Leader of the House of Commons tells committee that his parliamentary colleagues ‘do not necessarily take electronic voting as seriously’
Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg has suggested he was against the introduction of digital voting in as MPs would not take votes “seriously” if they participated remotely.
The MP for North East Somerset (pictured above, on the left, during rehearsals for parliament’s hybrid participation system) also expressed reservations about expanding proxy voting to MPs with long-term health conditions as he believes some members may use the system for “trivial reasons”.
He made the comments during an appearance in front of the Commons Procedure Committee on Monday, which is currently undertaking an inquiry into whether proxy voting arrangements should be expanded.
Shadow disabilities minister Vicky Foxcroft said it was “patronising” to claim MPs could not participate from home.
Asked about electronic voting, Rees-Mogg told MPs: “I slightly worry that if people aren’t [voting] in person, they don’t have the inconvenience of having to be here physically, then they don’t necessarily take it as seriously. I think there was some evidence with electronic voting that people were going for nice walks and then voting in parliament.”
Provisions were put in place throughout the pandemic to allow both remote electronic voting and the expansion of existing proxy voting to allow isolating or shielding MPs to have a vote cast by a colleague on their behalf.
Following the end of hybrid proceedings in September 2021, many MPs have called for a return of some of these arrangements to improve access for members with long-term health conditions, or for those required to isolate with Covid-19.
Rees-Mogg told MPs on Monday he “looked forward” to the findings of the committee’s report on the matter, adding that it was “easy to see both sides of the argument”.
He expressed reservations, however, about “forcing people to reveal medical conditions” and claimed proxy voting systems could be abused by some MPs.
“How do you judge health and who judges it? Are you going to expect members to produce health certificates? I would have thought not,” he said on Monday. “But you certainly want to make sure [the proxy system] is not used for trivial reasons, and how would you police that? That’s one of the difficulties you face.”
Responding to Rees-Mogg’s comments, Foxcroft said it was “patronising” to suggest MPs voting remotely were not taking their job “seriously”.
“You could argue now that people just traipse through the lobby. Would I argue now that they don’t take voting in that way seriously? Absolutely not.”
She added that “most people elected in parliament want to be able to come to parliament” and that it was important to “give people different options that make it safer”.
“There was an opportunity when we had online voting to be able to look at ways that we could open up parliament and make it more accessible,” Foxcroft continued. “There are really low numbers of disabled MPs in Parliament and [the pandemic] potentially provided an opportunity to really think about how we can open up our democracy. If [Rees-Mogg is] talking about opening things up then that’s welcome, but it sounds like he’s being a bit cautious.”
Last week, SNP MP Amy Callaghan wrote to Rees-Mogg urging him to bring back proxy voting and virtual participation for those with long-term health conditions.
“At an earlier stage in the pandemic, parliament proved that it was perfectly capable of operating with hybrid participation and proxy voting. The decision to revoke it represented a backward step for inclusivity and for the modernisation of this parliament,” Callaghan wrote.
She continued: “The weeks prior to the Christmas recess saw many members and staff on the estate contracting Covid or being asked to isolate as contacts. For any member, but particularly so for those who are unwell, clinically vulnerable or carers, this is exclusionary and causing constituents across the UK to be disenfranchised.
“It is not the time for the government to dig its heels in on this matter.”
Lib Dem MP Wendy Chamberlain — who co-signed the letter alongside Conservative MP Tracey Crouch and Labour MP Naz Shah — told PublicTechnology sister publication PoliticsHome the commons needed to update its “antiquated” proxy voting system.
“If people have good reasons to be unable to vote it is much more transparent if they are able to have their vote recorded in another way rather than leaving their constituents guessing about how they would have voted,” she said. “If we trust people on maternity and paternity leave to declare relevant medical information, we can trust people with long-term medical conditions to do the same.”