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Sun, 27 September 2020

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Virtual adjournment debates should be added to the innovations of the democratic revolution

Virtual adjournment debates should be added to the innovations of the democratic revolution

Seven hundred years of Parliamentary democracy took a giant leap into the digital age when Parliament resumed in a hybrid virtual form, says Harriett Baldwin MP. | Credit: ©UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

3 min read

As the teething problems and technical glitches are ironed out, socially distant and virtual adjournment debates should be added to the innovations of the democratic revolution.

Did you spot the democratic revolution in the UK this week? Seven hundred years of Parliamentary democracy took a giant leap into the digital age when Parliament resumed in a hybrid virtual form.

Select Committees have been meeting throughout Easter recess on Zoom. They aren’t perfect, as my internet wobbled during a Treasury Committee session and we also had a power cut but they were important in helping MPs scrutinise HMRC, the banks and insurers.

Thanks to a huge amount of work by Mr. Speaker, House staff, House of Commons Commission and the Leader of the House we managed to return for the Easter recess while still allowing MPs to work from home or to be socially distant.

There were glitches. David Mundell’s connection from Tweeddale didn’t work. Kevin Brennan dropped out during Welsh Questions. And Lucy Powell was only partly audible from Manchester Central but on the whole it was pretty impressive.

In the Chamber itself, ancient rituals from our constitution - the mace, the Serjeant At Arms’ sword and the doorkeepers’ fine outfits jar glaringly with yellow and black danger tapes and hastily built barriers.

So we are back in Parliament and there is some scope for scrutinising the Government. But I hope we can go further faster. In particular, I had an adjournment debate this week planned about flood defences for Tenbury Wells. However, with the House sitting for only two hours, there was no time for it this week.

Adjournment debates are a useful tool for backbenchers to obtain a focused debate on a constituency issue and they take place at the end of each sitting day. They are usually very sparsely attended, with a Minister, Shadow Minister a speaker in the Chair, a clerk and often Jim Shannon, the member for Strangford, the most assiduous participant in Parliament.

It would be relatively easy to append these to each day’s session again. As the teething problems and technical glitches are ironed out, socially distant and virtual adjournment debates should be added to the innovations of the democratic revolution.

The real test of the new system will be voting. Voting on legislation and voting on new Select Committee chairs will be done remotely, and while the existing system is not perfect, the voting system will have to be to give all MPs confidence that we can vote from home too.

 

Harriett Baldwin is Conservative MP for West Worcestershire and Chair of the British Group of the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

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Connecting Communities is an initiative aimed at empowering and strengthening community ties across the UK. Launched in partnership with The National Lottery, it aims to promote dialogue and support Parliamentarians working to nurture a more connected society.

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