Support for a digital House of Commons is growing
The speaker of the House of Commons has backed calls for a “virtual” Parliament to allow MPs to keep on scrutinising the government during the coronavirus outbreak.
Sir Lindsay Hoyle said he was “keen” for members to be able “to participate in key parliamentary proceedings virtually” in a move that opens up the prospect of MPs grilling prime minister Boris Johnson via video link.
And Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg confirmed the government was looking at “every technological solution available”.
Commons committees have already begun to take evidence online, in an unprecedented step that comes after parliament went into recess early to avoid the spread of the virus.
But there have been growing demands from MPs themselves to let them hold ministers to account remotely during the crisis.
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More than 100 MPs have already backed calls led by Labour’s Chi Onwurah for a “digital parliament which, through secure videoconferencing, can maintain our democratic traditions in accordance with social distancing”.
The plans received a major boost on lastweek as Hoyle made clear he would back them, although they will still need the support of ministers and a potential vote on whether MPs want to sanction the change.
In a letter to Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg, the speaker called on the Cabinet minister to “make representations to government” on plans he said had he would “wholeheartedly support”.
Hoyle said: “Once the house returns, if we are still in the grip of the crisis where the physical presence of members, or too many members… is not appropriate, I am keen that they should be able to participate in key parliamentary proceedings virtually, for example, oral questions, urgent questions, statements and PMQs. Of course, the House would have to authorise any changes to such arrangements, via consideration of a motion set down by government, as I cannot do so under my own authority.”
In a sign that the government is actively considering the changes, Rees-Mogg said on Wednesday night: “Parliament’s role of scrutinising government, authorising spending and making laws must be fulfilled and in these unprecedented times that means considering every technological solution available. We are exploring options with the parliamentary authorities in readiness for parliament’s return.”
The Commons speaker has already asked parliamentary officials to investigate the technology that could be used to allow MPs to take part in proceedings virtually.
Select committees have been using Microsoft Teams and Skype to communicate, and Hoyle has vowed to set up a new working group after the Covid-19 crisis to take on board fresh innovations “to make us more robust in the future”.
In his letter to Rees-Mogg, the speaker meanwhile warned that MPs were being “swamped” with questions and casework “from distressed constituents who need answers”, and said responses “cannot wait for the House to sit again.”
In a bid to ease the pressure on MPs, the speaker is pitching a “forum for MPs, perhaps via select committee chairs” to grill government ministers “at set times, perhaps different departments on different days, about how things work and how they can be improved”.
And he vowed to push for changes to rules that currently stop questions to the government being answered during a recess – meaning MPs’ queries will have to wait until 21 April when the House is expected to return from the extended break.
“I am committed to improving this situation if there were to be a recall to extend the end of recess or otherwise limit future sittings during this crisis,” he said.
Rees-Mogg has also been asked to let the Commons authorities know “as early as feasibly possible” whether the House will sit again on 21 April “or whether the recess will be extended”.
Hoyle said: “Knowledge of this timeframe will greatly assist the house service in workforce planning and the delivery of any technical solutions which are deemed appropriate.”