This crisis should be the catalyst for a giant leap forward for digital democracy
Many MPs and Peers will not be able to attend their respective chambers - but they should not be prevented from carrying out their duties.
Something extraordinary happened in Parliament this week. The House of Commons affirmed on Tuesday 24 March – with significant impetus from the Speaker – to allow committee proceedings to take place on a virtual basis. Instead of having to meet in a committee room to make decisions, agree to publication of evidence and assent to inquiries, Commons select committees are now able to do this using teleconferencing or via online video.
Our Education Committee was quick off the mark, having the first ‘virtual’ private session in history early on the Wednesday morning, where we agreed on a number of procedural matters, alongside three future inquiries. The first one being the effect of the Coronavirus on Education; the second, and closely interlinked, on those cohorts left behind in the education system, starting off with white working class pupils, and the third, on adult education and skills – which will have even more important once coronavirus has been defeated.
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.
A principle and precedent has been set that parliamentary business can be done online, away from the chamber or committee rooms. It may have occurred because of coronavirus but once the very traditional and procedural genie is out of the Erskine May lamp, it may be hard to put back in.
I am not a radical revolutionary in these matters; I came to Parliament as a ten-year-old boy and decided to be an MP that day. I am wary of the restoration and renewal programme, as I fear if we leave the Palace of Westminster, we will never be back and that costs to the taxpayer will overrun to unacceptable amounts.
Surely though, it is time that Parliament should change what is necessary in order to conserve what is best about our democracy.
If committees can now make decisions online, why not experiment during this emergency and move the two chambers to the internet, also? We would be able to not only watch debates, but ask questions and make speeches via Skype or Zoom, and move through ‘virtual’ 3D division lobbies to vote.
There will be those who say that there is a problem with security and technology. Yet, if we can use banking apps on our phones and have face recognition on our computers, it can’t be beyond the wit of techno-wizards to develop pin numbers or finger recognition for parliamentarians to vote via their mobiles or laptops.
I accept the primary advantage of walking through the voting lobbies is that they are a place for meeting with colleagues, getting petitions and motions signed and, perhaps most importantly of all, lobbying a minister. The work done on achieving a fuel duty freeze would not have happened without pestering poor ministers and backbenchers in the lobby.
For this reason, I am not advocating no votes in the division lobbies, nor even a complete move to online voting, but just some of them, especially during this outbreak. It does no harm at least to try these things, see if they work and whether or not Parliament is made more efficient and accessible at this time.
Coronavirus is a national emergency. Many MPs and Peers will not be able to attend their respective chambers for one reason or another. They may be one of the 1.5 million identified at more risk, they may have the virus, they may be required to look after a relative or self-isolate.
These parliamentarians should not be stopped from carrying out their parliamentary duties because of the current demand that everyone has to be in large rooms in order to ask questions, debate or vote. They should be able to take part and perform their role as legislators.
As the great Sir Nicholas Winton of the Kindertransport once said, “If it is not impossible, there must be a way to do it”.
Robert Halfon is Conservative MP for Harlow and chair of the Education Committee.