The ludicrous decision to scrap the virtual parliament

The government has abolished an efficient digital system and replaced it with a time-consuming queuing process in which only two-thirds of MPs can participate

June 04, 2020
Jacob Rees Mogg and colleagues queue round the Palace of Westminster. Photo:  Jonathan Brady/PA Wire/PA Images
Jacob Rees Mogg and colleagues queue round the Palace of Westminster. Photo: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire/PA Images

When the House of Commons returned after the Easter recess, MPs were able to participate in parliamentary business using a hybrid online and in-person system. The technology—developed at remarkable speed—allowed 50 MPs in the chamber and 120 participating online to ask questions, hold debates and scrutinise legislation. Every MP had to vote digitally using an online portal.

The innovative new system was generally considered to be working well, despite complaints about limitations on the duration of sittings and the fact that MPs could not “intervene” to ask questions when others were speaking. So, it was a surprise to most when, at the end of May, Jacob Rees Mogg, the Leader of the Commons, announced that the government would not extend the new arrangements. The implications of his decision for parliamentarians, and for democracy, are troubling.

For starters, the decision has presented MPs who were shielding or protecting vulnerable members of their household with two unpalatable alternatives: either be unable to represent their constituents, or return to Westminster and expose themselves to the virus. The reality of the risk they might face was hammered home on Wednesday when Alok Sharma, the Business Secretary, self-isolated with coronavirus symptoms only hours after speaking at the despatch box.

It is not clear why the government decided to abolish the virtual parliament. Some suspected that it wanted Boris Johnson to have more MPs present to provide vocal support in the chamber during PMQs, but social distancing requirements make it impossible to increase the number of MPs in the chamber beyond 50. Rees Mogg argued that debate without interventions was too stilted and suggested he was offended by the idea of MPs voting casually while out for a walk in the sun. The real reason may be that party whips feared they might be less able to control MPs voting from their constituencies—a curious concern given the government’s 80-seat majority.

The government was denied its preferred option of returning to voting in the “aye” and “noe” lobbies by adverse advice from Public Health England. But its decision that MPs should vote in person in the chamber, having lined up in a kilometre long, socially-distanced queue through the Palace of Westminster, is bizarre, to put it mildly.

When, on Tuesday, the MPs who had managed to make it to Westminster used this new, time-consuming and medically risky voting system to vote to abolish digital voting, their colleagues who were shielding or unable to travel to Westminster were denied the opportunity to express their opinion. So, two thirds of the Commons took a decision to curtail the rights of the remaining third, who—given their personal circumstances—would very likely have voted to retain the remote voting system.

Significant disquiet about this government move—including from Conservative backbenchers who had been whipped to support Rees Mogg’s plan—has prompted a partial U-turn. The government has conceded that MPs who are over 70 or who self-certify that they are unable to travel to Westminster “for medical or public-health reasons related to the pandemic” should be allowed to ask questions virtually and to choose a colleague to cast a “proxy” vote on their behalf.

But significant problems remain. It seems that MPs who are unable to travel to Westminster due to their caring responsibilities or for logistical reasons (including complex journeys involving public transport) will not be eligible to use the proxy system. Any MP not present in Westminster will be unable to participate in debates in the chamber—on legislation or other matters. In both cases their constituents will be disenfranchised.

It already seems that MPs are being discouraged from triggering votes at all, by the time and effort involved in voting this way. Any backbencher wondering whether to push their amendment to the vote and test the will of the House will think twice now before inconveniencing their colleagues with a process taking over half an hour and involving a kilometre-long walk around Westminster. The government won’t worry about this—it will be quite happy to be subject to fewer votes—but it will be bad for scrutiny.

The opposite mischief is also conceivable. Opposition parties could choose to inconvenience the government as much as possible by calling numerous votes and forcing government backbenchers to perambulate around the Palace long into the night. Equally, a government keen to minimise the length of time available for scrutiny might deliberately trigger votes that eat into the time available for debate on legislation.

This is all on top of the very real risk to the health of MPs and parliamentary staff from voting in this way—numerous breaches of social distancing guidelines have already been reported by MPs as they traipsed through the corridors of Westminster.

Equally significantly, the ludicrous new conga-line voting system is likely to have a negative impact on public confidence in parliament. At this time of crisis, trust is a precious commodity that the government can ill-afford to lose. The sight of MPs spending hours parading around the Houses of Parliament, having rejected an efficient online voting system and disenfranchising millions of voters in the process, can only erode public confidence in the politicians who are supposed to be leading them through this pandemic.