"It's frustrating how archaic it is": How coronavirus could change the way parliament operates forever

From social media requests to video conferences with ministers, this is a chance to overhaul some of parliament's outdated reliance on the physical spaces of SW1

March 31, 2020
Will the crisis force SW1 to become more tech-savvy? Photo: PA
Will the crisis force SW1 to become more tech-savvy? Photo: PA

On January 23rd, health secretary Matt Hancock stood at the despatch box to talk about a new outbreak in Wuhan, China. Though the situation was being carefully monitored, he explained the risk to the UK population was “low” and the country was “well prepared and well equipped” to deal with any potential British cases.

“I remember the first coronavirus statement to the House of Commons,” says Conservative MP Alicia Kearns. “I went out of a foreign affairs interest, and no-one was really there, no-one really paid much attention to it.”

Fast forward two months, and at time of writing, there are nearly 20,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK, over 1,200 people have died from the disease, and the UK is in lockdown to avoid overwhelming the NHS. Kearns, meanwhile, is back in Rutland and Melton; like all other MPs, she was sent back to her constituency last week when Parliament shut down.

“I do weekly updates for my constituents of what I've been up to; yesterday, we did one and I said that we'd helped 567 residents with just coronavirus related problems this week,” she explains. “And I'm answering maybe 50 to 100 questions a day on social media from people who asked me about what support they can get, what they're entitled to.”

She isn’t the only one in this situation. Most people only ever turn to their local MP when they feel they have no other avenue left to explore—but the pandemic has meant that MPs are now being submerged by correspondence from desperate constituents not knowing what to do.

“The amount of work coming into my inbox has multiplied approximately eight or nine fold, it's been phenomenal,” Labour MP Thangam Debbonaire explains. “It's a real mixture of people desperately needing help, who have been plunged immediately into really difficult situations.”

Because the crisis is so all-encompassing, help is needed on all fronts. “That can be someone who has social care and their carer is self-isolating and they don't know what to do, or someone who's self-isolating and can't get food because they don't have anyone to do it for them and there's no booking slots in supermarkets. It can be someone who's self-employed and lost all their work. And then there's people needing reassurance, people needing information and people needing hope...”

Though parliamentary authorities were criticised for only shutting down the Palace of Westminster at the end of last week, there is a reason why there was a reluctance to do so. After all, the British political system is still deeply anchored in its physical spaces, and ensuring that parliamentarians are still doing their job effectively while away from SW1 is no mean feat.

As Labour staffer Kerri Prince points out, “it's frustrating how archaic Parliament is, in that the only mechanism that MPs really have to put the questions to ministers or the Prime Minister is to go physically to the Chamber or wait six weeks for a letter, or get a vague answer to a common question that might not even be what you're actually asking.”

While the current role of MPs is mainly to provide help to their constituents, it does not mean that they should not be holding the government to account. At a time when workplaces around the world are figuring out how to function with everyone working from home, why can’t Parliament do the same?

“In the 21st century, it cannot be beyond us to be able to do Parliament by videoconference in emergencies,” says Debbonaire. “If I can do my team meetings by video conference call, I really don't understand why we can't. We actually do need to be able to scrutinise and challenge the government.”

The Coronavirus Act itself is a good example of this. After being introduced by the government, it was debated by MPs and some aspects of it were tweaked, pushing Hancock to announce that the bill would be debated again every six months to ensure Parliament remains “content with its continuation.”

The government will also need to seek Parliament’s approval to use some of the powers outlined in the bill, although it is unclear how this would happen currently, given that Parliament is in prolonged recess and a full recall would seem drastic.

“What I'd really like is for us to have a way of doing virtual Parliament”, Debbonaire continues. “It wouldn't need to be full—we could suspend all the legislation, which we have done anyway. I'd quite like us to do morning statements with ministers online, with questions, just as we would if we were in the Chamber.”

Though Britain is (hopefully) unlikely to face another national disaster of this scale anytime soon, Parliament should not waste this opportunity to learn some lessons. After years spent arguing over the importance of physical presence—in the Chamber, voting lobbies or the estate—the prospect of an on-and-off lockdown for over six months should put an end to the dithering.

It would only be a paltry silver lining in the grand scheme of things, but finally dragging British politics into the 21st century would show at least some good can come out of this crisis.