Proposals for the so-called “virtual parliament” will allow Members of Parliament to question government ministers on their handling of the coronavirus pandemic, while also observing social distancing measures.
However, the proposals only allow for limited parliamentary work to take place and are causing alarm among some that MPs will not be adequately capable of holding the government to account. Boris Johnson’s Conservative government is facing serious criticism over its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The move also comes as trust between the main opposition Labour Party and the Conservatives is particularly low, following four years of bitter divisions over Brexit.
Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle said that the “main aspect of the proposal will allow oral questions (including PMQs), urgent questions and statements to take place at the beginning of each sitting day by video link.”
The proposals will allow MPs to grill ministers on the government’s coronavirus response as the UK enters what most experts agree will be its peak of the crisis, but Parliament will still be far from operating as usual. While it will still be possible for votes (known in the UK as “divisions”) to take place in the House of Commons — the means by which legislation receives Parliamentary approval — these will still be restricted to members sat in the chamber itself.
In a letter to MPs, Hoyle said “I am aware of interest among colleagues in the possibility of using technology to allow Members to participate in divisions without being present on the Estate,” adding that he had asked parliamentary staff “to undertake preparatory work as a matter of urgency on a system of remote voting in divisions of the House.”
The issue of only a handful of MPs being able to vote on government business is concerning some in opposition.
“It’s vital parliament can do its business of questioning the government and holding it to account — especially now,” says Chris Bryant, an influential member of parliament for the Labour Party. “The government should commit to only bringing forward business that has complete agreement from both sides of the House until there is a temporary means of voting remotely.”
This view is shared by a Labour Party source, who told CNN that they “strongly support a fully virtual parliament including the ability to have divisions for the duration of this crisis. This should be delivered as quickly as technologically possible.”
Votes are not the only problem that a physical absence poses to Parliament. Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Select Committee, says “the major issue with not being in Parliament is that a lot of our work is done by bumping into each other and working out small problems informally.”
The move to a virtual parliament in Westminster comes at a time of wider uncertainty about Parliament’s future. The building is in desperate need of repair and modernizing. There are currently plans in place to vacate the estate in order to carry out this work, which would include: replacing heating, water and drainage systems and installing technology. One stark example of how badly the work is needed: part of the refurbishment will include replacing the sewage ejector system, which the Parliamentary website says was “installed in 1888 and is still in use today.”
Other legislative chambers around the world — including the devolved administration in Scotland — have introduced measures allowing lawmakers to carry out their usual work with as little disruption as possible. This varies from agreeing to smaller gatherings of lawmakers in Ireland and Germany to physically distancing despatch boxes in Australia so that politicians can observe social distancing.
However, Westminster is both larger than many of these bodies and more divided. Unlike many European nations, British politicians are not historically good at working across party lines at the highest level, meaning agreements will be harder to reach.
Parliament will return on Monday, where the leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, will lay down the government’s business for the day. Precisely what happens after that — and in the coming weeks — is still up in the air.