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The virtual Parliament is no longer necessary. We can do so much better

5 min read

Westminster has been the seat of our democracy for centuries. It will take more than the coronavirus to change that.

As Members of Parliament we have all been deeply impressed by the dedication of critical workers in our constituency. Those in essential roles have carried out their vital work with an understated, dogged determination. There has been a cheering display of British resolution and fortitude in these difficult times.

Parliament has played its part in tackling the coronavirus, too, by passing the necessary emergency legislation and conducting scrutiny. MPs have sought to support their constituents by communicating their problems to ministers, who I know have taken the issues raised extremely seriously. It has all been part of a national effort to help the government’s extraordinary interventions run smoothly. All those who have contributed to this work have made a real difference. The country’s parliamentary democracy has not been defeated by the pandemic.

None of this would have been possible without the work of Mr Speaker and the House staff. The hybrid proceedings they have created have made history. Parliament’s digital and broadcasting teams performed superbly, while MPs’ staff have continued their important work from home. The support staff of the House, some of whom have had to travel to work throughout - from doorkeepers and cleaners to caterers and police - have been critical to making this collective achievement possible.

One of the advantages of the return to physical proceedings is that the total numbers on the estate will not increase significantly. MPs’ staff will continue to work from home, while numbers will remain limited in the chamber itself so that its atmosphere remains muted for the time being. What is going to change is the quality of scrutiny. The virtual Parliament brought us through the peak of the pandemic but it is no longer necessary to make the compromises it demanded. We can do so much better.

It comes down to the quality of communication between MPs and ministers. Politics is better done face-to-face, even if the whites of the ministerial eyes are six feet away. In the chamber frontbenchers will have to keep on their toes as interventions are once again made possible. This exceptional aspect of British democracy, curtailed under the hybrid halfway house, can once again flourish.

With MPs present in Westminster, rather than scattered hither and thither, voters’ interests will be better represented

Out of the chamber, too, MPs will be able to come together - at the right social distance - to represent shared problems faced by those in multiple constituencies. This is what Edmund Burke meant when he wrote that parliament should be a “deliberative assembly of one nation” rather than a “congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests”. Cross-party work is often under-reported but is an important part of our system. With MPs present in Westminster, rather than scattered hither and thither, voters’ interests will be better represented.

The voices of local MPs will also greatly matter in shaping the government’s legislative agenda. It has only been five months since this parliament first gathered to hear the newly elected government unveil its programme of 36 bills. The return to physical proceedings means we can properly resume parliament’s essential constitutional function of delivering on that mandate, passing the laws needed to help us invest in and level up every part of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Compared to the virtual parliament, the amount of time the House spends debating this primary legislation will increase by two-thirds. The resulting laws will be greatly improved as a result.

All these reasons explain why it is so important that we shift back to physical proceedings but I understand and have heard from many MPs with concerns about the change. For those MPs with underlying health conditions who have been told to shield or are receiving specific government advice about their health, the Government is working with the House authorities to see how they can continue to contribute to proceedings within the House. This situation will remain under review while the views of others, including the Procedure Committee, will be sought.

While the Commons will become much more effective after Whitsun, it will not be returning to its normal hustle and bustle. Those returning to Westminster for the first time in two months will be in for a surprise. The Palace has changed considerably, thanks to parliamentary officials’ thoroughness in ensuring the Commons adheres to public health advice. Social distancing is practised rigorously. The division lobbies are being replaced by a more appropriate alternative devised by the Speaker. Risk assessments are being conducted and the parliamentary estate will be Covid-19 secure.

The thoroughness of this preparatory work illustrates once again the diligence of the nation’s own critical workers. Parliament now needs to honour their work and serve the public by showing the same diligence and going back to work in ways which follow government advice carefully.

Westminster has been the seat of our democracy for centuries. It will take more than the coronavirus to change that.

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