How can we get Parliament back up and running in such an uncertain time

In these unprecedented times, politicians globally are negotiating the challenging task of still scrutinising governments and representing constituents, whilst practising safety measures to limit the spread of COVID-19. This struggle is evident in Parliament as the House of Commons has never had to work under these circumstances in the past.

With Parliament suspended for an extended Easter recess until 21st April, thoughts are beginning to turn to how MPs will return to work. One idea to overcome this, backed by Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle, is for Parliament to operate virtually.

Trials of successful virtual committee meeting led the Speaker to write to Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg; urging Mr Rees-Mogg to extend virtual meetings across the entire chamber if the UK remains in lockdown beyond the 21st April. Mr Rees-Mogg responded saying the government would consider “every technological solution possible” to ensure residents of the UK will still be represented and the government-held to account.

However, as the UK, or any country, has never faced a crisis of this nature before, naturally there are concerns among many of whether a virtual Parliament will be effective and mean “vital checks and balances are jettisoned”. Operating meetings and committees via videoconferencing apps means MPs will not face the same level of questioning or professionalism as they would sit in Westminster.

Despite the inherent shortcomings of a virtual parliament, for the safety of all those elected to the House, there is simply no alternative solution for the foreseeable future. Moreover, on the 31st March over 100 MPs signed an open letter calling for a virtual parliament to ensure their work will still be carried out.

Written by POI Correspondent, Emer Kelly

Democracy must adapt – Labour Article

As so many areas of daily life have shut down, British politics has shown itself to be no more immune to disruption. With the Prime Minister recently out of intensive care and the government operating in crisis mode, other aspects of our political landscape have faded into the background. Parliament did when it entered early into its Easter recess.  

Throughout the long history of our democracy, MPs have risen to the challenges of their time: neither the Luftwaffe nor the IRA could prevent them from carrying out their democratic prerogative. This consistent presence has been a testament to the indomitable nature of our politics and our people. 

But, as we are all too aware, now is a time of national emergency. In any other situation, MPs would have been recalled to Westminster immediately. The potential spread of infection makes their close proximity of those green benches impossible. 

The problem this poses must be overcome. Just as the rest of the nation is rapidly adapting to the constraints coronavirus imposes, so too must our democracy. The only question is how to do so safely. 

And to this question, there are clear answers. Both close to home and further afield. The Welsh Senedd; the Scottish National Parliament; and the Tynwald of the Isle of Man (as well as local governments across England) have all already established procedures to progress digitally, with virtual sessions all varying in form and function. New Zealand has established a special select committee chaired by the Leader of the Opposition

These solutions are something MPs are conscious of. Over 100 have signed a letter calling for similar changes to be put into place. Including acting leaders Ed Davey and Mark Pack of the Lib Dems and the Speaker of the House of Commons.

Limited progress has already been made. Certain select committees are meeting through a video link to continue their duties. Whilst I appreciate the technical and time constraints, we must go further. In the face of the successes in other countries, the Common’s plan to only have a partial system in place by the end of April is too slow. There are consequences to inaction. 

Let me be clear: this is not an attempt at political point-scoring. As the new Labour Leader Keir Starmer rightly pointed out, that would be grossly inappropriate at the current time (and is sadly present in Jeremy Corbyn’s parting shot). It is about making sure what the government does is as effective and efficient as possible, for all our sake. 

MPs across the political spectrum have their concerns, as does Starmer. He must now take up his mantle as a leader and add his voice to the others to ensure parliament remains fit for purpose in these trying times. 

Establishing a virtual parliament is not just essential to ensure the safety of our citizens over the coming days and weeks, but it is for the long term. Although some of you may be feeling like it will, this lockdown will not last forever! Our strategy for opening the country back up will be just as crucial as it was for closing it down. The challenge of rebuilding will be colossal, and our response all the stronger if we hold the government to account throughout the task. 

Moreover, that strength will be essential in other ways. Faltering responses from the EU threaten the survival of the bloc, as China and Russia begin to position themselves for post-pandemic society. Democracy must show it can work in times of need and to do so, it has to evolve. This is part of that next step. 

Written by Chief Labour writer, Evan Saunders

Point of Information

A well-constructed argument – a Liberal response

I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised after reading Mr Saunders’ article. I expected a significant attack at the Conservative government and heaps of scrutiny. However, I am relieved to see that Mr Saunders understands the volatility of the current situation and that we need to respond appropriately and respectfully.

In terms of the content, I think that Mr Saunders makes some good arguments. I do believe that our democracy has to allow the opposition to raise their concerns about the government.

An interesting topic that has been raised is how we act after the epidemic. At the moment it feels like this is going to last forever, however, it won’t. Mr Saunders cleverly argues that a virtual parliament is essential in discussing the future now so that we don’t fall behind. To have a plan on how to react after the epidemic has passed is important, as it will prevent panic and rushed thinking.

I can agree with Mr Saunders that opposing parties will provide a crucial role in keeping the Conservative government in check during the rebuild, to limit decisions that may create significant damage in all aspects of life. My only concern with Mr Saunders’ article is perhaps he is thinking too much about the end. We are still currently fighting the battle, yet it seems Mr Saunders is focused on the glory afterwards. The main focus of the government is how to best fight the virus, and those other topics should take a backseat.

Written by Liberal writer, Charlie Papamichael

Building on a brilliant liberal response – a Conservative response

I can only add to the excellent response from the liberal editor Mr Papamicheal above. The article is right, the government should be able to be scrutinised by parliament, even in the current situation. This is key to a strong system of governance.

I do think that what may be best while we wait for the storm to pass is a virtual parliament on a small scale; much like the select committee set up in New Zealand, mentioned above. I believe it would be more effective and that focus can be on more specific issues, such as how to deal with post-pandemic Britain as Mr Saunders rightly points out maybe just as important. This would also help to ensure the government’s time is not unnecessarily wasted. Scrutiny is important however it crucial that is doesn’t become obstructive

Written by Chief Conservative writer, Fletcher Kipps

Virtual parliament; an unimportant problem fixed – Liberal article

As the coronavirus has taken over the media, other elements of life have been cast aside. I understand that the epidemic is, and should be, the priority for the British government. However, it should also be acknowledged that we cannot forget other issues. This including, for example, Brexit, University strikes and other topics covered on this blog.

Today though is all about the government, including opposition parties. The idea of a virtual parliament has been put forward to maintain the democratic representation that the people have voted for. The virtual parliament would allow opposition parties to scrutinise the government as they handle the virus and other pressing topics.

I believe all represented in parliament must deserve to discuss how the governing party keeps the country in check. There have been many mistakes by the government so far, some that should be questioned.

My main concern is relevancy. We already know that the labour party will fire shots at Boris and his cabinet when they can. Is this important right now? We are currently amid a global pandemic, which has already taken over 7000 British lives. The government should be allowed to have its sole focus on the virus. Especially, in an attempt to slow down the infection and death rate and help those who are already infected.

By allowing a virtual parliament we will be taking time, which is already limited, away from the ministers who are doing their best to help those impacted. Even the strongest critics of the current government can understand now is not a time to sit back and say “my Gran could do that better”.

Overall I understand the purpose and goal of a virtual parliament. I just worry that it won’t work as hoped for. As a nation, we picked those who are in charge. Even though some might not like it, we need to acknowledge their decisions. I hope that opposing parties will play their part by respectfully acknowledging the decisions of the government whilst questioning the flaws.

Written by Liberal writer, Charlie Papamichael

Point of Information

Done right, a virtual parliament will save lives – not waste time – a Labour response

After years of turmoil over Brexit, when the rifts within parties and parliament reflected our unpleasant partisan politics, I can understand our Liberal Editor’s reluctance about returning MPs to the heart of our politics. Were the discourse to dissolve into political point-scoring, we would all be worse off. 

But I don’t think that’s the direction a virtual parliament would take. All parties now have one priority: to protect our NHS and our people as best as possible. The changes to people’s lives have been unprecedented, and the more perspectives we have on how to mitigate the damage this creates, the better. 

Moreover, the risk we run by not recalling Parliament from its recess is, I would argue, far greater. This is something the above article recognises, however reluctantly. That governments will make mistakes is tragically inevitable, irrespective of which ideological position they profess to uphold. Continuing Parliament in a virtual capacity – as soon as possible – is the best way to combat and correct these mistakes. 

Ultimately, this is more than just an argument about whether MPs can work out how to use Zoom. It is an argument about whether MPs can work at all. Even after so much dysfunction, now cannot be the time to shut down democracy. To do so would be tantamount to admitting that proper scrutiny is just a fair-weather facade. Our politics must be allowed to show it is so much more. 

Written by Chief Labour writer, Evan Saunders

a Conservative response

I believe this article demonstrates the tight line between the need for scrutiny to continue and the potential for disruption. This is why I think there is the potential for compromise.

Parliament does not need to work on a large scale to properly hold our government to account. Small, special select committees could be created and used to question a government official instead. In this situation, the government can be scrutinised whilst only taking the time of a single government official at any one time.

I understand there may be concerns, as with all select committees, the government doesn’t need to act on any recommendations. Although I would hope that given the current situation they would seriously consider it.

Mr Papamicheal is right, the nation did elect this government to run this country and this must be accepted. If there is the potential for positive input from the opposition in the form of a virtual committee though then I would not be opposed to this.

Written by Chief Conservative writer, Fletcher Kipps

A good idea but not one for the long run – Conservative Article

This week’s topic is one very rarely mentioned. Yet, with parliament relocating in the next 5 years for maintenance and in an ever-increasing technology-filled world, it is one that’s worth a debate.

The current pandemic has opened eyes in many industries as to how technology can be used for the better. Many have been reluctant in the past to conduct meetings online or allow their workforce more flexibility to work from home. They may well change after this; we have seen this in politics as well through online cabinet meetings.

This shows that a virtual parliament is viable and could work if we wanted, something many would have previously doubted. I can also see many benefits to this way of working. The speaker could quite easily control any disruptive behaviour by simply removing the person and timings of debate strictly capped. It may also allow MPs to have more home life. Gone would be the days when members would be in the chamber late into the night. Something like this may also increase the number of women that feel they can have a family whilst being an MP. Currently many are forced to choose between the two.

A Virtual Parliament would not come without problems though, not least the fact technology is not perfect. Problems with technology could bring a halt to key debates or pieces of legislation, some of which may be time-bound. There is the potential for hacking when we combine technology and key votes. The last thing we need is votes to be corrupt, the best way to avoid this is in-person voting.

More importantly, though, moving online would be throwing away hundreds of years of tradition. Ultimately, I think we should protect this. The positives that a virtual parliament can give are possible with adjustments to our current system. I would rather this.

In saying this, do I think this would be a good idea in times such as the current pandemic until parliament can resume? I do. Parliament needs to continue to hold the government to account, even in times like this. I would add though that a virtual parliament may not need to include the whole legislature. Smaller meetings by select committees and government officials would be more effective and easier to set up.

The idea is a good stop-gap and technology can play a bigger role in governance in the future. However, our legislature in its current form should not be changed in the long run. It may have some cracks that need addressing, but a virtual parliament is not the way to fix them.

Written by Chief Conservative writer, Fletcher Kipps.

Point of Information

Tradition is important, but we need to move forwards – A liberal response

I am relieved that Mr Kipps acknowledges the importance of virtual parliament. It would be rather inappropriate to want to control the power of government during a time where actions must be questioned and kept in check.

However, my concern is over the concept of tradition. I admit that tradition is important, for example, the Queen’s speech on Christmas Day. Although parliament has its old-fashioned traditions, I don’t believe they take priority. I believe that it is important we continue to move forwards, technology-wise, or we will be left behind.

Even beyond the crisis, virtual aspects of parliament should be the future. Although it would need considerable amounts of testing to determine its efficiency, technology is the future. Our lives are run by technology every day, why should our government stay in the stone age?

Mr Kipps points out that we lack the correct technology to run an efficient parliament virtually. However, I disagree. Even if we do currently lack the correct technology at this time, it would give the UK incentive to invest in the development. Not only would this have a positive impact on parliament, but it would also allow British companies in the technology sector to grow, potentially helping other aspects – such as military, commercial, medical and more. If I haven’t stressed it enough, technology is the way forward. I don’t want to be left behind whilst other nations prosper.

Written by Liberal writer, Charlie Papamichael

This technological transition should mark our starting point, not the finish line – a Labour response 

When it comes to this discussion, it seems there is almost unanimous agreement. Technology is essential to meet the needs of today. Yes, there are challenges, but as the above article rightly points out, vast swathes of our economy are waking up to the possibilities that digital advances offer.  

Although the coronavirus has acted as a catalyst for many of these changes, they are indicative of wider developments. Temporarily halted, for now, technological progress will redouble as nations open back up. Meanwhile, the drastic drop in emissions has emphasised a parallel pressure, that of the environment. It too will only push more work into the digital world.

In the face of these shifts in our society, Parliament must keep pace. It’s essential in the short term, as we seek to mitigate the awful impacts of this virus. But perhaps just as important is its role in the longer run, as we continue the long work of adapting our politics for purpose. 

Our political history is built on evolution, not revolution. No-one is suggesting we abolish all the old traditions that make Westminster what it is. We should, however, recognise the difference between the ancient and the archaic, and dispense with the latter. It’s time for another step in the slow march of progress. 

Written by Chief Labour writer, Evan Saunders

Evan Saunders
Chief Labour political writer at | Website

I’m a third year University of Manchester student, currently studying in Lyon on my Erasmus year (by sheer coincidence I’m writing this hours after parliament has voted to end British involvement in the 30 year programme, so just to be on the safe side I promise not to use the NHS/European Declaration of Human Rights/anything at all anytime soon).

Charlie Papamichael
Co-head social media marketing at | Website

I am a second year student currently reading International Relations and Modern Languages at the University of Exeter.

Fletcher Kipps
Chief Conservative political writer at | Website

I am a second year undergraduate currently studying Politics, Philosophy and Economics at the University of Exeter. I have had a passion for Politics since I can remember. This can be through PMQs or staying up through the night to watch every election result.

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