In Depth

Virtual parliament: MPs warned to check backdrops - and no pink shorts

Speaker Lindsay Hoyle says standards must not be allowed to slip

A virtual parliament is being set up this week so that MPs can work from home during the coronavirus crisis. 

Sky News reports that “unprecedented changes to the main House of Commons chamber” are being made to allow politicians to listen to statements and question sessions via videolink.

Up to 120 MPs will be able to quiz ministers on video conferencing app Zoom. A further 50 can be admitted into the real-world chamber, although Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle is encouraging them “to stay away to protect parliamentary staff”, adds The Times

What changes are being made? 

Measures to be introduced to facilitate Zoom calls include “large screens lining the chamber walls”, while “hazard tape marking safe social distances” will be put down to aid those who attend Parliament in person, Sky News reports.

The centuries-old Commons chamber is a famously cramped and uncomfortable environment, with Politics.co.uk noting that there are “not enough seats” for all 650 members of Parliament. 

Sky News adds that there will also be “no-entry signs” laid out by Commons authorities to show politicians where they can and cannot sit.

Only about two hours of parliamentary proceedings will be held daily in the virtual parliament, with the rest taking place with the small number of MPs attending in person. Sitting days are also being scaled back to just Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays during the pandemic.

HOC/JESSICA TAYLOR

Speaker Hoyle, who chairs the House of Commons Commission, said: “It will be a historic moment in our 700-year history to have MPs contributing to prime minister’s questions, urgent questions and statements via video link from the safety of their own homes and offices.

“If it works, the House will consider extending the measures to a fully virtual parliament as quickly as possible to include debates on motions and legislation and even a system of remote voting.”

What is the advice to MPs?

MPs dialing in remotely have been told that they must wear “appropriate” clothing and be “careful” about what is in the background of their screens, according to Sky News.

The Times says that Hoyle will be keeping a “watchful eye to ensure that standards are maintained” and has warned that he wants “no waving of papers, no silly noises and definitely no pink shorts”.

The Commons boss told The Times Red Box podcast that there would be zero tolerance for dressing down.

“Does the dress code apply online? Yes. The rules and the courtesies of the House will be extended to the virtual parliament,” he said.

He also warned MPs to be careful about their backdrops, saying: “Please think what’s behind you, think what’s on your bookshelf, think what else will be picked up in this shot. Because I think, quite rightly, that the journalists will be having a field day.”

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And the reaction?

Hoyle’s warning against inappropriate sartorial choices comes after Michael Fabricant, the flamboyant Tory MP for Lichfield, carried out a Twitter poll asking his followers what he should wear if called to ask a question at virtual PMQs. While suit and tie got 17.7%, “my pink shorts” was the runaway winner, with 52.5% of the vote.

Pre-empting a violation of the Commons rules, Hoyle said: “Michael, I really don’t want you in pink shorts asking your question. How one would keep one’s face straight will be a real difficulty, and wouldn’t leave a lot to the imagination.”

Meanwhile, former sports minister Tracey Crouch joked to Sky News that she was planning to flout Hoyle’s regulations and sit in her “football shorts with a nice suit jacket combo”.

“They'll never know,” the Conservative MP added.

Taking a more serious approach, fellow Tory Stephen Crabb, who chairs the Commons’ Welsh Affairs Select Committee, has said that a transition to a virtual Parliament “isn’t so significant” as many MPs “are well used to working from home”.

Crabb told the BBC: “We don’t necessarily think this lockdown is going to end in the next few days or even few weeks. 

“So we don’t want to let this period pass without the government really being questioned on very, very serious and challenging issues - and that’s what we need to be able to do.”

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