MPs may soon return to Westminster after a period of remote working. But they disagree on which aspects of the virtual proceedings to preserveby Marie Le Conte / May 18, 2020 / Leave a comment
Dragging the Palace of Westminster into the 21st century was impossible until it wasn’t; years of debates on how to modernise the place were seemingly going nowhere, until there was no other choice.
The “virtual parliament”—or “hybrid parliament”, if you want to be precise—was set up in just a few short weeks, and suddenly MPs were able to vote electronically, and address the chamber from the comfort of their homes.
The novelty was amusing at first, with the first hybrid PMQs turning into an episode of Through the Keyhole, where backbenchers were scrutinised for their Zoom set up as well as their inquiries to Boris Johnson.
Some drawbacks also became apparent early on, as chancellor Rishi Sunak managed to vote against his own government on an amendment to the Agriculture Bill by clicking on the wrong button.
Still, this is all looking to be short-lived. Last week, leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg announced that he intended to wind up the scheme as soon as possible, and Conservative whips are said to be keen to get their MPs back in the chamber to support the prime minister during PMQs.
Though the hybrid parliament was never meant to last forever anyway, those changes have now proven to be functional, and it would feel like a waste to unquestionably let the House return to its old ways without at least reflecting on what worked and what didn’t. Though MPs currently have bigger fish to fry, it is worth asking some of them what they have made of this sudden revolution, and whether it made life in the Commons better or worse.
For a start, virtual debates probably won’t be missed by many MPs. “The way in which you’re engaging with people from your bedroom or your living room is limited” says Chi Onwurah, Labour MP and shadow minister for digital, science and tech.
“Video engagement is not the same as being there face-to-face with a minister. You also lose the spontaneity, because you have to put in questions five days in advance, so you can’t ask a question about something a constituent emailed you about in the morning.”
Similarly, time limits on debates have proven to be an issue for some, including Conservative MP and party vice chair Andrew Bowie: “A rather controversial element…