What are ministers afraid of? Why shutting down the virtual Parliament is blinkered and wrong

Josiah Mortimer, former Head of Communications

Posted on the 20th May 2020

Over the past week, we’ve seen a glimpse of why Ministers are so keen to end the ‘virtual Parliament’ procedures.

Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg recently announced that MPs must return next month – despite being able to vote, legislate and contribute to debates from home. He told the Commons it was to ‘set an example’ to the rest of the country – to go to work.

But the Financial Times was among several outlets reporting a different reason for the move:

“Senior Conservatives have called for all MPs to be allowed to return to the House of Commons, as they become concerned Boris Johnson is struggling in the deserted chamber in his encounters with new Labour leader Keir Starmer.”

Over the past month, MPs have shown that they can work from home. 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.

With some legislation featuring dozens of amendments, that’s a lot more time for MPs to spend standing up for their constituents, scrutinising legislation and dealing with case work.

The Commons leader insists social distancing will be maintained when virtual proceedings end. But here’s the thing: MPs can already turn up the Commons under the ‘hybrid’ arrangements.

All that ending the ability to vote and speak remotely would do is reduce the number of MPs able to contribute – potentially quite dramatically.

Parliament has shown that it can rapidly innovate in a health crisis. And though not perfect, the Commons authorities (unlike the Lords) have impressed everyone in how smoothly the virtual contributions have gone.

If the reason for shutting down the virtual proceedings is because there’s not enough cheering and jeering behind the PM, this is a travesty.

We should be learning from how Parliament has adapted during this crisis, not stymieing any innovation.

So rather than packing hundreds of people into narrow voting lobbies, the government should keep these ‘hybrid’ proceedings going for the duration of the pandemic – and learn from it.

The Procedure Committee is currently consulting on how the virtual proceedings have been going. The Commons leader should work with them, not against them.

MPs who are ill, pregnant or based hundreds of miles from Westminster should not be cast aside by a rushed return to ‘business as usual’.

Today – fittingly the day of PMQs – opposition parties will attempt to oppose the move to end virtual proceedings.

We have to keep learning 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 great shame for Parliament if ministers shut down a good thing – simply because they were afraid it was working too well.

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