For me, an abiding image of this coronavirus pandemic is of my nearly three-year-old granddaughter, Isla, staring in astonishment at Grandpa speaking on the telly, while she knew for a fact that he was just next door under the stairs.
The ‘virtual Parliament’ worked. I made a big speech about how we must ensure that the Highlands tourism industry survives the pandemic – and a few days before I asked a question about a young couple in Sutherland whose small business had fallen through the cracks in the floorboards and were receiving no financial help at all.
It wasn’t perfect. I couldn’t say “Would the Rt Hon gentleman give way?” and then make an intervention – a House of Commons technique that can be highly successful in getting your point across – but it did mean that I could represent my constituents, their needs and concerns in this incredibly difficult time, and then vote accordingly online.
Now I am going to talk of something I normally keep very private.
My wife has been disabled for 21 years, and I am her carer. However during lockdown the usual care arrangements are not really possible. But because of that same lockdown, it meant that I was at home to take over the care duties myself.
While my constituents tell me that they absolutely understand why I don’t want to risk bringing the virus North, I believe that they deserve full-blooded representation at all times
Along with the virtual Parliament, I was able to multitask covering both private and MP duties.
Now Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Leader of the House of Commons, and the Government want to close down the Virtual Parliament. If the Government gets its way, all the MPs from all over the UK who made full use of it previously are now going to have to physically return to the House of Commons to contribute to debates and vote.
This leaves me with one hell of a choice.
If the Government motion passes, I shall have to choose between either leaving home and my wife and going to Westminster for a possibly indefinite period (rather than travel back and forth and possibly bring the virus to a part of the UK that has hitherto been relatively unaffected) or stay put at home, look after my wife, and in effect be a ‘second class’ MP.
While my constituents tell me that they absolutely understand why I don’t want to risk bringing the virus North, I believe that they deserve full-blooded representation at all times.
This is why I find the Government proposal to be both undemocratic and very possibly a breach of my role as described in the MPs’ handbook which was given to me when I was first elected.
Why is Rees-Mogg so keen on this? Is he anxious to stuff MPs in behind Boris Johnson? To cheer him on at PMQs? I think most would agree that so far his performances have not been exactly brilliant. Or is it about an old-fashioned fear of any kind of change? He is yet to provide an answer.
For democracy to function properly, wherever people live in the UK, they must be confident that their elected representative will have a strong voice and will speak up without fear or favour in their interests.
If that relationship is eroded in the way that the Government seems to want to, then confidence in the system is damaged and democracy is the lesser for it.
One thing out of this sorry saga that may be a positive sign is the number of MPs in all parties who are saying very clearly to the Government: ‘Whatever message does this proposal send to the disabled and their carers?’.
When we have beaten the pandemic, I very much hope that the House of Commons will retain the mechanism to enable elected Members to sometimes go virtual and fully contribute should they need it.
We never again want to see the shocking scenes of very sick MPs being physically brought to the House of Commons to vote during the Maastricht debates that bedevilled John Major’s Government.
All Members of Parliament who care about individuals having equal rights, regardless of who or where they are, must vote against this Government’s proposal.
Jamie Stone is the Lib Dem MP for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross. Follow him on Twitter at @Jamie4North
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