This week the House of Commons became the latest parliament to sit in a virtual format in order to enable scrutiny to continue during the coronavirus pandemic. Jack Sheldon considers whether these forced innovations might pave the way for longer-term reforms
The challenge of maintaining democratic accountability at a time of social distancing has forced parliaments around the world to make unprecedented changes to their ways of working. This week the House of Commons and House of Lords became the latest to embrace videoconferencing technology to hold ‘semi-virtual’ sittings, enabling MPs and peers to scrutinise the government from their homes. While the focus so far has understandably been on the immediate issues involved with setting up new procedures at rapid speed, the precedents set also raise an intriguing longer-term question. Can virtual participation in parliamentary proceedings serve a useful purpose in the longer-term, or should these procedures be abandoned as quickly as they have been adopted once the pandemic has passed?
There are certainly some proponents of parliamentary reform who believe that this crisis shouldn’t be allowed to go to waste. The SNP’s Westminster deputy leader, Kirsty Blackman, was one of the first out of the blocks to call on MPs to ‘wake up to the huge potential that these changes unleash and commit to reforming the Commons for good’. Labour MP Tulip Siddiq has also said that she will be ‘pushing for us to retain the best of what works in this situation’. Some media commentators immediately judged the first virtual Prime Minister’s Questions an ‘improvement’, opening up a longstanding debate about the effectiveness of the rowdy and heavily partisan proceedings normally seen at PMQs.
While some MPs sense an opportunity, others fear a slippery slope towards downgrading the centrality of attendance in the chamber to parliamentary work. In the debate on the motion providing for the new arrangements Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Leader of the House of Commons, indicated that any changes would be ‘temporary, for the period of the lockdown’ and that he would not have supported them if they weren’t. Other MPs also stressed the importance of the measures being temporary, including Procedure Committee chair Karen Bradley, the chair of the Conservative backbench 1922 committee Sir Graham Brady and senior Labour backbencher John Spellar. In its report on the measures the Procedure Committee emphasised that ‘the present package of modifications is proposed in the context of an unprecedented national emergency and is not to be seen as a basis or precedent for changes to procedure or practice outwith this situation’.
There is indeed a sound logic behind keeping these particular measures temporary. In the immediate context of setting up virtual proceedings at such short notice it was essential to secure as broad a consensus as possible. Without the firm assurance it would be temporary there would inevitably have been greater resistance, from traditionalists and also from MPs with legitimate concerns that virtual meetings can only ever fall short of a physically sitting parliament in terms of providing for effective scrutiny and the benefits of informal interactions. In any case some elements of the package that has been adopted would only be appropriate for the current situation, for instance the provision to limit attendance in the chamber to a maximum of 50 members to ensure social distancing.
Yet now that the technology is in place it would seem odd to rule out using some aspects in different contexts in the future. Like many of us who have spent the past few weeks getting used to communicating with colleagues through Zoom and Microsoft Teams, even more sceptically-minded MPs may well find that they stumble across ways that these could be useful even when social distancing is no longer in place. While few are likely to want to continue with a mainly virtual chamber for any longer than is necessarily, it is certainly possible to envisage ways in which having virtual options available might serve to help rather than hinder scrutiny in the future. This could include:
- Making it more convenient for committees to meet outside of regular parliamentary sitting days, when MPs would usually be based in their constituencies.
- Making it possible to recall parliament at short notice during recesses without this requiring all MPs that want to participate to travel to Westminster specially. This would clearly be of particular benefit to MPs whose constituencies are not within easy travelling distance of London.
- Helping to facilitate greater co-operation between the different parliaments in the UK (and potentially even parliaments beyond the UK), where the logistical issues associated with physical meetings have historically been a barrier.
Moving away from the traditional system of in-person divisions in the House of Commons has long had its advocates. If remote voting, which has now been approved for use in the coming weeks, runs smoothly there are bound to be calls to continue with it or a similar system. This would be a particularly big step in House of Commons terms and it would be surprising if there were a majority for it in the current parliament. But the fact that software has been set up in this context will clearly make it easier for its proponents, who have up to now had to rely on imperfect examples from other parliaments with different physical configurations and cultures, to make the case that it is feasible.
The answer to the question raised at the outset of this blog may well, then, be a cautious ‘yes’. Any steps towards more permanent ‘virtual’ arrangements would, of course, need to be carefully considered once the crisis has abated. At that stage more active resistance could be anticipated and some of the organisational challenges that have historically made parliaments slow to take up digital technology could re-emerge. Nevertheless, it would be odd if the major innovations resulting from the necessity of the present situation did not, in time, have at least some longer-term implications, for Westminster and for other parliaments elsewhere. It will therefore be well worth monitoring the operation of the ‘temporary’ procedures and their reception over the next few weeks and beyond.