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MPs set to back plans for ‘virtual’ House of Commons during coronavirus lockdown

House of Commons opposition benches - Image credit: CROFT MALCOLM CROFT/PA Archive/PA Images

MPs set to back plans for ‘virtual’ House of Commons during coronavirus lockdown

MPs are set to back plans for a new “hybrid” parliament allowing them to carry on scrutinising the UK Government during the coronavirus lockdown.

The House of Commons returns from its extended Easter recess on Thursday, with MPs asked to approve a motion bringing in a raft of changes to the way they work in light of the strict social distancing measures.

The proposed model, which is expected to be approved as a formality, will allow a maximum of 50 MPs to be present in the debating chamber, with up to 120 members able to take part in proceedings from their homes or offices via video screens set up around the chamber.

Speaker Lindsay Hoyle is expected to chair proceedings in person from Westminster, with the ceremonial mace, which allows Parliament to lawfully meet, debate and pass laws, present for all sittings.

In a bid to reduce the spread of the virus in the House of Commons, doors will be kept permanently open rather than relying on doorkeepers, while MPs will be asked to sit two metres apart and ordered not to pass any notes.

While MPs will be able to grill ministers at departmental questions, including PMQs, House of Commons authorities have made clear that they will not be able to vote remotely during the initial set-up.

However, the Speaker has asked the parliament’s digital team to work on plans for a “secure system to facilitate” remote voting – a change that would require further approval from MPs, who at the moment still need to be physically present in the chamber.

The House of Commons said: “Parliament is taking every step possible to limit the number of staff who have to physically return to the building.

“Social distancing measures are in place across the parliamentary estate, and we have recently installed clear signage across the estate to ensure everyone observes social distancing guidelines.”

The plans have been welcomed in a new report by the House of Commons Procedure Committee, which is urging further steps to allow voting to go ahead.

Committee chair Karen Bradley said: “The Coronavirus pandemic has had an unprecedented impact on all aspects of public and private life in the UK, and the House of Commons is not immune to this.
 
“The impact on the way our democracy functions has already been considerable, and the House has responded with innovation and adaptation in ways we’ve not seen in its 700 year history.”

She added: “Our report also highlights the urgent need for additional changes to allow debates and scrutiny of legislation to endure.

“The committee would like to thank the House of Commons service for the brilliant progress achieved so far – under immense pressure – to ensure that democracy, and scrutiny, can continue to function at in these extraordinary times.”
 
Tuesday also sees the return of the House of Lords, with daily oral questions taking place in a virtual session for the first time – but this will be done in private. 

Peers will use Microsoft Teams to quiz ministers and respond to statements, although they will not be able to take decisions on any legislation without being physically present in the chamber.

While proceedings in the Commons will be live-streamed, House of Lords debates will not be and anyone wanting to know what is happening in the Lords will have to settle for reading official transcripts in Hansard, published later in the day.

The move not to broadcast the action in the upper chamber has already drawn criticism from the Electoral Reform Society.

Chief executive Darren Hughes said: “Voters across the world expect to see the legislators they are paying: it’s a core part of democratic transparency.

“This seems to be another sign of the Lords failing to meet the democratic standards voters expect.”

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