The shape of a virtual parliament to come?
On Wednesday, 22 April 2020 an historic event occurred. The House of Commons conducted the very first PMQs via video link. Like many of their constituents during the coronavirus lockdown, the MPs had embraced the virtual age.
Huge videoscreens appeared in the commons chamber so that MPs working remotely from home could look down on the real-life MPs scattered about the benches like individual islands in order to maintain social distancing.
The speaker orchestrated the proceedings by calling for each MP, whether real or virtual, to speak in turn and the business seemed to proceed smoothly with only a few technical glitches (much to everyone’s relief!).
This new way of working was made possible, not only by the wonders of technology, but also by the use of parliamentary procedure. On the day before PMQs, MPs approved a motion without a vote to allow them to participate in questions and ministerial statements either virtually or with a maximum of 50 MPs physically present in the commons chamber at any one time to comply with strict social distancing guidelines. The number of MPs able to take part remotely was fixed at 120 and this mixture of real and virtual presence known as ‘hybrid proceedings’ will constitute the first two hours of each sitting.
Members are required to notify the house service in advance during hybrid proceedings so that a list of participants in planned sequence and the text of questions can be published in advance. This is intended to ensure that the switch between real and remote can be achieved without disruption.
Although hybrid proceedings are designed to cover initially only questions, urgent questions and ministerial statements with the rest of commons business remaining physical, there is the possibility of extending them to cover other business including legislation. This will require further consideration by MPs as to how this will work to enable effective scrutiny of bills.
Meanwhile, the European Statutory Instruments Committee (ESIC) set up by the house of commons has decided to conduct its business via virtual working. The purpose of the ESIC is to ‘sift’ the statutory instruments proposed by ministers under the terms of the EU (withdrawal) Act 2018 to deal with any deficiencies in retained EU law which may arise from the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.
The ESIC’s new working arrangements are designed to enable it to continue to fulfil its statutory role throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. The committee has 10 parliamentary sitting days in which to consider proposed negative instruments laid by the government and they have agreed that they will continue to meet virtually as and when new instruments are laid. Andrew Jones MP, chair of the ESIC said:
‘These new arrangements will allow the Committee to continue to meet virtually and carry out its vital scrutiny work’.
It remains to be seen if the hybrid proceedings and virtual committee will prove popular with MPs. It is currently unclear as to whether or not the new way of conducting business will enable proper scrutiny. The nearly empty commons chamber at the initial virtual PMQs made these hybrid proceedings rather dull and lacking in the usual energy of live debate. However, the ability to reduce the number of actual attendees while continuing to conduct parliamentary business remotely could have huge potential for the future, especially in view of the imminent need to shut down the houses of parliament for repair works.
If the Parliamentary Digital Service can solve the technical problems of bringing voting into the Virtual Age, then it is possible that the total number of MPs may never return to sit together again. Is this truly the shape of Parliamentary things to come?