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Tue, 2 June 2020

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Digital reform of parliamentary procedure can make our democracy more inclusive

Digital reform of parliamentary procedure can make our democracy more inclusive

The set of ideas introduced by Sir Lindsay Hoyle and the House of Commons Commission are the most significant set of proposals for changing the way Parliament works in a century, says Wendy Chamberlain MP | PA Images

5 min read

Although these are clearly exceptional circumstances, we should be ensuring that measures taken now can provide sustainable resilience for the future.

When I arrived in Parliament after the 2019 General Election, I did so from multinational drinks company, with employees across the globe. There, we used video conferencing facilities all of the time – as a Learning and Development professional it was a great way of delivering training across a number of locations. 

So it was strange, taking up my seat as an MP and feeling like I’d stepped back a century or two. From bobbing to ‘catching the Speaker’s eye’; from Erskine May to Despatch Boxes. And like my time in policing, a whole new set of acronyms to learn – EDMs (Early Day Motions) to PCH (Portcullis House). 

And there are all sorts of quaint rules and regulations. I had never worked in politics before – I hadn’t even been a member of a political party before 2015. To me, it felt alien, and more importantly, initially inaccessible.  

And now, less than four months on, my working life is full of video conferences once again. I’m back at the kitchen table working from home. But for long-serving MPs, this must be a strange time. How must Peter Bone be coping with Skype (soon to be Microsoft Teams)? Or maybe he uses ‘Houseparty’ – which sounds reassuringly like it might come from the Parliamentary lexicon.  

Just as so many aspects of our lives have been turned upside down, now it is Parliament’s turn.  

The set of ideas introduced by Sir Lindsay Hoyle and the House of Commons Commission are the most significant set of proposals for changing the way Parliament works in a century. 

It started two weeks ago, when it was announced that Select Committees could meet remotely; and now the proposal is for virtual PMQs and ministerial statements. This will make an enormous practical difference to the way our democracy works.  

Open, responsive, efficient – this is just what a modern democracy should be.

It’s important to pay credit to not just the Speaker but also the excellent House staff who are working flat-out to co-ordinate these changes. Not only have they been enormously efficient, but they have also been very responsive. I contacted them about expanding Skype telephone facilities to my constituency staff – and within days, my office was being used as a pilot for a trial of that very idea. Remote training for the staff that have started with me in the last month is also in the works.  

Open, responsive, efficient – this is just what a modern democracy should be. I feel these changes are for the better. Many of the features of Parliament felt archaic to me when I arrived – and I imagine it feels the same to many people around the country when they watch the proceedings.  

I think we should go further.

For the last decade, British politics has been dominated by the Conservatives, but when it comes to political reform both Labour and the Tories have been conservative with a small c. First past the post; the House of Lords; the voting age - our political elite are very resistant to change.  

The current Covid-19 crisis is likely to result in some permanent changes to the way we live our lives – particularly from a technological perspective.  Parliament is embarking on a huge sweeping programme of reforms. Part of this is procedural: what more can we do to help Parliament do its job during the Covid-19 crisis? Sir Ed Davey, the Leader of the Liberal Democrats, is calling for a virtual coronavirus select committee, based on a model used by the New Zealand Parliament – an idea I wholeheartedly support. Although these are clearly exceptional circumstances, we should be ensuring that measures taken now can provide sustainable resilience for the future.  

Such future proofing needs to go beyond our parliamentary processes. Local Council and mayoral elections have been postponed whilst we deal with the Covid-19 outbreak, but democracy is not a can that can be perpetually kicked down the road. In the US state of Wisconsin voters were forced to defy a stay-at-home order to participate in the Democratic Party primary and other local elections. Evidence suggests that lower turnout elections benefit the Republican Party and steps to restrict postal and other forms of proxy voting amongst Republican led legislatures are being reported.  

Prior to the Covid-19 outbreak, the Government’s proposals on electoral reform suggests that they too are looking to decrease enfranchisement rather than ensure that as many people as possible can take part in our democratic processes by introducing measures such as voter identification and limitations to postal and proxy voting. The Electoral Commission’s most recent report states that voter fraud in the UK is and always has been low.  Instead of looking to solve problems that simply don’t exist, I would urge the Government to explore ways of making voting more accessible, so that postponing of elections in circumstances such as these is but one of a variety of measures that can be considered.  

So should some of the changes currently being implemented persist in both Parliament or in our wider society? Where they make our democracy more inclusive and enabling, of course they should. 

Wendy Chamberlain is Liberal Democrat MP for North East Fife.

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