Boris Johnson is facing a possible Tory revolt over controversial plans to end online voting in Parliament, which could exclude vulnerable MPs from fully representing their constituents during the coronavirus crisis.
Senior Conservatives including select committee chairs and a former Cabinet minister have tabled amendments to Government plans to force all MPs to vote in person when they return on Tuesday.
MPs have been able to either attend Parliament in person or contribute online during the pandemic, but Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg plans to bring this to an end in a move criticised by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC).
When returning from recess, MPs will have to vote on the proposal which could see them forming kilometre-long queues in order to obey social distancing rules – despite the Lords planning a move online.
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 chair 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. The MPs who genuinely cannot come in, our democratic rights are being snipped away and we’re being turned into parliamentary eunuchs, Mr Halfon told the PA news agency.
“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.
“Not only will the hundreds of MPs, who for one reason or another will not be able to come in because they are affected by Covid, will not only be denied their fundamental rights but their constituents will not have a voice in Parliament because they will not be able to vote.”
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.
The SNP has criticised the creation of a “conga line Parliament”, with Scottish MPs and others representing constituencies far from Westminster facing a challenge to travel to Parliament.
The EHRC urged ministers to present a revised plan that “upholds the principles of equality and human rights” and criticised the current proposal to replace the measures in place since mid-April.
“This will place at significant disadvantage MPs who are shielding or self-isolating because of age, disability, health conditions or pregnancy, as well as other members who will struggle to attend the chamber in person due to travel restrictions and caring responsibilities,” chief executive Rebecca Hilsenrath said.
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”.
Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle 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.