Government accused of ‘blinkered and partisan’ decision to shut down virtual proceedings

Posted on the 20th May 2020

  • Statement from the Electoral Reform Society for immediate release, Wednesday 20th May, 2020.

Democracy experts have issued a fresh challenge to the government’s decision to shut down virtual contributions to the Commons after recess. 

It comes ahead of an urgent question in Parliament after PMQs today [1], with opposition parties rejecting the move to guillotine the ‘virtual Parliament’. When MPs return after recess, they will no longer be able to vote or speak remotely.

The Electoral Reform Society is concerned that numbers able to contribute will plummet if virtual contributions are banned – as Parliamentary authorities rightly want to keep numbers in the chamber limited.

The ERS is also warning that MPs from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland may be effectively ‘locked out’ if advice remains to ‘stay at home’ in those nations [2].

Virtual proceedings should continue until the Procedures Committee has conducted its review, and lockdown rules ease further – with scope to continue aspects which work well after the pandemic, according to the ERS.

Darren Hughes, Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society, said:

“What are ministers afraid of? Shutting down the virtual Parliament to get more MPs cheering the PM on is blinkered and partisan.

“Opposition parties are right to ask the government to think again before guillotining these virtual proceedings. Over the past month, MPs have shown that they can work from home, while the ability to attend remains there for those who can.

“In fact, it can be even more effective than working from Parliament in some ways – voting times have been cut down from up to an hour with social distancing measures, to just 15 minutes.

“We have to keep learning from these innovations as we come out of the pandemic, so we can build a stronger, more effective parliament that reflects the diversity of the whole UK.

“It would be a travesty if ministers shut down a good thing – simply because they were afraid it was working too well.”


Notes to Editors

[1] Politico reports today: “Lib Dem Alistair Carmichael, who represents the U.K.’s most far-flung communities on the Scottish islands of Orkney and Shetland, has been granted an urgent question at 12.30 p.m. to protest Rees-Mogg’s decision, and will be backed up by angry Labour and SNP MPs. The Commons goes into recess this evening and will return on June 2, by which time the rules allowing virtual debates and votes will have lapsed.

How it’s going to work: Opposition MPs say the return to physical debates is unfair as it will prevent those MPs unable to access the chamber from taking part. Some also fear socially distanced voting in the crowded lobbies will prove impossible. Tory sources however say they need MPs in Westminster to get government business done. At a meeting of the House of Commons commission yesterday Rees-Mogg agreed that MPs’ and Commons staff can continue to work remotely, but insisted members themselves will have to travel to Westminster if they wish to take part in debates or votes. A Whitehall source claims Rees-Mogg also tried to convince Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle to increase the number of MPs allowed in the socially distanced chamber to more than 50, but was told this would not comply with Public Health England advice.


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