Backbench MPs agreed to hold the debate – which focused on the need to assess the overall impact of the government’s welfare reforms on disabled people, and calls to scrap the “fitness for work” test – after more than 100,000 people added their names to an e-petition created by the War On Welfare (WOW) campaign.
It was the first time that disabled people had secured a debate in the main Commons chamber on an agenda they had chosen themselves.
But there was frustration at the low turnout among MPs, particularly on the government benches.
Disability News Service (DNS) tried this week to contact some of the MPs who hold positions on disability-related all-party parliamentary groups to ask why so many of them stayed away from the WOW debate.
A spokesman for Robert Buckland, the Conservative MP and chair of the all-party autism group, said he had attended instead the speech given in parliament by the German chancellor, Angela Merkel.
Her speech finished by 12.45pm, while the WOW debate continued until 2.30pm.
Buckland’s spokesman said the MP “then had childcare issues back at home so had to return to the constituency quite early”.
He said: “He has a long-standing interest in disability issues. He had an interest in the topic but unfortunately just because of his diary on the day was unable to attend.”
John Woodcock, the Labour vice-chair of the all-party group on young disabled people, said he had been attending a foreign policy conference in Sussex, but he insisted that he remained “really committed to working closely with disabled people and campaigning organisations on furthering this agenda”.
Paul Burstow, the Liberal Democrat former care services minister, had meetings with ministers about the care bill, and then chaired a meeting of the CentreForum Mental Health Commission.
A spokeswoman for Burstow said he had “a particularly busy day last Thursday, otherwise I am pretty certain he would have gone to that debate. He was literally in and out of meetings.”
Annette Brooke, the Liberal Democrat MP and vice-chair of the autism all-party group, was unable to attend the WOW debate because she was in her Mid Dorset and North Poole constituency, but her spokeswoman said she had been “very active recently in her role on autism”.
She said: “Unfortunately with backbench debates on Thursday, MPs are sometimes not able to participate in debates which they are really keen to speak in as they have to head back to the constituency.”
But the Labour MP Russell Brown, secretary of the autism group, who attended part of the debate but was not able to speak due to other parliamentary commitments, said that party whips will have made clear to MPs that they are supposed to be working in parliament throughout most of Thursdays, at least until mid-afternoon.
He said: “You shouldn’t make arrangements for constituency business when you know… that you should be in parliament.”
He said it was “not a reasonable excuse to say it is a long-standing engagement”, although parliamentary-related business, such as a constituency visit from a government minister, was probably an acceptable excuse.
Sir Malcolm Bruce, the Liberal Democrat chair of the all-party deafness group, was unable to attend the debate because of a ministerial visit to his Gordon constituency in Scotland.
But Charlotte Leslie, treasurer of the autism group and Conservative MP for Bristol North West, said she had had “back-to-back meetings and then had to make it back to the constituency in the early afternoon for constituency commitments”.
She said: “As I am sure you know, an MP’s diary can get booked up many months in advance.
“We do not get notice of debate dates until a couple of weeks in advance, and it is not always possible to rearrange several hours of meetings, since many people have made huge efforts and re-arranged their own schedules to be able to make the date to see me.”
But she said she had read some of the WOW debate online.
The disabled Conservative MP Paul Maynard was unable to attend the debate because as parliamentary private secretary to the Cabinet Office minister for government policy, Oliver Letwin, he had to attend two sessions of the deregulation bill committee.
Other MPs who hold positions on disability-related all-party groups, and who apparently failed to attend the WOW petition debate, and have so far failed to respond to DNS enquiries, include Conservatives Chris Skidmore, Stephen Phillips, Sir Peter Bottomley and James Morris, Labour MPs Tom Clarke, Rosie Cooper, Jonathan Reynolds and Robert Flello, and the disabled Liberal Democrat Stephen Lloyd.
In all, 21 Labour MPs spoke in the debate (8.2 per cent of the parliamentary party), five Conservative MPs (1.7 per cent), two Liberal Democrats (3.6 per cent), one of the six MPs from the SNP (16.7 per cent), the only Green MP, Caroline Lucas, but none of the three MPs from Plaid Cymru.
Rick Burgess, a co-founder of the WOW campaign, said: “MPs constantly say they want people to engage with politics. We engaged with politics and look how few of them engaged with us!
“We did what they asked. We did the petition, we engaged with them. On the day, it didn’t feel like we were welcome.”
Ian Jones, another co-founder of the WOW campaign, said his MP, Theresa May, had said she could not attend the debate because of her ministerial responsibilities as home secretary.
But he said she and other MPs should have attended the debate because it was “an historical event”, the first time that disabled activists had secured a debate in the main Commons chamber.
He said: “To have any respect for the e-petition system, when people actually get together and get the 100,000 signatures, the MPs should take it seriously and debate it.
“It just seemed to me that the Tories were just paying lip service.”
6 March 2014