It is critical to overcome the challenges of remote working to push a virtual Parliament over the line
Parliament has adopted a ‘hybrid’ solution, whereby some members attend in person and the majority tune in remotely, writes Guinevere Poncia
What are the challenges facing House authorities in getting Parliament up and running during this time of national crisis?
Whilst MPs may be subject to the same social distancing measures as the rest of the UK, Parliament has a vital role to play in the coronavirus pandemic. During a time of major social and economic pressure, passing emergency laws, scrutinising the Government and representing constituents is absolutely essential to both the nation’s response and to safeguarding democracy. Facilitating these key roles whilst minimising risk to health has presented a unique challenge for House authorities.
Nevertheless, significant steps have already been taken. Select committees ran remotely over recess, with sessions involving the Lord Chancellor, HMRC and the Victims’ Commissioner to name but a few. Committees’ swift adoption of video technology has demonstrated that virtual scrutiny of the coronavirus response is possible, and the onus is now on the House authorities to implement equivalent approaches for more complex aspects of parliamentary business.
The first taste of the Commons’ plans emerged on 14th April, when Speaker Lindsay Hoyle wrote to MPs confirming plans were in place to enable them to take part in departmental questions, urgent questions and statements remotely by video link when Parliament returns from recess. Once delivery is “judged satisfactory and sustainable”, the House will consider extending the model to debates on motions and legislation.
What challenges does virtual sitting present?
There are innumerable challenges for the House authorities to surmount when developing procedures for a virtual Parliament, ranging from technological difficulties to concerns over how measures will affect the quality of scrutiny.
The primary challenge will be maintaining the health and safety of MPs and parliamentary staff. Both the Commons and the Lords were successfully implementing social distancing in the Chamber prior to recess. PMQs, for example, was conducted in two shifts to allow maximum questioning with minimal contact. It may be possible for Parliament to take advantage of quorum rules to enforce social distancing, as has happened in the German Bundestag. In the Commons the quorum is 40 Members of Parliament, including the Speaker.
Other challenges facing House authorities are technological. Requisite infrastructure, such as a fast and reliable broadband connection, may not be readily available to MPs in remote constituencies. As anyone working from home will have no doubt experienced, remote meetings can be constructive at best, chaotic at worst. Chair of the Treasury Committee Mel Stride was the victim of a tech glitch when questioning officials from HMRC, temporarily vanishing from the meeting for a few minutes and leaving chairing responsibilities to fellow committee member Steve Baker.
Cybersecurity experts have also raised concerns over the vulnerabilities of videoconferencing software such as Zoom. Despite this, every MP will soon be offered a licence for a bespoke version of Zoom, which Parliament licensed in early April. The security of remote voting poses a particular challenge, which was overcome in Brazil by parliamentarians registering a single device with an internal application used for voting.
There are also concerns that virtual sitting may disenfranchise backbench MPs. Catching a few minutes with a minister in a voting lobby is an importance mechanism for backbench MPs to advance their causes. Speaking to PoliticsHome, Robert Halfon spoke about the importance of being able to make “a nuisance of myself” around ministers in voting lobbies for many of his most successful campaigns. If the UK follows the Welsh Assembly format, where spokespeople from each party ask questions to a minister, power will be concentrated in the hands of party whips.
To ally many of these fears, the House authorities will have to make clear that measures are temporary or include an explicit sunset clause identifying a date for renewal or further discussion. This model has already been applied to virtual arrangements for select committees, which are only in place until late June. To ease the process for returning to usual proceedings, Parliament has adopted a ‘hybrid’ solution, whereby some members attend in person and the majority tune in remotely.
What are the next steps?
While the “draft operating model” has been approved by the Speaker, Procedure Committee and House of Commons Commission it is now up to the Government and main Opposition parties to review. It will be up to the leader of the House to put forward motions setting out any temporary arrangements for the House to consider on 21st April. This is likely to mirror the process for virtual select committee meetings, whereby a motion was ‘nodded through’ as no MPs opposed it. In this scenario, a vote would not be required.
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