LONDON — A British lawmaker who is being treated for breast cancer was unable to attend a government debate on the illness on Thursday, and called on the government to “urgently reconsider” limitations on remote participation for members of Parliament.
The lawmaker, Tracey Crouch, a member of the governing Conservative Party who received a cancer diagnosis in June, took the issue to the floor of Parliament on Thursday, pointing out the glaring disconnect and highlighting an issue that has been debated for months.
Members of Parliament who are not physically present in the parliamentary chamber are not allowed to take part in debates on legislation or general debates, but they are allowed to appear by video link during question sessions with government ministers and when statements are being given.
Appearing by video during one of the instances where virtual participation is allowed, Ms. Crouch, who has been an outspoken advocate for advancing cancer research, upbraided the government minister responsible for the rules, Jacob Rees-Mogg, for his decision to limit virtual participation during the coronavirus pandemic.
Ms. Crouch brought up the breast cancer debate and said that because of Mr. Rees-Mogg’s ruling, “some of us with real and current life experience of the disease are disappointingly unable to participate.”
She added that while she respected Mr. Rees-Mogg’s commitment to “traditional parliamentary procedures,” if he were a lower-ranking lawmaker and “not the fine specimen of health and fitness he clearly is, he would be arguing forcefully for members to be able to contribute more often in proceedings via modern technology.”
Mr. Rees-Mogg, she added, should “stop thinking those of us at home are shirking our duties — in fact, quite the opposite — and urgently reconsider virtual participation.”
The government proceedings that take place in the normally packed House of Commons have proved tricky for lawmakers to navigate since the coronavirus outbreak began. But much of the process was moved to the virtual space during the country’s first lockdown earlier this year, as many lawmakers remained at home.
Members of Parliament could participate by video link and vote remotely in the spring, but in June, the government wanted lawmakers to return to Westminster, and Mr. Rees-Mogg argued that the “hybrid model,” with some lawmakers physically present and others on video link, did not allow Parliament to properly do its duty. During the summer, Parliament attempted to return to a system requiring lawmakers to vote in person while attempting to maintain social distance, resulting in chaotic scenes and long lines that were soon labeled the “Mogg Conga.”
The government eventually compromised and allowed lawmakers unable to attend for medical or public-health reasons to use a proxy system for voting, with another lawmaker voting in their stead.
But even with the coronavirus pandemic again sweeping across the country, and a renewed nationwide lockdown in England, the government has yet to allow a full return to the earlier hybrid model, an issue that has grown increasingly contentious.
And so Thursday’s debate, on the effect of the pandemic on breast cancer diagnosis and the future of breast cancer services in the country, required in-person participation.
Speaking during the debate, Justin Madders, a lawmaker from the opposition Labour Party, lamented that Ms. Crouch could not take part. He was one of several lawmakers involved who mentioned her during the debate.
“I am sure it would have been enhanced by her presence, given her current battle,” he said during the session.
Mr. Rees-Mogg has been criticized throughout the pandemic by members of the opposition and some within his own party for his decision to limit virtual participation. As the current lockdown approached, he ruled out a return to the hybrid model and has maintained that those lawmakers who can attend the chambers should.
In response to Ms. Crouch on Thursday, he again defended the lack of virtual participation, saying it “simply was not an option” to use video conferencing in some instances because all of the technology available was being used.
In the case of debates like the one Ms. Crouch had been unable to participate in, he said, ministers needed to be held to account, “and to have the interventions that make a debate, rather than a series of statements,” implying that virtual participation was unfit for that purpose.
“It is a question of striking a careful balance, in these difficult times, between ensuring that Parliament can serve its constituents in full and making sure that members can complete their duties as safely and as effectively as possible,” he said.
Orignially published in NYT.