Why the government’s rationale for closing the ‘Virtual Parliament’ doesn’t add up

Josiah Mortimer, former Head of Communications

Posted on the 21st May 2020

Despite the best efforts of a cross-party coalition of MPs to stop the ‘shutdown’, Wednesday marked the end of the successful Virtual Parliament proceedings in the Commons.

It means that from June 2nd (after recess), all 650 MPs will all have to travel in if they are to debate and vote on legislation.

Justifying the decision, Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg told MPs: “Each and every one of 36 bills put forward in Queen’s Speech deserves a proper level of scrutiny.”

It was misleading for a few reasons.

Firstly, if social distancing is maintained, only 50 or so MPs will be allowed in the chamber after recess. That means the number of MPs able to engage and stand up for voters has just been cut off in one fell swoop, by ending remote contributions.

Secondly, scrapping remote voting will also mean less time for actual debate. The past couple of weeks have seen remote voting start to really bear fruit. It takes just 15 minutes for MPs to vote online – versus up to an hour per division with social distancing. That’s 650 MPs packing the narrow Westminster corridors for far longer than they would otherwise.

And thirdly, while the government claims the decision is to boost ‘scrutiny’, this announcement came on the same day that No 10 installed their preferred choice for the chair of the only committee the Prime Minister is obliged to appear before: the Liaison Committee of select committee chairs.

Previously the chair of this committee was already a select committee chair – elected by all MPs. Ministers have overridden this principle to pick their preferred scrutineer. That is never a healthy situation for democracy – however noble the politician.

Instead of shutting down the option for remote contributions, a compromise would have been to have a genuinely ‘hybrid’ system – letting MPs who wish to vote remotely do so, as well as giving time for a certain proportion of contributions to come from outside the chamber by video-link.

As is stands, MPs from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland fear being effectively locked out – having to travel hundreds of miles (often on public transport) to attend Parliament – potentially in breach of those nations’ ‘stay at home’ guidance.

We should be learning from how Parliament has adapted during this crisis, not stymieing this practical innovation. Rather than packing hundreds of people into narrow voting lobbies, the government should enable remote voting for the duration of the pandemic, and learn from this process.

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’ – while slowing down the process of voting to a standstill.

If the Commons leader wants to increase Parliamentary scrutiny of legislation – a laudable aim –moving from 15-minute online voting to hour-long divisions will only hinder this effort.

Parliament has set a positive example for flexible working amid this crisis. We should keep learning from the hybrid proceedings as we come out of this pandemic, so we can make Parliament even more effective in the years to come.

The rationale for the ‘virtual Parliament shutdown’ is misguided at best. At worst, it’s deeply misleading.

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