Sir Lindsay Hoyle welcomes virtual Parliament during pandemic - but says it should not be made permanent
Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle says that chairing the first ‘virtual’ session of Parliament will be a very different experience – and one which must not become the norm once the coronavirus crisis is over.
MPs are next week expected to back plans to allow a limited number of them to take part in remote questioning of ministers using video calling technology.
It is hoped that the measures will first be put into practice during Prime Minister’s Questions on 22nd April.
The Chorley MP – who was elected speaker last November – has championed the idea of using technology to enable Parliament to continue to conduct its business, while minimising the risk of having large numbers of MPs gathering in the chamber during the outbreak.
However, he said that it would be important “to get the toothpaste back in the tube” when the threat from Covid-19 finally fades.
“We’ve got to be a Parliament that holds people to account and we’ve got to get back to what we were elected to do – and that’s to come to Westminster.
“At the moment, we’ve got to do what we can to make this [remote sitting] work, but we must remember that we have to go back at some point,” Sir Lindsay said.
Speaking to the Local Democracy Reporting Service in a break from a trial of the system – which will continue over the weekend and into early next week – the veteran politician also lifted the lid on the practicalities of the process.
The Commons authorities yesterday revealed that 120 MPs will be able to dial-in to the Parliamentary proceedings for the first two hours each day – allowing them to take part in ministerial questions and statements. Up to 50 members will be permitted to sit – socially distanced – in the chamber itself.
“The 120 will be selected [on the basis of wanting to ask] questions – their names will be drawn out. There will be quite a lot of questions, because we have to have reserve ones, too.
“For statements, it will be the first 120 out of the hat as well. The remainder, of course, can watch on TV.
“This is a starting point, because we don’t want to crash the system – that’s why we’re doing this test."
Currently, there is no provision for remote voting – and while Sir Lindsay says that there is no immediate need to set up such a system, he expects that its time will come.
“At the moment, we’re seeing consensus [between political parties], but at some point there may well be a division [call for a vote in Parliament].
“If there is a division coming, it’s all about what we will put in place. It could well be that we are going to have to do a virtual vote, but via what formula, I don’t know – because we need to ensure the security of that vote.”
Such a move would also require further approval from MPs, who are also expected to be asked to sanction the extension of remote participation to debates on motions – if the new arrangements are judged to be a success.
The usual Parliamentary conventions of MPs being able to raise points of order and make interventions will be suspended for practical reasons – whether members are attending in person or from their constituencies.
“That will make it easier for the chair, but [those interventions] are part of the excitement of chairing the debate.
“However, we can’t have somebody who is present getting a bigger advantage than somebody who isn’t. It’s about ensuring that MPs operating virtually are not disadvantaged – otherwise we’d end up with everybody wanting to be in Westminster.
“It’ll certainly feel very different – I’ll be calling members from Scotland to Cornwall to Lancashire via a screen and trying to link them up, allow the minister to answer the question and make sure that the opposition come in with their questions.
“This change has been instant. We’ve gone from the way Parliament has always been run to changing literally overnight,” Sir Lindsay said.
He said that he was confident that the limited in-person vote required to implement the changes – which is due to take place next Tuesday – would be smooth, because of behind-the scenes negotiations which have been taking place between political parties via the so-called “usual channels”.