We need to think right now about what the Commons should look like after the pandemic is over
Commons Chamber pre-Covid | PA Images
Parliament must review the best innovations offered by the latest technologies – or it risks a blind return to the old ways
The idle, easy going side of my character overwhelmed my principled self last week, when I finally surrendered the last vestiges of my independence as a tireless scrutineer of Her Majesty’s Government. I gave my vote away to the Tory Deputy Chief Whip to add to the reportedly 250 other proxies he has collected unto himself.
It’s all wrong. But the options are: go against the Speaker’s advice and attend Parliament in person and then do nothing but sit in one’s office dealing with emails, and trip merrily down to the socially distanced (not) voting lobbies once or twice a day to carry out the whips’ bidding; or to hand that most valuable Parliamentary asset, one’s vote, over to the whips. What happened to electronic voting? It worked perfectly well, and at least it kept us involved with debates. The proxy system has removed that last degree of engagement.
In the key Genocide / Uighur vote on Tuesday, I am glad to report that the Deputy Chief Whip cast my vote against the Government, despite the closeness of the arithmetic.
But when the margins are tight, who could blame the whip for getting in a muddle and casting my vote with the Government by mistake? “Awfully sorry, old boy. Just an admin error. Won’t happen again.”
What happened to electronic voting? It worked perfectly well – and at least it kept us involved with debates
The reality is that with Westminster Hall and Private Members’ Fridays now cancelled; with one’s contributions to debates, statements or question times allocated by secret ballot; with speaking times limited very often to two or three minutes; with backbench business debates ill-attended and largely irrelevant; and now having surrendered even that sacred vote; with all of that happening, you might well start to wonder, “What’s the point in being an MP? What’s the point in Parliament? Are we really holding the Government to account, campaigning for our constituents or accepting collective responsibility for running Britain?”
I fear that the answer may well be: no. Is it not the case that – quite possibly for the best possible reasons – backbenchers are becoming increasingly disengaged from Parliament? Would a wholly virtual Parliament (including electronic voting), not give MPs more engagement and anyhow be easier to reform once the pandemic is over?
Now is the moment when we should be turning our attention to what kind of Commons we want to see when that glorious day comes. Should proxy voting be extended for all sorts of reasons beyond new parenthood which was the only justification before lockdown; should remote participation in debates become the norm; are speakers’ lists so convenient for busy MPs trying to plan their days, that that trumps the consequences for proper Parliamentary debate?
Then there are wider questions we should perhaps be turning our attention to. How should the Parliamentary day be arranged? How do we restore the highest traditions of Parliamentary debating? What’s the role of Urgent Questions; how about time limits on speeches? Should there be a House Business Committee? What role for Backbench Business Committee, petitions, opposition days? All of this needs discussing and deciding. And the time to do so is: now. Once the pandemic is all over it will be too late and we will risk either a blind return to the old ways (ignoring some of the best innovations offered by the latest technologies), or worse, a sclerotic continuation of some of the innovations brought to our procedures and practices by Covid.
So I hope that the Speaker, the Commons Commission, and the Procedure Committee will commission some urgent work on what we would like Parliament to look like when the crisis eases. Let’s decide what we want, what is best for Parliamentary scrutiny and legislation. Otherwise we risk just stumbling into it.
James Gray is Conservative MP for North Wiltshire
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.