New pandemic, new politics? Parliament must be innovative when it returns after recess

Josiah Mortimer, former Head of Communications

Posted on the 14th April 2020

Next Tuesday, MPs and Peers return to Parliament. In theory, at least.

Given the dangers of parliamentarians coming together in large numbers, calls have been growing for a ‘virtual Parliament’ – backed by over 100 MPs, the ERS, and others.  That would involve as much parliamentary work taking place online as possible.

We’ve already seen Select Committees hold remote meetings during recess, a welcome development given the number and scale of decisions being made all the time by government during this crisis. A virtual Parliament would move Parliamentary debates, questions to ministers, and possibly voting online too.

As things stand, the House of Commons will sit – as normal – next Tuesday. As has been noted, for the Commons to adopt ‘virtual sitting’ a motion to that effect will need to be approved by the House when it returns.

The Speaker has backed the proposals – and now Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg has too. In a letter to Keir Starmer, Mr Rees-Mogg said: “In these unprecedented times, technological solutions have already been implemented for select committees and options are being prepared for the Speaker, the government and other parties to consider next week.

“It is important that we have a comprehensive solution that does not inadvertently exclude any members.”

But what might these democratic solutions look like?

The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA) has just published a toolkit for parliaments, on ‘delivering parliamentary democracy’ amid the crisis.

The report points to some excellent ways parliaments around the world have been responding to the crisis, noting that the Norwegian and New Zealand Parliaments have set up dedicated coronavirus select committees given the enormous life-changing decisions being made each day by their governments.

In Brazil, Parliamentarians and parliamentary staff are able to to work remotely during the current global health emergency using video-conferencing and virtual management tools. “The system allows Members of Parliament to register to a session and shows all phases of the legislative process including the bill under discussion, amendments, the results of each voting round, speeches, and committee agendas. The first remote plenary session took place on 20 March 2020 and was livecast to the public through the Parliament’s media and digital platforms,” the report notes.

Parliaments should look at ways for legislators to vote electronically, verbally via video-conference or via special e-voting software, the CPA argue.

They note that ‘emergency powers mean Parliament should sit’ – adding weight to recent calls for an early ‘recall’ of Parliament in the UK.

The authors make some powerful points on the scope of government powers that Parliaments must hold in check: “In the absence of robust scrutiny during the passage of Emergency Legislation, it is even more important during this period for Parliamentarians to identify any unintended effects of emergency measures and to suggest changes where necessary.”

But it is also a time to work together in the national interest: “It is crucial that Emergency Legislation does not continue indefinitely and beyond necessary. In times of emergency such as a global pandemic, party-politics should be put aside as far as possible.”

There is no doubt that the urgency of the crisis means all parts of our democracy must move quickly:  “Many of the changes required to maintain the operation of the Parliament will also have to be decided through informal cooperation and political agreement.”

That is certainly the case in the UK, where virtual parliament arrangements will need the consent of the opposition to avoid being forced to a vote. Many in government and opposition have so far expressed broad agreement on the principles for a virtual Parliament – a good sign.

From debates over personal protective equipment, business support and testing, the need for proper scrutiny during this crisis has been very clear. Whilst it is vital that parliament puts the health and safety of MPs and staff first by responding to the needs of MPs to self-isolate, it is also necessary for them provide a way for them to continue legislative work remotely.

As parliamentary authorities prepare ‘virtual Parliament’ options this week, all sides will be learning from best practice across the world. They can also help lead the way in ensuring an innovative democratic response: to help our representatives ask the questions that need answering – and to ensure voters everywhere are heard.

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