Campaigner of the Week: Chi Onwurah
On a historic day for Parliament, the Labour frontbencher speaks to Sebastian Whale about her campaign to set up a virtual House of Commons
Chi Onwurah, Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central and shadow minister for science, research and digital
Chi Onwurah initiated a letter signed by more than 150 MPs to John Benger, the Clerk of the Commons, calling for the establishment of a virtual Parliament. The idea became reality today as MPs backed historic measures to allow up to 120 members to take part in proceedings over Zoom, the video conferencing app. Up to fifty MPs will sit two metres apart in the Commons.
Onwurah first raised the issue on 19 March with SNP MP Pete Wishart, representing the Commission, and with Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Leader of the House. "What support [is] the Parliamentary Digital Service... providing to [MPs] and staff of the House of Commons to enable (a) remote workng and (b) video conferencing during the outbreak of Covid-19?" she asked.
Behind the senes, she was also talking to the Parliamentary Digital Services and Sir Lindsay Hoyle, the Commons Speaker, to understand what barriers were in place to prevent the measures from being implemented.
“Very few people thought it could be done by the end of recess. Having worked in tech and having known a lot of this technology, I felt this could be done," she explains. "This is not rocket science; this is absolutely doable and it’s doable in three weeks. It was about bringing it together."
In her letter to Benger, dated 31 March, Onwurah argued that politicians must “lead by example” through adhering to social distancing rules set out by the Government to contain the spread of coronavirus. “I knew that the House of Commons Clerk was the key leader on changes of this kind,” she explains.
Having worked in the tech sector for twenty years, Onwurah felt that she could be “particularly effective” at leading the campaign. Personal circumstances had meant some MPs were not able to attend Parliament before the Easter recess. Many wanted to make sure that MPs could scrutinise the Government’s response to the crisis while not breaching guidance on social distancing.
After drafting her letter, Onwurah contacted every Member of Parliament. Though 153 MPs signed the correspondence, there was resistance from some who feared a lasting precedent would be set. “I wanted the letter to make it clear that this was about Parliament doing exceptional things in exceptional circumstances,” says Onwurah.
On 3 April, Benger replied to Onwurah. He said the House, which had already set up the technology for select committees to hold sessions digitally, would pursue “new, virtual ways for ministers to keep the House informed and for members to discharge their vital function of holding the executive to account”. Onwurah says of the letter: “I was very encouraged by the response from the Clerk.”
Onwurah is grateful at the progress being made. “I’m pleased that it means I’m not on a train from Newcastle to London, but obviously there are some limitations,” she says.
Onwurah would like to see remote voting implemented and for topical questions to be reinstated during departmental sessions. “As long as social distancing continues, the Speaker has said that we would want to see it mimicking as far as possible all the capability of the physical Parliament to enable MPs to represent their constituents in every way possible,” she says. Onwurah would also like to see the virtual Parliament moved onto an “open source” platform to help alleviate concerns over transparency.
“Just as Parliament is transparent, the way in which we’re doing this should be transparent, and open source is accessible to everyone so people can see there is no conspiracy theories, there’s no advantage being given to one party or another, people can actually read the code and see exactly how we’re doing this. That’s where I’d like to see us get to,” she concludes.