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Coronavirus: More than 100 MPs call for ‘digital Parliament’ to quiz ministers on outbreak response

Boris Johnson has been leading meetings via video-link during the crisis (PA)

3 min read

More than 100 MPs have backed calls for the creation of a “digital Parliament” s ministers can be held to account during the coronavirus crisis.

Labour’s Chi Onwurah is leading the push, and has written to the House of Commons clerk John Benger to ask for ministerial questions to continue via video link.

Parliament is currently in recess until at least 21 April amid concerns that MPs could spread the virus after returning to Westminster from their constituencies.

Some select committees have continued to meet and take evidence from witnesses via video link, and Ms Onwurah said that should be widened to include the whole House.

In her letter, she said: "Though change comes slowly to Parliament, in this time of crisis we urge you to work with Parliamentary Digital Services and our excellent tech sector to design in the next few weeks a digital Parliament in which all members can participate.

"Given the urgency of the task we recognise that will require using off the shelf solutions and may initially be 'rough and ready' but people up and down the country have made huge behavioural changes in a matter of days and we must show that we are capable of it too.

"With the help of our many innovative and ethical tech sector organisations we can deliver a digital Parliament which, through secure video conferencing, can maintain our democratic traditions in accordance with social distancing.”

Speaking to Sky News she said in any other crisis like this Parliament would be recalled, not shuttered, and that MPs want to “hold the Government to account” during the pandemic.

The Newcastle MP said millions of people are learning how to use video technology at home during this crisis, adding: “We should be able to do something similar and maintain our democratic traditions, representing the nation, while socially distancing at the same time.”

Ed Davey, acting leader of the Liberal Democrats, is calling for the resumption of PMQs via video-conferencing, and allow for the tabling of written questions by MPs during recess.

He said: “If it wasn’t a dangerous infectious virus but a major emergency, Parliament would have been recalled. We wouldn’t have gone on recess.

“We think scrutiny is good for government policy. We’ve shown opposition parties are prepared to behave responsibly. 

“I think we can find a way to get things cracking and get an online virtual parliament to serve the nation.”

And former minister Robert Halfon said the “small step” to allow select committees to work remotely “actually is a giant leap, because what it’s allowed, for the first time, is to say that parliamentary proceedings don’t have to be done in a room in the House of Commons”.

He told the PoliticsHome podcast: “The procedural genie is out of the Erskine May lamp and may take a while to put back.

“What I’m arguing for is not a complete move to digital democracy. But a partial one.”

He recognises the importance of MPs walking through the lobby, but added: “We have to accept that we’re in an unprecedented situation and we should be trying to move to digital democracy to enable parliamentarians to do their work.”

In response a House of Commons spokesperson said: “We are balancing our responsibility to allow Parliament to function with a responsibility to do all we can to keep our workforce safe and well, and that balance is under constant review.

“Any changes to the sitting of the House would be for the House itself to decide via a motion tabled by the Government.”

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Connecting Communities is an initiative aimed at empowering and strengthening community ties across the UK. Launched in partnership with The National Lottery, it aims to promote dialogue and support Parliamentarians working to nurture a more connected society.

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