As we change the way we work, the purpose of the House’s procedure must prevail
"Like Mr Speaker, I too breathed a huge sigh of relief the moment our first virtual PMQs successfully concluded," says Karen Bradley MP | Credit: ©UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor
The House is rising magnificently to meet the procedural challenges of coronavirus .
The House of Commons has repeatedly shown a capacity to endure through disaster and crisis: its chamber was destroyed by fire in 1834 and reduced to rubble by bombing in 1941, and yet it found ways in which its Members could continue to meet and carry out the House’s business. The threat to the House’s work today is not to its environment, but to the very basis of its way of working: the ability of all MPs to meet in one place to debate matters which affect the lives of all those we represent.
The conduct of the pandemic, from lockdown regulations to packages of economic support, all need to be examined by a House properly equipped to hold Ministers to account. In order to do this safely, under the conditions Ministers have imposed across the country, the House has had to adapt the way it works.
Select committees continued to work throughout the Easter adjournment to question Ministers and scrutinise the response to the pandemic. Colleagues, and their hard-working staff, will have been tied to their home offices, dealing with the myriad pressing issues the pandemic has caused for their constituents. Now the House has returned, there is an urgent need for the daily discipline its scrutiny brings to the work of Government departments. While COVID-19 has brought some global institutions to a standstill, the House of Commons has taken up the challenge to innovate.
In this last week, following endorsement by the Procedure Committee, the Commons passed temporary orders changing our procedures to facilitate ‘virtual proceedings’. The Chamber became the cockpit of the nation’s political life as never before, as Simon Hart became the first ever Secretary of State for Wales to answer questions while in Wales, and as Members across the country were brought into the Chamber to question the First Secretary of State, Dominic Raab, at the first ‘virtual PMQs’.
These landmark ‘hybrid’ proceedings are the result of brilliant work from some of the best public servants in the world. From the procedural and management expertise of our Commons clerks to the technical know-how of the Parliamentary Broadcasting team and the Parliamentary Digital Service, colleagues across the House have delivered some of the greatest changes our democratic system has ever seen. All under the oversight of a dynamic House of Commons Commission, chaired by an inclusive and forward-thinking Speaker.
Following the initial success of ‘hybrid scrutiny proceedings’ on Wednesday, MPs approved further temporary orders to extend the arrangements to select categories of substantive proceeding. This means that as well as questioning ministers and scrutinising statements, MPs will soon be able to debate legislation from their living rooms. MPs also approved a motion to pave the way for remote digital voting, subject to assurances about the robustness of the system which the Digital Service is working at impressive speed to develop.
As Chair of the Procedure Committee, my primary concern is to ensure that any change is implemented in the best possible way, so that the integrity of our democratic system is maintained. As we change the way we work, the essential purpose of the House’s procedure — to ensure equality of treatment of all colleagues, and to facilitate democratic law-making and robust scrutiny — must prevail. Our present and oddly unfamiliar socially distanced Chamber, supplemented by the new ‘virtual Chamber’, can never replicate the physical environment which so many colleagues have learned to use to devastating effect: but Members are skilled and infinitely resourceful and will no doubt develop methods to turn these temporary conditions to their advantage.
Like Mr Speaker, I too breathed a huge sigh of relief the moment our first virtual PMQs successfully concluded. The House is rising magnificently to meet the procedural challenges of coronavirus. Like the people we are privileged to serve, we continue to adapt swiftly to a new way of life.
Karen Bradley is Conservative MP for Staffordshire Moorlands and chair of the Procedure Committee