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Tue, 4 August 2020

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I would happily trade the cut and thrust of the chamber for a better, more respectful hybrid parliament

I would happily trade the cut and thrust of the chamber for a better, more respectful hybrid parliament

While there will be times in future when being in Westminster may be the sensible option, it makes no sense now, says Owen Thompson MP | Credit: PA Images

4 min read

The architecture of politics cannot stay in a time warp, it has to adapt to reflect modern life. The hybrid proceedings prove this can be done in a way that augments the traditions rather than detracts from them.

History has been made in parliament with the first ever remote division taking place this month.

Without a hefty shove from coronavirus I suspect the Palace may never have moved on from a physical head-counting system.

Many members, sticklers for tradition as they are, see nothing wrong with dragging people from their sick beds to be on the estate for a division. They don’t mind wasting hours of precious debating time hanging about in lobbies to vote, when a simple press of a button would do.

That’s just how things are done down here, no matter how baffling it seems to the outside world.  

Necessity is the mother of invention and it took a global catastrophe to introduce a remote voting system, brought in with uncharacteristic pace for this place, in just four weeks.

Those software engineers, clerks and House staff did a marvellous job and deserve our thanks and gratitude for keeping democracy moving.   

Despite appearances, Westminster is not just a museum for foosty Etonians.

The architecture of politics cannot stay in a time warp, it has to adapt to reflect modern life. The hybrid proceedings prove this can be done in a way that augments the traditions rather than detracts from them.

Contrary to the sneers of some traditionalists, I have never been busier. It works well.  

Remote voting successfully mimics the lobby divisions, providing a fast and simple online alternative.

MPs speaking from screens in the chamber both blend and contrast with those on the famous green benches, linked but visually disparate.

MPs seem less removed from everyday life in their home environment - it sends a piece of the parliament out to communities across these isles. It also cuts the waste of travel costs and increases time for constituency-based work. 

Contrary to the sneers of some traditionalists, I have never been busier. It works well.  

Sadly, there are members who are keen to return to the old ways with the same rapidity as the new system appeared. Some have tried to undermine the security of the new voting system, claiming anyone could vote, despite needing a password and multi-factor authentication.

You wouldn’t hand your online banking over to a stranger when it was logged in, so why would anyone look to do this with their Parliamentary log in after all. 

The Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle must be praised for the manner and speed at which he instigated hybrid proceedings. It ensured safety for all those participating in the Parliamentary estate, members and staff alike, during this coronavirus crisis which is far from over.

While there will be times in future when being in Westminster may be the sensible option, it makes no sense now.

Social distancing remains critical and it means only 50 of 650 MPs can attend in the chamber at one time.

If there was a sudden move to significantly more members physically attending Parliament, I would argue that the opportunities to participate would be significantly reduced as compared to our current hybrid model.  

Even with the change of advice from the PM, the message from him remains to work from home if you can, and MP’s can. 

We all have a responsibility to ensure people who need to travel by public transport can do so safely, which in the tube means only 15% of normal capacity.

This will take time to sort and given the climate change emergency encouraging more use of cars to go to work is not the 'new normal’ we want to build. 

I would expect MPs in Scotland to continue to follow the clear Scottish Government advice to work from home and avoid all non-essential journeys - flaunting the rules would be irresponsible and put lives at risk. I’m more than 400 miles away and have one of the easier journeys - for those that have to fly it’s impossible to do so safely.  

In the longer term, having flexibility to be in the constituency when required and still take part in proceedings has huge advantages.

We should not go backwards and drop this useful new technological tool.

It may make me more remote to London but I am far less remote to those I represent, and that’s more important.

It is true that the hybrid debates lose something from the lack of interventions, but they also gain from the lack of bear-pit baying that so often prevents good points being heard.

The political theatre may be less dramatic but I would happily trade the cut and thrust of the chamber for a better, more respectful democracy. 

Owen Thompson is SNP MP for Midlothian

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