It’s been a rollercoaster of a week for the saga of the UK’s virtual Parliament, but the story ends, all things considered, better than expected: after some debate at least some Members of Parliament (MPs) in the House of Commons will still be able to continue quizzing ministers remotely, as well as vote by proxy.
MPs have agreed to allow their colleagues who are at particularly high risk of catching the virus – either “clinically extremely vulnerable” or “clinically vulnerable” – to apply for proxy votes. Members will also be able to keep participating in government questions via Zoom, if they are unable to attend in-person for medical or public health reasons. The exact conditions, however, are yet to be set out by the Speaker of the House.
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To an extent, the measures don’t sound like news: so-called “hybrid proceedings” were agreed on 21 April, for up to 120 MPs to quiz ministers and debate specific issues via Zoom on any given session, with an extra 50 members remaining in the Commons chamber while maintaining a two-metre safe distance.
Parliament further digitized a couple of weeks later, when remote voting was introduced to let MPs cast their vote on new laws from the comfort of their own homes – another first in the history of the UK institution, which had until then never let any parliamentary business happen outside the walls of the Palace of Westminster.
The new protocols introduced in April were always designed to be temporary. They lapsed at the end of May, which is why this week, the Commons gathered to debate whether the system, particularly remote voting, should be kept in place for the foreseeable future.
Despite just over a month of strong Zoom etiquette, MPs initially voted for a return to strictly physical proceedings. Normal Commons procedures were effectively re-instated, with a particular focus on in-person voting. “Members may only participate physically within the Parliamentary estate” if they wished to cast a vote, stated the motion.
The leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg, for one, was an ardent supporter of returning to physical proceedings. He maintained that Parliament’s recent choice to carry out business virtually had been a “necessary compromise” during the peak of the virus, but had not let the House work “effectively”.
The public expect Parliament to conduct the kind of effective scrutiny that puts ministers under real pressure said Rees-Mogg – hard to do when the Commons was not sitting physically.
There is a caveat. If MPs are to attend Parliament in person, they are to do so while adhering to social-distancing rules. A whole new protocol has already been set up to enable MPs to vote safely, and it was put to the test, fittingly, as they voted on remote voting. Hundreds of members found themselves queuing, two metres away from each other, from outside of Parliament all the way to the despatch box in the Commons chamber.
“The process will take slightly longer than a standard division”, assured the House of Commons, although it was noted that the vote took over 45 minutes, instead of the normal average of 15 minutes.
MPs took to social media to express their disapproval of the new method, which some of them found to be questionable from a safety perspective. Labor MP Charlotte Nichols tweeted: “Social distancing for the vote going spectacularly badly, what a joke.” Nichols later added: “How is online voting less practical or efficient than this shambles?”
The protocol has already earned itself a nickname – the “Commons conga”. But rather than a light-hearted joke, the several hundred-metre long queuing system has caused growing anger among parliamentarians, who have blamed Rees-Mogg for a “shambolic” and “farcical” management of the situation, going so far as to call for his resignation.
Even more concerning is the fact that a return to physical sittings and voting might endanger vulnerable MPs. Parliamentarians pointed to a report published a few days earlier by the House of Commons Procedure Committee, which concluded that the hybrid format had been “an excellent achievement”, and that it shouldn’t be rescinded before the pandemic has ceased.
“A form of virtual participation should be allowed to continue while coronavirus restrictions are in place, to allow MPs who are not able to come to Westminster because of the continuing restrictions caused by the pandemic to contribute to debates and represent their constituents,” reads the report.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) also wrote a public letter warning against the decision to suspend provisions for remote participation, and urging the government to agree to a revised proposal to protect inclusiveness within Parliament.
Rebecca Hilsenrath, the chief executive of the EHRC, said: “This will place at significant disadvantage on MPs who are shielding or self-isolating because of age, disability, health conditions or pregnancy, as well as other members who will struggle to attend the chamber in person due to travel restrictions and caring responsibilities.”
Even the prime minister Boris Johnson insisted that vulnerable MPs, who are shielding because of their age, health conditions or caring duties, should be able to vote by proxy.
Under mounting pressure to revise the decision to scrap virtual Parliament, the House of Commons promptly gathered one more time to re-debate the issue. The new motion, which allows proxy voting and a degree of remote participation, is designed to accommodate the needs of the most vulnerable.
By stepping away from hybrid proceedings by default, however, the decision has arguably made it more difficult for most MPs to take part remotely. It is unclear, for example, whether the amendment will include those who need to stay at home to care for a vulnerable relative.