Is the 'hybrid' Parliament here to stay?
The 'hybrid' Commons sat for the first time yesterday
With the introduction of a semi-virtual Parliament underway, some MPs are calling for the measures to be installed on a permanent basis. Sebastian Whale reports
So far, so good.
Bar some technical glitches that rendered Labour MP Kevin Brennan’s probe at Welsh Questions indiscernible, the start of the hybrid Parliament went as well as could have been hoped.
Though the temporary steps have been introduced at an exceptional time, a few voices in Westminster have begun discussing whether some of the measures could become a permanent fixture.
“This is not a situation I think in which one simply closes the book and says, ‘well that’s that then’ and we go back to however we were before,” Norman Fowler, the Lord Speaker, tells The House.
The House Authorities have won plaudits for ensuring that parliamentary scrutiny could continue under a new guise after the Easter recess. The Commons has shown marked flexibility for an institution as historic and rooted in tradition as the Houses of Parliament.
Under the new rules, up to 120 MPs can take part in proceedings over Zoom, the video conferencing app, while fifty are allowed in the Commons Chamber. In the House of Lords, peers meet over Microsoft Teams.
For Chi Onwurah, who initiated a letter from MPs to John Benger calling for a virtual Parliament, getting everything in place in time was always feasible. "This is not rocket science; this is absolutely doable and it’s doable in three weeks. It was about bringing it together,” she says.
It is of note that Sir Lindsay Hoyle, elected Speaker just six months ago following the reforming and controversial years of John Bercow, has overseen arguably the most drastic and substantive modernising of how parliament functions in living memory.
Moves to introduce remote voting and a virtual parliament has tested the resolve of those with a more traditionalist outlook. Onwurah notes: “There was some opposition from some MPs who don’t like change, but then also from those who were concerned this would be a slippery slope to an entirely virtual parliament forever. I wanted the letter to make it clear that this was about parliament doing exceptional things in exceptional circumstances.”
Lindsay Hoyle, elected Speaker just six months ago, has overseen arguably the most substantive modernising of how parliament functions in living memory
Some MPs have been nervous that ceding ground would prompt calls for the measures to be kept in place thereafter. Last month a Conservative MP told me any move which set a precedent for remote voting would be a “very, very bad idea”, as it would restrict Members’ ability to “get hold of government ministers in person”. “The fact that we can nab the chancellor of the Exchequer in the division lobby is worth an awful lot. I think that would be a huge mistake.”
But others, particularly Members for more remote parts of the country, hope virtual working will outlive the pandemic. “A virtual parliament — and especially remote voting — would stop a huge amount of unnecessary journeys by MPs, maybe even by as much as half depending on the MP,” Angus MacNeil, the SNP MP for Na h-Eileanan an Iar, wrote in an article for Politico this week.
Jamie Stone, the Liberal Democrat MP who represents the most remote constituency on the UK mainland in the shape of Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, has to travel up to five hours door to door, to and from Westminster. “If it means that in the future I can, through IT, access a debate in Westminster, if necessary ask a question and even vote while on occasion having to be in my constituency to attend to something important, that would be a huge boon,” he argues. “I am very, very stretched trying to firstly cover the size of the constituency, and secondly, the long, long journeys there and back from Westminster too. That would be a huge boon and I think it would improve service delivery to my constituents.”
He adds: “It would go quite a long way to improving the ‘us and them’ perception of Westminster as being remote and inaccessible. It would mean that voters, constituents, would feel more involved. That cannot be bad for democracy at all.”
But Alistair Carmichael, the Lib Dem MP for Orkney and Shetland, the most northerly parliamentary constituency in the UK, disagrees. “I start from the presumption that anybody who has a map can see [my constituency] and London and know there would be a lot of travel involved for the Member of Parliament,” he says.
Though the temporary measures are working “reasonably well”, he fears that MPs could risk losing out “on reading the mood of the room and picking up water cooler chat” if they continue to work remotely in the future. He adds: “I am sceptical about this becoming the default. I don’t ever want to be the moaning voice on the screen and the wall that you can basically mute and ignore.”
I don’t ever want to be the moaning voice on the screen that you can basically mute and ignore
However, Carmichael believes some elements of the hybrid Parliament should be preserved for certain circumstances. “If you are on parental leave or if you’re maybe being treated for cancer or something like that, you should be able to do that remotely. If you’re in a select committee, you shouldn’t have to give up all that just because you’re temporarily incapacitated,” he says.
“We should never again have the ridiculous situation of somebody like [Labour MP] Tulip Siddiq being wheeled into the House of Commons to vote in the final days of her pregnancy. So, these are the real opportunities, rather than just for people who are a bit further away to start with.”
Helen Pankhurst, the great-granddaughter of Emmeline and founder of the Centenary Action Group, believes a “Zoom Parliament” could have benefits “well beyond the crisis”, arguing it represents a huge step for gender equality and greater diversity. “Parliamentary practices such as unusual and predictable office hours, a lack of maternity leave, and a lack of consideration for the caring responsibilities, which are generally heaped on women, act as a major barrier to women’s involvement in political life,” she wrote in a piece for The House earlier this week. She added: “A similar problem arises for people with disabilities. Some 16% of working age adults are disabled. Yet fewer than 1% of women MPs identify as disabled. Could it be that outdated working practices in Parliament deter this group of people?”
Rob Halfon, who chaired the first sitting of a virtual select committee, was among those in March to call for a wider tranche of measures to enable MPs and peers to carry out their work. The Conservative MP, who is disabled, had been unable to attend Parliament due to be being an at risk person from coronavirus. “I am not a radical revolutionary in these matters… Surely though, it is time that Parliament should change what is necessary in order to conserve what is best about our democracy,” he wrote in The House last month.
The Education select committee chair noted: “What Parliament has decided in terms of committees may look like a small step, but it could be a giant leap forward for digital democracy.”
Lord Fowler believes Parliament may “go back much as we were before”. “But there are points about [accessibility and communication] which are worth us looking at,” he adds. “We’ve all learnt lessons from this, and we need to put the lessons down as quickly as possible after the crisis comes to the end… there are important issues that we should go over, and that will be to the benefit of everyone and the benefit of future parliaments as well.”
Though it is very early days in the process, and many MPs are keen not to sanction a complete reworking of how Parliament operates, some are pushing for the new arrangements to be in place for a little while yet.