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 participateby Hannah White / June 4, 2020 / Leave a comment
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,…