Parliament’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has identified the need for sweeping changes in how Westminster operates to protect MPs and staff from the spread of the virus.
The practicalities of squeezing 650 men and women into a small chamber in close proximity to each other is no longer viable if Parliamentary authorities are to protect Westminster’s occupants from infection.
We’ve already seen visitor access to the Palace of Westminster halted, with only passholders and those on essential parliamentary business allowed to enter.
Whilst so far these alterations have been largely operational – now radical changes to the way democracy operates in parliament may be next to reduce the risk of the virus spreading.
In a memo to the House of Commons procedure committee this week, the clerk of the House, John Benger, set out a number of options for reducing the need for MPs and parliamentary staff to visit the chamber.
Rules requiring at least 40 MPs to be present for a vote to be valid could be set aside, and whips could vote on behalf of their entire party, under a series of options under consideration.
Though reducing the risk to those in Westminster is paramount, in the midst of a public health crisis there are norms that can be overlooked; rules bent and boundaries stretched in order to respond to the reality that is unfolding. But whilst a rapid response is important, the consequences of a shift in the balance of power in Westminster could have grave consequences for scrutiny and accountability.
Although the need to protect MPs, parliamentary staffers and the public from the risk of infection in Parliament is key, removing not only the voices of MPs in the chamber or their numbers in voting lobbies could reduce the opportunity for parliamentarians to hold the government and their response to the outbreak to account.
At a time of national crisis, the need for scrutiny increases not diminishes as the government of the day rush to respond to the ever-changing circumstances as they unfold.
Rather than handing all the power to the party whips, this should be an opportunity for Parliament to modernise and introduce remote voting – with MPs feeding in their views electronically or directly to the clerks.
This simple system utilising electronic voting technology already commonly found in university seminars, conferences and parliaments around the world would allow MPs to give the government’s actions the scrutiny they need whilst removing the need for them to physically take part in votes in the chamber.
We must ensure that proper debate continues in parliament throughout this crisis – giving elected representatives the space to stand up for the people they represent is vital, even if their physical presence cannot be maintained.
The technology is there to make sure voting continues remotely for those who can’t attend, committees can also make the best use of these platforms and parliament can continue to function in a way that doesn’t give a handful of whips all the power.
Westminster’s set-up is already one of the most centralised, undemocratic systems among advanced democracies: this crisis must not further entrench that. Removing the voice of MPs from the debates on how we move forward to tackle this pandemic sets a dangerous precedent for future crises.
Cooperation and scrutiny go hand in hand. The opposition are (rightly) working with the government on a way forward. Without proper scrutiny of these incredibly life-changing decisions, we risk plunging into ill-considered choices.
The delay to the local elections means there’s an 18-month gap between December’s election and a proper test of the government’s mandate. That means proper checks and balances should be bolstered, not torn down.
This paired with the stripping back of news and politics coverage means the chance for the public themselves to remain informed and engaged in key debates and decisions as they take place – we cannot let scrutiny drop off a cliff.
The practices in parliament are already notoriously archaic and out of date. To respond appropriately to the unfolding crisis requires modern ways of doing things – and for Westminster to make use of the technology available in the modern world.
Now there is a very real need to do this.
The government should take this opportunity to enhance scrutiny and proper debate in Westminster rather than clawing back power and silencing voices of MPs at the exact moment we need them most.