Posted: 02.06.20 at 14:41 by Nick Hudson
ATHERSTONE MP Craig Tracey returned to Westminster today as Boris Johnson is facing a Tory revolt over controversial plans to drop virtual proceedings in Parliament, despite concerns shielding politicians will be unable to attend.
Senior Conservatives including select committee chairs and a former Cabinet minister have tabled amendments to Government proposals to end online voting and force all MPs to vote in person when they return on Tuesday.
MPs have been able to either attend Parliament or contribute online during the pandemic, but Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg wants to bring this to an end in a move criticised by the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
Mr Tracey, joining his fellow parliamentarians in returning from recess, will be asked to vote on a proposal which could see MPs forming half mile-long queues in order to obey social distancing rules – despite the Lords planning a move online.
While Mr Tracey is keeping his voting intentions close to his chest, Harlow MP Robert Halfon is among the senior Tories who say the move will turn individuals who, like him, are shielding and those who are ill, self-isolating or based far away from Westminster into "parliamentary eunuchs".
The chairman of the Education Select Committee accused Mr Rees-Mogg and his superiors of lacking empathy and acting like Brazil's president Jair Bolsonaro, who has imperilled his people by dismissing Covid-19 concerns.
"Clearly in this case, sadly Jacob and the powers that be are being harsh and unbending,” he said.
"They take the attitude of President Bolsonaro that Covid is just the sniffles and, if you can't come in, 'tough luck, we don't care'. And that to me is entirely wrong.
“I want MPs to return to Parliament as children are beginning a phased return to schools.
“However, for those MPs that are sick, shielding or self-isolating, I think it is only right that they should be able to continue voting online or by proxy.
Mr Halfon, who said he was advised not to return by his GP, is backing moves to allow digital voting to resume in amendments to Mr Rees-Mogg's motion led by Conservative former Cabinet minister Karen Bradley.
She is joined by Caroline Nokes and Julian Knight, the Tory MPs who chair the Women and Equalities, and the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committees, respectively.
Last month technical gremlins blighted the Atherstone and North Warwickshire MP’s maiden ‘virtual’ speech to Parliament as House of Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle announced: “Unfortunately we have lost Craig Tracey.”
Mr Tracey went from “remote” to being cut off altogether as he used the new hybrid proceedings in the House of Commons for the first time.
The new proposals have been criticised as creating a "conga line Parliament", with Scottish SNP MPs and others representing constituencies far from Westminster facing a challenge to travel to Parliament.
Mr Rees-Mogg told his ConservativeHome podcast that he was planning to introduce measures to allow shielding MPs a way to play a limited role in Commons proceedings.
He said the changes were necessary because legislation was on a "go slow" due to constraints on committees operating, with only around a third of the usual level of legislative activity.
"We would simply not have been able to deliver on the manifesto if we had not brought Parliament back," Mr Rees-Mogg said.
Labour and other opposition parties are united in their criticism to the plans, which the Electoral Reform Society say pose a "real threat for democratic representation and political equality" if vulnerable MPs cannot vote.
Dame Margaret Hodge, the 75-year-old Labour MP, said she was being "denied the right to vote" and accused the Prime Minister of creating a "toothless Parliament".
The Commons Speaker was forced to draw up plans to allow MPs to safely vote on the proposals in person on Tuesday, but he has called on the Government and Labour to agree on a safe compromise.
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