Just as the virtual Commons finds its feet, the government seem to be kicking it down again.
Ministers have announced they want to end ‘virtual’ proceedings in the Commons after recess.
For the past month or so, MPs have been holding debates, Prime Minister’s Questions, Select Committee hearings, and much more using video-link. And as of this week, they’ve been voting remotely too, using an online portal.
But the government wants to force all MPs (and presumably, their staff) back to the narrow corridors of Westminster after the May recess. There are around 9,000 people who could be in Parliament amid a pandemic.
The problem is: if advice to ‘stay at home’ remains in place in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland (as it does currently), shutting down virtual proceedings could lock out every nation except England.
Do we really want to risk becoming an England-only Parliament?
As we’ve warned in the Independent today, this is a real threat to political equality and the principles of parliamentary democracy.
MPs and their teams have shown they are able to work well from home. There should be no rush to scupper the successful innovations we’ve seen, which have cut down previously socially-distanced lobby voting from taking up to an hour, to just 15 minutes.
Figures from across the nations have expressed support for maintaining the ‘hybrid’ proceedings until the pandemic is over – and potentially beyond.
Closing off the benefits of online participation unnecessarily will weaken parliamentary scrutiny, not strengthen it.
Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg says Parliament should ‘set an example’ by returning – but Parliament has already set an excellent example to businesses and institutions across the world: showing how much is possible with flexible working. Commons clerks have been giving advice to other nations on ‘how to do it’.
The Commons leader makes a passionate case for the role of Parliament in normal times. But as the government has gone to some pains to tell us, these are not normal times.
Earlier this week, Speaker Lindsay Hoyle challenged Jacob Rees-Mogg, making it clear MPs and staff should not be forced to return until it’s properly safe and right to do so. The government must not ride roughshod over these concerns.
A Procedures Committee inquiry into the virtual Parliament is ongoing, and could offer positive lessons on what has worked well.
It’s already clear that Parliament can modernise in a crisis – and do it well, too. Some of the changes may be worth keeping.
Let’s not throw all this progress away just as it bears fruit.