A government minister has accused MPs who are disabled or are otherwise shielding from coronavirus of shirking their “duty” by refusing to come to the House of Commons to take part in debates during lockdown.
The comments by the leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, came despite his own government this week telling people seen as clinically extremely vulnerable to the virus that they should work from home and should not visit their workplaces.
His comments also came days after Disability News Service reported how some MPs were risking the lives of disabled parliamentarians and House of Commons staff – and those with long-term health conditions – by flouting COVID-19 safety measures.
Rees-Mogg (pictured) was twice asked on Monday whether he would re-introduce rules to the House of Commons that would allow disabled MPs and others who are shielding from coronavirus to play a full part in the democratic process.
Since early June, virtual participation in the Commons chamber for shielding MPs who are working from home has been limited to asking oral questions and urgent questions and responding to ministerial statements, and they have been unable to take part in debates on motions and legislation.
Vicky Foxcroft, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, who herself is at heightened risk from COVID-19 as a result of a long-term health condition and is currently shielding, reminded Rees-Mogg that the government’s advice to clinically extremely vulnerable people was to stay away from their workplaces and work from home.
She said: “Will the Leader of the House commit to setting a good example and allow members such as myself to participate in debates and votes remotely, as we could at the start of the first lockdown?
“I know that he is reluctant to do that, but as the prime minister has said, we must make sacrifices to save lives.
“This is not just about keeping MPs safe; we must also consider everyone who works on the parliamentary estate.”
But Rees-Mogg told her that “the whole point of a debate is that there is a back and forth, and that requires interventions. It is not possible to do that remotely.”
He later said that MPs should “lead by example” and that MPs should join the cleaners and security staff who were “working every day”.
He said: “We should be proud to be doing the same as them and working here physically.
“Duty may not be a fashionable word, but it is the right word to use.
“It is our duty to hold the government to account and to legislate, and to do that properly, we need to be here.”
Another MP with a long-term health condition, the SNP’s Dr Philippa Whitford, told Rees-Mogg that she took “great offence” at the inference that she was “somehow shirking my duty” by declining to travel to and from Westminster during the pandemic.
She said: “With England going into lockdown, the prime minister has just said that the most vulnerable should only work from home, so I, too, call on the Leader of the House to restore and maintain full virtual participation until next year to ensure that all Members can fully represent their constituents throughout the COVID crisis and the end of the EU transition.”
Rees-Mogg refused to comment further, other than referring Whitford to his earlier answer.
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