After hosting parliamentary debates for over seven centuries, the Palace of Westminster is getting a break: the two houses that make up the UK’s Parliament – the House of Commons and the House of Lords – have announced measures to create a “virtual Parliament”.
Members of both houses will be able to carry out some of their duties remotely, including quizzing ministers and debating specific issues, in an effort to respect the social distancing rules in place in the country to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic.
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But while MPs in the House of Commons will be logging into Zoom, the Lords will, at least for now, be using Microsoft Teams to discuss the order of the day and question the government, although the plan is that in a few weeks, the Lords will join MPs on the Zoom bandwagon.
Microsoft Teams already forms part of Parliament’s existing Office365 suite of tools, and is fully integrated into the institution’s identity and access management tools. Teams is already being rolled out to staff and members of both Houses. For the House of Lords, therefore, it is merely a matter of using a feature they already know.
The Lords have already received guidance on virtual proceedings, which states that non-legislative debates, such as oral questions, private notice questions or ministerial statements, may be conducted remotely using Microsoft Teams. Non-legislative proceedings will be fully virtual, and members will only be able to participate remotely. The guidance even specifies that as a result, Lords will be permitted to speak from a seated position, and that they may participate without wearing robes.
Microsoft Teams, however, does not at this time have a live broadcast function available to the public; the proceedings will instead be recorded, and reports will be published online. It is thought that the House of Lords may be able to broadcast sessions live on Parliamentlive.tv using Zoom instead, by early May.
A Parliamentary spokesperson told ZDNet: “Given the nature of how the Houses work, the need to develop and build new broadcasting infrastructure, and to ensure resilience of the systems, a pragmatic decision was for the House of Commons to use the technology first, before then establishing it in the House of Lords in a few weeks.”
That means MPs in the Commons will be testing Zoom ahead of the Lords, and if all goes well, the technology will be deployed to both houses of Parliament. “This will ensure scrutiny of the government continues in both Houses, while also ensuring we can test and learn and keep colleagues safe on the estate,” the spokesperson said.
The body responsible for administration in the Commons has given the green light for a virtual House hosted by Zoom, but MPs will still have to approve the measures on 21 April when they return from recess. If the plan goes through, MPs will be able to take part in Prime Minister’s Questions, as well as any urgent questions and statements via a Zoom video conference, for two hours at the start of each day.
The House of Commons is implementing a hybrid solution, with up to 120 MPs able to log in to Zoom to quiz ministers daily, but 50 others that could remain in the chamber while maintaining the two-metre safe distance. Screens will be placed around the Commons’ chamber to make sure that those physically present in the room can see their colleagues.
The Speaker of the House of Commons Lindsay Hoyle said: “By initiating a hybrid solution, with steps towards an entirely virtual Parliament, we are enabling members to stay close to their communities, while continuing their important work scrutinising the Government.”
For the last month, members of Parliament have been considering the idea of taking their work online in order to reduce the coronavirus risk of having 650 MPs in the House of Commons and over 800 Lords in the House of Lords, on top of the staff needed to help run parliamentary business, all in close proximity.
At the start of April, the speaker of the House of Commons wrote to the Leader of the House of Lords asking that the government considered ways to continue to work during the pandemic, including the option to participate virtually in some parliamentary proceedings.
Zoom recently said that it would spend 90 days on improving the security of its product to patch most vulnerabilities.
Experts have also repeatedly explained that the platform’s shortcomings were to do with users being unaware of how to use the product correctly. And although some have questioned the suitability of Zoom for government use, the National Cyber Security Centre has advised the Commons commission that it considers Zoom appropriate for public parliamentary proceedings, as long as the use of the service is carefully managed.
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