Virtual House of Commons: End of week one
24 April 2020 (updated on 24 April 2020)
The past few weeks have seen a sea-change in how the country has had to function, as it gets to grips with the impacts of the Coronavirus pandemic, the effects of which are constantly evolving and may be with us for some time.
The House of Commons is not exempt from this, and, at the end of a historic week it is time to take a step back and note the procedural and technological changes that have occurred and look ahead to those around the corner.
On Tuesday 21st April the House returned from its Easter recess and approved – without a vote – the introduction of remote technology in key items of business, namely questions, urgent questions and ministerial statements.
The motion allows for the introduction of so-called “hybrid proceedings”, giving MPs the chance to participate either in person or remotely, using Zoom.
In the Chamber a maximum of 50 MPs may be present, and this is enforced through strict social distancing guidelines, with clear signage, doors being kept open, and only a minimum number of essential House staff present.
To maintain continuity and tradition, however, the symbolic and historic Mace is still placed on the table whenever the House is sitting and a socially distanced Speaker's processing still takes place.
A maximum of 120 MPs at any one time may take part in virtual proceedings, using Zoom to join proceedings from their home.
History was made shortly after 11:30am on Wednesday 22nd April when Marco Longhi MP asked a question of the Secretary of State for Wales, Simon Hart MP, with both participating remotely. Prime Minister's Questions – featuring First Secretary Rt Hon Dominic Raab and newly elected Leader of the Opposition Sir Keir Starmer MP – also took place using hybrid proceedings, as did the ministerial statement on Covid19 from the Health Secretary Matt Hancock MP.
Broadcasting, digital and procedural innovation
The work could not have been done without the hard work, expertise and innovation of the Parliamentary Broadcasting Unit, the Parliamentary Digital Service and colleagues from across the House service, including procedural experts, Speaker's Office Hansard and not forgetting the facilities team who have adapted the Chamber.
Much of the preparatory work was done by staff remotely but, by necessity some colleagues had to work on the Estate, joining those already doing essential work in catering, maintenance and security.
The procedural and technological changes in the Chamber built on the work done by the Select Committee teams, with more committee hearings taking place during recess than ever before. A number of select committee hearings have taken place since the House rose for Easter, giving parliamentarians a chance to put questions on behalf of their constituents to key figures including the Health Secretary. In the coming week the House is expecting to support 17 select committee evidence sessions.
Next steps and remote voting
Following the successful introduction of hybrid proceedings, MPs approved a motion to extend this to further House business, including legislation. This will allow MPs to debate key legislative business, including the Finance Bill, Domestic Abuse Bill and the Fire Safety Bill.
Crucially, MPs have also approved a motion to bring in remote voting. Digital service teams have been working around the clock to devise a workable, effective and secure process and have been working in consultation with the National Cyber Security Centre to get its advice.
Rigorous testing is currently taking place and guidance is being given to MPs on how to use the system. As part of this, the House will be engaging closely with party whips to ensure MPs are able to participate in the testing over the coming week to ensure they are as informed as possible to make decisions about the system.
However the Leader of the House has undertaken that remote voting will not be introduced until the Procedure Committee has examined the proposed scheme and the Chairman has written to the Leader of the House to set out the Committee's views on the scheme and whether it considers it to be workable.
Next week will also see virtual select committee chair elections for the BEIS and Standards Committee, with nominations opening on Monday 27th April and closing Monday 4th May. More details here.
The Clerk of the House of Commons, John Benger, commented:
"To have an institution with more than 750 years history behind it adapt to a new reality in just the space of a few weeks is a tribute to the skills, effort and ingenuity of colleagues across the House service, Broadcasting Unit and Parliamentary Digital Service."
“I would like to pay tribute to all those who have made these changes happen, and all those who have ensured that Parliament continues to function in very difficult circumstances.
“The Commons chamber may look very different this week compared to just a month ago, but at its heart it is unchanging – providing a forum for the Government to be questioned, scrutinised and held to account by the country's directly elected MPs.”
Image: UK Parliament/Jess Taylor