Return of the House of Commons: update on first steps to a virtual House

20 April 2020

Members of staff were in the House of Commons Chamber today to rehearse the new systems ahead of tomorrow.

The House of Commons will be returning from 14:30 tomorrow (Tuesday 21 April) following the Easter Recess. During the sitting, we expect MPs will be asked to approve a motion facilitating ‘hybrid proceedings’, with effect from Wednesday 22 April.

To approve the motion, the House needs to sit physically, however strict social distancing guidelines are in force in the Chamber and across the Parliamentary estate to minimise the number of people needed to be present.

The proceedings on Tuesday and Wednesday will be broadcast on Parliamentlive.tv and BBC Parliament.

You can find the wording of the Government motion here. For further information on tomorrow’s business, please check the Order Paper, which will be updated later this evening.

What will the new ‘hybrid’ proceedings look like?

The proposed models allows a maximum of around 50 Members of Parliament to be present in the Chamber (under social distancing measures). Up to 120 Members will be able to participate remotely during these ‘hybrid’ proceedings.

The Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, plans to Chair proceedings from Westminster assuming he can be in London. The Mace will be present in the Chamber and at the Table for all sittings of the House. 

Members will need to notify the House Service in advance and a list of participants in the planned sequence will then be published. The list for backbench participation will as usual be drawn at random from those applying to participate and will also reflect the usual arrangements for alternation between the two sides of the House. Further details will be available later this week.

The text of questions asked during these hybrid proceedings will be published in advance. The Speaker will as usual ensure that opposition spokespeople and relevant Select Committee Chairs will still be brought into proceedings.

For this initial phase, divisions are not covered by the hybrid proceedings. At the request of the Speaker, the Parliamentary Digital Service is working to produce a secure system to facilitate remote divisions, but any change to existing arrangements would have to be agreed by the House. Any divisions that take place for the time being would be carried out in a way that ensures social distancing, as already announced by the Speaker.

A number of screens have been placed in the Chamber to allow the Speaker and any other Members present to be able to see their ‘virtual’ colleagues.

Social distancing measures for those working on the Estate

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 following social distancing measures will be in place in the Chamber:

  • Doors to the Chamber will be permanently held open to reduce contact and maintain social distancing for doorkeepers
  • Measures will be in place to ensure that Members sit 2 metres (6 ft) apart on the benches
  • Members will be asked not to pass any notes in the Chamber

Procedure Committee

The Procedure Committee are preparing a report on these temporary procedures under coronavirus restrictions, and will be uploading this to their website once published.

Image: UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

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