In Depth

How virtual Parliament might work

MPs set to vote on new arrangements including PMQs by video conferencing

MPs are expected to approve plans for a partly virtual Parliament next week in an effort to adhere to physical distancing measures.

House of Commons speaker Lindsay Hoyle has called on the government to allow a virtual Parliament so MPs can work from home when the current recess ends this week.

Will there be a virtual Parliament?

Details of what a fully or partially virtual Parliament could look like are still being finalised, with plans due to be put to MPs next week.

The House of Commons commission, the cross-party body in charge of Commons administration, will meet on Thursday to look at current plans, with MPs likely to vote on the matter next Thursday.

But some MPs have cast doubt over plans to adapt the Commons to a fully virtual chamber, with concerns over how legislation can be debated and voted on without members physically attending Parliament.

In a letter to the speaker sent last week, Karen Bradley, chair of the Commons procedure committee, said some MPs believed their work in the chamber could not “be replicated by virtual means” and that they should continue to visit their workplace “in the same way as other key workers”.

There are suggestions that MPs could approve a “hybrid Parliament” rather than a fully virtual one, reports The Guardian.

What would a ‘hybrid Parliament’ look like?

“The new procedures are likely to involve many MPs submitting questions to ministers via video conference during departmental questions, statements and urgent questions,” says the Guardian.

One MP privy to the Commons commission’s discussions told the paper: “There will be some members in the chamber, and there will be some members who will be contributing digitally.”

The digital services team in Parliament has put in place technology that will allow sessions in the Commons, such as Prime Minister’s Questions, to take place with MPs submitting questions electronically via video conferencing technology.

“We will have very, very slimmed-down proceedings – with just a skeleton group of ministers and MPs in the house,” said a commission source.

The Institute for Government think-tank has published a paper recommending that parliamentarians “embrace video-links and speaking lists to allow necessary business to continue ‘virtually’ in the chamber and select committees”.

It also advises that proxy voting be allowed, and further “methods for digital voting, as used in other legislatures, are urgently explored”.

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How do virtual parliaments work elsewhere?

Westminster is lagging behind other assemblies in terms of technology, with neighbours in Wales, Scotland and Europe better equipped for remote debating and voting.

The Welsh Assembly (the Senedd) has been meeting remotely over Zoom, while the Tynwald, on the Isle of Man, has announced plans to go digital because of coronavirus, says the BBC.

The European Parliament trialled email voting in March, while Spain can use remote voting infrastructure set up before anyone had heard of the new coronavirus.

Further afield in New Zealand, a new select committee has been formed to question ministers remotely during an extended recess as a result of coronavirus.

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