It was a Parliamentary first – and it went without a hitch. On Wednesday, viewers and MPs tuned in to the first-ever ‘virtual’ Prime Minister’s Questions.
Voters had an insight into MPs’ spare rooms and art choices – but more importantly, they were represented. It was a rare feat of Parliamentary modernisation, amid the Covid-19 crisis – with the First Secretary of State challenged in front of millions. Both government and opposition should be commended on this: we are finding new ways to keep democracy going in a pandemic.
Unfortunately, the ‘Other Place’ – the unelected House of Lords – has opted for a different approach.
While the Commons will allow MPs to contribute to nearly every Parliamentary procedure remotely – including online voting in the coming weeks – the Lords will continue to hold its votes and legislative stages in person. That puts a hefty strain on the 800-odd peers (average age: 70) and their staff, at a time when no one should feel pressured to come in.
On Wednesday, just five Lords debated the Second Reading of the telecoms infrastructure bill. Out of 800, it’s not a great look.
The Lords’ set-up – of either fully virtual or fully physical proceedings – might work if there was nothing to vote on. But the legislation keeps coming.
But the real problem is this: bizarrely, the virtual Lords proceedings – from select committees to oral questions – will not be broadcast. Voters will have no way of seeing the members swaying their legislation. Despite not being able to vote them in, voters have at least been able to see peers speak up pretty much continuously since 1985.
The Lords cite technical complexities as to why they won’t be screening proceedings live until May 5th. But the Commons managed it.
The unelected chamber will instead only publish transcripts on Hansard hours after debates have taken place – despite the Commons continuing to broadcast its sessions live. (It seems the move is partly down to the odd decision to use the closed system of Microsoft Teams rather than a publicly visible service like Zoom).
Who scrutinises the scrutineers when there’s no one watching?
The question is particularly pertinent when Lords are reportedly lobbying to receive their full £323-a-day expenses – without voters being able to see what they’re doing with it.
This will strike most people as tone-deaf when millions of workers have had to make sacrifices during this crisis.
Voters across the world expect to see the legislators they are paying: it’s a core part of democratic transparency. Whatever the real reasons for opting for closed-off proceedings, this will come across as unelected Lords failing to meet the democratic standards voters expect.
The Commons has shown that broadcasting the mostly-virtual hearings is possible from Day 1. It works – and it shows our democracy can survive under pressure.
Democracy should not be simply done, but seen to be done. Unfortunately, any kind of democracy is lacking in Britain’s out-dated second chamber. The Lords authorities must get to grips with this rapidly.
Sign the ERS’ petition for a genuinely modern second chamber.