MPs could sit in a ‘virtual’ House of Commons if the coronavirus pandemic means it is not safe for them to return to Westminster.
Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle last night urged the Government to investigate ways of allowing Parliament to sit remotely using online technology when it returns later this month.
He became the most senior figure to demand new measures be taken to allow ministers to face scrutiny of their decisions during the pandemic if the nationwide lockdown remains in effect.
MPs are currently on an extended recess and are due back in the Commons on April 21.
Select committees have continued to sit remotely during the break under new rules introduced last week. And the Prime Minister used the Zoom conferencing technology to hold a digital Cabinet meeting on Tuesday.
In a letter to Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg last night, Sir Lindsay urged the Government to look at using video-conferencing technology to allow the green benches to remain empty.
In response Mr Rees-Mogg said: ‘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.
‘We are exploring options with the parliamentary authorities in readiness for Parliament’s return.’
Select committees have continued to sit remotely during the break under new rules introduced last week. And the Prime Minister used the Zoom conferencing technology to hold a digital Cabinet meeting on Tuesday
Sir Lindsay is keen to avoid scenes like these in a busy House of Commons while still allowing MPs to question ministers on vital subjects like the coronavirus pandemic
Sir Lindsay wrote that MPs should still be able to take part in Prime Minister’s Questions, oral questions to Government departments, to ask urgent questions and to hear statements being made, especially if it is ‘not appropriate’ for them to be present in the House of Commons.
In his letter he said: ‘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.
‘It would be extremely helpful in the planning of the running of the House if you could give myself and the Clerk of the House an indication, as early as feasibly possible, on whether or not the House will return on April 21 or whether the recess will be extended.
‘I should add that the Clerk of the House has voiced his concern to me that it may be very difficult to support some key functions given the growing scale of staff absence whether through social isolation or illness.’
Yesterday the Welsh Assembly became the UK’s first major democratic institution to meet remotely as members heard statements from the First Minister and other ministers.
They were then able to ask questions and scrutinise the Welsh government’s outbreak action plan, with each party having agreed to limit the number of its representatives to ensure smooth running of proceedings.
But Westminster MPs are increasingly frustrated at their inability to hold the government to account due to the fact Parliament is currently in recess and is not scheduled to return until April 21.
The Welsh Assembly would normally be in recess at the present time but has decided to keep its democratic functions up and running, raising the question of why Parliament cannot do the same.
Sir Ed Davey, pictured in the House of Commons in December 2019, said decision-makers need to ‘get things cracking and get an online virtual parliament to serve the nation’
Sir Ed Davey said in any other major emergency Parliament would have been recalled as he demanded democracy go digital.
The acting leader of the Liberal Democrats wants Boris Johnson to commit to holding PMQs every week via video conference and for MPs to be able to ask written questions of government departments during recess.
He is also pushing for Parliament to set up a new select committee solely tasked with scrutinising the government’s coronavirus response.
Meanwhile, some 100 Labour and SNP MPs have written to Parliament decision makers pushing for a digital House of Commons to be set up.