When the ‘virtual Parliament’ was launched at the end of April, the UK was witnessing around 5,000 new coronavirus cases a day.
The first wave subsided. But now, we are seeing over 15,000 new cases a day. Northern Ireland is in a national lockdown and Wales is joining it. Meanwhile, Westminster has around 1,700 active Covid cases, according to 16th October figures.
Parliament itself has sadly had a significant number of coronavirus cases – some very serious indeed.
Sadly, the government ended fully ‘hybrid’ proceedings in June, with MPs no longer being able to participate and vote remotely on equal terms with MPs present.
The ERS called for the government to rethink ending virtual proceedings so early. But the government insisted that MPs must attend in-person to send a message to voters.
Now, voters are being asked to work from home if they can. But MPs and their staff risk being pushed to attend, even when travelling to and from high-risk areas.
Now the Speaker of the House of Commons, and senior figures across parties, are calling for the return of virtual proceedings, as coronavirus cases in the UK continue to climb.
MPs cannot currently take part in legislative stages or debates remotely. Yet only 50 MPs are being allowed in the Commons chamber. Meanwhile, MPs continue to vote in person, or must self-certify that they are unable to attend due to health reasons to obtain a proxy vote.
While some MPs can take part in some proceedings remotely (oral questions, urgent questions and ministerial statements), that only covers MPs who have self-certified as being unable to attend Westminster for medical/public health reasons related to the pandemic
The ERS has previously led calls for the continuation of virtual proceedings, contributing to a partial government u-turn in June.
Parliament has a duty to safeguard staff as well as voters’ representatives. A super-spreader event in the Palace of Westminster would be incredibly damaging not just for health but for public trust too.
With London now a high-risk area, Parliament must respond swiftly and efficiently – ensuring all MPs can fully participate before they risk being locked out.
The power to switch to virtual proceedings rests with the government. In future, there’s a strong case that this should be transferred to a cross-party Speaker’s commission to ensure the power is not used with partisan interests in mind. With different nations facing different restrictions, refusing to allow remote participation could hit some areas’ representation harder than others.
Remote voting was working well before the government shut it down. Reinstating this would be a good start at ensuring everyone’s voice is heard in Parliament – not just those with MPs who feel able to travel in.
It’s clear that the government must work with the Speaker and backbenchers. MPs and staff are rightly concerned about the risks of being shut out of participation by the pandemic – and voters deserve to know they’ll be represented in the Commons.
Read the ERS’ briefing on virtual proceedings.