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Expanding electronic voting could undermine Parliament as ministers could choose not to turn up in person, the Leader of the Commons has said.
Jacob Rees-Mogg said the “default” position should be that MPs cast their vote in person, following experiments with remote voting during the coronavirus pandemic.
He also said that offering proxy voting powers – which allows an MP to have their vote cast by a colleague – to those on maternity and paternity leave was “really straightforward” but argued there were complications in extending it to those who are too ill to attend Parliament.
The Cabinet minister said that while he had sympathy for those dealing with long-term illnesses, there were questions about how proxy voting for them could work, including asking what would happen if “the member was under anaesthetic and therefore not able to give an instruction” on how to vote on their behalf.
He also said there was a confidentiality issue involved, especially if an MP did not want to make their illness public.
Mr Rees-Mogg, giving evidence to the Procedure Committee, said: “Turning up in Parliament is not what every minister wants to do at the end of a busy day, but it is fundamental to the power of Parliament that ministers are here regularly – all ministers and all senior figures in our parties.
“Why? Because there are issues which one wants to raise with them – they are very effective ways of dealing with constituency problems.
“I’ve seen opposition members hanging outside the division lobby to try and get the Home Secretary – not actually the current one – about an important immigration case in his or her constituency.
“Once the Home Secretary doesn’t have to turn up, how often will they be here? And I’m not talking about the current individual one, I’m talking generically.
“Or the leader of the opposition (Sir Keir Starmer); he is very busy – he’d probably like to be getting round the country and meeting potential voters rather than be in the division lobby, but then how Parliament works gets steadily undermined.”
Mr Rees-Mogg said he feared that if elected politicians “don’t have the inconvenience of having to be here physically, they don’t necessarily take it as seriously”, citing how he had heard some peers voted while abroad in the early stages of electronic voting in the House of Lords during the pandemic.
The Commons Leader added: “I think the default should be that people should be here to vote in person – I think that is very important.
“But I have sympathy with people who have serious illness, who I think are in a category that deserves more sympathy than people who just find it slightly inconvenient to be here.”
The senior minister was also challenged on the Owen Paterson saga, repeating his admission that he made an error in how he handled the affair.
Mr Paterson, a former environment secretary, quit Parliament last year in the wake of a botched attempt by No 10 to get him off the hook after he was found to have broken rules banning MPs from paid lobbying.
Tory MPs were whipped to back the so-called Leadsom amendment, which looked to reform the standards rules in order to give the former North Shropshire representative a reprieve from his Commons suspension.
Asked whether the Government made the wrong call backing the amendment, Mr Rees-Mogg told the committee: “Look, I made it clear that I got it wrong.
“I conflated this specific case with concerns that were more generally held, and that was a mistake. I hope that one always learns from one’s mistakes.”
Pressed on whether the Government was unlikely to whip such a vote in future, he replied: “Having just said that I hope we learn from our mistakes, I hope that would be the case.
“If the Government thought it was the same case, I’m sure the Government would have acted differently with the hindsight we now have.”