The Government’s decision to end the ‘virtual’ Parliament this week would be tantamount to age and gender discrimination in another workplace, laywers have suggested.
As MPs prepare to return to Westminster this week, ministers are facing a growing backlash from MPs over the decision to scrap hybrid proceedings, including electronic voting, in order to revert back to the traditional system.
While the Commons leader Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg has said that Parliament must lead by example as the coronavirus lockdown is lifted, opposition parties have warned that MPs forced to stay home for medical reasons will be effectively disenfranchised.
On Tuesday MPs will be asked to approve the move, as well as a temporary system of voting in the House of Commons chamber, after the Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle ruled that the traditional voting lobbies were unsafe.
However, ahead of the vote, The Daily Telegraph has been passed new legal advice commissioned by Labour, which concludes that in another work context the decision would “be likely to amount to indirect discrimination.”
Signalling that Labour will vote down the plans, Ellie Reeves, the shadow solicitor general, said the advice showed the “proposals are not only a risk to public health, but they also discriminate against MPs who are having to shield from the coronavirus cannot safely return to work as usual.”
She added: “At this time of national crisis, Parliament should be leading by example. The Government’s guidance is clear: if you can work from home, stay at home.
“However, ministers are ploughing ahead with plans to abolish the arrangements for a virtual Parliament. The Government has 48 hours to rethink its proposals and do the right thing.”
Responding, a Government spokesman said: “Those who need to shield due to age or medical circumstances should continue to do so and informal arrangements, including pairing, will be in place to facilitate this.
“The House authorities have carried out a risk assessment of the Parliamentary estate to ensure it is a Covid-19 secure workplace in line with PHE guidance.”
The Telegraph has also been told that ministers are looking at proposals to bring back some elements of the virtual Parliament, although these are unlikely to be set out in detail when MPs vote on Tuesday.
Provided by Thompsons Solicitors, the legal advice notes that while MPs have no legal recourse as they are not protected by employment law, in another setting the Government’s plans would be open to legal challenge.
With 24 MPs aged over 70 classed as “clinically vulnerable” – and therefore advised to stay at home – the document states that these members would be “placed at a disadvantage” compared to younger MPs because of the “higher risk of ‘severe illness’ they would be exposed to.”
It goes on to warn that if a “higher proportion of women than men amongst MPs had primary child caring responsibilities” at a time when schools are closed for most age groups “then women are likely to be disadvantaged by the envisaged return to Parliament.”
The advice concludes: “If MPs were ‘employees’, then we think that the return of parliament currently envisaged by the government would be likely to amount to indirect discrimination on grounds of disability and/or age and/or sex and/or pregnancy under the Equality Act 2010.”
It comes just days after Tory MP Robert Halfon, the chairman of the Commons education committee, described the Government’s decision as “democratically unjust”, adding that MPs forced to remain at home would become the “metaphorical equivalent of parliamentary eunuchs.”
Speaking to The Telegraph, Mr Halfon, who has a moderate form of cerebral palsy, said: “Parliament should return to set an example to the nation but that does not mean denying those who can’t come back the vote.”
Sir Lindsay has also called on ministers to maintain hybrid proposals for MPs who are forced to shield at home or who are struggling with childcare commitments.
Separately, the Commons procedure committee, which provides recommendations on the functioning of the House, expressed concern that ending hybrid arrangements would prevent significant challenges as only 50 MPs are still allowed to enter the chamber.
In a report released on Friday, committee chairman Karen Bradley MP also questioned the decision to end electronic voting, adding that it had “serious concerns” over the alternative arrangements due to be put forward by the Government.
“If the proposed arrangements cannot be made to work, the remote voting system used in May, paired with voting in the Chamber, could be a workable alternative,” she added.