told DNS yesterday that she had spoken to barristers about the “outrageous” situation facing her and other shielding MPs, but had not yet made a decision on possible legal action until it was clear what further steps the government would take.
But she said she was “absolutely” clear that she had been discriminated against.
She said: “I have so many important things I need to be saying and raising in parliament.
“I think I was doing as good a job as I could before with online proceedings. I was able to push and get some progress in some areas.
“Now I find myself talking about me and not the issues I want to talk about.”
She added: “This is how disabled people have felt right through this crisis. They are an afterthought.”
Foxcroft revealed to DNS in April that she was in self-isolation during the pandemic because she was on immunosuppressant medication that places her among those at most serious risk from COVID-19.
She said she had spoken this week to her GP and asked if she could stop shielding to attend parliament and was told: “You can ignore the guidance but you would be putting yourself in grave danger by doing that.”
She added: “I didn’t class myself as a disabled person before, but I have actually been disabled from doing elements of my job during this crisis because of the things that the government have chosen to pursue.
“They had the reasonable adjustments in place… and then they decided just to get rid of them.
“It seems so odd that we had something that worked and we can’t stick with that.”
Foxcroft also issued a joint statement this week with the disabled Tory MP and former minister Robert Halfon, who is also shielding for health reasons.
They said: “Disabled people have felt like an afterthought throughout this pandemic and it is therefore vital that the government looks again at the proposed return to physical participation.
“Although the hybrid arrangements were not perfect, parliament has already shown its ability to ensure that everyone’s needs can be accommodated.
“We must lead by example, not disenfranchise members and their constituents.”
Halfon had earlier accused Rees-Mogg of being “stern and unbending” and of wanting MPs who are shielding “to become parliamentary eunuchs”, while he said there was a “Tarzan-like mentality” from traditionalist MPs.
He told Sky News: “I’ve done my job properly every day for the last 10 weeks at home, working very hard for my constituents, but I want the right, my right, to choose whether to vote.”
He later welcomed Johnson’s apparent move to allow proxy voting.
Others who have said they cannot return safely to parliament at present because of the pandemic include the disabled Labour MP Marsha de Cordova, the shadow secretary of state for women and qualities.
She said last week that the government had “acted recklessly to end hybrid proceedings in parliament without any proper consultation with ill and disabled MPs”.
After EHRC refused to criticise the government last week, its chief executive, Rebecca Hilsenrath, has now criticised its actions.
She said in a statement: “It cannot be right for parliament to proceed without provision for remote participation, when many elected representatives cannot attend in person.
“This will place at significant disadvantage MPs who are shielding or self-isolating because of age, disability, health conditions or pregnancy, as well as other members who will struggle to attend the chamber in person due to travel restrictions and caring responsibilities.
“We urge the government to agree a revised proposal that upholds the principles of equality and human rights and ensures that parliament shows leadership to the rest of the country in inclusive workplaces, especially when the decisions which result affect us all.”
Baroness [Jane] Campbell, a disabled crossbench peer, who – along with other peers – has been able to continue working remotely from home during lockdown, said the government’s decision to stop remote working for MPs had been “totally reckless and morally wrong” and that the treatment of Foxcroft was “outrageous”.
She said: “Those of us who would be at risk if we went to Westminster should be allowed to remotely work, as I am and many others [are] in the House of Lords.”
Meanwhile, the PCS union has warned that the government’s decision to recall all MPs and end the hybrid system meant there were “significant risks” to its own members, particularly those unable to work from home, such as security, cleaning and catering staff, as well as MPs at particular risk from the virus.
The union said it believed that “even with social distancing and personal protective equipment, staff working in the House of Commons, the Lords and the parliamentary estate will not be safe from coronavirus”.
*Arranging for another MP to vote on their behalf
**For sources of information and support during the coronavirus crisis, visit the DNS advice and information page
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