Theresa May has been accused of “putting people’s lives at risk” as a bitter row continued over the Tories’ decision to force sick and ill Labour MPs to vote in person on a key Brexit bill.
Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow ministers slammed the Prime Minister and the Government whips’ office after severely poorly backbencher Naz Shah had to use a wheelchair in the voting lobbies in the House of Commons.
Bradford West MP Shah, who had checked herself out of hospital, was in her pyjamas and carrying a sick bag as she took part in the crunch vote on the EU Withdrawal Bill on Wednesday.
A heavily pregnant Laura Pidcock, who was in pain from sciatica, also voted in person. Labour had requested exemptions for wheelchair-bound Paul Flynn and Derek Twigg but were refused permission by Government chief whip Julian Smith.
Labour went public in attacking the Government for refusing the usual convention that allows sick and disabled MPs to be ‘nodded through’ in their absence, with one Opposition Whip telling HuffPost the move was motivated by Tory “panic” over its Brexit plans. In the end, the Government had a majority of 16.
Commons leader Andrea Leadsom hit back hard on Thursday, claiming that Labour was to blame for Shah’s distress because it had given very little notice of her difficulties.
But John Cryer, chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), was scathing over the Government’s decision not to uphold a convention that has helped sick and disabled MPs for decades.
“As the nearest thing the PLP has got to a shop steward, I’ve got to tell the Government they are putting people’s lives and health at risk if this system is to continue,” he said.
Labour’s Shadow Commons Leader Valerie Vaz added that the “nodding through” convention – which allows MPs to stay in a car or ambulance in the grounds of Westminster while a vote is registered on their behalf – was “based on trust”.
She revealed that Shah had only been allowed to vote after Commons doorkeepers found her an emergency wheelchair.
“All the conventions and trust appear to have broken down. It’s this moral authority that the Government appears to lack.”
Leadsom replied: “I was particularly sorry to see that the Honourable Member for Bradford West was forced to come and vote here while she was unwell.
“But the fact that she had to come from Bradford when she was so unwell is a matter for the Honourable Lady’s party.
“It’s simply not right to accuse the Government of putting her in this position when the first notice the Government was given of this was just before midday. What her party should have done was sort out an arrangement for somebody in much better time.
“It is a convention for Members to be nodded through when there is reasonable notice and where there is serious illness.
“Yesterday at 11.55am, Labour requested six members to be nodded through. The Government made efforts to make what arrangements they could in that short time provided.”
Leadsom’s response prompted cries of ‘Shame!’ from Labour MPs, and all sides have suggested a reform of the antiquated system of not allowing MPs to vote electronically.
Mark Tami, Labour’s ‘pairing whip’, who organises ‘pairs’ that ensure ill or absent MPs on both sides cancel each other out in key votes, told HuffPost that late notice was never usually a problem in ‘nodding through’ requests.
“I asked them for her to be nodded through. The only pair that was available was one agreed ages ago for Cat Smith because she’s close to giving birth and we don’t mess around with that. And it would be the same if it was the other way round,” he said.
“I asked them yesterday on more than one occasion yesterday. I said she’s heavily on morphine and she’s in a wheelchair and she’s in her pyjamas and I was told ‘no’ they were not going to nod anybody through.”
The Tories did offer to nod through Pidcock, it appears, but she is understood to have declined the offer out of solidarity with her fellow MPs.
“They turned down Paul Flynn, in a wheelchair. And they nodded Paul through last week on the Europe bill but not yesterday And they nodded Derek Twigg through last week and they refused yesterday.
“They are saying we didn’t give enough notice, which is nonsense. I’ve nodded people through in the middle of votes. Last week I nodded through two Tory MPs who because of the number of votes were struggling physically.”
Tami explained the usual practice. “What happens is I go down with their pairing whip. A car or ambulance pulls up, we have a look inside, ‘yes it is X Y or Z’ and then that’s it. To make a female Member heavily sedated on morphine in her pyjamas with a sick bowl through the voting lobby and then have to go round a very odd route to get the wheelchair through, is not on.
“The other point is, OK this time it was us with a load of sick people, but at some point in the future the boot’s going to be on the other foot
“My main point is that something that is a convention that has been established for a very long time they chose to break without any warning yesterday.
“It’s a bit of panic, it’s a bit of micro-management. But it is about a sense of honour. To be perfectly happy about doing it last week and then because they got the jitters a bit this week to say we are not nodding anybody through says everything.”