In Brief

Coronavirus: UK to launch ‘virtual parliament’

Commons speaker requested move to allow MPs to scrutinise government’s crisis response

The UK government is to set up a virtual parliament to allow MPs to ask questions about Downing Street’s response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The decision follows what Sky News describes as an “unprecedented intervention” on Wednesday by House of Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle, who argued that MPs should be able to quiz government departments and ministers from home until they return to Westminister.

  Parliament was shut down a week early for the Easter break in a bid to prevent the spread of the virus, and questions remain over whether MPs will be allowed to return when the recess officially ends on 21 April.

In an open letter to Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg, Hoyle argued that a previous trial of virtual select committee hearings had been successful, and said he had asked officials to investigate how they would apply similar technology for use in the chamber, The Guardian reports.

Hoyle wrote: “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.

“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.”

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The speaker’s proposal was welcomed by opposition politicians including Labour MP Charlotte Nichols, who tweeted:  “In a time of national crisis, MPs have more questions than we have answers and limited ways to raise these with ministers when parliament is in recess to advocate for our constituents as effectively as they deserve.” 

 Rees-Mogg subsequently confirmed that the technology would be in place by the time MPs are due to return later this month.

“Parliament’s role of scrutinising government, authorising spending and making laws must be fulfilled and in these unprecedented times that means considering every technological solution available,” the Commons leader said. “We are exploring options with the parliamentary authorities in readiness for parliament’s return.”

The move may pose significant technical challenges, however.

As the BBC notes, the Palace of Westminster - parts of which date back to the Middle Ages but which was rebuilt in the Victorian era - “was not created for technological innovations”.

By contrast, both the Welsh and Scottish assemblies were build in the 21st century and are more suitable for video links and potential remote voting.

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