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Why remote technologies should come before tradition

The government’s decision to abandon technology and go back to voting in person indirectly discriminates and sets a terrible precedent

For the last few weeks, Boris Johnson and his government have floundered under the ruthless examination of the new leader of the Labour Party, Keir Starmer.

The coronavirus has robbed Johnson of his audience and made him look foolish up against the extensively prepared leader of the opposition. This week, Starmer rightly pointed out that the decision to end online voting and the hybrid Parliament was “shameful” as it prevented members from voting.

“If any other employer behaved like this it would be … indirect discrimination under the Equalities Act,” he scolded.

Johnson suggested that it wasn’t “unreasonable” for parliamentarians to come back to Westminster to physically vote, backing the decision made by the Leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg, and completely missing the point that many can’t due to health conditions. 

My own local MP, Conservative, Robert Halfon, suffers from osteoarthritis and was advised by his GP not to go to Westminster and was therefore unable to vote. He told the BBC that Rees-Mogg was “lacking empathy and understanding”. 

As MPs – who are often targets for abuse and violence – queued up for hours on Wednesday, risking both their health and safety, Rees-Mogg addressed the decision to come back to Westminster.

“It is important for votes to be physical because we are coming here together as a single parliament and we are voting on things that have a major effect on people's lives,” he said. 

The fact the subjects are important to the wider public is irrelevant in this regard. People in the street are not going to dismiss legislation passed over Zoom. It’s just the rule of a man who it seems hasn’t given a moment's thought to MPs with disabilities, or who are carers, and will always choose tradition over equality. Given that he wrote a whole book on the Victorians, you’d think Rees-Mogg would be a fan of videotelephony (more commonly known as video conferencing), given it was first conceived in 1870. 

This is the thing with the ‘new normal’ and the technology we’re all using during lockdown – none of it is actually new. Some of it’s older than the MPs voting not to use it. And the predicament faced by many MPs is the same as the people they serve. Think of all the people who could have used cloud-based services to do their jobs flexibly from home long before the coronavirus. All those people that spend hours everyday commuting into London for their job. All those people that moved to the smoke, into tiny flats they can’t afford. All because their employer isn’t open to ‘new’ ways of working. 

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My father-in-law is in that tragic little bracket. He was a project manager for a government-backed organisation, that shall remain nameless. He has rheumatoid arthritis, so standing for more than 10-minutes is a painful experience. All he ever needed to do his job was a phone, a laptop, an internet connection and some cloud-based services. And yet, he was consistently asked to go into the office, in central London for no reason other than ‘that’s just the way it is’. 

I recall a horrible journey home where I had to meet him at Loughton Tube station where he was too weak to make it all the way to Epping. I’m only five-foot-seven and he’s six-foot-six if you want the humorous mental image of me trying to help him into a car. He took medical retirement at the start of the year, just avoiding the outbreak of COVID-19, yet his former employers are one of the many businesses that have been able to continue operating due to remote technologies. 

Life after the coronavirus can be completely different if we fully embrace cloud computing. It’s an example of how British business can carry on in the face of adversity, how the experience can act as a springboard to transform the way we work for the better. It may even lead to more equality. But with the ‘traditionalists’ calling the shots in government, it seems the country’s leadership is determined to be left in the past.

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