5 May 2016

Politicians on phones in parliament – a turn off?

Politics has descended once again into fiddling. Not this time of MPs’ expenses, nor of the books, but with mobile phones.

Following one of the most intemperate and at times childish Prime Minister’s Questions in Parliament yesterday, it was the turn of the Shadow Health Minister Heidi Alexander to raise issues with the Government about the junior doctors’ contract and NHS bursaries. The Health Secretary made it clear that he would not be answering questions, but was good enough to turn up, apparently, to listen.

But no sooner had Ms Alexander started to speak than Jeremy Hunt started ostentatiously fiddling with his phone. It got so bad that the Speaker John Bercow had to halt Ms Alexander and remonstrate with Mr Hunt, informing him of his poor manners and breach of Parliamentary protocol. “Stop fiddling with your phone” was Mr Speaker’s final order.

No sooner had the speaker called upon Ms Alexander to resume speaking, than the Deputy Leader of the House of Commons Thérèse Coffey started playing even more aggressively with her mobile. Once again Speaker Bercow jumped to his feet, and in exasperation he told her, “if you can’t listen to what’s going on, get out.”

In many ways we have a House of Commons that seems to look nothing like any other place in our lives. This is in terms of the composition of those that represent us – where 70% of those in the House are male, and only around 6% from ethnic minorities, compared with 14% in the population as a whole.

But it also feels alien in terms of the behaviour of those who work there; it sometimes seems to resemble the antics of a drunken pub crowd, or a school debating society. Would doctors or nurses in the NHS have been able to get away with playing with their phones while seeing patients?

As the Speaker himself said, the MPs he was telling off are very clever people. Do they ever wonder what they look and sound like sometimes to those they represent?

To many of those people, the conduct of politics feels increasingly adrift from their daily lives. Not a comfortable position on the day when many of us go out to vote.

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