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Democracy by virtual participation is simply not working

Democracy by virtual participation is simply not working

On several occasions now I’ve been ready and waiting to speak, only to be excluded because of an oversubscribed speaker schedule and a short time limit, writes Andrea Leadsom MP. | PA Images

3 min read

Robust debate has been confined to its own form of self-isolation, with opportunities to raise important issues and scrutinise government being lost.

Tomorrow the Prime Minister will come to the Commons to announce the roadmap out of lockdown. It can’t come soon enough! With an impressive number of people vaccinated (over 16 million at the time of writing) and infection rates decreasing, we are hopefully reaching the light at the end of this very dark tunnel.

It has been almost a year since we entered the first lockdown. Daily routines have been drastically altered, and right across the country we’ve all dealt with endless ‘virtual’ meetings. “You’re on mute!” is the endless cry...

As MPs, we’ve had to learn to embrace a hybrid Parliament. Whilst it was necessary for the short-term, it’s crystal clear that this cannot continue for much longer. Despite the huge efforts of the digital team in the Commons, democracy by virtual participation is simply not working.

The Chamber no longer has spontaneity or atmosphere. You can’t ‘catch the eye’ of the Speaker to ask a question. Robust debate has been confined to its own form of self-isolation.

So, with most MPs sat at home, discouraged from travelling to London, yet keen to represent their constituents, we find ourselves applying through endless ballots to speak on every topic on the order paper. The chance of winning each ballot is slim, and when it’s a hugely significant issue for a constituent, or a subject you are passionate about, there is no right of appeal. 

No longer are Ministers forensically questioned as MPs are unable to intervene or interject

Even when you do make the final call list for a question or debate, the chances of actually getting to speak are still low. On several occasions now I’ve been ready and waiting to speak, only to be excluded because of an oversubscribed speaker schedule and a short time limit. 

What these restrictions mean for our democracy is that the chance to raise important views of constituents, and to properly scrutinise government, are being lost. Anecdotally, I know from some colleagues that this process is so frustrating that it is deterring them from entering the ballot at all.

For Ministers, it is too easy under this system for them to answer oral questions at the despatch box. They know in advance who is asking the question and have a good idea of the topic. No longer are Ministers forensically questioned as MPs are unable to intervene or interject.

As we look to return to Parliament, our staff must be able to join us. For too many young members of staff, working from home has been a shock to the system. It has posed mental and physical challenges with heavy workloads and high pressure. Crowded flat shares, unstable broadband and lack of outdoor space have created a disjointed and unsustainable working environment. With little else to do but answer emails, any chance of a manageable work-life balance has gone out the window. 

Parliament can continue to be Covid secure, but allow the business of democracy to take place in person. Discussions between the Speaker and the Leader of the House should begin as soon as possible as to what a phased return will look like. They should prioritise the restart of Westminster Hall debates and Friday sittings, and a fair and sensible way for Members to participate in House business.

Whilst a return to normality won’t happen overnight, we can and must get the Parliamentary cogs safely turning once more.

 

Andrea Leadsom is the Conservative MP for South Northamptonshire.

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