Hybrid Parliament for PMQs with social distancing

MPs trial e-voting as Parliament returns in ‘hybrid’ form

Image credit: UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

MPs have moved towards electronic voting for the House of Commons, with the social distancing measures in place to stem the spread of Covid-19 preventing MPs from gathering in person at Westminster.

Since the House of Commons reconvened from its Easter recess this week, it has remained mostly unoccupied, with the vast majority of MPs doing their work remotely in accordance with public health measures to reduce the transmission rate of Covid-19.

MPs have agreed to continue scrutinising government as a “virtual Parliament” or “hybrid Parliament” using the Zoom video conferencing app online.

In an unprecedented scene this week, Prime Minister’s Questions – which normally packs out the too-small Commons benches for a noisy half hour of spectacle – was conducted in a hybrid Parliament, with up to 50 MPs permitted in the chamber and a further 120 permitted to watch and contribute via Zoom. Extra television screens were installed in the chamber to allow those dialling in to be seen by the MPs present in the chamber.

The Speaker of the House, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, said that “almost everything [went] smoothly” although some lessons still needed to be learned. Several MPs - including Brexiteer Peter Bone, former Labour minister Kevin Brennan and former Conservative minister David Mundell - experienced issues while trying to ask questions remotely.

While several Parliamentary sessions have been conducted successfully via video conferencing, there remains the issue of voting securely. As MPs are unable to walk through the traditional division lobbies to cast their votes, they have decided to try switching temporarily to e-voting.

The introduction of e-voting will be delayed by discussions about how it will operate. Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg said that e-voting would not be practiced next week when legislation is debated and the Commons Procedure Committee would assess whether it is “workable” or not. MPs have highlighted problems with trials of the new system – which normally allows votes to take place over a 15-minute period – expressing concerns about verifying who has cast their vote.

“If this motion passes, I can confirm we will not designate any divisions as subject to these new arrangements until the committee has examined the proposed scheme, and the chairman has written to me to set out the committee’s view on the scheme, and whether it considers the scheme to be workable,” said Rees-Mogg.

Procedure Committee chair Karen Bradley has expressed support for the motion, while acknowledging that some concerns remain.

Shadow Commons Leader Valerie Vaz backed the move to e-voting, commenting: “We know we have the technology to do that because people do it for the Eurovision Song Contest and - I’m not sure the Leader of the House wants to hear this - but I think the European Parliament also operates some kind of remote electronic voting.”

“We have to make sure that any remote voting is secure and that everyone is satisfied. The optics of seeing votes going wrong is not where we want to be and it is certainly not the kind of House we want to present.”

SNP MP Peter Wishart said in a statement: “Westminster is finally dragging itself into the present day with electronic voting – a long overdue development that will allow MPs to continue to do their job without putting the wider public at risk.”

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