Letter from the Speaker to the Leader urging a 'virtual' Parliament
Dear Leader of the House
This is an incredibly busy time for all of us as we navigate the Coronavirus pandemic and the impact it has for Government, the House and its Members and staff. We both have different, but connected, areas of responsibility in relation to this and I know that we will continue to work tirelessly and constructively to develop solutions which enable the House to legislate, scrutinise and represent constituents.
To that end, I would like to ask you to consider, and through your good offices, make representations to Government on implementing the following suggestions, some immediately and others if the crisis continues. These have been raised by numerous Members with me directly and I wholeheartedly support them.
· MPs are being swamped right now with questions and case work from distressed constituents who need answers. Responses to these questions cannot wait for the House to sit again. I know that most departments have set up a helpline for MPs queries but during recess their task would be easier if there were a forum for MPs, perhaps via select committee chairs, to ask a senior representative of the Government at set times, perhaps different departments on different days, about how things work and how they can be improved.
Of course, while the House is not sitting such a ‘Q&A' session is not a proceeding of the House, nor covered by privilege or recorded, hence the need for this to be a Government initiative rather than a parliamentary one. I recognise that the scale and frequency of any such sessions would need to be commensurate with the resource available during this unprecedented time. However, there would still be great merit in some sort of sessions taking place.
· Currently, there is no procedure in place for questions to be treated as tabled and eligible for answer during a recess (strictly speaking, a ‘periodic adjournment'). Therefore, as matters stand, answers to questions already tabled will only be published when the House returns (on 21 April) and if a Member submits new questions during recess then they will be answered as if tabled when the House returns. I am committed to improving this situation if there were to be a recall to extend the end of recess or otherwise limit future sittings during this crisis. There is a provision in Standing Orders for answering questions in September put in place at a time when the House did not meet between July and October which could apply for other periods with some modifications if the Government were to table a motion which allows this to be considered by the House when the House returns.
· Once the House returns, if we are still in the grip of the crisis where the physical presence of Members, or too many Members, in the Palace is not appropriate, I am keen that they should be able to participate in key parliamentary proceedings virtually, for example, oral questions, urgent questions, statements and PMQs. Of course, the House would have to authorise any changes to such arrangements, via consideration of a motion set down by Government, as I cannot do so under my own authority. The House Service has already trialled some virtual select committee evidence sessions with witnesses and I have asked officials to investigate how they would apply similar technology to the types of business listed above.
It would be extremely helpful in the planning of the running of the House if you could give myself and the Clerk of the House an indication, as early as feasibly possible, on whether or not the House will return on 21 April or whether the recess will be extended. I should add that the Clerk of the House has voiced his concern to me that it may be very difficult to support some key functions given the growing scale of staff absence whether through social isolation or illness. Knowledge of this timeframe will greatly assist the House Service in workforce planning and the delivery of any technical solutions which are deemed appropriate.
I am copying this letter to the Clerk of the House who I have written to separately asking him to provide me with an update on progress and the timeline to connect MPs and Parliament together with different technology and to ask the Parliamentary Digital Service and Broadcasting Team to prioritise the application of such technology to the proceedings of the House. I will also make this letter available to all Members and ensure the Chair of the Administration Committee and Procedure Committee are kept informed.
Rt. Hon Sir Lindsay Hoyle
Speaker of the House of Commons